For 19 years, the Evolution Championship Series has showcased the biggest fighting game tournaments in the world. What started in a hotel ballroom has since moved onto large convention centers, and now, stadium-sized indoor arenas.
The titles have grown, too. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Marvel vs. Capcom and Tekken have all ruled the tournament's main stage through multiple iterations. One of the mainstays of the fighting game community, though, has remained the same. Super Smash Bros. Melee, the 2001 Gamecube "party" fighting game, is the oldest standing single installment in the history of Evo.
On Friday, the sixth annual Melee competition at Evo will feature 1,435 players from around the world. For a game older than some of its viewers -- and players -- it's maintained unparalleled relevance.
We spoke to some of the winners, runners-ups, and community figures who have been there for it all. They shared their thoughts, memories and hopes for a game that's withstood the test of time.
2007: A glorious debut
After multiple wins at Major League Gaming events, Southern Californian Ken Hoang earned the title as "The King of Smash." A favorite heading into the tournament, Ken wasn't without competition; names such as Christopher "PC Chris" Szygiel and Daniel "Korean DJ" Jung had bested him at MLG Las Vegas the year before.
Despite a loss to Joseph "Mang0" Marquez in the winners semifinals, Ken overcame and defeated Daniel "ChuDat" Rodriguez, PC Chris and Mang0 in a rematch to advance to the grand finals. In the grand finals, he reset the bracket and took down Hugo "HugS" Gonzalez to win $5,000 and the unofficial title of best Melee player of that era.
Ken "Ken" Hoang (Evo World 2007 winner): After winning Evo 2007, it felt really good. After coming in third at MLG Vegas finals, it felt like Evo made it worth much more to me since I really wanted to take one more huge title before I retired. I mean, being the first Evo Melee champ? That means a lot, especially at one of my favorite tournaments of all time.
Hugo "HugS" Gonzalez (Evo World 2007 runner-up): I had the desire to win a national at that point, at which if I did, I would've retired. When Evo came around, I didn't think I had a solid shot until I was in the top eight already. Before that, I went to play like any other tournament. I was very nervous because I had never beaten [Ken] before and I can't say that I thought I could do it until the second set, where I actually took one of the games and I realized I was just one game away.
2008-2009: Replaced by Brawl
In 2008, the Evolution Championship Series hosted the latest version of Smash Bros. At the time, it was the early 2008-released Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Many Melee players made the switch to Brawl, some more permanently than others. However, many returned to Melee and did not take well to Brawl. Evo came under fire for allowing items in-game, which is normally against the rules.
2013, Part 1: Donation drive
In 2013, Evo hosted a drive to benefit breast cancer research, making gaming communities fundraise and donate for a chance to be the eighth title game at Evo. Among this list were Melee, Brawl, Injustice, Skullgirls, My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic and Street Fighter II Super Turbo.
Fan-made game My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic was the favorite, but the game received a cease and desist letter from Hasbro. Skepticism around the release date of the new game ultimately meant removal from the Evo 2013 donation drive lineup.
Neck and neck, Super Smash Bros. Melee and Skullgirls rose to the top of the donation drive. Community members of both games hosted donation streams and took to social media to actively encourage donations. Super Smash Bros. Melee won, raising nearly $95,000. Skullgirls, which came in second, raised $78,000, and Street Fighter II Super Turbo raised nearly $40,000.
Shortly after victory in the donation drive, Evo received a cease and desist from Nintendo forbidding the streaming of the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament. Community backlash was enormous. Several hours later, the decision was overturned and the tournament continued.
Kris "Toph" Aldenderfer (Melee commentator): We all thought My Little Pony was going to win it but then they had to drop out. All of a sudden, Melee was very close to being in the lead. Bobby ["Scar" Scarnewman] put together the spirit bomb and I went into debt donating money and it very much became this real thing overnight. We were really worried. It was this very heated moment where we saw we had a real chance of getting into Evo and everyone realized how important that was and for our community. And it was really emotional when it was announced that we got in.
