In esports, few things matter more than content creation.
The simple and ugly truth is that entire organizations can live and die by it. Still, people don’t talk all that much about how content gets made. In some part, that’s because it’s not pretty. Like learning how hot dogs are made, the audience may lose appetite when they learn the absurdity behind things like SEO, audience retention, or subscriber growth.
But like any reality, you’re better off learning it if you want to change it or even if you just want to live with it. I wanted to learn the particularly weird reality of Smash Ultimate’s content creation and strangely durable online scene, so I reached out to Samuel "Dabuz" Buzby.
I knew firsthand how irritated Ultimate’s online ecosystem made Dabuz for a while and felt there were few better players to talk about the good, bad, and ugly of that habitat. The interview grew from there and ended up covering Min Min’s potential, money in Smash, and how to handle WiFi warriors when offline competition returns.
The world of Smash content
Dabuz: If you just sit down and say, “I’m gonna play!” most Smash streamers won’t get much viewership and won’t get invested viewers either. That means every day is a challenge of what do I do that’s gonna be interesting? What do I do to make it interesting enough to tune in?
Unless you’re like the tippy-top echelon of the Smash streamers, that’s what you gotta do. Even then, if you look at the tippy top echelon of Smash streamers and compare that to League of Legends, [...] Tyler1 has more viewers by himself than every Smash streamer’s gonna have combined today.
How much do you think the viewer gap is endemic to fighting games? How much do you think it’s lack of online, lack of good matchmaking, lack of the devs making it accessible?
For Ultimate, viewership dropped by about 50% from 2019 to 2020, if I remember correctly [...] Definitely poor competitive conditions hurt a lot, as compared to Melee. I’m pretty sure Melee’s viewership as a whole has been better than it’s ever been.
They have Slippi, they can play online and have legitimately good matches, competitive matches. Even though it’s not perfect, people can look at the online matches and go “This is valid.” I think that’s actually a huge factor. There’s no secret to it. People wanna see competitive fighting games and you don’t get that right now.
"Smash isn’t that lucrative of a career unless you’re like very, very, very top — Hbox, Leo top"
Talking a little more about the content side of things and people growing their brand, can you tell me a little bit about your process this year in finding your streaming zone and what some of the difficulties were?
I tried to be a very analytical streamer at first — you know, match analysis all the time. People say “I watch your stream from Japanese events and you never really analyze much.” I wanna rebuttal to them, “That’s because when I did the analysis, no one seemed to care about it.”
The growth of streaming is just recognizing, people want to see more casual good gameplay. That’s all [most] people really want at the end of the day. They just wanna watch people who are good play the game and see some cool plays. So I guess I lean towards that with my content.
I’ve had the same sort of struggles in my career. [...] I remember the example for me was I did that [kind of analysis piece] for Qrank and then the article that ended up getting the most traction was a tier list that I’d written ranking how each character did in late capitalism.
Yep, that reminds me when I made a tier list recently. The stream was ranking how easy or hard it is to play a character, but kind of satire. Not too serious, just to make fun of characters. I think the viewership on that and the amount of impressions on posting that to Twitter was significantly higher than anything serious I ever do.
[...] People love it and that’s fine. It’s fun as hell to talk about. It’s fun to be like, “Alright guys, whoever plays Ness, you guys literally don’t have a brain and your character could be played by an Amiibo.”
How do you strike that balance between doing things that you find fun and things that you find are view-generating?
That’s actually difficult. I’ve gotten better at it but it definitely was a bit of a struggle. [...]
I think a big part of it was finding ways to make Smash fun to stream. Trying to find good matches to play. Not taking it too seriously was a big factor. [...] I think if you kind of take it like “Oh it’s online, let’s try to have a good game regardless.” It’s a lot easier to have fun and it’s a lot easier to have fun streams.
[...] Basically saying yeah, I’m one of the best players in the world and that’s awesome and all but right now that’s not a big deal outside of the fact that I can show off good gameplay. So I’m not gonna focus on that and care about how I’m doing — as long as I know I’m improving. I have also, to be honest, been streaming less than I used to, to not get burnt out as much.
Especially because I’m focusing almost only on streaming Smash. [...] Variety’s very nice for the people who are regulars and just like me for the personality but similar to people who are really into analysis, people who are really into the personality of the streamer are outnumbered by people who are into the game. [...] Less variety means fewer stream hours but more focused content.
It probably does help you can do an all-tournament run with Sephiroth or Min Min or a lot of these characters that have come out.
