I just went to the Nintendo World Championships and I am tired.
This ballyhooed Nintendo game extravaganza, typically hosted on the same week as the gaming industry’s flagship Electronic Gaming Expo, originated from a fandom-fueled 1990 tournament of the same name. Way back then, the Nintendo World Championships were a blowout celebration of niche. That was the year 1990, when Nintendo brought little kids onto a huge stage to see which one could outlast curveball challenges in the up-and-coming franchises Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer, and Tetris.
All that early-adopter fanaticism became telecommunicated in exclusively niche ways: an overly excited host with a perm, bootleg VHS tapes, and breathless recaps inside novelty geek magazines. But video games aren’t exactly as niche in 2019 compared to back then. And yet, somehow, this event is more niche than it’s ever been before.
The 2019 edition, roughly the fourth iteration since 2015, is feeling a lot like maybe the fifth sequel to something you once loved: comforting but overmuch, and lacking anything to really say on its own.
What Was Great
The legacy of the Nintendo Championships event is pretty unique, and the party Nintendo throws for it definitely honours that legacy. If you caught any portion of the event, your eyes and ears were treated to some crazy high levels of production.
Hosted at the Ace Hotel Theater in Los Angeles, the classic feel of the venue mixed well with Nintendo’s over the top stage design: massive screens, smoke machines, and even set pieces lit up to look like different squid inks! No matter what you have to say about the event, and I’m definitely about to, it’s clear Nintendo loves putting on this show.
No matter what you have to say about the event, and I’m definitely about to, it’s clear Nintendo loves putting on this show
What also was surprisingly strong was the commentary team assembled, largely anchored by former NFL-er Jordan Kent. There were three video games players were competing in this year: Super Mario Maker 2, Splatoon 2, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. All three are about as different of on-screen experiences as you can fathom: a third person, team-based shooter, a 2D fighter, and, well, people playing Super Mario Bros.
Perched from their prototypical 3-person sports desk, all the commentators – from Kent, to super fun Splatoon colour commentator Ashley Esqueda, to the always entertaining SuperGirlsKels who detailed Smash Bros. matchups – were all excellent no matter the game. You’d have thought that Nintendo had always been an ardent supporter of competitive gaming, which of course it has not been.
Of all three games showcased that day, Splatoon 2 was probably the best. And for good reason; the Nintendo World Championships is actually the pinnacle for pro-Splatoon players, much unlike speedrunners in the Mario community or Super Smash Bros. players, in general. If you tuned in to see competitive play, this was the only portion of the event that even came close to delivering. It also featured maybe the best Splatoon match I have ever seen in my entire life.
And the finals weren’t bad either, despite the lack of upset. Hats off to whoever was dictating the on-screen action, as the matches were easy to follow in a chaotic game that isn’t always easy to comprehend. With their help, the entire theatre went bonkers after every splat by an underdog, and collectively sighed when the favourites inched towards their objective. It’s not a surprise that the best part of the Championships were the parts that were, you know, competitive.
What Was Not as Great
The premise of the Nintendo Championships revival in 2015 was that all contestants competed in decades-spanning games that were kept a secret until they were handed a controller. That’s a pretty solid hook.
So it’s impressive that the then brand new game Super Mario Maker for the Wii U absolutely stole the show that year. Finalists were tasked with completing a bunch of Super Mario mystery levels cooked up just for that tournament, and the result was spectacularly entertaining.
That was then. This time, the sequel Super Mario Maker 2 came back to the event in the form of the “Super Mario Maker 2 Invitational”, batting lead-off. And it was... fine. But I couldn’t help but feel like we’ve seen this all before.
I had planned to get there early so I could get shots of what I had assumed would be a long line of Nintendo fans waiting to enter, and was shocked to find out there was hardly any line whatsoever
Here again, four contestants, including streamer TheDragonFeeney and YouTuber The Completionist, went head to head in brand new Mario courses put together by Nintendo developers, most of which not-so-subtly showed off some of the features new to Mario Maker 2: cranes, cars, and cats. The tournament rules were to simply get to the end of the stage before your opponent, often by solving the puzzle elements and tricky platforming. (It’s definitely worth mentioning that the new co-op mode was definitely the biggest crowd pleaser of all the challenges.)
