Article

The River Beneath the Mountain

A comprehensive look at the Smash Summit phenomenon

NOV 01, 2017

Smashers are not known to be early risers. But on October 18th, Masaya “aMSa” Chikamoto had plenty of reason to be up before dawn. While the rest of Tokyo slept, aMSa sat in the glow of his computer screen, watching a Smash.gg page intently. As the timer at the top of the page ticked down to two minutes, the number next to aMSa’s name, previously increasing in sporadic jumps, flicked into constant motion, rising at an incredible rate: 90,000; 100,000; 110,000.

Across the globe, Johnny “S2J” Kim fist pumped and attempted to chug a can of Miller Lite in triumph, inadvertently sputtering foam in his moment of victory. Calvin “GimR” Lofton, CEO of Video Game Boot Camp and aMSa’s sponsor, screamed “let’s go!” to his stream, numerous other voices in a Discord channel chattering as they watched the Smash.gg page display the words “Finalizing votes.”

And back in Japan, aMSa clapped his hands together and leapt out of his chair, his fists jogging in a display of joy. He snatched a red Yoshi plushie and shook it exuberantly in front of his camera, his signature character caught up in the moment as well. As the last of his energy wore off, he pulled his glasses off and buried his face in his hands, before looking up to the camera gain. “Thank you so much,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “Is this true? Dream come true?” He, along with S2J and fourteen other Super Smash Bros. Melee players, were going to Smash Summit. The cost? 120,595 votes, or approximately 48,000 dollars.


Smash Summit is a Super Smash Bros. Melee invitational series hosted twice a year by Beyond The Summit, a broadcasting and event hosting organization with its origins in Valve’s popular MOBA game Dota 2. This weekend, the series will host its fifth installment: a four day long event comprised of a singles tournament, a doubles tournament, and multiple other side events, ranging from crew battles to the ever popular in-person Mafia games that close out each day, the participants for each a cast of sixteen invited players.

What’s unique about Smash Summit is how those players are chosen; while the first ten are determined mostly on skill, and thus have featured a near-unchanging roster of the game’s top talent, the last six attendees have always been determined via a democratic vote-cum-popularity contest hosted on Smash.gg. While any frequent user of the site will have some amount of votes from using Smash.gg for tournaments and fantasy brackets, those votes have a cap that prevents them from accounting for the vast majority of the more than 637,000 votes cast for this Summit. The only way to surpass the cap placed on votes is by purchasing items from the Smash Summit compendium, with approximately 2.5 votes garnered per dollar spent. When Smash Summit 5 voting came to an end, that incentive had led to nearly a quarter of a million dollars spent by fans - sure, with some merchandise attached, but mostly with the intention of getting their favorite player into the event.

So what motivates the fanatic drive to see your favorite player at Summit? For one, that exorbitant sum also goes to the prize pool. Smash Summit 5’s $77,389 singles prize pool is the largest the game has ever seen by far. The next two biggest prize pools were also Smash Summits - specifically, the most recent one, Smash Summit Spring 2017, and the inaugural Smash Summit, with prize pools of $51,448 and $32,929 respectively. The winner of Summit 5 stands to take home a cool $27,000, nearly as much as the entire prize pool for the two highest paying non-Summit tournaments, DreamHack Winter 2016 and GTX 2017, which each had a pool of $30,000. With four Summit titles under his belt already, it stands to reason that Team Alliance’s Adam “Armada” Lindgren is the heavy favorite to win that chunk of change; but because Summit pays out to every competitor, even the runner-ups are going to have a nice payday. Just a third place finish will award 12.5%, or $9,665.63 - more than the Armada received for winning The Big House 5, one of the most prestigious tournaments to ever occur.

That may be chump change compared to other more prestigious esports, but that sort of money is unprecedented in Smash. Just the emergence of five-figure prize pools is a phenomenon of only the last three years, with any pools rivalling that in the past only arising through the involvement of MLG in the very early days of the scene. What’s more, Smash Summit is frequently one of the most viewed events of the year for Smashers, a four-day Twitch bonanza of commentary, games, and competition.

