“Coming from Melee, the mechanics of Ultimate feel much more simplified,” Panda Global’s Justin “Plup” McGrath said in an email exchange. While McGrath is enjoying playing with the new shield and air-dodge mechanics, “I think for a lot of Melee players this game is not even close to a replacement.”
And without significant — or any — prize money being offered by Nintendo around Ultimate tournaments or events, there is little further incentive for them to consider otherwise.
Nintendo has taken a hands-off approach to esports. It does not run a worldwide circuit as many game publishers now do, nor does it throw any money into tournament prize pots. Virtually all Smash tournaments are community driven and funded. Without investing in the scene more directly, Nintendo’s only mechanism to steer the community to a particular game is through the product itself, with the hope that a better, newer version will bring back the players that have stuck with Melee.
Though there does not seem to be an appetite among Melee pros to make the move to Ultimate, it does appear Nintendo has made progress with its latest Smash release.
“When taking matches seriously, it honestly feels like a sped up version of Smash 4 with more movement options,” Tempo Storm’s Melee pro Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson said in an email interview. “That alone is a big improvement from the previous game from a competitive perspective.”
But Nintendo still likely needs another means if it wants to unify the competitive circuit into a singular force. For Williamson, Ultimate doesn’t have that same fluidity in movement — a design decision The Post discussed with series director, Masahiro Sakurai, earlier in 2018 at E3. Sakurai felt the technical complexity of Melee became too intimidating and might alienate newer gamers if he tried to replicate it too closely. The pros who have played with Melee’s mechanics for years, however, continue to embrace that complexity and have little desire to pivot.
“Melee hits the nail on the head when it comes to quick, smooth movement options that all feel rewarding to do,” Williamson said. “What really pulls it all together is the amount of hitstun characters have when launched, allowing you to get long combos while using these technically demanding movement techniques. The combination of it all just feels extremely rewarding.”
While the audience around all Smash titles is notable, a community combined behind a single game could elevate the title into one of the foremost esports properties, and ahead of other fighting game leagues such as Street Fighter V or Dragon Ball FighterZ.
Unification could help with licensing opportunities by guaranteeing a more robust audience if Nintendo were to ever ink a deal around its streaming rights, as other games like Overwatch, Rocket League and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have done.
Given the buzz and sales around Ultimate, it seems like it’s off to a strong start, and the potential remains for it to bring its Melee players back to the fold.
Since Ultimate is a new game, it’s currently in its honeymoon period. Entrant numbers for major tournaments will likely be high in 2019, much higher than Melee. But such was true with Smash 4 in its first year. As the years went on, Melee persisted as Smash 4 waned.
In 2017, Melee saw 7 million esports hours viewed on Twitch, according to Newzoo, a video game and esports analytics firm. It’s a massive step up from Smash 4’s 3.5 million that same year. The gap only widened in 2018 as Melee saw 8.3 million hours — a 19.10 percent jump — to Smash 4’s waning 2.7 million. Combined viewership between both Smash games would put it nearly on par with Street Fighter V’s 12.8 million from this year so far. But it’s still a far cry from Rocket League’s 22.9 million.
If this were to continue, it would be a problem for Nintendo from a marketing perspective, as its own fan base is choosing to watch a game almost 20 years old — a game it no longer sells — as opposed to its current title.
“I think Melee players would certainly switch over in a heartbeat if a new Smash was as fast paced and satisfying to play as Melee,” McGrath said. “Not switching over doesn't really mean we're stubborn, it just means we really enjoy our game.”
It should be noted that with Smash 4, the game evolved considerably thanks to regular balance patches. Ultimate too is only a week old, and will likely see patches for the next few years, possibly changing the gameplay entirely.
At the moment, McGrath is still contemplating a future with Ultimate. And if Nintendo were to launch a $1 million prize-pool circuit, that would only add incentive. As for Williamson, he’s not as keen to transition.
“That’s like paying someone who loves basketball to play a different sport instead — his heart will never 100-percent be in it,” Williamson said. “It’s about passion, and I have yet to find a game that I love playing more than Melee.”
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