Making Fighting Game History: How EVO evolves with the FGC
The world’s largest fighting game tournament is getting even bigger — but it’s no small feat maintaining the FGC’s authenticity alongside a massive convention experience. We spoke with EVO GM Rick Thiher about his goals for the event and how the tournament is evolving with its community.
The Evolution Championship Series is the largest fighting game tournament in the world, drawing thousands of players to Las Vegas every summer for the last 27 years.
The historic event has grown bigger every year, and saw record-breaking attendance numbers in 2023 after 9,182 players registered to compete in games ranging from modern titles like Street Fighter 6 and Tekken 7 to old-school fighters like Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3.
This year, EVO has moved from the Mandalay Bay to the Las Vegas Convention Center, spreading its wings with a massive, all-inclusive venue in the West Hall. EVO 2024 promises to be a bigger, more streamlined experience than previous years, featuring cosplay contests, the largest free play Arcade in EVO history, and a special museum featuring fighting game artwork from throughout history.
As EVO gets bigger and better, it’s garnered the attention of some major names in the gaming space — including the likes of streaming stars Pokimane and Esfand, who graced the tournament floor to face off in a Project L exhibition match in 2023. In fact, Pokimane is now a co-owner of EVO thanks to her position as Chief Creative Officer of RTS, which runs the tournament alongside Sony.
With more attendees and more attention, EVO faces the unique challenge of balancing its status as a gaming convention with its position as one of the most important tournaments of the year. We spoke with EVO’s General Manager, Rick Thiher, about this unique conundrum and the future he sees for the tournament in the years ahead.
EVO wants to be more than just a tournament
For Thiher, EVO’s goal isn’t merely existing as a massive tournament. Over time, EVO has become the cultural ‘Mecca’ of fighting games. It’s the fighting game tournament. You can bet most fighting game players will show up to meet with old friends, get in some casual matches, and witness some of the world’s greatest players throw down on the big stage… Or try to fight for some of that glory themselves.
“As a tournament, we just wanna grow and support that player base, help create new sustainability, create new fandom, create excuses to stay engaged, to practice, to be someone who, for generations, is actively involved with either competing or training new players, or just engaging with the culture,” Thiher told us. “EVO as a whole, though? I really want tradition. To be something that is talking about that generational fandom, that’s engaging with it in more than just the tournament.”
To help work toward that goal, EVO will be starting a third tournament in an all-new location outside of Vegas and Japan, giving fighting game fans in different areas of the world a chance to enjoy the awesome atmosphere that EVO creates.
Ultimately, Thiher hopes EVO can be a bullhorn to advertise the fighting game community and its vibrant culture year-round, and has begun implementing this strategy in a YouTube channel dedicated to FGC culture.
“We soft-launched a new culture YouTube channel this past month, where we can tell ‘The Life and Times of Tasty Steve’ and we can show you a Rivals React Video of JDCR and Saint where you can watch that and go, ‘Oh, the best players in the world are just like me,’ and the homie on the couch going, ‘Why do you jab so much? Why? That’s cheap!'” Thiher laughed.
“There aren’t a lot of places I think for those conversations to happen, for that awareness to be celebrated. It’s not that EVO is unique in that market, in the capacity to tell some of those stories, but it has such a bullhorn for fighting games specifically and has spent a lot of years not leaving it on year round. That’s the ambition for EVO right now. How do we take that bullhorn and enjoyably leave it on year round?”
Balancing EVO as a convention and competition
Last year’s EVO saw more registered players than ever, on top of a huge number of cosplayers and fan activations like Capcom’s special Street Fighter 6 booth, complete with a Rashid-themed ‘Tornado Booth’ full of ‘Cammy Cash.’ More and more, EVO is incorporating a convention experience for fighting game fans alongside its focus as a time-honored tournament — but it’s not always an easy harmony to achieve.
“I think it’s a balance,” Thiher mused. “If you take the player base that the fandom roots itself in, and you celebrate them, you invariably create enough appreciation for them and for the games that the convention or the community elements that go around them become important to maintaining that scale.
“As EVO continues to invest into museums and cosplay contests…Those pieces help people who have found fandom around the players. Celebrate that fandom which creates resources that we can spend on the tournament.
“That symbiotic relationship, I think, is what makes EVO. It’s part of why EVO is special to me, and minding that balance is honestly probably the coolest part of the job. The tournament matters to me, but the celebration of the genre also matters to me, and I actually really enjoy the push-pull of where to focus, when, how much, and why.”
