April 14, 2018

What was EVO Japan aiming for? We ask steering committee president Hameko.

I saw this article about the goal of EVO Japan on twitter, and was interested. I've never been to EVO, and I was super excited for the chance to attend and volunteer at EVO Japan. One of my goals was to have a good time, help foreign attendees navigate the event, and share my love of both fighting games and Japan. So I'm curious to hear what the actual steering committee was thinking about. The article was written by Sawatari Masashi and published on the Alienware Zone Japan site.

As always, this is a personal translation, I'm not a professional translator, and any mistakes or misrepresentations are entirely my own.


"EVO Japan" was held over the three days from 2018-01-26 to 2018-01-28. There have been many articles written about it by now, and I'm sure many people have heard about the event, the details, and the results. This article comes from a slightly different perspective.

For this article, I speak with and received many comments from EVO Japan steering committee president "Hameko". We talked about how EVO Japan came about, the plans for the next iteration, and also the goal of EVO Japan.

Before EVO Japan

People reading this article almost certainly know about the tournament in America known as the "Evolution Championship Series" (aka EVO). It's a gaming event centered around fighting games that is the largest in America, and in fact, the world. The Japanese version of this, "EVO Japan" was held in January 2018. It was also a case of a foreign tournament within the eSports scene being held domestically in Japan. It is not hyperbole to say that EVO is the gold standard of tournaments, and EVO Japan fulfilled those expectations.

In actuality, there was a plan back in 2010~2011 to hold EVO Japan. Unfortunately, due to the 2011 Earthquake in Japan, that plan was cancelled. By 2014, once again the mood for an EVO Japan was unofficially back on the table.

Speaking from a business point of view, the American EVO began a competition to decide who the organizers of EVO Japan should be. Various companies entered their name, but Aetas, a group company of Matsutake Broadcasting, Hearts United Group (HUG), won and "EVO Japan Executive Committee LLP" was formed to run the event.

Hameko is a writer that works at 4Gamer.net, a game information website owned by Aetas, and has long been deeply involved with the FGC. Hameko was interested in EVO previously, and wrote articles for the Japanese audience about EVO, and appealed directly to the organizers of EVO in America about running an EVO in Japan. They were unable to come to an agreement at that time though. When the offer came from the West for a bid, Hameko thought that beyond just the formation of the EVO Japan company at Takematsu Broadcasting and HUG, he needed to offer a consolidated front of the Japanese fighting game scene.

Hameko: After the Tougeki1 (2003 - 2012) tournament series ended, the Japanese FGC scene after 2013 has been led in great part by Inaba-san from GODSGARDEN2, Toyota from TOPANGA3 and Mr. Matsuda the owner of Game Newton, an arcade that runs competitions on the national scale. I really thought that I needed their cooperation to consolidate representation of the domestic FGC.

Even with the prominent name of EVO Japan, we didn't know if we could get a lot of participation4. More than holding an "EVO" event, in this current situation where "Tougeki" doesn't exist any more, in order to create a tournament that surpasses Tougeki, in was important from the start to build something with important members of the scene and re-build a large community. That would be the ideal. Based on building those relationships, we would have the right to host EVO Japan, we would host it, but it wouldn't be easy to actually execute on.


Conditions to host EVO Japan

Even though they will run EVO Japan, it certainly isn't the case that the American side of things would just say "Do whatever you like!" In order to protect the good name of EVO, I'm sure they had demands that needed to be met. What were those?

Hameko: "Of course, they had some conditions. First was that it had to be an open tournament. It also had to be double elimination. The tournament had to be held at least half a year apart from the main EVO tournament, and the hurdle of running the tournament and conditions on the number of stream viewers."

First, I'm sure everyone is wondering about "Why January?". If you have to run the tournament separated from EVO by half a year as everyone expected, then January was pretty much locked in from the start. If you think about the overwhelming influence that EVO America has, then the order to offset the tournament by half a year isn't strange. Having a double elimination, open tournament just follows the precedent set by EVO.

Putting aside the timing of the tournament, holding an open double elimination tournament was definitely a large hurdle. Just think about it. An open tournament means that you have to be able to let everyone who wants to participate enter, and if the number of participants grows very large, that can wreck your tournament (the total running time of the tournament increases). Also, since a double elimination tournament means that the losers are given a second chance in the losers bracket, it almost doubles the number of matches, so you need to factor that in when you estimate the running length of your tournament.

