For decades now, the Evolution Championship Series (known as Evo for short) has been known as the biggest event in the fighting game community. Since 1996, players from across the globe have gathered in Las Vegas for a chance to prove themselves on a global stage. And 2023’s Evo was no different in that aspect, but where it does differ is the management, ownership, and love of the game.
After a sexual misconduct controversy involving one of Evo’s co-founders and chairmen, Joey “MrWizard” Cuellar, the event was purchased by Sony in 2021. After what many saw as a rocky start for new ownership due to having to work around COVID-19, 2023’s release of Street Fighter 6 seemed to make this the most important year of a new era. To capitalize on what might be a “make-or-break” event, Evo was placed in the hands of a new general manager, Rick “The Hadou” Thiher, who I had a chance to speak with before attending this year’s event.
“I’ve worked in the fighting game space for over a decade at this point,” Thiher told Digital Trends when talking about his entrance into his new position with Evo. “I was working with the Twitch Rivals team, and my current bosses at both Sony and Evo contacted me. I immediately went for it because the opportunity to work on fighting games every day instead of fighting games a couple of times a year leans a lot closer to my personal interests.”
With Thiher behind the wheel, the vibe of the looming event changed. Much like another fighting game event under his managerial belt, Combo Breaker, which Thiher was an event manager for, Evo stopped feeling like an event that relied on legacy and refocused on reminding people why they love fighting games. Evo 2023 was a massive success, setting new records in attendance and the number of people registering for game tournaments. That made it an Evo to remember and served as a reminder that we’re in a new golden era for the fighting game genre. I spoke to Thiher to get more insight into why this year’s event was so successful and the major role Street Fighter 6 played in that.
Thiher chalked up Evo2023’s success to the people running carefully balancing what exactly Evo is and making it digestible to any potential viewers or attendees. “I think the scale and presentation of Evo is unmatched in the realm of competitive gaming events,” Thiher says. “There’s an expectation that comes with the brand. There are relationships that come with the brand that simply aren’t part of any of the other shows in the space. Whereas Combo Breaker has this aspect of drastically outgrowing its original vision, Evo starts at that outgrown the original vision point. So there’s a longer process of figuring out how to appeal to the entire community that might attend and keep it balanced so that the tournament side of the event never loses focus. But we also want the fandom side of the event to deliver.”
According to Thiher, it’s really key to find a balance in appealing to those engaging with Evo to watch the fighting game tournaments and those eagerly awaiting fighting game-related announcements. “When people talk about what Evo is supposed to be or what Evo is, I think that’s because for most attendees, there’s always been a general idea,” Thiher said. “It’s the biggest tournament, or it’s the place where you’re going to get publisher reveals, etc. Balancing it all is incredibly difficult, but now having a team of people that focus on each component makes that difference for our relaunch.”
Unlike events of the past under the Evo umbrella, Thiher didn’t want to lose sight of the grassroots tournament side of things. Not only did he amplify the idea of putting a magnifying glass to smaller games of the past for big showcases like Marvel vs. Capcom, Skullgirls, and Killer Instinct, but he found it necessary to embolden Street Fighter 6, which was making its big Evo debut this year. Street Fighter 6, being one of the greatest fighting game releases in recent years, lent some of its success to Evo. In sports terms, if Evo is the wide receiver landing the touchdown, then Street Fighter 6 is the quarterback throwing the game-winning pass.
“I think we’re having almost a perfect storm of opportunity right now for fighting games,” Thiher says. “We have new games that are coming out that are good. You have Street Fighter 6 releasing as arguably the most complete Street Fighter product that’s ever been put into the market. You have online that’s working amazingly and bringing all these global players together. And all of that exists at the same time as Twitch and YouTube. So that boost of awareness is not only huge for the game and its longevity, but for the community and events like Evo. Evo hit record numbers in entrants for the Street Fighter series this year. I think we’re going to be seeing these boosted player numbers for years to come with every title that’s coming out on the backside. Numbers higher than anything that was ever dreamt of when these games were first being coded.”
All of these accomplishments don’t come without hardship, though. Thiher mentioned there were tons of hard decisions that had to be made while trying to keep everyone happy. Things like the controversial cutting down of the Top 8 tournament finale to a Top 6 had to be made to keep Evo running smoothly. While players were furious at first, this accommodation led to no early-morning matches and ensured there were enough console setups to keep things moving. This is yet another case of Thiher pushing toward looking after the players that make Evo the success it always has been, but it’s still a learning experience.
“I think there are experiments at the show that we’re going to learn from because it depends a little bit on kind of what the response is,” Thiher states. “A common conversation at tournaments has always been ‘if you’re playing from sunrise to sundown, when do you eat?’ We included a dedicated hourlong broadcast break so that the team and players could eat. We’ve made sure, to the best of our ability, that no semifinals runs directly into that Top 6 cut, so participants always have the chance to go and rest and get their heads on straight for the matches that are about to really matter.”
Through all of this trial and error, Evo 2023 became an all-around amazing event. And while there were a few player complaint bumps in the road, Thiher believes those bumps are necessary to make next year’s event even better and more memorable.
“I’m excited about the number of casual and tournament setups that are on the show floor,” Thiher says. “That’s one of the goals when you start running tournaments in your garage with your PlayStation and your buddy’s computer. What we have been able to put together, whether it’s the Arcade Stick Museum, the items that are in the merch line, or the publisher panels and reveals that people are expecting at the show, makes things feel holistic.”
“It’s about both that tournament player experience and that fan experience that, right now on paper, don’t feel like they’re fighting with each other,” Thiher states. “And that’s something I’m proud of because if I can help our team build something where those two objectives are never in conflict, we’re going to have an experience that as a community, as a culture, we can be deeply proud of.”
Evo 2023 brought an event that seemed lost in itself back to a single focus: celebrating fighting games, their culture, and the community around them. During my time at the event, enjoying the convention, camaraderie, and competition aspects of it all, I found myself falling in love with it all over again. I was reminded why this was so important to me and why this genre is so great. Count me in for attending once more next year.