Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

Traditionally, a one year anniversary is celebrated with paper. That definitely won’t be a problem for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s own one year anniversary; with a couple of months to spare, Nintendo’s mascot fighting game is already the best selling fighting video game of all time.

Nintendo sold as many copies of Smash Bros. Ultimate (15.71 million) in nine months than Street Fighter II (15.5 million) and its countless iterations have sold over 28 years. Ultimate has sold more copies than Nintendo sold Wii U consoles in that machine’s entire lifetime on the market. Ultimate can almost claim a ridiculous 1:3 adoption rate among people who own a Nintendo Switch.

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So alright already, we get it – you all like to play Smash Bros. a lot. But today, we’re not focusing on all 15.71 million of you. Instead, we wanted to see how the 'best of the best' feel about the game after they’ve had a year to settle down with its 'Everyone-Is-Here' approach.

How are professional Smash players feeling about Ultimate, one year later?

Last year, Nintendo Life spoke to a select handful of professional players, tournament organizers, and eSports announcers to get a gauge on how they were preparing for the premiere of Nintendo’s then-unreleased fighting game. To mark the one year anniversary of Ultimate, we returned to many of those same players (plus a few new ones) and followed up on many of the original questions, including their reactions to Nintendo’s support of their scene, who they think is the best player, as well as the best characters going into 2020.

Here’s what they said.

How Are Pros Playing Smash?

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

Guess what? Smashers like to stream themselves playing Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Before Ultimate was released, it was an easy prediction that streaming and content creation were both going to ramp up for this first Smash Bros. game released during the modern internet era. The real question is, how well has the streaming and content creation all come along?

Well, the view isn’t terrible from the top. But one year in, the competitive community at large still has an appreciable amount of ground to cover, if you’re judging it by other eSport or gaming standards.

Last time, we used Twitch followers as a metric to see how Smash for Wii U (Smash 4) compared to its contemporaries, and by that measure – at least on Twitch – Smash Ultimate is just about the king of the fighting genre.

Here are the follower counts for ten relevant fighting titles on Twitch, as of this publication:

  1. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate - 1.6 million
  2. Dragon Ball FighterZ - 1.6 million
  3. Street Fighter V - 1.4 million
  4. Tekken 7 - 1.2 million
  5. Super Smash Bros. Melee - 1 million
  6. Mortal Kombat 11 - 682k
  7. Injustice 2 - 535k
  8. EA Sports UFC 3 - 361k
  9. Jump Force - 113k
  10. Soul Calibur VI - 96k

(Note that while Dragon Ball FighterZ and Ultimate share an overhead tie for number of followers, Ultimate tends to beat it out when it comes to average number of streamers, and is likely to outlast it overall, at least if Super Smash Bros. Melee’s existence on this list is any indication.)

Even though these are nowhere near the numbers of games like Fortnite (50.3 million), Counter-Strike: GO (19.3 million), or League of Legends (22.2 million), it’s pretty clear that the general public has a taste for Ultimate, pushing the game well beyond what Smash 4 accomplished in a far shorter time. This is in no small part due to the Switch’s larger install base. “You can go on Twitch any time and see a few smashers with 100-plus viewers on stream, sometimes even more than 1,000. Many people have had their Twitter following double, or even triple,” says Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby to Nintendo Life about Ultimate’s accomplishment.

Smash enjoys a decent presence over on YouTube as well, where many of the top individual competitors enjoy subscription amounts ranging roughly between 100-200k at the high end. Not bad!

A notable, major outlier, however, is Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, the undisputed best Smash 4 player who today currently enjoys 819k subscribers, despite opting to hardly compete in the Ultimate professional circuit. That he has found success without competing highlights the glaring change in how the pros are playing Smash since Ultimate’s release.

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

Smash players are en masse no longer in the business of pushing tournament-level play. They’ve largely moved on to patch and DLC reaction videos, character highlights, playing non-Smash games, and just-plain memeing. That’s where the ad revenue money is, and they’re now in competition with non-Smash Bros. focused channels who post about Smash Bros. on the side. Perennial Smash contender Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman agrees with this change in philosophy. “If, say, Mr. Game & Watch wins a big tournament or performs very well... it might be a good idea to look into that character, research it, and make a video on it.” He adds, “At (the) game’s release, many people want to do content such as World of Light or other one-player modes… I personally did a World of Light run without using Spirits to make it more challenging and fun.”

The 23-year-old “ZeRo” Barrios is so successful at this new approach one year into Ultimate, Facebook just signed him to an exclusivity streaming deal.

And it’s apparently working out pretty well.

