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350 Dollars. That’s what 7th place in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate at EVO 2019 nets you. For comparison with the other events at EVO, 7th place in Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition scored 1445 dollars (with over 100 fewer entrants). Then, there’s the 3 Million Dollar Fortnite cup. No Smash Tournament has ever cracked the Top 500 esports payouts. Compared to other earnings in esports, EVO 2019’s payouts were pennies at best.
EVO 2019 came and went earlier this month, featuring intense sets in games ranging from Dragon Ball FighterZ to Tekken 7, and of course, Smash Ultimate. Smash Ultimate ended up being the biggest Smash tournament ever with over 3,500 entrants, demonstrating that Smash is bigger than ever and not going anywhere soon. In fact, Smash Ultimate Top 8 ended up as the highest peak viewership of EVO ever recorded. As a whole? Smash is so huge that all the games games combined could be the biggest fighting franchise in esports.
There’s just one problem.
Compared to other esports, payouts aren’t high enough to make a living off of Smash.
Rod “Slasher” Breslau pointed out that placing Top 8 at EVO wouldn’t even net you a weekend stay at the Mandalay Bay. 350 dollars isn’t enough to pay for a weekend stay at most hotels in Las Vegas. It’s hardly enough to buy a plane ticket, and definitely not enough to buy one from overseas. At best, it’ll cover food and splitting rent at an AirBnB. Keep in mind, this is for getting 7th place in the biggest fighting game tournament in the world.
Money is one of competitive gaming’s most enticing incentives now. For a scene’s stability, payout matters. How do we increase incentives? The major way all esports have: Sponsorships.
While many have suggested increasing entrance fees, EVO’s venue fee already costs $45 per person, and entry fees for individual tournaments are $10 each. Some top players say the fee should become $20, but increasing the price of admission won’t improve the scene’s stability on its own. The solution for Super Smash Bros. and stability isn’t to charge more—It’s for Nintendo to start officially sponsoring Smash. Whether it’s through an official Pro Smash League or through prize pool increases, Nintendo could do more to support its players. While Nintendo is hosting a No Items Tournament, it’s still not enough to ensure long-term reliability.
But why should Nintendo throw money at Smash? One, the payouts are pennies. In fact, last year William “Leffen” Hjelte tweeted that he would give part of his prize money to whomever got 5th/7th place if he placed high at EVO 2019 (he was unable to attend due to passport issues). Other developers have done it and found great success, including Valve tossing over a million at the International Tournament Series for Dota, Riot Games throwing at least one million per year into their tournament series, and Epic Games dishing out one million per week on Fortnite. This is without crowdfunded money, which can be pooled through players paying for in-game cosmetics or other items that don’t affect gameplay. Sponsoring Smash would be a big advertising move for Nintendo, one that might attract other sponsors and grant more players opportunities to make a full-time move to Smash—basically a win-win.
Why hasn’t Nintendo bit the bullet? Perhaps it’s because embracing the Smash scene as is would threaten their public image.
Nintendo is known as a conservative and family-friendly company, and they work hard to maintain their reputation:
- A couple of years ago, an entire article surfaced, containing an arguably sensible list of things Nintendo does to maintain their image.
- Nintendo opted to quickly remove Christopher Niosi’s voice acting work from Fire Emblem: Three Houses after allegations of emotional abuse surfaced (on top of that, he also broke his NDA, which is enough for termination.)
- Nintendo's online services traditionally offer very few ways to communicate with other players, including no way to message friends on the Nintendo Switch. While communication features are standard on other consoles, the lack of messaging disables harassing on its own.
- When playing online, Nintendo’s official voice chat is done via their Nintendo Switch Online phone app to keep responsibility out of their hands and enable parental guardian features.
- While Nintendo lets other developers publish M-rated games on its consoles, the company itself does not frequently publish M-rated games. Out of all of Nintendo's published games, the only M-Rated games are Eternal Darkness, Geist, Bayonetta 2, and Devil’s Third. None of these were in-house, made by a 100% Nintendo-owned studio.
- The primary concern with the Wii U was making a console that isn’t too loud for families.
- Nintendo has censored games in the past to uphold its image.
- Taunting is now limited in Smash Ultimate’s online.
- The gaming giant even admitted they’re happy their competitors don't release family-friendly games.
The Smash community’s oftentimes scandalous image certainly won’t help persuade Nintendo to invest in our scene.
Let’s talk about the key figures in one of Smash’s most recent scandals: Zack “Captain Zack” Lauth and Elliot Bastien “Ally” Carroza-Oyarce.
For a brief recap, it came out that Ally, then age 28, “dated” a then-16-year-old Captain Zack. The story started about 5 months ago when Tamim Omary published details of the pair’s relationship on Twitter. At the time, both Captain Zack and Ally denied the claims. About a month ago, however, Ally came clean. Two days after, the Super Smash Bros. Code of Conduct panel responded by announcing their lifetime ban for Ally, indicating that Ally’s tweet was more than likely a response to the SSB Conduct Panel. Most of us thought it was all over until an anonymous whistleblower by the Twitter handle @SmashBrosTruth (account now deleted) detailed several tweets about match-fixing between Zack and Ally. Zack subsequently admitted to match-fixing tournaments through blackmailing Ally.
