Arms at EVO Japan 2018
Image: Nintendo Life / Jon Cousins

Before fighting game regulars Tekken, Street Fighter and Smash Bros took to the stage at EVO Japan last weekend, a select group of a strong, committed and vocal community came together to advocate the inclusion of the newest title on the roster - Nintendo Switch exclusive ARMS. While the registered number of competitors paled in comparison to the big hitters (around 330, compared to 850 for Smash and over 2000 for SFV), something pretty special happened that eclipsed even the mainstream attention the game got on that Friday night.

Many players saw the chance to not only compete against the best in Japan but also connect in person, as top players and tournament organizers from across the world talked to us over the EVO weekend about the ARMS community, its appeal, and their personal journeys to reach the worlds most prestigious fighting game event.

The genesis of the ARMS online community can be traced back to two people - Sweden's Dennis Bagstevold (known online as Defur) and Japan's KHU.

Nintendo Life: How did the relationship between foreign and Japanese players start?

Defur: A couple of months after the game was released there was barely any contact between the western and Japanese communities. Some players knew others via the Pokkén scenes, but since none of the parts spoke both English and Japanese it didn't go very far. I spent some time researching the Japanese community and eventually got in contact with the player and streamer known as KHU. KHU speaks English and I speak a bit of Japanese, so we started writing to each other. After a while, I thought that since we were basically the first contact on both ends we should take the responsibility to connect the two.

Then a couple of weeks after I set up an interview with KHU along with my girlfriend who speaks both English and Japanese. We recorded it and fully translated it before putting it up on YouTube. In the interview, we mentioned how we wanted to get some sort of space where the different sides of the communities could interact, which was what initiated the 'International Discord' where Japanese players who wanted to know about the western community and vice versa could get to know each other. After that, it has slowly grown where people have started finding each other on Twitter and the western community joining the Japanese Discord servers.

KHU: I’m a streamer on YouTube, and some players from EU/NA contacted via the comments and follow my Twitter.

As a Smash 4 tournament organiser in his hometown of Saint Louis, Danny Cohen (HanukkahJamboree), also saw the growing popularity of ARMS early on.

HJ: I became aware of the competitive scene almost instantly, as a local Saint Louis Sm4sh player, Brrr (Bryce Mekes), and I ran a tournament about a week or so after launch. Our stream garnered about 45+ viewers as we were the only visible tournament at that time period. The first major tournament was ARMS Saga, though. A lot of the community was really brought together through that tournament stream.

Defur: For me, I got both the Switch and ARMS solely for the competitive aspect, so I pretty much found the little community there was instantly via YouTube, Reddit and Discord. ARMS at EVO Japan 2018 looked like the perfect opportunity for players to meet and compete against each other.

Defur and Cohen met up with the rest of their team - Nobi from Japan and 15-year-old Mikael Azhar (M3OW) from Pakistan to take part in the tournament.

When did you make the decision to come to Japan for EVO?

Defur: When it got announced. Besides EVO, I have friends and family living in Japan, where I had lived three months prior to ARMS getting released. I just decided that I was going to go and see it as some sort of endgame to all of my projects. My original goal was to become the caster for ARMS. Then it grew into helping foreigners going there, my eventual teammates and then helping out with events and meetups besides EVO Japan. The inclusion of arms, the media production of the event, and just the fact that all the best players were gathered in one place was amazing.

M30W: Around mid July I was casually strolling through the Nintendo Switch Subreddit where I saw ‘Up in ARMS’ I clicked on the link and signed up for the tournament. I also joined the Discord server which was the main reason I met so many amazing people who are now my teammates. The community was very welcoming and from there I skyrocketed.

When my leader Defur told me that ARMS was at EVO I was very surprised and I thought that this could be a huge opportunity for me to meet all the players and play with the best. I asked my parents and I had to convince them very hard to let me go. In the end when I did go to EVO, it was the best experience. When ARMS was included, everyone knew that it was gonna rise from there. It would be a great way for the community to excel and the game itself.

