One of the world's top Super Smash Bros. players recently knocked Nintendo for not sufficiently supporting the scene and said he hoped that Nintendo heard him. Last week in Los Angeles, they did — after we played a clip of his speech to Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime.
Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, a top-three-ranked Super Smash Bros. Melee pro, called Nintendo out a couple of weeks ago in his victory speech at Wisconsin tournament Smash 'N' Splash 3: "A certain company that acknowledges us but refuses to push us — I hope you're listening right now, because I want you to hear this," he said, as a room packed with players and fans cheered. "I want you to hear the amount of people who support this league, the amount of people who want this to be a lifestyle for people. This is not just a video game. This is a lifestyle! All right?"
Listening to a recording of Debiedma's entreaty in a Los Angeles meeting room at E3 last week, Fils-Aime said: "I love passionate Smash fans."
I'd played the clip for Fils-Aime while we were in the midst of discussing Nintendo's approach to competitive gaming. The company held tournaments for its new and upcoming Switch games all week in Los Angeles, using the events to hype the multiplayer potential of Arms, Splatoon 2 and Pokken Tournament Deluxe. In recent years, it has also run Smash Bros. tournaments, including one where Hungrybox and Fils-Aime faced off. Despite those flashy Nintendo-backed events, Fils-Aime said Nintendo mostly wants to keep things grassroots.
"We've been in this social competitive space for a long time," Fils-Aime said. "Smash Bros. Melee has been a mainstay in the competitive gaming space for a long time. What we're doing — and our take on his space is we want to encourage the community. We want to enable them to put on tournaments and to have fun and for the players themselves to participate in these types of situations. That's our view of this space."
Fils-Aime and Hungrybox faced off in Smash Bros. at the 2015 Nintendo World Championships, which were held in conjunction with that year's E3.
Nintendo has officially backed the inclusion of Smash Bros. games at EVO, the world's biggest fighting game tournament, long after the series became an unofficial mainstay there. It's done the same for the Apex tournament. Debiedma, however, is among the players asking Nintendo to do more. I pressed Fils-Aime about what he made of the Smash pro's statement.
"Look, we love Hungrybox," Fils-Aime said. "We had him in our tournaments. There is a passion in the Smash Bros. community which is fantastic. When he talks about lack of support, I'm not quite sure what he's alluding to."
"I will say this," he added. "Five, six, seven years ago, as we engaged with our developers and talked to them about Smash Bros. and what was happening, there was not a lot of understanding about this space. And it's been people like [Nintendo of America's] Bill Trinen and JC Rodrigo and all of these folks who understand the space that have helped us educate our company and educate our developers around the benefits of engaging with the community and empowering and enabling this to happen.
"It was with the most recent Smash Bros. that we've done more tournaments and we're supporting both the Melee community as well as the Smash Bros. Wii U community and they're both vibrant and are continuing to grow."
Since Fils-Aime wasn't sure what Hungrybox wanted Nintendo to do, I asked the player to explain himself further. He did, over email:
What I meant by 'push' was not to 'challenge,' but to support.
I feel that Nintendo could actually use the cult following that competitive Smash has accrued to their benefit. Similar to how Capcom runs the Capcom Cup circuit, it allows:
a) a larger audience be exposed to competitive gaming (many casual gamers have no idea it exists)
b) have potential for a large worldwide circuit + having it be broadcast on cable networks (see: ELEAGUE)
c) have a massive bolster in Smash popularity if it came to re-releasing Virtual Console titles and ESPECIALLY a Smash 4 Port to the Switch
d) open the doors to an entirely new branch of Nintendo (Nintendo Versus hinted at this, but to make it something that people could earn money from is a whole new animal)
Nintendo just doesn't want to do a league. Fils-Aime said as much to me when describing the company's philosophy about competitive gaming: "It's community-oriented. It's enabling the community to drive it forward. We have relationships, obviously, with entities like Evo and Battlefly. We want to do this much more at a grassroots level than others' visions around leagues and big up-front payments and things of that nature."
Hungrybox had already seen Nintendo downplay the idea of making an official league, so he's not expecting it to happen, certainly not for Melee, which isn't even the Smash game that Nintendo seems most interested in promoting.
"I hope the best for the future and I respect Reggie and the Nintendo execs more than words can describe," he said. "It just is always a dismay for our parent company to not see a venture in the same golden light we've been viewing it for over a decade."