It’s 2020 and Smash esports still gets no love from Nintendo

Company president repeats sadly familiar stance in interview

The Super Smash Bros. franchise is turning 21 years old next week. Fortunately, even at this venerable age, it is not showing any signs of slowing down. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest entry in the series, quickly set sales records on release. Last month, a study by market research firm NPD Group crowned it the best-selling fighting game in U.S. history. 

Competitively speaking, Smash esports did well too. At last year’s EVO, the world’s biggest fighting game tournament, Ultimate was by far the most-watched game. 245,624 people saw winner MkLeo take home a whopping $21,204, while runner-up Tweek pocketed a cool $7,068.

Wait, what?

Follow the money

Now, I don’t want to make light of any money won by playing video games. And a comparison to Fortnite or Dota 2 is perhaps not entirely fair. But these numbers seem a little… low.

It is a problem the series has struggled with for most of its lifespan. Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios is one of its top-earning players. One year, he won 56 tournaments. It netted him $45,000. Over the whole of his eight-year career, he’s made $182,778.89. For comparison, Fortnite’s Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf made $3 million in one tournament.

The situation is such, that placing outside the top six at EVO meant you couldn’t afford your hotel room for the weekend, let alone your travel fair. It seems like a strange place for one of the oldest esports to be in.

Smash does well in viewers, but less so in money.

Nintendo and esports

We live in a time when you can’t turn over a rock without hearing about how many billions the esports industry is worth. Sometimes, this makes it easy to forget that one of its original purposes was to promote publishers’ games. That’s why companies like Epic Games and Valve pour many millions into their respective competitive scenes.

In Japan, this concept needed a little longer to take hold. Until recently, the country equated getting paid for playing games with gambling. Publishers did not want to get publicly tied to that. Here too times are changing, however. At EVO, Japanese Street Fighter V publisher Capcom regularly contributes $50,000 to its game’s prize pool. Others have followed suit.

Nintendo not so much, however. In the past, the company’s actively tried to shut down events using its games. It has come around somewhat, even throwing a few invitationals of its own. But, mostly, Nintendo has kept its support for Smash esports minimal.

In an interview this week, business journal Nikkei quizzed Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa on this. Was the company perhaps late picking up on a trend? According to Furukawa, this is not the case:

“Esports, in which players compete on stage for prize money as spectators watch, is one of the amazing appeals of video games,” he says. But, he also feels this comes at a cost: “In order to make our company’s games playable by a broad range of people, regardless of experience, gender, or generation, we want to make them accessible. This world view, not an amount of prize money, is what differentiates us from other companies.”

So, in other words, the company fears that supporting esports will limit its games’ appeal in more casual circles. Others, including Smash franchise designer Masahiro Sakurai, have voiced similar concerns. He worried that the game would be less fun if too optimized for competition.

245,624 people saw MkLeo win the Smash competition at last year’s EVO.

Why change a winning formula?

These are understandable sentiments. It’s too bad that they’re a load of nonsense. 

Nobody’s asking Nintendo to change the game. If anything, the Smash esports community is fairly resistant to change, with many still preferring 2001’s Melee over newer titles. But with Ultimate, Nintendo finally has an entry that has broad appeal with most of its fans. Some of these have been working to keep the game’s flame alive for nearly two decades. The company’s decision not to support them, looks a lot like it being comfortable with the success of the status quo. It also fails to recognize the efforts of an important part of that same broad audience, that it is so proud of.

Later this month, EVO will land in Japan. After no representation last year, this time around the event actually had to put a hard limit on its Super Smash Bros. Ultimate sign-ups. From Jan. 24 through 26, 2,987 players will compete in the land of the rising sun. This is with two other international events on the calendar in the same weekend.

Who knows, maybe seeing the fruits of the community’s labor in its own backyard, will change Nintendo’s mind? One can hope. Either way, the event’s popularity signals that it’s going to be another smashing year. With or without Nintendo’s help.

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