Dev presence in esports- Pros and cons, Legacy titles, and Grassroots communities
Game communities may prefer a hands-off approach
On January 31st, 2020, a Twitch clip of Hugo “HugS” Gonzales took off on Twitter. The clip in question was a 30-second segment of a much longer rant where HugS accused Nintendo of leading on key professional members of the Super Smash Bros. Melee community with promises of a Melee-centric circuit, while also “actively stopping” outside organizations from running their own third-party circuits. When the clip went viral, HugS backtracked a bit, saying that “in these particular cases, they didn’t directly shut em [sic] down, but were so difficult to work with that some events never came to be,” but still maintained that this is effectively the same thing as actively halting events.
Arguments like this come up from time to time in my personal corner of the FGC biosphere, especially since I was at one time very Smash-oriented. It reminded me in part of my alma mater’s involvement with Collegiate Star League’s Smash circuit, which ran events for both Melee and Ultimate. I even attended an event nearby and covered our team’s victory in the crew battle bracket, where the UCI students won a trip to Shine 2019. The event was ran by student volunteers and was very ad-hoc, with a lot of mistakes being made- we didn’t know it was a single elimination bracket, for one thing. It also reminds me of the recent controversy with Thunder Gaming, where suspicions of the organization using Smash as a money-laundering scheme became accusations against former-CEO-and-current-advisor Christian Bishop. (Not that I’m implying that Nintendo is a money launderer; rather, I’m skeptical of the intent and organization of these third-party sponsors just as much as I am critical of the developer.)
I haven’t reached out to HugS for comment because he alleges that he will provide a public Twitter exposé on Nintendo once he has acquired all of the facts from people who tried to work alongside the company to produce a Melee circuit. (I have reviewed the full context of his argument so that I don’t sound like a complete tool.) But something that inevitably gets brought up when HugS- or anybody else- makes these arguments is, “if Nintendo wanted to, they could make our game like Street Fighter or League of Legends!”
And of course, they could. Nintendo is a multibillion dollar company, developing game software and hardware across multiple platforms. They could easily afford to put money into the esports scene, and it would likely not matter at all if they were operating a grand circuit on the scale of the League of Legends Championship Series or Capcom Cup at a loss. Whether it’s a “sound business strategy” or not is, disregarding how you feel about capitalism, completely irrelevant. Nintendo has a net worth of $85 billion dollars, and that wealth could easily be redistributed to the grassroots scene.
But is Nintendo’s- or anybody’s- first party developer presence in their esport’s community a good thing? Does the money injected into the scene outweigh everything else that could go wrong?
Before I go on, I should clarify that Nintendo already does partner with many events, such as the Genesis series. While they don’t contribute to the pot bonus, much of their support is infrastructural, providing console setups for tournament use. Nintendo Brand Ambassadors, commentators, and other members of the scene will also get paid by the company to work at events like the Nintendo World Championships, an exhibition tournament held at E3. The complaint is that this is where their support of the grassroots community stops- there’s no official Smash circuit for either modern or legacy titles, and no significant monetary contribution to prize pools.
In my opinion, however, this is probably for the best. I would much rather Nintendo kept their hands off of the grassroots scene and allowed players and third party organizations to fill the voids themselves, rather than those same orgs seek support directly from Nintendo. Being observant to much of the goings-on in the broader esports community, I’ve kept track of numerous wrongdoings perpetuated by different developers, and all of these events have led me to my current conclusion.
It begins fairly innocuously, with the way Riot manages League of Legends. Despite the popularity and immeasurable success of the game as an esport, League players often find themselves suffering from burnout that threatens the longevity of their careers. The main reason for this is the two-week patch cycle that constantly changes the game, adding new characters and items or reworking old ones drastically. A pro player’s knowledge base will change radically bi-weekly, and in a game with 150 characters and a million different build combinations, having to keep up and grind the metagame constantly is exhausting. Riot’s heavy-handed approach to the competitive community and the development of their game prevents the player-side metagame from advancing farther than the balance team is okay with. This leads to less player experimentation and more player fatigue as they’re forced to keep up with what Riot wants them to play.
