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EVO Online shows there's more value than ever in good online play

It's no coincidence that EVO Online has added four games that happen to have great netcode. More than ever, it's looking like strong online play will be a critical component for any fighting game that wants to have a competitive scene.

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The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a new reality for the competitive gaming world. Live events have been cancelled all across the globe. The esports world is still going, but now every major event is happening online. EVO has proven to be no exception. Often the renegades of the competitive gaming scene, even the fighting game community has had to make adjustments to suit a COVID-19 reality. And one of those adjustments has been placing a greater priority than ever before on games with good netcode.

That's evident in the new EVO Online lineup unveiled late Wednesday evening. Much of the original lineup is intact. There's Street Fighter V: Champion Edition, Tekken 7, SoulCalibur VI, and Samurai Shodown, just to name a few. In fact, now that the event has shifted entirely online, the folks behind EVO have stretched it out over an entire month, adding four new games to the lineup.

Those four games are Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath, Killer Instinct, Them's Fightin' Herds, and Skullgirls: 2nd Encore. It was interesting to see Mortal Kombat 11 again after it was initially snubbed. So why the sudden 180? It's not just that there's suddenly room for more games, though that does have something to do with it. But MK11 shares something in common with the other three games on this list. It has some of the best online play across all fighting games.

Over the years, fighting games have been built on the principle of strong local versus play. It's an idea that dates back to the old arcade days, where two people would plunk in a quarter and see their opponent eye-to-eye. It's extended into competitive tournaments, before the word "esports" even entered the gaming lexicon. Competitive fighting game tournaments were crafted on the foundation of two players facing off in close proximity. It made fighting games unique, because it was more than just exhibiting in-game skill. It was also about being a master of psychology, as well as a charismatic figure. And it was about a community sharing in the experience.

We've seen amazing fighting game moments over the years. EVO Moment 37, where Daigo Umehara hit the immaculate parries against Justin Wong, immediately comes to mind and introduced competitive fighting games to millions around the world. They've extended into the modern era through moments like SonicFox getting serious at EVO 2016, Justin Wong doing a barrel roll after winning Marvel at EVO 2014, ESAM's popoff at 2GG Civil War, and that's just scratching the surface. Nobody wants to see moments like that end. We want to see more of them. But the reality is, nobody knows when (or if) competitive gaming tournaments like EVO will ever go back to normal.

This is our current reality, one where the fight must go online. The live theatrics must be put aside, as the beloved personalities of the FGC put on their headsets for long-distance battles. A greater number of games are already equipped for this scenario. The four aforementioned Open Online tournaments all play seamlessly online. That's why they were added to the lineup. And conversely, that's why Super Smash Bros. Ultimate appears to have been removed.

There's been so much said about Ultimate's terrible netcode since the game's release. None have been louder about its problems than the competitive Smash scene. They're the ones who have struggled to practice in lag-filled environments. Tournament organizers have tried to keep the scene going through online events, only to have them fall apart due to poor latency or total disconnects. It's been called unplayable by some players. Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios drew attention to the topic recently on Twitter and it's one that's still fresh on nearly every competitive Smash player's mind.

Super Smash Bros. has been one of EVO's biggest draws. It's set records on more than one occasion. But that was a different time, a different reality. To put Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on display with its online play in its current state would have been an embarrassment.

The funny thing is that even with Smash's removal, embarrassment is still very much on the table. Online play for a number of the featured fighting games... is not great. Street Fighter fans know all-too-well that Street Fighter V's netcode isn't particularly good. Ditto for Tekken 7, Samurai Shodown, and Dragon Ball FighterZ. Considering that these developers often use EVO as a platform for exciting announcements and as an avenue to attempt to sell more copies of their game, a disastrous online tournament could prove to be a bad look for them and could affect any sales bump they were hoping to get.

Fighting game guru Maximilian Christiansen spelled it out on YouTube. EVO isn't supposed to be a local or a regional. This is supposed to be the biggest international fighting game event in the world. A game's netcode must theoretically be able to support that or else it's inevitably going to lead to embarrassment, controversy, or both. It's easy to pit Tokido against NuckleDu in Street Fighter V when they're in the same room. It's not so easy when they're half a world apart.

Few understand the importance of strong netcode like Lab Zero Games' Mike Zaimont. He's still making netcode updates to Skullgirls: 2nd Encore, nearly seven years after its release. And he knows that for fighting games, big and small, online play is a critical component for success.

Skullgirls 2nd Encore
Skullgirls 2nd Encore

"Good online play is perhaps the most important feature for smaller games, because in many places there is probably not a critical mass of players who all live in the same vicinity," Zaimont told Shacknews. "I've been to more than a few gatherings, from the rural US to Israel, where the local fighting game players told me that - outside of gatherings - they played a game they didn't all like very much just because it had the biggest online community so they were able to find more close-by online matches with acceptable connections. Using GGPO for Skullgirls lets California play Europe, or Japan play the US, and means that players aren't just limited to fighting the CPU if they can't find people within 50 miles. A game you like having rollbacks means that if you're the only person in your town that plays, you can still play!"

The additions of Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath, Killer Instinct, Them's Fightin' Herds, and Skullgirls: 2nd Encore shows that EVO knows where the future lies with competitive fighting games. Assuming normalcy isn't on the horizon, fighting games need to be crafted with good netcode that allows for international competition to take place. North American developers have come to understand that lag-filled messes aren't any fun to play and definitely aren't fun to watch. So they've increasingly adopted rollback netcode, like what's offered with GGPO. Unfortunately, the biggest games at EVO mostly come from Japan, which is stuck on an archaic input delay-based system. Worst case scenario, this will lead to disaster.

But the best case is a window into a better future for competitive fighting games, as we go out on a quote from Adam Heart of Iron Galaxy, the developers of Killer Instinct.

"It’s great to see EVO giving games that are renowned for great netcode slots in the first ever EVO Online event," Heart told Shacknews. We hope for a future in which all fighting games have the best online play possible."

One of the fighting game community's greatest principles is that in order to win, one must adapt. In order for the competitive scene to survive, more than ever, they are going to have to adapt to this rapidly-changing reality. That goes for fighting game developers, as well. If the future is online, then both existing and future games must adapt accordingly. Otherwise, that game will have no competitive future. And when EVO Online happens in July, viewers may be witness to what games have competitive futures.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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