And this is the road that will continue to be taken, because headline players like “ZeRo”, who has entered a “whopping” two Ultimate tournaments to date, correctly realize they literally can make far more money streaming themselves watching a tournament than they can playing in a tournament. (Barrios himself did not respond for comment.)

And that brings us to the next major headline about the Smash pro scene one year in.

Where’s The Money?

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

Literally every single person interviewed for this piece brought up this same sentiment without provocation: the first year of Smash Ultimate has done very little to change the relatively tiny pots for Super Smash Bros. tournaments. lists Smash Ultimate at $1,089,813.75 overall earnings from mainline tournaments in 2019. It sounds like a lot, right? It's not. That total is good for a ridiculously low 55th place, despite almost 1,000 separate tournaments and several thousands of registered players, which dwarfs most other titles. If you click to see the list for yourself, you might be shocked to see some of the decades-old titles that are bringing in more money with typically a fraction of the amount of mindshare.

“The payout for Smash Ultimate is downright embarrassing,” says Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma to Nintendo Life, the world’s best Super Smash Bros. Melee player. “It is tragic how little money the top players make for competing at events compared to the viewership and the impressions that this game gets on a social basis. It is a travesty. This needs to change.”

Some players were quick to cite some improvements over the pools from previous games in the series, however. “The payout of the tournaments have been better than Smash 4... but I still think it’s too bad compared to other fighting games,” tells us Leonardo “MKLeo” Lopez Perez, the top-ranked Ultimate player one year in. “Many people make more than I made in 14 years, by just winning or placing high at one single event,” laments Zimmerman.

So sure, things are better than the miserly monetary support of Smash 64, Melee (back then), and Brawl. But the money still isn’t great.

If there is any credit to throw Nintendo’s way regarding how it's handled this problem, it’s this: after Ultimate, the company is both more aware of and involved with the professional gaming scene today than at any other point in its long existence. It runs an official eSports Twitter account where it shouts out highlight plays from top players across multiple games. It has put on intermittent online tournaments in America, Europe, and Japan. Nintendo hosted a glitzy, competitive event to coincide with the gaming industry’s flagship E3 expo, albeit to mixed results. And in the so-close-but-yet-so-far department, Nintendo is an official sponsor for major fighting game tournaments, including the flagship fighting game EVO series. This year it was, in fact, Ultimate that broke all-time EVO viewership records with 279,000 people tuning in to watch the final set.

But the majority of all of that stuff, specifically the part where the big, red Nintendo logo is officially broadcast onto 279,000 monitors, tablets, and smartphones, should not be mistaken as full-on support. It’s smart marketing. And to the surprise of nobody, Ultimate’s release has not helped birth an equivalent to The Capcom Cup, with its prize pool of $250,000, let alone the Starcraft World Championship Series with $600,000 or the Fortnite World Cup’s out of this world $30 million.

And even though they’re not shocked, the pros are still hurt.

”Only the top [players] make enough money from events to attend more,” explains Buzby. Buzby describes the range of 7th-13th place, let alone bottom 32 or beyond, as monetarily worthless. “These are the placings where you're breaking even or even losing money for attending the events.” Thinking of going out there and trying yourself? Well, it’s extremely difficult to make top 16 even in a tournament of 50 participants, let alone hundreds or thousands of participants. Many of those interviewed suggest that in 2019, the only way to exist as a “professional Smash player” is through content making and sponsorship, not placement alone.

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

Are sponsorship opportunities picking up any slack? On the topic of sponsorship, Victoria “VikkiKitty” Pérez, professional announcer for various Smash Bros. tournaments and events, has seen an expanded interest. “We have Cloud9, TSM, Liquid, NRG, eUnited and so many other talented players joining large orgs.” This has extended into the Melee scene as well, despite the fact that Smash players are at an overall disadvantage compared to streamers who can be sponsored by more traditional PC and controller makers.

Yet regardless of what they hold in their hands or wear on their shirts, the skill level needed to be watched by a well over a quarter of a million people, and therefore be sponsored, remains upper-echelon. Sponsored or not, these smashers are bringing in tons of ad revenue for lots of people. It’s just not an achievement Nintendo wants to sponsor, unlike other gaming companies.

“It’s the only company that really isn’t putting money into pot bonuses, even though they very, very easily could,” “Hungrybox” DeBiedma emphasizes.

One year in, little has changed from the past regarding Smash’s ongoing professional prospects, institutionally speaking.

Is The Gameplay Good?

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

Ultimate’s overall gameplay is seen as a net positive by the pros.

This year has seen this latest Smash game develop in ways largely similar to the game that preceded it, with all its improvements not easily felt by most casual observers. But its subtle refinements to its pacing and internal logic have been strongly felt and appreciated by the pro community.

