The little e-sport that could: Smash Bros' struggle against its creators

With e-sports rising in popularity, it’s become a common water cooler topic among gamers to discuss which games can make it in the professional gaming world, and which cannot. Huge juggernauts like Call of Duty and Gears of War have attempted to build e-sports scenes but have seen only marginal success compared to 15-year-old games like Counter-Strike. Game genres like racing and sports try to build e-sports communities out of traditional sports fans, yet they rarely do as well as any MOBA tournament.

And then there’s the curious story of Smash Bros, by far the strangest case of e-sport success. On the surface, it looks like any other e-sport. Professional players get together to compete in tournaments and win cash prizes – some of them support themselves on Smash money alone. To casual observers, that is the quintessential e-sports model.

But the closer you get to the Smash scene, the more skepticism you find. For one, fighting games are barely considered e-sports. Despite their general popularity, fighting game tournament prize pools are small compared to the multi-million dollar pools of DOTA events, for example. And Smash is barely even considered a fighting game! It’s the lone brown sheep in the small group of black sheep in a herd of white sheep who are all playing League of Legends.

I can already hear the angry keyboard tappings of fans ready to comment, “SMASH IS SO A FIGHTING GAME!” Yes, this is an argument that has been had a million times and I’m not very interested in having it again. Smash, no matter how you look at it, is a fighting game. The goal is to fight the opponent and be the last man standing. It may be a non-traditional fighting game, with heavy platforming and movement mechanics, but it is a fighting game nonetheless.

Sakurai: Smash’s Blessing and Curse

That’s how I feel, and that’s how the general Smash populace feels, but it’s NOT how Smash’s creator, Masahiro Sakurai, feels. Sakurai, for all his game design brilliance, designed Smash to be the anti-fighting game. Specifically, he “wanted to avoid a design where stronger players dominate weaker ones.” He specifically wanted to create a game where skill did not necessarily determine the winner, and where “new players can have fun as well.”

In fact, while he is appreciative of Smash’s success, he specifically suggests that e-sport competitors NOT play Smash, saying, “If you want to enjoy the strategy or competitiveness in playing against another person, then maybe normal fighting games are more suited for you.” This quote comes from a March 2016 article in Famitsu (translated by Soma), but it’s a sentiment he has echoed time and time again since the success of Melee.

Unfortunately, it also defines his game design choices. Remember how annoying random tripping was in Brawl? That was specifically put in to prevent pro-gamers from using complex movement mechanics.

This causes more than a couple of problems for the pro-Smash community. For example, they have to gut the game of most of its content. Items are turned off. Most levels are banned. Players only use the “stock” game setting, and usually only in 1v1 or 2v2.

At first glance this just makes sense. Of course the professional gaming community would reduce variance as much as possible. They want matches to come down to skill and skill alone. That’s one of the most important elements of any e-sport. Introducing elements like items and stage hazards tends to make Smash more of a party game than a fighting game.

Granted, Smash was designed to be a party game, but that’s a problem because, as I said before – Smash is a fighting game! No matter how you want to design it, the core goal is to beat the other player.

Once again, I’m not here to have an argument about which way is the "right way” to play Smash. That is yet another argument that has been had a million times and it has no real answer. I only bring this up to show that Smash’s professional scene is actually working against the wishes of the game’s developer and publisher. They have to force Smash into the fighting game mold through a number of rules and restrictions.

This is entirely unlike any other e-sport in the industry. Most e-sports are trying to be competitive. Even e-sports with unavoidable built in randomness, like Hearthstone, do their best to create an even playing field. Blizzard’s extensive balance patches are proof enough of that. Heck we got two this year, one specifically meant to fix issues with the game being “too random.”

But Smash isn’t trying to be competitive. Smash is trying to be “fun.” Smash is trying to make you feel good even if you didn’t earn your victory. Smash is trying to be family friendly, like any other Nintendo product.

Nintendo releases balance patches for Smash, but they rarely “balance” things for competitive play. Instead, they remove exploitable moves and mechanics, things that aren’t “fun.” But this doesn’t compress the tier list or otherwise make characters more balanced with each other. Smash 4 players have often commented on how swingy the meta is any time a patch is released. Sometimes, already low-tier characters are made even worse just because newbies don’t like playing against them.

