LOS ANGELES — On the opening day of the video game industry’s largest annual convention, fans queued up for hours, then stood shoulder to shoulder inside Nintendo’s massive exhibition area, eager to sample one of the most anticipated game releases of 2018, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. A little over a half-mile away in the Belasco Theater, some of the top professional Smash Bros. players in the world competed in a rare invite-only tournament put on by the company. Combined, the events became the main talking point of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3, an exhibition that welcomed over 69,000 video gamers to the Los Angeles Convention Center across its three-day run last month.
The hands-on demos and tournament represent a huge promotional push by Nintendo for the latest installment of its beloved Smash Bros. series, a fighting game that pits some of Nintendo’s most memorable characters, such Mario, Link and Donkey Kong, against one another in a battle to swat opponents off the screen. It also demonstrates one of the company’s most intriguing issues: How will Nintendo reconcile the possibilities presented by the rise of esports with the company’s long-standing apprehension toward competitive gaming?
In nearly every other competitive gaming circuit, whether it be sporting titles such as EA’s FIFA or first-person shooters such as Activision’s Call of Duty, the competitions use the latest versions of the franchise. Yet the Smash community is divided.
The main competitive history of the game revolves around Super Smash Bros. Melee, a more technical and aggressive version that was first released in 2002 on the Nintendo Game Cube. That title has attracted most of the game’s better-known professional gamers due to its more intricate movements, which reward the most skilled players. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (referred to as Smash 4 by most fans) is a slower, more defensive version of the game that has been adopted by a younger crowd of gamers.
As a result, Nintendo has missed out on maximizing its opportunity to promote its new title via the competitive circuit — as titles such as Street Fighter and Call of Duty have done. The practice is comparable to sporting goods companies showcasing the latest innovations through sponsorship deals with athletes in the more established pro sports leagues. The Melee dynamic would be similar to Nike introducing a new, high-performance basketball sneaker only to see its top athletes instead sport vintage Air Jordans.
To this point, however, Nintendo has been relatively indifferent. While some companies have piled into an esports market that some project to be valued at $1.5 billion by 2020, Nintendo has been reluctant to embrace competitive gaming — even though Smash Bros. is one of the core titles of the esports world.
The release of Ultimate, due out in early December, represents Nintendo’s latest opportunity to unite the competitive circuit with its casual audience, a challenge that fell to renowned game designer Masahiro Sakurai, who has directed every installment of the Smash Bros. line. Should he cater to the competitive circuit by upping the tempo and complexity of the game or favor the more robust casual audience by making the game more accessible?
“When you talk about audience, I don’t really think too much about the audience per se,” Sakurai told The Washington Post through a translator ahead of the game’s unveiling at E3. “I feel like a game, at the end of the day, is about playing the game. But if we focus too much on the top level players — or the audience — then the game skews a little bit too much on the technical side.”
The revered status of Smash Bros. stems from the fact that it is easy to learn but difficult to master. And Sakurai has always been adjusting the scales between ease and difficulty. As a result, some games have been more technical than others, causing a split within the competitive community. But both camps own strong followings.
As of 2017, in terms of viewership and entrants, Melee and Smash 4 tournaments have been comparable. According to market analytics firm Newzoo, Melee and Smash 4 ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, in terms of viewership, with a combined 16.8 million hours viewed on the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. (The Washington Post is owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, CEO of Amazon.)
Combined, those audiences would rank the Smash franchise ninth, well above Capcom’s Street Fighter V and below Psyonix’s car-soccer game, Rocket League. It would also make Smash the world’s top fighting game in terms of viewership.
Nintendo of America has slowly warmed to the competitive Smash community in the past few years, partnering with tournaments to help with various costs and staging the invitational at E3. But Nintendo has not gone as far as Capcom has with Street Fighter in embracing esports. There’s no tournament circuit sanctioned by Nintendo, and the company does not contribute to tournament prize pots.
Nintendo did not provide any comment to The Post when asked for its official stance toward esports. Sakurai, who is not a Nintendo employee, offered his own views on why the company has not warmed to competitive gaming.
“The philosophy behind them doesn’t go in line with Nintendo’s philosophy in that some of these players are playing for the prize money,” Sakurai said. “It comes to a point where they’re playing the game for the money, and I feel that kind of direction doesn’t coincide with Nintendo’s view of what games should be.”
Sakurai is also a fan of Street Fighter fan, a game that has fully embraced esports. The publisher has a worldwide tournament circuit culminating with the Capcom Cup, where the winner earns more than $200,000 in prize money. Sony PlayStation is the title sponsor for the Pro Tour, but Red Bull and other sponsors at tournaments around the world have jumped in. Sakurai does not see such close ties to esports as problematic, yet he does believe his approach with Smash opens the game up to a wider audience.
“It’s not to say that Street Fighter is failing [by more fully embracing competitive gaming] by any means, but personally, I think any games with command inputs are difficult. The creator side is trying to raise people who do that,” Sakurai said. “It doesn’t beat a game where you press one button to create a special move. I think that’s really easy to pick up for a lot of people.”
That philosophy has been rewarded on the sales front. Even with Capcom’s committed efforts in the esports scene upping its visibility on streaming platforms and in the media, Street Fighter V has only managed to sell 1.9 million copies since its February 2016 release. That pales in comparison to Smash 4, in which the Wii U version sold 5.1 million since September 2014, with the 3DS version adding another 8.2 million.
Twitter reported that Smash Bros. was the most-tweeted-about topic during E3, which generated nearly 15 million tweets that included the E3 hashtag. The buzz peaked during the Nintendo news conference with roughly 890,000 tweets during an hour-long span June 12.
That robust audience is why, while Sakurai has increased the game’s tempo in Ultimate, he refrained from reinserting some of the more popular advanced mechanics that resonated so well with Melee’s professional crowd. This includes wave-dashing, a technique that makes it look like a player’s character is sliding, allowing characters to rapidly change their position, including sliding backward, while still facing their opponent.
“I think a lot of Melee players love Melee. But at the same time, I think a lot of players, on the other hand, gave up on Melee because it’s too technical, because they can’t keep up with it,” Sakurai said. “And I know there were players who got tendinitis from playing, and messing with the controller so much . . . that really is hard on the player. And I feel like a game should really focus on what the target audience is.”
Still, Nintendo is hoping its competitive scene will solidify around the new title, helping turn the Smash circuit into a top-10 esports property.
“Our future hope with what we’ve unveiled in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is we’d love to see Super Smash Bros. Ultimate be the new defining Smash Bros. title across the tournament space,” Nintendo of America Chief Operating Officer Reggie Fils-Aime told ESPN at E3.