Smash Invitational at E3 papers over cracks in Nintendo's relationship with the scene

E3 is a fascinating slice of gaming culture for anyone who has not experienced it, even if as an event it is not that representative of the wider virtual world, and in recent years companies have worked out that fact, and how to exploit it. Where once the main headlines came from a short video and a guy in brand new trainers chatting on stage, now there are more creative ways to flog your game, and Nintendo enjoy exploring them.

For the upcoming event, the Japanese giants have invited a selection of pro players from the worlds of Melee and Smash 4, respectively their second and fourth titles in the series, to participate in a promotional competition after the Splatoon 2 World Championship finals on June 12. These players are drawn from a variety of nations, including Sweden, the Netherlands, Mexico and the US, and the only returning player from their Smash 4 launch is the winner of that event, now-retired TSM pro Gonzalo ‘ZeRo’ Barrios.

The full list includes Melee GOAT Adam ‘Armada’ Lindgren, his longtime rival Joseph ‘Mang0’ Marquez and his lifelong friend Jose ‘Lucky’ Aldama (who seems to be living up to his name when compared with the other competitors), Justin ‘Plup’ McGrath, all from the same game. Smash 4 will be represented by the aforementioned ZeRo, as well as Mexican star Leonardo ‘MkLeo’ Lopez Perez, Japan’s Yuta ‘Abadango’ Kawamura and Mr R, or Ramin Delshad as he’s known to his mother.

The reason the distinction between the two games is made is because they are very different titles, despite sharing a name. Melee is fast, technical and extremely free, allowing players a massive range of movement and attack options if they have the ability to execute, and requiring years of practice to truly master the basics. In comparison, Smash 4 is more along the lines Nintendo prefers today, with an easy control system, and the ‘everybody wins’ ethos they like to push.

That’s not to say Smash 4 cannot be played competitively, and if the last title Brawl had a scene it’s clear the fans will make anything work, for a given value of work, but the older title is not representative of how Nintendo like to work today. This has been the case for some time, and while Nintendo are being friendly when they have a game to sell, it’s not always such a happy relationship.

Abusive relationship

The most egregious acts are in the past, like when Nintendo tried to get Melee removed from Evo despite the community donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to a breast cancer charity in an attempt to get it in. They only backed down then after a series of stories went viral exposing them, not because they learned a lesson, but because the financial penalty for not backing down was larger than the boost they’d get by hurting the Melee community.

There are other examples, including but not limited to trying to end Melee esports, pressuring people in the scene to help get mods shut down, refusing to contribute prize money, and not even supporting the Melee scene with new runs of peripherals that have become insanely valuable due to scarcity. None of these alone would seem that bad, but the pattern of behaviour is clear at this point, and it's not a nurturing relationship.

However, even today when Nintendo work with TOs and help run events, their support is the bare minimum, and almost always aimed at selling copies of their latest title. While Valve put up millions of dollars to support CSGO and DotA 2, and Blizzard (creatively adjust potential profits - Ed) to get investors into their league, Nintendo support events with peripherals, sometimes, or just by letting them stream the action.

Keep that in mind too, that the people who have been supporting Nintendo for over a decade and promoting their titles still have trouble getting permission to steam today. All of this would be enough for most people, but what makes this possible even sadder is the reaction from the pros. Those Gods of Melee, who have battled to get their game into Dreamhack or Evo, often against Nintendo, are so grateful for the initiation that it is a shame only one invite is a Swede, because a Stockholm Syndrome joke would work perfectly.

Sadly, because Melee is a small game and scene, and Nintendo are one of the wealthiest game companies in the world, this will probably never happen. The world will continue to enable the abusive relationship between Nintendo and their most dedicated fans, and the developer will continue to exploit that for profit. The only real solution is for esports to outgrow their publishers, to the point where the relationship has equal power on both sides, but that will never happen in this case.

As for the new game, there is one ray of light. If the stage lights go up, players pick up their controllers and the action begins, only for fast, technical play to be the order of the day, we might breath a sigh of relief. Esports needs a high skill barrier, and the ability for the viewer to understand exactly who is good and who is better, and if Nintendo embrace that it could lead to a brighter future. Of course, we won’t need Melee then, with a modern alternative finally officially out (Projec…), but that’s the price.