For the Smash Bros. Community, a New Challenger Approaches: Economic Inequality

When money is tight, should tournaments prioritize bonuses for top players or a better experience for everyone else?

Tyler Akbora was locked in. He was up one stock with Ridley, but the opposing Ivysaur was bullying him with leaf blades and grab combos, nearly knocking him off stage and applying a lot of damage. Akbora somehow managed to regain control of the stage and force his opponent to switch to Charizard. A few seconds later, he knocked the Charizard off the edge, putting himself in position to win the whole match—but it wasn’t over yet. A well-executed flare blitz could easily get Charizard back in the fight. Akbora knew that his opponent would take the opening and that, if the move connected, his Ridley would get knocked into oblivion. Then, as expected, the attack came. Charizard, shrouded in flames, flew towards Akbora, in a bid to even the playing field. Akbora didn’t flinch. He prepped a forward smash attack and met the Charizard midair. 

“I don’t know what gave me the courage to do so. Maybe it was my stock lead? Or maybe it was the fact that I had gone 2 and 0 in the past two or three sets?” Akbora told me. “Whatever it was, I faced the blazing dragon head on, and let go of the A button to let the smash attack loose.”

Akbora thought the two moves would have, at the very least, traded, sending both characters into oblivion, but he was wrong. He watched the Charizard sail to his death, sealing the victory for his Ridley.

That scene unfolded at Super Smash Con 2019 in August. It wasn’t the grand finals. It wasn’t even from the top eight. The match was one of hundreds of games between average and up-and-coming competitors that fill the first two days of most major Super Smash Bros. tournaments.

Akbora is a player from Virginia who has competed in other Smash-related events like Glitch 6 but doesn’t often attend major tournaments like Super Smash Con, where as many as 1,000 competitors register to fight. In spite of his dramatic victory against the Charizard, Akbora, like hundreds of others, was eventually knocked out of the competition and had to decide how he wanted to spend the rest of his weekend.

When this happens at other tournaments, competitors can hang out, watch other matches, or compete in friendly games with other players who’d been eliminated. But Super Smash Con is a bit different. The event is hosted at a convention center in Chantilly, Virginia with panels, side events, an award show, and other activities making it more than your standard tournament. Both it and Smash’N’Splash, a tournament held at a resort with water parks, laser tag, movie theaters, and other things for players to take part in, are a more dynamic type of event that prioritize the player experience. For many top players, commentators, and fans, Smash’N’Splash and Super Smash Con are the two best tournaments of the year.

Credit: Nintendo

“Unlike a lot of tournaments, we run over twenty different events,” Smash’N’Splash organizer Josh Weber told EGM.  “We’re the largest Splatoon tournament outside Japan, one of the biggest Arms tournament period. We believe that entertainment should be part of Smash.”

Smash’N’Splash and Super Smash Con also serve as a reminder of the ongoing debate around how tournament funds are allocated within the Super Smash Bros. community. Many competitors believe that too much of the limited funds banked from registration fees and sponsorships, which make up most tournament budgets, are going to pot bonuses for the winners. Instead, they believe that bonus money should go toward improving the overall tournament experience, paying staff better wages, and increasing the quality of stream production.

There is a reason that several tournaments have elected to use funds for a pot bonus. They are one sure fire way to attract top players and notable names to an event. Organizers want competitors like Ezra Samsora Morris, Tyler “Marss” Martins, and Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby to fly to their respective events. The presence of these big names brings excitement, extra attendance, and, most importantly, more viewers on Twitch. People want to see their favorite player use Pikachu to beat Mario to a pulp.

“One school of thought is to put money into a big pot bonus for Melee and Ultimate singles tournaments. From there you hope that the top players notice and come, and then you hope that there is a domino effect and other players see top players going and then go themselves,” Robin Harn, one of the organizers behind the annual Michigan Smash tournament The Big House, told EGM. “The other school of thought is you reinvest money into the production and other aspects of the event. This could be more manpower if a tournament is understaffed or you hit up [equipment provider] Gaming Generations to bring in more consoles to improve the tournament experience for every single attendee.”

“There are some top players who feel that they should be paid a little bit more,” he added. “But there is a massive amount of people elsewhere that are getting underpaid.”

One of the Smash scene’s biggest names, Dabuz, told EGM over Twitter DM that pot bonuses are indeed a draw. “As a top player, I’ll go to an event for 1 of 2 reasons normally,” he said. “A good pot bonus, 10K, or if the competition is high. In a way you can ‘buy’ a big event if there is enough money on the line, but generally the money is better spent getting local players to come to the event and enjoy it, and to flying players out that will bring the event to more eyes.”