After considering League, let’s move on to something more harmful- Blizzard’s gross mismanagement of their esports titles. While Blizzard has announced a new circuit for Starcraft II in conjunction with Dreamhack and ESL, their cancellation of both the original SCII World Championship Series and the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship circuit hurt everyone who played and worked on those games. Blizzard moving HotS developers to other titles means that the scene will not be receiving any updates for the foreseeable future- the players and event staff for the circuit have all been left out of a career. And this is all before we even get into the Blitzchung controversy! (I’m linking to the Wiki page here because it’s honestly incredible that it has its own freaking Wiki page.) Blizzard censoring political speech by their players in order to appease a bottom line maintained by a shareholder minority is grim, dystopian behavior that serves as a reminder that the developer managing your esport is a corporation first. The money poured into the scene is absolutely not worth the possibility of that money suddenly being gone when your game gets cut off by the developer, nor is it worth stress and burnout caused by a vicious patch cycle, and players should absolutely not be expected to put a price on their freedom of speech and expression.
But these are all for modern games- titles marketed as esports and played on PC. Melee is a legacy title. It’s a GameCube game from 2001 that’s still popular and played today. No one can (officially) patch it, and events for it attract hundreds of players across the globe. It’s a different situation than Riot and Blizzard titles, right?
Unfortunately, fighting games have their own fair share of mismanaged circuits too. Capcom Cup, the major Street Fighter V circuit, no longer supports Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite or any prior vs. titles, and the game itself is no longer receiving updates as of the time of writing. Furthermore, Capcom Cup grossly mismanages its own code of conduct by refusing to ban players with a history of violence and assault. Most infamously, Capcom has allowed Seon-woo “Infiltration” Lee to continue attending events in the 2020 Capcom Pro Tour, only passing a year-long ban for the 2019 circuit. Infiltration was found guilty in court of assaulting his wife, and was forced to pay a fine in South Korean court. He later sued his now ex-wife on claims of defamation and lost again. Capcom also refused to ban players Chris Tatarian and Brentt Franks after the two of them made threats of physical violence towards player Mikey Pham.
Problems like these also plague grassroots communities, as Infiltration is still technically allowed to attend events like Evo, and Smash players like Nightmare, DaShizWiz, and Ally continue to go to tournaments despite their own histories of predation or violence. However, one of the main advantages of a developer sponsorship would ideally be that games would continue to be supported and the code of conduct would be strictly enforced- and yet, Capcom Cup has failed to guarantee that other attendees remain safe at events they are partnered with. Grassroots leaders may falter occasionally with regards to doling out punishments, but, at the moment, their hands are not tied by a corporate contract that would make such enforcement even more difficult.
Beyond issues like these, Melee players should hardly expect Nintendo to support their game anyway due to the simple fact that there’s simply no precedent for any developer to run circuits for legacy titles, even if they’re making money off of them. Melee might be exceptionally popular, due to “the Melee documentary” and the Evo 2013 controversy inciting an incredible boom in the player base, but it’s not the only legacy title that still receives play.
I guess I should define “legacy title,” right? Simply put, here at least, it’s any older fighting game that’s part of a long series and has been “replaced” by a modern version. Melee is a Smash legacy title; Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 are legacy titles for the vs. Series; all the iterations of Street Fighter II and III are legacy titles.
