Through a mix of determined strategy and the benefit of plenty of open-minded competitors, Nintendo has seen Super Smash Bros. for Wii U establish itself in the competitive scene. Though the franchise as a whole is still lagging behind some huge franchises in eSports, it has a loyal base of players and can attract significant audiences for the year's biggest events, with the Wii U entry and old favourite Melee commanding the most attention.
Though structured teams and sponsors are a major part of eSports, including the elite level in competitive Smash Bros., it's often an individual's endeavour. One on one battles are the lifeblood of the competitive environment for Smash Bros., with major rivalries and intense matches establishing the narrative for multiple events throughout each year. It's gladiatorial in a sense, though other prominent eSports have a team focus, such as League of Legends and Counter Strike. These squads of players function much like conventional sporting equivalents - they train together, form strategies and play with a plan.
Now there's a move to bring that team dynamic to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. At the heart of it is Isaiah "TriForce" Johnson, well known to many for often being the first to buy major Nintendo systems (posing with his power glove and Reggie Fils-Aime, more often than not), but is more notable for his role as CEO and Founder of Empire Arcadia. At different times the organisation has enjoyed spectacular success in eSports, including Smash Bros., amassing a record number of tournament wins (earning acknowledgement from the Guinness Book of World Records). Now Johnson is keen to do two things. The facilitate a strengthening of the North East scene in the US, and to shake up how competitive Smash Bros. works; he's doing this with a New York based charity - S.O.S. Gamers - with the aim of raising the profile of the competitive scene and the charity itself.
The Gauntlet is the team-based event that Johnson and S.O.S. Gamers are looking to push into the competitive arena. It'll be unique to the Wii U iteration as it uses the 8-Player Smash format, with two teams of four battling it out to accumulate the best kills to deaths ratio as a group. With the sizeable stages and complexities of techniques at a professional level, it's easy to see how well-formed teams could combine to deadly effect in such a face-off.
Johnson first encountered the format when at an S.O.S. Gamers event, visiting his colleague Antoine "Wes" Lewis-Hall, who is Vice President and Chief Operations Officer of S.O.S Gamers and the General Manager of Empire Arcadia's Smash Division, Deadly Alliance.
"TriForce" Johnson: I first saw this style of the Gauntlet in action when I decided to visit Wes and Kubuu earlier this year, when I was in New York at one of their local events with the kids. They used the 4v4 play option of the game to help teach "team work" among the youth. Now, we all know that the 4v4 option has been in the game since its launch and that's a solid two years, but I've haven't seen anyone put to use the 4v4 style. I spoke to Wes about it and said, why doesn't anyone use this format? Wes told me that he had plans to use the format in a charity league with the kids but needed a launch platform to bring it to the competitive scene. It was then we started to talk about the North East Fighting Game Community redevelopment plan, that and that is what you are seeing unfold now.
The idea is simple, ultimately, yet the challenge is in promoting it as a concept to the broader competitive community. There's a plan in place to host an Invitational on 27th May - from 6pm to 11pm Eastern US time - to be streamed live online at www.twitch.tv/8wayrun. Focusing initially on the New York and broader Tri-State area, Johnson and his colleagues through S.O.S. Gamers have bold plans. Though there are multiple potential tournament formats, Johnson and Jason "Jaxel" Axelrod - who will be managing the live stream - have a clear structure in mind for this event.
"TriForce" Johnson: Well, there are three different formats and it's all based on the function of eSports. For this particular topic we'll simply focus on the charity Invitational. In this format, 4 teams of 4 will be invited from the Tri-State region. These are recognizable staple teams in the community that everyone in knows from the Tri-State area. It will be a double elimination competition, 2 out of 3 rounds for all matches and 3 out of 5 rounds for Grand Finals. It is not based on the stock but more on time. The time will be set to 5 minutes and this will force everyone to be engaged into the competition and also work as a team. Camping will only hurt your team. The team with the best K/D ratio will obviously be selected as the winner. Pretty simple.
