Without Nintendo’s support, Smash players compete for peanuts compared to the prize pools of other games, often zigzagging cross-country to win less money than it costs to pay for their flights. Genesis’s Melee champion, rising superstar Zain Naghmi, was sponsored by a single Twitch streamer. His “uniform,” provided by the streamer, consisted of a pair of hastily-ordered Gucci shoes and a sweatshirt reading “Mogul Moves.” Naghmi’s prize for taking home the most sought-after accolade of the year was a little over $6,000 — enough for a few more pairs of Gucci kicks, but orders of magnitude away from something like the $6 million pot the CDL will award to its players over the course of 2020.
And while Genesis paid out its top 16 competitors, only eight of the over 3,500 entrants at another major tournament, EVO, made any money at all. The further you go down the placements, the more pitiful the rewards become: the two players who tied for seventh, Paris “Light” Ramirez and Sota “Zackray” Okada, only received around $350. For most Smashers, winning tournaments isn’t a viable career. At best, it’s a stepping stone to larger relevance and a chance to make a living on Twitch.
“We’ve been hitting our heads on the ceiling for the last three years,” says Hugo “HugS” Gonzales, a pro Melee player for Dignitas.
Now, the Smash community is attempting to break through that ceiling on its own. On March 1, veteran Smash broadcast organization VGBootCamp and the organizers behind tournament series Super Smash Con revealed the Smash World Tour, an international circuit for both Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Super Smash Bros. Melee that will culminate in a championship this December. The most tantalizing detail revealed in the circuit’s announcement was the Smash World Tour’s $250,000 prize pool, the biggest Smash has ever seen.
“At the end of the day, it really is the next step to push Smash toward a tier one esport,” said Calvin “GimR” Lofton, one of the co-founders of both VGBootCamp and the World Tour. “The bigger Smash is, the more people can make a living off of it. I want to live in a world where anyone who runs a super major, that’s their only job.”
Surpassing a history of failed circuits
Lofton has been pursuing Smash as his living since 2009, when he founded VGBootCamp alongside his brother, Matthew “Aposl” Lofton. The pair doggedly uploaded guides and streamed tournaments for years until 2014, when Melee’s inclusion at Evo the year prior, the release of the grass roots documentary “The Smash Brothers,” and the arrival of the long-awaited Super Smash Bros. for Wii U catalyzed a gigantic Smash boom.
Armed with newfound success, the siblings started to dream about how to take Smash to the next level.
That dream didn’t take shape until Super Smash Con 2018, when the pair spoke with the man behind Super Smash Con, Justin Wykowski. With Smash Ultimate months from release, the trio started to lay down a framework for what would become the Smash World Tour.
For all the hype the World Tour has drummed up, the idea of a Smash circuit itself isn’t novel. Smash first entered esports via the Major League Gaming circuits of the mid 2000s, which featured Melee from 2004 to 2007. But once Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released, MLG dropped Melee, only to drop Brawl as well after a single season in 2010.
It’s not like the interest isn’t there. For years, Smashers have seen their events’ viewership balloon and hoped for Nintendo to finally see the light, to no avail. Last year, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate broke EVO’s all-time viewership record with a peak of over 270,000 concurrent viewers across Twitch.
“The Smash Bros. community has always wanted a circuit,” said Arian “TheCrimsonBlur” Fathieh, a Smash tournament organizer, commentator and former Nintendo Partnerships Lead at Twitch. “As such a fragmented scene, it’s been hard for us to monetize on an event by event basis because there hasn’t been a great unifying product for the outside world, the sponsorship and broadcast rights holders, to put money into.”
The Smash World Tour isn’t the first community effort toward a circuit — but it’s aiming to be the first successful one in recent memory. Wykowski and Calvin Lofton both recall having been approached multiple times by other organizers in the past to help organize circuits that never came to light.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to be a part of a potential tour or circuit that never ended up happening,” Wykowski said. “I think everybody … has been clamoring for it because everybody sort of understands subconsciously that we could unify and become really a bigger sum of its parts, two-plus-two-equals-five type thing. There’s really no cap on how big Smash can go.”
What sets this latest attempt apart is the confidence with which the circuit has moved forward. Although it is partnered with both Twitch and Smash.gg, the World Tour did not wait to secure a partnership with Nintendo, something that has mired past attempts. That’s not to say the Smash World Tour is brushing off Nintendo entirely.
“What we can say is, we are in talks with Nintendo,” Wykowski said. “Our goal was to go ahead and create something that then we can present to Nintendo as an opportunity to be able to work with the Smash community directly.”
The big experiment
The new circuit, while large, doesn’t perfectly unite Smash’s existing infrastructure. While it includes many of the scene’s most prestigious events, the Smash World Tour excludes major tournaments such as Michigan’s “The Big House” and Boston’s “Shine.” These events share an affiliation with Beyond the Summit, another esports production group that streams major Smash tournaments.
Fathieh contends that without all of Smash’s major events on board, the World Tour will struggle to position itself as the de facto official circuit of Smash. “It has a decent amount of money in front of it, but it didn’t really get the critical mass of organizers that I think many would expect of a unifying circuit,” Fathieh said. “And it remains to be seen if you can take that, which is not the full product, really, that we were hoping for, and monetize it to the point of sustainability. That’s really the big experiment here.”
Wykowski assures there’s no bad blood. “Pretty much every major that people are thinking of that are not on the tour, or are glaringly missing, we actually did reach out to with an opportunity, no strings attached, to be either a Platinum or Gold on our invited list,” he said. (Platinum and Gold-tiered tournaments are the most prestigious and valuable events in the Smash World Tour’s point-based system).
Even without every tournament on board, the World Tour’s organizers have no doubts about their product’s sustainability. “VGBootCamp’s business model is incredibly sustainable,” Calvin Lofton said. “We can keep going for years and decades with what we’re doing. Ultimate is the best selling fighting game of all time, numbers are only going up, and we still have two years of DLC left. And then obviously Melee has already grown such a huge scene. So I really think these two together can grow into something just insanely big.”
When it comes to the pros, most players believe that a circuit would lift the entire ecosystem of Smash. “Having a circuit is a very tangible thing to present to sponsors,” Gonzales said. “It’ll give [pros] a greater chance of getting on a team, that will give them a reliable salary, and that salary, you could possibly justify it being higher than it’s been for Smashers for the last few years.”
The circuit has already sown widespread excitement: nearly every Smash stream now features the title “practicing for the World Tour,” and several retired pros, such as Kalindi “KJH” Jabari Henderson and James “Duck” Ma, have expressed interest in again taking up their controllers for the World Tour.
That enthusiasm faces a significant dampener in the short term. Coronavirus, already responsible for wrecking many a well-planned tournament around the globe, looms as a challenge for the infant Smash World Tour. Earlier Thursday, the Smash World Tour released an official statement announcing that all Platinum and Gold-level events for the months of March and April have either been canceled, rescheduled or had their points removed so competitors didn’t feel compelled to travel or risk falling behind on the leaderboard. Many Smash communities around the world have elected to cease hosting tournaments, casting a pall over what should have been a momentous launch.
As such, the World Tour now rests in a precarious balance. The good news is that competitive Smash has been walking the tightrope for as long as it’s been around. If it can get through this latest wobble, it may finally be the opportunity for the community to stand on firmer ground.
That in itself is a cause for Smashers to celebrate. Even the admittedly skeptical Fathieh is hopeful the World Tour could reinvigorate the scene. “Even though the Smash community was very healthy … many of the top pros in particular were very pessimistic about their future as a top player,” he said. “I think this at least gives them a little more juice to keep going. That’s already a success.”
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