Super Smash Bros. was born to be an esport; its immense popularity, the groundbreaking crossover success, and its highly addictive tournament mode practically makes it a shoo-in. With the seemingly endless resources Nintendo has, Super Smash Bros. had the true potential to not only be the most popular fighting game, but the most popular esport in history.
So why isn’t it?
Cultivating a Scene
The earliest known Smash tournaments began in 2002, when the motive was simple: test your skills against your peers. Using basements like those in the home of Matt “MattDeezie” Dahlgren, a retired tournament director and considered to be the founder of Super Smash Bros. Melee tournaments, enthusiastic players played for bragging rights, sharpened skills, and for just plain fun. As time went by, more groups popped up around the country and soon around the world, using the same backroom format with Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. And while the latter two soon faded under the shadow of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and the resurgence of Melee in the 2010s thanks to EVO, the Smash fighting game community never stopped growing and there is no doubt that it’s this grassroot effort that kept the dream of a developer-backed Smash esport alive.
What makes this even more remarkable is that the only way players would even be able to compete is in-person; there was no online capability for Melee and this format allowed the game to provide a more organic experience that was dramatically different from other esports that primarily succeeded online.
Yet, Nintendo has shown little interest in supporting this scene, despite the undeniable potential it has shown for almost two decades. Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa has gone on record stating that while he recognizes the appeal of esports in general, he sees it as something that interferes with Nintendo’s goal of making their games and events appeal to “a broad range of people, regardless of experience, gender, or generation.” This is a rather curious statement to make, as the fighting game community has literally accomplished just that. And while it still has a long way to go in terms of providing a safe and welcoming environment as gaming in general becomes increasingly more diverse, the fighting game community, from its characters to the people playing them, has historically been known to meet Mr. Furukawa’s goals.
If community members have been nurturing a competitive environment, on their own, for years on end, then why is Nintendo refusing to provide support?
Code of “Dis”honor
One of the most well-known tournament organizers is The Big House, a Michigan-based event that has hosted Smash tournaments for almost a decade. It is one of the most popular and consistent tournaments in the community and has been host to a variety of legendary players such as Mew2King, Hungrybox, and Armada. And like many other LAN tournaments this year, its occurrence was in jeopardy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As an alternative, The Big House decided to host their tournament online for the safety of its participants and to keep the spirit alive in a time when it was desperately needed.
There was just one little problem: typically, Smash cannot be played competitively online.
In order to bring Super Smash Bros. Melee online, The Big House decided to utilize Project Slippi, a mod that when used with the Dolphin emulator that allows GameCube games to be played on PC, would provide a nearly flawless experience that would be almost as if the competitors were sitting right next to each other. It was a breakthrough for the community who wanted a way to adjust to the pandemic while still being able to enjoy the game, and an option for The Big House to still hold the event.
However, Nintendo caught wind of this and immediately issued a cease and desist letter to The Big House, citing piracy concerns and copyright claims as the reasons. But while The Big House’s statement cites that the CAD is “primarily due to the usage of Slippi,” the reason is actually more than that, and unfortunately puts a spotlight on why hosting an online tournament with Melee and Ultimate continues to be impossible without Nintendo’s support.
The issue didn’t lie in the code itself, even though it is bewildering (yet not) as to why Nintendo has not reached out to the developer of Project Slippi in order to strengthen the online gaming experience. The issue isn’t even the use of emulators, as their use is very much legal despite what has been stated. The issue is that in order for players to be in the tournament, they would need their own copies of the game. But when you’re using an emulator, you would need to prove that your copy of Melee is in fact a legal dump of the game. This would be impossible for the TOs of The Big House to verify, as they would have to check every participant’s copy of the game on their PC to do so, and even if they could, there are loopholes that could be used to show an illegal copy as being legal, such as finding a copy of the game, downloading it, and showing it as legal.
So while Nintendo had a point regarding potential copyright infringement, they went about it in the wrong way. Instead of stating that all copies of the game are illegal, which isn’t true, the correct approach would have been to state that there was no way to prevent illegal copies from being used. And since Nintendo has stopped selling GameCube and GameCube games such as Melee, no legal copies would be available to purchase. It put The Big House in an impossible situation and also showed Nintendo’s continued insistence of rejecting any official support of esports.
None of this helps anyone. The argument can always be had that Nintendo, being a corporation, will always act in its own best interests which will always be influenced by profit and reputation alone. Nintendo is within their right to stop illegal copies of their games from being used. However, they also have the ability to work with the community that loves their products in order to not only cultivate it, but also make more money by working with them. The countless hours mod developers have put in for the goal of making the gaming experience better symbolizes how much they care for what Nintendo has done for them.