Nintendo’s Support Means Everything

Think about the elements of a good e-sport for a second. A good e-sport needs to be skill based, and Sakurai doesn’t want Smash to be skill based. A good e-sport always rewards the best player, and Sakurai doesn’t want that either.

A good e-sport also needs support from its publisher and developer, and Nintendo has rarely supported the professional Smash scene. In fact, the few Smash tournaments Nintendo has run did not employ the rules that professional Smashers have already come to accept. Heck, Brawl’s launch tournament forced you to use the Wiimote and Nunchuck control scheme, and made you use random characters! What sort of fighting game tournament doesn’t let you choose your characters?

Without Nintendo’s support (and by that I mean Nintendo’s money) Smash tournaments are stuck with small prize pools even for the already small fighting game scene. These pools are cobbled together from the entry fees of the players themselves. Prize pools have been so small that only 1.5 million dollars have been awarded in prize money since Smash Bros. Melee’s release in 2001. That’s as much as some Counter-Strike teams make in one tournament.

Nintendo has given the scene some support in recent tournaments, but nowhere near as much as, say, Capcom has to Street Fighter V, which is ludicrous when you think about it. Do you have any idea how much bigger Nintendo is than Capcom? Two years ago, Nintendo was measured as being worth 18.4 billion dollars. At the time, that was 700 million dollars more than Sony! Capcom, on the other hand, was rated as being worth 152 million dollars around the same time. Nintendo pulled in Capcom’s entire worth in profit in just three months, despite the Wii U failing. And yet, time and again we see FAR more money devoted to e-sports coming from Capcom than Nintendo. That’s almost inexcusable!

And Nintendo is the company that stands to profit the most from this support. E-sports is a business, and much of that business is sponsorship. Companies want to sell you keyboards, headsets, arcade sticks, and, of course, games. Nintendo is the sole producer of what is widely considered the ONLY controller good enough to play Smash Bros on – the Gamecube controller. So a couple of crafty deals could really boost their profit, right? Why isn’t Nintendo selling official headsets and gamer wear?

First of all, Nintendo doesn’t need that extra profit. Note the aforementioned ludicrous worth. Nintendo is playing the image game right now. They are the only family-friendly console on the market. They are also the only console that is marketed as a pure gaming machine, not a “quality of life” machine that feeds Netflix and Hulu into your face. Professional hardcore gamers chugging their Mountain Dew, making toxic comments on stream, and battling each other for massive prize money doesn’t fit this image. It’s not fun, it’s the exact opposite of fun. It’s professional. It’s a job.

Around 71,000 viewers tuned in to watch Smash 4 at EVO 2016. Many of these people already have Smash and controllers, but let’s be generous. Let’s say about half of these viewer (35,000) all immediately went out to buy a $30 Smash controller. Let’s also say that Nintendo makes about half of that cost in profit, or $15 a controller. That’s $525,000, which is a hefty sum, but a drop in the bucket for the big N who, may I remind you, makes over 150 million dollars in just three months! This is the biggest Smash tournament of the year we are talking about, and it stands to bring in less money than any random Nintendo game release.

Any other product would run into the same problems. Families aren’t going to spend a ton of money on branded headsets or t-shirts, and if they are, they already know what brand they are going to buy: the Nintendo brand. That’s a brand that doesn’t need any help from e-sports. Nintendo can sell you a shirt with Mario on it without sinking a dime into the Smash scene.

So Nintendo has to ask itself, will it make more money by supporting the e-sports scene than it will lose by damaging its family friendly image? No one knows for sure, but it’s not a risk I’d be willing to take.

The Melee Divide

But that’s just the first reason Nintendo can’t make money off of the e-sports scene. The second is the specific version of Smash that is commonly accepted as an e-sport. Smash 4 got just 71,000 viewers to tune in, but 230,000 tuned in for Smash Bros. Melee. That’s the game that’s the real e-sport juggernaut here.

But Nintendo can’t make money on this huge fanbase. They don’t make Gamecubes anymore. They don’t sell Melee. In fact, they specifically don’t want to back Melee; they want to back Smash 4 or whatever is coming out on the NX. They want to back something they can actively make money on.

Nintendo’s lack of Melee support has been evident in the past. Melee’s first grand resurgence in the e-sports community came when EVO held a charity donation drive to figure out which game would take its final main stage slot in 2013. Melee fans raised $94,683 for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, netting them the final position on the main stage. Yet, that very same year Nintendo attempted to shut down the event! Only due to the massive outcry of Smash fans did the event manage to go on as planned.