As an introduction we agreed that a charity Invitational would be ideal to show off the format and also create a platform to talk about the charity part of S.O.S. Gamers, and where its gathered support will go. S.O.S. Gamers is in talks with teams such as House of 3000, (LoF) Leap of Faith, IQHQ and more about their availability for the invitational. Obviously Deadly Alliance will be in it representing for EMP (also known as Empire Arcadia). They're reaching out to several teams and the teams with the availability will be selected.
Axelrod: Since this is the first of its kind as a 4v4 in fighting games, the Gauntlet will be completely different from the structure of doubles (2v2) and singles (1v1). All players will constantly be a part of the action to help push their "team" forward to win the game. Something not found in fighting games until now.
The event and live stream themselves are, despite the 4v4 Gauntlet format, aiming to deliver what Smash Bros. fans expect when watching tournaments online. While Axelrod is keen to get the technicalities right, for S.O.S. Gamers' Lewis-Hall the focus is also on encouraging the right atmosphere and spirit.
"Wes" Lewis-Hall: The key approach is to make sure everyone is having fun and the production quality of the stream is exceptional and tasteful for the viewers at home and for the players. The standard tournaments take hours and hours that drain the viewers, tournament hosts, players, and casters. We want to be able to manage the time and be able to keep it simple and fun.
Axelrod: I was told that we will have some commentators rotating in and out as virtual host for our viewers. These are seasoned players who have played through the Super Smash Bros. series in its entirety. They'll be able to give you play by play action and strategic insight on the matches as happens. It will be interesting to see, however, how this Gauntlet style is commentated.
It could be a fun event, yet all three organisers are firm in their belief that this team approach could become a game changer for the Smash Bros. competitive scene.
A New Approach to Smash Bros. as an eSport
While more details on the 27th May event will emerge in the next few weeks, a key goal for those involved is to breath fresh life into the competitive Smash Bros. scene. Though audiences are significant for the biggest events, the goal is for this team-based format is to boost and diversify the scene. There's little doubt that, with pro players on the pads, some intriguing strategies and action could unfold in 4v4 showdowns.
S.O.S. Gamers and Johnson plan to both promote the charity's goals, which we'll return to in more detail, while also establishing a league structure to spread awareness and uptake of the Gauntlet as a format. The aspiration is to see the prioritisation of teams encourage a level of unity and togetherness, while no doubt rivalries could also emerge to spice things up for spectators. For Johnson and Wes the plan is for the charity Invitational to be the start of greater things.
"Wes" Lewis-Hall: Originally the Gauntlet was the premiere New York based Smash Bros. tournament back in the early 2000's. Today it's been redesigned to work as a 4v4 team structure for competitive gaming in Smash Bros. We plan to launch an actual season later this year which will involve teams from the Tri-State area. We're looking to start with 8 to 16 teams for season 1. Each team will have to register and need at least 6 people in their roster to qualify. This league will be unique and like no other Smash Bros. competition in the world. We plan to expand it all around the United States eventually through the season and also at standalone majors, that's the goal. We at S.O.S Gamers feel that Gauntlet is a revolutionary format for the future of the competitive Smash scene. It may just make a bigger splash than singles. It also brings people together, people love being part of something. The majority of people would rather be in a group than alone, especially if it's a group of people that's doing something fun and positive.
"TriForce" Johnson: As I stated before, there are three formats and outside of the charity element the other two are focused solely on eSports initiative. Shortly after the charity invitational, S.O.S. Gamers will be launching that season and then there will be carded events for major eSports tournaments. All of this will kick off by the summer of 2016. The idea is to first introduce the entire Gauntlet format, which is an evolution of the old style Gauntlet tournaments hosted in the community back in the early 2000's. From there, S.O.S. Gamers can announce in detail the 2016 Gauntlet season and then any major eSports tournaments that S.O.S. Gamers make arrangements with. As I said this is a part of the broader North East Fighting Game Community Redevelopment Plan, so you might see the first major as early as Summer Jam X.