“You get to really show yourself and your own personality,” says beastcoast’s Mike Haze, who will be attending his first Summit next week. For players like Mike Haze, who has turned to streaming and competing as his primary source of revenue, the potential viewership boost to his own content from attending Summit is a potential benefit that can’t be ignored. “That's the unique thing that Summit brings, right?” he says. “Obviously, the tournament's very important. But all the other casual side events and all the other interactions you get to see are definitely valuable and not really replicated at any other event.” Summit is a decidedly new-age event for Smash, a scene for which the staple format for years has been the open-entry tournament. It capitalizes on the growing sense of celebrity that top players have within the community as more and more newcomers to the scene participate more as spectators than as competitors. It is an event that prompts the cries of “we esports now” while simultaneously striving to maintain the grassroots laid-back atmosphere that is the heart of Melee’s community. So what’s the catch?


While the entertainment aspect of Summit has been near-universally praised, their methods have been called into doubt. aMSa has long been a fan favorite in the states for his dynamic mastery of a character that’s never been pushed to that level before, but his international resume is sparse because of the difficulties involved in taking time off from his job and traveling from Japan. In a tweet posted the day aMSa was accepted to summit, Michael “Nintendude” Brancato wrote: “Very happy for aMSa, but consider this: the amount of $ it cost to get him in could have paid for his flights/hotels for his entire career.” In a reply to his original tweet, he expanded upon that point: “Same goes for the rest. If you want to see your fav [sic] player play, wouldn't you rather directly contribute to a travel fund for them?”

Nintendude raises a good point. Although aMSa is an exciting player to watch with high upset potential, realistically his chances going into Summit as a competitor aren’t amazing. aMSa’s Summer 2017 SSBMRank of 34 has him as the second lowest ranked player in the tourney; even if that underrates him, he only has a winning record in 2017 against one player at the tournament, Panda Global’s Plup, and winning records all time against only Mike Haze and CLG’s SFAT. If aMSa performs as expected, he would walk away with somewhere between $700 and $2500 - certainly not bad for a consolation prize, but only a fraction of the money raised in sending him to Los Angeles. What’s more, aMSa represents one of the lucky few who did get into Summit. Daniel “Chu Dat” Rodriguez of Team Liquid, a former Summit attendee, stayed near the front of the running for almost the entire voting period thanks to his constant campaigning on stream, which included eating raw onions and drawing whatever his viewers might request on his face. Chu Dat raised 84,988 votes - more than every eliminated nominee combined. “I'm not going to tell you what you can and can't do,” says Josh “Fendrick Lamar” Fendrick. “But know they get nothing. Chu literally gets nothing out of seven onions and a whole lime and 40, whatever. He gets nothing, he doesn't even get to go and I think there should be like at least like a consolation prize of some sort.”

Concerns about the flow of money with Summit have been widespread. That $70,000 prize pool is staggering, but it only represents 27.36% of the funds raised by purchases and donations. An additional 12% of that cash goes to funding the other reward levels promised in the Summit compendium, which includes additional competitions such as Mario Party and Jenga, but also additional incentives for viewers. Some of the price points for these goals seem excessive - $3000 for a friendlies setup stream and $6000 for a ten page manga by popular artist Moxie2D in particular raise an eyebrow. While Beyond The Summit has helpfully provided their own estimated breakdown of where that money is going, certain community members have voiced concerns over the division.

“I think that they are gouging a fan base that is already been scooped up,” says Josh “Fendrick Lamar” Fendrick. “For them to come in and commandeer the amount of resources that they do leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. I also think that if you look at stuff like, ‘Oh, Summit 1 had great production value, a $25,000 prize pool,’ and it raised $41,000. And here we are at the fifth Summit were the prize pool is three times as big but they've raised six times as much money.”

Fendy’s math is approximate, but it is close to the truth. At the first Smash Summit, approximately 61% of the money raised went to “reward levels,” here understood to mean pot bonuses and other direct incentives for viewers. The last Summit, in stark contrast, only dedicated around 39% of the money to reward levels.

