Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In this piece, Alan Lopez discusses the recent online campaign to "save" Super Smash Bros., and why it's papering over a far more insidious issue at the core of the community...
#SaveSmash. That’s the hashtag you may have seen proliferating on social media during last week’s American holiday break (along with its more specific cousin, #FreeMelee). What did the Smash Bros. series do this time to make headlines, you might be asking yourself?
In the month preceding the longest-running major tournament for the almost 20-year-old Super Smash Bros. Melee game, the operators of "The Big House” received a cease-and-desist letter from Nintendo of America (a sponsor, no less) after the team publicly announced their plans to forgo the traditional live event in the interest of public safety (the world is currently in lockdown, lest we forget) and instead hold their Melee tournament online.
Melee, of course, is not an online game. Therefore, the running of the tournament necessitated a fan-made mod called “Slippi”, a fairly new net-play-based service that relies on emulation in order for Melee to be played remotely and relatively uncompromised. If you’re familiar with the game’s competitive history, this is an unheard-of luxury that’s never once been afforded to the professional Melee scene, and a boon during the largest global pandemic in a century. Nintendo, of course, was having none of it.
The problem with #SaveSmash, though, is that it comes during a year which has featured one of the biggest scandals in competitive Smash history
Predictably, the Smash community, if not the Nintendo and video game community at large, have taken the news of Big House’s cancellation as a chance to rally against what they see as corporate overreach. A plethora of the biggest names in the Smash scene have hashtagged not just some of, but most of their day-to-day social media posts with #SaveSmash, from top 10 players Hungrybox, Zain, Axe, and many others, to community leaders, and even including people like a former Nintendo employee and other notable outside observers.
#FreeMelee. You have to admit, it’s a catchy slogan. Borrowing language from the handbook of the oppressed, #FreeMelee and #SaveSmash assembles in the mind a David versus Goliath narrative that's impossible not to root for. Build a coalition of online support, as the hashtag mantra goes, and you’ve got yourself a real fighting chance against an otherwise insurmountable foe.
But the problem with #SaveSmash, though, is that it comes during a year which has featured one of the biggest scandals in competitive Smash history. The professional Smash community is not even a handful of months removed from an unthinkable avalanche of over 60 sexual assault and harassment accusations and admissions, many of which were both purportedly and committed by brand ambassadors and highly-visible enthusiasts. Since then, some streamers have fled the scene and sponsors have dropped out, but by and large, the community has seemingly done precious little to reckon with those truths, at least from what I can see. All they really did was just sort of start, then stop talking about it.
What do I mean when I say nothing has been done?
From where I sit, there has been little in the way of reparation for the 60+ victims (and likely counting) of any tangible worth. Condemnations at the onset were plentiful, but reactions to the accusers were mixed, with many choosing to publicly debate them at length. Half-hearted apologies are still hanging in the air. It’s a fair guess that not enough time has passed for litigation to finish up behind the scenes. Not enough time has passed for healing. There has been no ubiquitous event to acknowledge these crimes (largely due to COVID-19, it should be noted) and few if any online tournaments have spent much airtime discussing it.
Yet now, suddenly, with a collective passion that has largely been missing since we’ve witnessed the literal top 3 ranked Smash 4 players all voluntarily leave the scene due to statutory rape and sexual assault admissions, we are to believe that, by Nintendo allowing a Super Smash Bros. online tournament to be played via emulation, Smash would somehow be in a better place.
By owning up to its issues and addressing them, the Smash community can take one vitally important step towards moving past this dark period in its history
Where was all of this unbridled energy before? Where were all the hashtags calling to diversify the community? How many tournament organizers – online or otherwise – have made room or stepped down to allow a woman in a position of decision-making power, a change that is desperately needed? Which professional circuit has committed to bystander intervention training, or stricter safety measures for future events, or barred drinking, or publically stated new housing expectations of its future participants? Who has created new spaces for new faces, free of grooming?
