After skipping 2016, long-running Super Smash Bros. tournament series Tipped Off is set to return to the state of Georgia this weekend for its twelfth instalment. But while the weeks leading up an event of this calibre are typically a time to promote the upcoming competition, the festivities have taken on a dour tone after the head organiser announced he was forced to sell off his house in order to fund the tournament.
Michael "FullMetal" Buchheit founded Tipped Off in 2006 during a much different era of Smash competition. Now, with a new release finally competing with the everlasting Melee, increased attendance, and behind-the-scenes involvement from Nintendo themselves, organising high-quality events has morphed from a relatively simple hobby to big business, and Buchheit came face-to-face with this evolution while planning Tipped Off 12 for 2017.
"I don't run tournaments with the goal of making money in mind, the goal is just to not lose money," he told us. "When I planned for Tipped Off 12, I was always aware that attendance could be low and that I could lose a chunk of money, but I never dreamed that it could be this low."
Tipped Off 12 registration stalled shortly after its announcement in May, plateauing at just 90 entrants. Since then, things have picked up, but the 325 players who plan to attend (down from 670 at the previous event in 2015) are far from the number the event needs to simply stay out of the red.
"My budget this year was planned for a break-even point of about 600 people," Buchheit said. "Had I hit those numbers, then none of this would have been an issue, and the event would have paid for itself."
He announced the sale of his house on November 1, sharing photos of his empty house on Facebook. He told the community in a separate post that he wasn't looking for handouts and chalked the whole debacle up to the inherent dangers of tournament organising. While many were supportive of the troubles Buchheit had encountered, a loud minority savaged his reputation as an organiser despite years of service to the Smash scene running tournaments along the US east coast.
Buchheit (middle) working with other staff members at Apex 2015 (photo c/o Robert Paul)
This year's Tipped Off, Buchheit explained, is a much larger affair than earlier iterations. The previous tournament, held at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center in Atlanta, had to deal with "old and faulty" electrical outlets. Their new venue at the Cobb Galleria has no such issues, and gives the organisers more than twice the square footage with which to work. This upgrade, along with hiring individual streamers for each game, raised Tipped Off's costs considerably, and it became clear that these costs would not be offset by entrance fees.
"The nature of the contract I signed with the Galleria indicates an increasing penalty depending on how close to the event you cancel," Buchheit continued. "We were at 90 registered for a long time. It would have probably not been a loss that required me to sell my house. Unfortunately, the way it panned out was that we had a number of attendees register at a time that did not necessarily indicate that it was going to be a flop, but it didn't look like it was going to be great."
In Buchheit's mind, he had two choices: Cancel the event, eating a $US12,000 ($15,618) loss in the process, or soldier on and lose about $US15,000 ($19,523). He went with the latter and, pulling a contingency plan that was always in the back of his mind, sold off his house and moved back in with his grandma, using the profits to fund his $US30,000 ($39,046) tournament. After the announcement, some in the community asked if they could provide support of their own through PayPal, and Buchheit grudgingly accepted. To date, he has received around $US600 ($781) from outside sources.
"I wasn't going to ask for crowdfunding to bail me out," he said. "I have the money in hand from the sale of my house, so it's not like the event won't happen without support. It will just be a loss."
Super Smash Bros. Melee grand finals from Tipped Off 11
That said, the events surrounding Tipped Off 12 have made Buchheit wary of jumping back into the world of tournament organising in the future. While he has no reservations continuing to plan local events on weekly and monthly bases, he would need "a pretty significant pledge of support" for Tipped Off 13 to become a reality.
When asked if skipping 2016 to focus on founding a LAN centre contributed to Tipped Off's downward trend, Buchheit agreed, saying, "[S]ometimes reputation doesn't mean anything. It doesn't matter that we've been holding it down for, like, 10 years. If someone joined the scene in 2016, they have no knowledge to make a judgement on whether or not they should go to this event. There's just so many high-quality events."
With the arrival of the glitz and glam of esports, putting on fighting game tournaments has become harder than simply renting out an Eagles Hall and asking friends to bring extra consoles. Competitors expect a lot out of the tournaments they attend, and even established events such as Tipped Off need to keep on the forefront of the community to remain relevant. Buchheit's story, while sad, is also a cautionary tale that the community is no longer what it once was, and grassroots organisations will need to learn to be sustainable before expanding to challenge the encroaching giants.