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Three Days, Three ‘Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’ Events: Inside the World of Tournament Organizers

Only a few video games can be genuinely called a “phenomenon.” And even for those, it’s not until the dust of anticipation and the industry’s hype-driven marketing settles, that the true test of endurance begins, not only for the game but also for the loyal fans that dedicate themselves to it.

Almost twenty years to the date since its initial release, family-friendly fighting game “Super Smash Bro. Ultimate,” published by gaming behemoth Nintendo, is arguably more than a phenomenon. Nintendo released “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate,” the latest iteration in the franchise, on Dec. 7 to warm reception from critics, and it’s the fastest-selling boxed game in the UK on its native and only platform, the Nintendo Switch.

The enthusiasm for the game translated well in person, and from day one, there were people ready to dive into the game in the company of others. In competitive scenes around New York City and Philadelphia, tournament organizers, often called just “TOs,” were putting in the work to bring together local fans. They knew, months beforehand, the anticipation behind Ultimate and the unifying power that “Smash” holds.

In “Smash Ultimate’s” launch weekend alone a slew of events took place up and down the Northeast from small local tournaments, simply dubbed “locals,” to friendly “Smashfests” to bar parties scattered throughout the NYC tri-state area. Any “Smash” fan that wanted something to do could find it that weekend.

New York
In New York City, a three-day Smashfest event panned out in an unassuming Chinatown building. XenoZero, a card game, and hobby shop had two rows of Nintendo Switches set up in the back half of its mid-sized, second-floor shop. The day started off slow — it was a Friday — but by the early evening, it was hard to find the space for a casual match in the hobby shop. Much of the buzz among those packed into the Chinatown location was about unlocking characters. “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” starts with eight characters to play with, requiring players to unlock the other 70 or so. The approach created an interesting atmosphere in the gathering — one attendee walking around the collection of Nintendo Switches kept shouting, “Do any of these got Snake?”

Later in the event, the organizers, The House of 3000, starting running a stream of tiny tournaments, which they dubbed “mini-brackets.” Each used a different set of rules. “Smash” itself lacks official rules, so organizers must set these up themselves once a new game is released.

The goal was to figure out what rules and in-game “stages” worked best for a tournament, explained Dillon “Helpr” Rubin, who focuses on the logistics of these events. If players run down the in-game timer, they need to increase the time. If a stage doesn’t allow characters to grab on persistently, it might get banned. As a competitive organization responsible for high-caliber events, House of 3000 needs to plan for consistency across games, much in the same way one measures a swimming pool or a football, or an event plays within “regulation time.”

As one of the more well-known Smash event organizing groups in NYC, House of 3000 has their work cut out for them. The group started as a group of friends around 2007, during the era of “Super Smash Bros Brawl.” The crew faced off against other crews at events. They would often play at the house of Deven “Deven3000” Rubin—hence the name—and eventually garnered a reputation for both their skill and capacity to organize events. With the combined skills of the House’s leads, they organized events more formally over the years, and eventually became a tournament organizer.

They’ve been hosting events here at XenoZero for two years now, and they feel they’ve garnered a reputation and view themselves as one of the more “stacked” locations, meaning they have a relatively higher turnout of skilled players compared to other tournaments. Between the location and the legacy, a lot of players travel for their weekly local events, says Dillon, who focuses on the logistics of those gatherings.

“We have, like, a few Jersey people come, the Long Island people come, and the city people who don’t go anywhere else because we don’t have cars,” Dillon explains, “we have to come here, so it winds up being a pretty significant local.”

With players raring to go from day one, events like this were a solid mix of community and competition, bringing together the top players for a weekend of pure “Smash.” Players had friendly, lively chats about characters’ power or lack thereof, and how many they had managed to unlock on these consoles and their own.

New Jersey
The conversations and character-unlocking screens were also a familiar sight at another gathering, The Salty Joystiq, far south in Vineland, NJ. On Saturday night, they held an overnight “lock-in,” where the venue and about eight players stayed up to play the game.

This LAN cafe is an attempt to fill a void in New Jersey’s video gaming scene, not necessarily for a market but instead a community. It appears to be South Jersey’s only “LAN cafe,” the semi-official term for an Internet cafe geared towards video gamers. It started in 2003, when Matthew J. Boone, the owner, needed a place to play “Street Fighter IV,” trying to avoid the laggy online play. It grew into a small, local competitive movement in an empty venue his mother owned. Once that venue got torn down, he made the choice to build the community into something more substantial. He found a new office space to work it into, and the cafe opened up in 2016.

Saturday night’s event was a small testament to what Boone built, with about two dozen players showing up to test out the fresh game. At about midnight, the location ran a competition for two-versus-two matches, or “doubles,” but otherwise the evening was relatively friendly. In making this event, Boone says he was inspired by the size and dedication of the tri-state area.

“Salty started with traditional fighting games, but we received most of our support from the Smash community,” he told Variety over email after the event. When there are competitive events, Boone says, between students’ schedules and their own, events can fluctuate from 12 to over 50 players.  “So, with the release of a new ‘Smash’ game, we had to make sure we hosted something special for the community. We also wanted to help people unlock characters, with there being so many in the game.”

Throughout the night, in-game events to unlock the character popped up on screens across the small venue. Much like at XenoZero, the talk was about characters and stages, plus potential future content for the game. It was a night to celebrate the game and the community that rallied around it in a chill, quiet environment.  

