Look outside. Do you see it? Can you sense it? At this very moment, everybody everywhere has Smash Bros. fever.
The next-level anticipation for the sequel to the 3DS/Wii U title of 2014 is about to end. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is days away from (official) release. For some, this may be their first console Smash experience since Super Smash Bros. Brawl in 2008, an entire decade ago. (Sure, the Wii U version sold an impressive 5+ million copies worldwide, but compared to the well over 9 million copies sold on the 3DS, let alone the 13+ million copies of Brawl, Nintendo is seeking a console rebound they’re soon likely to get.)
Nintendo fans are psyched. Many of them are using the internet’s social channels like public coping mechanisms to pass the time, the days stuffed with jokes, voting and speculation. But how are the most dedicated fans preparing for Smash? Not those who simply love Kirby and Samus and Greninja, but superfans who travel the world to compete, analyze intricate frame data the series over, and practice tirelessly, day in and day out – not as a hobby, but as a job?
In other words, what are professional Smash Bros. players doing leading up to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate? That depends on what kind of professional they are: player, tournament organizer, community organizer, or even announcer.
Streaming, Video, and More: The Start of Something Big
Much has changed in the gaming world since the last Smash Bros. game came out in 2014. The act of streaming video games obviously existed back then, but now it’s much bigger. Smash Bros. is also bigger. But how big Nintendo’s mascot brawler looms on the world stage largely depends on how you look at it.
Back in 2014, around the release of Smash for Wii U and 3DS (Or “Smash 4”, as many refer to it), Twitch had just begun its power swing into becoming the largest streaming gaming site. Then, it was still shy of achieving 100 million viewers a month. One merger with Amazon and a purchase of streaming company Curse later, that number is up to 140 million unique viewers a month.
As of this writing, Smash 4 has 1,128,858 followers on Twitch. That’s a lot! But it’s not a ton relative to other video games. Here’s a “as-of-this-writing” list of the top games on Twitch, as measured by users who follow them:
- 34,219,876 Followers - Fortnite
- 24,219,063 Followers - Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds
- 18,061,464 Followers - Grand Theft Auto V
- 16,523,896 Follower - League of Legends
- 13,545,872 Followers - Overwatch
- 9,290,087 Followers - Minecraft
- 7,062,326 Followers - DOTA 2
- 5,960,534 Followers - Hearthstone
- 5,894,302 Followers - Rocket League
- 4,400,283 Followers - World of Warcraft
- 3,664,591 Followers - Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
- 2,278,749 Followers - Heroes of the Storm
- 2,077,829 Followers - FIFA 19
- 1,415,871 Followers - Starcraft 2
Smash 4’s 1,128,858 viewership wouldn’t even qualify on this list. (In case you’re wondering, Super Smash Bros. Melee has 839,308 followers, also as of this writing.)
How does Smash do within the fighting game genre?
- 1,269,526 Followers - Dragon Ball FighterZ
- 1,173,534 Followers - Street Fighter V
- 1,128,858 Followers - Smash for Wii U
- 916,760 Followers - Tekken 7
- 839,308 Followers - Super Smash Bros. Melee
- 521,539 Followers - Injustice 2
While Smash can indeed hang with most of the games it features alongside of at major fighting tournaments, it's mostly middle-of-the-road fare elsewhere.
You might be saying to yourself, “Okay, but who cares how many people are watching Smash Bros. on Twitch?” Professional Smash players care, that’s who. And they think that number is about to grow.
Historically lacking major means for support, many Smash pros have recently cashed in on their personal brands to produce streaming audiences, subscription models, monetized ads, and the whole virtual shebang.
This may seem obvious, but it hasn’t always been this way. Historically, the vast majority of Smash-related video content on the internet consisted of tournament matches between players. Yet in recent years, and ramping up considerably as Nintendo has slowly dripped information about Ultimate, professional matches have been equalled – if not totally eclipsed – by reaction and speculation videos from the pros.
The most popular output from eSports stars on YouTube these days has titles like “#ESAMOpinion of ALL CHARACTERS in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate”, “ISABELLE IN SMASH BROS ULTIMATE (Alpharad's Reaction)” and “MY NEW FAVORITE FALCON COMBO”. This scenery change is easily the biggest difference to accompany a Smash Bros. game’s release within the community, and it’s a byproduct of almost half a decade’s time between titles. “At the end of the day, building a presence there is by far the most important investment you can make. More so than winning,” emphasizes Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios to Nintendo Life, the world’s best Smash 4 player.
All of this online content is tremendously helped along by Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s popularity with the world at large. Nintendo is giving the pros an inadvertent lifeline like never before by making their mascot royal-rumbler the choice recipient of huge video reveals, massive convention booths, and millions in digital and physical advertising. This is a mindshare windfall like never before.
