The Super Smash Bros franchise is renowned for its chaotic gameplay but, once again, the drama has spilled offscreen into the real world. Pro-level Smash tournaments have been a mainstay in the fighting game community since Melee back in the 2000s, though unlike many other developers Nintendo hasn’t historically been interested in promoting or fostering their games as esports.
Back in 2021, the tide seemed to shift. Nintendo announced a partnership with North American esports organization Panda Global, with the pair collaborating on the first officially licensed Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Melee circuits. For a brief moment the future looked bright for Smash.
Now everything is on fire, prominent players are incandescent with rage, and a boycott is forming against all Panda Global events.
Panda Global and Nintendo
On Nov. 19, 2021, Nintendo and Panda Global confirmed that they were forming an official partnership to foster Smash as an esport. Nintendo is famously protective of its IP, which has led to many past Smash events running into legal difficulty as it’s difficult to promote and profit from their events without using Super Smash Bros. or Nintendo trademarks.
Bill Trinen, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Nintendo of America, released a statement saying:
“This partnership with Panda Global is the next step in Nintendo’s efforts to create a more consistent, fun, and welcoming competitive environment for our players and fans. We are proud to stand with an organization like Panda Global to celebrate and support the ever-growing competitive Super Smash Bros. community, and create a space where all players can test and hone their competitive skills.”
CEO of Panda Global Alan Bunney echoed those sentiments, saying:
“One of our key missions at Panda Global is to serve our communities in new and exciting ways. By partnering with Nintendo, we are giving our competitors in North America the chance to compete in an officially licensed Super Smash Bros. circuit for the first time.”
But many saw trouble coming down the road. If Nintendo and Panda Global are official partners, what does this mean for independently run tournaments?
The Smash World Tour
The Smash World Tour was intended to be a truly momentous occasion for the community, promising “the largest offline tour in esports history.” This was scheduled to take place from Dec 9-11 in San Antonio, Texas, and promised 200,000 competitors across 4,000 events. Alongside the main tournament, there’d be multiple side events, opportunities for vendors to sell their wares, and, of course, a huge group of spectators eager to see the best players square off against one another.
Check out the trailer:
The Smash World Tour organizers are keen to show off their credentials and experience, and this was to be by far their biggest event and a highlight of the 2022 esports calendar. Via Medium, they said:
“In 2022 alone, we connected over 6,400 live events worldwide, with over 325,000 in-person entrants, making the Smash World Tour (SWT, or the Tour) the largest esports tour in history, for any game title. The Championships would also have had the largest prize pool in Smash history at over $250,000. The 2023 Smash World Tour planned to have a prize pool of over $350,000.”
Now all those plans are up in smoke. Days before the event was due to begin, it’s been abruptly canceled, leaving the thousands of people who’d made travel and accommodation plans out of pocket, and the SWT team facing a financial nightmare. In a statement on their website, the team said:
“It is with an unbelievably heavy heart that we must announce that both the upcoming Smash World Tour Championships, as well as the 2023 Smash World Tour must be canceled.
“Without any warning, we received notice the night before Thanksgiving from Nintendo that we could no longer operate. This was especially shocking given our discourse with Nintendo the past twelve months. Since then, we have been working around the clock to take the proper steps logistically, as well as to prepare this statement with proper legal guidance.”
Here’s what led up to this:
The Smash World Tour’s relationship with Nintendo
Panda Global’s official partnership had clearly worried the SWT team, as an officially licensed partnership is an obvious competitor to their unlicensed event. However, from their perspective, they had good reason to believe this wouldn’t be a problem, saying:
“Nintendo reached out to us to let us know that they had been watching us build over the years, and wanted to see if we were interested in working with them and pursuing a license as well. They made it clear that Panda’s partnership was not exclusive, and they said it had ‘not gone unnoticed’ that we had not infringed on their IP regarding game modifications and had represented Nintendo’s values well. They made it clear that game modifications were their primary concern in regards to ‘coming down on events,’ which also made sense to us given their enforcement over the past few years in that regard.”
These “modifications” likely refer to software tools like Slippi, which makes the 2001 release Smash Bros Melee playable online. This was a lifeline to the community during the COVID pandemic, during which in-person tournaments couldn’t happen. It seemed like there was light on the horizon. As the SWT team explained:
“That lengthy conversation changed our perspective on Nintendo at a macro level; it was incredibly refreshing to talk to multiple senior team members and clear the air on a lot of miscommunications and misgivings in the years prior. We explained why so many in the community were hesitant to reach out to Nintendo to work together, and we truly believed Nintendo was taking a hard look at their relationship with the community, and ways to get involved in a positive manner.”
However, communication with Nintendo seems to have stalled. With a deadline looming, the SWT Team had to press on with their organizational plans for the tour regardless. Then, just before Thanksgiving, the hammer came down.
The SWT team finally spoke to Nintendo on Nov. 23, and the news wasn’t good:
“Our Nintendo rep opened by letting us know that they are being asked to deliver the news that going forward, Nintendo expects us to only operate with a commercial license, and that we would not be granted one for the upcoming Championships, or any activity in 2023.”
Even so, they wondered if it’d be possible to run the tournament without an official license as they had done in previous years, saying:
“We were told directly that those times were now over. This was the final nail in the coffin, given our very particular relationship with Nintendo. This is when we realized it truly was all being shut down for real. We asked if they understood the waves that would be made if we were forced to cancel, and Nintendo communicated that they were indeed aware.”
The news was, appropriately, summarized as “devastating” and ripples of anger and disbelief spread throughout the Smash community.
Why are fans furious at Panda Global?
Panda Global’s officially licensed Smash tournament, “The Panda Cup,” has been underway since June and is scheduled to conclude with the Panda Cup Finale on Dec. 18-22 in Los Angeles, California. This would naturally be in competition with the Smash World Tour, though Nintendo had indicated that they were prepared to tolerate the events “co-existing.”
Panda Global, allegedly, had other ideas. They stand accused of leveraging their “official partnership” status to put pressure on organizers to disassociate from the Smash World Tour. This has been described as a “protection racket”:
Many prominent Smash players clearly believe Panda Global has worked to undermine the Smash World Tour, placing the blame on them for the current chaos and announcing they will not participate in any future Panda events:
Anger among the wider fanbase is palpable, with a major campaign underway to hit Panda where it hurts by unsubscribing from their YouTube and other social media channels.
Right now, the Panda Cup is still set to proceed in December, but it’s obvious that there’s going to be a lot of bad blood present. Many players are contractually obligated to appear, though plans are formulating for protests at the event:
In any event, a mass boycott seems to be picking up steam.
Where this leaves the future of Smash as an esport is anyone’s guess, though it’s safe to say things don’t look good. The vast Smash community now staunchly opposes any Panda-affiliated event, and we’d expect any players who participate to face intense (if somewhat unfair) criticism.
We doubt Super Smash Bros will disappear completely from the esports scene, though it’s difficult to see a way for Nintendo and Panda Global to rebuild trust with the community. The future likely lies in small-scale, unlicensed tournaments, though without in-person events and large amounts of prize money, Smash may be dead in the water professionally.
What a mess.