The problems with taking EVO 2020 online

EVO, the world’s biggest fighting game tournament, has joined the ranks of other gaming conventions in canceling their meatspace event this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Instead, they have decided to take the entire competition online.

In theory, this is a great idea. Everyone still gets to compete, we still get to watch, and it might even open up the competition to some new and upcoming talent that didn’t have the money to fly to Vegas. Several locals have been taken online with great results, drawing in new competitors and seeing record numbers on Twitch, so it should be the same for majors… right?

Not so fast. While having an online EVO is great on paper, in practice it’s going to take a HUGE amount of problem solving to get done. In fact, we can think of several problems that EVO staff is going to have to contend with, problems that we aren’t even sure we have a solution to. Here are just a couple.

The netcode problem

First and foremost, the biggest issue with playing fighting games online - the netcode. Without mincing words, the netcode in all the chosen EVO nine, sucks. Some games, like Smash Ultimate and Samurai Shodown are barely playable at all online. Heck, you can’t even buy a version of Marvel 2 that has online capabilities anymore! The best netcode probably belongs to Street Fighter V: Champion Edition and that’s only if all competitors are using the PC version and a fan-made netcode fix.

Remember, EVO isn’t a local. It’s meant to bring together the best competitors from across the globe. While you might be able to get great connections and matches between players within the range of, say, a city, you will never be able to get a high quality match from New York to Japan or California to France. At least not with current netcode.

There have been suggestions to try third party streaming platforms, like Parsec, but those present their own problems and still can’t quite handle long distance connections. Though, the argument is, if both players connect to a third EVO computer they would at least deal with similar latency. Then again, one player can be more local to said computer, which once again will confer them an advantage.

As we said before, we don’t have a good solution to this. There are games, such as Mortal Kombat 11, Killer Instinct, and Skullgirls which have netcode that can handle smooth competitive long-distance matches, but none of them are on the EVO lineup. Maybe EVO will have to change their lineup, for this year only. In fact, there are already memes circulating around the internet about what the EVO lineup would look like if it consisted only of games with good netcode.

To be honest… I’d be OK with this lineup.

Or maybe EVO will end up only doing local divisions and postponing championship matches until later in the year when, hopefully, we can meet face to face again.

Either way, it’s clear that EVO would not be having this problem if fighting game developers took the need for good online play more seriously.

The spectator and commentary problem

Let’s say that all these games had good netcode. That’s not enough to run a good tournament. They also need a good spectator and lobby system. Why?

First, we have commentators to think about. Commentators must be able to watch a match in progress, stream that match to a Twitch audience, and… you know… comment on it without affecting the gameplay of the match in any way. In addition, they must be able to do this for every match without needing to connect back up to a new room in between.

This is a problem because spectator mode, like many online features, is an afterthought in most fighting games including the big EVO nine. Heck, some of these games barely have working lobbies to begin with! In a pre-outbreak age we were more than happy to deal with random lobby disconnects because we knew that our major tournaments were all going to be played in meatspace. But taking a tournament online requires a level of stability that, frankly, the major games of EVO just don’t have.

But once again, this could be solved with third party programs. Competitors could, for example, just feed a direct video stream of their gameplay to the commentators. However, this would put a HUGE technical load on each and every competitor, and frankly it seems like it’s too much to ask.

The outside interference problem

Major fighting game tournaments are huge events, but they also have staff, organizers, security, all sorts of people to manage the chaos that comes with huge events. The internet, however, is an even bigger place, and chaos reigns supreme.

Let me ask you something. How often have you tried to get into an online game with your friends only to have a rando show up and spoil the fun. Sure you can kick him, but someone will come right back in. You can password protect your games, but even those can be cracked with little effort.

Once again, all of this is well and good for casual play but in a tournament where thousands to millions of dollars are on the line, you can’t have XxOmegaStevexX busting down the door to your Street Fighter V: Champion Edition lobby during finals. In meatspace a rowdy fan would just be kicked out and barred by security, but in the digital world the best we can do is kick him from a room and reset a password. There is no credible threat that EVO can lay on them in digital space. They can’t have their account banned. They can’t really threaten any consequences.

This means that one particularly determined troll can ruin an entire tournament. He can connect to a room to prevent competitors from coming in. He can join in matches under false names. Sure EVO can password protect their lobbies, as we said before, but what if a salty competitor leaks the password? Now everyone on the internet knows. Do you know how long it will take to set up a new room with a new password and then distribute that password to all competitors, only to possibly be leaked again!?

The cheating problem

Holding a tournament in a digital space also greatly increases the chance that any single competitor would cheat. We don’t think that any of the big name sponsored competitors would dare cheat, but EVO is a tournament open to all entrants, and there are definitely randos on the internet that would cheat.

How might they cheat, you say? Well let’s start with controllers.  Controller use is strictly monitored at events like EVO. You can’t use controllers that allow for turbo functions or macros or anything that a default console controller or arcade setup couldn’t do. In meatspace, ensuring this is as easy as having tournament officials look at your controllers before you start playing. In digital space, there’s no way they can do this. So if you want to enter with a modified controller that gives you a competitive edge, you can, and there’s nothing EVO can do about it.