Wynton "Prog" Smith (Melee commentator): Immediately, I was not on board. I had the kind of mindset that as much as the community had been building over, why not keep building and focusing on our own events? But after talking with more people, it really became more so that I wanted to see Smashers on that stage again. I had a lot of history watching the old Evo DVDs, so seeing players that I respected, like the gods as we know them now, being mentioned in the same breath as people like Momochi, Daigo, Yipes, so on and so forth, [was appealing].
2013, Part 2: Mang0's first win
Prior to Evo 2013, Joseph "Mang0" Marquez, one of the Smash "gods" from Southern California, dominated tournaments leading up to the event. But Mang0 did not seem to be the favorite following his play on Saturday, the second to last day of the event. In the winners bracket, Mang0 lost to Robert "Wobbles" Wright, moving down into the losers bracket where he faced Zachary "SFAT" Cordoni in a close series to qualify for top eight.
On Sunday, he defeated Mustafa "Ice" Akcakaya, Kevin "PPMD" Nanney, and finally Hungrybox before moving on to the grand finals. There, he met Wobbles again, who had not dropped a single set the entire tournament. Despite having matchup troubles against Ice Climbers, Mang0 took home the win after resetting the bracket.
Many believe this win cemented Mang0 as the best Super Smash Bros. Melee player in the world at the time.
Joseph "Mang0" Marquez (Evo 2013 winner): I was pissed [after losing to Wobbles] and I know Zac [SFAT] should've beat me too. I wasn't too worried about Wobbles [the second time], but there were so many people to beat to get there. I knew after I f----d up Ice in top eight, that I was playing good enough to win.
Robert "Wobbles" Wright (Evo 2013 runner-up): I'm up there and I'm like, 'I'm here, this is it. I did it. I made it. I get at least two sets of being up here and everyone looking, and I beat Mang0 and a bunch of great players, so I know I earned it. I'm having an amazing time.' There was no way I could lose; there was no way for me to lose the weekend, there's no loss for me at that point. ... When you feel great, nerves don't feel like anxiety, they just feel like excitement and exhilaration.
Wynton "Prog" Smith (Melee commentator): Mang0 is one of those guys who you always know is capable of taking an event. Even at the present where he's not as consistent as he's expected to be, he's always a tournament threat. Armada, leading up to Evo 2013, was still that guy. There was no clear favorite, but no one was surprised if Mang0 took it.
2014: Making history, back to back
Earlier in the 2014, Armada returned from retirement. Upon his return at European tournament B.E.A.S.T. 4, he was defeated by William "Leffen" Hjelte, a newcomer who was achieving greatness with impressive wins. Neither were as good as Mang0, who was on a tear leading up to Evo.
Without dropping a single set, Mang0 made it to the grand finals of the tournament, beating fellow "gods" Mew2King and Hungrybox in the process. He would ultimately rematch against Hungrybox and beat him again to earn his second title at Evo. Currently, Mang0 is the only Super Smash Bros. player with two Evos titles.
Joseph "Mang0" Marquez (Evo 2014 winner): I didn't really think about [repeating] at the time. Melee wasn't -- it was a simpler time back in the day. It wasn't as crazy. I actually played so bad at [Evo] 2014, that trophy, I don't even like it. Because I played so terrible but won somehow, because everyone else was so bad and Hungrybox took out Armada for me. It was the freest big tournament I've ever won.
Wynton "Prog" Smith (Melee commentator): I try not to go in with too many expectations, especially for events I commentate, because you don't want to hype yourself up and plan out this huge storyline for something that may or may not happen. As someone who has watched, you think of people who repeated Evo, that's a really, really short list and the people who are up there: Perfect Legend, Sonic Fox, Justin Wong, those are paragons of fighting game in general. Knowing that that kind of history was on the table, and seeing him take it, it was astounding.
