“We used to have the perception he didn’t care,” said Super Smash Bros. pro Gonzalo “Zero” Barrios at Nintendo’s first tournament for Smash Ultimate last year. “He,” of course, was game director Masahiro Sakarai, the Smashdaddy himself, who was watching from the sidelines. Barrios had just won a glistening crystalline trophy, and holding it in one hand, he continued: “Obviously that’s not true.”
Nintendo has always leaned into a come-as-you-are marketing strategy for Super Smash Bros., which a hard emphasis on high-level competition can run against. Smash, said Sakurai years ago, needs to be novice-friendly first and foremost. Yet in the year since that tournament, held in a former burlesque theater in downtown Los Angeles, Nintendo has slowly been rolling out more Nintendo-sanctioned Smash tournaments, including one slated for E3 on June 8. They’re a little weird, though, as far as Smash tournaments go. They have items. They’re governed by strange rulesets and competed in by some relatively unknown players. As an independent and hugely popular competitive Smash scene roils on in the foreground with little help from Nintendo, the big question surrounding these official tournaments is simple: Why now?
“Obviously with something like Smash, there are already a ton of tournaments out there,” said Bill Trinen, Nintendo of America’s senior product marketing director in an interview with Kotaku. “We’re trying to find ways to make it easier for people who are everyday Smash players to get a taste of participating in tournaments.”
In 2019, as big game publishers like Blizzard are salivating over the #esportshype and rolling out hundred-million-dollar leagues, Nintendo is swerving. Let’s not forget they’re the company that looked around at all of its VR-obsessed competitors and decided to release its own line of cardboard “make believe” gaming accessories. Their plan with these sporadic official tournaments isn’t to replace or overshadow Smash’s pro scene. “We want to keep the grassroots base community healthy and sustainable and the way we want to do that is to bring in fresh blood,” said Trinen. Essentially, he wants to leverage Nintendo’s brand to nourish Smash’s player-driven esports ecosystem.
Nintendo has had a fraught relationship to Smash’s fierce competitive community for about a decade. For the most part, Nintendo ignored the contingent of Smash fans who, like an on-task ant colony, carried many times’ their weight in organizing tournament circuits, prize pools and artists alleys for fan-made Smash merch. On one hand, it wasn’t an issue; Smash’s esports scene was organic and hype, even for all of its relative messiness without the polished treatment of a big-money developer. On the other hand, pros wanted to make some damn money for all their hard work, which, some argue, helps extend Smash’s mainstream relevance. Some even considered unionizing.
“We don’t view ourselves as really even now dipping our toe into esports,” said Trinen, following that up with a bit of a marketer’s rhetorical spin: “I think our approach is less of one of competition and it’s really more about the competitive fun.”
In a way, Nintendo’s tournaments feel a little like your dad throwing you the sort of birthday party he thinks you’d want. It’s got most of your friends, including beloved Smash commentators and a couple pros. It’s got all the glitz and glam. But weirdly, he’s set up pinatas (Smash Balls, in this metaphor) and other games you haven’t played seriously since you were little (2 vs. 2 timed battles in the upcoming E3 tournament). It’s fun and you’re grateful—it’s just not what you and your buddies might do on your own.
Trinen says Nintendo is trying to bridge the gap between ardent Smash fans and the pro community (who have their own idiosyncrasies). They don’t allow items in tournaments, and each game is a stock battle that must take place on a tournament-legal stage. “We want to bring the casual Smash player into the competitive scene and the existing competitive community,” he said, citing how over 60 percent of 10,000 players participating in online qualifiers for the last official Smash tournament had never played in a tournament before. Nintendo’s upcoming E3 tournament will still be inundated with items, and split between 1 vs. 1 and 2 vs. 2 matches—sometimes timed and sometimes stock. It’s a more mellow vibe, and it’s to be seen whether it whets players’ palates for a weekly local tournament at their nearest card shop.
“We don’t want to compete with the competitive scene,” said Trinen when I asked what the thinking is behind Nintendo’s tournament ruleset. “We’re using items on partially to differentiate from what the competitive scene is doing and partially to make it easier for a more casual audience to approach.”
Lately, there’s a lot that Nintendo has been doing to appease its competitive fans on top of these tournaments. Commentators like Victoria “VikkiKitty” Perez and Phil “EE” Visu are getting gigs from the publisher. Yet when I asked whether there’s a future for aged-out pro Smash players among Nintendo’s salaried ranks, Trinen politely answered, maybe, for people with the right skillset, but hopefully they can pursue streaming or YouTube content creation. Similarly, Nintendo now issues detailed patch notes for Smash, which means pros aren’t meticulously picking apart the game for any iota of insight they can find. Yet according to Trinen, while developers “look at general trends in the competitive scene” when balancing the game, “I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re tailoring the game for one particular audience of another.” It’s a tightrope act, I gathered.
Nintendo is smartly finding ways to funnel newer fans into Smash’s already-existent network of competitive players and the infrastructure they’ve hammered out over the last decade. New blood’s closeness to the Smash gods at these tournaments will inflame their ambition to one day sit among them. The competitive mindset stokes their passion and, importantly for a game with slow-release DLC, invites them to continually buy in. And relative to the Riot Games and Blizzards of the world, it won’t cost them a whole lot.
[Correction—5/31/19, 4:20 pm ET:] An earlier version of this story misstated Phil Visu’s last name. We regret the error.