From now until the start of the new year we're going to be republishing some of what we feel are our best features of 2015. Hopefully this will offer the chance for newer readers to catch up on content they might have missed and allow long-time fans to reacquaint themselves with features they enjoyed the first time around. Today's feature is Alan Lopez's excellent exposé on the trials and tribulations of professional Smash Bros. players.
"How much money do you make a year?"
ZeRo: "I'd say right now, I'm on the 40k range a year."
"If you stripped away all your YouTube and Sponsorship earnings, how much do you think you make just from tournaments?"
ZeRo: "I'd say I make 15 thousand dollars a year. And I pretty much win everything I go to."
There is a meme as old as time that still sometimes circulates the internet. A picture of a professionally lit stadium decked out with giant projector screens and thousands of screaming fans sits atop a caption that reads "StarCraft Tournament". The picture directly juxtaposed to its left features a slumped over man wearing a non-flattering Luigi costume and adjacent a single person. Their purple Gamecube is visible atop a fold out table, and their caption reads: "Smash Bros. Tournament".
What does this image really mean? How exactly is Smash Bros. not on the same level as other competitively played video games, or "eSports", as they are often referred to?
To begin to tear down that misconception that Smash is figuratively a poor man's sport, understand that while Smash Bros. as a fighting video game is certainly designed for the everyday player, Super Smash Bros. as an eSport is a game that lends itself well to intense competition.
"It…seems innately watchable as a spectator sport." said pro modder and Smash player Kyle "Thinkaman" Brockman to Nintendo Life.
If there exists a checklist for what makes a game a candidate for high-level play, Nintendo's all-star fighter covers quite a many of its bases: All titles, no matter how debated, bring in consistent results by its players. Matches are kinetic and colourful. All Smash games are thoroughly customizable throughout vast oceans of detailed menus. A deep permutation of matchups creates intriguing gameplay all throughout the series' four titles, and mastering them can take years of intense dedication to their craft.
And most importantly to its vitality, Smash Bros. is a video game whose hardcore fans have collectively hammered together a hefty resume that includes over a decade of impassioned, grassroots competitions.
And yet compared to almost every other major game title with sustained success, it absolutely lives up to that offered up turn-of-phrase: Smash is literally a poor man's sport.
"…there's minimal support from larger organizing bodies, leaving both Melee and Smash 4 as half-baked wannabe eSports. When you look at the numbers, there's no way around it."
And there are lots of numbers to look at, beginning with this one: Why is "Zer0", very arguably the best overall player in a multi-million dollar, franchised phenomenon, making exactly the same amount of money as anyone else would make with a minimum wage job?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
Playing for Keeps
eSports as a concept is at a cultural crossroads.
As with all new domains, mass resistance is the mark of a grand entrance. For a primer on the debate over eSports, search the internet for what constitutes a "sport". Study closely the qualifier of "athleticism" and the slippery slope it induces. Check out the history of chess's sporting classification. And If the mind wanders to the question of whether or not gamers should be expecting money for playing a video game, recall the similar debates that have occurred (and continue to do so) regarding professional sports during the last century, as well as the collegiate sports of today.
Its classification is moot here. Video games today make up a chunk of the entertainment industry that is expanding at hyper speeds. If you wanted to bristle back detractors, know this: the average NFL team worth was rated at $1.4 billion in 2014, while the 20 biggest soccer teams averaged $1.16 billion in net worth in 2014.
Makers of Candy Crush King Interactive were worth $7 billion in 2014. And that's during the downward slope of its popularity.
Whatever you want to call it, competitive gaming is a major part of an emerging pastime that is only getting bigger: the global market for video games, in major part to mobile integration, is shaping up to eclipse over $100 billion by 2017, and the competitive side of that pie rakes in millions of dollars annually thanks to pro organizations like ESL and Team Liquid whose sole existence is for capitalizing on the ways people consume pro gaming, and who they consume.
Super Smash Bros., by almost all measures, ranks dead last in every financial category related to high level gameplay for long running titles.
"esportsearnings.com" is a highly cited online database that keeps numbers on how much money is being awarded in the realm of eSports. These earnings are not indicative of incentives or - in some cases - salaries, but purely prize money as reported through online sources. One can sort graphs by individual game, player and number of major tournaments, among others. The Super Smash Bros. series is certainly listed among the giants, but the numbers are not flattering.
