Why Does Nintendo Ignore Smash?
When you think of esports, games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive probably come to mind. Those games have loyal followings built over years and years of competitive play. As a result, they have millions of players all over the world who follow the pro scene closely.
The companies that make these games understand that there’s money to be made off these communities. CS:GO releases stickers during every Major to help support teams and get some cash in their pocket. League of Legends offers exclusive viewpoints to fans willing to shell out some cash.
Needless to say, Valve and Riot both make fat stacks by supporting their competitive scenes.
But one game, despite its popularity, goes practically unnoticed by its makers. Super Smash Bros. has decades of competitive history, lots of iconic names, and massive tournaments with millions of viewers. The numbers make it look like a top-tier esport, but it isn’t.
Why? Because Nintendo ignores Smash at a time when other fighting games are successfully breaching the esports barrier. Even though there’s money to be made, they refuse to involve themselves with the game’s more high-strung side.
Let’s delve into the history of Smash and why Nintendo refuses to codify it as an esport.
Nintendon’t Play Nice
Smash fans have long lamented the lack of Nintendo’s involvement. In fact, Nintendo has actively railed against their game being showcased as an esport.
When Melee was voted to appear on EVO 2013’s main stage, Nintendo’s lawyers attempted to shut it down. Project M, a fan-made version of Brawl that was featured at many large tournaments, was also cut down.
Nowadays, games like Apex Legends and Overwatch are specifically designed to be esports. Tons of mechanics are centered around the competitive scene, and both games feature first-party competitive circuits. Activision and Blizzard don’t just make the games; they make the competitive scene themselves.
But Smash is the opposite. The competitive crowd only comprises a small number of total Smash fans. Let’s look at the numbers.
Smash Ultimate has sold incredibly well at over 14,000,000 copies since its release. Its recent appearance at EVO maxed out at 279,000 unique spectators. That represents just under 2% of the game’s total sales.
Now let’s compare that to Tekken 7, one of the fastest-growing fighting esports. Its viewer count maxed out at 214,108, and the explicitly competitive fighter has sold 4,000,000 copies. That’s over 5% of its consumer base tuning in to watch Tekken, more than 2.5x that of Smash.
Of course, not everyone who watched grand finals has purchased the game, but these numbers show that Smash’s community is much less dedicated to the competitive scene. Keep in mind, EVO is basically the Super Bowl of fighting games. If someone’s into pro Smash, they watched it.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Smash is not a dedicated competitive game. The way that people play in tournaments doesn’t resemble the average Smash game in any way. Items, wacky stages, Final Smashes, and more content are all cut to facilitate fair and balanced tournaments.
Compare that to Tekken or Street Fighter, where professionals play the exact same game as casuals, and the divide makes sense. Nintendo knows that the average consumer has no interest in watching MKLeo face off against Tweek in grand finals. They just wanna beat their little brother.
No Drama Like Smash Drama
One of the primary reasons that Nintendo doesn’t get too chummy with top Smash players is because of the unique kind of drama that Smash players get into. Seriously, I can’t think of another esport where tweets like this would make sense.
My plane just landed and I'm reading that *adjusts glasses* the 15-year-old white female Isabelle main who defeated the pedophile Snake main says the N-word with a hard R repeatedly in private discords— Toph (@toph_bbq) July 20, 2019
I'm done with this community.
Controversies like this come up on a regular basis at the higher levels of competitive Smash. This is due to a few reasons. The first one is the average age of a Smash player. It’s undoubtedly lower than that of other games, and kids don’t quite have the decision-making abilities of adults.
That leads to situations like the one mentioned by Toph.
Conversely, some of this drama is a result of Nintendo’s lack of involvement. There’s not much reason to act professionally when there’s no governing bodies and no real consequences for acting out.
When Kuku, a professional Dota player, was found to be using racial slurs in his pub games, it nearly caused an international geopolitical incident. He was barred by Valve from attending a $3,000,000 tournament. The same consequences don’t exist in Smash.
Lastly, some controversies are just plain weird. One day, someone is throwing a crab at Hungrybox, and the next, ZeRo is making YouTube videos about how he lost his virginity.
Nintendo is Disney-esque in how it presents itself. If the company got involved in esports, it would have to acknowledge the weirdos that play Smash. From a public relations perspective, there’s just too much to lose and not enough to gain.
No Profit Means No Support
Another reason that Nintendo doesn’t get involved is that there’s not as much money to be made off Smash as other esports. This is primarily due to the divide within the Smash community.
Unlike in, say, Street Fighter or Tekken, there isn’t just one Smash game that people play. There are two major groups for Smash players: Ultimate fans and Melee fans. The 2001 sequel to the original Smash Bros. is still played competitively today, and the most recent installment also has a very active fanbase.
Most Melee players don’t buy the game from Nintendo, though. They either download the game and run it using a hacked Wii console or buy their copies and equipment secondhand. Either way, Nintendo doesn’t get any money from Melee fanboys.
Why support a community that can’t possibly turn a profit for Nintendo?
With no way to make money off the Melee community, Nintendo has to look to Ultimate. It’s true that having their game showcased to hundreds of thousands (if not millions) helps it sell, but again, most would-be Smashers don’t care about the competitive side of the game.
Most people who buy the game play it as a party game or casually with friends. The way they play the game has almost nothing in common with the average Smash player. If someone wanted a dedicated fighting game, they’d play something else.
Money makes the decisions of any company, and Nintendo is no exception. Sure, they could drop $30,000 in the EVO prize pot like Capcom with no real threat to their bottom line, but that money wouldn’t lead to more sales.
Not Entirely Disconnected
Even though it’s easy to complain about Nintendo’s apathy, it’s worth noting that they’ve become more accepting of competitive Smash in the past few years.
In the leadup to EVO, they hosted regional online tournaments where the winners would get free accommodations and tickets to EVO. The game’s lead developer, Masahiro Sakurai, even tweeted his congratulations to MKLeo after the Mexican player won the event.
EVOを戦い抜いた選手の方々、おつかれさまでした！— 桜井 政博 (@Sora_Sakurai) August 5, 2019
Nintendo is slow to adapt, but the gameplay changes between Smash 4 and Smash Ultimate show that Nintendo isn’t completely unaware of Smash’s competitive community. As time goes on, Nintendo might get more involved in competitive Smash. Until then, it will remain the orphaned esport.