“They’re treating it like their biggest game ever, honestly,” says Nairoby Quezada to Nintendo Life regarding the release of Smash Ultimate. He’s otherwise known as “Nairo” in the Smash community. “[There’s] tons of marketing in place...and a clear nod to the competitive community for some aspects of the game.”
D’Ron “D1” Maingrette, a former professional player and current Smash Bros. announcer strongly echos these sentiments. “Nintendo's efforts to promote Smash Bros. Ultimate are on a way bigger scale than what they did for Super Smash Bros. Wii U,” D1 tells Nintendo Life. “The amount of tailgate events at schools, exhibitions being held, kiosks erected...you can tell Nintendo's pulling out all the stops.”
Whether the developers explicitly sought it or not, professional players are seizing this opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of the Nintendo Switch and the marketing machine for Ultimate. More than a few of them are making it their livelihoods, and they want you – not to mention the likely larger online audience Ultimate will bring in – to smash that subscribe button.
Preparing Ultimate for Tournament Life
There are, in fact, many hurdles before professional Smash Ultimate can properly begin as an eSport. The very first question hardcore players have had to answer is whether or not Ultimate will supplant Smash 4. Given the infamous schism in the Smash community after the release of 2008’s Brawl, this is surprisingly not a given. However, virtually all agree Ultimate has what it takes.
“The community is fully prepared and able to make Ultimate the premiere title,” says Juan Manuel “Hungrybox” DeBiedma to Nintendo Life. “Smash 4 will die immediately and fade into irrelevance the moment Smash Ultimate is released from the sheer similarity of the games, and from the fact that this will be the most-played (Smash) title worldwide for the next few years.”
Hungrybox, very arguably the world’s best Smash Bros. Melee player, also believes Melee will maintain its noticeable cult status apart from all Smash Bros. related activity. 17 years after Melee’s release, few seem to argue that point anymore.
With that largely settled, the next logical eSports hurdle is tournament hosting. Will Ultimate earn its footing like Smash 4 before it?
Where Will Ultimate’s Money Come From?
One abiding feature of a pro smash player, especially those who have been in the community since the days of Melee and even beforehand, is that of an inferiority complex. To them, it’s a minor miracle Smash Bros. can now even be talked about in the same breath as, say, Street Fighter V, a series that is financially backed year in and year out by Capcom and its many sponsors.
“In a way, I like the grassroots raw feel of the Super Smash Bros. scene. It's about family and competition,” Bassem “Bear” Dahdouh tells Nintendo Life. Dahdouh is an eSports event organizer who has helped direct virtually every major Smash Bros. tournament in recent memory.
That grassroots feeling is something many Smashers wear as a badge of honour, earned by a decade of corporate neglect, and it’s still worth noting in 2018 for reasons we’ll neatly emphasize with two statistics: one which explains the scene’s biggest strength going into Ultimate, the other, its glaring weakness.
First, the strength. By attendance alone, Smash has few peers. Fighting series often start off with a big apex, then dwindle over time. Smash is trending strongly in the opposite direction. “Melee took Smash 64 from maybe 30 people to 100 man events. Brawl took Melee from 100 to around 300-person majors. Then Smash 4 pushed us into this 2,500 person EVO territory,” recounts Kyle “Thinkaman” Brockman, community contributor and a moderator at Smashboards.com, the largest online message board dedicated to the series.
But then there’s the other half of the equation. Consider this: after winning the Smash 4 portion of Evo 2017, Smash player Salem walked away with just over $9,000 after a 60/20/10 earnings split. That was with a whopping 1,515 entrants. The winner of the Injustice 2 portion of that same tournament, which had 632 fewer entrants than Smash 4, won over $35,000. Why? Because Warner Bros. Interactive donated an additional $50,000 to the pot. It’s really that simple.
Today, through sheer, brute force, individual Smash players themselves continue to make the scene happen, with or without Nintendo’s financial support. But just as with streaming and videos, the groundwork for a more modern tourney existence has already begun.
A brighter hope for Ultimate’s eSports future begins, but does not end, with Nintendo themselves.
eSport fans are relieved to see Nintendo continually sponsors yearly fighting game tournaments, such as the aforementioned EVO and Genesis events. But far more impressively, many of the features pros have been calculating by hand for years are at last hard-coded into the upcoming game, such as an in-depth frame analysis mode and various tournament modes and menu options. There is reportedly an online mode dedicated to those who earn a certain skill level. And of course, there’s the ever important promise of keeping things at 60 fps, no matter what.
Not to mention the interesting tidbit that Nintendo has announced Japan-only leagues to play in sponsored events (albeit with items turned on, a major faux-pas in the Smash eSports community). The overall intent is still there, however.