It's certainly ambitious to propose a new style of competition, with the Smash Bros. community typically - from the outside perspective, perhaps - rather set in its ways in terms of structure. It's with the intense rivalries between individuals that the 1v1 format has been dominant, with even casual observers of only the biggest events being aware of the tension as the top players seek to be number one. The prestige can perhaps far exceed the monetary rewards, too, yet the passion and enthusiasm in the 'scene' is undeniable.
Yet the point is readily made that other games have established themselves as huge eSport industries with team-driven structures. There are still individual stars, of course, but there can be as much excitement in seeing groups battle it out as normally found in 1v1. For Johnson, Wes and Axelrod, there's no hesitation to draw comparisons to other games and suggest that, with 8-Player Smash, there's an opportunity for Nintendo's fighting game to find the same edge.
"TriForce" Johnson: This approach will certainly change the game but more so it will add to the game a completely new dynamic. Although singles is the traditional way to play, I believe the Gauntlet style will complement the Super Smash Bros. competition by adding yet another dimension of play. Team play is a major factor in any competition or sport as it adds a diverse element in the competition that singles doesn't. I'm confident this format will bring Smash to the level of League of Legends and Counter Strike. Yeah…I said that, quote me.
Axelrod: I'm confident that a team approach like this can break through into the competitive Smash Bros. scene. When you look at today's major eSports titles they're all team based games. League of Legends, Dota2, Counter Strike, Call of Duty and more. Smash Bros. entering this Gauntlet format of a 4v4, adds a whole new system of play that truly focuses on team work. Team chemistry will be the major factor of a system such as the Gauntlet and that alone will draw a whole new generation of players to support the Gauntlet format to the Super Smash Bros. series.
"Wes" Lewis-Hall: I am very optimistic about teams being the big thing in not just the Smash Bros. community, but in the eSports scene as well. We need to showcase the excitement that is found in high level teamwork. If you look at all the most popular sporting events like Soccer, Basketball, Football, Baseball, heck even Hockey, you'll find that they all support team play. The same is said for eSports today. Look at the other genres; Halo, League of Legends, Counter Strike they support teams as well. So it's evident that teams is the way to go, it's just most Smashers that run these big events are not confident to be the one to launch it in fear that it might not be accepted and they would then be ridiculed for it. We're from New York, we welcome criticism when we try to bring about change for the better.
"TriForce" Johnson: What excites me the most about the new and improved Gauntlet is its potential to create a platform for new teams to be introduced to the Super Smash Bros. competitive community. Fighting games are for the most part a 1v1 style of competition, however I believe that we're not even scratching the surface of what it's true potential of the FGC (Fighting Game Community) is. As a part of our redevelopment plan for the North East we're look to introduce a "Gauntlet" style system to a few of the other fighting games to help foster new teams in this industrial eSports revolutionary age. There is so much in the works that we can discuss but now is not the time to reveal these things, as we need to take carefully planned and calculated steps to ensure that we launch this properly for the entire scene to enjoy.
As all of those involved are keen to point out, efforts to transform and broaden the competitive Smash Bros. scene to include a team dynamic are not designed to be combative to the current status quo. It's ultimately about diversity and expansion, giving players of all types a new way to band together as eSports competitors, both at professional and enthusiast level. After all, S.O.S. Gamers is a charity that tries to support young people in New York, and like all sports - or eSports - levels are dynamic; there are top-level competitive players but also plenty that simply like to play the game. The team format is for anyone and everyone.
For Johnson, he's keen to emphasize that Smash Bros., and Nintendo games in particular, are integral to the history of eSports; by extension they should be a big part of its future.
