Joey Cuellar, lead organizer for EVO, the largest fighting game event in the world, recently unveiled the main-stage lineup for EVO 2017. Most fighting game fans could have predicted the bulk of these entries, however there are also some curious omissions.

Let’s take a look at each EVO game in the lineup this year and think about whether they deserve a spot on the main stage.

Street Fighter V

This is the one game everyone could have predicted. Despite its relative lack of popularity compared to Street Fighter IV, Street Fighter V is Capcom’s headlining fighting game. Capcom is practically synonymous with fighting games at the moment, and Street Fighter is easily the most well known franchise in the genre.

Over 5,000 people entered the SFV tournament last year at EVO, and millions tuned in to watch. It has the biggest player base, the most prize support, and the greatest mass appeal. Street Fighter and all of its sequels will be taking the top slot at EVO for years to come.

Super Smash Bros. Melee

After receiving the EVO bump in 2013 (more on that later) Super Smash Bros. Melee has only grown in popularity, which is impressive for a 16 year old game. But the numbers don’t lie. With 2,372 entrants and similar viewership numbers to Street Fighter V, Nintendo easily has the second biggest fighting game in the e-sports world. It’s just a shame that it’s on a console that is now three generations old and requires working CRT TVs to actually be played.

It’s also peculiar that Melee won’t actually see any stadium play this year. Its finals are going to be finished on Saturday, before the main event on Sunday. Considering what an amazing headliner Melee was last year, it’s odd for EVO to put it on the backburner.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

This is an interesting one. Smash for the Wii U actually beat Melee in entrance numbers and pot size last year, but interest in the game is very quickly fading. With Nintendo ceasing all Wii U development and focusing their efforts on the Switch, Smash for the Wii U’s days are numbered – especially if we see Smash end up on the Switch as well. 

After this year, I sincerely doubt we are going to see much Wii U Smash played on the main stage anymore. It will likely go the way of Pokken which, if you notice, flared out in only one year. Yet this is the Smash that will see finals in a stadium. It kind of feels backwards.

Tekken 7

Tekken 7 has been a major event at EVO for some time now, which is impressive considering it hasn’t released on home consoles yet! This EVO marks the first EVO after Tekken 7’s home release, opening up the game to an international audience. It’s very likely that this will be the largest Tekken tournament we have seen at EVO in some time.

The big question is whether we will have another year of Tekken 7 in us, and that will largely depend on whether or not Bandai Namco releases a new Soul Calibur any time soon. 3D fighter slots have always been sparse at EVO, and there might not be enough space for both of Bandai Namco’s 3D titles.

Guilty Gear XRD Rev2

This is the first peculiarity at this year’s EVO. It’s not necessarily strange that Guilty Gear gets a slot – it’s a much-loved classic fighting game that has been making EVO appearances for some time. It’s practically the mascot for the “anime fighter”. But what is strange is that we are seeing Rev2 and not Revelator being represented. Rev2, the latest Guilty Gear installment, doesn’t even have a release date for Japanese arcades yet, let alone a release date for home consoles and PCs.

EVO is taking a gigantic risk making this a headliner. While the base system won’t be changed, character balancing and move-lists will vary hugely from Revelator, meaning one game cannot stand in for another. If the game comes out too close to EVO time, competitors will have nowhere near enough time to train. Or, worse, the game could be delayed until after EVO! If any of these scenarios come about, there will be a huge gap in the EVO schedule – a gap that won’t easily be filled. Perhaps that’s why this one also won’t see any stadium play.

BlazBlue: Central Fiction

And here is another oddity. BlazBlue is Arc System Works’ spiritual successor to Guilty Gear. The similarities in the two games would usually disqualify both from being headliners at EVO. However, this is the supposed “final” installment of BlazBlue, and BlazBlue was a major headliner at EVO back when the second fighting game renaissance hit.

Blazblue will be welcomed back into the EVO 8 happily by its fans, but the real question is: is the competitive scene large enough to sustain an EVO-scale tournament? BBCF is popular, but BlazBlue classically hemorrhages its players to Guilty Gear. If the newest Guilty Gear is featured as an EVO headliner, it’s bound to take hype, participation, and the eyes of viewers away from the BlazBlue tournament.