These might seem like extravagant demands to be making, but all of these things played a part in the abuses that have taken place, and none of them seem to have been addressed in the months since the scandal broke. Instead, the community has rallied around the fact that Nintendo has stepped in to prevent the use of unofficial code in a tournament it's supposed to be sponsoring.
#SaveSmash in this context is unfortunate wording and an unflattering reflection of a community putting its search for validation ahead of its own members. If these same fans and community leaders are in search of ways to realistically "save" their game – albeit a remarkable and unique game, no one is denying – they could start by changing things from within.
There needs to be a visible, public campaign which seeks to achieve justice for those who have been wronged, with the widespread support of the most notable names on the professional Smash circuit. By owning up to its issues and addressing them, the wider Smash community can take one vitally important step towards moving past this dark period in its history and ensuring that it never happens again; in fact, there's the opportunity for the Smash community to show others how it's done. I can't imagine other games don't have similar issues they need to fix and address, and Smash could lead the way in an example that would create much more in the way of goodwill than the current social media furore over Nintendo's cease-and-desist.
This is not too harsh a take, especially when you consider that no fewer than six of the people who stood on the stage of Nintendo’s global Smash Bros. E3 events and who shook series creator Masahiro Sakurai’s hand have been accused of (and admitted to) everything from serial harassment to rape. This coming after Nintendo uncharacteristically extended an olive branch to its most dedicated fans, giving them a global stage and grand acknowledgement when it didn’t have to. And while this move has hardly been symbiotic, it at least was. As a keen follower of Smash and the competitive events which surround it, it's abundantly clear to me that the relationship between Nintendo and Smash Bros. professionals has soured – and while that is obviously not at the fault of the vast majority of fans, it's still the fault of an alarmingly large minority which exist within their ranks.
Don't get me wrong here – cease-and-desisting a tool which is being used to keep a community safe during a pandemic is still a bad look for Nintendo, even if it profits a third-party. It’s the kind of move that makes perfect sense only to copyright lawyers and literally no other human on Earth, and even those people must sleep kind of funny at night. Plain and simple, shutting down the Slippi project sucks, and it’s exactly why #SaveSmash seems so appealing and inoffensive. Uniting the community during such a terrible year is a noble thing.
As a keen follower of Smash and the competitive events which surround it, it's abundantly clear to me that the relationship between Nintendo and Smash Bros. professionals has soured
Even if we all choose to collectively ignore the poor timing of the hashtag, as many of us have, the cause isn’t even logical. Nintendo trails maybe only Disney in its headline-making copyright litigation. Using a fan-made mod to personally profit a third-party organization playing a 20-year-old game was bound to get shut down, just like when Nintendo cease-and-desist Pokemon Uranium, or Super Mario 64 HD, or the Metroid 2 remake, or Zelda Maker – all fan projects with noble intentions which just happen to use Nintendo's copyrighted IP. Nintendo once told a nude fetish model who merely listed "Metroid" on her profile as a favourite game to cease and desist. This is not a company which takes this kind of thing lightly, and it will go to extreme lengths to protect its IP. Anyone who assumes otherwise clearly isn't paying attention.
Surely, the organizers of The Big House must have calculated this outcome before it happened. Pandemic or not, allowing Melee to be played online through unofficial means would be utterly unprecedented for Nintendo. Putting two and two together, when you have a suddenly-galvanized community rallying for a lost cause after failing to do much of anything about its own members being at risk to its own leaders, and well, that’s a pretty good way of getting your favourite company to distance itself from you, in my opinion.
Can you fight for both causes at the same time? Yeah, sure. Which self-respecting Nintendo fans wouldn’t want to see such a great game find the success of other eSports? But the energy behind “#SaveSmash” is woefully misplaced if you ask me. And it’s endemic of the problem that helps keep pro Smash Bros. players in the small sandbox they always seem to find themselves in.
Yes, Smash certainly needs saving. Unfortunately, what it needs saving from is itself.
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