But to accuse Summit of taking more than their fair share may be premature. While the share of money going to the players is lower than the first Summit, if we look at every Smash Summit, we can see an upwards trend. Unfortunately, Beyond The Summit hasn’t provided the data for Smash Summit 2, but we can see that from Summit 3 onwards, the percentage of the money raised going to reward levels has been steadily increasing. If you go dollar-by-dollar, then yes, the TOs have received more money each Summit. A significant portion of that money presumably goes to the costs of running the event, and some breakdowns have postulated that at the end of the day, Beyond The Summit only takes home a few thousand dollars.

Summit Number Money Raised Reward Levels/Pot Money % to Reward Levels/Pot Shop Fulfillment % to Shop Fulfillment Money to TOs % Money to TOs
1 $48,215.00 $29,529.00 61.24%
3 $86,708.00 $22,203.00 25.61% $38,208.00 44.07% $26,297.00 30.33%
4 $170,849.00 $59,944.00 35.09% $69,736.00 40.82% $40,809.00 23.89%
5 $245,908.00 $96,825.00 39.37% $87,707.00 35.67% $56,632.00 23.03%

*Summit 2 data not provided by BTS - Summit 1 money provided only partially

These analyses crucially forget that a large portion of Summit’s money comes from their sponsorships. Previous sponsors have included marijuana dispensary app Weedmaps and performance drink BrainGear; this time, Wavedash Games, the developers of the upcoming game Icons: Combat Arena, seem to be one of the primary sponsors. But to some, the fact that Summit is making money isn’t an ill whatsoever. “I don't think there's a problem with a company making money,” says Mike Haze. “It's a fucking full-time company. If it was a one-time thing and they were just here for the weekend and the only work they put in was for that weekend, then yeah. That's a lot of fucking money for one weekend. But these dudes are working non-stop. They're working on it full-time. They're putting a lot of work into it and I think that's okay to get paid.” I doubt that anyone would argue with that statement. Beyond The Summit has the same goals as any other business. Gut negative reactions towards the amount of money Summit makes are likely motivated by the Smash scene’s wariness towards corporate entities attempting to involve themselves in the scene. After years of being the shunned child of Nintendo and the attempted target of get-rich-quick schemes from organizations such as Empire Arcadia, the Melee community has understandably started to question any newcomers that they see as a trying to turn a profit. Some skepticism around Summit’s goals is healthy, but they’ve proven by this point that making money doesn’t preclude them from helping the scene. One cause for alarm, though, is that the profit is getting larger and larger, with no signs of stopping.


It’s no secret that Summit voting has been subject to heavy inflation. Chu’s losing vote total outstrips the total amount of votes that any player has ever received in past Summit voting; in fact, every player nominated to Summit this time around except for Aziz “Hax$” Al-Yami had more votes than the previous record, 54,246 for Mustafa “Ice” Akcakaya last Summit. That’s less than half the amount of votes aMSa managed to amass.

With such dramatic inflation in the voting, certain noteworthy nominees chose to drop out of contention once they saw the price that would be necessary for entree. CLG’s Kevin “PewPewU” Toy, a fixture at every Summit previously, announced his withdrawal on October 15th, while Hugo “HugS” Gonzalez, an attendant at the previous Summit, dropped out two days prior, citing exhaustion from travel and vote inflation as reasons in a Twitlonger he published the same day. “I already felt that the voting value had been inflated by a lot of dumb moves,” HugS said when I reached out to him for comment. “Maybe somewhat the players leading their voters to… vote in dumb ways but it's mostly very early leads. Early leads are bad for voting value because people are inevitably going to catch up. So, all they’re doing is just inflating the value of votes at that point by getting early leads before elimination times.”

Because the strategy revolving around getting Summit nominations has depended upon last-minute “spirit bombs” consisting of massive votes, the reasoning is that early leads will only increase the eventual amount of votes needed to get in - and so because votes were high so early, they only kept getting higher. “I think that the last straw was when Blea Gelo ended up getting like some 10,000 vote bombs at 5:30 a.m. even though elimination time was like at 2 p.m. that day,” says HugS. “So, several hours earlier this was done and then people are just inevitably caught up. It just kind of change the way the game was being played, and I didn't want to put my supporters through that - having to pay so much money just to keep up with what was going on with the voting, and so I felt there's more responsible to back out for that reason.”

