Nintendo’s new Smash Bros. release shows the weird relationship between the company and the esports world
Though not the flashiest of titles, Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series has always been quite popular with fans. It works pretty well as an esport, especially since it’s suitable for wider audiences than some of the more… gory sports out there.
Nintendo had a massive exhibition area at the E3 too, and fans were eager to see and play one of the most anticipated game releases this year. Super Smash Bros. ultimate is the name of the newest title. While most fans focused on the E3 itself, unbeknown to many, there was a tournament going on not far away. Held in the Belasco Theater, Nintendo was holding an invite-only tournament featuring the best Smash Bros. players in the world.
These types of tournaments are pretty rare, and combined with the huge promo-push the company did, the goal was to endear the newest title to old fans. Somewhat unusual for Nintendo, the fighting series pits usually peaceful and friendly characters against each other in fights. These include Mario, Link, Donkey Kong and more.
Nintendo has always been somewhat apprehensive of competitive gaming. As the company promotes family friendly fun and most of the games that do feature competition do so in a friendly way, esports and Nintendo aren’t exactly synonymous.
Despite this, the Smash Bros. series is very popular in esports circles. In addition to being from Nintendo, there are other aspects that make the series unique compared other esports titles. For series like Call of Duty, FIFA and similar titles, it is usually the latest instalment of a game that is most popular for competitions.
This is not at all the case for the Smash series. The most popular title is Super Smash Bros. Melee, released in 2002. It is particularly popular because of its intricacies and rewarding moves. Popular with most pros and fans, it is still being played some 16 years later. The next-most-popular title is Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. While the Wii U itself was a huge commercial failure for Nintendo, this more defensive version of the game proved popular with fans anyway.
As an after-effect of the popularity of these games, Nintendo doesn’t have the opportunity to promote new games through the competitive circuit the way Street Fighter or Call of Duty do. This, coupled with the company’s overall aversion to the competitive esports scene leads to an uncertain future for Smash Bros. Ultimate. While it will certainly find its fans when it comes out this December, it is uncertain whether it will be able to replace the current popular titles and become the top name in the series.
Masahiro Sakurai, director of every instalment of the series said this: “I feel like a game, at the end of the day, is about playing the game. But if we focus too much on the top level players — or the audience — then the game skews a little bit too much on the technical side.”
This is reflected in the titles released so far – some of them swayed to the technical side of things, while others were easier and thus simpler to pick up for new players. While that led to two distinct followings, Nintendo doesn’t seem willing to position itself behind either, instead the company continues to tow the line between both camps.
Sakurai, who is not an employee of Nintendo, expresses his opinion this way: “I think the philosophy behind them doesn’t go in line with Nintendo’s philosophy in that some of these players are playing for the prize money,” Sakurai said. “It comes to a point where they’re playing the game for the money, and I feel that kind of direction doesn’t coincide with Nintendo’s view of what games should be.”
The new title – Ultimate – has so far proved popular with fans, experts and pros alike. While it is a little more technical than some titles, it doesn’t take it as far as Melee did and thus appeals to both casual players and competitive ones looking to move to a newer version of the team.
How the new title fits into Nintendo’s lineup and the esports world remains to be seen – its release in December will mark the beginning of a new era, one way or another.