Nintendo vs. Smash

How a competitive esports scene prospered despite a developer’s best efforts

SEP 05, 2017

Today, Super Smash Bros. is one of the most popular video game franchises in the world. The series has had an entry on every Nintendo console since the Nintendo 64, and each has topped sales charts worldwide. In esports, Smash continues to defy expectations, with tournaments bringing in thousands of entrants from around the world with streaming view numbers rivaling those of Rocket League and Heroes of the Storm.

While the games have always flourished as commercial products, the competitive scene has far more humble beginnings. Starting in basements and hobby shops, the Smash community has grown their esport into a massive global contender with major sponsors, grand stages, and thousands of dollars in prize money up for grabs. Many esports have risen from humble beginnings, but Nintendo’s role in the story of Smash is truly fascinating in today’s esports climate. Today, we’re going to explore the relationship between the passionate competitive community and the apathetic, at times confrontational, developer.

The Early Days: As if We Weren’t Even There

The first Super Smash Bros. game was released on the Nintendo 64 in January of 1999. However, the competitive scene did not emerge until the release of Super Smash Bros. Melee in November of 2001 on Nintendo’s newest system, the Gamecube. High level players discovered advanced movement techniques such as “wavedashing” and “L-canceling” which were not explained anywhere in the game’s instructions or tutorials. These maneuvers allowed players to elevate the speed of the game to unimaginable heights. As the best players in a region mastered these techniques, they quickly surpassed the skill of their friend groups. Naturally, they sought out higher level competition. Just like that, a tournament scene was born.

Communicating through early forums and chat channels, regional competitors would schedule, host, and attend tournaments all over the country, often driving hours, if not days, just to compete. There were no massive pot bonuses or sponsorships on the line, they simply played to get better and celebrate their love of the game. From 2002 to 2004, there was no acknowledgement of a competitive scene or the possibility of tournament support coming from Nintendo. This was long before the esports boom brought on by the likes of Counter-Strike and League of Legends. The idea of developers funding leagues or tournaments was relatively niche at the time. This was also a time before widespread livestreaming was available. The early Smash competitors were able to develop their scene and grow their community without interference, never really expecting Nintendo to join the cause.

The MLG Era: Quiet but Lurking

As the Melee scene continued to grow and prosper, larger organizations started to take interest. In 2004, Major League Gaming added Super Smash Bros. Melee to its competitive circuit alongside the original Halo. With an influx of credibility and prize money, Smash saw a surge in popularity. Interest grew all over the world. In the early days, MLG was almost exclusively an American circuit. However, Smash had such a passionate player base that Japanese player Captain Jack came over to compete in the first MLG National Championships in 2004, taking 3rd place.

For three years, it seemed that Smash had arrived at the peak of competitive gaming. New contenders arose to challenge the game’s elite, pushing the competition to new heights each year. Players traveled all over the country, committing their lives to the game they loved, and being rewarded with fame and prize money. However, as the scene’s popularity continued to rise, Nintendo remained overwhelmingly silent. The developer never provided any financial or marketing support for the independant tournament scene or for MLG’s circuit.

While this meant that the Smash scene could continue to grow unimpeded, there was always a looming threat. Nintendo has always been a notoriously litigious company, behind the times with modern internet culture. While they never took legal action against MLG during the Melee era, Nintendo’s lack of support would be a factor in the tournament organizer’s decision to drop Melee from the circuit at the end of the 2007 season.

The Birth of Brawl: A Community Divided

MLG’s decision wasn’t made lightly. The community had openly embraced the MLG circuit, and many top players relied on it for their livelihood. However, as the Major League Gaming circuit grew in popularity, the threat of legal action grew. Broadcasting of matches was becoming easier and more popular. However, Nintendo still had never publicly acknowledged the circuit, nor given MLG permission to broadcast the game. To move forward with Melee, the circuit would have had to risk legal action by broadcasting matches, or not record any gameplay for one of their featured games. Neither was a suitable option trying to generate revenue from video content.