And that’s really Smash’s greatest strength, its fan support. While the scene may not have backing from its publisher, its community is one of the strongest in the e-sports world. The dedication fans have to the tech and evolution of this game is astounding. The monetary support fans throw behind it is incredible. The narrative surrounding Smash keeps fans on the edge of their seats. Seeing the EVO 2016 champion, Hungrybox, break down in tears on the main stage as he finally took home the gold, showing his parents that he can make something of himself in the professional gaming world – that is a story worthy of a sports movie.

But even the community has its limits, primarily because of Melee. It’s hard to become a new Smash fan. Gamecubes are hard to find and working copies of Melee are expensive. Nintendo hasn’t released Melee in a digital format like many of its other games. Even holding tournaments for Melee is difficult due to the need for multiple CRT TVs and working Gamecubes. A huge multi-game tournament like EVO will be able to run every single game on every single monitor…except for Melee, which needs its own equipment.

Yet somehow the Melee community continues to do it! That’s why Smash has survived as an e-sport for so long. It’s being held up on the backs of its fans.

A League of Their Own

But fan support just isn’t enough. None of this is meant to criticize Nintendo. They aren’t twirling their evil curly moustaches and planning to tie Hungrybox to the train tracks, they are just making smart business decisions.  Their goals are just different from the Smash community’s goals, which is odd in the e-sports world.

And lack of Nintendo support may be the single biggest roadblock for a number of reasons. Less monetary support means less opportunity to make money for both players and teams. This makes teams less likely to sign-on players. Many teams have signed Smash players only to let them go a year or two later, finding a lack of financial opportunity in the Smash scene.

Without Nintendo’s support, there can be no official Smash league, and this too creates a number of problems. There are no official Smash standings. No official way to rank players outside of fan managed statistics. There is no reliable way to invite pros to tournaments or exhibitions. 

And most importantly, there is no way to officially recognize Smash as a sport. Its lack of a league and further lack of salaried players has led many governments to deny it status as a sport. This has caused many professional players problems when traveling overseas for a tournament. Swedish player William Hjelte AKA “Leffen” was denied an athletes Visa for this very reason. These problems first arose back in April and were resolved only a few weeks ago, forcing “Leffen” to sit out every Smash tournament held on American soil. Note that the U.S. officially recognized e-sports players as professional athletes back in 2013, so Smash was the problem here, not e-sports in general.

Survival of the Fittest

With all these problems, can Smash survive as an e-sport? That seems to be the question on everyone’s mind, and it has a lot of different answers. Smash tournaments won’t stop being held any time soon, Smash’s community is far too strong for that. Smash won’t stop being released any time soon, either. It’s just too popular of a franchise. Nintendo has already hinted toward an NX Smash release and every new Smash release will only revitalize the community. It’s clear that the Smash community will survive one way or another.

But can professional Smash players reliably make money? Can playing Smash be a profitable business? That’s a more complicated question. Likely, the answer will lie with Nintendo, as they really hold the key to Smash’s success or failure as an e-sport. If they decide to increase their support, forming an official league and donating money to tournament prize pools, things will avalanche in Smash’s favor. Teams will see more financial opportunity and sign more players, which will make tournaments bigger, which will increase Nintendo’s ability to profit and everything keeps getting better from there.

And Nintendo might do this, but not in the way Smash players want. Nintendo will never, ever, throw this much support behind a fifteen year old game. So Melee, sadly, will never be the e-sport we all want it to be. Smash 4 has a vibrant scene, but not as vibrant as Melee’s, which makes Nintendo hesitant to support it. So the sad answer is this:

For Smash to survive as an e-sport, Smash players may have to give up Melee.

Granted, Nintendo can meet them half way. In fact, if the NX version of Smash plays more like Melee, the community might be more willing to convert. But the reality is that Capcom isn’t supporting Super Turbo, they are supporting Street Fighter V. Valve isn’t supporting the original Counter-Strike mod, they are supporting CS:GO. Every e-sport is the latest and greatest version of the game on the market. So maybe, if Smash players decide to support Nintendo, then Nintendo will support them back.

But with a developer who is specifically attempting to prevent Smash matches from being decided by skill, I sincerely doubt players will ever give up Melee’s intense technical gameplay.