Hameko: The main EVO is able to do that. They have the players stay at a Las Vegas hotel, and run the tournament at a hall in the hotel. So even if the tournament runs late, they don't have to worry about how the players will get home. Because of that they are able to run matches past midnight5. Doing that is almost impossible in Japan. If you look at the cost of venues that could serve both as the tournament location and have hotels in the center of the city, that already costs in the multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars. It just isn't realistic.

So that is why it has traditionally been thought that an open double elimination tournament would be difficult in Japan. In the case of EVO, many people use their summer holiday and might take one or two weeks to stay in Las Vegas, some players might even stay as long as a month. They don't have to worry about whether "I can catch the last train home if I rush when my pools end". If the players don't want to go home, the organizers don't have to send them home. That understanding was formed by both of the parties. You can imagine that building a similar sort of environment in Japan just isn't feasible.

But we were able to surpass this with the "Analysis" of our community leaders Mr. Matsuda, Mr. Inaba, and Mr. Toyota. If you can estimate how many players there will be, how long running the sets take, how long it takes to organize and run things, then you can prepare the number of stations that you need, and can run the tournament in a set amount of time… If you can't do this, then you will end up running your pools past midnight.

Hameko: There isn't much of an impact when you don't have many entrants, but when reality greatly exceeds your estimations, you will completely fail. We also only have the venue for a fixed amount of time. In actuality, we had more entrants than we expected, but because we had done that initial estimation it wasn't a fatal blow and we didn't fail.

We had planned for the pools on the first day to end by 9pm, but it actually went on until 10pm. At any rate, on the second day we had to be completely out of the venue by 11pm, and in truth it was very difficult to pack up and move out.

Why the tournament was split between Ikebukuro and Akihabara

EVO Japan was held over three days. The first and second days set up the order for the playoffs. There were some games where the complete tournament was held in the first two days, but the four titles "Smash Brothers for Wii U", "Tekken 7", "Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2", and "Street Fighter V Arcade Edition" all had their Top 8 through grand finals on the third day.

What surprised me is that the first and second days were at Ikebukuro Sunshine City's Exhibition Hall, while the third day was at the Akihabara UDX building's Akiba Square. What was the intent behind this?

Hameko: Originally we planned to hold all three days at UDX. But it was just too small to hold the preliminaries for an open tournament there. So we set out to find another location, and settled on Sunshine City. However, if we wanted to run the third day there also, there were some problems like the roof height6. The roof is low, so running the final tournament there would be unsuitable for stage direction. So we used the UDX building as we had planned originally for the third day.

Why was Ikebukuro the next candidate given that Akihabara was originally in the plans? Why weren't you able to use a larger venue for all three days given that this is a tournament of the EVO Japan class?

Hameko: I forgot to mention this but, the American EVO organizers had asked us that we include foreign players. Taking that into account, we thought that places like Makuhari or Odaiba7 were not suitable. There isn't anything around those areas, so it's really boring. For example, if a competitor loses, if they are in Akihabara or Ikebukuro there are many entertaining places they can easily go to. Thinking in that manner, the number of locations was limited quite a bit, and it was difficult to choose the final location. I really do believe that it would have good if the same venue was used for the third day but…

During EVO Japan, there were lots of players who took their fervor and headed out to an arcade, and in Ikebukuro and Akihabara it wasn't just Japanese players there, lots of foreigners also went out to the arcades.

Another thing that bothered me is that the feeling of the first and second days was quite different from the third day. It wasn't just the difference in the venue either. The first and second days felt like an open tournament game event, it really felt like an event that was made by fans and aimed at fans. The third day felt like it was there only for the sake of viewing the stage (like a live TV audience for a TV show). There are both pros and cons to this, but what was your goal, and why was it like that?

Hameko: We made things as much like the American EVO as possible. The first and second days are very much like the Comike8, while the third day is an eSports tournament. That is how it is in America as well. Within one event there is a festival sort of atmosphere that transitions into an eSports conclusion, and that is one of the things that is amazing about EVO. We wanted to replicate that feeling in Japan. It wasn't that this was requested of us, I really felt like if we are going to put on an EVO we need to do this.

So on the third day we didn't set up any of the extra fun things (like demo stations not related to progressing the games on the main stage) and instead poured all our effort into creating an environment where you could focus on watching the amazing matches. I think there were many participants who felt that was incongruous, but I think you can say that people were able to experience both extremities of gaming9 which is one of the attractions of EVO.


