What is Evo? Your Guide to Fighting Games' Main Event

A Las Vegas ballroom filled with screaming fans and flashing lights. Hundreds of thousands of people watching at home. Tens of thousands of dollars on the line. No, this isn't a prime-time boxing match; this is Evo, the biggest fighting-game competition in the world.

Photo Credit: Robert PaulPhoto Credit: Robert Paul

For over a decade, the Evolution Championship Series (better known as Evo) has brought together players from all over the globe to duke it out in titles such as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Super Smash Bros. in some of Las Vegas' biggest venues. Evo is about more than just battling for cash and bragging rights, though. It's an experience, one that allows all kinds of fighting fanatics to make new friends, check out unreleased titles and enjoy the energy of live competitive gaming.

Evo 2016 begins on July 15 and 16 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, with a finals day taking place at the massive Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Folks at home can keep up with all of the action on Twitch. For anyone interested in watching or attending, we've broken down everything you need to know, and talked to some of fighting games' biggest stars to help explain what Evo is all about — and why you should be excited.

What is Evo?

Evo 2015 Moments

The Evolution Championship Series is a weekend-long fighting-game competition that attracts players from all over the world. The event began in 1996 as Battle by the Bay, which brought together a handful of players to compete in a California arcade.

"Right from the beginning, the idea for these has been, 'Let's get the very best under one roof and see who comes out on top,'" said Tom Cannon, who co-founded the competition with his brother Tony.

Photo Credit: Robert PaulPhoto Credit: Robert Paul

That roof eventually grew quite big, as the Cannons moved their event to Las Vegas and watched it evolve (no pun intended) into an international gaming showcase. According to Cannon, roughly 15,000 people attended Evo 2014.

It's also become quite the spectator sport for folks at home. Last year's tournament racked up over 18 million total views on Twitch, with as many as 248,000 viewers watching at once. Sure, that trails the 36 million folks who watched last year's League of Legends championship, but it's a strong number for what was once a very niche gaming genre.

What are the featured games?

Capcom's Street Fighter V. Capcom's Street Fighter V.

The Evo 2016 game lineup is as follows:

  • Street Fighter V
  • Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
  • Super Smash Bros. Melee
  • Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
  • Pokken Tournament
  • Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator
  • Killer Instinct
  • Mortal Kombat XL
  • Tekken 7: Fatal Retribution

This is the first-ever Evo to feature Street Fighter V, closing the book on seven years of heated Street Fighter IV competition. It's also the first Evo to feature a whopping three Nintendo games: Super Smash Bros. Melee for the old school purists, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U for the new generation, and Pokken Tournament for those who want to duke it out as adorable Pokémon.

Evo 2016 racked up over 18 million total views on Twitch, with as many as 248,000 viewers watching at once.

The crazy-combo action of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 returns yet again, while fans of Guilty Gear, Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat and Tekken can look forward to watching those games' latest installments in action. 

MORE: Your Ultimate Street Fighter V Guide

How do I attend or compete in Evo?

Since Evo is at two different venues this year, you'll have to register separately for each portion of the tournament. If you're interesting in attending or competing in the event at the Las Vegas Convention Center on July 15 and 16, you can sign up on Evo's registration site. A two-day pass costs $60, with an additional $10 for any game in which you choose to compete.

Where and when can I watch?

Evo 2015 runs from July 15 to 17, and you can catch all of the action on Evo's official Twitch event page. Once we get a bit closer to July, you'll be able to find the official event schedule here. If you want high-definition video, you can subscribe to the Evo stream for $12, with all proceeds going to the Evo Scholarship, an annual program that allows one lucky aspiring game designer to study at NYU's Game Center.

What's it like being at Evo?

For fans watching online, Evo's tense matches, crazy upsets and overall excitement can rival professional sports. According to the players who have fought in Evo's trenches, however, being at the tournament in person is a completely different experience.

"When you watch from home, it looks like a big deal," said Kenneth "K Brad" Bradley, professional Street Fighter competitor for team Evil Geniuses. "But the energy of the room, you can't really match that."

Justin Wong celebrating a big victory. Photo Credit: Robert PaulJustin Wong celebrating a big victory. Photo Credit: Robert Paul

When discussing the magic of witnessing Evo firsthand, Bradley recounts a now-famous Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 match between top competitors Justin Wong and Christopher Gonzalez. On the verge of being eliminated from the tournament, Wong went on winning streak that culminated in a seemingly impossible comeback against Gonzalez. The victory caused the room to erupt.

Justin Wong vs. Christopher Gonzalez

"People were screaming and crying," said Bradley.

When you ask about exciting Evo moments, Wong's name will come up often. One of the player's most famous matches was against Japanese juggernaut Daigo Umehara, who seemed nearly unbeatable in Street Fighter IV when Evo 2009 rolled around. Despite losing to Umehara in the grand finals, Wong's impressive performance against the player set the American Evo crowd on fire, much like any group of fans cheering for their local sports team.

