How Nintendo Has Hurt the Smash Community
This was written months prior to Nintendo sending a C&D to Big House. It was not written with that context in mind.
This is being released anonymously for obvious reasons.
To begin, I want to state that I am not a journalist. What I’m writing below is directly from what I’ve been told by the individuals who work at these companies or are deeply familiar with the business dealings of these companies by the nature of their position in esports. I did not obtain emails, contracts, or documents to verify their claims, I am merely trusting their word. If a journalist wants to take it to the next level to check everything, I would encourage it.
I also want to point out that what I write below does not just include Melee. Most of what I am about to describe applies to Smash 4, Ultimate, even Brawl as well. All Smash scenes have been held back by Nintendo’s actions.
I’m writing this for the purpose of making the community at-large aware of the things that I and many other members of the community have been aware of for years, but were simply unwilling to talk about publicly because of the hope that Nintendo would make something happen. That hope is pretty much gone for me now, so I feel completely okay with sharing what I know.
For the longest time, it’s been known that Nintendo has wanted to avoid supporting the Smash esports scene in a way that helps us grow past the grassroots level. Nintendo is this entity that, for cultural or financial reasons, has simply chosen to not get involved in esports with Smash, at least not on the level that publishers get involved in most major esports. We’ve heard quotes from top executives at Nintendo many times about their disinterest in competitive gaming. We accept this because it is their intellectual property and they can have whatever vision they see fit for it.
However, Nintendo’s stance feels less innocent when you understand that they also deliberately prevent other entities from helping our scene through various actions, or inaction. Furthermore, these acts have gone on while stamping their names on our grassroot events, or inviting a few of our personalities to their events. We regularly get a smidgen of hope that they’re taking steps in the right direction, but no significant changes ever take place. They directly benefit from our community’s existence while providing relatively little support and taking actions that hurt our scene.
This note is written to shed light on the different ways Nintendo has stopped the scene from growing. As a part of this community, you deserve to know what many top players and influencers in the Smash scene have known for years. The only reason I speak on this now is because I feel we’re now at the point where we have nothing to lose. In the past, we’d be afraid to speak publicly because there was some hope that we were SO close to having a real esports relationship with Nintendo, only to have that opportunity consistently slip away.
3rd Party Entities That Have Attempted to Work with Smash
There are several entities that have attempted to work with Nintendo to create events for Melee, Smash 4, and Ultimate. The following are just some of the bigger esports entities that were brought up to me:
Eleague - The organization that has brought Counter Strike, Street Fighter, and many other games to ESPN, had attempted to throw a large event for Smash. In the end, they only got rights to re-broadcast the E3 Ultimate invitational. My source explained to me that the rebroadcast rights served mostly as a consolation from Nintendo, as Nintendo wasn’t cooperating on allowing them to run a more meaningful Smash event.
HTC - after HTC Throwdown, a successfully capped 1 day event ran by HTC esports, they had an interest in running a Smash circuit with more money than we had ever seen in Smash. However, because an official Nintendo/Twitch Circuit was “just about finalized”, HTC was asked to instead aim to sponsor the main circuit rather than run a competing circuit. Thus, HTC backed out on running this circuit under the expectation that a Twitch/Nintendo circuit would come to fruition. As we now know, this circuit never came to be, as I will discuss in the Twitch section below.
ESL - ESL Made an attempt to work with Nintendo to run its own circuit/league, but Nintendo was largely unresponsive. They tried making meaningful contact with the company, prepared decks to sell the idea, but it couldn’t go anywhere as Nintendo would not respond. I think it’s interesting to note that Nintendo was willing to have Splatoon on ESL. To me, this shows that Nintendo will support scenes that don’t thrive on their own, like Splatoon and ARMS, but they won’t touch Smash because they can hang back and reap the benefits that we create as a grassroots community, essentially letting us do all the work, while doing nothing to help us get bigger.
MLG - In 2015, MLG held an event with Melee, and later with Smash 4. According to my source, MLG did not continue working with Smash Melee after MLG Anaheim in 2015 because Nintendo wanted to charge a $50k licensing fee per event, over double the asking rate for Street Fighter IV, a much more modern game at the time. This practice to me seems like a way to effectively shut down Melee at MLG without directly preventing them from running it. I would also assume that this fee would be charged, and no real support would be provided by Nintendo, as has been been the case with some of our grassroots events.