The final nail in the coffin came with the announcement of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. With an updated title on the horizon and more independant tournaments popping up each year, MLG’s risk no longer outweighed the reward of keeping Melee on the circuit. The loss of their most popular tournament, and largest prize pool, series was a blow to the Smash community, but the competitive scene endured. A new game on the horizon offered the promise of new characters and increased interest from a new generation of gamers.

Unfortunately, the hardcore Melee scene was about to experience yet another disappointment when they fired up their new Smash game. It seemed that Nintendo and Smash’s developer, Masahiro Sakurai, were indeed aware of Melee’s competitive scene and did not care for it. With the release of Brawl, Sakurai and his team had removed all of the advanced techniques that gave Melee its intense speed and high skill ceiling. Instead, the game had mechanics such as tripping which served to slow it down. To the players who had devoted their lives to the intense technical execution of Melee, this felt like Nintendo actively condemning their community. Rather than provide the Smash community with an update to the game they loved, they had stripped away what made Melee special.

Despite this apparent downgrade in technical gameplay, many gamers embraced Brawl. With modern graphics and a massive roster of characters, the newest Smash title had it’s own loyal followers who fostered the competitive scene. A few top players continued to pursue both games, but the growth of Brawl effectively split the competitive Smash community in half. Melee players remained loyal to the game they had been practicing and competing in for years, while the new generation embraced the series’ current iteration.

The games cannibalized each other’s player base. The scene was split even further when a group of Melee fans developed a modified version of Brawl known as Project: M which brought back the technical gameplay of Melee to Brawl’s cast of characters. Both games held plenty of successful tournaments, often together, but neither was able to reach that level of prestige and prize money that Melee had enjoyed on the MLG circuit.

Once again, Nintendo was deafeningly silent. No tournaments received support or promotion. It seemed that things had returned to their grassroots origin. In 2010, MLG attempted to return to the scene, adding Brawl to the season’s circuit. This time around, livestreaming had advanced dramatically and fans were thrilled to be able to watch the game’s best players compete from the comfort of their computer screens.

Sadly, this would be the time Nintendo finally became vocal, and not the way anyone in the Smash community hoped. On April 15, 2010, Major League Gaming released a statement announcing that Nintendo had refused to provide permission for Brawl to be streamed, or for any recorded video to be distributed after the fact. Spectators would be able to watch in person, but the fans at home would be left waiting for updates by blog or forum post. Unsurprisingly, without any options for viewership, MLG once again dropped Smash from the circuit at the end of that year.

The Battle for Evo

Nintendo had once again cost Smash it’s chance at major exposure, but the community remained resilient. Both Melee and Brawl continued to hold tournaments and develop their competitive scene. New stars rose up to lead the way. Then, in 2013, an opportunity arose for the scene which would usher in a new era of Smash.

The Evolution Championship Series is the pinnacle of fighting game competition. Since the early 2000’s, Evo has drawn competitors from across the world to compete for the title of World Champion across multiple fighting games. The event primarily features traditional fighting games such as Street Fighter, Tekken, and Guilty Gear, but had featured both Smash titles in the past.

In 2013, Evo’s leadership announced a competition where the communities of several games would fight for a spot in the tournament that year. Whichever game raised the most money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation would earn that spot. After a hard battle, Super Smash Bros. Melee emerged victorious, raising over $94,000 in the process. Smash would be returning to the biggest stage in fighting games, and it would be the resilient, “outdated” Melee leading the charge. It seemed as though Smash was about to experience a renaissance. That is, until Nintendo got wind of the event.

In a post, the Evo leadership informed fans that Nintendo had refused to give permission for Melee matches to be broadcast. While Nintendo could not remove Melee from the tournament entirely, this did force Smash out of the spotlight and off of the coveted Sunday Grand Finals. This was a massive blow to the community. Fans and competitors alike had poured out overwhelming support, showing their love for Smash with nearly $100,000 in donations. They had beaten out other popular fighting games, proving that Melee had a large, passionate fanbase ready to support their game. Now, so many who donated would not even be able to watch the matches take place. Rather than appreciating the community’s support for their game, Nintendo remained a distant, disapproving parent.

