Last week, the Evolution Championship Series announced that the main lineup for its 2018 event won't include Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite; I was able to confirm just a few days later that the game will also be left off this year's Capcom Pro Tour. These developments have left Marvel vs. Capcom on life support and its players in a state of shock.
Capcom executive Yoshinori Ono crowns last year's Marvel vs. Capcom champion, Jonathan "Cloud805" Morales (photo c/o Capcom)
"My immediate response was a feeling of sadness," Marvel vs. Capcom competitor and podcast host Hayden "Kinderparty" Griswold told us about the Evo reveal. "I understand that might seem corny, but being a fan of Marvel vs. Capcom the past few years has been an emotional roller coaster. Evo was the only place where we could hang our hats, and for over a decade, it's where we've crowned our champions. That crown, in some regards, means more to our community than any pot bonus, and I could feel the sadness of every player, commentator or creator who had their eyes set on Evo as something to rally around again."
Much like Street Fighter 5, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite had difficulty finding its footing in the fighting game community from the very beginning. While fans were blown away that the franchise was continuing due to the difficulties of working around the Marvel licence, early showings exposed the game as an ugly departure from the series mechanics that players were drawn to in the first place. Upon release, competitors grew to appreciate the free-form two-on-two gameplay, but there was something distinctly Marvel vs. Capcom missing from Infinite.
Even events of Evo's scope would have difficulty catering to every fighting game on the market, but the omission of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite stuck out like a sore thumb. The tournament has featured a Marvel vs. Capcom release at every instalment since 2000, but the franchise has been on shaky ground since having to win its way into Evo 2017 via donation drive. Now, at the community's most prestigious tournament, Infinite has been relegated to a side event at best.
As both a tournament player and host of Marvel LIVE!, Kinderparty is one of the fighting game community's biggest advocates for Marvel vs. Capcom. When it became clear Infinite wouldn't be welcome in Evo's official lineup, his voice was one of the loudest on social media as he rallied the troops. In his mind, now is the time to get affairs in order and decide where they should go next.
"We are more dedicated than ever to making a great side event for Evo 2018, whatever that may come to look like," Kinderparty explained. "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 held out for six long years without developer support, which is basically unheard of in this day and age. We'll learn from our experience as a side event at Evo 2018, and seek to improve the best we can."
There are legitimate reasons, though, that Infinite is running into trouble. It hasn't sold well and wasn't well-received by the community at launch, leading some to call it a "dead game".
Evo's manager of global business development, Mark "MarkMan" Julio, pointed blame at Marvel, but Capcom isn't blameless here either. According to a proposal that was accidentally made public, the company was banking heavily on Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite becoming a reliable vehicle for advertising and sponsorship revenue. Capcom played up the series' history as a staple of the genre while simultaneously ripping out everything - from the comic book aesthetic to the traditional three-on-three format - that made the franchise popular in the first place. The gameplay is serviceable, but developers did everything they could to turn Infinite into a soulless husk of what it once was.
It also didn't help when Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite was effectively hobbled during last year's Battle for the Stones. The game suffered when put up against the Street Fighter 5 finals at Capcom Cup, leading to heavily decreased interest from those in attendance as well as online spectators after being confined to a separate, under-promoted Twitch channel. The event still managed to be exciting thanks to the talented players who qualified to compete, but at the end of the day, its poor execution and marketing gave the appearance that Capcom had very little respect for the game or hope that it would be successful. Without a spot on the 2018 pro tour, those fears have now been realised.
In this atmosphere, Evo head Joey Cuellar posted a tongue-in-cheek poll in December asking if the game was truly dead, pissing off many Marvel vs. Capcom players in the process.
Blowup Tuesday! Is Marvel dead? There was no reveal at Capcom Cup. Only 5K viewers on Twitch. Poor sales. Only 350 people online max. Chime in now!
— Joey Cuellar (@MrWiz) December 12, 2017
His mind hasn't changed since then. "If Marvel's happening in 2018, it's a side tournament, I guess," Cuellar said during the Evo lineup broadcast. "It was on a slippery slope and had a lot of competition, and it just kind of fizzled. It's always been a great game for Evo, it was the main game for eight straight years. But I don't think people are playing it, and that's the problem. We always have to support games people actually play. It just didn't make the cut this year."
