Super Smash Bros. has emerged as one of the largest competitive video game titles in the world. This may come as a surprise to most, but not to its most dedicated players, who have been fighting to keep their community alive since the game’s inception.
The series began in 1998 on the Nintendo 64 as a response to the advanced and technically demanding fighters of the time, like Street Fighter and Tekken. Nintendo was not concerned with the competitive viability of the game–instead, anyone could pick up a controller and enjoy themselves thanks to the user-friendly control scheme and comprehensive game mechanics. Smash, for a long time, had been a gaming franchise defined by its casual accessibility, deemed too simple to be mentioned alongside the traditional titles in the same genre. Without a push for eSports from its developers or the support of elite arcade fighting game enthusiasts, the competitive future of Smash did not look promising on the surface.
For nearly a decade, the Super Smash Bros. tournament scene had operated and been funded on a grassroots level. Players who came together out of a shared passion for the series worked tooth and nail to keep their tournaments running. As the black sheep of the competitive gaming scene, they did not enjoy any sort of mainstream media exposure or large prize pots for tournaments. The lack of direct support from Nintendo also limited their options financially, but the community still marched forward to prove that outside opinions could not halt a collective love for what has now become the ultimate underdog story of eSports.
In 2004, the GameCube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee was featured on the Major League Gaming Pro Circuit, although it was dropped in 2007 after interest had begun to slowly decline due to the development of the next title, Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Nintendo Wii. Brawl was picked up by MLG in 2010, but met a similar fate. MLG cancelled Brawl after being denied licensing rights by Nintendo to livestream their events, and the Smash community was once again left hanging as a grassroots entity. Both Melee and Brawl had strong attendance at MLG but without Nintendo giving the green light to stream the competition, the investment became less and less rewarding for MLG to continue hosting tournaments for the game. MLG during this era proved that the game had the potential to become one of the most beloved eSports–all it needed was increased mainstream support. The community continued to host events but corporate interest had severely declined after MLG decided to focus on other gaming titles. Smash appeared to be on its last breath until an unlikely ally became one of its main forms of life support.
Evolution is the largest fighting game tournament in the world. Hosted in Las Vegas annually, “EVO” serves as the ultimate proving ground for virtual fighters to test themselves in front of a global audience. Previously, the fighting game community and Smash Bros. have had a shaky past with little crossbreeding between games. Each community opted to function independently with Smash looking from the outside in.
Cue January 2013, when EVO made an announcement that would give Smash an opportunity to rise back to its former glory. A donation challenge to raise money for Breast Cancer Research was a chance for smaller gaming communities to achieve the coveted eighth and final spot of the EVO tournament lineup. The entire Smash community rallied around the cause, with each separate subset of the Smash franchise coming together to provide Melee with the push needed to make the EVO main stage. A spot at EVO meant a massive resurgence in viewership and new interest in the game. This was the Smash community’s chance to make it big and elevate to a mainstream level within the competitive gaming universe. The community came through for their game, raising $96,000 for Breast Cancer Research and guaranteeing Melee’s spot at EVO 2013.
Despite this triumph, there was still a final boss to face. Days before the event, Nintendo informed EVO staff that they didn’t have permission to run or broadcast Melee. Nintendo, who had minimal involvement with the competitive Smash Bros. community prior to EVO, had seemingly delivered the final blow to Smash’s hope to become a major eSport. During this period of time, Nintendo was focused on appealing to as many recreational gamers as possible to expand their fanbase, and endorsing a competitive tournament was not aligned with the company philosophy to appeal to any kind of gamer. Competitive gaming presents a dangerous market to enter, as it pits Nintendo’s iconic characters in what can be viewed as an aggressive sport that isn’t played “just for fun.” However, in a magnificent burst that only a group of individuals with the shared experiences of the Smash community could pull off, the game’s most passionate fans once again assembled and delivered a massive social media outcry to Nintendo. Just hours later, the gaming giant reversed its decision and Smash was back at EVO–livestream and all.
At EVO 2013, Melee proved that it could hang with any iconic fighting franchise, with stream viewership numbers directly comparable to the wildly popular Street Fighter IV and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Delivering one of the most captivating tournaments the FGC had ever seen, EVO 2013 would go down in history as a breakthrough moment for Smashers across the world. Not only did Smashers prove to their naysayers that they were just as skilled and entertaining as their traditional fighting game neighbors, they showed the unrelenting passion that their community had.
The community had come full circle. The accessible gameplay, for which Smash was wrongly slighted for, did not stop the series from evolving into a competitive beast with cross-over appeal to both casual and hardcore audiences. It is the mix of iconic characters, unique gameplay, and dedicated fans that makes Smash certain to become the next major eSport. Smash is the Cinderella story of competitive gaming–coming from nothing, getting a quick taste of fame, then embarking on a rocky journey from irrelevancy to global appeal. Smash was never intended by its creator to be competitive, yet it survives as a beautiful mistake that has spawned a fanbase that refused to go down silently. Players have driven the game to its limits, with awe-inspiring talent and passion that rivals any major competitive game out currently.
The competitive Smash community is even larger than ever before and is poised to take over eSports in 2014. Fans have experienced the dark-ages where tournaments were held in basements and no one on the outside knew or cared. Now, with the meteoric rise of Smash, things are looking better than ever.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2014, and Smash looks reinvigorated with a surge of interest. Melee has a spot once again at EVO, is returning to MLG for the Anaheim main event, and the biggest news of all: Nintendo is hosting a 16-person invitational tournament to showcase the competitive community at E3 to prepare for the launch of Super Smash Bros. Wii U. Nintendo, who has the biggest potential to expand the Super Smash Bros. eSports market, seems to finally be on board with the tournament scene. Smash has a unique element that few other games of similar popularity can currently offer–everyone recognizes the playable characters and can have fun with the game at a level of their choice. Smash is a juggernaut in the gaming industry, easily putting up the best sales of any fighter of its generation. The Smash Bros. community is absolutely thrilled that Nintendo is becomming more invovled with the competitive scene, as this signifies a life-long dream for many fans. This game stretches beyond just competition for the community, it is a major part of people’s lives and passions. To see the game elevating to levels that easily eclipse anything done in the past is the mark of a coming of age story that is still being written.
The 16 person invitational at E3 will feature players who are members of the competitive community, and is perhaps the start of Nintendo’s foray into competitive gaming.
Founded and thriving off the effort of its dedicated fanbase, Smash has managed to stay afloat. The underground culture of the game is a testament to the power of grassroots motivation. A game that struggled to have a stage to play on, let alone share, has now found itself next to some of the biggest names in gaming. This process was easy, as Smash was inches away from fading into complete obscurity, but it has instead stood the test of time and earned a much-deserved vote of confidence from its developer. This success is not just the result of one or two tournaments, it is a collective effort over the course of more than ten years that each member of the competitive scene has contributed to. Summer 2014 is just the start of the resurgence of Smash in eSports and signifies that the tireless efforts of each member to grow the game are finally being recognized.
2014 is the year of Smash Bros., and like it should be, we have the community to thank for this.
Written by: Joseph Cribari @TorontoJoeSSB
Edited by: Max Krchmar @juiceDoom