Growth vs Grassroots: The Struggle for Expansion & Identity in the Super Smash Bros Community
Alexander Lee writes about The Smash World Tour and startup Smash.gg's fraught relationship with the spirit of the Super Smash Bros community
|The Pause Button Staff||May 28|| 2|
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As the Smash scene grows increasingly centralized, some community members fear the loss of the scene’s grassroots ethos. (Image credit: Image via Twitch/Beyond the Summit)
In March, the announcement of the Smash World Tour sent the grassroots competitive Super Smash Bros. scene into a frenzy of hype. The World Tour, an international tournament series with a record-breaking $250,000 prize pool, has since been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it remains the largest and most cohesive Smash league in the game’s two-plus decades of competitive play. Chief among its sponsors are Twitch, the Amazon-owned live-streaming platform, and Smash.gg, a Silicon Valley startup that has become one of esports’ most popular tournament hosting services since its foundation in 2015.
The emergence of a centralized circuit is good news for most members of the competitive Smash scene. While most prominent esports leagues are funded by corporations such as Riot Games and Activision Blizzard, Nintendo has historically been reluctant to support Smash tournaments, preferring to focus its marketing efforts on the game’s casual player base, which dwarfs the competitive scene.
Without monetary support from Nintendo, “smashers” have largely financed tournaments with their own capital, leading to the growth of a fiercely independent grassroots community. The downside of this grassroots spirit is the Smash scene’s lack of a centralized circuit or advisory organization, which can cause events to compete against—and even schedule over—each other on a regular basis. The Smash World Tour solves the problem of conflicting events by creating a standardized tournament calendar.
Nintendo has shown no indication that it will ever acquire Smash.gg or the Smash World Tour. But if the Japanese corporation makes its first foray into esports by hiring any of the individuals behind these companies, the resulting official Smash league would be one built by genuine and committed members of the Smash community. By combining the advantages of corporate backing with the strongest aspects of the scene’s grassroots structure, Nintendo could throw its support behind pre-established major tournaments instead of replacing them with its own.
In a way, this situation fits Smash’s identity and history as an esport. The series is not designed for competitive play; casual players accustomed to Pikachu and Kirby free-for-alls could very well confuse high-level Smash play for a completely different game. The standard Smash ruleset, with its limited stage choices and item ban, is a construct of the competitive scene, not a reflection of the game’s built-in rules. Smash players didn’t like the hand Nintendo dealt them, so they pushed and compromised until their candy-colored platform fighter morphed into one of the most prominent cult esports.
The Smash World Tour’s page on Smash.gg describes the league as “the future of competitive Smash.” (Image credit: Image via Alexander Lee)
Without Nintendo’s support, members of the Smash scene have had to develop their own community-building tools to provide services that other esports scenes receive for free from their corporate backers. Blizzard developed the matchmaking and social interaction platform Battle.net, but Nintendo has no equivalent, so the Smash scene created its own in the form of Smashboards and Smash.gg. Riot funds the LCS, but there is no Smash equivalent, so the team behind the Smash World Tour willed their own circuit into existence.
But the same centralization that promises to unify the Smash scene threatens to leave some members of the community behind. The World Tour’s official rulebook mandates that all participating tournaments be run through Smash.gg—a logical move for a circuit sponsored by the startup. This means tournament organizers who have long relied on alternative bracket platforms must choose between overhauling the way they do things or not participating in the World Tour at all.
Though Smash.gg provides a valuable service to the Smash community, some of these “TOs” fear that its centralizing presence represents a shift away from the grassroots ethos that defines competitive Smash. While the scene’s grassroots nature has allowed tournaments to experiment with rulesets and software modifications that would never be permitted by a corporate league, this independence has led smashers to become deeply suspicious of any interloper who tries to grow or monetize Smash using methods or resources that aren’t endemic to the space. Though Smash.gg has gained much goodwill within the Smash scene—and an advantage over competitors such as Challonge—by employing Smash figureheads and community members, the startup is largely backed by outside venture capital.
