Nintendo is finally sponsoring Smash Bros esports. But why did it take until 2021? Why now?
Nintendo has partnered up with esports sponsor Panda Global to host an official Super Smash Bros esports circuit. Details are still scarce, but the circuit features both the latest release, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, as well as cult classic Super Smash Bros Melee. Nintendo has historically shied away from sponsoring esports, particularly those involving past releases such as Melee. So what convinced the gaming giant to begin supporting competitive Smash Bros?
It’s important to consider some of the reasons why Nintendo may have chosen to distance itself from the Smash community.
The Smash Bros scene has not been without controversy. The past few years have seen several shocking sexual abuse allegations that may have played a role in keeping Nintendo away. Separately, the Japanese gaming giant’s leadership has never seemed particularly aware of, or interested in, the growth of esports. The company’s previous stance was that Smash is a party game for children, end of story.
But a series of events has made Smash esports more appealing for Nintendo to sponsor. Due to travel restrictions and Ultimate’s terrible online mode, the game has effectively stagnated for the past two years. Now that players can meet in person, Ultimate is a more exciting prospect. Tournament organizers and pro players alike have expressed optimism for the game’s future. Nintendo might see the return of LAN play as a good opportunity to begin sponsoring Smash Bros esports.
It’s also important to consider that Super Smash Bros Ultimate just ended its post-launch support. Sora from Kingdom Hearts is the final character under Masahiro Sakurai’s supervision. New character announcements are some of the best possible marketing for Nintendo. Everyone gets hype for them, and then they pay money once the character releases. By pivoting to esports, Nintendo gains a new way to advertise Ultimate without having to create new characters.
Ultimate is the newest game in the Smash Bros franchise, so it makes sense that Nintendo wants to support it. But Melee has a long history of competitive play without any help from its creator. In fact, Nintendo has at times gone out of its way to stifle the Melee esports scene. From meddling with the game’s EVO debut to cease-and-desist letters aimed at tournament organizers, Nintendo has rarely shown support for the Melee community, instead being outright hostile towards it. Some prominent Smash Melee figures have already expressed doubt about Nintendo sponsoring their events.
Most recently, Nintendo attempted to shut down The Big House for using third-party software to more easily run Super Smash Bros Melee. A Nintendo-backed circuit could also signal a transition from open tournaments to small invitationals, a phenomenon that also frustrates the traditional fighting game community.
While these concerns from the community are valid, the most important factor is money. The current community-run model is not very profitable for players, and almost all top Melee players have to stream or create content in order to make a proper living.
Travel restrictions made the problem worse. The highest-earning Melee player of all time, Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma, has barely made $43,000 from tournaments since early 2020.
Nintendo is one of the wealthiest video game companies in the world. It’s not right to expect a $1 million prize pool for the first year of Smash events, but having a first-party circuit could give top Melee pros a consistent source of competition and income. It may also help the competitive Melee community grow over time. As long as community-based tournaments like The Big House and Genesis continue to exist, the new Nintendo-sponsored Melee circuit could benefit the scene with an infusion of funds. That is, if Nintendo chooses to support it in that way.