Exactly. Also, starting my own tournament series that I run weekly has helped a lot. It’s actually been one of the most fun streams to do and the fact that it gets so much positive feedback makes me happy to do it every week.
Respect for the WiFi Warriors
How much do you feel the switch to online changes Ultimate’s legacy as a game, if at all?
I think it’s gonna be remembered as a game that is amazing offline but never got the chance to experience that fully. All this stuff started happening when Ultimate started to get into that part of the game when the meta’s developed, people have an understanding of what is good, what is not, how to play the game. I feel like Frostbite 2020 was really where we were seeing, “This is how you’re supposed to play the game.”
Even online gets to see some glimpses of how this game is sick sometimes. It’s just like damn, imagine this offline. Where would we be at right now? It was getting absolutely insane to watch good players play the game. Playing the game itself felt like, “Wow this is an insane game.”
I think it’s gonna be bigger than ever when offline’s back because of all the hype for that. But it’s definitely gonna have a legacy of like, man, we really spent almost two years just playing online. I think people are gonna be like, “This is my last Smash game. This is the game I stopped playing. These are the conditions that made me quit.”
“Just wait ‘til you see what I do with Min Min offline. Just wait.”
How do you feel about the game heading into 2021, what are your expectations for the scene?
Streamers are currently growing, a lot of smaller streamers are seeing nice improvement. I don’t wanna say people can make a living off Smash games because the community isn’t big enough for most people to do that but I think more people see it as a viable source of income, which is nice.
It’s cool to see more people make it worth it, which you can’t really do when everyone’s traveling offline for tournaments. I think when it comes to the more competitive side of things, [sighs], I think it’s just gonna be more of 2020. Players are still getting better but we’re still gonna be thinking, “Yo, when offline’s back!”
I think realistically 2022 is when it’s gonna happen.
That does make sense. I was hoping the vaccine would roll out mid-year.
Even if you have that happen, it takes time to organize majors, right? We’ll probably have locals back by the end of the year. I think [that] is reasonable. But majors take time to plan. It takes resources and money to plan. There is a reason we can’t just say, “Hey, guys, here’s a major!”
I said people leaving the scene — I don’t mean just players necessarily. I mean TOs as well leaving the scene, content creators, all that stuff. When offline is back, we can do majors but it requires a lot of work and investment, and risk from a lot of people to make it happen.
I didn’t think about TO’s leaving the scene but that’s very true.
I think there’s a lot of TO’s that do work full-time jobs and you know, [they] might just double down on that.
How much do you think we should weigh online wins and performance when offline returns?
The blueprint’s gonna be: PGR players over the top players of regional and local PRs and then wifi warriors — the good ones, the people who are popping off now but didn’t pop off offline necessarily.
[...] You have to give credit to people who are doing well in these online events cause they’re gonna come out offline and do well. Honestly, you could argue that a lot of these people who do well in these online events should be seeded over some of the older local PR players who haven't been doing online much. At the same time, it’s not fair to those players for obvious reasons, this is the fair way to do it.
I do think the PGR players, especially the upper PGR, are gonna come back offline and do well for the most part — the ones who are still playing. I think the PGR players who quit cold turkey are gonna struggle a bit, to be honest. Even though online stinks, it’s still practice. [...]
But yeah I think the scene’s gonna have a huge influx of talents and new names taking the placings at these offline events. And you have to give them respect.
How many of these wifi warriors do you see making upsets or breakouts?
A lot of them, not all of them. Just like offline, there’s a lot of good players but not everyone can place. I’m not gonna say people get carried by wifi — because that’s not the case — but there are certain characters that are better online, playstyles that are better online. A big thing online as well is the comfort factor of being at home versus the nerves of being in-person.
I’m gonna feel bad for the players that are really good but go to an offline event and get really nervous. They’re not used to these levels of nerves offline, they’re gonna get washed, and people are gonna make fun of them. I know it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna suck for those people. But it’s gonna be one of those things that separate the good players offline versus the ones who go offline and don’t do as well.
New mains and new income
You’ve recently called Min Min a top tier and the character has been looking like it in Japan. Do you think NA and the wider world are in for a Min Min awakening when offline comes back?
[Chuckles] Yep. Yeah, the character is very, very, very, very powerful. We’re seeing it online already, offline in Japan. The thing is not many top players are playing the character. At the end of the day, players pilot the character. ESAM’s gonna be playing Min Min, I’m gonna be playing Min Min for sure.
One of my friends is huge into Min Min and so we both thought she would be better online. But now it’s like maybe not, based on ProtoBanham.
