A few years ago, Toronto hosted a large-scale video game convention called EGLX. Unlike Fan Expo Canada, which focused on pop culture while gaming took a back seat, EGLX was centred predominantly on esports and the general video game audience.
However, after COVID-19, Enthusiast Gaming, the company behind the convention, underwent new leadership, and, as a result, EGLX was seemingly discontinued.
Fan Expo Canada didn’t fill that gap, either, as last year had virtually no gaming programming. This was the same convention that once had both Kingdom Hearts 3 and Final Fantasy VII Remake available for the general public to play before anyone else in Canada.
Since EGLX and Fan Expo Canada were dead avenues, I forgot what it felt like to attend an actual video game convention. That was until recently when I had the chance to compete at this year’s EVO Japan, one of the biggest fighting game esports tournaments in the world.
Cue the Rocky training montage
I’ll start off by saying that I am not an esports player.
In fact, I’m not super into fighting games, partially due to growing up with handheld games throughout my childhood. As a result, my only fighting game history consists of Super Smash Bros. (predominantly Brawl) and the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai series on the PlayStation 2.
Despite this, my friend who I was visiting in Japan pitched the idea to compete at EVO for fun with a bunch of his other buddies and see the competitive matches. Who knows, maybe one of us can make it out of our bracket? However, you’d be safer to bet on winning the lottery than me collecting a win.
Adding to my already difficult task was the fact that I had to choose a completely new game that I had no familiarity since Dragon Ball FighterZ or Super Smash Bros. Ultimate weren’t options at this tournament.
The fighting games you could choose from included Melty Blood: Type Lumina, Tekken 7, The King of Fighters XV, Guilty Gear Strive, Street Fighter V, Virtua Fighter 5 and GranBlue Fantasy Versus. Out of all those games, I selected to compete in Guilty Gear Strive.
Before the tournament, my only knowledge about Guilty Gear was from my friend group, but my interest never grew beyond that. As a result, I had no idea what I was getting into. Thankfully, Xbox chief Phil Spencer sponsored me by bringing Guilty Gear Strive to Xbox Game Pass, so I wasn’t paying full price just to practice a game I might drop after the competition.
This meant I had around two weeks to intensively train and learn the mechanics of Guilty Gear Strive. Unfortunately, due to circumstances that were mostly out of my control, I ended up practicing just three hours before the tournament started.
The significance of relationships between companies and consumers
The first day of EVO Japan was definitely remarkable for the scenery alone.
For the first time, I was travelling (as a passenger) on the Tokyo highways, which was surreal to me as I had only experienced it through video games. Around the convention centre were palm trees and a lake, adding to the overall atmosphere. It was a place more than worthy to hold a fighting game tournament.
However, I was more surprised at the crowds that were attending EVO Japan. I expected there to be lots of people, but I didn’t fully grasp how many would attend the first day, especially since it fell on a Friday.
The overall area was about the same size as the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s South Building’s Level 800 (where Fan Expo is held), so it was impressive how crowded the EVO show floor was.
However, what shocked me most during the entire EVO weekend was Sony. Although I knew the company co-owns EVO, I wasn’t expecting it to have such a big presence on the show floor. Sony provided new headsets and monitors for the competitors to use, had multiple booths with Street Fighter 6, giveaways for merch like fighting buttons and t-shirts, and big raffle draws for the PlayStation 5. Besides Sony, Capcom had its own area reserved just for Street Fighter 6 betas, and Bandai Namco also had a cool booth where attendees can try out an early build of Tekken 8, though you had to pre-register to participate.
Seeing these booths reminded me how gaming companies can genuinely connect with the gaming community, an aspect that the previous Canadian events sorely lacked. What some corporations don’t realize is that these game demos at these public events can convince people to pick up your titles.
A good personal example is Street Fighter 6. While I was slightly interested in it (I don’t have a long history with the series besides Street Fighter 2), seeing how stylish the game is and playing against friends convinced me to give this title a shot.
David vs. Goliath
Though touring the booths was fun, it was time to get down to the actual tournament.
To my shock, Guilty Gear Strive had a lot of competitors, with over 20 tables dedicated to pools. Going in with three hours to my name didn’t exactly instill confidence, but at the very least, I had the support of my friend and a couple of others that I talked to before my bracket started.
Surprisingly, I got further in my pools than I originally thought, making it to the quarter-finals and solidifying my place in the competitive gaming community.
What was the flipside? I was promoted to the quarter-finals by default and then lost all of my matches as each of my opponents showed no mercy against this beginner esports player (or “noob” for short).
As one friend I made during the event said, “I got a lot of balls” to try this at EVO, though I don’t think Andrew “DrewBlue” Mohan will make another competitive appearance in Japan anytime soon. However, this event taught me to really appreciate the esports community scene in Japan.
There is a level of elitism in the gaming community as a whole that’s highlighted on social media, whether it’s the accessibility issues in games or, more specifically, disregarding players based on their appearance. But in Japan, you’re respected as a competitor whether you’re a salaryman coming from work, a supportive partner, or a foreigner wearing a slightly tight Cyberpunk 2077 jacket.
The importance of video game expos
Despite my valiant effort at the tournament, I had lots of fun during the weekend, whether it was playing more Street Fighter 6 with pals, practicing Guilty Gear Strive at the game stations to improve my skills and get a win, or participating with those loud balloon thundersticks in the audience.
It also made me realize just how important video game-specific conventions are in Canada, even if it’s an esports-focused event with some content for the casual video game audience. There’s a human connection that you can’t get anywhere else, whether it’s something small like drinking dodgy energy drink samples or playing old GameCube games at the gaming stations with friends until closing.
Admittedly, EVO Japan is an established competition and can secure big company sponsorships. However, I think another convention similar to EGLX would be appreciated. Thankfully, another well-known esports tournament called ‘Get On My Level’ is coming to Toronto this year and I’m hoping it’ll satisfy that emptiness that EVO Japan helped cure. My highlights were the interactions and forming a comradery with fellow attendees.
Reflecting on my experience, there is one simple conclusion that I have from my experiences in Japan: Canada needs more video game expos.