Last week, the organizers of the Smash World Tour Championships, a $250,000 esports tournament, claimed that they had been forced to cancel the Dec. 11 event due to legal threats from Nintendo, the developer of the popular fighting game series from which the tournament took its name.
The news whipped the online Super Smash Bros. community into a frenzy. Scores of top Smash players pledged to boycott the Panda Cup, a Nintendo-licensed competitor of the Smash World Tour, resulting in the postponement of the event. Prominent YouTubers such as Ludwig Ahgren and Charles “MoistCr1TiKaL” White made videos critical of Nintendo’s involvement in the situation, racking up millions of views. On the competitive side of the Smash community, sentiment toward Nintendo has never been more negative.
Nintendo did not immediately return a request for comment.
The fracas surrounding the Smash World Tour highlights Nintendo’s uniquely skeptical approach to competitive gaming. Unlike other publishers such as Activision Blizzard and Riot Games, which have pumped millions of dollars into organizing and marketing esports leagues for their titles, Nintendo has never run its own competitive tournament or offered prize support to grassroots Smash events.
At times, Nintendo has actively worked against the competitive Smash scene. When Evolution Championship Series 2013 hosted a Smash bracket, Nintendo tried to force the event not to stream the tournament, only to reverse the decision after receiving backlash from the online gaming community.
Antipathy toward competitive Smash notwithstanding, it is likely that Nintendo will eventually have to embrace esports as a potential revenue stream and marketing channel, much like it gradually reversed its policy against film adaptations of its intellectual properties. But the competitive Smash scene is used to organizing its own events and negotiating its own brand partnerships independently of Nintendo. The blow-up of the Smash World Tour shows what happens when the cold realities of the gaming business collide with the passion of a grassroots community.
For the latest edition of Digiday’s Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, Digiday spoke to a Super Smash Bros. tournament organizer to explore how Nintendo’s involvement — or lack thereof — has stymied the growth of the game’s vibrant esports scene.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you summarize Nintendo’s involvement in the competitive Smash scene for me?
They shut down The Big House Online. They banned Major League Gaming from streaming Super Smash Bros. Brawl. They tried to shut down the EVO Super Smash Bros. Melee stream. They prevented the scene from using UCF [a modified version of the game that fixes controller issues], and thus we have to use a stealth version of UCF to avoid Nintendo’s wrath.
With all this in mind, were you surprised by the cancellation of the Smash World Tour?
Yes, I was very surprised by the news. Every single event [in the circuit] prior to the championship ran as intended, and there seemed to be no complications publicly.
Nintendo told the Smash World Tour that it rejected its license application due to safety and security concerns. Did the company have legitimate reasons to feel this way?
I mean, yeah. Do you think Nintendo is OK with a top player walking onstage at [Smash tournament] Double Down coughing up blood and having the venue staff do nothing about it, or letting [YouTuber] Technicals sneak into the venue as a banned player? Does that sound like something that Nintendo would be fine with, with regard to safety guidelines? That is one of the reasons Nintendo did not want to give them a license.
Nintendo also expressed concerns over tournaments’ use of modified versions of Smash. Haven’t some licensed events in the Panda Cup used game mods like UCF?
Yes. Additionally, [Smash World Tour organizer Calvin “GimR” Lofton] did literally everything that he could do to prevent Nintendo’s wrath. He told every single person who ever appeared on stream not to talk about netplay, not to talk about any modification of the game. He went as far as to prevent Nintendo-branded things from appearing on the stream — for example, he rejected the idea of commentators wearing Pikachu and Mario costumes because he didn’t want any potential issues.
The Smash World Tour and Panda Cup were both attempts to elevate Smash to the level of other mainstream esports. Is this something the Smash scene needs or wants?
In a vacuum, I think that every top player, every commentator, every person who has done anything administrative for the scene, would like more money. A lot of the great tournaments that we have experienced over the years have all operated on a loss. Most players after rank 11 make less than minimum wage off of Smash. So the blanket answer to the question of whether we want to be a legitimate esport and get developer support and money is a resounding yes.
Do we need more money? No. We survived during quarantine, when there were no tournaments whatsoever. People keep giving this analogy that Melee is like a cockroach, and that you just can’t kill us, and I think that’s correct. We’ll just go back to some dirty little hole, some crevice of a wall of a murky apartment building. We don’t need the developer support.
How has Nintendo’s lack of support shaped the evolution of the Smash scene?
I’m going to give an example of a different company, Capcom. They’re the developer of Street Fighter, and Capcom supports competitive Street Fighter. So when Street Fighter 4 came out, everyone moved to Street Fighter 4. When Street Fighter 5 came out, everyone moved to Street Fighter 5.
The Smash community is still split between Melee, the 21-year-old GameCube version of the game, and Ultimate, the newest edition. Are you saying that Nintendo’s lack of support is a cause for this split?
Yes. If Nintendo supported MLG for Brawl, and then continued to put a bunch of money into the game for Ultimate, there would not be nearly as committed and thriving of a Melee scene as there is right now.
Without developer support, how can the Smash esports scene continue to expand in the future?
I think the ideal future for the Smash scene lies in independent influencers. Hopefully, we get more influencers and YouTubers — more Ludwigs — to support our scene, and not an actual company.