Changing the Game: Cultivating the Landscape of Super Smash Bros.

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Image by Robert Paul
By David “Shears” Shears

How big is Smash? That depends on which area of Super Smash you look at. Super Smash Bros. the community is very small. Super Smash Bros. the series by Nintendo is massive. Throughout its history, Nintendo has sold over 39 million copies of the Smash Bros. franchise: 5 million copies of 64, 7 million copies of Melee, over 13 million copies of Brawl and nearly 14 million copies of Smash 4 so far. However, the r/smashbros subreddit, likely the biggest collection of Smashers online, doesn’t even have 250,000 subscribers. This is a drop in the bucket, potentially only 0.6% of people who own a Super Smash Bros. game are aware of the competitive Smash Bros. community. There are more people who love and play Smash and have never seen the Smash Brothers documentary than there are people on the planet who know of Mang0 or Isai.

I often meet people at bars, on Tinder or running into an old friend and catching up on life, and nearly everyone I talk to loves and remembers or plays at least one version of Super Smash Bros. When in conversation with these strangers or old acquaintances, I tell them about how much of my free time is spent traveling the world and competitively playing one of the most popular video games ever made. Nearly every single person is convinced they are gods at these games, but none of them know of any advanced techniques, top players or even events that happen in the cities they have lived in for years. In college you could go down the hall and run into any random dorm room and there was likely a Nintendo 64 or GameCube along with a copy of Smash. I often played people in college, destroying them with ease; it was a good way to hustle beer money. But these people who love the game exist everywhere, are part of all demographics and are thirsty to play people they know they are better than. The problem is the community is niche and inaccessible. When we look at attendance, we see numbers even worse than on reddit. The biggest events cannot break 5,000 attendees despite having over 100,000 viewers at home. These events are virtually nonexistent to Nintendo compared to its tens of millions of customers worldwide. This is why Nintendo does not care much about competitive Smash, because it fails to add any significant growth or profit margins. The entire Smash community is an obscure, small and negligible fraction of its customers.

Shears Chart I

Shears Chart II

Does size matter? For sustainability, not too much. At both Genesis 3 and Genesis 4, the convention center was shared with other events the same weekend. For G3 it was FurCon, for G4 it was NeedleArts. One is a known but very niche community, often seen as a strange fetish, and the other is a hobby I never knew existed until I got to G4. What is most interesting about both of these events is that their attendance was about the same as the number of entrants at both G3 and G4. There are two sides to this coin. These hobbies and communities exist all over the world and their biggest yearly conventions take place with comparable numbers and have been growing for years. With Smash in the same ballpark as far as numbers go this is very encouraging for sustainability. NeedleArts does not need tens of thousands of fans and neither does FurCon. They get 0 viewers on Twitch, they do not need YouTube ad revenue and with conventional advertisement, sponsorship and a loyal fan base, both of these communities thrive and stay sustainable.

In a way our Smash community is like this, but the big difference is we should not be. We should not be as small or as niche. This is one of the most popular game series in the world with loads of income sources via Twitch, YouTube, merchandise, sponsors, loyal customers, etc. and yet its competitive community cannot beat out people who like dressing in animal costumes or stitching a Christmas stocking. This is not because daddy Nintendo refuses to tweet us out or give us money, it is because we are doing something wrong and these much smaller communities are doing something right to compete with us in size. Is Smash sustainable? Yes. Is Smash significant? No. Go out to any public event whether it is a bar, carnival, music festival or whatever and ask people if they are a furry. More often than not they will say, “no,” or ask, “what is a furry?” Do the same with NeedleArts and you will be hard pressed to find a single person that has ever heard of that convention. Now compare these results to asking people if they love Super Smash Bros. and you will find just about every person you meet knows of the game and an overwhelming majority love it. So how does this change?

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Credit: Ronan Lynam.com

I have a million and one ideas on what is needed for growth in Smash and much of it has to do with local traditional advertising, viral marketing, social media ads, new event structures, better fan and competitive experiences, traditional sponsorships and more. All these ideas focus on tapping into the already indoctrinated fans of Smash, the ones who played it as children when it first came out or are still playing it but unaware of the competitive community. The random scrubs who can beat all their friends and so they must be gods. There are millions of these people out there and Smash has been struggling to bring them in. The 100k viewers on Twitch watching G4 or the 250k on reddit that saw the event page and announcements knew of G4, they knew who was going, they knew how much the trip would cost them, they knew how much fun people have at these events and they KNEW that they did not want to attend.

The current strategy in Smash is to try and convince people who know of an event and do not want to go to change their mind and attend anyway. It is shouting into the echo chamber of reddit, Twitter and Smash Facebook groups. It is like asking a girl out, her saying no and then asking again as if her mind has changed. You are not going to draw someone away from their high school sweetheart. They picked Melee as their first love, or League of Legends, or Marvel vs. Capcom. Players rarely switch to entirely new Smash games and top players from other games rarely have any interest in even competing in Smash. Instead of asking the same girl out we need to ask out the fans of Smash who have no other hobby, the ones who are not married to other games or know of the competitive scene and deliberately choose not to attend. Remember, 39 million copies sold yet Smash routinely panders and markets to the 0.6%. While these are growth opportunities, they cannot be long term efforts and reliable systems to continue bringing new players in. Influx of Smash fans depends on Nintendo’s release of the next game. There is no system in place to morph casual people into new community members and this kind of player source is what I believe to be a very important step in the sustainability and growth of the Smash community as a whole.

