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EVO Japan 2019: Fight Nights in Fukuoka

My heart was filled with more than a little trepidation when I first saw the EVO Japan banners which draped the Fukuoka Kokusai Centre. I hadn’t picked up a controller to play a fighting game in a few years, how was I going to find one of the biggest fighting game tournaments in the world? The answer was good. Very, very good.

Fighting games come to Fukuoka!

EVO Japan is an offshoot of the larger EVO US competition which finds its origins in the 1996 Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha 2 tournament, “Battle by the Bay.” Although the junior of the main tournament in the US by quite a few years (the first EVO Japan was only held in Tokyo last year), EVO Japan has established itself quickly as a major event in the fighting game calendar. With this prestigious history in mind, I made my way through the press desk and entered the darkened hall on the first day to find three grand stages dominating the front of the room, each with spotlights pointing down on them and the several rows of consoles and arcade machines where the games would take place. Fans and players alike from all over the world gathered around the pools to catch glimpses of the high-stakes action on the screen, whether it be Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition or Soul Calibur 6.

Fans from around the world huddled around the screens

Close by was a makeshift “street” of stalls selling merchandise and promotional goods, as well as giving away the odd freebie. People were joshing and haggling for gamepads, t-shirts, gaming glasses, instant noodles, and inflatable cheering sticks, adding to the bustling atmosphere of the already heaving hall. Day one kicked off with the qualifiers for Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition, King of Fighters XIV and Soul Calibur 6, as well as an “interesting” conference from the Dead or Alive 6 team which my retinas won’t soon forget. Particularly inspiring was Fukuoka City Mayor Soichiro Takashima’s message to the convention, putting a bit of political clout behind Esports and the beneficial nature of an international event like this one.

Of course, these weren’t the only things going on at EVO, and much of the first and second floor was dedicated to casual games and side tournaments—as many as 20 throughout the first and second days! Marvel vs Capcom 3, Dragon Ball FighterZ, Million Arthur: Arcana Blood, even Mario Tennis Aces and Pop Rainbow dotted the second floor, their screens only visible through a thick crowd of excited onlookers and families with their kids. Speaking to Travis from Seattle, now a Fukuoka local, he hoped that this kind of event where families felt they could bring everyone along could shift the culture of e-sports in Japan and Fukuoka, eventually helping to create a more inclusive environment for gaming as a whole in the area. Seeing children hand-in-hand with their parents, dressed as their favorite character, you couldn’t help but feel a little hope that maybe this would come true.

Families and friends compete for that fabled top spot on the scoreboard

Day 2 was an exciting day of upsets for the whole of the fighting game scene, with Tokido’s Akuma (a combo with eight top finishes last year) crashing out of the Street Fighter V tournament in twenty-fifth place. But the game hit hardest by this seismic day was undeniably Tekken 7. A relative unknown, “VS|Arslan_Ash”, a Pakistani-born whose main character is Kazumi, who I had the pleasure of speaking to, beat several of the game’s best players in these early stages. In a heart-stopping match against current world champion “ROX|Knee”, Arslan won out in straight sets, displaying a cast-iron defense that the Korean just couldn’t break through. As I shook his hand after the match I could feel him physically shaking – I would be too if I’d just beaten the world number one for the second time! (Arslan beat Knee last year in Dubai).

World number one ROX|Knee and VS|Arslan_Ash just before their match

Of course, Fukuoka locals were playing in the pools as well and I had the chance to catch up with one of them, Sebastian Hall, more famously known by his tag “FrameWhisper”. A Fukuoka local for five years, originally hailing from Sweden, this was Hall’s first EVO and he was suitably nervous for the occasion. He said that while EVO Japan gave him the chance to improve his Tekken game by observing the pros up close, it would also give the opportunity for more people from abroad to soak in this dynamic city. Therefore, the more of these events that the city held, the more of these kinds of tourist would flood in. It also helped that he lived only ten minutes away, but that’s neither here nor there. FrameWhisper went onto narrowly lose out against an incredibly tough opponent and get knocked out in the losers’ third round, but we should still be proud of his performance.

FrameWhisper mid-game

Day three was the day of the grand finals, and everything apart from one console and the three main stages was left in the hall, ready for a day of baying crowds. First up was the finals of Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, won by “Tsurugi|Tomo/Relo” in straight sets against Alcormakkos in a savage display of skill. Next was the finals of Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2, with “WG|Summit” clinching victory from the oppressive jaws of “ChaChaCha.” After coming out on top after a game of unrelenting pressure, Summit said to a cheering crowd, ‘This was an incredible competition, I don’t know how many times I thought my heart was going to stop. Thank you so much’.

Victorious Summit with the rest of the top eight

On at 3 p.m. was a Tekken conference headed by the enigmatic Katsuhiro Harada, producer of the Tekken series. Well known as a bit of a joker, Harada-san did not disappoint this year. While announcing new information on the Tekken World Series, including the location of the next stop (Lyon, April 20th), a new trailer dropped on the addition of two new characters to Tekken 7: Julia Chang and Negan from “The Walking Dead.” During said trailer, to the cries of ‘Thank you, Harada!’, a small animated Harada tried to convince Negan to join the roster – and who said the triple-A industry had lost its sense of humor? The organizers then quickly launched into a nail-biting top eight final which, through the Japanese announcer’s screams of “Who is this guy? He’s way too strong!”, Arslan emerged victorious. The player who had struggled to get a visa and enough money to enter Japan just months ago had just broken East Asia’s stranglehold on Tekken. Speaking to him later in the press pit, he said it was ‘a privilege to play against all his opponents’, and having enjoyed the fantastic atmosphere of EVO and Fukuoka, would use his winnings to payback his company who lent him the money to make it to Japan in the first place.

Arslan_Ash with the Tekken 7 top eight

The event carried on into the night with “Victrix|Momochi” clinching victory from “CYG|Fuudo” in the Street Fighter final and the finale of the night, but I must admit my mind was on other things. When I first took up this assignment, I was a little uneasy about how I would find fighting games again, having been away from them for so long. However, as soon as I stepped inside, I found myself physically pulled into the hype. Players, who seconds ago were virtually beating seven shades of sunshine out of each other, would embrace, talk like friends, happy to see each other at another tournament. During every match I found myself screaming in support, breathless, with my heart pounding. While EVO Japan may not return to Fukuoka again next year, I’ll be there, and hopefully I’ll see you there too!

Kenji Newton (reporter) back on the joysticks – A fighting game fan reborn!

Report and photos by Kenji Newton for Fukuoka Now

Published: Feb 22, 2019 / Last Updated: Feb 22, 2019