Feature: Nintendo's Smash Bros. Invitational Could Be Just The Beginning For Contests and eSports

Isaiah TriForce Johnson tells us about Nintendo's competitive thinking

When Nintendo revealed its plans for E3 2014, much attention was unsurprisingly paid to its decision — for the second year running — to forego a live presentation in favour of a "Digital Event". Yet only a narrow focus would lead to a conclusion that Nintendo won't be running exciting live events this year, and the Super Smash Bros. Invitational is undoubtedly an exciting prospect; thousands of fans are set to fill the NOKIA Theatre in LA and some top players will put the Wii U version through its paces in a "celebration of all things Super Smash Bros."

It's a fresh approach to providing a live show during the famous event, and along with other activities means Nintendo is showing positive intent for this year's festivities. The decision to stage a tournament in this manner is an intriguing one, however, as it shows a willingness from the big N to tap into the competitive gaming scene that still has much love for the Smash Bros. franchise, and brings to mind promotions and contests of Nintendo in its 8- and 16-bit pomp — let's not forget events of that period such as Nintendo World Championships. To do so at the most high-profile games industry event of the year is a bold move, but does it mean Nintendo is ready to get back into the competitive gaming scene in a big way and draw out its fans to more major public events?

With assistance from Empire Arcadia CEO and Founder Isaiah TriForce Johnson and some exclusive excerpts from an interview he conducted with Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime, we consider whether we could be on the cusp of a new era of competitive Nintendo gaming and moves into eSports.

Nintendo, whether through its own fault or otherwise, endured some negative publicity last year when it briefly blocked the inclusion of Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo 2013, with the likely cause being a crossing of wires and Nintendo being initially cautious. A storm online did play a role, along with common sense and gamers — including Johnson — getting in touch with Nintendo, in a reversal of that decision; this was especially important as the event was raising money for charity, and it was a roaring success. In a sign of Nintendo embracing such events, however, there has been no such hitch this time with Melee already confirmed for EVO 2014.

Isaiah TriForce Johnson, as you may know from our interview earlier this year, heads up his own development company and competitive eSports team called Empire Arcadia, including a strong focus on Super Smash Bros. competition through players such as Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman. Johnson has a solid relationship with Nintendo of America, meanwhile, and took the opportunity to speak to Reggie Fils-Aime at E3 last year. In an excerpt of that interview that he's provided to us, he raised the question of Nintendo doing more to support dedicated fans and those involved in competitive gaming.

We still do competitive gaming events. New York residents are familiar with the competitive events we have at our flagship Nintendo World store. We also hold competitions at events like PAX and Comic Con, where attendees compete to be the best at one particular game. Three years ago, we ran the Wii Games Summer 2010 event, which challenged a variety of different players to compete across a number of different games. We had individual age groups as well as families competing. We’re always looking for opportunities to engage with Nintendo fans.

That is, perhaps, a rather safe answer taken on its own. On 28th October 2013, however, Johnson spoke with Fils-Aime once again at a #ImwithReggie event at the Nintendo World Store in New York. The topic of competitive gaming — and Smash Bros. — came up again, and Fils-Aime diverted to talk of what games would fit a current day Nintendo World Championship, subsequently hitting up Twitter for feedback.

Johnson has told us that he made clear that re-entering the competitive scene in a meaningful way would be a valuable activity for Nintendo in fostering a stronger relationship with fans. After Fils-Aime stated then that the company would "look into it" we're now gearing up for a Smash Bros. event to be streamed worldwide during E3; whether related to this conversation or not, it shows one thing — Nintendo is exploring these options.

Johnson, for his part, has highlighted to us that in a competitive gaming context an 'Invitational' is typically a warm-up for bigger things. Dreams of a World Championship in 2015, for example, shouldn't be casually dismissed.

For those that follow competitive gaming and eSports closely, and also happen to be Nintendo fans, the E3 event will undoubtedly be a highlight. Importantly, however, it provides an opportunity for a wider audience to see and become involved in competitive gaming, which is clearly part of Nintendo's goal in arranging this competition. Some may hear the term eSports and be scared away by footage of teams playing titles such as Call of Duty and screaming abuse at each other, yet that doesn't have to be the only representation of the field. Tournaments of fighting games can have a different feel, depending on the game and its participants, and there's little doubt that if any company and its games can bridge the gap between old-school open-entry competitions such as the old Nintendo World Championships and the paid competitive scene, it's Nintendo.

