To show off the highly anticipated Switch version of Super Smash Bros., Nintendo is holding a competitive tournament at E3 next week — just like it did when the series came to the Wii U in 2014. Whereas many big-name developers are investing huge sums of money in professional leagues, Nintendo is taking a characteristically different approach to e-sports.
While the company has been expanding its competitive gaming efforts over the last few years, it remains comparatively hands-off, except for E3, where it uses e-sports tournaments to highlight its biggest games. “Our focus really is on how can the game become the focal point of that competitive fun for all sorts of players,” says Bill Trinen, the Nintendo product marketing director who has spearheaded much of the company’s e-sports efforts, “and how can we bring more players into that competitive scene.”
E3 2018 will feature both the Splatoon World Championship and the Super Smash Bros. Invitational 2018, which will be part of the anticipated reveal of the Switch brawler (you can watch both right here). This follows Splatoon and Arms tournaments from last year. Prior to that, the company brought back the ‘90s-centric Nintendo World Championship to E3 in 2015, and things really kicked off with the first Smash Bros. invitational in 2014.
The somewhat scattershot nature of the events is different than, say, the structure of the Overwatch League or the majors system for Dota 2. They’re small steps, but they represent a big change for the company, which previously appeared uninterested in the e-sports space. For instance, Nintendo has had an infamously rocky relationship with the very dedicated competitive Smash Bros. community over the years. But that tension has eased somewhat as the company has dedicated resources to supporting notable fighting game tournaments like EVO, as well as putting on its own events.
Part of the reason for this slow growth in competitive gaming is the fact that Nintendo doesn’t actually have a dedicated internal e-sports group. Instead, much of the effort is helmed by Treehouse, Nintendo of America’s product development division. This group works alongside marketing teams as well as the game developers when necessary, and the size of the group varies depending on the projects in development. “It’s not so much that there’s one team that handles everything. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach when we’re working on these,” says Trinen. In addition to its big E3 showcase tournaments, the company also puts on smaller competitive events at shows like Comic Con.
The Smash Bros. tournament at this year’s E3 will feature eight different players from around the world (though, notably, not a single woman is on the roster), and much of the structure was designed around feedback from the 2014 invitational. There’s a smaller lineup of pros, for instance, and a new double-elimination structure, aimed at ensuring participants get lots of stage time. The lineup is also split between the two very active groups in the Smash Bros. community: those who play the most recent game on the Wii U, and those who have stuck with Melee on the Gamecube. “That gives us an opportunity to show off high-level play, but also have matches that you won’t see at a normal tournament,” says Trinen.
Nintendo says it’s continuing to work with tournament organizers and community groups, along with partners like Twitch, to ensure a healthy competitive scene for these games outside of its E3 showcases. But it’s still relatively early in the process. “We’ve started dabbling in how we’re supporting tournaments and the community, and we’re continuing to talk with potential partners about what else we could be doing or where else we could focus,” explains Trinen.
While it’s unlikely we’ll see something like a Nintendo-backed pro league for Splatoon anytime soon, these kinds of changes are still encouraging for the notoriously slow-moving company. And given Nintendo’s history of going against the grain, it’s no surprise that now that it’s finally taking e-sports more seriously, it’s doing so in a very different way compared to its competitors.