Basketball has Lebron James, football has Tom Brady and fighting games have Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong.

"Daigo versus Justin was magical. … It was like the world stopped for me during that match," said Joe Ciaramelli, a New York-based competitor who also hosts tournaments of his own every summer in New Jersey.

"Those grand finals had a different feel from every previous Evo," said Cannon. "There were a lot more people in the room thanks to Street Fighter IV's explosive launch, but beyond that, you could sense the tension and drama in that match."

Photo Credit: Robert Paul Photo Credit: Robert Paul

It's not just the exciting matches that define Evo; it's the slick, professional manner in which they're presented. The on-stage bouts take place on a massive stage, with two dressed-up announcers calling the play-by-play action as it unfolds. A huge secondary screen surrounds the gameplay feed, displaying not only each competitor's name, but also a blown-up image of the contestant's character of choice.

"Being a [tournament organizer] and going to Evo is a humbling experience," said Ciaramelli. "The presentation is top-notch. … The level of planning and organization is unparalleled."

Who are the big players to look out for?

Just like in real sports, the fighting-game community is filled with superstars. Basketball has LeBron James, football has Tom Brady and fighting games have Umehara and Wong.

Pro player Kenneth Bradley overlooking the action. Photo Credit: Robert PaulPro player Kenneth Bradley overlooking the action. Photo Credit: Robert Paul

The Street Fighter portion of Evo is always an international affair, with American players such as Wong, Bradley, Arturo "Sabin" Sanchez and Julio Fuentes looking to defend their turf against overseas powerhouses such as Umehara, Yusuke Momochi, Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, Ho Kun Xian and Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo -- the latter of which is considered the overall best in the game right now. The Marvel vs. Capcom scene is dominated by greats such as Gonzalez and Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez, while Joseph "Mango" Marquez and Kevin "PPMD" Nanney are some of the names you'll see at the top of the Smash rankings.

MORE: What I Learned By Losing to a Street Fighter Champ

Joe Ciaramelli competing at Evo 2014. Photo Credit: Robert PaulJoe Ciaramelli competing at Evo 2014. Photo Credit: Robert Paul

Also similar to real sports, competitive fighting games are filled with fascinating storylines. The one that surrounded last year's Street Fighter contest was especially compelling.

"I think people are looking forward to seeing if America can win [Ultra Street Fighter IV] this year," said Ciaramelli, ahead of what was the final Evo for Street Fighter IV. "With Street Fighter V on the horizon … we have one more year to hold it down."

Alas, Japan reigned supreme once again during Evo 2015, with Momochi taking home the title. But a brand new Street Fighter means a fresh start for everyone, and there's no telling who will become the first Street Fighter V world champion.

MORE: Best Gaming PCs For Fighting Games and More

Is it more than just a tournament?

There's much more to do at Evo than battle for the title of best in the world. The event halls feature BYOC (bring your own console) stations, where gamers can set up whatever games they like and play for fun with anyone interested.

"Evo is a time to meet up with thousands of other gamers who share your passion for fighting games," said Cannon.

Fans sampling a new Namco Bandai game at EVO 2014. Photo Credit: Robert PaulFans sampling a new Namco Bandai game at EVO 2014. Photo Credit: Robert Paul

Evo events also typically offer merchandise stands, game-preview stations and panels hosted by popular personalities in the fighting-game community.

Would I enjoy Evo even if I'm not very into fighting games?

Even if you don't play or follow fighting games, the technical mastery that players exhibit on Evo's big stage is worth checking out for anyone remotely interested in gaming. In fact, according to Bradley, fighting games are far more spectator-friendly than the likes of League of Legends or Dota 2, two strategy titles that are arguably the biggest things in eSports.

"When I didn't understand those games and watched them for the first time, I had no clue what was going on," said Bradley.

Photo Credit: Robert PaulPhoto Credit: Robert Paul

"But if you watch a fighting game, it's very simple: There's a life bar. It goes down when you get hit, and when there's no bar left, you're dead," he continued, noting that Mortal Kombat is an especially great example of how fighters can be fun for everyone.

"MK is the game to watch, because of the gruesome fatalities and everyone breaking their necks," said Bradley. "Anyone can come to Evo and say, 'Oh my god, Mortal Kombat!' Everyone can get hype and feel like they're in the right place."

"The fighting game scene has a great vibe that's a little different than what you see in other competitive games, so you'll get to see something that you maybe haven't seen before," said Cannon, who encourages curious gamers to check out this year's broadcast. "Maybe we'll see you in Vegas next year."

Photos by Robert Paul Photography

Mike Andronico is an Associate Editor and resident fighting game nut at Tom's Guide. Follow Mike @MikeAndronico. Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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