“It’s been a year since Smash Ultimate came out and I don’t feel disappointed, this is the best smash game in my opinion,” says “MKLeo” Lopez Perez.

“I absolutely love this game both as an organizer, player, and a fan,” says Bassem “Bear” Dahdouh, eSports Manager of Esports Arena Las Vegas and co-organizer for Genesis, EVO, and more. “I enjoy the vast amount of characters part of the lineup along with the various top-level play that can be watched among the professional players. The game has surpassed my expectations.”

Dahdouh adds that he also appreciates the changes in the functionality of the game, not just its gameplay. “In an organizational aspect, it's leaps easier to host events for the game, given the versatile nature of the game along with multiple ways to ensure all characters are unlocked if a mass amount of setups are needed.”

With (mostly) only the smallest of quibbles here and there, like wistful hopes for additional modes or a fix to the character Hero by making his on-screen menu move legible in all languages, every person interviewed was in agreement that the meat of Smash Ultimate makes for not just an acceptable competitive game, but an exceptional one.

And in case you are wondering, yeah, all the pros said they use the GameCube controller – exclusively.

How’s The Online Mode?

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

If there is one major complaint the pros have about Ultimate one year into its existence beyond monetary support, it was expressed loud and clear: the online functionality needs improvement.

“This is my biggest gripe with Ultimate,” begins “Dabuz” Buzby, “Online is hard to use for practice because the native input delay in Ultimate, plus the minimum input delay for netplay, ruins execution and skews tier lists hard. I have really good internet and even when I play someone else with good internet living near me, it's noticeably different [than local play].” Adds “VikkiKitty” Perez, “It's very common to run into players with unstable internet connections, which allows them to cheat and farm wins off of other players.”

In addition to complaints about the lack of native servers and better netcode and therefore the lack of stability, there were qualms with the functionality of the online mode, as well.

Buzby adds, “The lack of a true ranking is a bit underwhelming, GSP isn't a good substitute, and I wish there were more matchmaking modes, like items only, ‘crazy’ stages only, (free for all) only, etc., instead of having to set your own rules and hope you get a match with them. And since we only have ranked play or arenas, there's no fun casual mode, something Smash 4 had.”

Which Character Is the Best?

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

Are you only reading this article to figure out which character will help you beat all of your friends?

Well, pro Smash players aren’t exactly sure who the very best character is, if such a thing can exist among a roster of 75. But they have a pretty good idea who can help you out.

The most common responses we heard when asking for the best character were Joker, Pikachu, and Peach. Some of the other characters most frequently name-dropped include Snake, Palutena, Zero Suit Samus, and newcomer Terry Bogard.

Who does “MKLeo” Lopez Perez, the top-ranked Ultimate player who predominantly plays as Joker, feel is the best character?

“I personally think Pikachu and Peach are the best characters. I remember that I used to think Link was the I would say my opinion and metagame changed a lot from the beginning.”

This speaks to the malleable nature of Smash Ultimate and its character balance. The game has seen no fewer than 13 patches, and is also already within striking distance of the release of a fifth downloadable character.

“Nintendo's patches have continued to be very conservative compared to any other fighting game or eSport – always a half step forward, zero steps back.” explains Kyle “Thinkaman” Brockman, a Smashboards moderator and meta contributor.

“Patch 3.1 was the most notable – the development team gave modest nerfs to five characters, who happened to be exactly the top five characters according to aggregate pro player opinions at that point (i.e., Wolf, Pichu, Peach, Olimar, and Lucina). Each of these characters (are) still performing very well, but now more in-line with the other top characters.” In this way, he describes Nintendo’s approach as attentive, but slow-but-steady. “They have focused on giving medium-sized sets of buffs to only six or so characters at a time. We've usually seen small but obvious jumps in tournament performance from this, but never anything destabilizing.”

That Nintendo is adjusting characters in response to actual tournament results is a revelation to many players who had grown accustomed to balance changes for seemingly random characters in the Smash games previous. And the fact that Ultimate has done such a great job at being balanced with such a huge roster is frankly, a feat never been done before in a fighting game before it.

“Despite 75 unique characters – 75 chances to screw up the balance – things are pretty good. In the last year, 59 characters have been played in the top 8 of national tournaments; 67 if you include large regionals and medium-sized countries like Australia. These are frankly incredible numbers,” adds Brockman.

There do exist tier lists for Ultimate, of course. But if you’re good enough with a character, odds are you might be able to go out there and change the tier list ... maybe single-handedly. Go for it.

Who Are The Top Players?

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

Has the personnel changed much from Smash 4 into Ultimate? Among the survey questions, we asked the top players who among them they felt were the best.