Then there’s the matter of the bracket. In meatspace tournaments you have to show up to your matches, so it’s easy to verify your identity. In digital tournaments, there’s very little stopping you from entering multiple times under multiple names, giving you more chances to win. They can ask for e-mail verification, but that can be easily faked. They can ask for more identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, but people might hesitate to give out that info online, and it would take time to verify everyone’s identity before the tournament, time that EVO doesn’t have right now.

There are all manner of other ways to cheat in online fighting games. The infamous lag switch can allow you to drop and restart connections as you like. Programs like Cheat Engine can allow you to very subtly alter your character to slightly increase your performance, making your hits do just a little more damage or gaining just a little more meter. If a cheater is particularly dedicated, they can try to flood a user’s personal computer with connections, making them lag out of a match and be disqualified. Yes, a lot of these methods would take a ton of effort, but there are millions of dollars on the line and disgruntled 4chan users have done less to people who piss them off in forum conversations. Never underestimate how crappy people can be on the internet.

What can EVO do about it? Well they can remain vigilant, ban and disqualify anyone they see cheating, but even then players can be caught much after their matches, which could cause huge bracket resets, which might require rematches, which would make players who already won upset, and so on. The point is, it could be a huge disruption to the tournament if even one player cheats, and without an effective way to stop cheating beforehand, as EVO can do in meatspace by checking controllers and actually, you know, looking at competitors to verify who they are, then the door is open to a lot more cheating than EVO has ever dealt with before.

The platform problem

Here’s a question, what platform will all the EVO games be played on? Most people would kneejerk say “PS4” since that’s the platform that they were going to be played on before the Vegas event was canceled.

But it’s not that simple for online tournaments. You see, many of the competitors at EVO practice their games of choice on all sorts of different platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, you name it. When they come to EVO to participate, all they need is a controller converter, which at most will run them $20.

Now let’s take the same scenario. Let’s say that online EVO is running on a PS4, but you are someone who plays Street Fighter V on an Xbox One. What will you need to buy to compete? Well, you’ll have to get a PS4, and pay for PlayStation Plus in order to get online, and then you’ll have to get your controller of choice or a converter for your existing controllers, and then you’ll have to buy the game. All of this will run you hundreds of dollars on top of EVO’s entrance fees! That’s simply going to be outside of the realm of feasibility for many contenders, even many pros.

There are a couple solutions to this problem. Sponsored players can have their sponsor buy their setups for them. EVO can also provide setups to players they want to invite. However, you have to remember that EVO became so big because it let anyone compete, and it kind of goes against that spirit when only people who can afford a very specific console can compete. Then again, only people who could afford a trip to Vegas could compete when the tournament was being held in meatspace, so maybe this isn’t all that different.

That’s the major platform problem. In tournament at a venue, EVO can provide everything. They provide the monitors, consoles, hell even if you didn’t have a controller you could probably bum one off someone (speaking from experience here). But now players have to provide everything themselves. Even if EVO could ship out setups to people, what do they provide? Do they pay for the console, game, online service? Do they go so far as to provide an actual online connection? It seems like there’s just no way to solve this problem without someone getting left behind.

The Marvel 2 problem

Here’s one of the most depressing problems that EVO has to face in doing an online tournament. They were going to have Marvel 2 tournament of champions in celebration of its 20th anniversary this year. However, it was going to be played on a Dreamcast. The Dreamcast, unfortunately, cannot play Marvel 2 online.

So of course the best possible solution is to use the most recent Marvel 2 online edition released for the PS3 and Xbox 360, but once again you can’t purchase those games anymore and their netcode is pretty horrible.

There is another solution, though. EVO can shift the Marvel 2 tournament to emulators. There are actually emulators that run Marvel 2 silky smooth and use GGPO netcode to provide an amazing online experience on PC.

… but…

As I’m sure you know, Emulators are in a grey space in terms of legality. Technically if all competitors owned a copy of Marvel 2, then it should be legal. But it’s unclear if they would need to own a copy specifically for the system that ends up being emulated. It’s also unclear if EVO could just “provide” copies legally, as they do for their tournaments at actual venues. It’s a sticky situation, and one that EVO probably doesn’t want to deal with. However, it may be the only way to still see a Marvel 2 tournament happen.  

The payout problem

Finally, we have one of the biggest problems with an online EVO: the money. Again, there are thousands to millions of dollars on the line with all of EVO’s tournaments put together. When EVO is held in a tournament venue in Las Vegas, then it has to abide by all the rules and laws of gambling in Las Vegas, which of course are some of the most lax rules in America, if not the world.

However, an international online tournament is different. You’ll have competitors from all different countries joining in, and they will all live in places with vastly different laws about gambling. There are many places in which actually winning money from EVO might be illegal. All of this is stuff that EVO has to figure out in the timespan of three months, just three months, without the ability to see anyone face to face. It’s not an easy problem to solve, and we don’t envy them in the least.