While it's true that numbers have dropped off since the release of Dragon Ball FighterZ - which benefits from its mega-popular licence and more traditional Versus elements - the game is popular on a competitive level, with attendance rivalling Tekken 7, Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 and Injustice 2 on several occasions. The idea that Infinite isn't being played at fighting game events is simply untrue.
Another big question is about transparency: How are the Evo games truly chosen? There's a clear discrepancy between snubbing Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite for "low numbers" while also giving a chance to unproven or unreleased games. Injustice 2 was unreleased when it was announced for Evo 2017, BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle is an untested game that will have had only two months to develop by Evo, and Tekken 7 was featured in the main lineup twice while exclusive to Japanese arcades.
Capcom's decision to cut and run is especially worrisome for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite players who had hopes to make competition their livelihood. Richard Nguyen, who was able to sign with a team thanks to his early success in the game, is now forced to call an audible in his burgeoning career by making Dragon Ball FighterZ his primary focus instead.
"It's definitely not a good look for the game to not receive an appearance as a main game for these prestigious tournaments," Nguyen told us. "My plan now is to continue to practise and compete in the games that I find fun, so this will include both Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite and Dragon Ball FighterZ. My emphasis will honestly shift more towards Dragon Ball FighterZ, but I won't drop Infinite completely."
Nguyen is now left hoping that Capcom does something, anything, to increase interest in Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite. This usually comes in the form of downloadable characters and balance patches that keep the game competitive, but the developer has shown no indication that they plan to bolster Infinite with additional content any time soon.
Where Capcom once appeared excited to reinvigorate the Marvel vs. Capcom community with a new game, it looks now as though they are only interested in what they can get out of the game as a marketable esport and not a grassroots competitive title. Their decision to leave Infinite off the pro tour has only cemented Nguyen's increased focus on Dragon Ball FighterZ.
"Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite not being in Capcom Cup is really disappointing," he added. "I felt like the Battle for the Stones finale tournament was really fun, but there were quite a few factors that made it seem unsuccessful. I'm sure the relatively low viewership weighted Capcom's decision to not include Infinite, and that's a travesty, as the game is popular when looking at actual tournament entry counts."
Fun fact: This is the only Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite tournament match uploaded to an official Capcom channel
Since 2015, two spots at Evo have been reserved for a pair of games from the same franchise, Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Removing just one of those games would cut back on attendees and revenue, sure, but it would also open the door to underserved scenes who don't often get a chance to see their favourites played on the main stage. Smash will be fine without Evo, but the same can't be said about King of Fighters, Killer Instinct, Soulcalibur, Under Night In-Birth, or any number of smaller games that have been sacrificed at the altar of esports aspirations.
While tournaments such as Combo Breaker and Community Effort Orlando have stepped up to rival Evo and are even held in higher regard in certain communities, there's no comparing the prestige of its 20 years at the head of the pack. Having your game make the Evo lineup means something. If a champion isn't decided on that main stage, it's almost as if it didn't happen. That's a sea change from Evo's longtime reputation as a place where every franchise in the genre is celebrated through community-run side tournaments. Playing out of love is still a major factor for many competitors, but the fighting game community's transition to respecting metrics like profitability and stream views above all else has made passion a much smaller part of the equation when it comes to what gets attention from major events.
There has been talk of giving some shine to games outside of the main lineup on a separate stage, but it's still unclear how these plans will pan out. Without express blessings from Marvel or Capcom, however, it's hard to see Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite having a tenable future in the modern age of competitive gaming. That said, the fighting game community is used to having to find its own way, and Marvel vs. Capcom proponents are far from giving up despite the forces working against them.
"This does not change my relationship with Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite in the slightest," Kinderparty said. "I understand people have anxiety and concern, but to me, this is a blessing in disguise. It is typical for new games to arrive, out of the box, with a top-down heavy esports model that will dictate the course of a game's future. We have a chance to organically grow with a fantastic title that has a rich competitive history and to me, that opportunity is worth its weight in gold. I hope other players recognise the opportunity we have and continue to capitalise. There is still merit to fighting to be the best Marvel player. There always will be."