Even more infuriating is that Nintendo could also simply provide online support for Melee. In a perfect world, Nintendo would see what this community is doing, provide copies of the game for them, negotiate with organizers regarding Project Slippi in order to bring the tournaments online, and fully invest in the community that has done nothing but thrive. The possibilities would be endless for both parties.
Yet Nintendo refuses. And with this refusal, it brought a round of some of the worst PR imaginable. Tags of #FreeMelee littered social media with voices in the community stating their disillusionment with Nintendo as a whole. Other video game communities even stood in solidarity with the Smash community.
Splatoon Provides Support
What makes this more infuriating is that Nintendo has actually used esports as promotion in the past. In 2016, it debuted the Switch using footage from a staged Splatoon 2 competition in order to highlight that potential. There was even talk in 2017 that there would be a GameCube Virtual Console which would allow Switch owners to “play Melee without a hitch”.
So it’s rather ironic that Nintendo felt the need to double down on its villainy by canceling their official stream of the Splatoon 2 NA tournament due to the top placing teams having team names that included wording supporting the #FreeMelee movement. The worst part is that it wasn’t even a majority of the names–only 30% of those contenders had them. Yet it was more than enough for Nintendo to outright cancel the stream due to “unexpected executional challenges.”
So the Splatoon community, in support of the Smash community, has 30% of the top teams in this weekend's Spl2 NA Open with Team names in support of Melee and Smash.
So what does @NintendoAmerica @NintendoVS do in response?
They cancelled their livestream for tomorrow's Finals.
— Slimy (@SlimyQuagsire) December 5, 2020
This proves that when push comes to shove, Nintendo has no qualms about pulling the petty lever whenever their communities show their displeasure. Splatoon showed their support for the Smash community in the most peaceful way possible and paid the price for it.
Well, they would have. If they hadn’t realized their own power and instead continued the stream–albeit unofficially–with the help of EndGameTV streaming it on their site and the community raising a prize pool of $1,000. Rather than this being heartwarming, it’s downright infuriating that Nintendo’s continued petulance is bringing communities together in order to create memorable experiences, as there will always be a tinge of regret attached due to what could be.
And this isn’t the worst thing Nintendo has done so far.
The Etika JoyCon Disaster
Desmond Daniel Amofah, better known as Etika, was a major voice in the Nintendo scene as a YouTube star known for his enthusiastic reactions to Nintendo Direct presentations. After passing away in summer of 2019, many of his fans and the community as a whole mourned the loss. It opened up yet another conversation regarding mental illness and suicide and left them wondering what they could do to help.
Enter Captain Alex, a content creator who designed and created custom JoyCon controller shells, dubbed “Etikon” shells. All proceeds from the sale of these shells went directly to the JED Foundation, a non-profit that aims to protect the mental and emotional health and prevent suicide of young adults and teens in the United States. By the end of 2019, over $10,000 was raised for the charity.
However, at the end of September 2019 Nintendo had issued yet another cease and desist letter to Captain Alex, stating that the references to JoyCon and Switch on them were violations against their copyrighted material. And while Nintendo is legally correct in this regard, this is just yet another example of more pettiness on their part, as anyone with half a soul would recognize the importance of Etika’s influence–and by extension mental health awareness–is for any community. This could have easily been, again, negotiated and discussed so that both parties would be happy with the results and provide Nintendo with some desperately needed positive PR. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Captain Alex has stated that if #FreeCptnAlex trends, he will launch a new Indiegogo campaign with a copyright-friendly redesign of the Etikons, with proceeds once again going to charity.
Get #FreeCptnAlex trending and I’ll launch a new Indiegogo campaign for revised Etika Joycons (aka Etikons )TOMORROW 👀
All references to Joycons and the switch logo will be removed from the design
Will be replaced with “We Dem Boyz” or “FRFX”
Profits still donated to charity
— CptnAlex (@Cptn_Alex) December 7, 2020
The Fight Goes On
The combined actions from Nintendo regarding their community’s actions show a lack of empathy, foresight, and more of an overwhelming amount of pettiness that is not unheard of from what is for all intents and purposes, a corporation. It is very easy to grow cynical and emotionless in this day and age after decades of accepting corporate petulance and abuse as long as they don’t directly affect our own lives. However, this isn’t the answer and it solves nothing. Being cynical isn’t edgy or productive. In order to bring change, the pressure must continue to be applied, accountability must be demanded, and cold hard facts have to be presented to show that there is nothing stopping Nintendo from investing into the competitive community other than corporate petulance.
Isolating and persecuting the very communities that have stood by you have never worked out for corporations in the long run. This should be recognized especially now as the COVID-19 pandemic and the release of Animal Crossing around the same time proved that adaptation is always the key to success. And while other companies such as Valve have embraced their community contributions instead of publicly disenfranchising them, Nintendo simply refuses to. And for them, there is nowhere to go but down.