Design by Marty Smith
On July 29th the world's fighting game elite began converging on Cal Poly University in Southern California for the biggest tournament of the year: Evolution 2004. Approximately 700 participants from over 30 nations are competing. The prize pot for this event might not be as huge as other sponsored "professional gamer" events, but the tournament and its organizers have a very long history of hosting some of the end-all-be-all matches in the Street Fighter community--and in the end bragging rights tend to be more important here than the monetary rewards.
Most of the hardcore fighting game fans out there already know about this event. For those who aren't familiar with it, this yearly gathering has been unofficially going on for a fairly long time. If it wasn't called Evolution, it was known as B4/B5. If it wasn't B4/B5, it was just some other excuse to show up in California and battle it out...sometimes involving planeloads of the international elite literally taking over someone's house in Sunnyvale. If you think you're the man on your block when it comes to fighting games, you are probably already present at the event. For those of you who want to be brought up to speed on some of the competitors, rules, and maybe a little history--keep reading.
This Year's Setup
The Shoryuken, Tekken Zaibatsu, Virtua Fighter Dot Com, Game Combos, VGO Network, Guard Impact, and Video Opera crew have rigorously made preparations for an entire year in order to squeeze nine titles into the tight four-day schedule (July 29th to August 1st). The games chosen are considered the best competitive fighting titles available in this country today, and they have been scrutinized by either the number of players that turn out for miscellaneous tournaments every week (gauged via systems like Shoryuken's Apex) or by logistical issues (such as whether the hardware to run said game is going to be difficult to run or get a hold of). If your favorite game isn't on the official list, it is because it probably did not meet one of those two major requirements.
Luckily, if you absolutely have to get in some Vampire Savior or Garou: Mark of the Wolves, the staff is opening up a BYOC (Bring Your Own Console) area. The great thing about this is that even if your favorite fighter isn't showcased, you still stand a good chance of finding like-minded competition. The BYOC area has even prompted some people to try to organize unofficial attendee-run events and gatherings to take place during the same time as official Evolution 2004 competition (namely a big SNK gathering being put together by FierceSlash).
Round-Robin/Double Elimination vs. Strictly Double Elimination
In an attempt to create both an easier situation for the Evolution staff and hopefully give the participants more total play time, the pure double-elimination bracket style has been scrapped for a round- robin/double-elimination pool system this year. For those that don't know, double elimination is a system where players are either placed randomly or seeded into a bracket system. The first entry in the bracket will fight the second entry; the third entry will fight the fourth, and so on. The losers of this first round of competition will be sent to their own little bracket system called, appropriately, the loser's bracket, while the winners move along in the main bracket, which is known as the winner's bracket. Once you are in the loser's bracket, you cannot risk losing a second time or else you will be knocked out of the tournament.
This created situations where competitors who may have traveled hundreds of miles just to play in, say, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, found themselves going home after playing two people. It also has an uncanny way of making certain tournaments drag on unnecessarily.
Round-robin on the other hand, while not without its own controversy (no tournament system is 100% foolproof, especially in round-robin where ties aren't just likely, they are expected), is much more player friendly. Competitors are seeded into pools of players (five) who huddle around a group of machines and play each other once. When everyone is done, the wins/losses are counted and the top two players move onto a "winner's" pool, where a double-elimination bracket style is played out until the last player is left standing. This situation makes the preliminary stage of the tournament much easier to manage and allows even the worst player to face off against nine other people.
Arcade or Console?
Perhaps the biggest controversy this year, especially for some in the Capcom community, was Evolution's decision to go entirely console. This is especially true since every Evolution tournament in the past relied, in one way or another, on arcade hardware. Some see it as some sacred tradition that is being broken. Others seem to think it is cheapening the entire experience.
Realistically, arcade hardware has always had some major drawbacks. First of all, it has proven difficult to pull together enough arcade equipment to run all nine featured games. Back when the Shoryuken staff used to run Capcom games exclusively, CPS-2 hardware was still the platform of choice for the latest games, and admittedly it was an easier-than-usual platform to get a hold of (throw a rock into a crowd consisting of regular Efnet #capcom idlers on IRC, and 7 out of 10 times you'll probably hit someone who owns a CPS-2 setup). This has changed with today's list of titles. While Super Street Fighter II Turbo is easy enough to get a hold of (being CPS-2), everything else is on completely different and expensive platforms.
Arcade hardware also consistently offered up technical difficulties. Sticks would constantly break and buttons would spontaneously fail during key matches. The fact that the staff would have to hire and pay a trained technician to be on call for the tournament did not help matters on a financial side either. This isn't to say that console sticks are somehow bulletproof in comparison, but an entire tournament isn't going to get held up because one PlayStation 2 stick happens to break. Unlike arcade hardware, where replacing a stick requires at least 15 minutes of downtime, you spend mere seconds replacing a broken console joystick.
There is also the "excuse" factor. Legitimate or not, because arcade hardware relied on using only one style of control panel, there was a whole lot of room for excuses and accusations. It was not uncommon to overhear someone complain about the button layout being different, or the buttons not being the same style as they are in another part of the country, or the sticks being of one particular brand rather than another in the loser's bracket. Although preparations were made to accommodate the Japanese players by hooking up a Japanese cabinet, it was impossible to accommodate every other control panel style.
The Evolution staff is hoping to eliminate all of these problems with the all-console system and the "bring- your-own-stick rule." Everyone is competing on the same exact controller they have been practicing on at home, with the same exact version of the game that will be at the tournament, and no one to blame but themselves when they lose. It is a win-win situation.
The only exception this year is that Street Fighter III: Third Strike is going to have to go the "super gun" route because of Street Fighter Anniversary's release date being pushed back. As of right now, it is the only title using arcade hardware at Evolution 2004.
On top of the regularly scheduled singles tournaments, this year the Evolution staff decided to take an otherwise traditionally exhibition-style event and turn it into an official part of the tournament. Three mini-tournaments, two of which are specially seeded team tournaments in Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Marvel vs. Capcom 2, consisting of teams created by people in specific regions of the world (a Northern California team, for example, would consist of three players from the Bay Area), and a special Pair Play team tournament for Tekken Tag Tournament. There is a wealth of history behind why these sorts of team tournament events are so entertaining. Without going into excruciating detail, suffice it to say a lot of it has to do with certain rivalries (West versus East anyone?).