HJ: The decision to attend EVO JAPAN came slightly after its announcement. I realized it was a major opportunity for me as a player, as well as a tournament organizer. With enough pre-planning, I was able to fund my trip through university grant funds, gofundme, and streaming donations.

British ARMS competitor Marcus Tomlinson, known as TMOGenius, highlights the prestige of ARMS being at EVO.

TMO: The second EVO Japan was announced, and ARMS would be there I knew I was going to compete in it. Going to an EVO has always been something I've wanted to do.

I was incredibly surprised at ARMS being included at EVO as with the rest of the world. The atmosphere at the event itself was amazing and why I will always support offline events. Getting to put a face to the names you're constantly interacting with online brings the community a lot closer together.

KHU: it's a nice community I think, and they have more passionate than Japanese players.They have high enthusiasm for making ARMS community bigger. For example, what rules are good for the tournament. Japanese players don’t think about it so much.

Going into the tournament, it was Japanese player Pega determined favourite, as the winner of the ARMS Japan Grand Prix- a nationwide hunt organised officially by Nintendo to find the top talent. As the winner of the JGP tournament, his picture was already on the winners belt that was presented at EVO.

Pega: I think JGP was particularly amazing. I was moved by the winning prizes and appearing in movies. EVO thought that it was the most exciting competition since the number of people participating was large and even players of other games came to watch. I was very happy to have ARMS picked up as an e-sport.

All through Friday, over 300 ARMS fighters were gradually whittled down, as both KHU and Pega were among the top 8, which also included Canada's Eve aka Mileve and American Jonathan Valdez aka Goremagala.

Goremagala: we thankfully had a good chunk of western players who were able to speak Japanese, so we always tried to maintain somewhat of a close community. We made a small international discord before deciding to just be active with each other on Twitter and through time we played and interacted with each other more. I feel like we both learned from our different metas and became stronger as players.

For the longest time I thought I wouldn’t go since everything didn’t look like it would go my way. However, at the last minute, my parents surprised me by saying they bought tickets and that we were going, which was probably among one of the best surprises I’ve ever gotten in my life.

I thought EVO was amazing! So many like-minded individuals just having a great time and enjoying each other. It was definitely indescribable. When it comes to ARMS specifically, while there were a good chunk of rules that almost every western player had grievances with and would like to see addressed, for the most part it was just completely astounding.

I’m happy that ARMS was included at EVO Japan and hope it can get included in more future tournaments. Based on my experience, it just might be, since ARMS appeared to be the most physically viewed and the loudest game that was at the venue that day. Many have people have stated how they weren’t aware how intense and hype high level ARMS play can be so I feel a lot of eyes were open that day.

Mileve: It wasn't even four weeks since I decided I was going to EVO. I didn't feel emotionally ready or skilled enough to consider for the most part. But the ARMS community encouraged me to open a GoFundMe and to give it a go after claiming a few small-medium online tournaments.

Overall I think EVO is a really cool event. Just never was my thing until not even a month ago. But having ARMS be a part of EVO helped me have a far greater appreciation for it, and has even led me to look into some of the other fighting games out there! I know there was effort from players like Avalon who were trying to get the two sides to connect but I never saw any solid momentum until a bunch of non JP players decided to push ourselves to go to EVO Japan and meet and interact with each other physically.

Once ARMS had warmed up the crowds on a bitterly cold Friday night, it was the Saturday and Sunday when the big boys fought. While Pega and the other players were well known within their community, they were understandably overwhelmed by the occasion when all was said and done. A mutual respect and camaraderie from a large group of people that came from across the world because of ARMS, and many had not even met in person before.

What was even more incredible for the community was the chance to meet and talk to the 'father' - ARMS producer Kosuke Yabuki.

Defur: After the finals of ARMS we waited around to see if we could get a chance to speak to Mr Yabuki, or perhaps to get some of our things signed by him. Like us he looked exhausted from evening but eventually came over to talk with us. After signing a few things we all gathered on the stage to take a group photo, and then we all took turns to greet him. When I went up to him I was so starstruck that I couldn't say anything in Japanese and just said, "Hello, my name is Dennis.. Or Defur I mean," before he cut me off saying, "I know you," in English then pausing and continuing after thinking, "I know you, I've seen your stream."