Some of that inflation may be due to the timeline for this Summit, which includes longer voting periods than the previous events.That longer voting period may also potentially be one of the reasons we saw better known players dropping. Campaigning for Summit is, by all accounts, a huge amount of work. “The entire week like after Twitter nominations opened was all work,” says Mike Haze. “It was super stressful. I don't think I've worked that hard at one thing in a very very long time. I actually can't recall the last time I worked like a week straight - just nonstop, one thing on my mind, one goal. “But I definitely enjoyed every moment of selling out and hanging out with our friends and hitting our goals and stuff. I definitely enjoyed it, so it's not like I didn't do anything I didn't want to do. But it was a little more than I normally would do, like, you know, drinking three days in a row or shotgunning beers, shit like that like I might not normally do on a regular stream and stuff. So, I'd say it was overall fun and stressful.”

Summit is not just a singular event - it is a fever, dominating Smash-related news for the weeks in which it’s on the community’s collective mind. For players who might already be tired from the constant travel, putting yourself on the line for nominations is a difficult prospect, especially when you’re in direct competition with another player with tens of thousands of dollars riding on them. But those who have gone through that process swear by it. “I wouldn't put any of it on Summit,” says HugS. “The only thing you can put on Summit is not having rules or systems in place to prevent [inflation] from happening, right? Things like voting caps on the united votes you could put, they didn't do that and that's the only thing they could be doing that they’re not.” Likewise, Mike Haze says that despite the effort he put into Summit, he’s a huge fan of the atmosphere it creates. “I think Summit season is just fucking great,” he says. “A lot of people won't agree. But watching the streams - it's just non-stop entertainment. It's fun, you know? Sure, some people were excessive about how hard they were willing to sell out. But if they're enjoying themselves, who are we to judge at all? That's my one thing. If, for example, Chu went to the onions and he is having fun and his audience is having fun and it's all good fun, then who cares. I think it's dope. I think it brings the community together, to have these goals, which is something that's really hard to replicate, right? Even after I got voted in, I was non-stop on Twitch just watching Chu and Chillin, and watching the Johnny spirit bomb. It's a lot of good entertainment. I think people still enjoy it.”

While some of that inflation is due to strategic changes in the way “the game is played,” as HugS puts it, some of it must be laid at the feet of Beyond The Summit. Compendium items from the first Summit have increased by as much as 150% in price, specifically the biggest cash draws. Passes to attend the Summit and attend as a VIP originally cost $500 and $1000 respectively; these days, they’re priced $750 and $1500. Items like signed controller adapters sell out in minutes at huge prices of $200.

“Higher demand, cost and supply you are going to have a price increase, I understand that,” says Fendy. “Again, it's well within the rights and I understand this is just me being getting on my soapbox and trying to be morally superior, whatever. But that's just the way it is, it honestly sits so poorly in my stomach. They're obviously very good at what they do, they're very smart, they understand how to raise money, how to get the Smash community to spend money. But again, I just think it's a shameless exploitation of our fanbase and they're kind of carpetbagging, for lack of a better term. There's a coming in with this whole new system-- they're running us dry, and I think it really says something that how we can as community can spend $250,000 to send six people to a house but we can't support our grassroots tournaments.”


Perhaps there lies the crux as to why Summit has been such a controversial issue within the community. On its surface, an event which gives thousands of dollars to our top players is essentially what the Smash community has been sorely missing for years. Although it’s possible in this era of sponsors and streamers to make a living playing Smash, that cashflow is still a nice cushion for a community that’s used to hard reality that the scene doesn’t have money. Even now, the biggest tournaments in the scene are running negative; Shi Deng, director of Big Blue Esports and lead tournament organizer for the Shine series, recently tweeted out both that Summit had higher revenue than Shine and that he had to transfer $20,000 dollars to tie up loose ends. Shine isn’t an exception - a large portion of majors, and even regionals, run at significant loss to the organizers.