According to the database, major tournaments have collectively paid out $432,964.12 in Super Smash Bros. Melee's entire history. As a reference point, in the top 100 single game earnings category, all 100 instances have at least pulled in close to half of that 400k - to individual players.
Of all competitively played games, Super Smash Bros. Melee currently sits near the middle of the pack in overall earnings, but that is with the aid of an astounding 173 major tournaments conducted. Every other title (with two or three major exceptions) currently lists only between 1-3 dozen major tournaments to their names. And no other Smash Bros. title outside Melee has made the list.
And if you search for highest paid individual players? The first Smash Bros. related player comes in at #332: Mew2King. His $78,130.21 from major tournaments doesn't look too shabby, until you consider he has been playing the game competitively for about a decade's time. Not to mention that his earnings include flirting with being the best in the world across all different Smash Bros. titles.
In a Yacht sized party of overwhelming sums of money, nobody is getting paid in a big way to play Smash Bros.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
And yet, Smash Bros., thanks in large part to Melee's endurance and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U's high popularity, continues to pull in extremely strong attendance numbers in the major spaces that it's allowed to flourish.
EVO is known as many as one of the première tournament series across multiple fighting titles, and in 2014 Melee's paid entrants were just shy of 1000 individual players. That huge total was good for third highest (albeit a virtual second place tie with Marvel Vs. Capcom 3), distant only behind Ultra Street Fighter 4, and almost twice as much as the next closest game.
This all following the events of EVO 2013, in which fans raised over $100,000 for breast cancer research in order to claim the circuit's final game slot, an opportunity it has since run away with to the tune of majorly successful EVO tenures since. These events were not in isolation; popular gaming event "Apex" was host to an impressive 200 smashers in 2009, rapidly growing year by year to the over 1000 entrants it featured in 2015.
So if the interest is consistently there, what's the hold up?
"Fighting games have always had a tough time finding sponsorship deals, which is a main source of revenue for tournaments and players. PC games are sponsored by tech companies that can sell computer hardware and peripherals, but console games don't have that," said Frank Lantz to Nintendo Life.
Frank Lantz is the director of the New York University Game Center. He recently spoke at NYC's Games for Change 2015 event about eSports, a topic for which he sees as richly complex in both design, and in this case, social ramifications.
"(W)ithin fighting games, Smash is a smaller, less organized scene, because of the lack of publisher support for competitive play and the grassroots nature of the community."
"Some players make money, but many don't…It's not a career path I would recommend to many, but for some people it ends up being lucrative and rewarding."
It is a not-so-secret truth that the majority of those who DO make money playing video games are doing so not solely from tournament winnings, but from online video streaming on services such as Twitch and YouTube. Among the more cynical, game expertise is seen solely as a means to internet revenue, not championships or trophies. Those who play StarCraft and League of Legends exemplify this trend through their thousands of subscribers and donors who fawn over top players' streaming channels. But with a game that is so short on big sponsorships, as illustrated to Nintendo Life by ZeRo, internet streaming is literally the only way to translate Smash skills into even an above poverty line income.
As Zer0 explained, "I go to a minimum of four tournaments a month, often 10+, locals, or anything I can find. I have to do everything to (keep up)."
Turning Smash Into Cash
While the likes of games like Counter-Strike and DOTA2 - with their combined outputs of over $34 million dollars of prize money to date - may be an unreachable standard, could Super Smash Bros. still obtain the success of its console cohorts like Call of Duty and Halo?
The problem does not lie within the game itself; Smash is an impeccably, if not historically designed title. All four titles, including Super Smash Bros. 64 and Super Smash Bros. Brawl, have featured an impressive amount of fan dedication in unearthing the most specific of their gameplay combinations. Super Smash Bros. Melee in particular is so nuanced in its mechanics that top players have gone as far as to warn against long term playing due to hand related health hazards. This is unfortunately an issue Super Smash Bros. creator himself, Masahiro Sakurai, has developed in recent years.
While there is currently no research to back up this claim, it is certainly within reasonable debate to include Super Smash Bros. Melee as perhaps the most demanding and intricate video game played at the professional level. And that is quite a statement to consider.
So if the problem lies not within the potential of the game itself, what could be done to better celebrate the game's impressive mastering?
The roadblocks mostly all come back to its creators.
In 2013, Nintendo nearly derailed Super Smash Bros. underdog inclusion at EVO 2013 by demanding that they shut down the entire event, presumably after it had learned of its existence. Bad press forced it to reconsider, and the event went on to be the success that is now remembered.