"TriForce" Johnson: Super Smash Bros. plays a very important role in any eSports league, circuit, community, city... you name it. It is integral to the entire Fighting Game Community (FGC). A lot of people will not admit it but Super Smash Bros. has done just as much for the FGC worldwide as its peers in competitive fighting games. These so-called "kid's" games have a 15 year old running version of it still bringing in thousands of players to the EVO World Fighting Game Championships. Name another game that does that in any eSports genre on the planet? There is only one other competitive game older than Melee and that is Donkey Kong, and that game is 35 years old. A world championship is held each year for it called the Kong Off, which is an invitational of the world's best Donkey Kong players. They've even made a movie based on the game called the King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters. Fittingly, only Nintendo games have this longevity and influence in gaming culture.
eSports as a Force for Good
This feature has largely focused on the Gauntlet format and the shared goals of TriForce Johnson and colleagues with S.O.S. Gamers to promote its team-based approach within the competitive Smash Bros. scene. We do want to also shine a spotlight on S.O.S. Gamers itself, however, in turn highlighting how important organisations of its type - around the world - can be.
Social projects and charities are well known for utilising sports as vital activities; in urban areas, for example, youth clubs will often use the likes of boxing, basketball, football, soccer and more to bring young people together. It can be key in keeping vulnerable kids 'off the streets', and in the UK (as one example) the BBC distributes a major award every year through its Sports Personality event to someone who's excelled in using sport to help the vulnerable in society.
So, as the conversation around eSports evolves, in establishing the industry as principally similar to traditional sport, organisations can pursue similar goals. In New York and surrounding areas that's the goal S.O.S. Gamers has - with their long shared history in eSports and the Smash Bros. scenes, Johnson and Lewis-Hall both feel they have a lot to offer in this area:
"TriForce" Johnson: Actually, it is because of my eSports work that I got involved with S.O.S. Gamers. Like our cousin industry "sports", there is an obligation that both competitors and athletes alike have in terms of giving back to society. Whether you play video games competitively in eSports or you're an athlete in traditional sports, the fact that a person is able to participate in those activities is a "privilege" in my opinion. There are a lot of less fortunate people in the world that don't have those privileges and we owe it to ourselves to use the benefits of those privilege to help others who are in need.
When I found out that one of the members of Deadly Alliance wanted to create a charity organization based on gamers giving back, I immediately requested to be a part of their official charity initiative. S.O.S. Gamers then made me a Charity Ambassador for their events. We did a bunch of charities together, our most recent was our gaming event in Jamaica with the Sickle Cell Unit game day. Our most notable event was the food drive that I did with S.O.S. Gamers during the launch of Super Mario 3D Land in Time Square New York. We really had a great time raising food for Charity while being the first in line to not only to purchase the game but to try out the mini theme park Nintendo built in the middle of Time Square based on the first level of the game.
"Wes" Lewis-Hall: The key activities we run with the young gamers is using Smash Bros. to teach them life lessons and social skills. What we do before we play the game is have topics that we have a big group discussion on. In conjunction to the discussion groups we hand out tests that spark up critical thinking. When we introduce Smash Bros. gameplay into the lesson of the day we set up scenarios in the game to reflect the lesson we talked about. So, for example, if we talk about communication we set up a 4v4 match and encourage players to communicate with each other as much as possible during a match. After the matches we have a discussion about them to make sure they understand why communication is important.
It's not just about being competitive in Smash Bros., either - S.O.S. Gamers has used titles like Wii Sports Resort and Dance Central is some centres and nursing homes, all to use games in a positive way.
The upcoming Smash Bros. event, then, has the aim of boosting awareness around the organisation and what it's doing, potentially also highlighting the work other charities also do for those that become curious and look into events in their own area. Johnson cites raising awareness as a "key goal" for the whole initiative.
Beyond simply giving youngsters somewhere to play games, the idea is to use technology and games like Smash Bros. to teach valuable lessons and provide vital structure - to achieve this the organisation runs its own eSports league in New York.
