Few esports have had a harder life than Project M. This fan-made Super Smash Bros. game is cursed by its connection to Nintendo, the company that hates competitive Smash and fan-games more than anyone. Over the past 10 years, Project M’s growth has been impeded at seemingly every turn by The Big N, but no matter how hard they try, they just can’t get rid of it.
What is Project+? And why?
Project M is a mod built on top of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. First released in 2011, PM aimed to combine the best features from Brawl and its predecessor Super Smash Bros. Melee into one game. It also added deep balance adjustments and a variety of original content, including characters, stages, game modes, and more. It was a game for Melee and Brawl players alike, uniting both sides of the fractured community.
For a few years after its release, Project M was on top of the world. With its broad appeal, PM garnered massive entrant numbers at tournaments around the world, sometimes even overtaking the official Smash titles it was based on. In just four years, the game had surpassed three million lifetime downloads. This groundbreaking success drew massive attention to Project M, so much so that Nintendo could no longer ignore it.
"It felt like the floor fell out from under us. We thought we were fine. We hadn’t heard from Nintendo in three years."
The downfall of Project M began in late 2015 when the team behind the mod suddenly announced that development would cease immediately. To this day, there are few details on why the game was unceremoniously dropped. Regardless of the reason, Nintendo saw this as an opportunity to strike. They banned Project M from being streamed on Twitch, coerced influencers to stop talking about the game, and pressured key organizers to drop support at their events.
Despite this, a small percentage of the community stayed dedicated to Project M, organizing their own events and streams. The dark ages of Project M continued until 2019, when a new team formed to create a spiritual successor known as Project+.
Built on top of past Brawl mods like Project M and Legacy TE, Project+ was intended to be a community-created evolution of the game that resolved leftover bugs, restored unfinished content, and tidied up the game’s balance.
The community embraced Project+, as the vast majority of its players migrated over. P+ existed peacefully for years without any interference from Nintendo, slowly growing in size as the development team brought more features and refinements to the game.
2021 should have been an excellent year for the Project+ community. The return of offline events brought renewed interest in the game. For the first time in ages, multiple Smash majors around the country added P+ to their lineups, drawing some of the largest entrant numbers in the history of the game. A new era was about to begin. Until it wasn’t.
Nintendo continues war on Project+
Project+’s latest troubles started on Aug. 27, when the Sandusky, Ohio major Riptide announced that they were forced to cancel their Project+ bracket after being contacted by a representative from Nintendo. The news came as a shock to many members of the community, including Ryan "Sabre" Weinberg, a longtime Project+ tournament organizer, competitor, and content creator.
“It felt like the floor fell out from under us,” Sabre recalled, “We thought we were fine. We hadn’t heard from Nintendo in three years. They had only ever intervened with events that they were sponsoring, which wasn’t the case [for Riptide]. We were trying to follow the rules, but it got ripped away out-of-the-blue.”
The cancellation of P+ at Riptide came on short notice, leaving their staff scrambling to refund hundreds of entrants at once. With their travel arrangements already set, many players found themselves caught in a bind; but that wasn’t enough to stop them. The Project+ community did what they do best and took matters into their own hands.
The Shadow Majors: Project+ tournaments continue, hidden from Nintendo
Trin “MeleeSadPosts” Schaeffer is a tournament organizer who formerly hosted events for Super Smash Bros. Melee, but recently took an interest in Project+. They were already planning to attend Low Tide City as a P+ competitor, so when the news broke about the event, they took it upon themself to find a solution. They used Twitter and Discord to rally the community together and form an independent event called Undertow at a nearby venue.
"I woke up that day, saw the news, and thought ‘I’m gonna do something'," said MeleeSadPosts. "I held out on announcing [Undertow] until I found the venue, then as soon as I booked it, I made a Smash.gg page and said ‘this is happening.'"
For an event that was planned in less than two weeks, Undertow was an impressive success. 224 players out of the roughly 400 registered for Riptide attended the event. Undertow was the first in the series of events that the community now refers to as “Shadow Majors” — Project+ tournaments that are held in venues nearby the original Smash majors that intended to house them. Free from the watchful eyes of Nintendo, these separate unaffiliated events allow P+ players to make the best of a bad situation.
"We’re playing a game [with Nintendo] where we don’t really understand the rules."
In the coming weeks after Riptide and Undertow, the dominos began to fall. Ontario, CA’s Smash major Mainstage cancelled their Project+ tournament in fear of facing the same fate. Then shortly after, Low Tide City in Round Rock, Texas was also contacted by Nintendo and pressured to cancel their brackets for multiple Smash mods, Project+ included.