One of EVO Japan's focus areas was the side tournaments

Many people might think that EVO Japan just took the methodology of EVO and applied that in a localized fashion. There are many "Fighting Game Festivals", "Fighting Game Meetups", and other sorts of game tournaments and eSports events in Japan now. Within all of those, EVO Japan is a newcomer, can you specifically tell me how it differed from the American EVO or any of the many other domestic events.

Hameko: We spent a lot of effort on side tournaments. At the American EVO there is a large free space area where the community can bring game setups and hold tournaments of their own with friends. It's a really nice idea. I really wanted to do that in Japan too, but I really wanted to do a good job. I didn't want to just let people come and run things randomly, I wanted to have an application process and receive proper consent from the IP holders. A small game tournament… We even had a tournament for the Super Nintendo version of "Ranma 1/2: Hard Battle" and even got official consent from Masaya Games.

So we were able to connect up small communities and game developers by doing that. Specifically in Japan there are lots of different game communities, from home console game players to arcade game players, you can really see the depth of the Japanese player community. I wanted to show off that aspect of the Japan scene, and we put a lot of effort into that for EVO Japan.

Those side tournaments made the news after EVO Japan. It wasn't just a test run, the details were all strictly worked out and organized, and you from that you would be surprised at the extent to which the Games are driven by the players, and you really felt that the games shine exactly because of the people that play them. I really think that aspect should be valued in the long history of the fighting game tournament scene, that players have intentionally run and organized things themselves.


EVO Japan's goal was a "Tournament for the players"

"EVO Japan" was intentionally planned and designed. Because of that, I'm interested in its themes.

It's a bit of a digression, but the reason I first thought of writing this article was because of something one game tournament organizer said. "I think lately a lot of game tournaments are held with the goal of 'holding a tournament'. Essentially, even though tournaments are supposed to exist to help with the questions of what kind of scene can you build, or how can you increase overall enjoyment of games? But instead, it seems like holding a tournament itself has become the goal, that the mechanism that should be used for the benefit of the community has instead become the purpose." That was the candid conversation we had. Does the organizer of the tournament really have a policy, a goal in mind?

So taking this as a hint, I wanted to see what EVO Japan thought about current gaming culture, and rise of the eSports tournament scene, where do they rank those things, what did they want to bring about, and where are they headed? I wanted to bluntly confront the EVO Japan organizers about their policy and these questions. What was EVO Japan aiming for?

Hameko: Right now eSports events in Japan are basically events for the viewers. They aren't events for people to play games, or for the players of the games. The eSports events where people are screaming loudly and getting excited and mostly now not held for the players. The common format is maybe 8 or 16 pro gamers that everyone watches. Of course there are events that aren't like that, there are large scale tournaments where everyone can join with pools but, I really would like to see more tournaments that are made for the players, and I personally strongly think it is good for them to become larger scale. For example, in the fighting game scene there is the group of players that attend overseas events but … There are also people who support those players by helping them maintain their strength through domestic competition, and there are mid level players who create a great training atmosphere in Japan, which is exactly why there are also many strong players here. Those players aren't ever really featured anywhere, and there aren't many events in Japan that are held for that class of players. In the end the players who are active overseas are going to pull in the stream viewers, and I want to put these less featured players up against them10. I want to hold an event for those people that just enjoy games normally, and people who like games and have become good at them but aren't pros. That is what I most wanted to do at EVO Japan. That's why, even though running an open tournament that anyone can join is difficult in Japan, I desperately wanted to preserve that aspect. If a new star could arise from that, I would be extremely happy.11

I really understand what you're saying. It isn't that we don't want strong or famous players at all. It is worth watching strong players, and of course they are going to get the results on a global stage and get that media time. Rather it would be strange if they were not featured in some way.

But even then there's apprehension around whether "that can't be all you have" … In some way, exactly because you feel that danger, you expand the chances for the mid level, and that is exactly why you need to have an open tournament like EVO Japan, right?

