The Evolution Championship Series attracts the world's best competitive fighters.
Patrons at The Blurry Pixel in Ottawa. Image: Marc Shaw
Competitive gamers from around the world were in Las Vegas over the weekend for the Evolution Championship Series (EVO), the biggest fighting game tournament in the world, competing in titles like Mortal Kombat XL, Killer Instinct and Street Fighter V.
On Saturday, I found myself slouched over a barstool at The Blurry Pixel in the Canadian capital of Ottawa—an eSports bar that's staking its future on competitive gaming.
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The Blurry Pixel, which is in a second story walk-up in the city's downtown, and serves cocktails with names like "Health Potion" alongside the beer on tap, has been open for less than a year. Like any other sports bar, it offers a space for people to enjoy competition with friends and fans, or even to play some casual games themselves on one of the several consoles that line the walls.
EVO 2016 was a big night for eSports fans, with a record-breaking number of entrants in Street Fighter V alone (over 5,000), and the announcement that there will now be an EVO Japan. (The details will be revealed at the Tokyo Game Show in September.)
That growth is thanks to ever-expanding prize money, which is bringing out international top players. Mainstream sports media is paying attention. Last year's Guilty Gear Xrd event had a highlight end up on SportsCenter, and this year's Street Fighter V finals were broadcast on ESPN2.
Blurry Pixel owner Vincent Johnston, 27, told me why he felt Ottawa was ready for an eSports bar. "I was sitting in my buddy's basement watching a League of Legends stream while playing some board games and we were running out of beer. We were hungry and didn't want to leave. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be sweet if we could just go to a bar and get them to play the League of Legends stream?" he said. "Then I thought, I've owned my own business, I've worked in restaurants, I could probably do that."
Bars where the staff aren't knowledgeable about eSports have struggled when dealing with patrons looking to watch events. As an avid gamer and eSports fan, Johnston has an edge.
I headed to The Blurry Pixel on Saturday thinking there would be a lot of likeminded people there hoping to watch this year's Super Smash Bros. Wii U final, where Montreal's Ally became the first Canadian to win an EVO event in the tournament's history.
Sitting at the bar eating my chili cheese dog—known throughout the gaming world as Sonic the Hedgehog's favourite food—I met a group from New York. I started talking with Charles Anderson, 19, a student at Clarkson University in upstate New York who identifies as a big fan of eSports, specifically Counterstrike: Go.
Fighting games aren't his genre of choice, but he was still into the Super Smash Bros. Melee stream.
"I'm a first person shooter guy. I definitely wouldn't be watching a Smash Bros. stream at home but, because there's a lot of people talking about it [here], it's more interesting. Sitting at the bar, my friend was explaining to me who was fighting who, and what was going down," said Anderson. "The people around me are really into it, and it feeds into my enthusiasm."
Other patrons had similar stories. They were big fans of non-fighting eSports, but had come to The Blurry Pixel for the atmosphere. The fighting game community, which has long existed on the periphery of eSports, is moving into the mainstream with huge events like EVO. Capturing local fighting game fans is high on Johnston's priority list.
"Fighting games are more instinctive and in-the-moment, I think that's why people get so hyped about them. They're very fast, skill-intensive games. I think that pairs well with the atmosphere of a bar," said Johnston.
The Blurry Pixel hosts the weekly tournaments for 613 Smash, Ottawa's competitive Smash Bros. community. It's broadcast live on Twitch.tv every Monday night and consistently sees 50 to 90 people showing up to play.
I talked with Jérémie Meloche, who had stopped by with a friend to get some food and charge their phones. (Their batteries were drained from playing Pokémon Go.)
"Sure I love playing games, but I'm not the best. Seeing someone that's better gives me a goal. I may never be that good, but goddamnit is it fun to watch," said Meloche, who got his start watching eSports during the League of Legends World Championship in 2014.
As a fighting game fanatic, I was pretty surprised by the traditional eSports community's ambivalence towards fighting games.
Anyone who saw the emotion on Hungrybox's face as he defeated current EVO Smash Bros. Melee reigning champ Armada can't deny the fierceness of the world's best gamers. For Street Fighter V fans, Infiltration's win at EVO is just another part of the Capcom Pro Tour and a stepping stone on the way to the Capcom Cup, which will be having the a qualifying event in Toronto this October at the Canada Cup.
It'll be interesting to see if more places like The Blurry Pixel spring up as people start believing the fighting game, hype and getting together to watch the events.