What makes a video game an esport? Is it sizable viewership? High-production-value tournaments and livestreams? A deep and ever-changing metagame?

By any of these metrics, EndGameTV’s 2020 Mario Kart Wii World Cup on August 8th might go down as the moment Mario Kart began its transformation from a casual classic into a fledgling esport. With 14,000 spectators across two livestreams, the World Cup final was by far the most-viewed competitive Mario Kart event of all time. And for its organizers, it was a homecoming — an opportunity to bring five years of esports-industry knowledge to bear on the racing game that jump-started their careers.

EndGameTV co-owners Erik “Eirik” Jácome and Aiden “Calvin” McCaig first met, as teenagers, through the Mario Kart scene. Their organization’s first event was the 2015 Mario Kart World Cup, then a competition incorporating both Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U. (Five-on-five team battles, known as “clan wars,” have long been the competitive standard in Mario Kart.)

Simply holding a World Cup in 2015 was a triumph for the Mario Kart Wii scene. Nintendo had shut down the official Wii online servers on May 20, 2014, so the event was run using a system of private servers known as Wiimmfi. To this day, Wiimmfi remains the primary workaround used to play Mario Kart Wii. “Mario Kart Wii is definitively by far the most popular title on Wiimmfi,” said Wiimmfi co-creator Florian “Leseratte” Bach. “About 85 percent of logins are for Mario Kart Wii.”

Alongside this technological victory, the 2015 World Cup’s streamlined graphics and professional commentary were unprecedented for the Mario Kart scene. Scoring a coveted spot on Twitch’s front page boosted viewership of the event to a peak of 4,000-5,000 spectators, a record that remained unbroken until August 8, 2020. EndGameTV’s first World Cup set the bar for every competitive Mario Kart Wii tournament that followed, and it propelled the company towards its future as a full-fledged esports organization.

After 2015, EndGameTV left the Mario Kart scene to focus on more prominent competitive titles such as Splatoon and Super Smash Bros. As it hosted major Smash tournaments and produced official Nintendo Splatoon events, the organization gradually matured into a powerhouse of Nintendo esports. But McCaig and Jácome never stopped thinking about Mario Kart Wii. In 2019, they attended a Mario Kart LAN event in New York and reconnected with members of the scene, spurring discussions about a new World Cup for 2020.

The lull in business caused by the coronavirus pandemic gave EndGameTV the window it needed to organize this new World Cup. To generate interest, the organization asked top players ranging from Denmark to Japan to form teams and spread the word. Familiar with EndGameTV’s work on the 2015 World Cup, community leaders throughout the Mario Kart scene sprang into action to make the 2020 edition a reality.

“I think that seed we planted in 2015 certainly enabled us to do something here in 2020,” Jácome said.

This time around, the organization that had once been a ragtag group of teens had become an esports company staffed by knowledgeable professionals. EndGameTV was now the largest and most established esports company that had ever involved itself in the Mario Kart scene.

“Those years of experience sort of compiled into this backseat knowledge of how to properly conduct yourself and properly market, introduce, and operate a tournament,” McCaig said. “And every inch of that experience entered this event.”

McCaig’s years in the trenches of larger esports also helped him score the World Cup’s greatest coup: a restream by Ludwig Ahgren, an immensely popular Twitch personality. On the day of the World Cup, EndGameTV’s official stream reached a maximum viewer count of around 1,500, while the “newcomer stream” on Ahgren’s channel hit over 12,000 spectators at its peak.

McCaig and Ahgren are roommates; they met over a money match at a Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament in 2017. When McCaig saw that Ahgren’s viewers had reacted positively to a Mario Kart Wii video, the pair realized that a World Cup restream could be an advantageous opportunity for all involved.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Ahgren said. “I mean, if the best Mario Kart players in the world want to do a competition, and all you have to do is just stream it, that’s free content.” With over 500,000 followers and 26,000 subscribers, Ahgren was able to introduce competitive Mario Kart to a massive audience that was predisposed to the game.

After getting its first taste of esports through the 2020 World Cup, the Mario Kart Wii scene is hungry for more. Top players who had grown bored of the game have come out of retirement, and this year’s losers are already preparing for the next World Cup. The event’s organizers have already discussed plans for another Cup next year.

But the impact of the World Cup goes beyond rejuvenated interest in the game: shortly after the event concluded, the developers of Custom Track Grand Prix Revolution, a game modification that has become standard within the Mario Kart Wii scene, reached out to EndGameTV to ask if they could make any changes to improve the spectator or player experience.

“The World Cup has opened our eyes as much as anyone’s to the possibilities for the competitive scene,” said CTGP-R developer Alex “Chadderz” Chadwick. “As modders, we serve the community.”

Spectating Mario Kart Wii is an imperfect experience. There are no invisible in-game cameras piloted by human observers, no jerseys or skins to indicate each player’s team affiliation. Almost every top player uses the same character and vehicle, making it difficult at times to tell which is which, even with built-in name tags floating above their heads. And some elements of the metagame can be disorienting to first-time viewers, such as the “bagger” (short for sandbagger), a player on each team who purposefully drives backwards in order to exploit the game’s rubber-banding mechanics and score the deadliest items.

But although Mario Kart Wii lacks many of the hallmarks of a modern esport, the passion of its competitive scene has compensated for these deficiencies at every turn. When Nintendo abandoned the Wii’s online capabilities, the Wiimmfi team stepped in to keep the fun going. When players clamored for features such as custom tracks, an in-game speedometer, and 24-player mode, Chadwick and his brother, Robert “MrBean35000vr” Chadwick, spent countless hours coding these tools into the game. Now that competitive Mario Kart has reached a larger audience than ever before, the next step is clear: to keep this momentum going. It’s a challenge that the EndGameTV team is ready and willing to take on.

“This event is the beginning of a new era of bringing professional organizations to a scene that’s been very grassroots and low-key for 12 years,” McCaig said. “It’s about bringing legitimacy to a game that’s been played competitively for a long time and has a lot of value.”

Alexander Lee is an editor and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Nation, the New York Daily News, and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @alexleewastaken.

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