Nintendo, its Controversial Relationship with Smash, and #FreeMelee
Nintendo recently sent a cease and desist order to The Big House, one of the longest-running esports tournaments. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancelation of several fighting game community tournaments, including Big House’s original plans for a July event. The delayed Big House event was to take place online in December using Slippi, a Smash Melee ROM that allowed players to play online. But Nintendo claims the online event required the use of illegally copied versions of the game with the Slippi mod. All this resulted in #FreeMelee
Social Media has been abuzz with #FreeMeleeand thousands of fans have come out in support of the online tournament as well as blasting Nintendo for its actions. Nintendo owns the intellectual property of Super Smash Bros. and is within its legal rights to control the game’s broadcasts. So why is the FGC community opposed to Nintendo’s legal notice to The Big House?
Controversial Smash Melee Decisions
To understand the community’s angst behind the recent decision, it is important to know Melee’s history. Super Smash Bros. Melee released in 2001, a crossover fighting video game developed by HAL and published by Nintendo. The game was a party-game and was designed for members of the family to play on the couch. But gamers are competitive and always looking to defeat their opponents, a ‘winner-stays-on’ ethos from the era of arcade cabinets.
The story of Super Smash Bros. is one of an accidental community, abandonment by its creator and the loyal player base of the game. Smash Melee does not have many complex moves, unlike some of the other titles in FGC. Instead, players have to be very fast to get any advantage over their opponents. Every hit increases the damage percentage and gets you one step closer to knocking your opponent off the 2D stage.
Smash Melee released for the Nintendo GameCube in 2001. The game was never created with esports or any competition in mind. Little did director Masahiro Sakurai know, he created a game with one of the highest skill-ceilings in all of esports. Melee’s competitive circuit was possible only years after the game’s release as players found new exploits and moves, like wavedashing that allowed players to raise their skill level. In fact, some of the best moves in the game are unexpected exploits in the game.
The community started hosting events and a few third-party organizers also jumped in the fray. Major League Gaming added Melee in 2004, giving Melee esports a formal structure (for some time). A few years later, Melee joined the Evo lineup in 2007. Player conventions are established and the community sets its own rules. Items are not allowed in competitive Melee tournaments, a few moves such as Wobbling were not allowed. Pausing a game mid-fight means you lose a stock (life).
Throughout all of this, Nintendo is absent from Melee’s esports community. Back then the term esports wasn’t even popular. It was simply some people competing in video games. The community kept Melee alive for a while but newer fighting games released and slowly Melee pushed to the background. MLG and Evo dropped it from their lineup in subsequent years.
The Smash Brothers Documentary
The Smash Brothers is a nine-part documentary written and directed by Travis “Samox” Beauchamp. The documentary depicts the history of competitive Super Smash Bros., with a particular focus on Melee. The series received widespread acclaim from fans and critics alike who praised the high production value of the series.
The Smash Bros documentary event went viral on YouTube. That same year, Evo kept an open slot in the tournament for the community that can raise the most money for a breast awareness charity event. Melee fans, coordinated by the site, ‘Melee it on me’, raised more than $94,000. Melee returns to Evo, twelve years after the game’s release with the help of a vibrant community but still no presence of the game’s publisher, Nintendo.
The Nintendo Obstacle
Days before Evo 2013, Nintendo denied Evo permission to stream Melee on Twitch. Evo co-founder, Tom “inkblot” Cannon, informed the community that Nintendo had denied them permission to stream Smash Melee during Evo 2013. This is similar to what happened last week with Nintendo canceling The Big House.
EVO co-founder Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar said in an interview that Nintendo also tried to shut down Evo’s Melee event.
“They were not only trying to shut down the stream, they were trying to shut down the event; the Smash portion of the event.” Cuellar said. “[…] And we kinda wigwammed our way through it and they were fine with just shutting down the streaming portion of the event. And that was that and we were not going to press any further. It’s their IP, we respect Nintendo’s decision to protect their IP, and we were going to comply with the legal department completely. So at that point, it was over.”
The community outrage and backlash was instantaneous. The game publisher was absent through the early stages of Melee’s competitive circuit but had turned up at the moment when Melee would be returning to top tier FGC. Nintendo’s move to deny Evo permission was against everything that the community wanted. Nintendo quickly reversed its decision taking note of the bad publicity that the company received because of its decision. The relationship between the Smash community and Nintendo was no longer the same.
Smash Melee has a rich history of community-funded events and strong grassroots. Despite never being created with a competitive circuit in mind, Melee has one of the highest skill-ceilings in all of esports. Due to the extremely fast reaction-times (mostly in milliseconds at the top level), the game’s esports circuit is mostly on LAN.
The game continues to surprise even today. In June 2019, Tempo Storm’s Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson wins the Smash Summit 8 using Pikachu. Despite being a twenty-year-old game, no player has won a Major Melee event using Pikachu. The community continues to explore new ways to play the game and reach new heights with existing characters.
It’s 2020 and Smash Melee (and other FGC events) is facing an existential crisis. With LAN events impossible due to the coronavirus pandemic, many events had to be canceled and the organizers had to pocket a hefty loss. #FreeMelee is a cry against Nintendo to star caring for its Smash Melee community.
But FGC fans can look forward to Samox’s new documentary series, Metagame, that will premiere on Twitch in December.
Written by Rohan Samal
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