2015: Armada cements himself as the GOAT
The year of the Swedes. Leading into Evo 2015, Melee's third consecutive year at the event, Leffen was the favorite. He won Community Effort Orlando a month prior to the event so it was safe to assume he would win Evo too.
That didn't pan out and instead his domestic opponent from Sweden, Armada, quickly became the favorite. Leffen lost a set in the winners bracket versus Hungrybox and then another against Justin "Plup" McGrath, who also beat Mang0 earlier.
Armada, composed and reserved, defeated both PPMD and Hungrybox, the latter in the grand finals, to win his first Evo crown. This victory, for many, cemented Armada as the greatest Super Smash Bros. Melee player of all-time.
Adam "Armada" Lindgren (Evo 2015 winner): I hadn't won a supermajor since I came back [from retirement]; I won some tournaments like CEO 2014 but I didn't get any of the big, big ones. For me, it was a mentality thing, to prove to myself that I could win an Evo, a Big House, a Genesis or whatever it is. And once I got that win, it was a huge relief. I proved to myself that I could do it. After I won that one, I never had any doubts again on my own abilities.
Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma (Evo 2015 runner-up): [Armada] just plays a little bit better than me. He beats me; he gets his first Evo win. I was just happy for him, I held his arm up, this guy deserves it, he's the best.
Kris "Toph" Aldenderfer (Melee commentator): There was a lot of adaptation that occurred during the set. I remember Hungrybox was really big on ledge camping back then, but Armada had a really stable answer to it. It was also cool seeing Armada finally win a really big tournament, or at least win an Evo, because it was sort of the [Christopher "ChrisG" Gonzalez] factor, where [Armada] was kind of this uncrowned king. Armada felt like he had been solidly number one in the world for chunks of time. At that point, he was probably number one in the world skill wise, so I was really happy for him. And I felt like for him too, it felt like a big weight was lifted off his shoulders when he won the tournament.
2016: Hungrybox ascends, Evo and Melee graduate
In Jan. 2016, it was announced that Evo's Sunday finals event would be held at the 12,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center. For the first time, the fighting game event, which started in hotel ballrooms and small spaces, graduated into one of Vegas' marquee arenas. Melee was then announced to be one of Sunday's games.
The event goes down as the most attended Melee and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U tournaments of all time, featuring 2,637 entrants for Melee and 2,350 for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.
Hungrybox clawed out of the losers bracket and beat Johnny "S2J" Kim and Mang0 to earn his way to the losers finals. There, he beat Plup in a rematch to make it to the grand finals. The set to follow, a grand finals rematch of Evo 2015 with Armada, was a back-and-forth set that saw Hungrybox reset the bracket. With some smart play, Hungrybox won his first Evo and celebrated in a monumental and unforgettable moment.
Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma (Evo 2016 winner): I sat down, [Armada and I] were both smiles because we knew this was the biggest stage of our lives. I said, "Alright, Armada, whoever wins this is the best player in the world. Deal?" And he says deal. He was up something obscene. In every other tournament, I'd just accept my loss, but something about this tournament, I was like "Do not give it to him." That phrase was in my head the last few minutes of that match.
Adam "Armada" Lindgren (Evo 2016 runner-up): I remember, I felt in the first set of grand finals, I needed to step it up quite a bit. I hadn't played Fox for the entire tournament, which is tricky with Hungrybox as he's one of the few players who forces my Fox out. It's hard to beat people who really, really want to win, who never give up. Hungrybox's desire to win, I feel like that was the biggest difference. I really wanted to win as well, but Hungrybox placing second at two Evos in a row, I feel like his desire was even bigger than mine, which was impressive.
Kris "Toph" Aldenderfer (Melee commentator): It was surreal. It was a different narrative than what you usually see out of [Hungrybox]. It really did feel like Armada was going to win. When Hungrybox made like two or three reads in a row to reset the bracket, it was pretty crazy. Armada felt like the projected winner up until he lost the tournament. Even the way Armada handled the loss, he was just kind of sitting there. He looked like he was in disbelief.