The Evolution Championship Series (EVO) has canceled its physical event due to COVID-19. Instead, you can expect competitive fighting game players to rain blows down online every weekend in July. Gamers are particularly interested in one of the new titles invited: a 2D fighting game inspired by My Little Pony called Them’s Fightin’ Herds.
Mane6's fighting game launched on PC on April 30 after two years in early access on Steam. Them's Fightin' Herds draws inspiration from classic 2D fighting games like Street Fighter and Skullgirls, except instead of bipedal characters, it features four-legged creatures like cows, deer, unicorns, and dragons. Much of the game's art style, sense of humor, and characters draw inspiration from the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, famous for its "brony" fandom.
This isn't a coincidence. In the early 2010s, Mane6 came together to create a scrappy fangame called My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic. After a near-final version of the game leaked, Hasbro sent a cease-and-desist order to the team, and the game was seemingly dead. Then, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic's creator Lauren Faust offered original character designs to Mane6. She worked closely with the team on creating a new world, setting, and characters, and Skullgirls developer Lab Zero successfully raised money on Kickstarter granting Mane6 a license to use its Z-Engine free of charge. Two weeks after the game released, EVO announced that its EVO Online event would host an open tournament for Them's Fightin' Herds and Skullgirls.
There's a reason both games were invited to the fray. Z-Engine uses a system called GGPO, short for "Good Game Peace Out." GGPO's multiplayer "rollback" lets players' client-side programs predict an opponent's coming animation frame before receiving input over the internet. In short, this means players have a seamless, lag-free experience that simulates local play between opponents, which makes Them's Fightin' Herds perfect for EVO Online, as Ars Technica reports.
"The online play isn't perfect with high latency but it is far better than you might expect," one user wrote on the r/mylittlepony subreddit.
Some fighting game fans are ecstatic to see Them's Fightin' Herds coming to EVO Online.
Others aren't so happy.
Not every game uses rollback netcode, let alone GGPO. The best-selling fighting game in the U.S., Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, is notorious for its less-than-stellar online experience. In fact, Ultimate was originally invited to EVO 2020, only to be pulled from the EVO Online tournaments. Some gamers think Nintendo and its fellow major publishers should be embarrassed that their games were outmatched by a My Little Pony homage.
And yes, some gamers are about to fall in love with the animal fighting game.
Annoyed gamers can kick and stomp all they want, but Mane6's love letter to My Little Pony is getting an open tournament for a reason: It's built for competitive play. That makes it an esport worthy of an online tournament during the coronavirus era.
"I feel like all the 'haha other games didn't make it to online EVO, when the fighting ponies game did' [jokes are] really sort of mean towards Them's Fightin' Herds which, as far as i can tell, is an actually good game that also has excellent netcode," Kistune Game founder Emma Maassen tweeted.
Mane6 had a "sneaking suspicion" Them's Fightin' Herds could make it to EVO, Production Director Aaron Stavely told the Daily Dot.
Initially, EVO approached Mane6 in early May, but the team wasn't expecting EVO Online's announcement to place Them's Fightin' Herds front and center. Now, the team is working on quality of life enhancements to make sure tournament play is as smooth as possible online.
"We were certainly excited at the time, but excitement turned to shock when it was revealed we were going to be only one of four games in the lineup for EVO Online," Stavely said. "Seriously, we didn't know that until the public announcement dropped. It's pretty crazy."
Since then, Mane6 has received plenty of new players and major coverage from streamers playing the game. The Them's Fightin' Herds Discord has nearly doubled in size since the April 30 1.0 release.
As for all the shock around a My Little Pony-inspired fighting game making it to EVO, Stavely says "the pony comments" don't exactly bother the team. After all, the final product speaks for itself.
"Once they actually sit down to try it, they all say, 'Wow, this is so fun, this is a real fighting game,'" Stavely said. "The connection to the MLP characters will always be there...But technically...there aren't any ponies in our game. We've got cows, sheep, reindeer, alpacas, unicorns, mythical dragon-horses, and [soon] a goat. We've become our own thing, and so far, it seems to be working. We're in EVO."
Update 10:03 a.m. CT, May 19: Updated to include comments from Production Director Aaron Stavely.