As a figure heavily involved in the current eSports scene, with a focus on fighting games, we asked Johnson about what he'd like Nintendo to do in future beyond the Smash Bros. Invitational, and what it would mean to gamers such as those in his Empire Arcadia team; a key message, again, is that Nintendo is already taking steps to embrace the competitive gaming scene.

If you look closely throughout the last 25 years Nintendo has always supported competitive gaming for their games. It may not have been in the capacity of what other eSports platforms provide but when have you ever known Nintendo for following other standards? Now that they've made it apparent that they are interested during the latest developments, I would really like to see Nintendo support new and current eSports ventures like the MVG Open (Most Valuable Gaming League) which is creating a new entry level platform for competitors and teams that are looking to go the professional route in eSports. I would also like to see Nintendo continue their support with existing staple eSports leagues like MLG (Major League Gaming) who has supported the Super Smash Bros. Community when none of the other platforms gave the game a good look.

The opportunity for my Team Empire Arcadia and most importantly its Super Smash Bros. Players Mew2King and Armada is a dream that we've all been waiting for. We even have veteran traditional Street Fighter 4 Players like Dieminion who use to play Melee wanting to return to Smash when the new game comes out. Ever since Nintendo granted permission for Leagues and Competitive Circuits to use their game, you've started to see other eSports teams beside Empire Arcadia, like Team Liquid, Cloud 9, Curse etc. pick up top Smash Bros. Champions. "This is just the beginning, mark my words it will be Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. series that will open the flood gates for fighting games in eSports.

If Nintendo is to support competitive gaming and eSports, it should perhaps take the opportunity to unite those from that scene with gamers at home. If the E3 event brings us all together in celebrating the series and enjoying seeing the new Wii U version in action, the possibilities for connected online experiences in the future are evident. In recent games Nintendo has embraced online communities and allowed gamers to setup their own tournaments — Mario Golf: World Tour and Mario Kart 8 are examples — so the opportunity for players around the world to take on eSports champions seems too good to miss. Activities such as these could drive social networking and online buzz around the Nintendo name, and Johnson agrees that it's an area full of promise.

The potential for Nintendo to expand in the online realm via eSport for things such as DLC is immense. Competition has been a strategic formula for giving video games longer shelf life. Proof to that is Super Smash Bros. Melee is still here after a decade and is considered the standard competition until the new instalment launches. MLG has a existing platform on Gamebattles that allows for online play and I can see that in a better environment for the upcoming instalment to the Super Smash Bros. series. I think Nintendo also have their own agenda and will go big with this for sure.

We will see, once E3 is finished, how far Nintendo is keen to take its support for the competitive gaming and eSports scene, not just in North America but around the world. Other regional teams do their parts, too, with Nintendo UK running its own Pokémon X & Y tournaments recently. It's a way to promote brands, yes, but to also bring gamers together to share their common hobby and passion.

That, in a nutshell, is an area that Nintendo can utilise to reach gamers of all kinds. There are opportunities, through its key franchises and events such as the Smash Bros. Invitational, to excite gamers not just through major reveals, but simply by providing a common platform in which we can enjoy gaming at its best. The upcoming event will give us all a chance to watch some of the best Smash players duke it out, and allows gamers to revel in the skills of other gamers. There's a possibility, with the modern connected era and online functionality in games, to go further and truly bring the world's gamers together in competition for all levels. The pros should be playing Nintendo games in streams watched by thousands, but alongside that we should all be playing each other, and Nintendo can provide the banner and infrastructure to give this play more life than random online matches with strangers.

Perhaps it's idealistic to think we can return to an era where millions of gamers can get excited about competitions that support players of all levels. Yet Pokémon seems to pull it off, and we'd bet there'll be plenty of excited viewers when the Smash Bros. battle goes down in LA. These are areas ripe for expansion, and events of all kinds can help bring Nintendo the hype and attention that its games deserve.

We know it's listening and open to ideas, so perhaps fans can use the E3 Invitational to show the company that it's not only a much-wanted event, but that it should just be the beginning.

We'd like to thank Isaiah TriForce Johnson for his assistance with this article. He'll be chatting about these topics on Twitter via @emp_triforce_gm

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