Watching the past few Smash majors has been purifying. While watching the tournaments online was fun, watching offline events like Riptide and Smash Con reminded me that it’s not all about crazy combos—there’s the enthusiasm of the casters, the energy of the crowd, and the emotions of the players. That’s why I love tournaments.
Watching the last few majors also reminded me that we’re not back in 2019 anymore—the scene has changed, and not just the extra hand sanitizer. I could go on about all the major differences, but something stands out the most—streaming. That may seem odd, as streaming has been a staple of the community for more than a decade now. With the pandemic though, it took the gradual changes that come with streaming and shifted them into hyperdrive. It’s a beautiful thing, but also something to be concerned about for the health of our scene.
The good <3
The massive rise of Twitch during the pandemic was not unique to Smash. But the rise of many of our players and personalities is different than many other streamers. Instead of just the viewers turning to watching Twitch to pass the time — it was the streamers as well. People that regularly travel to tournaments with thousands of people were forced to stay at home. The next best thing? Compete online, build their brand, and do their best Mang0 impressions.
It’s been awesome to see.
A lot of good Smash was still played in online tournaments. At the same time, though, many players have exploded in popularity. People like WaDi, Marss, and Kola have increased their profiles by miles in the past two years. Already established names like Hungrybox and Mang0 are now finding success beyond the Smash community. And those are just the most successful examples. Streaming is now a regular practice and source of income for nearly every player in the world—sponsored and unsponsored alike. That’s not even mentioning other opportunities like YouTube videos, podcasts, etc.
This is wonderful. More rising players are able to dedicate themselves full-time to Smash. Established pros are able to start putting money away. Not only that, it’s arguably helped drive more interest into the scene. Speaking from experience talking to fans at tournaments offline and online, many had their first introduction to the scene from a Ludwig stream or a Hungrybox YouTube video.
It has also made tournaments more exciting in some cases. Something in my mind that made the Melee so compelling post-documentary was that you got to watch a lot of the storied figures in the series regularly compete in tournaments. We haven’t had a similar documentary for current-Melee and Ultimate players, but thankfully that hasn’t been an issue. Streaming and social media have allowed these players to become competitors people are invested in, and have made viewing more enjoyable as a result. Streaming is a positive change that isn’t going away anytime soon.
The bad </3
The most noticeable change at majors recently isn’t what’s been added—it’s what’s missing: Top players. Many of the names that make a tournament that much more exciting have been absent during some of the past few majors. For a lot of these cases, the explanation’s simple. Zain doesn’t want to travel for the sake of his family, Mang0 doesn’t want to compete because Zain’s absent, and iBDW doesn’t want to compete without Zain and Mang0. In other cases, some players drop out for personal reasons or because of burnout.
The other major reason? Streaming’s a better idea.
For the sake of privacy, I will not disclose the names of those that told me this, but many of the top players I’ve approached about why they weren’t attending major events came back with the same response—they’d rather stream. And really, why shouldn’t they? Instead of flying out to a tournament and having to stay in a hotel room, they can play the game from the comfort of their home and make more money doing so. It’s a concern echoed by many of our most prominent community leaders.
Some might say this isn’t a big deal. At the end of the day we watch Smash for Smash, it doesn’t have to have all the best players, right? No, it doesn’t. If the top 20 players in Melee and Ultimate dropped out today, the scene would continue to exist. If we want the scene to be sustainable, however, the presence of top players at events is important for a few reasons:
- Viewership — I mean, duh. Having big names at events gets their fans invested in watching the tournament. You get matchups people want to see, as well as higher quality gameplay.
- Trickle-down effect — As was noted earlier, one of the main reasons Melee majors are in a weird spot is solely because of Zain’s absence. It’s caused other top five players to drop out of events as well. What about from there, then? How many players in the 10-20 range are hesitant to enter a tournament without the very best being there? You’re not just losing top players directly to streaming—you’re losing the many players that would attend just to play against them.
- Support for new players — How was Zain first noticed as potentially the future of the game? It was by beating Plup at The Big House 6. Now ask yourself—what if Plup had been streaming instead of attending that event? Zain probably would still have become a top player, but it certainly would’ve been harder. He wouldn’t have received the same recognition and following that upset gave him the resources to continue competing. Moments like big upsets and crazy tournament runs are what give young players the attention and tools they need to get to the top. It doesn’t matter if they win every tournament they attend. If nobody’s watching, their journey upwards will remain much harder.
We may not see it now because of the excitement of offline events being back. But in a year’s time, the viewership, attendance, and future of the scene could be negatively affected. Those are just the main reasons. There’s plenty more for how streaming is creating an unsustainable ecosystem for our scene. It’s not hopeless though.
So what can be done?
Streaming and content creation aren’t going away, and we shouldn’t want it to. If top players want to spend less time competing, you can’t blame anyone for that. Having Smash as a career choice is risky as it is, so going for the more lucrative, long-term, and arguably enjoyable option is understandable.
The best course may be to instead adjust to this content creator-centered world. Other esports are not experiencing this issue to the same degree Smash is. A top League of Legends or Dota 2 player can draw several times more viewers than a top Smash player. And yet they still compete on a regular basis. When you see a player like Perkz signing a multi-million dollar contract, or The International 2021 having a $40 million prize pool, that makes sense.
The root issue traces back to Nintendo (fuck Nintendo). With no developer support and sponsorship opportunities being more challenging as a result, it has made an ecosystem where TOs can’t compete with the option to stream.
So what can be done on our own? Obviously, this is a very complex issue that will require a lot more effort and collaboration than an op-ed. The main way I see is to create more incentives for players to want to compete. There are probably dozens of ways to do this, but two stand out to me.
When I talked with Max Ketchum recently, he noted one of the main improvements he wants to see at tournaments is better experiential atmosphere—make tournaments more than a tournament. Fun side-events, live music, and food opportunities can go a long way to making tournaments more enjoyable. This not only is great for the community, but could help top players who want to come. Remember, one of the reasons for the downfall of Apex was top players were tired of fighting ice monsters in the New Jersey winter just to compete. It’s an obvious step, one that a lot of TOs have already started taking, but there’s plenty more that can be done to make tournaments as fun of an atmosphere as possible.
The other one is prize pools. While we can have full confidence that TOs have tried their hardest to make them as large as possible, there may be ways to increase them. The main choice would be crowdfunding. It’s already been successful with tournaments like Summit—one of the only events that consistently attract all top talent. Whether our community can sustain more compendiums is to be seen, but it’s certainly in the cards.
Our scene has changed a lot over the past two years. If we play it right, the changes can be nothing but positive, and continue to create the best events possible. If nothing’s done, however, it could make the growth of our scene unsustainable. It’s an issue the community needs to find solutions for. What do you think they are?
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