There’s nothing explicitly wrong with pot bonuses. They are a part of how top players make a living and they are a proven way to increase the notoriety of a tournament. A few tournaments, including this years Smash’N’Splash, funded pot bonuses through merchandise sales, which many believe is a fairer approach. Some organizers did tell me that not having top players attend a major tournament can be detrimental and hurt the reputation of the event. Still, competitive Super Smash Bros. doesn’t have a lot of money flowing through it anyway.

Part of the push against big pot bonuses with stems from the strong sales of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the most recent game in the series. “It’s about how we keep these events consistent, how do we keep people coming back year after year,” said Smash commentator Rodney Conyers. “It’s even more important with Ultimate bringing in a ton of new people.”

Since launching in December of 2018, Ultimate has sold nearly 15 million copies worldwide, and tournaments for the game have seen record attendance all over the United States. Genesis 6 had 2,105 entrants, Smash’N’Splash had 1,610 participants, and Evo—the biggest fighting game tournament in the world—had 3,492 competitors in 2019, more than any other tournament in Smash history. Numbers for Melee tournaments have been similarly high, with the 2001 classic buoyed by the series’ overall resurgence. 

Credit: Nintendo

Some organizers believe that the best way to encourage these new attendees, as well as new viewers, to stick around the scene long-term is not to spend a ton of money enticing top players to compete, but to improve the overall tournament experience. This concept has already been put into practice with tournaments like Smash’N’Splash and Super Smash Con.

Though its tournament format is fairly standard, Super Smash Con sets itself apart from other events in the community by modeling itself after gaming and comics conventions. There are cosplayers, booths, demos, panels, and even an award show that players and attendees can take part in before or after competing. The combination has proven popular so far.

“Super Smash Con does a lot of stuff that makes the tournament experience more enjoyable than just entering a bracket,” Harn said. “That kind of stuff is going to be good for the scene.”

Other tournaments like The Big House, Evo, and Genesis in Oakland, California, have started to diversify the types of entertainment they offer. These events may not be as unique as their counterparts in Virginia or Wisconsin, but they are changing. “For The Big House we have an arcade game area and it has somewhere between 20 to 30 arcade cabinets. That’s something that every attendee can play,” Harn said. “Extra funds would be better used for that area [than] a prize pool where it disappears into a top players hands.”

It’s important to consider that the Super Smash Bros. community is not a single entity. Unlike other fighting game communities that get support from publishers like Bandai Namco or Capcom, Smash tournament organizers aren’t affiliated with Nintendo. In the absence of that official connection, other companies are more hesitant to sponsor tournaments, meaning funding mostly has to come from competitors’ entry fees. Additionally, organizers can’t get a license to run and broadcast Super Smash Bros., so Nintendo could theoretically step in and end a tournament. Most of the community thinks that’s unlikely to happen, given that Nintendo has slightly increased its involvement with the community, especially within the European circuit. But the possibility remains.

To make up for the lack of funds from deep-pocketed sponsors, tournament organizers have to turn to alternative solutions. “I think it’s a pretty big issue, but people are suggesting the wrong things,” Harn said. Proposals to raise entry fees for every competitor, in particular, strikes him as misguided. “That’s awful, as you’re taking away money from the average attendee.”

One important element in this debate is the fact the community is made up of a patchwork of regions, tournaments and organizers. Events are planned autonomously, so some could have varying formats, rulesets, and unique elements. Super Smash Bros. has no single governing body. The community has started to come together more prominently in recent years with bodies popping up to provide a national ranking of players, to help police inappropriate behavior among competitors, and others have even tried to create a third-party circuit.

Still, the discussion about how tournament funds are allocated is happening in community spaces on Twitter and Reddit. The scene has come a long way from the early days, when the only events were held in garages and public libraries. Now conference centers all over the world, from Osaka to Paris, are hosting tournaments with hundreds of thousands of viewers. Success like that makes it more important to create a fair and sustainable scene.

“It’s about sustainability, it’s easy to make sacrifices and spend a lot of time helping to organize tournaments, volunteer, and whatnot. But when you get older and things like student loans, kids, and real life costs come up you’re gonna want to do something full time and not live paycheck to paycheck,” said former Cloud 9 couch and community leader Daniel “tafokints” Lee of many of the organizers and contributors that help make tournaments happen. “If the community doesn’t grow, a lot of these people will need to move on from Smash to make a living. These are incredibly talented people who’ll be difficult to replace, especially after people see why they are leaving.”

“We need to cater to the masses and not just the top players,” Lee added. “Having more reasons for people and players to come back is going to be important. We’re never going to reach new markets and bring in more money unless we make a change.”

Header image credit: Nintendo

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