Thanks to my coverage of Evo 2013, I’ve been given the opportunity to put the spotlight on competitive Super Smash Bros. here at Nintendo Enthusiast every once in a while. My first feature, last week’s piece on Evo 2013 and competitive Smash Bros. in general, touched mostly on an actual event, while this week I want to move away from physical tournaments and focus on Smash Bros. itself.
With the discourse of eSports and competitive gaming developing year after year, Nintendo’s all-star fighting franchise and its passionate, competitive community has been gradually growing larger. Melee’s revitalized strength, Brawl’s casual accessibility, and the media explosion surrounding Melee’s possible ban from being streamed at Evo 2013 have set up competitive Smash Bros. for years of continued growth and prosperity, especially with the next installment of the series coming sometime next year.
Despite years of feeling ignored and outright hated by the game’s creator, the competitive community can finally recognize a ray of light poking through the dark clouds above. Smash Bros. designer Masahiro Sakurai has spoken of Smash for Wii U and 3DS’s focus on finding a happy medium between Melee and Brawl in terms of gameplay. Nintendo did not ruin the Evo 2013 Smash experience like they did in 2010 when Major League Gaming was unable to stream Brawl at its Pro Circuit events.
We’re in a different world than the one that existed several years ago when the word “eSport” was barely a real thing. So, let’s get serious for a minute and talk about Smash Bros. as an eSport: a true, honest eSport that could join the forefront of competitive gaming as one of the most popular eSports in the world. Evo 2013 showed us that Smash Bros. has indeed cultivated a rich competitive community and that the outside world was eager to watch with unblinking eyes. I am confident that Smash Bros. can live up to its potential as an eSport…and here’s why:
What the Success of Evo 2013 Tells Us
Despite all the hype and media attention surrounding Melee’s competition at Evo 2013, the largest annual fighting game tournament in the world, nobody expected the almost twelve year old game to reach a peak of ~134,000 concurrent viewers as Mango and Wobbles squared off for one last time in Grand Final. Although it was quickly reported that Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo 2013 had become the most watched fighting game event ever, only Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would surpass the Gamecube classic in peak viewers, hitting ~145,000 viewers during its final set.
The competitive community had won a huge victory in the grand scheme of things – Nintendo, who had been such an enemy of the competitive community since its inception, was now cooperating with the tournament players. While Nintendo is no Riot or Blizzard or Valve, at the very least they did not completely shut down the stream or the entire Melee competition, which they very easily could have done.
The outpouring of support for Melee was no usual community backlash. Not only did the Smash Bros. community as a whole pull together to get Melee in the tournament in the first place, but both the fighting game community and the gaming community in general stood up for their right to watch some awesome Melee action. For a game that has been constantly the butt end of jokes for stream monsters and trolls, constantly neglected by its own creator and company, yet still remains a larger community than most competitive games, this was more than a heartwarming experience for each and every competitive Smasher around the world.
Furthermore, we see how receptive the outside gaming community seems to be toward competitive Smash. Smash Bros. is a game many have played at least once, the characters are memorable, and the chance to see the best of the best play wasn’t largely ignored. In fact, the casual community came out in droves to show interest and support in a kind of play that is normally found rejected by non-competitive players.
At the very least, we can rest assured that if competitive Smash grows, it won’t feel the resistance that it felt over half a decade ago. Both competitive and casual players have realized and are continuing to realize that Smash Bros. can be a game that caters to both casual and competitive players without hindering the experience for either. It seems now that the gaming ecosystem is finally ready for that kind of game.
Smash is Spectator Compatible
Several years ago, when Starcraft 2 was revolutionizing competitive gaming outside of South Korea, those involved in the discourse of what would become “eSports” as we know it today spent a lot of their time talking about generating fans. They realized that for competitive gaming to grow, these games needed to be both populated by players and hordes of passionate fans. Nobody just plays football, they also watch the NFL. People don’t just play basketball, they watch the NBA. The leaders of competitive gaming realized that competitive gaming communities could no longer be made up of only fans if they wanted to grow. This is why the major eSports around the world today (Starcraft 2, League of Legends, DOTA 2) have massive events with huge crowds of fans, many of which may not even play the game but rather only watch as a spectator, while major FGC events consist of masses that are largely players who end up becoming spectators because they were eliminated from play. Smash too needs to generate fans if it wants to grow.
Thankfully, from the Evo 2013 stream, it seems like it may not be as difficult as it may be for other fighting games. Why would that be? Competitive games are fundamentally inaccessible to the untrained viewer. Someone who has never watched Starcraft 2 before may be completely confused by the huge amount of information provided by the stream overlay all while hundreds of futuristic units battle in a chaotic war. Massive Online Battle Arena games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends can be even more confusing with its five-on-five team fights; colorful spells and magic flying around the air as champions large and small duke it out, all while there’s seemingly endless information strewn around the screen.
On the other hand, traditional sports are far more welcoming to the uninitiated. Watching an ice hockey game on TV, you’ll see the score, time, period, and possibly penalty timer (if there is a power play) in a small box near the edge of the screen, while the overwhelming majority of the screen is dedicated to the actual game at hand. There isn’t a massive amount of information creating a window to watch the action through. This is partly because sports are naturally less complex than competitive video games (which isn’t a bad thing, mind you), but also because a large sum of the relevant statistics in sports aren’t needed on the screen as the action is happening – this is not the case with a game such as League of Legends, in which keeping track of player scores, item inventory, power, etc. is vital to the viewing experience, at the very least to understand the game on a conceptual level past the basic understanding that it’s a five-on-five team game.
