As Esports become more popular, it is easy to ignore the games that are not drawing millions of dollars in prize money for tournament winners. Games such as League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Starcraft 2 make headlines while other fighting games (though well-respected) continue to remain in the sidelines. But a 13-year old game released for the Gamecube by Nintendo may be changing the norm soon.
Super Smash Bros. Melee is a 2D fighting game which allows a high degree of freedom of movement of the characters around the stages. Fighters do not have health bars but instead,each hit racks up damage and characters get knocked further the more damage they take. Players attempt to knock their opponent out of the stage boundaries, and by doing so, reduce the amount of extra lives their opponent has by one every time they get a knockout.
“Nowadays…you got the video, the video of the players, background audio, commentators (we never used to have those). When I first started playing, all I could see was the video feed,” says Kevin Son, better known by his gamer tag, GlibbyGlobby. He played Melee competitively for three years, and in 2010, Son was one of the top 10 players in Texas.
Fighting games’ presence in the competitive gaming sphere is largely determined by two factors: the community and big-name sponsorship. Melee has had a small but vibrant communitysince 2001, which created its own grassroots competitive sponsoring teams and livestreaming channels. The game had its first taste of the big leagues from 2004 to 2007 when Major League Gaming chose to include it in its game roster and offered a $10,000 prize for the first place winner of their 2006 Pro Circuit Las Vegas Tournament. However, Nintendo has at several points blocked tournament organizers from broadcasting Melee footage (streaming) live. MLG dropped the series from their pro tour in 2007 because of pressure from Nintendo. Similarly, Evolution 2013, the largest and longest running fighting game tournament in the world, was barred from streaming Super Smash Brothers after Smash fans raised over $90,000 for a charity contest to be chosen for the eighth Evo fighting game, beating out Skullgirls and Street Fighter II Turbo. After intense fan backlash and negative publicity, Nintendo aborted this policy and allowed the streaming to commence. Since then (and especially in the development of the upcoming SSB title), Nintendo’s policy has been much more friendly towards the competitive scene.
“I think they’re actually going to work on Smash 4 a lot more in the future. They’re going to make it more competitive,” said Eduardo Garcia, gamertag Strawhat. Nintendo has hired a team from Namco Bandai (developers of popular fighting games Tekken and Soul Caliber) to help work on the fourth installment of the Smash series. This year, Nintendo has (for the first time) given explicit permission for MLG and Evolution to stream Smash Bros. games. Most, though not all, of the scene is excited about that news. “I think it’s very good for it. In general, though, I think the community’s kind of of split. Especially the Houston community. They really just want grassroots. They’re not really into going to places, paying a venue fee for a tournament. They’d rather go to University of Houston and use those facilities for free,” said Jean-Claude Brouillette (Opelousai), a Melee tournament organizer at a shop called Game Guys in Pasadena.
However, for every Smash player who would rather play for free than pay $10 to enter a tournament, there are scores of other players who are attracted to the professional feeling that comes from a tournament fee- and the potential payoff if they win. For the most hardcore competitors, winning will always be the most important part of playing.