Smash Ultimate presents opportunities and issues for organizers

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate made waves at winter major Don't Park on the Grass 2018. Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

LAS VEGAS -- With a 45-minute line at Community Effort Orlando to test the demo, tons of chatter on social media about prospective characters and general excitement about its December release date, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the talk of the town at both offline events like CEO and on online fighting game community forums.

But as players go back and forth about whether or not there will be more new characters than the original roster, organizers are dealing with a far less exciting task. It's barely been a month since the announcement, and there are already tons of new challenges to deal with as the tournament planning process goes on.

"This launch is so much different than Smash for Wii U," said Frostbite Head Event Coordinator Alex "Vayseth" Varga. "The Nintendo Switch and Ultimate are both coming to the community at a time where Smash and esports are ready for growth."

The Nintendo Switch, which has sold nearly 20 million units since its launch in March of last year, has been an incredible success. It will undoubtedly bring some of that excitement to the Smash community. Right now, organizers for events like Genesis 6, Smash'N'Splash 5 and Frostbite 2019 are preparing for a huge influx of people and new hardware challenges with the Switch.

"We have no idea what attendance will be like at events after Ultimate's launch," Smash'N'Splash president Josh Weber said. "We have to guesstimate with what it will be like, although everyone thinks there will be a huge surge."

A large increase in participants, viewers and attendees means organizers will have to find bigger venues, rent more TVs and consoles and make sure security keeps the event safe and welcoming. Like Weber said, organizers have to move now by making their best guess; venues and rentals get snatched up quickly, so they can't wait until they see how many registrants they have.

"The influx of people is simultaneously going to be the best thing and the scariest thing," Frostbite organizer Kalle "Ori" Wanagat said. "Events like EVO are so accustomed to having a bracket with 1,500-plus entrants, but when you look at events like Genesis and Frostbite, that 1,500-plus bracket is usually the size or close to half the size of the entire event."

Organizers might start looking toward the biggest fighting game tournament in the world, EVO, for inspiration and guidelines to setup their next event, even if the Smash community has a stormy relationship with the Las Vegas blockbuster that begins Friday. William "Leffen" Hjelte even tweeted out a series of gripes he has with the event in the week leading up to it.

"EVO consistently, year after year, fails to meet the standard that other FGC/Smash events in many ways, most notably brackets/scheduling," Hjelte tweeted Monday. "A part of me really wants to try to change things, but I've honestly given up at this point. It honestly feels it falls on deaf ears."

Some organizers agreed EVO has some issues with the way it deals with having two Smash Bros. games in its lineup, particularly because the titles are so aesthetically similar.

"EVO showcases what the FGC has to a wide audience. It has to focus on every game in the lineup," Wanagat said. "When there are two Smash titles featured, it becomes tricky. To the common viewer, it seems like the same thing happening, which isn't necessarily a good thing for EVO."

Regardless, EVO is considered the Super Bowl of the fighting game community, and many members of the Smash community see it as a huge opportunity to bring new eyes to the scene.

"Smash is there because it is a huge draw both from an attendance perspective and viewership perspective," Wanagat added, "but because EVO isn't Smash centric, Smash-ers have to deal with things being different from what they are used to at majors."

Both Frostbite and Smash'N'Splash have secured substantially larger venues for their installments next year to prepare for extra people. The bigger concern is how to make sure all those people are secure and can stay occupied if they get eliminated from the competition early on.

One solution the organizers believe will help retain a part of Smash's new audience is moving to a more convention-like setup for tournaments. Events such as Smash Con already do this by including vendors, informative panels, cosplay contests and other attractions that would give players and fans something interesting to do when they're done competing.

Most major events like Frostbite and Smash'N'Splash already include elements that appeal to the general public. Smash'N'Splash takes place at a resort in Wisconsin with a full water park, and Frostbite features a series of side events and fun pot bonuses that are aimed at the player base who won't make it far in the tournament.

"When it's all about winning, it can lead to a terrible outcome, players feeling awful after losing," Varga said. "When they have this extra stuff, it can really soften the blow on the win-lose mindset."

The Switch hardware will also make it easier for organizers to keep attendees entertained. Its portable nature makes side tournaments simple and waiting in lines more bearable. That hardware is also a point of concern for events, however, since it's fairly new to the Smash community. Smash Ultimate will feature compatibility with GameCube controllers, which might alleviate some concerns, but the system itself is another thing.

"A lot of people are concentrating on what the software Ultimate will bring. I'm more concerned about the hardware," Vargas said. "Switches run real hot, and people are used to 24-hour venues. We don't know if Switch's can be turned on for 24 hours and survive."

Overheating, wireless controller interference, the limitation of wired adaptors and dealing with security for the Switch are all valid concerns that organizers are grappling with now. They've already started to work with Gaming Generations, the preferred rental partner for many events, about how they'll deal with these problems.

Some event coordinators have past experience with the Switch through Splatoon 2 and ARMS side tournaments. They've tested using zip ties to secure consoles and sourcing community consoles by having players use their own Switch's with rental docks.

"Pretty much right when the announcement was made, we started talking with Gaming Generations about how to deal with all this," Genesis organizer Sheridan Zalewski said. "We're hosting Genesis 6 close to Ultimate's launch, so we're trying to get a lot of these questions answered early."

While there are a ton of question marks ahead of Ultimate's release, including the age-old worry about whether or not Nintendo will increase its involvement, event coordinators have plenty to be excited about as well. A number of seemingly small changes to the game will have a big impact on the quality of tournaments.

The production value, like the character selection and victory screens, is far higher. Stages are picked before characters in the select screen, and wireless controllers can be easily disconnected by a simple menu item. These are all changes that make setups easier to handle and stream quality exceed that of Smash 4.

Ultimate is also primed for success due to the overall landscape of esports, even if it isn't the game that brings the Melee and Smash 4 communities together. Vargas and other organizers believe Smash is in a better place than it has ever been, and Ultimate has set up an opportunity for expansion that the community hasn't experienced before.

"It's not that the same opportunity wasn't there during the Wii U era; we don't know if Smash 4 will got forgotten or if it'll become a new Melee," Vargas said. "But one thing it did was catapult Smash into a bigger place within the FGC. Like between Melee and Smash 4, we'd have over 10,000 active players at a tournament. Ultimate could extend that success."