Buzby summarizes the overall scene like this, “The rankings between the end of Smash 4 and Ultimate are largely the same among American players, but very different for the international players.”

On who is ranking specifically, “While ordering is different, players that transitioned well into Ultimate are MKLeo, Nairo, Tweek, Marss, Samsora, Cosmos, Void, Esam, (and myself). The people that became less impactful on the rankings sadly are Mr.R , Larry, Komorikiri, and KEN. Finally, new names or people that experienced a big boost in results between games are Zackray, Gluttony, Shuton, Maister, and Dark Wizzy.”

“Hungrybox” DeBiedma echoes much of these sentiments while surveying the scene that has seen some players like ZeRo leaving for content creation over playing competitively. “Japan is still very, very powerful. MKLeo is still the god of both games. Nairo is a top player. Tweek now (is) one of the top ones. The only thing (I think) that isn't going to change (going forward) MKLeo being the best and Samsora being top three.”

What About Melee?

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

The question that always persists between Smash titles is whether or not Super Smash Bros. Melee – the longstanding, hyper-competitive game released in 2001 – will finally be put to rest by the newest version.

Well, if you were waiting on it, it’s not happening. One year into Ultimate, Melee isn’t going anywhere. In some ways, it’s bigger than ever. And unlike times in the past, the players seem pretty happy with this coexistence.

“[The release of Ultimate] has been only good [for Melee], I think,” says “Hungrybox” DeBiedma, still the top Melee player on the scene. “The focus on tournaments happening is more geared towards Ultimate, but Melee has peacefully coexisted with Ultimate for awhile. And at many events, Melee has not only matched viewership, in some cases, it’s actually had a higher viewership... which is really, really interesting to see.”

Many players said they played one of Ultimate or Melee casually, though only one surveyed said they continued to play both games at a high level.

“I decided to stop playing Melee for a year to play Ultimate since I wanted to do something different and new. However, sometimes I find that switching the games can be difficult, as I often do different types of 'survival DI' in each game...which can negatively affect me in tournaments since it changes my recent muscle memory and habits.” says “Mew2King” Zimmerman, a frequent competitor to both games at a high level. He describes the biggest hurdle towards being a dual competitor as the technological difference between the titles.

“The hardest part for me between switching Smash games is the difference in input delay. Melee has very minimal input delay, whereas Ultimate has many frames of input delay, and I find this difficult, personally.”

Still, more and more players from the Melee community are making the jump. Says “MKLeo” Lopez Perez on this symbiosis, “Melee has been always a pleasure to watch and I’m glad people like Leffen, Armada and Plup are in the Ultimate community now.”

This is the landscape DeBiedma foresees for all Smash scenes going forward. “I think for the remainder of time, as long as there is no re-release, or HD (version), or any true sequel to Melee, Smash majors will always have Melee and ‘insert newest Smash title here’. We take pride in the games that are special.”

What’s Next For Ultimate’s Pros?

Smash Bros Pros
Image: Robert Paul

One year in, the pros continue to learn, play, and adapt. In a wild year that has seen this fighting game take off financially in unprecedented fashion, curious futurists can simply take every single section of this article and multiply it. It’s not rocket science.

There will be more content made on YouTube and Twitch, Ultimate will be featured at more big-name tournaments, there will be more tier lists, and there will be much more DLC. Nintendo has already announced more characters beyond the five more already promised, in fact.

The only things not guaranteed in 2020 and beyond are the other things Nintendo themselves control: iteration on online functionality, and the financial impetus for enthusiasts to keep on attending tournaments and competing, unless they are also part-time or full-time content creators or announcers.

“We need developer support. I can’t stress this enough,” says ''Hungrybox” DeBiedma. “Nintendo, given the resources that they have and given what every other company who creates fighting games (have) done – whether it’s Capcom for the Capcom Cup, for instance, or any of the huge Mortal Kombat Cups that are run, we need developer support.”

Some players have suggested a professionally-sponsored circuit would bring in the needed organization, sponsorship, and structure these players and commentators need. There is no indication that is on the horizon.

Overall, the pros are playing the same game you are, and they seem to be loving it and pushing it as far as the game can go. It's just that when they boot up the game, they say they're concerned with figuring out how to parlay their unmatched skills at playing, talking about, and organizing Smash Bros. within an economic landscape that is increasingly rewarding them for their dedication, yet alongside a developer that continues to keep them at arm’s length.

And so this is what’s on the mind of professional Smash players these days: going into 2020, Nintendo is now the owner of the most popular fighting game of all time. What are they going to do with it?

We'd like to give a massive thank you to Robert Paul for allowing us to use his incredible photos to illustrate this piece, as well as all the participants who shared their thoughts for this piece.