Just about a week before E3, a large Smash Bros. tournament was held in Wisconsin Dells — Smash ‘n Splash 3, the third iteration of a yearly tourney held at a waterpark. With nearly all the top players in attendance, one of the faces of Super Smash Bros. Melee — Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma — emerged victorious, and delivered an impromptu victory speech. Long known for being emotional and passionate both in and out of the game, Hbox didn’t hold back.

“Listen, we’re not supposed to be this friendly old esports community,” he said. “We came here from the gutter ourselves.” He continued: “A certain company that acknowledges us but refuses to push us — I hope you’re listening right now, because I want you to hear this. I want you to hear the amount of people who support this league, the amount of people who want this to be a lifestyle for people. This is not just a video game. This is a lifestyle!”

The world of esports is still very much in its budding years. Companies like Riot Games have made it big off the backs of marketing games not as a simple leisure activity, but a competitive battle. The lives of some people are beginning to be shaped and molded by the growing industry, as the money and viewership continue to increase. It’s hardly a wonder, then, that Smash players — as well as competitors in other Nintendo titles — want the same love and support that companies like Capcom give to its pro players.

And yet, for the longest time, Nintendo has been tepid. Why is that?

Company culture

Leading into E3, it seemed as if Nintendo was finally about to drop the esports money bomb many people, including myself, have been speculating about for months. The convention would hold three separate tournaments for upcoming titles: Splatoon 2, Pokkén and ARMS. A new Twitter account, @NintendoVS, was spawned for the sole purpose of talking about competitive games. And in its banner image, the left side was left conspicuously blank, as if ready made for a Smash port or sequel waiting to be announced.

And yet, those same events passed without incident. While we’ll delve more into the actual happenings of E3 later, no sort of “esports” bombshell was dropped — no league, no circuit, no strong commitment of support for competitors. On r/smashbros, an interview with Reggie Fils-Aimé was reported as such: “Esports is Not of Interest to Nintendo.” Squabbling ensued.

In said interview (a smaller part of a Glixel piece), of course, Reggie didn’t say that. “What I would say is different in how we think about competitive gaming,” began Reggie, “is that we think about the community, we think about trying to encourage and empower the community — you see that with Splatoon, you see that with Smash Bros. — and for us it’s about having more and more players engaged and having fun and battling each other versus how others are thinking about in terms of leagues and big startup money and things of that nature, that for us is not as interesting, at least not today.”

When asked about the invitationals on the show floor, Reggie offered a similar reply. “… Maybe it’s more “competitive gaming for the masses” as an approach versus thinking about the “pro” who’s all about big payouts and things of that nature. That’s not an area — at least from our own investment standpoint — that’s as interesting to us.” His message was clear: Nintendo isn’t interested in the glitz and glamor of giant stadiums and gigantic pot bonuses. They’d rather engender games for the populace at large, instead of catering to the top sliver of pros.

This stance is in line with Nintendo’s company image as a whole. While certain Ninty titles definitely cater to a more hardcore crowd, in general the company thrives upon mass marketability and ease of accessibility. Mario Kart did this for racers; Splatoon did it for shooters; both Smash Bros. and ARMS are doing it for fighters. Offering an experience that’s easy to pick up, but potentially hard to master is practically the company’s bread and butter. To focus on the latter part of that equation would stand against what Nintendo as a company strives to do. So it’s only natural that they haven’t gone all in on the esports side of things.

The divide

Of course, that answer isn’t particularly satisfying to those like Hbox, who do want Nintendo to commit to supporting the game. And Reggie himself knows this. In another interview with Kotaku, he was shown Hbox’s speech, and offered a chance to respond. (It wasn’t the first time they’d fought.)

“We’ve been in this social competitive space for a long time,” Reggie said. “Smash Bros. Melee has been a mainstay in the competitive gaming space for a long time. What we’re doing — and our take on his space is we want to encourage the community. We want to enable them to put on tournaments and to have fun and for the players themselves to participate in these types of situations. That’s our view of this space.”

“Look, we love Hungrybox,” he continued. “We had him in our tournaments. There is a passion in the Smash Bros. community which is fantastic. When he talks about lack of support, I’m not quite sure what he’s alluding to.”

While Reggie seemed a bit befuddled by Hbox’s comments, he did acknowledge the ignorance once present towards the scene as a whole.

“I will say this,” he added. “Five, six, seven years ago, as we engaged with our developers and talked to them about Smash Bros. and what was happening, there was not a lot of understanding about this space. And it’s been people like [Nintendo of America’s] Bill Trinen and JC Rodrigo and all of these folks who understand the space that have helped us educate our company and educate our developers around the benefits of engaging with the community and empowering and enabling this to happen.”

When asked for more details on what he wanted via email, Hungrybox outlined what he meant by support. “I feel that Nintendo could actually use the cult following that competitive Smash has accrued to their benefit.” He noted how a larger audience could be exposed to the game, how the title could be broadcast on cable, how it would bolster potential Virtual Console re-releases and ports, and even open up a new division at Nintendo. Reggie didn’t see it, however.

“It’s community-oriented. It’s enabling the community to drive it forward. We have relationships, obviously, with entities like Evo and Battlefly. We want to do this much more at a grassroots level than others’ visions around leagues and big up-front payments and things of that nature.”

Hungrybox’s response was tactful, but firm.

“I hope the best for the future and I respect Reggie and the Nintendo execs more than words can describe,” he said. “It just is always a dismay for our parent company to not see a venture in the same golden light we’ve been viewing it for over a decade.”