Sign me up if anyone is thinking of making a show where people play Mario against each other. Seeing these four people sweating even from up on the balcony was a blast. The real problem, Nintendo enthusiasts, is that we’re dealing with diminishing returns here.
Much of what was on the schedule, including the Mario segment, came off as extremely “same-y” to years past. I can’t think of anything that was entertaining from that day that I also hadn’t seen Nintendo do before at one of these events. And frankly, from the fact that there were plenty of empty seats in the audience, to the lukewarm response I’ve seen from fans online, I’m getting the sense you all must feel the same. Case and point; I had planned to get there early so I could get shots of what I had assumed would be a long line of Nintendo fans waiting to enter, and was shocked to find out there was hardly any line whatsoever. Yikes.
What Nintendo Absolutely Needs to Address
The biggest problems with the modern Nintendo World Championships are unfortunately found in both the event’s form and function.
What do I mean by its form? Well, if you dared to watch it yourself, then you certainly know that this event was nearly seven hours long. Seven! The Super Bowl isn’t even seven hours long, for crying out loud! I was absolutely physically and mentally exhausted by the end of this thing.
Perhaps there is value to having an all-day event that also happens to be telecast, but only the most hardcore of fans can reliably get through an event like this. To that point, the theatre was maybe at a third capacity by hour six. If the guy dressed up like a Pokémon leaves your Nintendo event before the finale, maybe you should rethink your pacing?
Nintendo just cannot get through these Championship events without having a boatload of technical difficulties
And I can’t leave out this sad fact: Nintendo just cannot get through these Championship events without having a boatload of technical difficulties. Mario matches not starting simultaneously, controllers not working and causing redos, problems setting up Splatoon matches, long-winded result tabulations… these things not only added to the running time, but it’s baffling that Nintendo themselves can’t even get their controllers to sync. If not for the fantastic commentators who expertly filibustered through the problems, Nintendo would have been even more embarrassed.
Finally, the second part is the problem with its function. And it’s pretty much the elephant in the room here. What is this event? Is it supposed to be a real tournament? Or is it a commercial?
In a recent interview for Kotaku, Bill Trinen, Nintendo of America’s Senior Marketing Product Manager, had this to say about the event: "We’re trying to find ways to make it easier for people who are everyday Smash players to get a taste of participating in tournaments. I think our approach is less of one of competition and it’s really more about the competitive fun."
That’s fair. If Nintendo wants to put on a warm, familial event aimed at anyone who loves their games, there’s nothing wrong with that. Who doesn’t love a party? But then, why not attempt to make the challenges, you know, more party-like?
The Splatoon tournament featured the most honest competition. The Mario portion featured the most silliness. What transpired on the Smash Bros. portion of the tournament, the most anticipated of the three games mind you, were professional players hamstrung by nonsensical rulesets that were not only non-competitive in nature, but which also lacked any excitement or drama whatsoever. In other words, neither serious nor silly, a frustrating existence somewhere in the middle.
Own a copy of Smash Bros at home? Try this out: place four computer players into a five-minute timed match and watch the chaos. At about three minutes in, try and vocalize who is winning the match. Guess what? You probably can’t.
I get the sense the biggest reason fans watched the event was due to the allure of potential announcements from Nintendo. But if ultimately this tournament is a commercial, shouldn’t it, well… announce something? There ended up being little to no announcements, unless you count Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai's announcement of an announcement, or Nintendo reminding us that Splatoon 2 was going to stop receiving updates. But who can blame fans for wanting a bit of news, given the event takes place during E3 week?
The Nintendo World Championships was at its worst when it lacked not just competition, but true reason
All this to say, the Nintendo World Championships was at its worst when it lacked not just competition, but true reason. It’s not really for hardcore gamers, and at seven-hour long, it doesn’t appear to be for casual gamers, either. It’s seemingly for an audience so niche I can’t even really identify it.
Nobody knows, probably not even Nintendo themselves yet, if this event will be rekindled next year, or any year thereafter. But if the Championships do in fact come back, I think it’s time Nintendo rethinks how it works. Like the AV guy who kept trying to fix all the issues, or the groups of fans leaving the theatre early, by the end of it all I was just pretty tired.