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EVO Online: Death, Rebirth and the problem of netcode in a pandemic society

Evo Online is the online (duh) version of the Las Vegas tournament. If you are into fighting games you surely know what it is; and even if you never touched an arcade stick you surely have heard of it: and that shows how big and important EVO is. But the previous iteration was suddenly cancelled, and now the event have been purchased by Sony and RTS. Before seeing what happened to EVO and what to expect for the 2021 version starting in August, we have first to look at what online gaming means for fighting games

Rolling back the netcode

The pandemic hit hard fighting games. Offline events were cancelled. Weekly and monthly events and meetups disappeared. All that remained was online gaming. And it wasn’t good.

Your brain online is like

Fighting games are a genre that relies on fast decision-making and precise inputs. Players reason in frames, 1/60 of a second. Having a bad netplay infrastructure means pratically playing another game.

The most common network infrastructure is called “delay based” netcode, and that’s bad for fighting games. To simplify, delay based network artifically “delays” the inputs processed by the players by a number of frames depending on quality connection. This completely change the playing experience, as it delays timings in combo, reactions and general gameplay. But that’s not the worst: that’s the consistency.

As the game waits for the (delayed) inputs to arrive, what happens when there is a spike in the internet connection? It has to wait, causing the game to freeze, chug and slow. In addition to this, it increases the delay frame in order to to avoid those issue, making the game nearly unplayable.

But there is a solution: it’s called rollback netcode, and it’s not even something new (GGPO was created more than 10 years ago)

Here’s how it works: the netcode will not delay inputs, but take them as they are. When one of the players will lag behind the game simulation, it will “roll back” back to the last time the game was stable. The game is therefore stable to play, even if it can show “skips” during high peak lag.

Now, this is just an overview, but you can find a detailed and professional explanation here that I suggest for you to read, thanks to ArsTechnica. But what this difference meant for the FGC?

Fighting Games go Lockdown

Meanwhile, in Italy…

Suddenly, everyone was locked into their houses. Events and tournaments were canceled, while Tokyo tried to pretend the pandemic didn’t existed until the last minute. Fighting games, due to their reliability on small inputs, were usually considered a social hobby from their birth in the arcades, but now that this aspect was not there, they were forced to focus in the online world. And it didn’t went well.

Street Fighter moved the Capcom Tour entirely online, with issues and players refusing to play laggy matches. Other games were hit harder: Granblue Fantasy Versus came out just before the Covid, and suffered from that moment on, being forced to move in an enviroment where it couldn’t shine. The game suffers from delay-based netcode, exactly like most japanese games.

Blessed by one of the best internet connection and geographically close spaces, Japanese fighting game devs never felt the need to implement a different solution. After all, delay-based netcode is incredibly simple to implement, especially compared to rollback that needs a lot of coding and additional thoughts during the development of the game itself.

But Japan is not the only market, and it took 30 years for the dev to notice. The ambassador in this is Guilty Gear Strive, who opened to the oversea market and listened to the feedback, changing the game mid development. I already talked about STRIVE and the implementation of rollback, so feel free to take a look if you are interested on how fans changed a game.

We risked for this to be only a dream

The cancellation of physical EVO was an hard hit for the fans, but not all was lost, as EVO online was announced.

And then exploded.

But let’s see what happened and how it dealt with the netcode issue

EVO goes online and then explode

EVO Online was suddenly announced, and everyone rejoiced. There was something strange in the announcement tho. The main games were not actually playable: they were exibitions. As those games were still based on delay netcode (or on a version of rollback badly implemented), the organizers tried to avoid all the issues of a big tournament by still keeping those main games in a more controlled way. Four tournaments were free and open instead, they took everyone by surprise. Them’s Fighting Herds. Skullgirls. Killer Instinct. And Mortal Kombat. Small indie games (save the last) and forgotten titles: why was that? The reason is simple: they all had rollback. Smash Bros. instead didn’t even appeared in the exibition matches, even if it was the biggest title at EVO the past years. The netcode of SSBU is so bad that the top players were actually happy about the whole situation.

The damn stock music make it look like a Kickstarter Trailer

But, as the hype for the event grow bigger as the date closed by, something happened.

Joey Cullar, co-founder of EVO, was accused of sexual misconduct in the past (talking about 20 years ago). Shortly after, the EVO Online was completely cancelled, leaving the future of the event in balance. Many other people took the oportunity to uncover old skeletons on twitter, sometimes being true and sometimes…not. Drama and discussions on cancel culture or whatever are redundant however: The fact was that EVO Online was cancelled.

Some tournaments managed to happen in some ways, like the Grand Stampede for TFH, but most of them went silent, just like EVO future.

Until now

It’s the Rize of the Fenix

And then, yesterday Came the Light

Sony (and RTS) bought EVO. Not only that: EVO Online 2021 was announced, and it already have dates (6-8 and 13-14 of August).

The news suddenly brought happiness and panic: from one side, everyone is happy to see EVO back again, but from the other…Sony? Could it mean that only games sponsored by Sony or playable on PlayStation will be available? Could it mean the end of EVO as we know it?

The answer is: absolutely not.

Not only it was debunked asap by the BizDev of EVO, but Sony was an important partner for EVO for many, many long years. After all, PS3 and PS4 has been the consoles of choice for the event for 10 years, why change now? On the opposite, the acquisition bring more money and resources into the tournament, allowing EVO (and, by conseguence, fighting games) to grow even bigger. After all, while being a fixed point into popular culture (Street Fighter leading the way), fighting games still bring the lowest numbers and money compared to other esport (see the VICE documentary for that, 10 years of EVO not reaching the total value of a single League of Legends Tournament)

The game presented will be both delay based and, most important, rollback based, the full lineup being:

  • Tekken 7
  • Guilty Gear Strive
  • Mortal Kombat 11
  • Street Fighter V

Those are all Open and Free events. More tournament are expected, especially since many big names are missing: we will have to see if Smash Bros will be allowed to return by Nintendo or by the organizer’s will

Conclusion

EVO is the main event for fans and players alike. Seeing EVO return, even if online , can only bring joy to the FGC. It is interesting how it managed to select games for this new online challenge, and we will have to see what the acquisition really means.

All we can do in the meanwhile, is to start training

And as always, thanks for reading

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