For a while, the Smash community has taken that in stride. “It’s sad, but what do you expect from Smash?” has been the resounding overall opinion. Smash’s long memory tells us that we are a community with no money - or at least we thought. Summit has awakened the Smash community to the reality that there is money to go around - money of an astronomical degree. To call Beyond The Summit “carpetbaggers” ignores that there is a huge amount of quantifiable good that they have done for the community, and harkens to an old mentality in Smash that vilifies outsiders as a reaction to having to rely solely on ourselves for so long. To his credit, Fendy recognizes that, and I think recognizes that the term itself is somewhat of an exaggeration. “I think that when Beyond The Summit became interested in Smash, that was a very good thing, and getting outside organizations involved in Melee is crucial for the longevity and survivability of competitive Melee,” he says. But the fact that they have taken such “We can raise that kind of amount of money to send six people to a house but we get up in arms about $5 venue increase, $5 entry being increased, it's stuff like that. Where someone is willing to spend $300 on their favorite competitor when they could just spend $250 on a flight and go to a tournament or something like that, they could drive to a regional. There's other ways they can be effectively utilizing that money that we aren't.”

Like it or not, what that unwillingness to contribute directly to tournament organization represents is the evolution of Melee from a game defined by needing to be there in person to a spectator sport. There are certainly players who have started the game recently who make waves, but the vast majority of the community is now there to watch those better than them,and watching on Twitch is decidedly easier than going in person. Summit is one of the only events that specifically aims to be a spectator-focused event. That’s not to fault other tournaments; when a major looks to deliver an experience directed towards viewers rather than players, it runs the risk of being criticized for exactly that by attendees.

Melee need not sacrifice the community-centric atmosphere that defines it as a community - but the community must then be satisfied with the level of relevance they’re at, or even lower if the largest tournaments continue to lose money. Money, and growth, comes from viewership, and Summit is the proverbial proof in the pudding. They haven’t done anything wrong by finding a vein and tapping into it, but the ire of those who see the money passing by those who have been in the community for years is understandable as well. That there is money in the scene that could prevent tournament organizers from sacrificing their own livelihood but isn’t going towards that is a bitter pill to swallow.“I think tournaments do need to get paid more and they need to figure that shit out,” says Mike Haze. “Events like that shouldn't be going negative - that sucks. At the same time, I guess that's what makes Summit so unique. Summit doesn't force anybody to spend their money. People want to spend their money because they want their players there, right? They want the people they support to be there. They need to figure out how to get online people out to events, how to make more money at events and figure all that out. I think that's kind of like the cool thing that Summit's going to do. Because people see that we do have the money. But how do we get people to show it for normal events?”

That should be the question moving forward. What Summit can serve as from here on out is a template for how the rest of the scene can grow. The money that they have excavated in the scene is an unquestionable boon, even if it’s concentrated in one place. Summit’s methods are certainly designed to make themselves a profit, and they may need some reform to their voting methods - HugS and Fendy suggested potential voting caps or a king of the hill style system that would benefit players who campaign continuously. But that that alone is reason for uproar is indicative of a greater worry within the scene. For those who have been around since the beginning, Melee’s continued growth seems like a continued dream from which the community could awaken at any moment. What is now apparent is that our community may, in fact, have a large amount of money to give - the right incentives just need to be put forward. Summit found those incentives. In response to Nintendude’s earlier tweet questioning whether fans would rather donate to a travel fund for their favorite players than pour money into votes, Bobby “Scar” Scarnewman, longtime community leader and figure, responded “pretty sure the answer is ‘no’ whether or not it makes sense.” Summit has, perhaps unwittingly, bottled lightning with their specific voting structure, opening the floodgates to a river of resources that the Melee scene didn’t even know we had. If the rest of the community can find ways to draw from what now seems to be an ocean, we can continue to move ever forward, as we have for 16 years.


Thanks to Andrew “PracticalTAS” Nestico, Anna “Housewife” Zotta and Marco “Oats” Salazar de Leon for their help in gathering statistics for this article.