The following year, Nintendo announced the E3 "Super Smash Bros. Invitational", an event held in Los Angeles where a sample of top players faced off in Nintendo's then brand new title, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.
To be clear, all of the participants publicly lauded Nintendo for holding the big event. There were kudos in both social media and within the press for Nintendo's about-face on publicized tournaments. And the event itself was fairly well attended and cleverly pushed out through Nintendo's media channels.
But this grand gesture was just that: a gesture. The ruleset was specifically adjusted to show off Nintendo's brand new game, hardly the players' skill sets. Virtually all tournament standards were set aside to more perfectly highlight the peaks of Nintendo's new blockbuster. The tournament played out as a giant commercial.
This is Nintendo in a nutshell. Like many other enduring corporations, it works towards a bottom line most of all. Profits for others are, at best, less money for its own coffers, and at worst people profiting off of its own work.
Nintendo president Reggie Fils-Aime said in a 2014 interview, "We don't think streaming 30 minutes of gameplay by itself is a lot of fun." In the face of the entire game playing populace's contradiction to this statement, this could better be read as Nintendo not being able to monetize Twitch streaming. Nintendo is taking its streaming ball and going home. It is also likely its current console, the Wii U, is not powerful enough to satisfactorily let Nintendo in on the action, which was not anticipated during its development.
In the same vein, early in 2015, Nintendo updated its YouTube policies to include such Draconian measures as only allowing pre-selected Nintendo titles to be monetised, as well as mandating the deletion of previous videos on a channel that don't show authorised Nintendo content.
All three major revenue sources for gaming professionals: Twitch, YouTube, and to a large extent professional circuits, are either off the table or highly inconvenienced for pro Smash players.
Nintendo could take the lead of, for example, game maker Blizzard by producing its own version of the highly successful "BlizzCon", even while maintaining its stance of cutting out the revenue of internet streaming. BlizzCon is a yearly, ticketed event held in America where Blizzard fans come together to compete via highly tuned rulesets already vetted by the pros. In addition to the tournaments, attendees are treated to talks by industry figures, contests, advertisements and demos for new games and expansions, and all the merchandizing and press that comes alongside any huge event.
And yet, this compromise would still ultimately go against the overall philosophies of Nintendo and its game makers - that competition is best kept to a minimum.
Thus, Nintendo's marketing instead hones in on mall tours, fun but gimmicky events, and promotions like Best Buy demos and Comic-Con booths. These things are not sponsored to promote a community surrounding competition, but instead, are sponsored by Nintendo itself to promote a community around its latest game.
Nintendo does not release detailed game patch notes, rarely answers to fans pleas for nuanced gameplay changes, and opposes fan-made mods.
And it wouldn't want it any other way.
Frank Lantz continues - "on the one hand Nintendo's active antagonism towards competitive Smash has, ironically, been the galvanizing force for the Smash community bonding together and forging their own culture, so in some ways it's a huge positive. On the other hand, a game like this can't survive forever with no institutional support, so it might end up being the thing that kills it."
One last consideration for what keeps Smash at bay falls onto the Smash players themselves; Smash professionals are often a community in perpetual rift between those who specialize within a particular game in the series over others, and their interactions have been chronically poor throughout their history. The systemic actions of Nintendo's iron-clad monetization tactics are out of their hands, but any denouncing attitudes they take to their own kind only lends to the disorganization that has plagued the overall community's legitimacy. There have also, like in other competitive scenes, been thoroughly disappointing instances and accusations of sexism.
Professional Smash players often carry small paper lists with them as they travel tournament to tournament. Listed are the names of people who have asked for "money matches" through internet forums or social media ahead of time. Most money matches typically range between $1-10 for the victor. If the amount reaches $20, expect a crowd.
For most Smash players, despite hours of practice that stretch into weeks, months, and often years of dedication, these small tactics help cover the cost of simply attending tournaments. The vast majority of them don't play to make a living, even if they dreamed of doing so. Their passion for the game is evident by the hours lost in conversation, intense focus, and squelched laughter.
They know their game is special.
Almost all professional smashers interviewed for this article dodged the interview questions of how much they've made playing the game. But when provoked, those same players could not say enough about the fun they've had in the process of becoming fierce competitors in a relentless community. With few sponsorship opportunities, feint guidance and patchwork communication, they still manage time and time again to fight on with only barely self-sustaining monetary support as their tool.
It's a shame Nintendo doesn't find this fascinating minority equally worth fighting for.