Chris Farina, a longtime New Jersey TO, runs most of his brackets on Challonge. After the announcement of the Smash World Tour, Farina took to Twitter to voice his concerns over the circuit’s mandatory Smash.gg policy, which requires all participating organizers to both register entrants and administer their brackets through Smash.gg. Though he respects the value Smash.gg has added to the Smash scene and is friends with some of the startup’s staff, Farina prefers not to use Smash.gg because of what he sees as an unresponsive interface and flawed user experience design. “The UI is very confusing and bloated,” said Farina.
Farina also notes that, despite Smash.gg’s origins within the Smash scene, the company has already begun to branch out into other, sometimes larger esports in order to drive profits. “In a way, they’re starting with us as their use case,” said Farina.
As far as Smash.gg CEO Tom Schofield is concerned, his company’s connection to the Smash community is rock solid. “Smash.gg grew out of the Smash scene,” said Schofield, “and so is well-suited for Smash Bros. events.”
Smash.gg tailored its interface for the Smash scene’s standard double-elimination brackets. (Image via Alexander Lee)
Schofield sees Smash.gg and the Smash World Tour as a natural pair, thanks to Smash.gg’s circuit features, which allow users to combine the results of multiple events in order to create centralized league standings. For this feature to work properly, all participating tournaments must have accurate and up-to-date results on Smash.gg. From a logistical standpoint, hosting all of the league’s events on Smash.gg is the path of least resistance.
“One of our core tenets is that we assume TOs will make the best choices and that as a business we should be following their lead,” said Schofield. “So we’re not in the business of trying to limit their options.”
The Smash World Tour is far from the first attempt to create a centralized Smash league. Years ago, Farina was part of the effort to turn Smashboards, a discussion forum that once formed the online hub of the Smash scene, into a consolidated tournament tracking and ranking platform. “We made a point of saying you can upload any data type in there,” said Farina.
The Smashboards league still exists today, but it failed to catch on, perhaps due to its lack of a large prize pool to entice big-name players and TOs. Its incorporation of a multitude of bracket data types didn’t help, either: players were often required to claim their own results, and sometimes failed to do so when their gamertags were misspelled or formatted in a nonstandard way.
While some platform standardization might be necessary in order to create a streamlined Smash circuit, Smash.gg’s centrality in the Smash World Tour doesn’t inherently contradict the grassroots spirit of Smash. Dr. Kristopher Alexander, an esports infrastructure expert and professor of video games at Ryerson University, believes companies like Smash.gg can help bridge the gap between grassroots communities and corporate interests.
To make his point, Alexander cites the case of GGPO, the company that innovated the use of “rollback” netcode, a fighting game netplay system that reduces lag by predicting players’ upcoming inputs. After GGPO’s netplay tech became widely popular within the fighting game community, Capcom purchased a license to the software and swapped it in for the preexisting netplay systems in titles such as Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition. “Instead of shutting it down, they just watched the community,” said Alexander.
For years, Nintendo’s official competitive events were few and far between; 25 years passed between the first and second Nintendo World Championships. But recently, the company has begun to host official Smash Ultimate tournaments using a ruleset similar to the competitive standard. The winner of the spring 2020 iteration received a trip to CEO Dreamland 2020, a grassroots Smash major.
As Nintendo’s attitude towards esports thaws, Smash.gg and the Smash World Tour could be the GGPO-style proof of concept that Nintendo could utilize or adapt in order to create its own centralized circuit. “I think Smash.gg is going to get GGPO’ed, simply because the companies need to move quickly,” said Alexander. “There’s already infrastructure there.”
The Smash World Tour’s structure is far from perfect. As the circuit picks up steam, some of Smash’s grassroots ethos may very well fall by the wayside. But this is simply another situation in which Smash players are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Even if the World Tour’s rules prevent some tournament organizers from participating, these organizers will do what the Smash community has always done: adapt their tools, adjust their rules, and never stop fighting to make competitive Smash as good as it can be.
Alexander Lee is a freelance writer and Super Smash Bros. fanatic based in New York City. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, ESPN, and elsewhere.
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