There have been other incidents relating to MLG that have been spoken of publicly by former employees and insiders, such as the fact that Nintendo denied MLG the rights to stream Brawl in 2010, that Nintendo denied USA from televising the Smash portion of their events in 2006, and the following quote from Sundance: "We of course know that the Smash community is just as excited as we are to follow the tournament and see who makes their mark on the biggest stage in gaming, and we're committed to doing everything we can to make our coverage of the tournament as comprehensive as possible. However, I'm sorry to say that we will not be able to have a live stream for Smash in Orlando this weekend. In order to stream something like this, we have to secure live streaming rights from the game's publisher. And despite our best efforts, we have not been able to get permission from Nintendo thus far. We kept the conversation going all the way down to the wire, in hopes that we'd get an 11th hour approval and could still stream the event, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.
I know this is disappointing news, and believe me – we don't like it either. There's just no way around it. A company of our size simply has to play by the rules. I know a lot of you guys have seen local Smash tournaments streamed online and are probably wondering why we can't just do the same thing. The answer is because we are a real company with real visibility and real things to lose. We can’t fly under the radar like a local tournament can (nor would we want to)."
While the MLG era was a very long time ago, the impact of those decisions hit the scene the most at a point where it was just starting to thrive, and would have effectively shut us down had it not been for our revival in 2013 due to EVO/The Documentary.
Redbull - Initially, it was Redbull, Twitch, and Nintendo in talks to start a circuit similar to Red Bull Proving Grounds for Smash, a circuit where monthly tournaments would take place across cities in the US, and at the end of the season, the top players from each locale would come to compete in the championship event. Redbull did much of the legwork to get it to launch, but it was Redbull that was effectively cut from the conversations and the deal altogether.
Twitch - Twitch (and a later removed Redbull) had been in negotiations with Nintendo to run a sanctioned circuit for Smash, including Smash 4 and Melee, starting around 2015. Twitch was fronting the costs of this deal with a budget in the millions per year, while Nintendo would own the league brand despite their lack of financial contribution. During this time, it’d seem like Twitch was always close, only to have conversations left without a response from Nintendo for months, thus delaying the process. Eventually, around early 2018, after 3 years of man-hours and efforts to appease Nintendo, the parties came to an agreement. This wasn’t just a verbal agreement, or an agreement made in good faith. It was a written contractual agreement meant to kick off the circuit for both Melee and Smash 4. This would have been the moment that legitimized Melee and Smash 4 as a major esport. For years, we had the viewership, the engagement, and the fanbase to say that we were a top esport, but we lacked official sanctioning from our developer. Now, after years of manpower, money, and stress in dealing with Nintendo, we got a written agreement to start a circuit. So what happened? Unbeknownst to anyone, Nintendo had plans to announce Smash Ultimate in 2018. Nintendo began ghosting those working at Twitch, even after the agreement was made. Then, once Ultimate was announced, Nintendo came back to Twitch and effectively stated that the circuit no longer made sense with Ultimate in sight. They told Twitch they wanted to see how the community responded to Ultimate, and see if getting involved in esports this way would make sense once the game was released. Twitch was effectively told they’d have to wait again, and that conversations may be revived later in the year when Ultimate came out.
So, another close call, another year of delay, and no guarantee that they would make anything work once Ultimate was out.
It’s been a while since Ultimate’s release with no news in sight of a circuit. As far as I've been made aware, those talks of a circuit are completely dead.
My personal comments on the entities above - According to my source, the entities mentioned above, every single one of them, have attempted to work with Nintendo while fronting all of the costs. In other words, they attempt to work with Nintendo without asking for a dime from them. All they seek is permission. This is not the normal practice. Typically, developers front some money themselves for a chance to run a circuit with companies like Redbull and Twitch. In this instance, we have Twitch and Redbull willing to put down a lot of money to run a circuit, and still, hardly anything comes from Nintendo.
Another thing to note is that the people who have put years and countless hours into making this work with Nintendo also worked on making circuits happen for Tekken, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Street Fighter. Circuits for those games came to fruition within months. The negotiations were much more simple. Yet with Nintendo and Smash, the process has taken over 5 years and counting.
At a certain point, it becomes clear that Nintendo doesn’t want Smash esports to happen, but they allow people to think it will.
If you’ll allow me, I’d like to give my personal thoughts on what this all means.
Nintendo knows there is a benefit in keeping the scene hopeful, while never shutting us down completely. Think about it. If Nintendo really had such a problem with Smash esports, they could shut it down. Likewise, if Nintendo really wanted us to succeed, they could just apply their incredible resources to make it happen. I have some thoughts on why we get neither outcome, and why Nintendo remains conveniently uncommitted to either scenario.
