Super Smash Bros Ultimate is one of the most unique fighting games ever to be created, with a massive cast of characters, of which a still indeterminate number are considered viable for tournament play. Over the course of 2021, it created a lot of headlines for both casual and competitive reasons, with the addition of new faces and the culmination of many a storyline, and it’s the esports scene we want to look at today.
If you were to ask most people in the scene who the best player in the world is, the answer would be the same, as Mexico’s Leonardo "MkLeo" Lopez Perez has dominated the majority of big events for a while now, and always seems to turn up when it counts. What is interesting though, is how this translates when it comes to prize money, and how those fighting to dethrone him have fared across the course of a year that saw some huge moments as well as a number of quiet months, thanks in no small part to the pandemic.
MkLeo is top prize earner in Ultimate in 2021
It won’t surprise anyone to know that MKLeo was the highest-earning player of 2021 when it comes to prize money, with the Aegis/Byleth main taking home $51,210 across the span of the 12 months. His biggest payout came at Smash Summit 3, where he won $23,869, and his earnings were way up on 2020, when he banked a measly $12,122. Interestingly it still pales in comparison to his 2019 haul, with Mexico’s finest winning $109,819 that year.
The Smash World Tour was also very good to MKLeo, who took home the top prize of $20K to make his Christmas a bit more special no doubt. With his own friends and proteges hot on his heels, many have predicted that he will be surpassed sooner or later, but as yet nobody has come close to dethroning him on a consistent basis, and nothing in the game has changed to hurt his chances.
Second in line after the King of Ultimate is one of NA’s most beloved and stylish players, Gavin "Tweek" Dempsey. The fallout from the scandals around the Ultimate scene took a real toll on TSM’s star turn, but he bounced back well in 2021 and earned himself $49,879, which is not just more than all-but-Leo won in 2021, but also more than any previous year he’d competed in Ult, Smash 4 or Brawl, with his previous best being the $30,311 he won in 2018. The vast majority of his income came at Summit 3, where his win earned him $47,739.
In third is Leo’s friend and protege, Edgar "Sparg0" Valdez, the man many predict will overthrow Leo eventually. He is so young and fresh at this level of play that, even with 2021 being affected by COVID, seven of his top 10 prize wins came across the year, contributing to his take-home being an impressive $43,196 all told. Like those ahead of him in this list, his largest single payout was Summit 3, where he won $19,095 for placing third — and his entire career has only paid out $58K to date, making 2021 by far his most lucrative yet.
Behind Spargo in fourth is Brian "Cosmos" Kalu, the former Corrin main that often appears on Nairo’s stream, and attended the former NRG man’s birthday bash. His year was chugging along slowly for the most part, but a second-place finish at the Smash World Tour event saw him double his take home for 2021 to $26,807, a figure that represents two-thirds of his career earnings in Ultimate.
Rounding out the top five is Tyler "Marss" Martins, a player many believe has the potential to be the world’s best. With a strong presence on YouTube and an active Twitch stream, his income isn’t entirely reliant on tournaments, as is true for many top players, but 2021 wasn’t his best year either. The $23,796 he won isn’t a bad haul, but it pales in comparison to the $36K he took home in 2019, and it’s fair to say he’ll want more in 2022.
Other names of note that didn’t make the top five include Mexico’s Maister, who only made $12K for the year, placing ninth, and Glutonny, who came in sixth at just over $20K. As Europe’s best player, the Wario main suffers from a lack of major events — but that is true for most non-NA players. Incredibly, Zackray, one of Japan’s best, only took home $9,547 for his year of competition, which really highlights how difficult it is to be a pro in Japan given the archaic laws and travel issues the last few years have thrown up.
Overall, Ultimate was technically the best paying fighting game in 2021, ranking 34th overall, and outstripping not only its older counterpart in Melee, but also beating games like Street Fighter, Brawlhalla, and Tekken 7. The game saw $545,843 paid out over 2021, with Street Fighter the next most lucrative at $495k of prize money distributed over the same twelve months.
Having said that, when you get down into the details, things aren’t as clear-cut. Smash is listed on esports earnings as having had 250 events in 2021, which is just less than five times more than Street Fighter, and only paid out $50K more despite that. This speaks both to the incredible depth and enthusiasm of the Smash Bros scene —despite having the worst developer in esports — and also the lack of money in the Smash scene in comparison even to a game like Street Fighter, which was only the 35th most lucrative esport last year.
In isolation, Smash actually coped fairly well with COVID, and ranking 34th isn’t terrible, even if games like chess24, Free Fire, and F12021 all paid more. The overall figure represents an improvement on 2020, where the scene only paid out $300K but a drop off from 2019’s $1m+ of winnings. So players can be happy that the scene at least maintained to some extent, and rallied toward the end of the year.
The problem, which has been a problem for so long now, is that Smash is hampered at its core by the outdated and at times frankly boneheaded way Nintendo operates. And as a result, the game’s viewership isn’t reflected in the prize money lists. Many people have pointed out that with a better developer, Smash could be a far bigger esport, but were that to happen it would also put more power in the hands of Nintendo, so the sustainable model built by the community may indeed be the lesser of two evils.