LAS VEGAS -- In the fighting capital of the world of Las Vegas, the most famous fighting video game tournament, the Evolution Championship Series, is in a battle with itself.
What started as a dream held together by a mutual love of the fighting game genre has grown into one of the biggest video game competitions in the world, filling the 12,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center for marquee main events on the final day. Thousands ventured from around the world to partake, some even bypassing playing altogether, only showing up in Vegas to watch from the sidelines and spend time with friends.
No longer a small gathering between friends, Evolution sits in between two worlds: holding onto its community roots, but also wanting to follow in the footsteps of the likes of other successful esports ventures that have billionaires throwing money around like it's gone out of style.
That dichotomy was on full display even in the dual venues at the Mandalay Bay.
On Friday and Saturday, the qualifications for the bigger titles and finals for the smaller events took place at the Mandalay Convention Center, where the past is alive and well with artists selling their fighting-gamed themed artwork on the show floor and fans lugging their own monitors and game consoles into empty areas of the convention hall to play matches with friends.
On Sunday, Evolution was painted a new color, the free-roaming event transitioning over to the Mandalay Events Center, where on the surface it resembled more of an NBA game than a fighting game tournament. Loud voices boomed from the commentators as they announced the next combatants onto the raised stage, a myriad of bright, colored lights beaming down on them in the center of the arena.
Beyond the landscape of Evolution itself, the battles taking place within the tournament told a similar story: the old guard, former champions and mainstay favorites facing off with the young upstarts, the ones who didn't build Evolution but were brought up watching it online inspired to become professionals by those same former champs.
Sunday's first final, starting bright and early at 7:45 a.m. when some eliminated players still lingered in the hotel casinos from the night before, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was just that -- old vs. new. The final pitted legend of the game and defending champion Christopher "NYChrisG" Gonzalez against Las Vegas' own Ryan "RyanLV" Romero. It felt like a throwback to the old days of Evolution. Although not the biggest crowd, the fans who showed up were into it from the very beginning, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every twist and turn in the final rounds. When it was all over and Romero was named the final champion, it was a passing of the guard for a game that will be officially retired from the Evo lineup after this year.
The oldest standing game in the lineup was Smash Bros. Melee, ignored by Evolution until a fan-driven campaign drove its place back into the event. Yet, much to the chagrin of the Smash community, it was relegated to a Saturday final instead of Sunday's main event. Sweden's Adam "Armada" Lindgren outlasted all others to win his second Evo championship, overcoming a defeat in the finals last year. Since returning to Evo, Armada has established himself as one of the old guards that won't move. In a tournament where newcomers and upsets were aplenty, the veterans of Melee -- the ones that stuck with the game in its darkest times -- were the ones to be the last survivors, with the Swedish champion the ultimate benefactor.
The second-to-last final of the tournament on Sunday, Smash Bros. for Wii U, is the successor of Armada's 16-year-old Melee. The crowd, although bigger in size, felt like it lacked the raw, passionate energy of the events earlier in the day. The theatrics were there, the players walking out from the tunnel to theme music behind them, and yet, the response of the crowd was near silence, a few pockets of fans cheering. Each match would come and go, a cycle of smattering cheers and polite claps before moving onto the next. For all the polish put into the Sunday event -- the massive arena, the sponsorships -- at that moment, it felt like a tired routine, the end of a day that had sputtered on too long.
Enter Saleem "Salem" Akiel Young and Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios. Salem, a player who had never won a major Smash Wii U title in his career, met his opposite: ZeRo, one of the most dominant players in the fighting game world, ranked No. 1 and having won the first Evolution tournament for the game two years ago. As ZeRo worked his way up the bracket as expected, marching into the grand final with little opposition, Salem clawed his way up from the losers bracket, eventually meeting the Chilean superstar in the final match.
At first, the crowd continued on its way, one eye towards the upcoming Street Fighter V final to follow. Then, like many times before at Evolution, the action picked up, and so did the fans. ZeRo dropped the first set and resetted the bracket -- and the crowd followed suit. The seats that were once empty began to fill. The energy that was sucked from the soulless arena had returned. Fans in unison jumped from their chairs, urging on a newfound hero, Salem, to take down the behemoth that sat beside him on the glitzy stage.
When Salem struck the ultimate blow, a nail-biting run to the finish with a split-second difference between winning and losing, the pomp and circumstance evaporated into the background. All you could see around you were people, together, jumping up and down, in victory or in sadness, soaking in the moment they had just witnessed.
At the center of it all, there was Salem, someone who before the tournament didn't know whether he had what it took to win it all, staring at the "VICTORY" screen with an expressionless look on his face. By the time the newly crowned champion took to his feet, all it took was a single fist into the air to set the crowd ablaze again, a new legend born.
Change is inevitable. The venues might soon have a new polish or HD graphics or billionaire investment, but those standout moments like Salem -- those classic, heart-pounding Evo moments -- are what keeps bringing people back for more. You can't put a price on that, even though eventually someone will try.