Super Smash Bros. Brawl is the problem child of the Smash franchise — at least when it comes to its esports scene. Not as quaint as Smash 64, as technically rich as Melee, or as polished as Smash 4, Brawl is considered a fun but flawed game exclusively for casual players. So, while other competitive Smash scenes have blossomed over the years, Brawl's has mostly festered.
Brawl was never intended to be an esports phenomenon, but a small, passionate grassroots movement is stubbornly keeping the game's pro scene alive. They're fighting against Brawl's relative unpopularity and some pretty questionable mechanics, but they adamantly argue that Brawl is ready for a resurgence.
Top-ranked Brawl player Vishal "V115" Balaram first stumbled upon Brawl's competitive scene months after its release in 2008. He was in high school, and every Friday he'd head to his buddy's house after class to train. He studied videos of the character ROB's Japanese tournament plays on YouTube. And over the next few years, he climbed to the top of Brawl's placement charts, regularly stealing top five rankings.
"What I love about Brawl is that the focus is constantly on making your own decisions, and trying to address/predict your opponent's decisions," he told me.
In 2014, his peers migrated to Smash 4 and didn't look back. Players stuck their nose up at the game's more outdated iteration. Comparatively, Brawl moves at a glacial pace, they argued, and has an infuriating "tripping" mechanic. Also, there's no "hitstun" mechanic to support combos and character imbalances abound. Balaram watched them go, but clung onto Brawl. Smash 4's combo system relies too much on memorisation, he says, at the expense of playing mind games. Also, in his opinion, Smash 4's "Rage" mechanic, which boosts damaged players' knockback attacks, skews games way more than tripping.
While he mourns his opponents moving on, he doesn't mind that today's Brawl entrant pools are slim. "What I care about," he explains, "is competing with the best. It was never about the money... I don't want to beat washed-up legends. I want to actually be the best."
Nintendo experimented with Brawl's less competitive — or, more random — mechanics to draw in casual players. Smash Director Masahiro Sakurai told Kotaku's Jason Schreier prior to Smash 4's release that "when it came around to making Brawl, this was a game that was targeting a Wii audience where there were a lot of beginner players, so it sort of leaned a little bit more in that direction". Brawl's "Smash ball", a floating orb that unlocks characters' semi-lethal "ultimate attacks", gave new players a fun, random chance to turn the tables mid-match. In 2008, at world-class fighting games tournament EVO, the ruleset included Smash balls. Brawl was never featured there again — its "randomness" mechanics were considered antagonistic to its competitive potential.
Today, the pro scene Balaram competes in is an occasional side-show to the "real" competitive Smash games, Melee and Smash 4. Max, Balaran says, a tournament will attract 200 contenders. Some days, he longs to compete on the big stage. Every day, he wishes he could make a career out of Brawl. With $US50 ($66) pools, he wouldn't even be able to survive. He's a cook at two different restaurants and competes at whatever Brawl tournament he can get to.
Btw just bought my plane ticket for CEO Dreamland, I wanna go mainly for Brawl :)
— ANTi (@Anti) April 3, 2017
Last month, Brawl had a rare moment in the competitive spotlight at Florida's CEO Dreamland tournament. Organiser Alex Jebailey tweeted that if he got 5000 retweets, he'd add at Brawl to the lineup. The message got 5500 retweets. Jason "Anti" Bates, a famous Smash 4 player, announced that he'd be flying out to Florida to compete at Brawl (although he only competed at Smash 4, his Twitter bio still reads "Pro Brawl player"). Saleem "Salem" Young and Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada, two veteran Brawl players who migrated to Smash 4, drew in wide interest with their dynamic, powerhouse sets. Balaram placed second.
The event cost Jebailey's CEO Gaming $US20,000 ($26,555). But Brawl had some hype sets, namely, in the loser's Quarters — five suspenseful games with two characters, Snake and Wolf, who didn't resurface in Smash 4:
Brawl's subreddit and Discord channel lit up. Players who'd stuck their nose up at the game glanced at the archived set footage. Putting aside stock Brawl criticisms, many recognised that, despite its lack of money and mainstream hype, Brawl doesn't lack in entertainment value.
Stef "Pidge_Zero" Kischak, who organises Brawl tournaments, told me that because Brawl winnings are so meagre, players can take more gameplay risks. So, although a main complaint about Brawl is its slow, "campy" play, when there isn't money at stake, players can be a bit more aggressive. At Dreamland, she says, "These players are putting on this show, but you can tell they're having so much fun. No money or sponsorships are on the line with Brawl. It's all old friends who built the foundation of this community together... That's not to say that players don't enjoy playing more lucrative games, but it's just a very kind of je-ne-sais-quoi difference."
The cards are stacked against Brawl's future as an esport, but that may be its greatest asset. Lance "KVLT" Kregel, who hosts Brawl tournaments throughout Texas, told me that because Brawl's not doing so great on a professional level, it may be ripe for an influx of new players, and therefore, new talent: "Pretty much any sort of revival begins as a grassroots movement," he said. Fewer players are likely to be intimidated by high skill ceilings because today's top Smash players are, for the most part, focused on Smash 4 and Melee. That leaves room for them to hone their skills in Brawl's small competitive pool.
For a lot of Brawlpologists — forgive me — nostalgia is undeniably a factor in wanting the game to resurface. Most pro Smash players are in their mid-20s, so they would have been playing Brawl back in high school. That's when they had a lot of free time and a lot of friends.
Ten years post-release, Brawl is ready for an emotional resurgence outside its diehard community. For new players, Kregel says, a competitive Brawl scene is "something new for them to see. Regardless of whether they end up being enthralled by Brawl or rejecting it, we're at least showing them that we're here. Still playing."