But don’t hold your breath for Nintendo to drop a huge cash pot on an Ultimate tournament any time soon. Nintendo of America COO Reggie-Fils-Aime has repeatedly dodged the question in interviews, which likely translates to a polite “No.” The company seems to still prefer supporting its own enigmatic events, like this Japanese league, or the Super Smash Bros. Invitational.
To this point, says Dahdouh while citing his intent to continue directing major tournaments, “I hope there will be more financial support for events to compensate staff in many areas.”
The Role of Teams and Sponsors
Helping to somewhat offset this major issue are professional team salaries and product sponsorships, akin to the landscape of most every other eSport game out there. This is an area that began in infancy during the Smash 4 era, likely to expand to greater heights for Ultimate.
“It took Smash 4 a little bit to find its space in the esports realm,” begins DeBiedma, “but it's basically a solved industry at this point and I have no doubt we will see countless organizations, from S-Tier (Liquid, Cloud9) to startups, all picking up players.”
Yet one major issue the community has not solved ahead of Ultimate is what, besides the players themselves, companies are able to even sponsor. Quezada casts doubts on current investors looking to expand.
“To be a Smash player, you only need one thing: a GameCube controller…[and] Smashers only want to buy first-party controllers made by Nintendo. The problem this creates is that when you sign with a team, you [can get] all these sponsors [for] keyboards, cryptocurrency, PCs, and more.” Nairo gives the example of streaming Fortnite, where you easily advertise things like headphones and keyboards. “I understand right now it’s really difficult for teams to justify paying a lot of money to a Smash player.”
Mapping Out the Game’s Rules and its Guts
Last but certainly not least, how have the pros been preparing for the game itself? How are they preparing for character changes? And will the official rules stay the same as in Smash 4, or will they change?
Places like Smashboards and of course social media have been booming with terse opinions even before a single official tournament match has been played. Somewhat surprisingly, most every Smash player contacted for this story has bristled from their side of the already heated debate regarding to-be tournament standards dictating number of lives allotted, legal stages, and more.
“Even with my status as a top player and community leader, I personally don’t feel I’ll have much say in the ruleset, unfortunately,“ laments Quezada. “In the past, there have been secret groups run behind closed doors by tournament organizers to decide the rules of the game. I've seen this happen for 10 years now with Brawl and Smash Wii U. They haven’t let players have a say in it due to ‘conflict of interest’.”
Nairo believes this is ultimately unfair to top players. “I disagree with that notion and wish everyone in the community could have a say on stages, stocks, timers, etc instead of just one group of people. This is our livelihood for some of us and it’s largely decided by people who sometimes don’t even play the game!”
But to others, keeping matters out of the hands of the known top competitors is a check and balance that is critical, perhaps now more than ever before the game is about to come to life.
Practice, Practice, Practice
In terms of characters and gameplay changes, those who have played the game already through special events, in tandem with those who have absolutely torn apart known footage pixel by pixel, have already cultivated an impressive knowledge pool. (There are even pre-release tier lists, for crying out loud.)
“There isn't a single character that didn't receive very nuanced, detailed changes. Not one, in the preexisting 58,” says Brockman. Maingrette sees this as a challenge for his continued role as a professional announcer. “This particular Smash game has so many different characters, which means I will have to get ready to study thousands of different match-ups, and memorize a ton of data in order to keep the general public informed with all things related to the game and community.”
On all those nuanced changes from Smash 4 to Ultimate, Brockman expands: “In isolation, many of (the changes) seem odd, but together it all works: The short-hop attack penalty makes no sense without faster jumps, which calls for less landing lag to flow smoothly, which would be problematic without the upgraded shield parry, which could contribute to overly defensive options without dodge decay, which would penalize air dodges too much without the directional option, which requires cast-wide move speed increases to keep punishable, which would make edge guarding lopsided if not for balloon knockback. It just, all fits.”
Needless to say, from various online dissections to lengthy posts on Smashboards, the hardcore community has kept very, very busy.
Everyone Is Here
When Smash Ultimate releases worldwide on December 7th, the vast majority of its players will get together with their friends, pick their favourite Nintendo character and just start pushing buttons. In some ways, the pros will be no different.
What separates the impassioned from the sternly dedicated will instead be things like intricate YouTube tagging, sponsorship recruitment efforts, video editing and just plain hard work every single day for years to come. This is work that is a continuation of a collective effort stretching out years before Ultimate was even announced.
It’s what the pros have done to prepare for Smash Ultimate.
But if there is one thing that unites both the expert and the amateur more so than any other thing, it's the sentiment summed up neatly after asking Quezada how he feels going into the final week before Ultimate’s release.
“It’s so close man! I can’t wait!”