And as I said, Melee is nowhere near the only one of these games that still receives play. At Frosty Faustings XII, the 2020 iteration of the Illinois Guilty Gear-centric fighting game major, 88 people entered Third Strike, 24 people entered Capcom vs. SNK 2, and 55 players entered Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R. At Combo Breaker 2019, over 100 players entered Vampire Savior and Super Street Fighter II Turbo each. While these are nowhere near Melee numbers at a dedicated Smash major- over 1,000 entrants for the Melee singles bracket at Genesis 7- those are still incredibly high numbers for games from the late 1990’s-early 2000’s that aren’t receiving developer support. Many of these games do, in fact, receive modern releases- Street Fighter II and III being the most notable, perhaps. But despite that, despite the fact that Capcom is still making money off those titles, they’re not being run on Capcom Cup. There’s just no precedent for legacy titles receiving major esports-level circuits, and the players of those games hardly expect Capcom or Arc System Works to actually come through and inject money into the scene- they play for the love of the game.
In fact, it’s likely because they love the game that they would prefer Capcom or any other analogous company to keep their hands off their legacy game. Versions of games like the community edition of Melty Blood, the now-tragically defunct community edition of Accent Core + R, and even the recent Street Fighter V PC netcode patch would likely not exist if those companies had a tight grip on the community. And this is a sentiment that Smash players know too well, with allegations that the reason why community-patched versions of Melee and the fan-made Project M mod are prohibited at Smash events is due to an increased Nintendo community presence. Similar scenarios have arisen with other games, such as My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic being shut down by Hasbro despite the approval of the Friendship is Magic animation team.
What Smashers don’t seem to know, the secret that other parts of the fighting game community are already privy to, is that you can still play the games you want to play without the developer being involved in the community. Smaller tournaments, grassroot events that don’t have Nintendo’s name attached to them, still run Universal Controller Fix versions of Melee, and Project M and its future iterations also see tournament play. As I mentioned above, Melee-era legacy titles still receive play, with hundreds of players from across the globe convening in competition.
Is there “money” in playing these games? No, of course not, but do you really think that all one thousand of the Genesis 7 Melee entrants are receiving a major paycheck? Even if Nintendo had contributed a pot bonus, that money would only go to eight out of the 1,110 entrants in the Melee singles bracket- 0.7% of the players. Very few people would be actually making a sustainable living by playing the game and winning events alone, and, given that Melee is a very technically-precise game where player burnout is common as a result of repetitive motion disorders like carpal tunnel and tendonitis, the career lifespan would not be very long. Rather than trying to make money off a legacy title, Melee professionals should be focusing on working elsewhere in esports or even the general games industry, if they’re so inclined to align their passion and their career path. Those who attend events for other legacy titles can do so by making a living outside of the game they play.
With so many different things that can go wrong, as well as things that historically have gone wrong, in the esports industry with regards to these competitive circuits, I believe it’s in the best interests of the grassroots Smash community, and the broader FGC community, to continue to run events on their own. Seeking help from thoroughly vetted third party sponsors- rather than the likes of Thunder Gaming and Esports Ecosystem- and running events without first party assistance means that you can at least run the games you want, and run them the way you want to. There may not be large prize pools, but any money the event earns should be going towards event staff- organizers, bracket runners, commentators, security, auxiliary staff- rather than the top 0.7% of players anyway. Turning down a big sponsorship may mean it’s difficult to stay afloat, but in my opinion, players and event professionals should value the health and safety of their scene over money that comes at a price. Grassroots events still have their own set of problems, but the same people that work to allow the community to exist will have more freedom to iron those wrinkles out on their own if they aren’t signing contracts to uphold dubiously written codes of conduct.
Whether or not HugS publishes his thoroughly vetted and researched Twitlonger on how Nintendo didn’t want to work with Red Bull to make a Melee circuit, Nintendo’s stance on community support will not change within the next year. (If it does, I’ll gladly eat my own words.) And yet, players will still attend their Melee locals, their Evos and CEOs, and everything in between, with or without Nintendo behind those events. In the same way, people will still play Third Strike or Marvel 2 money matches in their grandma’s basement, or they’ll fly out to Chicago to play Vampire Savior with their buddies. The roots of the grassroots community won’t change, and the tree will continue to thrive.