Hameko: There aren't many opportunities for pro gamers to fight amateur gamers. Even though pros can play other pross, there aren't venues where they fight amateurs12. Even if there are cases where they play together for training, if you aren't at a tournament setting they aren't going to fight to their full capability. If there isn't a ring where you are clashing with the same stakes and feelings, the same point of view, that same intent to beat each other to a pulp, it isn't the same. I wanted to increase the number of large scale open tournaments. If you are looking at things through the lens of eSports, tournaments, or TV shows, you will see the same players and a limited number of people. Only a small segment of people can be chosen for those things. For the people that are choosing players, and also the people who will watch, they will prioritize people who are popular and those who are active overseas. That's just natural but, if you continue to do that what will happen? The people who support them will gradually decline, and with the loss of those people things become much less interesting. It will be difficult to completely change things but, I think you need to intentionally make a stage where those people can shine as well, or in the end we will all lose out in the end.

Would it be going to far to say that the ideology behind EVO Japan, which is currently carrying the burden of holding up one large part of the eSports scene, included alarm bells about the problems that Japan's FGC scene is facing in regards to eSports?

But progress has already been made in the hard work of consciously forming the next generation starting from the background with a long history of Japan's oldest game tournament culture. The pro gamers who came up with the Gamest Cup13 and Tougeki are now active players overseas, and there are many young players growing up in the scene now. That is exactly why now we have this history, these stories, and this drama. The "Strength" that the Japanese Fighting Game Scene can be proud of and the more than 20 years of drama, is not going to die out, and will continue to be nurtured.

EVO Japan and Hameko understand the importance of that. I'm excited to see what impact and influence his policy will have on the Japan eSports market in the future.

Related Links

Article by Sawatari Masashi (猿渡雅史)


If you have read this far, many thanks. If you are interested in take on EVO Japan 2018 I wrote about that in a previous blog post. Feel free to leave a comment or get in touch if you are coming to the Tokyo area and looking for information.

Footnotes:

1

Tougeki - Super Battle Opera (闘劇 Tōgeki, lit. fighting play) (SBO), also known as the Arcadia Cup Tournament was an annual Japanese fighting video game tournament hosted by the magazine Arcadia.

2

A group of gamers with competitions and streaming events.

3

Topanga is a well known FGC gaming stream with competition, etc. Toyota, also known as Nyan-shi, is a founder, and is deeply involved in many FGC activities in Japan.

4

Actually the Japanese here is 集客, "customers" and in this context I'm not clear on the exact intention (attendees? players? spectators? sponsors?)

5

In Japan, the trains typically stop running a bit past midnight until about 5am. People often live up to an hour or more away from central Tokyo, so you need to allow time for people to get home.

6

I don't understand why this would be a problem.

7

Makuhari Messe is a very large convention center, about an hour out of Tokyo in Chiba. It might be a bit hard to get to. Odaiba (presumably he means Odaiba Big Site) is also a large convention center in a central Tokyo location but there isn't great public transportation to get there (just two lines).

8

The huge Comic Market fan manga events.

9

Translator note: by "both extremities" of gaming, I believe the intention here is the fan and community driven aspects of the first two days, and the final day being a high production value viewing experience of high level matches that could be accessible to a more sports familiar audience. I really like the questions here, and I like the answers, but my big complaint about the third day is that there wasn't large enough capacity to accommodate everyone who wanted to be at the live venue, nor were there other public viewing spaces set up (there was one gaming cafe in Ikebukuro that had a viewing, but tickets were expensive, limited, and inaccessible to a non-Japanese speaking audience.)

10

Translator note: Give the lesser known people a chance to shine, and do it on a stage where the well known players will give them visibility. I think - the construction of this line of reasoning is a bit complex so I'm filling things in a bit with my interpretation.

11

Translator note: I feel like the Powell (Cammy) storyline where he knocked Tokido into Loser's bracket in pools was exactly that kind of thrilling story. Also, Powell is just a super nice guy and fun to drink with. He's a strong Cammy player based in Nagoya, so he doesn't show up on the Osaka Cyclops stream, Studio Sky stream, or Fighter's Crossover Akihabara stream and seemed to come out of nowhere.

12

Translator note: That said, if you stop by Tokyo's Studio Sky, Fighter's Crossover Akihabara, or Osaka's Gaming Basement, you definitely can get some matches in against pros. I think common courtesy would be to play a match or two, and if you lose, get off and let the pros play with high level competition, but at the right weekly you can definitely match up against the pros if you want to try.

13

The Gamest Cup was a series of tournaments from 1991 to 1998 run by Gamest. Source (JA).




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