To the surprise of nobody, Evo 2020 was cancelled. When the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting, Evo leadership didn’t want to cancel prematurely due to its summer timing. But after a couple of months it became clear it had to happen. Instead of cancelling entirely, Evo decided to run an online event, which caused a bit of consternation. Evo Online was eventually announced, and the most notable thing about it was a total reshuffling of the game lineup. The lineup changed for a specific reason, and one that I find myself wondering if it could have a lasting impact on fighting games going forward.
The word of the day is “rollback.” Before Evo Online was announced, folks were wondering how in the heck Evo-level competition could be held online. The biggest games on the list, such as Street Fighter V and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, don’t have great online experiences. That’s because many fighting games, especially Japanese ones, rely on a delay-based system for their “netcode,” or the way the games deal with online input delay. The problem with delay-based netcode is it really changes how a game feels and performs compared to in-person.
Delay-based netcode, in order to sync the long-distance players together so the game can function as designed, will artificially delay button presses in order to compensate for network instability. While it does the job, it makes the games inaccurate and sometimes unplayable depending on the players’ connections. Another style of netcode has grown to become popular, and it’s called “rollback.” Rollback netcode is quickly becoming the new ideal, although the problem with it is how difficult and costly it is to implement.
Rollback netcode, instead of delaying player inputs, goes ahead and lets the fighters play their games in real time. It tries to use some predictive tech to assume what players might do to keep the game running smoothly, but once it receives the input from both players, the game will then “rollback” to match the reality rather than the prediction or how the game reacted to a player on one side versus the other. Within a frame or so, the game will basically correct itself, which can sometimes be confusing for players or spectators, but ultimately makes sure the game state is accurate. Despite the occasional visual jitter, players much prefer this style to the alternative.
For Evo Online, every big game that uses delay netcode has been removed from the roster. In their places are games that are less popular or older, but use rollback code. Some games like Mortal Kombat 11 use rollback, so that’s at least one current game. Even indie titles like Them’s Fightin’ Herds are included, which is wild. Evo leadership has made it clear that Evo Online is not meant to replace what would have been Evo 2020, and could run it as its own event depending on how things go. But for 2020, Evo Online is the only option for competitors and the audience.
So, this has me wondering how this year’s Evo Online may impact the industry going forward. A lot of marketing dollars get tied up in Evo, from sponsorships to marketing plans. Capcom, Nintendo, and Namco Bandai can’t be thrilled at the moment, as their games were deemed unplayable for an online version of Evo. While rollback takes a lot more time, money, and effort in the short-term to implement, we’re seeing a dramatic consequence to relying on delay netcode. Will companies like Capcom, which inherently have smaller budgets compared to games like Mortal Kombat, be forced to jump to rollback to avoid situations like this in the future? I’m super curious to see what the ripple effect of Evo Online ends up being.