It’s a fascinating dichotomy. The Smash community is often proud of its grassroots nature (just listen to Hbox’s fiery speech), yet it still desires to be lifted up by those who can create a lifestyle around the game. Nintendo, in turn, admires this homegrown aspect of the community and thus doesn’t want to interfere. Both sides have a legitimate concern for the scene, but feel differently about how it should grow and progress.

So what is the correct path forward?

What Nintendo esports would look like

Something I feel that’s often lost in the demand for mass Nintendo support for esports is what exactly that would entail. It’s obvious that the money, production values and “legitimacy” that would be pumped into the scenes would be massively beneficial, but it comes at a greater cost than simply the homegrown feel of tournaments.

Let’s just consider who is likely the most beloved and popular Smash player in the world: Joseph “Mang0” Marquez, whose antics in and out of the game have won him more fans than just about anybody else. Mang0 is known for being heavy on partying, gambling and drinking — and while it all adds much to his colorful personality, it doesn’t exactly mesh with the family friendly nature Nintendo has going. If an official league were to start up, would Mang0 be allowed to keep up his persona during events? And what of similarly outspoken players?

It’s a tad hyperbolic, but the point still stands: The culture and environment of Smash tournaments would change. That’s not to say they would all become squeaky clean, hyper kid friendly affairs, but that sense of community would alter — in my opinion, for the worse. Other tournaments would likely be held, but they wouldn’t reach the levels of prominence that official Nintendo ones would. That’s just the nature of things.

Some would argue that the world of Smash and other games has already gone through an “esports” cultural shift — commentators no longer swear on stream, the competitors are expected to behave appropriately, and professionalism is valued now more than ever. But Hbox wouldn’t have been able to make that speech, or any like it, at any Nintendo hosted event, ever. While the community is a bit more professional than in old days, it’s in many ways for the better, and its colorful heart still beats.

And now, the actual results

This article so far has been focused on Smash and Reggie due to the comments that transpired over the past week (and also due to the fact that Smash is the most prominent Nintendo esport), but we’ve in large part ignored the actual show Nintendo put on last week at E3. Three separate tournaments and a Twitter account: How did it all play out?

Honestly, it was nearly as good as it could be. First was Splatoon 2, a chance for several teams around the world to compete at once. Dynameu from Japan was the favorite going in, due to the fact that Splatoon is bigger in general over there, but Deadbeat from the US pulled off a surprise comeback victory to take the invitational. Given that the process also showed two key features missing from the first Splatoon (spectator mode and local play), it was about as strong a showing the game could have.

Next was Pokkén which offered a strange tag team format that matched internet personalities with FGC combatants. Only one actual Pokkén professional — Allister — was present, who took it alongside MatPat (arguably the most famous person there). What really generated excitement was the two matching up against the “Final Bosses,” the developers of the game. Thoroughly trounced, the devs showed their mettle, and the showing hoped to pump some more life into the Pokkén scene when the Switch port comes out.

However, that trouncing was nothing compared to the true legend born on that day: ARMS producer Kosuke Yabuki, now forever known as Mr. Yabuki. He faced off against the winner of the game’s Open Invitational, Zerk, and absolutely wiped the floor with him. Taking the victor of a tournament and absolutely decimating him with superior game knowledge was a stellar marketing move, showing the depth that ARMS held right before the game’s release. Mr. Yabuki’s calm, calculated takedown drove up interest in the game immediately, and undoubtedly provided a model for early competitive play.

Meanwhile, on the internet, the aforementioned Nintendo VS account quietly began its work, tweeting about the tournaments. Fortunately, whoever is running it knows their social media game, as the account wasted no time in providing timely match updates, capturing GIFs of notable moments, and, of course, making memes. It’s action didn’t stop after E3 concluded either, as it provided updates and quips on CEO 2017 over the weekend. It seems likely that the account will be quite focused on all Nintendo esports events in the future, which marks a notable step for the community.

So, what’s it all mean?

If E3’s showing of competitive titles was the model Nintendo wished to use in the future — employing small invitationals and open tournaments rather than grand spectacles — then it was a great first showing. While the first true example of these was likely the 2014 Smash Invitational, this year’s E3 solidified the sort of atmosphere Nintendo wants to make: fun, interesting, intense but not hardcore. As both a marketing tool for the games and its communities, it was a great showing.

It’s pretty clear at the point that Nintendo doesn’t plan to go ham on esports anytime soon. On the one hand, that limits the potential growth of the communities, as they don’t have the support needed to craft lifestyles. But as far as engendering its independence and personalities, Nintendo is (perhaps wisely) deferring to them, encouraging them to thrive in their own space with their own power. Like Hbox said, there are two frames of mind here — not ones that are in agreement, but ones that should be respected.

Nintendo was not, is not and never will be about the hardest of the hardcore. It’s certainly going to make its games capable of competitiveness, full of enough depth and detail to spawn full communities of personalities just about their love for the game. Nintendo’s not going to shower them in money, but it’s not going to police those communities either. And whether or not you agree with it, that’s Nintendo’s playstyle. Just like in the games themselves, it’s up to the players to adapt.

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Written by Amelia Fruzzetti

A writer and Nintendo fan based in Seattle, Washington. When not working for NinWire, she can be found eating pasta, writing stories, and wondering about when Mother 3 is finally going to get an official localization.

Amelia Fruzzetti