[Disclaimer: This author does not condone the intent of the @SmashBrosTruth account nor its actions, but must note its tweets since they prompted Zack’s admission.]
Two things to set straight: One, dating a minor under the age of consent and other scandals in the community are, unfortunately, more common than we would like to think. Two, this would be a PR nightmare for any company to handle, let alone a company that prides itself on its family friendly image.
The SSB Conduct Panel will be issuing a statement on Captain Zack soon. While a ban doesn’t reverse the damage done, it is the most important weapon the Smash Bros. Conduct Panel has in its arsenal. Because bracket-fixing was a rules violation, it would normally fall to The 5 Leaders of the Competition Committee to adjudicate. However, since this particular case was in an interpersonal context, The 5 are working together with the SSB Conduct Panel to issue a decision. It should be worth noting that match-fixing is typically met with a lifetime ban in other esports scenes, including StarCraft and Dota 2.
If you thought the ride was over, think again. Ally is trying to appeal his ban. While many community members find this distasteful, appeal attempts are required for proper legal protocol.
So, what is the SSB Conduct Panel? The SSB Conduct Panel is a group of (mostly anonymous) volunteers who work towards stopping harassment and making the Smash scene a safer place to all attendees. The Code of Conduct came as a result of the Harassment Task Force. 12/35 people who have worked on the Harassment Task Force or the Code of Conduct have gone public, including active members such as Sheridan “Dr. Z” Zalewiski (a founding member of the Harassment Task Force, Head TO of Genesis, and one of The Five), Christina “SCPeanut” Kelly (Professional esports editor, Blizzard alumni), and Kyle “Dr. Piggy” Nolla, the SSB Conduct Panel’s director. For more information about the Harassment Task Force, this article by Steven T. Wright works as a good introduction.
While the SSB Conduct Panel does tremendous and thankless work, Smash is becoming a massive challenge to manage. With over 10,000 people at this year’s Super Smash Con, Smash is no longer some small “grassroots” scene.
This is where Nintendo could come in. If an accused decides to put a legal threat against the SSB Conduct Panel, the panel will potentially have to take on a lawsuit. If, on the other hand, Nintendo comes in and bans a player (similar to Capcom Pro Tour, Tekken World Tour, and Mortal Kombat Pro Kompetition) it adds teeth these expulsions. If an event chooses to unban a player, they would lose out on their theoretical Nintendo Cup status and sponsorship money.
Over the past year or so, there have been allegations against Nightmare, Pierce, Mafia, Eikelmann, and Promaelia (the most recent one) in addition to Bocchi being bullied off of Twitter after beating Ally. Sometime later her history of racist remarks came to light. Osiris197 and RiotLettuce got into a fistfight at CEO 2019. Trif had a biscuit thrown at him at Fete; Hungrybox had a crab thrown at him (though the crab didn’t hit him). That’s just scraping the surface. I’m absolutely positive I’ve forgotten half a dozen more.
It’s not just about maintaining an image, either. A lot of young people attend Smash tournaments. Nintendo values the safety of everyone at the venue; gaming prowess is irrelevant. Given Nintendo’s public scandals with other games show us that Nintendo, like any other large corporation, wants nothing to do with any negative publicity.
Many of us watch these scandals unfold through twitlongers and Reddit posts, but they involve more than just names on a screen. These are real people, and the actions and consequences of these scandals—in particular, sexual assault and grooming—are already harrowing experiences for the victims. Double that with the amount of attention victims receive online when their cases come out and it’s beyond horrifying. Imagine being in a venue and knowing some people there side with your rapist over you. Imagine having your abuser be allowed to compete while you have to stay silent.
While we don’t have a witness statement from Captain Zack, nor do we know if any explicit violence occurred, we do have other victim statements that serve as a reminder that Smash isn’t just a game—there are real people involved. Some of these statements include the victim from Vikram “Nightmare” Bassi’s case, who wished to remain anonymous but allowed Emily “emilywaves” Sun, a founding member of the Harassment Task Force, to share a portion of her explicitly detailed impact statement. Statements like these serve to remind us that victims are real people who have to deal with trauma for the rest of their lives. The victim from James “Mafia” Lauerman’s case came forward. Ian “Eikelmann” Mooney had an entire document surface about him, including a post from his ex-partner detailing his abusive nature. The statement from that former partner was released a full three years before he was banned.
As stated strongly by Dr. Piggy, “the Code of Conduct exists to protect victims. It exists to do good. I don’t know how else to say it. I have paid in blood, sweat, my own money, and tears in the hopes that one more girl doesn’t have to face her rapist in bracket.”