Even traditional fighting games, to a certain extent, suffer from having too much information on the screen. Most fighting games have at least two bars representing health and super meter, a counter to show if a super or ultra move is ready, hit counters, sometimes multiple health bars like in games such as Marvel vs. Capcom or King of Fighters in which players fight with teams of characters, or even guard meters.
Although fighting games seem to have this problem only to a degree, Smash Bros. is an interesting case in that it doesn’t suffer from this problem at all. It’s a competitive fighting game that is more akin to traditional sports rather than other competitive games in terms of being a spectator sport. In competitive Smash Bros., the only information on the screen is the timer, each characters’ portrait and percentage, and how many stocks each player has left (doubled if the match is a 2v2). The rest of the screen is left to the action. This makes for a better viewing experience – casual viewers can quickly jump into the action without being bombarded by an information overload.
And, just like in real sports, viewers grow attached to the competitors they see on screen. Major eSports communities and tournaments have capitalized on the narratives of their competitors: the rivalries, the upsets, the veterans, the newcomers, etc.
The fighting game community similarly exudes the same amount of hype, though very frequently turning it up to eleven when the intensity in-game ramps up. Smash too can capitalize on this in the same way, but for Smash it’s twofold: not only are viewers finding interest in the actual players themselves (see: the overwhelming crowd support for Wobbles as he ran through Winner’s Bracket at Evo, the post-event media attention for Evo champion Mango, etc.), but many already have an interest thanks to the characters themselves, many of whom are likely to have been part of every gamer’s life at least once. And seeing Fox beat down Peach or Captain Falcon kneeing Sheik to death seems to just never get old. Fortunately, Smash Bros. already has a passionate competitive following to build this foundation of fans as Smashers are just as able to generate exceptional amounts of hype.
The potential for Smash Bros. as a spectator sport is colossal, as it already has the fundamental makings to be a major spectacle thanks to its presentation and gameplay. The action in Smash is concise and defined. In retrospect, I guess it does make sense why Melee had so many viewers for Evo!
And With The Right Kind of Support…
League of Legends would not be the biggest and most popular competitive video game in the world right now if it wasn’t for the support of its developer, Riot Games. Starcraft 2 would not be the most significant competitive RTS in the world right now if it wasn’t for the support of its developer, Blizzard. DOTA 2 would not have its incredible event The International without the support of its developer, Valve. Hell, Call of Duty wouldn’t have had a tournament with a million dollars on the line if it wasn’t for Activision.
Simply put, Smash Bros. can indeed become a major eSport, but it won’t be able to without Nintendo. The desire for direct developer support for competitive Smash isn’t a selfish one – providing for the competitive community leads to gains for all players of Smash. The game can be fundamentally improved by the insights of pros and amateurs alike. Each game is both fun to pick up and play, but also able to withstand hours and hours of practice time and grinding. However, this goes beyond simply making a game built for competitive play. Smash Bros. thrives because it is fundamentally made to be played in so many different ways.
So, if Nintendo is able to find a good balance to continue to deliver such an experience, which would ultimately be a plus for both casual and competitive players as each could play however they want, we have something to look forward to. Still, what other companies not only create what can survive as a competitive game, but they also help facilitate that by being an integral and active part of their own game’s competitive scene.
The competitive Smash community has been able to survive on its own for over a decade without Nintendo’s help…but with Nintendo’s support, there’s a lot that can be done that could never have been accomplished before. For one thing, Nintendo legitimizing competitive Smash (either by acknowledging it, supporting established tournaments or event holding a tournament of its own like the Video Game Championships are held for Pokemon) would send a wave of casual players in to check out what competitive play is like.
If Nintendo shows that competitive play is another fun way to play Smash, then we could have more players at tournaments and more viewers watching them, with a lot less of the vitriol and toxicity associated with Nintendo not legitimizing competitive Smash in the first place. And, of course, if you don’t want to play competitive Smash, it will always be a fun game to play on more casual settings.
Nintendo has the exclusive power to also legitimize competitive play right in the game itself in a number of ways and could learn a thing or two from its competitors. Activision, Blizzard, Valve, and Riot all have competitive ladders (either ranked, unranked, or both) that allow players to compete against one another using the same settings used in official tournaments. These same companies, especially Valve and Riot, even stream major tournaments directly in the game’s client. Both of these options could do wonders for Smash – having a competitive ladder, which would hopefully not be plagued by a terrible online service, could welcome newcomers to the competitive experience right in their own homes (although, Sakurai has already put down the idea of a ranked ladder experience, but things could change and at the very least we could maybe see a gametype or playlist that isn’t a ladder but still dedicated to using only competitive settings). And if they want to watch the best of the best, the main menu of the game could be the host of the stream for the next Evo or Apex event, almost like the Twitch.TV app built right into the game.
These are avenues that Nintendo could go down that we’re seeing other companies venture through as we speak. The amazing thing about it is, those two options are just part of the plethora of ways Nintendo could show its support for competitive Smash. Still, no matter how they do so, I’ll be grateful, but I don’t want to sit around idly by, twiddling my thumbs, — I’ll be working every day to grow competitive Smash Bros…at least, that’s how I see it. So, each and every day is a new opportunity to learn new things about the growth of competitive Smash and how we can mold its future.
I am confident that eSports and competitive gaming as a whole will be around one hundred years from now. I hope Smash Bros. can be around with it. Melee has shown how timeless competitive Smash can be. With the new installment of the franchise coming out soon and Nintendo changing its ways, we could very well see a bright future for a larger and more prosperous Smash Bros. community as it strengthens as a major eSport. It’s amazing to realize that we’re around just in the very beginning, watching the scene take root and flourish even over a decade after the first game’s release.
I can’t wait to see where we end up in another ten years.