Earlier this morning, while most of North America wallowed in a miserable post-debate hangover, Nintendo announced the Switch, the mobile/console hybrid formerly known as the NX. Let’s leave hardware analysis to some other site—what’s germane for The Meta is that the trailer ends with some goddamn esports.
The Switch’s reveal trailer follows the conventional setup for announcements of new hardware: we follow some attractive young millennials and their Switches through a variety of situations—public transit, living room, airplane, urban hangouts, someone else’s living room, etc.—which take advantage of both the device’s stationary and mobile formats. Of course, this is all a lot more aspirational than predictive (were you really planning to take your Switch to a rooftop cookout with people you might not actually know?). The trailer isn’t telling you how you’ll actually use the Switch, but all the ways in which you could.
some goddamn esports
Which is why it’s so significant that Nintendo concludes its trailer with the unmistakable visual language of esports: swirling multicolored lights, two rows of consoles, and a stadium of fans going absolutely apeshit over Splatoon. Recall that Nintendo hasn’t always been enthusiastic about professional gaming. At EVO 2013, the world’s largest fighting games tournament, Nintendo infamously attempted to have Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) pulled from not only from Evo’s broadcast, but also from the event itself (they relented after extreme public outcry). The next year, Masahiro Sakurai, creator of the Super Smash Bros. series, opined in an infamous interview that “[Melee] ended up becoming a Smash game for hardcore fighting fans … I regret that because I intended for the series to be for players who couldn’t handle such highly skilled games.”
It wasn’t hard to understand Nintendo’s hesitation, even if you disagreed with them. Nintendo has built its reputation in no small part around the sense that it was a more welcoming console than the offerings of Sony and Microsoft. And virtually all its most iconic franchises—Mario Kart, Mario Party, etc.—were intended for friendly, social play. Many of those were competitive, sure, but competitive gaming is not quite the same as esports. And insofar as esports suggests a very different kind of relationship between a player and a game (i.e. striving endlessly for perfection in play), there’s a perfectly sensible argument to be made that this gap might frighten away casual players, the very market Nintendo has leveraged the most.
2016 is very different than 2013
But 2016 is very different than 2013 is very different than 2002, and the inclusion of esports in the reveal of the Switch reads to me like a late-arriving admission that esports can rest comfortably alongside more informal modes of play, without cannibalizing the market for either. The Switch enters a world where esports, if not exactly “mainstream” (whatever that means), is a valued—and valuable—thread in the fabric of gaming culture. Whether or not we’ll see a Nintendo World Championship like the one the company organized back in 1990 is an open question. That esports has finally won over one of its most resistant skeptics is not.