"Wes" Lewis-Hall: Technology brings not only the youth together in my opinion but it brings everyone together when used in a positive manner. The key to our success in our initiatives as we introduce a blend of technological communication between peers along with, I guess people would call it verbal communication between peers. The reason we do this is to make sure the kids have a healthy balance between the two within our program. Which is why we use Smash Bros as the technological platform for our group discussions. This is the verbal bridge to get our message across to our youth.
A key part of our organization is being able to integrate our charitable services into the eSports scene. The role our league plays for the youth is providing them with a positive activity to keep them off of the streets and around positive like-minded individuals. This plays as a conduit for them get into Smash Bros. and that helps our scene grow and helps the community, essentially killing two birds with one stone. It also gives those who lack social skills a comfortable environment to interact with others so they can develop their social skills at their own pace. You'll find many kids are socially inept and are socially awkward but in the Smash community they all can relate to one thing, and that gives them the confidence to build better communication and social skills.
The future goals for S.O.S Gamers are to continue to harvest our youth league around the Tri-State area and in conjunction run a successful 1st season of the Gauntlet League, and obtain a community center before the end of the year. We want to make sure we continue to grow all the interlocking communities that are involved in the Smash Bros. scene as a whole.
A Team-Based Smash Bros. Format for All Players
Like any part of popular culture that draws a large group of diverse individuals, the Smash Bros. competitive scene has had it controversies and issues. Yet ultimately the joy of playing and competing wins out, even as challenges are met and confronted.
It's clear that Johnson and Lewis-Hall want to foster a positive and alternative style for competitive Smash Bros., to expand upon the existing formats and potentially attract new audiences. In proposing an alternative to complex 1v1 showdowns in exchange for a team-based approach with eight players battling at once, there's a hope to see Smash Bros. match and perhaps - in the future - surpass existing team eSports. With the Wii U bringing 4v4 to the table in Smash Bros., it may foster a new approach in the competitive environment.
This early Invitational event in New York is ultimately only a beginning, though there's little doubt that the ambition is there to slowly expand and increase the Gauntlet's reach. The key message with that ambition, ultimately, is one of positivity. As far as Lewis-Hall is concerned its biggest hope is to bring gamers together, regardless of their circumstances or old rivalries.
"Wes" Lewis-Hall: eSports will eventually be the largest and most valuable outlet for young people looking to do constructive and productive things. The reason this is the case is not every kid can relate to traditional sports, as they may not have the physical fortitude to break into the sport. eSports to me is like any other sport, a group of people who have the same interest in something that's fun to do and is competitive. The difference between eSports and traditional sports is that you can learn and practice at your own pace anywhere and anytime in eSports, whereas in sports that is not the case. I've gotten this from my experience doing events and the youth league helps get kids off the streets. I feel the more positive outlets the kids have at their disposal the brighter their future will be.
The message is "Teamwork". The North East Fighting Game scene needs to work together as a team. That is the only we can grow and expand into new competitive elements of the game. The Gauntlet is not "exclusive", it's inclusive and we first plan to use it to reestablish the North East FGC but then we want to expand it throughout the entire FGC from the United States throughout the world. We want to work with everyone. This is not just a charity invitation, it's an invitation to the community of eSports that host Majors like NEC to Leagues like ESL that continue to push the envelope when it comes to expansion of the eSports scene. S.O.S Gamers looks to embrace any and every one that supports this project that we are introducing. We believe it will be something amazing.
We'd like to thank Isaiah "TriForce" Johnson, "Wes" Lewis-Hall and Jason "Jaxel" Axelrod for their time. Keep an eye on Nintendo Life for more news and coverage around the planned Gauntlet Smash Bros. event on 27th May.
In the meantime let us know what you think of the Gauntlet format, and perhaps share your own experiences of eSports or thoughts on organisations such as S.O.S. Gamers.