This past weekend I organized and played in an event that was unlike any event I have seen or been to. Many members of my region, MVP (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania), drove out to face off against our neighboring rival region, MOMS (Masters Of Midwest Smash), meeting at a halfway point for the two scenes. Instead of a standard tournament with winners taking home cash, mid-level players attending with the hopes of just doing a little bit better than last time and low-level players having basically no hope at anything but a sad 0-2, we ran the event similar to a track and field meet. This regional dual meet was exclusive, we wanted to hit home the rivalry and really give attention to the players from each region. Instead of first place going home with 50 percent of the prize pool, they instead earned points for the team along with a handful of side events, bonus scoring categories and points via money matches and social media. The team with the most points at the end of the weekend took home a majority share of the prize pool to be divided amongst everyone.

Instead of one player taking all the money, everyone who attended and competed truly helped support the event and their region and went home a winner. It wasn’t about a top player, it was about the region and the team and everyone who helped contribute to that. Every single person who attended helped their team in some way, whether it was winning a MM versus another low skilled player from the rivalry region or outperforming their seed. The little guys were important contributors to the team just like the PR players that normally dominate regional events. Individual winners still got awards as we had ribbons for Top 8 of each event and in the end it built strong regional pride and camaraderie. We also used a portion of the budget to get pizza and soda for all attendees to socialize and get to know each other for true sportsmanship and a respectable rivalry. This new event helps build a team and a team brings people together to keep coming out and fall in love with their community and the game.

The reception of this event and how it felt for me has inspired me to start running this style event more often and push it to the rest of the community, but I started thinking about how much further this can go. The entirety of it stemmed from my own personal experiences running track in high school, being on a team, contributing to that team’s performance and traveling to face off against other nearby teams to decide who was the best. I was not in it for money, I did want victory, I did want the plaques, awards and trophies, but I did want my hometown to be respected, my school to be feared and my teammates to do well. It was about school spirit and building inward support for your team. But it was not only about my performances, it was about the team as a whole. When we won our meets and victory came down to one of the little guys outperforming their time and upsetting another runner to steal a point here or there, it became a special moment. Everyone went home a winner and people that were not the best still mattered and became a part of something. This is what I wanted to capture with MVP vs. MOMS and I believe we succeeded.

The venue for MVP vs. MOMS was offered to us for free with the agreement that our attendees would like and subscribe to their social media as well as watch and like a couple of their YouTube videos. Coincidentally, one of the videos they specified for us to watch was about getting esports into high schools. With our event being modeled after high school competitions and meets, this video really matched up with what had been on my mind. It delivers the idea that if you can have teams of players in sports going to other high schools to compete, then the same can be done for esports. It is no different when you think about it. A singles and doubles tournament combining for a total team score and a team victory is like a track meet where individuals run to score points for their team and have a relay race with a few of their teammates to maximize their team’s points. Our event model translates perfectly to esports clubs for high school and is a tried and true system that has proven to work.

For me, I never had video games as a kid, never played them as my mom did not believe in them. I did not own any Smash Bros. games or consoles until the very end of 2014 when I bought an N64 and SSB64 off craigslist. My life as an adolescent was spent mostly playing sports, being in different rec leagues and subsequently on middle school and high school sports teams. These systems are simple, especially since they are mostly designed as after school programs. Every parent wants to get their kid into these so they stay away from less savory activities. I see no reason Smash cannot become a part of this. Many schools already have video game clubs or Lego robotics clubs, but instead they run them as hobbies instead of competitive programs. With minimal effort, these can be turned into after school programs where students play and practice, and on weekends a bus is rented to meet at other schools and the kids spend their days playing each other and earning victories for their teams.

Leagues and divisions are created locally and competitions held much like our events already, the same way our major tournaments are held. MVP, rookie of the year, best sportsmanship and many other awards can be easily created and distributed to these high school esports athletes. Most schools get public funding, especially for their athletic departments, and so these events and programs do not even need the overhead and dependant entrant support that our current majors do. On top of creating organizations for Smash we create an avenue for growth. Younger fans of the games have an easy way into the game, stepping in at their youth through these programs and then pursuing either careers in Smash or becoming lifetime fans like we see for football, basketball, and other traditional sports. These kids begin playing at young ages, practicing and becoming the best. The floor of competition rises across the community as well as the ceiling and the pros of today are the scrubs of tomorrow.

Smash is already one of the most popular games of all time, kids are already playing it, and a model and system already exist to take Smash to an entirely new level; we just need to take the next step and begin pushing it into these new domains. People are Hungrybox fans, they are not Liquid fans. If Hungrybox leaves Liquid for another team most fans will follow the next team; these “teams” are just a label and fail to truly capture what a high school or professional sports team are. When Peyton Manning left the Colts, people in Indianapolis were still Colts fans. Sure they still love Manning and follow him but they did not divorce the team they followed because it is a part of their home. A high school team is a part of a person’s home, it is where they grew up, where their family and friends are and something they root for for the rest of their lives.

With this system in place it becomes easy to institute the same system for club and rec levels locally, much like we have done for MVP and MOMS regions. There is a hometown regional pride that is synonymous with local sports team pride; whatever brand or sponsor is thrown onto that, whichever players come and go, it does not change the pride a person has for the place they call home. It stimulates more love for Smash, more commitment to it and it creates a stream of new players in every generation to become part of our competitive community. Our youth is the future and if we fail to create an accessible community and system for them Smash retires when we do.

Featured Image by Robert Paul
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