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No Nintendo, no problem — how Smash Bros. continues to thrive

Two months ago, professional Melee player Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma gave a victory speech at Smash ‘N’ Splash 3 in which he addressed Nintendo’s lack of support for the Smash Bros. scene.

“A certain company that acknowledges us but refuses to push us — I hope you’re listening right now, because I want you to hear this,” Debiedma remarked as a crowd full of Smashers cheered. “I want you to hear the amount of people who support this league, the amount of people who want this to be a lifestyle for people. This is not just a video game. This is a lifestyle! All right?”

It’s not that Nintendo, which develops and publishes Smash Bros., doesn’t support esports at all, it just doesn’t focus on Smash. At this year’s E3, Nintendo’s new games ARMS, Splatoon 2 and Pokken DX were all featured in tournaments on the show floor. In fact, it has already partnered with ESL, the world’s largest third-party esports tournament organizer, in showcasing Splatoon at some tournaments. Nintendo is aware of the massive esports market waiting to be tapped.

According to Newzoo, a market research firm specializing in gaming, by 2019 esports revenue totals could soar well past $1 billion. And game developers are responsible for 71 percent of all revenue in the esports economy — mainly by securing advertising, media rights and sponsorships. By investing in live tournaments featuring their games, companies can boost franchise awareness and improve player outreach.

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It’s a win-win for both the company and fans of its games. Companies like Riot get exposure for their games — there were 396 million total cumulative daily unique impressions during the 2016 World Championships. Players and fans get multimillion-dollar prize pools — over $24 million for Valve’s Dota 2’s The International this year — and sold-out venues like the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Impressive numbers, and there are other esports that reap the benefits of backing via the developer.

But competitive Smash is a black sheep compared to its peers.

Fifteen years ago, Super Smash Bros. Melee’s competitive scene kick-started itself through grassroot pockets around the globe. Since then, events can hit prize pools with almost $50,000 up for grabs, noteworthy players are being sponsored by various esports organizations, and 1,500-person tournaments have reached up to 200,000 viewers on Twitch. Super Smash Bros. Wii U, the latest Smash Bros. title to gain a substantial following, has continued to grow in terms of tournament entrants, spectators and top-player sponsorships. Even Smash 64, the series progenitor, has a notable competitive scene.

Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma, left, and Joseph “Mang0” Marquez duel in the grand finals at Pound 2016 for Super Smash Bros. Melee. Matt Demers

So where is Nintendo in the Smash equation?

The president of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aimé, later responded to Hungrybox in a conversation with Stephen Totilo of Kotaku. Fils-Aimé stated his company’s role is “community-oriented. … It’s enabling the community to drive it forward.” He further confirmed that Nintendo “want to do this much more at a grassroots level than others’ visions,” and described being adverse to “leagues and big up-front payments and things of that nature.”

This prevents Smash from enjoying marketing tools that esports like League and Dota have. Take, for example, Riot partnering with Coca-Cola in an extensive marketing effort for the Legends World Championships last year. To bolster the international viewing experience, the two companies collaborated with cinema partners to host more than 200 simultaneous viewing parties across Canada, Europe and the U.S. Along with featuring a 1080p stream of the finals, the event was presented with live pre- and post-show coverage. Obviously, this marketing move gave the tournament and scene wide exposure to the public eye.

Smash tournaments are different. Already starting with a lack of Nintendo’s resources, obtaining sponsorships for events is often difficult. Many companies are hesitant to sponsor a tournament that might not turn them a profit, and many Smash tournaments can’t even balance out on their own. On top of this, as MOBAs like LoL and Dota are played on PCs, many of their sponsors are computer hardware companies such as Logitech and Alienware, which use gaming events to promote relevant hardware. Since Smash is a console game, a lot of those kinds of sponsors are left out of the picture.

But that’s not to say the Smash community doesn’t make it not only work, but grow. Shine 2016 in Boston was run by a small organization called Big Blue esports. The event costs totaled around $109,700, and payment was arranged through loans and the profits from smaller events run by Big Blue esports. The event had a deficit of $20,000, but it was planned from the beginning to function as a long-term investment. As Big Blue esports founder and TO of Shine 2016 Shi Deng put it:

“It’s kind of like a start-up. First year you take a loss to prove the market fit and execution. Your angel investors are the TOs themselves. As they shoulder the largest risk, if things do succeed down the road, they also reap the greater rewards.”

This year, Shine has surpassed registration numbers from last year and has even recently been sponsored by GEICOGaming. The tournament is an important example for other tournaments to consider if Smash is to continue growing without Nintendo’s resources.

Well-known Smash tournament organizer Matthew “MattDotZeb” Zaborowski is optimistic about the future of Smash, but still thinks there is room for improvement when it comes to tournaments. For example: Pound V and B.E.A.S.T 7 were two tournaments that drew significant controversy after poor organization and even poorer financing led to them not having enough funds to pay out the top placers. This can’t happen if Smash is to grow.

He says all tournaments should be following in the footsteps of the larger ones such as Genesis, Big House, Super Smash Con, Shine and Evo, citing them as tournaments heralded for their prestige.

For MDZ, proper budgeting isn’t the only important element; he believes catering to new players is, too. Part of what makes big tournaments such as Genesis so successful is that they follow a format of “here’s a bracket, if you lose go play casuals or watch streamed matches.” This allows for a stimulating atmosphere beyond the bracket that engages newer, more casual crowds. MDZ describes it as the feeling of “attending more than just a tournament.”

“We can count on high-level players or long-term community members returning,” he said. “It’s the newer crowd that is less reliable for recurring attendance.”

New faces to the scene help events succeed, but the community overall has to be comfortable with embracing the progressive direction of events, as MDZ suggests. The scene is still evolving, and with informed decisions from established and rising community leaders, the unique path toward esports that Smash is on can be realized.

Nintendo, despite its potential to help, may not be necessary for the Smash scene to continue its progression. Sure the scene could grow much easier and faster with Nintendo’s resources, but Smash has been showing it’s capable of surviving, and recently even thriving, on its own.

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