This isn’t just a matter of banning problematic players; it’s about how we react to scandals and how they’re often mishandled. The scandal with Nightmare should have ended on July 16th, but it took until September 24th because top community figures protected him. Even after “Osiris197” got into a fist fight with "RiotLettuce", it still took public outrage for him to be banned from Super Smash Con. CaptainZack was banned from competing at Super Smash Con, and 2GG indefinitely banned him from competing in their events. However, Zack still wasn’t barred from EVO (given the date was August 2nd, it might’ve been too late to evaluate a DQ), and he hasn’t received any global ban while investigations are ongoing. The Panda Global Power Rankings (PRGU) still featured both Captain Zack (#32), and Ally (#6), though the latter’s actual playercard was omitted. It should also be noted that, at the time of the PRGU, the match-fixing was not public information.
It’s about more than just sponsorship deals; it’s about our ethics. It’s about the safety of our events and players. What do we value more as a community? The possibility of more stability and growth for Smash, or defending yet another scandal? Do we really want to throw people into an environment where they feel unsafe? What does it say about us for being so reluctant to hold people accountable? Whether it’s TO’s who don’t want to ban top players, or people who have never been a victim of saying “Let’s just keep this about the game,” our community’s culture takes no strong stance on restricting access to harmful players in the scene. The Smash community wants to talk about making itself friendlier towards women and attract new players from all places and of all ages, but we can’t even come together on pedophiles and match-fixing.
Esports in general is no stranger to scandals. There have been several including a short list of insane esports scandals, a journalist getting punched in the face, StarCraft 2's match-fixing scandal, a Dota 2 Team disqualified over Macros, League of Legends Tournament scandals, domestic violence charges against Infiltration, two women claiming they were sexually assaulted at EVO, and multiple sexual misconduct allegations. Even gaming in general is no stranger to these types of controversy— Twitch having to deal with many streamers, Billy Mitchell caught cheating, and controversies within the speedrunning community, prompting Games Done Quick to ban SHiFT and several other speedrunners. There’s even a Wikipedia page that lists off public controversies in gaming. Throw a rock in any corner of games, and it’ll be crawling with scandals.
What makes our scandals so different, then? Our reactions to them. Being willing to air our dirty laundry is a start to fixing our problems, but in doing so, it’s revealed our lack of unity and stability.
If, say, a top player had hit HungryBox with a crab, would the incident have prompted the same reaction? What if a random player at locals had allegations on them instead of Nightmare or Mafia, would the narrative remain the same? What if Captain Zack wasn’t a top player? If he were some random person who always went 0-2 in bracket, more people would be calling for unbanning Ally and banning Zack.
While Ally has already been banned by the Conduct Panel, Captain Zack’s match-fixing is being compared to Mew2King and ADHD at the 2010 MLG Pro Circuit. Their situations are a bit different, though; Mew2King claimed he did not deliberately throw the matches, and that ADHD agreed to split the prize money. They had done so before, and the results of this match were still legitimate. Meanwhile, Ally was told to throw against Zackray and Nairo.
We can draw comparisons from past events, but there’s one major difference: these happened before esports became big. Heck, they were before we had a Conduct Panel and before the remotest possibility of Nintendo considering sponsoring the scene. Basically, that was then, and this is now.
As it stands, Smash doesn’t really have a voice of reason. Nintendo hasn’t united us under one flag, and so there is no true unity. Many grassroots TO’s and such would argue that they like the community with no “corporate meddling,” but a lack of corporate meddling has also meant no guidance or unity, which means less powerful players (LBGTQ+, Women, People of Color, 0-2ers) suffer due to natural power imbalances in a community that has no safety net for them. The way issues are dealt with currently? Top community figures will speak out at some point when they’re required to, maybe, and it’s possible that most players may come to an agreement... eventually. Thus these cases end up spiraling into chaos fire, Omni posts a video about it, and after a couple of weeks, it’s replaced with a new public scandal.
This creates our conundrum: Smash is quickly outgrowing its grassroots, and Nintendo could help anchor it. If we want Nintendo’s sponsorship, we need to improve our community’s image. While the Conduct Panel should pursue its investigations in a cautious and calculated manner, it should not stop other figures and TO’s from taking their own actions. Sometimes handling scandals means bans, including temporary bans while investigations are conducted. When it comes to the rest of the community, unless necessary, don’t actively harass people involved or speculate on filling in the story without proof —that can be “fun” at first, but it has chaotic long-term effects, including misinformation getting spread and affecting people’s lives. Talking about situations of misconduct may cause harm, but it also means that people have the information necessary to be wary of bad actors. If we truly want stability, we're going to need more accountability, both from ourselves and from leaders in the community.
To quote Dr. Piggy before closing,
“You are as responsible for player misconduct and shaping your community’s culture as you are for paying out Top 8 or ensuring your tourney has enough setups. You can’t be a TO and ignore when a girl comes to you about a sexual assault, just like you can’t ignore bracket seeding. If you don’t take that responsibility, no one else will. Many TOs haven’t and that’s how our community ends up harboring toxic and abusive people.”
I do hope I get one point across, at least, for when that next time comes:
We can’t just “keep this about the game.” forever. There’s more to value the community’s members than just hitting buttons.