I can already hear the voices of dubious family members and coworkers: “Justin, if esports are so big and successful, how come you only ever write about tournaments that are Fukushima-grade disasters?” Well, Grandma/Mom/Mr. Bossman, have you ever read a news article about a plane that made it to its destination with all its parts intact, on time and according to schedule? Of course not. What makes the news is when the plane’s wing falls off, or its engines gargle half a gaggle of geese. And that, essentially, is what the Smash 4 tournament at EVO 2016 was: a gruesome and gory goose gaggle gargling.
The schedule was ruthless.
Third-place finisher TSM.Zero basically wrote this article for me in a Twitter rant Saturday night. The Smash 4 brackets were lopsided because EVO only bothered to seed 32 players. The lack of a projector for most of the tournament meant that spectators were forced to crowd around competitors as they played. The schedule was downright ruthless, with matches beginning at 8 a.m. on day one, running past midnight, and beginning again at 8 a.m. the following day. And the greatest insult, according to Zero, was the disparaging way the Smash 4 event was treated: “Despite being the second biggest event at EVO… We were pushed into the corner of the room, and it kinda felt like a neglected event… I personally found some EVO staff to be very rude and stingy for no real reason.”
Some tournaments fail because the organizers lack the resources and experience to manage the dendriform logistical obstacles that inevitably arise in an event with hundreds (or in Smash 4 at EVO’s case, thousands) of entrants. But EVO is the biggest and most prestigious fighting games tournament in the world, with plenty of successful events under its championship belt. Sure, the EVO organizers have had their fair share of struggles over the years, but on the whole they know what they’re doing. More or less. And that’s what stings for Smash 4 players: their game didn’t fail because the EVO organizers lacked the tools to make it succeed. It failed because the EVO organizers didn’t seem to care whether it succeeded in the first place.
Harold D. Lasswell famously defined politics as “who gets what, when and how.” In EVO 2016’s case, politics determined which events received preferential treatment, a spot on the main stage during Championship Sunday, and the doting attention of tournament organizers. While I can’t claim to understand the entire convoluted spiderweb of factors that led to Smash 4’s exclusion, certain factors are clear. Games receiving red carpet treatment at gigantic events like EVO 2016 tend to pull higher viewer counts, because viewer counts = money. They also tend to have a legacy or long history in the fighting games scene, because history = nostalgia. On both of these points, Smash 4 lags behind other games. Its older, more illustriously historied, and better-watched sibling Super Smash Bros. Melee ran on Championship Sunday in a prime afternoon spot. The metric that Zero used when he defined Smash 4 as the “second biggest event at EVO” was number of tournament entrants, but tournament organizers don’t profit off entrant count, except insofar as it correlates with enthusiasm for the game and therefore viewer count. Smash 4 consistently pulls more entrants than Melee and yet consistently falls short in viewers.
Esports is a business.
As much as fans hate it, esports is a business. An often incoherent and shoddily-run business, sure. But the driving force behind an event like EVO is unquestionably profit. There are salaries to pay and gorgeous yachts to purchase. If Smash 4 is going to receive Tier One support from the money-grubbing CEOs of the esports world, it needs to pull Tier One numbers. As shitty as that is for players like Zero who devote their whole lives to the game, it’s the hard and unavoidable truth.