No matter what the future brings, Evo clings to its roots

A taste of Evo 2018 (2:16)

ESPN's Arash Markazi takes a stroll around the event floor at the Mandalay Convention Center on the first day of Evo 2018. (2:16)

LAS VEGAS -- Whenever I think of the Evolution Championship Series, I think of James Chen.

The 42-year-old Street Fighter commentator has been at every Evo since the event, which started as the "Battle by the Bay" (B3) in 1996, became the Evolution Championship Series in 2002 and took place in a ballroom at UCLA when the founders pooled $10,000 to put on the multigame tournament. It is now a three-day, multi-million-dollar production held at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, culminating in Championship Sunday at the packed 12,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center.

"We just took a photo yesterday of everybody who has been at all the Evos from 2002 until now," Chen told ESPN on Sunday. "And in that picture, I'm the only one who was at all the Evos and B5, B4 and B3."

For the past eight years as the event has grown larger and Chen tries to sign off on another Evo, he cannot help but lose it as his voice begins to crack and the tears begin to flow. It has become almost as much a part of the fabric of Evo as Street Fighter and Tekken. There's even a compilation of Chen crying at Evo on YouTube.

"I don't want to cry and every year I try so hard not to cry, but I can't help it," Chen said. "I've been playing fighting games forever, and I want the fighting game community to grow so much but there's this weird guilt in my mind that I'm leading people to their doom because the esports world is still unproven and it takes a lot of dedication and people are dedicating their lives to this and to become champions. Everyone in this community is my family, I like seeing them succeed, and I get emotional when they do. The best thing about the fighting game community is its grassroots and it's great when the people who succeed are the ones who love the community."

Chen's annual tears are just one of the many reasons why Evo is my favorite esports event and why I hope it never changes in the midst of a changing esports landscape run by billion-dollar companies.

There is nothing corporate or polished about the sea of gamers from all over the world roaming the concrete convention floor on the first two days of Evo. Each one is a part of a close-knit fighting game community that plays Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, Super Smash Bros. Melee and Dragon Ball Fighter Z, among others, because they love the games, not because esports is the next big thing venture capitalists are throwing millions of dollars at.

The grassroots nature of Evo is on display during the first two days of the competition, which were held at the Las Vegas Convention Center before the whole three-day event moved under one roof at the Mandalay Bay last year. Double-elimination pool play takes place on dozens of tables spread out throughout the convention floor with gamers walking around with their fight sticks under their arms or in their backpacks, waiting to take a seat on one of the folding plastic chairs in front of the CRT TVs. Meanwhile tournament organizers yell out the next matchup participants over the crowd noise like a butcher yelling out numbers in a packed deli, as they look at the tournament bracket on a piece of paper they mark up with a pen after each game.

There were over 11,000 registered competitors at this year's tournament, many of whom entered Evo the same way you would enter to run marathon with your friends. They have no delusions of grandeur that they are going to win, but being a part of the event is an annual tradition circled on their calendar every year. For an $85 registration fee, everyday gamers are able to rub shoulders and go head-to-head with some of the best pro gamers in the world on the floor of Evo.

"We grew up in the arcades so we were about face-to-face and interpersonal interaction," Chen said. "That's the best thing. When you're sitting in the main hall of Evo, the top players are just walking around and you can bump into Daigo and Justin Wong. We're not stuck behind red tape or in VIP areas. In the arcade culture if you put a quarter on the machine, even if you were a stranger, we didn't kick you off because you had a right to play. It's the same way here. If you pay your entry fee, you get to play. In Round 1, you can fight Daigo or Justin Wong. You're a player. It doesn't matter who you are. If you paid, you're a player and no one gets treated special and that's what's so great about the fighting game community. Anybody can enter and anybody has a shot to win."

Chen was laid off two years ago from his software-programming job when he decided to dedicate himself full-time to esports and broadcasting. There are times when he wonders would life would be like if billion-dollar company came in bought Evo, but those thoughts quickly turn to nightmares at the thought of the competition he has seen grow from a college ballroom to a Las Vegas arena loses its identity.

"I'm not going to lie, I'm living off of savings right now," Chen said. "I'm doing this out of love. It would benefit me if there was a lot of money in this but I want this stay homegrown and self-sufficient. In a weird way I'd rather take the hit to allow it to grow organically so that we don't make the mistake of growing so fast and changing what got us to this point."

As Chen looked over the crowd at Evo on Sunday from a suite at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, he couldn't help but start crying again as he put on his tie before taking his seat in the broadcast booth.

"This is already decades ahead of where I thought it would be," Chen said. "If you told me in 2008 that this is where we're be 10 years later, I would have laughed at you. I thought I would be dead and long gone before this kind of thing was happening in the fighting game community. The fact that we are here now and we did it on our own makes me believe this won't go away. Even if someone else takes over, they have to maintain the culture that everybody has a shot and everybody is as equally vital to the fighting game community as everyone else is. That's what makes Evo so great."