I got so shocked to hear it but I asked where or what he had seen and he said that he had seen one of the tournaments that I hosted two weeks prior to EVO. To me it meant a lot since I've been looking up to him and his work with ARMS, and it felt great to be recognized from someone like him. I had to step away and let the others talk to him because I got so happy and overwhelmed by the moment.

KHU: He’s so cool and a humble man. I was so excited to talk to him.

Goremagala: It was like a dream come true. I never would’ve imagined it would’ve come to that. I feel like everyone was just amazed, he’s like our idol. It was crazy, like this one person is responsible for all the fun I’ve been having and everything I’m doing now.

Mileve: It was amazing to say the least. He's basically defined my life from the point of ARMS release onwards and has given me a community of people I deeply care about. I'd be honoured to meet some of the other more prominant Nintendo figures but at this point Yabuki is probably the biggest person in my life at this point so it was pretty thrilling to meet him!

With Smash and Street Fighter V qualifiers happening throughout Saturday and the finals on Sunday, elsewhere, the competitive ARMS community and top players were already preparing for another tournament- one they had collectively organised.

Groups of players who met through discords and other social media have formed bonds from across the world, crowdfunding each other's plane tickets and self-producing merchandise to raise money to make it to Tokyo. While there are many streamed online tournaments going on around the world, EVO was the big opportunity to show the crowd that ARMS can be a legitimate and worthy title at the event, surrounded by some of the most well known and fiercely contested competitions in the gaming industry.

KHU: I'm thankful for taking ARMS - a brand new game- to EVO. But this is the first time, so there are many points we should make better (such as rule set). We all were talking about the offline party, because we want to know each other, then naturally the event come to realize. That’s a nice community I think, and they have more passionate than Japanese players. They have high enthusiasm for making ARMS community bigger. For example, what rule is good for the tournament. Japanese players don’t think about it so much.

Japanese tournament organizer CALM, along with the ARMS community, created a separate event away from the crowds of EVO. While technical issues limited the tournament plans, it was still a great chance to bring everyone together.

CALM: Until EVO Japan was held, it was a relationship to the extent that they knew famous players' names.
However, I feel that with this EVO Japan I think that it has become a relationship that deepens friendship, crosses the borders, and respects each other and can grow.

The people overseas playing ARMS said that they thought of each other like a 'family'. In addition, said that it was pleasing that Japanese players participated as new family there. From these facts, I think that the relationship between foreign players and Japanese players has improved very much. I am convinced that EVO Japan as a whole was a wonderful competition that was very enthusiastic regardless of domestic and overseas, players and spectators were excited.

It was a great pleasure to be added to international events despite only about half a year since ARMS was selected as an official event, although it was chosen as a player I was able to do activities with the feeling that it would make the audience more exciting than any event. When this time EVO Japan is to be held in Japan, if overseas players come to Japan with time and money, from the desire to provide places for Japanese players and overseas players to interact, this time We have held an offline event.

Defur: I think it was pretty simple, we knew that EVO was going to be lacking and underwhelming in some areas so another event was created to gather all the players traveling to Tokyo (both foreign and inside of Japan). It's also interesting to note that ARMS is not only a new fighting franchise, but it is so different from any other fighting game around. The core mechanics might be seen on the surface as an evolution from Wii Boxing, but there's a depth and nuance to ARMS. It's strategic, balanced and varied.

Discussions about characters, loss outs and strategies reached a level of depth matched by the most established franchises/ especially impressive considering its relatively short time in the competitive arena. While streaming services and media coverage was undoubtedly higher than any of the ARMS competitors were anticipating, once all of the mutual respect and camaraderie had subsided, a level of dissatisfaction crept in.