Injustice 2

Netherrealm Studios has solidified itself as a major contender in fighting game development with its two franchises: Mortal Kombat and Injustice. With Mortal Kombat tournaments giving out some of the biggest prize pools of last year, many are wondering why both Mortal Kombat and Injustice 2 aren’t on the EVO main stage. After all, BlazBlue and Guilty Gear are sharing the main stage and, in any other year, Marvel vs. Capcom and Street Fighter would share the main stage. Heck, there are literally two versions of Smash on the main stage! (Though Injustice 2, like Melee, will not see stadium play.)

The trouble is, development on Mortal Kombat X has basically stopped. We aren’t going to see any more DLC or balance patches, and the top competitors in the game are pretty well established (looking at you, SonicFox).

Injustice 2 has some big shoes to fill. With so much of Injustice 2’s marketing push being centered on the new “gear” system – which at this point won’t even be used in tournaments – fans want to see if Injustice 2 is fun to play or watch in a tournament setting. This can make or break the game, both as a product and as an e-sport.

So, why not include both Mortal Kombat and Injustice? Because one might cannibalize the other. MKX’s competitive scene is huge, and Injustice 2 isn’t even out yet. There’s no telling whether or not a competitive scene will naturally form around the new DC Universe fighting game. But when you offer prize money and a chance to play in a huge stadium, many competitors will at least try, and THAT is the basis for the EVO bump.

The King of Fighters XIV

Finally, we have The King of Fighters XIV, which is another one most fans could have predicted. SNK is another huge name in the fighting game world, and KOF is their only franchise. With KOF XIII leaving the lineup, KOFXIV was the only natural follow up.

KOF is well known for its huge international reach into territories that otherwise don’t have a very large fighting game presence. If you want to open up EVO to the world, KOF is a must have. Though, once again, this title won’t see any stadium play.

The Charity Slot

The final slot in EVO’s tournament will go to one of nine games that are currently in a charity donation-off. The game whose fans donate the most money to the Make-A-Wish foundation will win. The games are as follows:

  • ARMS
  • Killer Instinct
  • Mortal Kombat XL
  • Nidhogg
  • Pokken Tournament
  • Skullgirls: 2nd Encore
  • Super Street Fighter II Turbo
  • Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3
  • Windjammers

Now this is a fantastic way to raise money for a good cause and to get fans involved in the game selection process. But there’s something off about the selection process this time around.

The last time EVO did this was in 2013, and there was one huge difference: every game on their list was an underdog. They were games that have long since thrived in corners of the FGC, but never got their chance in the spotlight. Melee, for example, was largely considered a dead game until it suddenly blew up on the EVO main stage.

This time around, the list is split up between underdogs and headliners that just didn’t make the cut this year. Killer Instinct, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and Mortal Kombat XL all have huge player bases along with invested teams that can donate quite a bit of income in order to secure their place in the tournament. The chances unreleased games like Arms, indie games like Skullgirls and Nidhogg, or old games like Super Turbo have of beating these major titles is slim to none.

The EVO Bump

That brings me to the “problem” with this slot. EVO is handing away this slot under the pretense that the most popular game will obviously get in. But in actuality, things can work in reverse. The game that EVO gives the slot to will become popular.

Just look at Pokken Tournament. Very few people were thinking of competitively playing this game until it made the main stage at EVO, and that alone kept its competitive scene thriving for a good year.

When a game makes EVO’s main stage, they create something important: a goal. There is an actual prize that can actually be won by playing these games competitively. There is something to reach for.

To be able to compete on the main stage of EVO, professional gamers need practice. To practice, pro gamers play at smaller tournaments where there is money on the line. This creates a demand for a tournament scene, and tournament organizers step up to fulfill that demand. All of a sudden, a new tournament scene has sprouted because the seed of an EVO tournament was planted. That’s the EVO bump.

But the games that are currently winning the charity bid already have perfectly thriving competitive scenes. That’s why I say that this EVO bump is going to go to waste. Yes, EVO has a responsibility to showcase the games people want to see, but it also has a responsibility to elevate games that people don’t usually get to see. It’s a two-way street.

Once again, while I think this is doing fantastic things for charity, I also think this is abandoning EVO’s commitment to supporting smaller scenes. Traditionally, EVO always has at least one underdog pick in their main events. Some would say that BlazBlue is the underdog this year, but once again that’s a game that has a long EVO history, as does Injustice, which also has a ton of developer backing.

As it stands, no one is getting the EVO bump this year, and that’s depressing for smaller games that were hoping for their turn in the spotlight.