By this point, the community knew what to do. Another Shadow Major called Shipwrecked was formed at a venue nearby Low Tide City. It attracted nearly 100 attendees and featured a crowdfunded prize pool of roughly $3,800. This past week, Sabre hosted another Shadow Major around Mainstage called Jailbreak.
"It’s quite literally in the same building as Mainstage. I booked the ballroom across from them … My gut tells me that we’ll be fine, but that’s all we really have to operate on. We’re playing a game [with Nintendo] where we don’t really understand the rules, but so far Project+ exclusive events have been fine."
The community isn’t sure what’s causing Nintendo’s sudden crackdown on the game, but it seems for now that Project+ appearing alongside official Smash titles at any major tournament is out of the question.
“The main thing that usually draws them is having [Super Smash Bros. Ultimate] at the same event. That’s been the trend with the events that have been shut down so far. I would be very surprised if they came after a PM-only event," said Project+ Lead Developer and TO Motobug.
So if Project+ brackets can’t be held at majors anymore, then what’s next for the game?
Smash community not giving up on Project+
It's unclear what the path forward is for a Smash game that can't be played at Smash tournaments. Some organizers like MeleeSadPosts see Shadow Majors as the unavoidable future for P+, but others have concerns with the format.
“The problem [with Shadow Majors] is that they’re not really an avenue for growth,” Sabre said. “We have to keep them kind of secret so that the organizers aren’t put at risk … You have to know about it to get in, because otherwise, how would you stumble across a Project+ event at a hotel a mile away? While [Shadow Majors] are great for the scene, they’re not super accessible.”
As they search for solutions, TOs are also beginning to experiment with other types of events that may present a lower risk, like small invitational tournaments. MeleeSadPosts and their team at HeartswapTV recently announced a Summit-style invitational called “Project M Theatre," planned for March 2022.
Some members of the community see these non-traditional tournaments as exciting avenues for growth. Retired top player and community figure Arjun “Junebug” Rao expects the future of Project+ to come from invitationals, content creators, and collaboration events with other non-Nintendo platform fighters (Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl being a recent example).
“We’re going to have to find a way to get newer members in order to grow,” Junebug said. “But even if that doesn’t happen, I doubt the PM community is going to stop. They’re going to play the game regardless.”
"They can’t kill PM and they can’t make us stop playing it. They can be annoying and make it difficult for us, but they can’t stop us."
One thing the community can agree on is that Project+ isn’t going anywhere. They’ve faced too many challenges to let this one stop them.
“I don’t think there’s anything Nintendo could do that would make me give up,” Sabre said. “If they want to shut down Jailbreak, they have to contact new people. They have to go through the whole thing again. And even if they do that, I have a backup hotel planned. They can’t kill PM and they can’t make us stop playing it. They can be annoying and make it difficult for us, but they can’t stop us.”
For the Project+ community, there’s no other game quite like it. That’s made abundantly clear by their unwavering dedication.
“PM has this infectious movement engine where you just have ridiculous amounts of control over your character," Junebug noted. “It’s very hard to find another game that allows you to express yourself in so many different ways … Project M meant a lot to me in some of my formative years, and I don’t think I would trade that for anything.”
"If the game wasn’t fun, then we wouldn’t be so pissed off. We all love PM so much that we’re willing to go through this."
Years of countless hardships have forged a powerful bond between this community and their game. The dedicated few who have stuck it out are united by a shared sentiment: they love playing Project+, and they want to do so in peace.
“If the game wasn’t fun, then we wouldn’t be so pissed off. We all love PM so much that we’re willing to go through this," said MeleeSadPosts. "A month ago I had no prior experience with this game, but now I’m willing to host a major with only two weeks' notice because I love the game that much. So just give it a try, you might fall in love with it like I did.”
“I’m still here because I care about the community and the people I play with.” Sabre said, “I feel a sense of obligation to everyone else who’s had this experience, and everyone who could have their lives changed by this game and community in the future. I want to make sure it’s there for them in the same way that it was for me.”
Project+ is just getting started
In the modern landscape of esports, it’s rare to find a game that’s purely grassroots. Without publisher or sponsor involvement, Project+ is built entirely on the passion of its players. There are no colossal prize pools or glamorous fame to chase here. It’s just competitive gaming in its rawest unfiltered form, and perhaps that’s what keeps the community steadfast in the face of adversity. Their future may be unclear, but this community is not backing down.
“This game is my life. It changed the way I see things, helped me make a lot of friends, and it made me better at the skills I’m trying to hone for my career," Motobug said. “I’ll keep going to tournaments and I’ll be the last PM player left. But until then it’s not over.”
Daniel J. Collette is a writer, host, and content creator in the esports industry.