Pennsylvania
When the sun rose, the Super Smash trek concluded in Oaks, Pennsylvania, just half an hour outside Philadelphia proper and about an hour northwest of Vineland. Here, the small but cheerful Gifts For Gamers event set up in the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center. It’s a well-visited and well-utilized location, most recently hosting a Thanksgiving dog show. On the day of Gifts for Gamers, one part of two-day event Too Many Games, there was a dog show for a local kennel club in another hall.

Despite the size of the convention center, Gifts for Gamers took up about as much space as about two local, basketball-equipped recreation halls side-by-side.

It was clear that a bulk of the attendees were here for Smashadelphia. More than 170 registered for the main singles bracket, which is typically the largest type of event for a “Smash” tournament. Organizers also held doubles and a bracket for the game’s new Squad Strike mode, which allows players to line up three or five characters to play back-to-back.

Players’ here were already deep into the competitive game, far more than those at the other events throughout the weekend. The day before, many had attended the TCNJapes event at The College of New Jersey, and players buzzed with excitement as those attendees mingled with players that were getting their first taste of the game in at a tournament.

For organizer Mark “Chia” Korsak, it’s a pivotal moment for the community, as players and organizers are coming together to celebrate, try out and experiment with a new chapter of “Smash’s” legacy. She has been organizing events since the era of Brawl in 2007, then moved onto “Smash for WiiU,” known by most players as “Smash 4,” with much of the community when it was released. The skills she picked up led to her current position as an esports and events coordinator at Screenwave Media, a Philly-based digital media branding and consulting company, which officially hosted and streamed the tournament.

The schedules for the various events got tied up after the event’s wifi clogged up during tournament registration, but behind the scenes, Korsak and the rest of the crew put out the fires for the event to roll relatively smoothly. Out on the floor, TOs shouted handles of competing players, and small crowds circled around television sets, whether the players were popular or just had friends’ and families’ there for support. In the back of the venue stood a large area for matches played on stream, behind which Chia and others were set up for commentary and amidst streaming hardware. Tying it all together was the players’ excitement.

The “Smash” community’s showing at Smashadelphia’s tournament was just one more extension of the passion, ingenuity and skill that the tournament organizers of the weekend’s events displayed. But it was only the opening weekend of “Smash Ultimate.” TOs have a long road ahead of them as they work to establish rules for the latest game, build tournaments and support the communities so they can thrive.

Majors
Like other regions, many TOs and players in the tri-state area are hoping to get a little more recognition among the grand scale of “Smash’s” competitive scene.

House of 3000 and Salty Joystiq both sponsor players, helping them attend events and represent their brands. House’s sponsored players include Ralph “Ralphie” Laurea, a Cloud player who has placed top 32 at top events, as well as Project M player Jake “Frozen” Somma. (The TOs note that the tri-state puts players who use diverse character choices as well.) Salty Joystiq’s support is more low-key, with Boone mostly focuses on lifting up cafe regulars, hoping to support them in their journey to becoming better players.

While sending players away is a good opportunity, not everyone can do so. Dillon hopes that the tri-state area sees more large-scale events with larger prize pools to attract players from around the world. These events, known as “majors,” are often hard to organize in areas like this due to the logistics of events. One was held in Atlantic City in May 2016 with the help of the venue, the Tropicana Casino and Hotel, but the event has yet to resurface.

Dillon explains that between venue costs and NYC’s infamously tight spaces, other organizers often prefer to look westward. House of 3000 did collaborate with 2GG, a large west-coast organizer, for a recent event in Brooklyn, but it wasn’t large enough to attract the best of the best. Korsak faces similar issues in regards to venue acquisition. She notes that venues outside of Philly proper, like the GPEC, tick most of the boxes for a well-run event, but city-dwellers often aren’t willing to make the half-hour trip.

Despite the concerns, all of these tournament organizers are working toward unity in their scenes. Korsak specifically noted that the local tournament organizers came from a mix of “Smash” backgrounds, from “Smash 4” to “Melee” and even the fanmade “Project M.” With TOs popping up around the area, she’s hoping not to compete against them, but collaborate to make events better than ever.

Each organizer is extremely proud of the personality and potential that the tri-state has. Both Korsak and Rubins emphasize their scenes’ passionate banter and rowdiness. Boone leans more toward the community aspect of the more social events, which he says are welcoming to newcomers.

All are expecting their events to grow. When House of 3000’s weekly events start hitting, Deven is anticipating registration numbers to jump from about 60 to 70 to perhaps 80  to 90. While Salty Joystiq’s numbers fluctuate, Boone is anticipating more consistency in turnout. The growing popularity of Too Many Games, the flagship gaming convention by the Gifts For Gamers organizers, should bring more “Ultimate” contestants to future Smashadelphia events.

All three groups share one hope for “Smash Ultimate:” That players show up for their locals.

“Don’t be afraid to join rotations,” said Deven. “Ask for advice. Say ‘Hi’, ask to play. Everyone is always very welcoming. People sometimes think there’s going to be this barrier, like, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough.’ No, you are, don’t worry. You can [self-destruct] all of your stock, it doesn’t matter. As long as you have the right mindset to want to learn, everyone is gonna wanna help you.”  

Boone shares the same sentiment. “There are a lot more pros than cons of going out to events, and I would do nothing but encourage doing so,” he said.

And Korsak’s bottom line is far simpler: “Just give it a shot.”

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