Going through growing pains
As EVO grows and changes, Thiher says the need to adapt feels good and daunting at the same time, recognizing that this growth has resulted in some unique challenges for the tournament over the years.
“As we engage ideas and opportunities and challenges, we create new challenges rooted in new ideas and new opportunities,” he told us.”Minding that balance and maintaining both the aspiration and the hope against the sheer scale of the day-to-day efforts necessary to do what we’re doing just today in market, versus what we hope we can do later, is impactful because it offers new opportunities for me to grow along with the culture that I’m trying to help get to wherever it can go.”
The FGC is an oft-used blanket term for fighting game fans and competitors, but the reality is that every part of it is very different. Though Thiher wants to make sure EVO is an event that can meet the needs and expectations of every community within the FGC, there’s a lot of this evolution that happens organically within these individual fanbases.
The FGC has been built off the backs of passionate fans; Thiher and his team see no reason to try and take that control away from the community for the sake of achieving some sort of grand vision they have for EVO.
“To me, it’s not about getting to an objective destination. I’m not gonna pretend that I know what is right for fighting games on a community level, much less a cultural level. I have ideas and experiments that I am currently blessed with the chance to explore, and in those explorations, I am hopeful that what we discover is beneficial for the fandom as a whole.”
It’s a good time to be a fighting game fan
In this so-called ‘Golden Age’ of fighting games, new releases for mainline titles like Street Fighter and Tekken have witnessed an enormous surge of interest, and more and more new players are jumping into the scene. Thiher is more than happy to welcome new faces into the fold and is ecstatic to see the community grow bigger than it’s ever been.
“It’s incredibly cool to see new player bases come up and see them thrive,” he said. “To see that happen on the back of the tools, the resources, and the efforts of all the players and the organizers and the community members that come before them because they help either push everything forward or stabilize new ideas or just pick up the baton like — it’s really, really stellar.”
Even amongst the highest level players, the FGC is still growing. Though many fighting games have their fair share of legacy players like Daigo or Knee who have dominated their game for years, there are also new talents that are making waves in tournament play.
The next EVO winner could be someone just getting their start at a local, and being able to participate in those small locals is an absolute joy for Thiher. Taking that cozy vibe and bringing it to the biggest stage in the fighting game world is something he strives to achieve, so that players young and old can feel welcome.
“To me, the fact that on a Wednesday night, I can go to a fighting game local that I have absolutely no part of, that I can show up and just play — I don’t run a bracket, there’s no expectation that I run a bracket. I’m not part of the venue. I’m not part of the stream, I’m not on air, and a huge chunk of the players don’t know who I am — I can’t tell you how dope that is.
“‘Cause then you get to be part of this experience as they become educated about the games they’re playing in the communities that they’re joining and the culture that they’re now part of, and seeing that carry forward just validates all the time that we’ve spent trying to make sure that that’s possible, because I don’t know where that goes. It could be the greatest thing in the world. It could be exactly what it is right now, and either way, part of why that’s there is the time invested and the aspirations invested prior to today.”
What’s next for EVO?
EVO is an unquestionable cornerstone of the fighting game community. As it grows ever larger, it’s able to implement more and more community-focused elements that elevate it from a tournament to a must-attend experience that celebrates the most beloved aspect of the FGC; the players.
The future of EVO is bright, as the tournament continues to outgrow itself and introduce exciting new experiences for fighting game players of all levels. For now, Thiher still has big ambitions for the year’s most highly-anticipated fighting game event. The sky’s the limit for EVO, and, under Thiher’s direction, there’s no shortage of ideas that will elevate the tournament to even further heights.
And, while there is some mild concern about what’ll happen if the tournament becomes even bigger than it already is, Thiher feels like that’s a good problem to have.
“I am sure there is a scale limitation that we can achieve,” he says. “The cool thing about a scale limitation is that, to even reach it is an achievement. It’s like sailing for the horizon. If you get there, that’s a problem for then, and the fact that it became a problem at all is a testament to how far you’ve come. So, that’s how I’m still approaching EVO. I would like to have that problem. I wanna get to that problem.”
EVO 2024 is kicking off from July 19-21 in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s West Hall. Be there or be square — and try not to drown in pools, while you’re at it.