Right? I’m so glad he showed those things off. I watched ProtoBanham and he’s good but I’m gonna be honest I watch him and I’m like, “He’s making these mistakes. He could be playing this better or that better.” I feel like I legitimately am the best Min Min. It’s hard to really show it online.
So if people are seeing ProtoBanham and going “This character’s busted offline”... Just wait ‘til you see what I do with this character offline. Just wait. But I’m very glad he’s made people aware so people aren’t like, “Dabuz you’re capping, you’re crazy, this character’s a wifi warrior character.”
"[Min Min] is very, very, very, very powerful. We’re seeing it online already, offline in Japan."
I know it’s a long way off but who do you think you’ll be maining when offline returns? What do you think your rotation will be?
Right now I think my plan is to be a Rosa-Min Min main for the most part. Olimar will be a strong secondary that’s more matchup dependent because even before quarantine, Olimar was one of those characters I was using less and less. So many matchups I don’t like playing. The matchups I do like with him, I really like.
I think most Olimar mains can kinda understand this. We fight zoners that force us to approach and it’s hard for us, we fight characters that can stall the game out and run away and it’s hard for us. And then you fight the matchups where that’s not a factor and it’s like, “Oh this is easy.”
Then I think Pit might actually be a secondary for very niche situations. Player-specific, more so than matchup-specific. I think that’s my rotation of characters probably. I do think Min Min-Rosa has really good synergy.
What about Pit makes him a player counter?
The best way to describe it is he’s hard to cheese. He has good disadvantage options overall, he’s not combo food or anything like that, so he’s one of those characters that if I just outplay my opponent I’ll win.
So if I fight someone I know for a fact I can just straight up outplay them, and I don’t wanna deal with getting cheesed out by a bad matchup, that’s really nice. Secondly, even though he’s not a complicated, gimmicky character, he’s a character that’s uncommon so I can catch people off guard.
He also does well into swordies, which is generally a matchup that my characters struggle with.
Did the competitive scene declining hurt emotionally, as a person?
Yeah. I’ve always said I love my living. I don’t dislike my living and I don’t dislike my living playing video games and streaming and in a way, there’s significantly less stress and I have a lot more free time - which is great.
But at the same time, my living was literally traveling and playing tournaments and all these very stressful but fun situations, and that completely changed. I had to completely flip my lifestyle upside to account for COVID stuff. Definitely hurts but at the end of the day it could be a lot worse and there are huge benefits as well.
It’s funny, I’m not sure if I told you this before but I had 18 events planned pre-COVID, not even including CEO Dreamland. 19 events planned throughout 2020 from the start of COVID. That was like, what, in April? [...] I had insane stuff planned and it just all crashed.
How much, if at all, did the collapse of Ultimate’s offline competitive scene hurt you financially?
So, it surprisingly didn’t hurt me that much. Obviously, I’m on Liquid, you know, I’m on a contract with salary. That’s consistent. [...]
And then even if I’m not making money from tournaments anymore, or like very little [...], the stream grew a lot! [Pre-COVID] I was at like 50-60 average viewers, 300 subs. [Now] for me, a bad stream is less than 100 viewers and a bad month is less than 500 subs. So even if I’m making less money from tournaments, I’m making a lot more money from the stream, the YouTube is starting to bring in a little more money, although not much.
I guess overall it’s slightly less than offline but not significantly. I’m doing fine, I’m not doing particularly great. You know, Smash isn’t that lucrative of a career unless you’re like very, very, very top — Hbox, Leo top. So I’m doing fine, I’m financially stable but probably if offline was back I’d be doing better. I’m not complaining, you know?
Oh, that’s great. That’s honestly a better answer than I was expecting.
Were you expecting me to say, “Ah, I’m struggling with money and I’m not making anything”? You have to remember offline events — Smash doesn’t pay that much for tournaments.
Right, right, even if you get top 8.
Yep. On like a good month I bring in $2-3k. Maybe on a really good month — not including a Thunder Gaming type of thing — I get like 5k. That’d be huge, that’s a lot of money compared to what I make for streaming.
But if it’s a bad month, basically I wouldn’t make much money from tournaments at all.
I think sponsors are kind of huge for Smash and for the FGC in general. It’s really hard for payouts.
Oh yeah. Without Liquid, I just wouldn’t be able to make a living doing this, quite frankly. Not with my current income otherwise. Fighting games in general are passion. If you can make it your living, that’s awesome, but at the end of the day that’s passion and you do need help from people to make it work.
Disclaimer: The author of this interview is a full-time staff member of Team Liquid.