Nintendo Is Hurting Itself and Its Most Devoted Consumers
By Alex Tu
Traditional sports, such as basketball and baseball, share many similarities with esports, those video games turned spectator sports where professional players compete for dominance and fame before entire stadiums full of onlookers. Almost any aspect of traditional sports has its parallel in esports, from cameramen who ensure that focus is drawn to the most meaningful part of the action, to commentators who drive up excitement with their expertise and play-by-play, to fanbases incredibly dedicated to a particular player or team. One of the most prominent differences between these two worlds, however, is the issue of intellectual property. Behind any esports title, there is a company that developed it and is thus the owner of the video game underlying the esport. Riot Games owns League of Legends. Blizzard owns Hearthstone, Overwatch, and Starcraft. Anyone can play a game of soccer or hockey without considering problems regarding licensing or copyright infringement. The same is not true for esports.
Nintendo, developer of the fighting game series Super Smash Bros., (Smash) has had a complicated relationship with Smash’s competitive playerbase. Competitive Smash players are devoted, practicing many hours and often travelling to compete in Melee tournaments, a long-beloved entry in the series released before the age of online play. Tournament organizers pour themselves into ensuring a good experience at events. In contrast, Nintendo has done relatively little to support competitive play of its games, especially when compared to other prominent esports developers such as Riot Games, who has internalized the costs of and invested over $100 million annually into its professional esports division for League of Legends. In fact, Nintendo has frequently worked against the Smash competitive scene. In 2013, Nintendo exerted its copyright authority to shut down a Melee tournament taking place at the Evolution Championship Series (EVO)—known for running the largest and longest-running fighting game tournaments in the world—only relenting after tournament organizers and consumers pressured Nintendo to allow the tournament to continue.
More recently, in light of COVID-19, the Big House tournament, an annual Melee tournament announced its decision to operate its 2020 event remotely, using a modification, Slippi, which allows the normally local-only game to be played over the internet. After months of planning, organizers were forced to cancel the event two weeks prior to its would-be start date, as Nintendo had sent a cease-and-desist letter, citing piracy concerns connected with the Slippi mod.
Nintendo has effectively given players an ultimatum as far as competitive Melee goes: you can play locally, putting yourself and others at risk of contracting COVID-19, or you can not play at all. The risk that Nintendo loses revenue from this so-called “piracy” is minimal to nothing. Super Smash Bros. Melee was released in 2001, nearly two decades ago, and despite the love it receives from fans, Nintendo has not made known any plans to re-release it. Moreover, it seems unlikely that players who play competitively, for money, don’t already themselves own copies of the game.
Nintendo’s statement that it “appreciates the love and dedication the fighting game community has for the Super Smash Bros. series” seems in total opposition to its actions. Nintendo might be distancing itself from a community that has recently come under fire from a sling of allegations, or it might be trying to promote itself as a casual, rather than competitive, game developer. Whatever the case may be, it is hurting a community. It is undoing countless hours of work by tournament organizers. And it is stopping people from playing a game they love, during a time when they might need it the most.
Alex Tu is a 2L from Midwest City, Oklahoma, who graduates in May 2022. He hopes to work in criminal prosecution and enjoys tabletop games, competitive video games, and shoutcasting League of Legends.
You can download a copy of Alex’s post here.