Shutting us down completely would be very bad publicity. At this point, we as a community have enough of a voice to influence the actions of major corporations, including Nintendo. It’s a marvel of the internet. They famously reversed their reprehensible decision to shut down Melee’s stream at EVO 2013 after we raised close to $100,000 to fight breast cancer. We caused a ruckus on the internet, and 5 hours later, we were back on stream at EVO. The effects of that moment ring out today. We’re way bigger now, and they know how loud our voices are. Perhaps that is exactly why they only dip their toes and pretend to help the scene. Maybe they don’t want to help us grow and get louder. Maybe they don’t want to spend money on this esports thing. Maybe they think competitive Smash differs from their vision for the game. Fine. However, while all that may be true, they simultaneously DO want what our voices give them: marketing, a whole lot of free marketing. It makes sense when I think about it. They’re always feigning support, never really providing it, never really stopping us either.
Now, you might believe that Nintendo doesn’t really need our community to sell games. That’s probably correct. However, does it benefit them to allow us to exist as we do? Oh god, yes.
I think it’s very clear that Nintendo benefits from the influencers that the esports community has created. Hell, Nintendo has even used these influencers for their invitationals at E3 to help promote the game. Look at it this way: imagine a world where Smash esports wasn’t a thing, and Nintendo releases a direct. You’d probably have quite a few people watching on their computers in the privacy of their homes, and when it’s done, they shut down and move on with their day. What we have instead are those very same people replying to Esam’s tweet, sharing Leffen’s video, playing Hbox’s reaction on repeat. You get hundreds of millions of impressions from fans of these influencers spreading news of the game everywhere. It doesn’t take an advertising genius to understand the power of influencer marketing, and Nintendo is getting it not just for free, but while actively suppressing our scene from getting larger, and I think that’s awful.
The effects of this on the scene are being felt greater than ever before. Companies don’t have the same enthusiasm of working with Smash like they used to, if they’re even trying at all anymore. As far as I know, ESL and Eleague have nothing in the works for us, and Red Bull has resorted to clever workarounds to help us out on events without getting the hammer from Nintendo.
Effects on the scene:
Nintendo and Grassroots Events: It’s a crazy world we live in when the announcement of a Nintendo approved grassroots event is considered a bad thing by much of the community. It’s a near guarantee that UCF, Slippi, and PM won’t be present. I spoke to a few TOs to get some insight as to what comes with a Nintendo partnership for an event. From my conversations, the benefits include:
- allowing events to use their brand, which adds legitimacy to sponsors and potential attendees
- The event won’t get a cease and desist. Not that it would be likely to begin with, but this partnership guarantees that it won’t.
- For some events, they’re supposed to use the NintendoVS twitter account to post about the event. For one event in particular, Nintendo did not deliver on that, but did during the 2nd year.
That’s mostly it. Support varies between events after that. One TO received partial support for consoles at the event, while others did not. While no TO I spoke to received direct financial support, at least one event received indirect support via connections that enabled discounts for setups and equipment. However, every Splatoon setup was provided by Nintendo at every event they were a part of. Nintendo would also take up floor space for Ultimate activation areas before the game’s release. This is all without directly paying the tournament organizers. So effectively, they were taking up floor space that people typically have to pay for to promote their own upcoming titles at events filled with Nintendo fans. It seems Nintendo can fully support games of their choosing, when they want to.
A final note on this, TO's are obligated to run Nintendo ads for these Nintendo sanctioned events. Considering how little they actually do for the event, that's pretty hilarious.
Project M/P+ - There was no cease and desist. What happened is that Nintendo essentially stated to people within our scene that our community’s support of PM was what was preventing them from working with us. So naturally, eager TO’s and streamers saw an opportunity to work with Nintendo and contribute to the successful start of a Nintendo Smash Circuit. I heard it myself from so many TO’s and streamers. They thought they were doing something for the good of the scene, and I can’t blame them. They choose to drop PM from their events/streams on this promise. This naturally hurt the PM scene tremendously, and we’ve come to find that it was for nothing. Furthermore, the loss of PM actually cost our community due to the loss of revenue from PM attendees and viewership.
Esports Teams - You’ll notice a lot of top level players have been having trouble securing a team, and players on tier 1 teams have been getting let go. A long time ago, teams were hopeful for Smash, and there was a surge of player pickups because of the crazy level of fan engagement paired up with the hope for an eventual Nintendo circuit that never came to be. Teams have begun to understand that Nintendo will never support the game, and have thus had to make the difficult decision to drop several smashers over the last few years.
Keep up the passion in protecting the Smash community. Every single part of the community has been held back by Nintendo. While Nintendo is powerful, I truly believe that our love for the various Smash games is strong enough to allow us to continue on for years, even decades, into the future. We’ve survived for this long despite many hurdles, and we can overcome the new ones too.