Super Smash Bros. for Wii U often toils in the shadow of its predecessor, the GameCube classic Melee. Yet in the backyard of the live music capitol of the world, surrounded by more established games, DreamHack Austin showcased a $US10,000 ($13,535) Smash 4 tournament that was electric to watch. It seemed a premonition of greater things to come for Smash 4, even as it continues to feel some growing pains.
Image credit: Adela Sznajder, DreamHack
The notion of competitive Smash has, to most mainstream spectators, often meant Melee plus-one, with tournaments often featuring the newest iteration alongside the 16-year-old game. There were no guarantees that Smash 4 would survive and grow. The game launched in 2014, but DreamHack tournament organiser Bassem "Bear" Dahdouh pointed to 2016's Genesis 3 as the beginning of Smash 4's rise to prominence.
"That stage production, that grand theatre, the ending of it with Zero winning was definitely a solidification of how Smash 4 can share the stage in general," said Dahdouh. On the road to Genesis 3, Gonzalo "Zero" Barrios had risen to the top of the scene, a winning streak that included tournaments like Apex, CEO and Evo, even having bounties put out for anyone who could take a set off him. Though he lost to Nairo at MLG 2015, his return in Genesis 3 wasn't just the return of a king -- it was proof that a Smash 4 tournament, in production and hype, could share or even command the stage rather than borrow it from Melee.
For a new generation of players, Smash 4 is not only fresh and expanding, but welcoming. At DreamHack, rows of Smash machines were always occupied by excited players, warming up for their first-ever tournament games and hoping to challenge pros like Elliot Bastien "Ally" Carroza-Oyarce to a match. New players are the lifeblood of a growing competitive scene, and Smash 4 is uniquely welcoming due to how frequently upsets occur.
"Because of how the game is hard to be consistent at, it's one of the most entertaining to watch," said Oyarce. "You never know who's going to lose. You can see the best player lose to someone because of a few mistakes. That's not something you see in many other games now. In Melee, you have the top eight who are just going to be in the top eight, maybe in different orders. But that's what I think this game is beautiful for, you always see some new stuff that can actually clutch out sets."
The notion of a set pantheon of players has been a defining characteristic of Melee's scene for some time, even naming those top pros "The Five Gods". In contrast, Smash 4 is defined by how easy it is for its gods to fall. Where the storylines once focused on TSM's Zero and his contention with Ally for the top spot, now it's a surprise when a top-eight turns out as seeded.
Robert Paul, DreamHack
Talking to top players and doubles team Eric "ESAM" Lew and Jestise "MVD" Negron, they believe the growth of Smash 4 is a result of the turnover at the top level.
"It was a big story at CEO Dreamland that the top eight looked 'normal'. Civil War had Fatality and T, Hikaru, normalcy doesn't happen as much any more," said Lew. "The game's growing, the game's getting better, people are optimising their punishes. There's a bunch of little things people are discovering and it's pushing the meta pretty fast."
"People are catching up," Negron chimed in. "Catching up to Zero, basically."
Though new players are pouring in, the questionable lack of publisher support from Nintendo is obvious in the Smash scene. Players and pundits alike were quick to point to the support Capcom gives Street Fighter 5, with its Pro Tour. Nintendo, meanwhile, is a distant publisher, supporting in less direct ways than most esports publishers.
"Obviously they have tweeted about it," said Lew.
"Yeah, that's cool," replied Negron.
"Yeah that's nice, but it's different from Capcom," added Lew. "Dumping $20,000 into a tournament and having a giant tournament and flying out everyone, it's not the same level of support. It's like, 'Oh there's Switches here, that's cool.'"
But, Negron contends, Smash doesn't necessarily need the support. In fact, despite recent issues with tournaments struggling to break even, many pros argued that Smash 4 has persevered just fine without the backing of a big name.
Even patch notes, the log of changes that publishers often release for the competitive community to reference every time a balance update is issued for the game, is a community effort, as data miners and professional players pore over each patch like scientists in a laboratory.
"The update will come and it's like, 'we balanced gameplay and fixed online issues.' Balanced gameplay, what does that mean?" said Negron. "This doesn't kill any more, or this hitbox changed, or that animation's a little different. So throughout the life of Smash 4, the patches we've gotten, we've figured out all the changes ourselves and we have data miners that help. It would be helpful if Nintendo told us what changed, but if another patch happened, if a Smash 4 Deluxe came out and there was a patch, we would figure it out."
Robert Paul, DreamHack
In the absence of the strict bindings of a larger corporation, the Smash 4 scene fosters the kind of passion that comes from having to persevere together. Those competing, organising and broadcasting this game have been building it up from the grass, and those roots come to fruition in events like Genesis, Apex, Shine, Smash Con and the litany of community tournaments around the world.
For Smash 4 to succeed on a larger scale, there needs to be a move towards a more established circuit of tournaments, a community effort both organisers and players are interested in. An annual circuit means more centralised events, stable turnouts, and a structure that just doesn't currently exist. A circuit would also establish an off-season, something all players are very interested in. The problem of player burnout is real in all esports, especially in those that have no real offseason to speak of, like Smash 4.
As it stands, Smash 4's competitive landscape consists of a smattering of majors across the US, and even the world. But while players want more structure, they also expressed a desire to keep Smash 4 spread across the nation. The open nature of pool-based tournaments like Smash 4's means that any Average Joe can show up and compete, and regional tournaments allow the younger-skewing playerbase to foster their own scenes, and eventually debut at majors like Dreamland and DreamHack.
It is local scenes that give rise to players like Mason "Locus" Charlton, a Vancouver-based player whose crushing Ryu play elevated him into the top eight of DreamHack Austin. Despite being a free agent, Charlton has taken sets off players like Ally, Nairo, and Mr R, some of the best in the game. A tournament circuit wouldn't just mean stability for professional players, but hopes that growing talent like Charlton -- who pays his own way to events with no guarantee of winning -- might one day compete full-time.
"You have to be very good at the game to actually make it your living," said Charlton. "There aren't many people who do that comfortably, even the sponsored players hardly do that comfortably right now, so I'm really hoping that the game will continue to grow and become something that people can do professionally as their living."
For organisers, players and spectators, all roads lead to Las Vegas in July, where Smash 4 will make its debut at the Evolution Championship Series -- or EVO 2017 -- Sunday finals. Smash 4 will be featured on the stage at Mandalay Bay, in front of thousands in attendance and streaming online. For a growing scene, visibility is everything. More eyes means more players, more fans, and hopefully more sponsors, which will professionalise Smash 4. Every player I talked to at DreamHack Austin had EVO on their mind, thinking about potential viewership records, placement in the day, and competing on the stage themselves.
"We're going to have a good timeslot, we're going to have new eyes, and EVO is all about new eyes watching games," said Lew. "You wake up at 12AM. East Coast time and you just sit down and watch EVO Sunday. It's what you do."
"It's like the Superbowl," said Negron.
"Like, everyone watches the Cubs-Indians game seven," replied Lew.
It's a make-or-break moment, but hopes are high. Smash 4 has made it this far; why not farther?