HJ: I thought EVO was very okay at best. Many competitive fighting game players have begun to grow tired of EVO as a result of many different restrictions and compromises the tournament has had to make. Case in point, EVO JAPAN enforced best of one with all their sets in ARMS until top 16. There was a wealth of annoyed and upset players in regards to this rule, as it’s almost unheard of in any other fighting game. The opportunity to meet the players and experience the whole event was well worth it, but the lack of communication and poor organization makes me doubtful for next year.

Defur: Well, seeing as there are players who are willing to travel around the globe to play in a tournament without a prize pool because of their passion for the game, with people and tournaments getting crowdfunded left and right - I'm feeling like it's only a matter of time before sponsors will catch on and grow this game to what it deserves to be. I hope to see several more international majors where both the international and Japanese communities can go toe to toe, in a tournament with proper rulesets.

The inclusion of ARMS, the media production of the event, and just the fact that all the best players were gathered in one place was amazing. However, the ruleset that was used and the tournament itself was run very poorly. Neither the organisers or the administrators had much knowledge of the game. This became very obvious even before the event as ARMS was the last game to have the ruleset announced (about one or two weeks before the actual event). EVO Japan originally copy pasted the ruleset from the official Nintendo events.

Both the western and Japanese communities have disregarded this ruleset as illegitimate because it's basically structured around 'for fun events'. The rule set that was initially announced (at a super late stage) was single elimination, Best of one games up until top eight, with random stage selects with unbalanced stages included. I could go on and on and explain why this is a terrible idea, but basically for anyone outside of ARMS: Imagine if there was random stage selects for Smash 4, with all stages included. Or Street Fighter 5/Tekken 7 with single elimination Best of Ones with only first to two in game rounds.

After I tried to bring attention to this on Twitter we eventually got in contact with EVO which tried to save the ruleset by bringing in double elimination, stage banning and Best of Threes from the Top 16. This sounds nice but it was still way worse than any other tournament that we were used to. For the foreign players it was also another kickback that while there was stage banning, you could only ban three each of the 12 available stages - which still made the stage select random. In the remaining pool of stages there were those that are clearly deemed unbalanced and banned in the western community.

Time and number of setups was also brought forth as the excuse for not raising all games to Best of Three's. This was a very poor excuse since the numerous amounts of walkovers and DQ's made everyone have to wait for their next matches with about 30 minutes in between every match. Since there was no real check-in for the event, all of the admins had to wait for players to show up - which could've been circumvented completely if there was a real check-in at the entrance of the event. There were also a lack of certain rules such as what happens if there are equipment issues. One clear example was that there were a lot of games which started where buttons were changed or unbinded, and when reported it gave different results. In my case, I had to give up one of two rounds in a Best of One, along with letting the other player start with a Rush and me having none. For Nobi, who actually won one of the two rounds without binded keys, he had to replay the round that he won.

The negatives of the random stage select really came into play during the Top Eight finals on stage as well. Gore who according to his teammate Resolve doesn't like to play on Temple Grounds got sent to it twice during the grand finals of the event because of in game RNG. While Gore is a good sport we could notice him getting visibly upset when the stage got loaded in. There was no time to dwell on what could have been or rest on laurels though, as the game line up for the next EVO tournament in Vegas was announced on 6th February.

EVO leading figure Joey Cuellar gauged interest on social media and the ARMS community were quick to make their voices heard. Although the vote conducted on social media had no bearing on the official decision, support for ARMS at EVO Las Vegas was a significant indication of the support the game has generated since launch. Regardless of the outcome, there's still a lot to work on for ARMS to develop in the competitive scene, especially as update 5.1 rolls out and the future of the games rules in bigger tournaments are revised.

Defur: While it was really fun to finally gather this community in one place, it also hurt to see the so far biggest event for the game being run so poorly. I hope that this can be a learning experience for everyone involved, and that the organisers can look at the upcoming Winter Brawl and Smash 'n' Splash events to see how ARMS tournaments are supposed to be run. In Japan, at least, the calls seem to be being answered, as ARMS got added to the KVO event in Osaka, starting 4th May, 2018.

We would like to thank everyone from the international ARMS community who took the time to speak to us. Be sure to share your thoughts on ARMS, and its growing competitive scene below...