The announcement of Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Wii U invitational – an "homage to the Smash Bros community" – is maybe the closest thing Nintendo fans will get to a sequel to the 1989 Fred Savage vehicle, The Wizard. Like the film, Nintendo's tournament gives video game fanatics a chance to be among the first to ever play an unreleased game for prizes and bragging rights.
Nintendo's tournament, which will take place during the week of E3 on June 10 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, further extends an olive branch from the company to fans. In 2013, the company requested the gaming tournament competition EVO pull Super Smash Bros. Melee from its streaming roster before quickly recanting that request after a fan uprising on social media channels. Nintendo and EVO have since announced Smash Bros. will be a featured franchise during its 2014 competition.
In a subsequent announcement to the new tournament, Nintendo revealed the roster of Smash players that had been invited to the tournament, which has surprised those deeply entrenched in the franchise's fighting game community.
Gallery: Super Smash Bros. (Wii U, 4/17/14) | 129 Photos
Among the 16 selected is Japan's Masaya 'aMSa' Chikamoto, a relative newcomer who surprised the Smash Bros. competitive scene by making it through the APEX tournament as the Red Yoshi, widely regarded within the community as an inferior character. One of aMSa's sayings, "I play to win," was misunderstood by fans as "I pray to win" and has become a source of countless memes, and fan-made merchandise.
"Them going for aMSa really shows that they've got a pulse on the scene as they pick up a fan favorite who hasn't even been a blip on the major scene for a year yet," Smash Bros. commentator Wynton 'Prog' Smith says. Smith has been tapped as the commentator for Nintendo's event.
The Fighting Game Community has been rapidly growing with the advent of streaming sites like Twitch, but Nintendo's reluctance to grant streaming rights to broadcasters has hampered the growth of the competitive scene for games like Smash. In 2011, Major League Gaming removed Super Smash Bros. Brawl from its national tournament circuit because of Nintendo's unwillingness to let them stream the games.
For Smith and the Smash Bros. competitive community outside Las Vegas, it was like building up momentum and then being tripped at the last moment.
Nintendo has since extended another olive branch to YouTubers who were getting cease and desist messages from Nintendo's legal team for featuring their titles in Let's Play videos. Along with integrating YouTube functionality to share gameplay footage online, Nintendo is offering popular YouTubers a chance to share ad revenues generated from these videos as part of their new affiliates program.
"What put us on the map, what put us on the globe, [as a community] was the fact we overturned their position," says Juan 'Hungrybox' Debiedma, regarded as one of the "Gods of Smash" in the fighting game community. For Debiedma, the inability to change Nintendo's mind about EVO would had spelled the end for the Smash Bros. fighting game scene. "To not be taken seriously by Nintendo would have been a death toll for the community," he says. While it was initially a worry, Nintendo changed its position in less than 24 hours.
Smash's competitive scene is still dwarfed by the millions of eSports fans who follow Starcraft, Dota, or League of Legends. The franchise rarely places within Twitch's monthly Top 20 Watched Games lists. Nintendo's franchise also has less money in it – both in tournament earnings and private money matches, versus competition titles like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or Street Fighter 3.
Nintendo's Smash invitational is a big break for the Smash community, being that tournaments for Melee andBrawl have historically stood apart and received far less attention than other events throughout the fighting game community.
During those years when they weren't being hosted by the majors, Smash fans got their fix at annualized regional tournaments, and smaller "weeklys", paid and organized largely out-of-pocket by local enthusiasts. Major League Gaming's 'Solid' Jake Kulinski, was one of them.
"Smash has always been an underground game. I started my own league and lost a lot of money," says Solid Jake, who now works as a producer and host for MLG's coverage of APEX, Blizzcon, and other eSports events.
Major eSports teams like Evil Geniuses or Team Liquid, have only recently been sponsoring Smash players. Well known sponsored players in the fighting game community, like infamous Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike player Justin Wong, often competes in a jacket that resembles a NASCAR driver's, with corporate logos patched up all over it. A professional Smasher's life is much more modest. Team Liquid's Dan 'Korean DJ' Jung, who was also selected to take part in the Invitational, says that even after being sponsored, it's hard to break old habits.
"I still literally have like a 3-page list of the money matches I do when I go to a tournament. That's like 3 pages of $5 here, $20 there, and so on," Jung laughs. "I'm really grateful to be invited by Nintendo. This is only the second ever 'official' tournament for Smash, and I won the last one [for Brawl in 2008]."
Some of the players who were invited to play were too young to have taken the game they're known for playing very seriously when it first came out. Many entered the competitive scene through localized weekly tournaments, where the competitive scene for 2001's Super Smash Bros Melee, has become the biggest its ever been in 13 years.
"I was seven years old when Melee came out," says Neha 'Lilo' Chhetri, who competed at her first major at EVO 2013. "I played it back then, though I was really young." When Lilo got reacquainted with Melee ten years later, the game's scene had grown up alongside her. "My friend told me kids were playing competitive Melee during my first year at Arizona State University, and I was a little nervous to go but I went to my first Smash Fest, and I loved it."
Tournament listing, meticulous ranking systems and brackets are updated on websites like Smashboards, which served as a hub before the community's popularity surged after the 2013 EVO stream debacle, and the release of a Smash Bros. documentary series on YouTube. Lilian 'Milktea' Chen, a player who has been active in the competitive scene since 2005, remembers how both the series and EVO's troubles rapidly increased attendance at Smash Bros. events. "'Intimate' and 'homemade' are definitely the words I think of regarding the early days of Smash Bros.," she says. "Once the documentary came out and EVO happened, I couldn't recognize anyone at the tournaments."
Another Smash competitor who was invited to Nintendo's tournament, and a popular online personality within the community, Kris 'Toph' Aldenderfer, thinks the EVO situation and the documentary helped rekindle inspiration for those who had been worn-out by the game's "irrelevance" to the historically 2D fighter/Capcom-focused fighting game community.
"March of 2005 was my first tournament, and since the release of the documentary in 2013, I've seen so many old players come back to the circuit. I've played several guys recently who haven't played in years," Aldenderfer adds.
While Nintendo's involvement is still a variable in the community's advancement, there are clues that suggest the company wishes to help the scene to grow beyond its current state.
Nintendo of America's Senior Product Marketing Manager Bill Trinen, helped to promote the Smash Bros. fighting game scene documentary via Twitter. Then a partnership between Nintendo and the MLG was announced, which adds Super Smash Bros. Melee to one of the regional tournaments in Anaheim.
For fans and loyalists of the competitive Smash Bros. scene, the opportunity to watch 16 of the best players in the world compete in the upcoming Super Smash Bros. Wii U is as clear as a lucid dream. Commentator Wynton 'Prog' Smith already has his dream matches and character selections mapped out, but the biggest wish has already been granted.
"The fact that the competitive scene is getting this acknowledgement from Nintendo is enough of a dream already."
[Game Images: Nintendo; Photo: Wynton Smith]
Basim Usmani is a freelance writer with work appearing on VICE and The Guardian UK. You can follow him on Twitter at @BasimBTW.