In the grand scheme of gaming, esports are still relatively new. Fighting game tournaments have been around for many years, but in the last decade, many other genres of games have generated esports scenes of their own. Nintendo has always been aware of the esports around its games and has been occasionally involved in the past. However, Nintendo has opted for a mostly hands-off approach to this subculture, much to the dismay of esports players and fans that wanted more support from the company.
Still, Nintendo has been slowly embracing esports for its big games. This slow but steady change in its support could indicate that Nintendo is becoming more willing to embrace the competitive culture, but will it go all the way?
A history of competition
Despite what many disappointed esports fans would have you believe, Nintendo does have a history with the competitive scene for its games. The Nintendo World Championships was a series of tournaments focused on Nintendo games across America that started in 1990. So in some respects, Nintendo was actually among the first on the scene to support esports. However, this was not an annualized tournament. Aside from the Nintendo World Championships of 1990 and Nintendo PowerFest ’94, there was a huge gap of time where Nintendo stepped back from esports.
Nintendo had an on-and-off relationship with esports thanks to the Super Smash Bros. series during this time. It mostly stayed uninvolved, but in 2010, among other times, Nintendo prohibited Major League Gaming from livestreaming matches of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, invoking tremendous disappointment.
It wasn’t until 2014 that Nintendo directly engaged with esports again, with the Super Smash Bros. Invitational, an exhibition tournament for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. This led to the company becoming more interested in esports again. Splatoon subsequently received an esports tournament in Japan in 2015 with over $1,000,000 in prize money.
Nintendo resurrected the Nintendo World Championships as part of the tournament’s 25th anniversary in 2015, involving a variety of games ranging from Splatoon to Super Metroid. A 2017 Nintendo World Championships followed, and it demonstrated that Nintendo wanted more of its games to be involved with esports, including Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon 2. Hell, Splatoon 2 was even presented as an esport in the initial Nintendo Switch reveal trailer.
More recently, Super Mario Maker 2 received a pre-launch invitational tournament at E3 last year, and Nintendo even made a continent-spanning European circuit tournament for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. At this point in time, Nintendo is supporting esports more than it ever has before, but can this trend continue?
Will Nintendo esports support last into the future?
Nintendo clearly hasn’t committed all the way to esports yet. For example, Nintendo-supported tournaments are infrequent and can’t compare in presence to a competitive esports series such as the Overwatch League, which runs across a 29-week season. The prize money and funding for Nintendo-held tournaments also still pale in comparison to those of their contemporaries, and Nintendo games don’t often get updated based on feedback from esports players (though Bayonetta was toned down in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate after the EVO 2018 finals). The most telling indicator of the divide between fan feedback and Nintendo was when EVO 2020 announced plans to become an online tournament this year and omitted Super Smash Bros. Ultimate from its roster, despite the record viewership it had the year prior.
While the reason was never explicitly stated, the showrunners claimed they wanted to prioritize games with the strongest netcode. Whether Nintendo and Sora Ltd. will ever improve their notoriously lackluster netcode is hard to say, but it has evidently never been a priority so far. Game director Masahiro Sakurai additionally stated that his focus is on making the game fun for everyone and that the philosophy of competitive gaming isn’t in line with Nintendo’s gaming philosophies.
Beyond these signs, there are other reasons to doubt Nintendo’s esports support will increase too. Nintendo is unpredictable in many ways, but it has been consistent in trying to avoid controversy. Simply put, Nintendo wants to maintain its image as a friendly gaming company that can appeal to people of all demographics. Considering the recent controversies in the fighting game community, this makes sense. Notably, EVO Online was canceled over sexual abuse allegations regarding its now-former CEO, while the Super Smash Bros. community was also riddled with more than 50 sexual abuse allegations.
I believe that Nintendo won’t fully involve itself with esports so that it can avoid issues like these that would reflect poorly on its brand image. Past reports have suggested Nintendo would rather just be a part of the sub-culture rather than fully commit to it. Nintendo’s increasing support of esports is welcome, but considering these factors, I don’t expect it to go much further. Whether it’s putting its family-friendly image at risk or altering its games to suit esports players, Nintendo’s philosophy of making games for everyone may always keep it a certain distance away from competitive culture.
How far do you want Nintendo to go in its involvement with esports?