However, Nintendo was not prepared for the what happened next. The Smash community, and gamers as a whole, united in their outrage. The internet exploded with backlash against Nintendo on all platforms. With so much bad press, Nintendo reversed their decision almost immediately, granting Evo full permission to broadcast Melee. Smash returned to the Sunday stage. Melee’s biggest star, Mango, took home first place. Interest and attendance surged and Melee had proven it was here to stay. To this day Smash continues to bring in massive attendance and viewership numbers for the Evo weekend, now including both Melee and Smash for Wii U. Riding the momentum from Evo, 2013 also saw the release of The Smash Documentary, a film detailing the history of competitive Smash from its beginning up through Evo 2013. The movie was such a success that many active members of the Smash community today credit it with first introducing them to the game’s competitive side. Smash was surging in popularity, and clearly here to stay, but still it would be five years before the community received any true acknowledgement from Nintendo.

Grudging Approval and Passive Support

Now in the modern age of esports, Smash as a whole continued as an independent entity. While Nintendo seemed to have learned their lesson about shutting down broadcasts, they still were not ready to follow the likes of Valve and Riot Games fully into esports. Both Melee and Brawl continued to develop their respective scenes, often joining forces to create larger tournaments. In 2015, Nintendo began actually providing support to the scene, albeit very mild support. Smash pros were featured at promotional events for the upcoming Smash for Wii U, and Nintendo became a title sponsor for major events such as Apex 2015 and the Genesis series.

While this support helped the scene, it still left Smash far behind its peer communities in the esports industry. Every other major title has enjoyed direct monetary support and marketing from the game’s developer. While the house that Mario built was no longer actively preventing Smash from succeeding, it wasn’t really helping drive growth. There was a brief moment of hope when Nintendo announced a Smash invitational to celebrate the release of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U at E3 2014. However, while this event featured many of the biggest names in competitive Smash, the ruleset and structure did not resemble a true tournament. There were a number of changes, such as allowing items in certain matches, which made it clear that the goal of this event was to advertise a new game, not to celebrate Smash as an esport. The message Nintendo sent with this event was ultimately that, while they were aware of the serious side of competitive Smash, they did not see any value in highlighting that side of the game. As a result, Smash continued in largely the same way it always had--through the passion and hard work of volunteers and community leaders.

Nintendo Vs: A Hope for the Future

To this day, Smash remains the largest independent esport in the world. With no direct structure or monetary support from the developer, every facet of Smash continues to develop rules, circuits, sponsors, and entire tournaments with minimal outside help. There have been a few events designed by the likes of Red Bull and the now-defunct Yahoo Esports, but Smash’s biggest events remain for the community, by the community. In fact, Smash has grown so much that tournaments now feature every title in the series, including Smash 64, Brawl, and Project: M. Today, the Smash community is bigger and more successful than ever, all without Nintendo’s help or support. There are more tournaments than ever before, and the top players in both Melee and Smash for WiiU are all signed to esports organizations. It seems as though Smash could continue on forever without Nintendo ever getting more actively involved. However, there is one final development worth discussing.

Just before E3 of this year, Nintendo launched a new Twitter account called NintendoVs. The account is dedicated to promoting competitive events for all of Nintendo’s competitive titles including Pokken, Splatoon, ARMS, and, of course, Smash. Over the Summer, NintendoVs has actively promoted Smash tournaments, and Nintendo representatives were on site at major tournaments such as Evo and CEO this year. They even allowed the Smash for Wii U finals at Evo 2017 to be broadcast live on ESPNU and Disney XD. However, the developer is still keeping the community as a whole at arm’s length. In multiple public statements, top Nintendo executives have said they would rather Smash continue on as a grassroots, independent esport. They have no interest in creating their own circuit like other fighting game developers have done.

At this point, while it seems organizers no longer have to live in fear of legal action, there will be no financial or structural help coming from the Japanese developer any time soon. Perhaps the situation will change again when a Smash title comes to the Switch, but nothing has been announced as of the writing of this article. For the foreseeable future, the Smash community will have to continue without Nintendo’s money or marketing prowess on their side. On the bright side, after 15 years without help, Smash as a whole knows how to survive in the wild, and has earned the right to keep growing without a developer telling the community how to proceed.