Nintendo’s release of Super Smash Bros in the late 90’s was a massive play by the Japanese gaming giant into the fighting game format. Reinterpreting the gameplay of the overtly popular Street Fighter and Tekken, the Nintendo 64 “beat ‘em up” title introduced a roster of characters from various Nintendo worlds. Donkey Kong, Mario, Metroid and Pikachu could all line up against each other; kicking, punching, ducking and weaving.
In 2018, a new generation of Smash Bros was launched on Nintendo Switch, attracting a fresh wave of gamers to the old school classic. In the back-alley gaming lounges of Melbourne, a reinvigorated competitive Smash Bros scene emerged.
Though a small world, the community is tight-knit, and provides a welcoming space where Australia’s top players can mingle with less-experienced novices.
Though the underground Super Smash clubs in Melbourne had no choice but to move online during the pandemic – the netcode poor, and lagging inevitable – most players felt that an important element was missing: each other. These tournaments provided a community – but also a place to make a name for yourself. In Melbourne, the number one player can rub shoulders with the 18-year-old trying to take his place. You can also win a bit of money.
With the first-ever Super Smash Bros international tournament set to take place in the United States later this month, Melbourne underground tournaments have re-emerged in full swing, providing not only a place to practice for the next round of local players aiming for the global stage, but reviving the community that wavered over the course of lockdown.
The underground Super Smash scene mostly erupts into life on Tuesday afternoons. Every week, a group of dedicated gamers, Nintendo Switches in hand, make their way to a nondescript location in Melbourne’s South to test their skills.
Off a main street, the dark cave of a gaming lounge is hidden behind grey bricks and a pink fluorescent bubble tea sign.
Up two flights of stairs, the low-lit dungeon of the top floor is crammed from corner to corner with young gamers wearing backpacks. A guy in black-framed glasses and blue jeans, with a silver cross around his neck, greets everyone in a booming voice as players enter the room.
Marcel “Marchofhell” Nguyen is often referred to as “The King”. He’s the head honcho of tournament operations, and every Tuesday he lugs a gaming PC, a laptop, 6 monitors, cameras, headsets for gamers and commentators, a sound mixer, a bunch of cables, powerboards and a Nintendo Switch to the top floor of the two-story building. His job: to overlook the tournament's rounds and dish out the pot winnings.
“I’m not actually a good player,” he tells VICE. “But I know a lot about the game.”
Nguyen has been playing video games since his uncle gifted him a Nintendo 64 as a kid. But while he still occasionally dabbles in the game, his real talent lies in organisation. Since the end of 2018, he has been running weekly, monthly and yearly Super Smash events.
“There’s now a lot of people getting behind it,” he said. “We’re seeing a pretty diverse crowd. Just your normal kids, but then 35-year-olds rocking up after work in business suits as well. It’s pretty amazing.”
Since its inception, the scope of Marcel’s tournaments has ballooned: at one of his weekly events you can expect a few dozen punters, while the monthly ones bring in a few hundred. When he finally has the energy to organise the annual tournaments, almost 1,000 people have been known to show up to Melbourne’s Convention Centre.
“We get people from all over Australia, even from America, Japan and Europe,” said Nguyen. “Sometimes we get photos of people screaming and crying as they play.”
For Marcel, Smash Bros is a game anyone can play, although not one that everyone can master.
“It’s considered a children’s game, but everyone loves it because of the roster and nostalgia. It definitely brings a whole community from different places together,” he said. “Though I’m terrible, I’m still mates with some of the best players in Australia.”
While these Smash Bros tournaments may seem new, Marcel claims they’ve been around since the game was launched in 1999. He points towards Twitch – the streaming platform favoured by gamers and bought by Amazon in 2014 – as the catalyst for the underground competitive scene’s more recent growth.
Twitch has become the go-to for gamers wanting to live-stream their gameplay while also interacting with their viewers. The last few years have seen its user base grow exponentially to almost 140 million per month, with creator content directly responsible for its success.
The Melbourne Super Smash Bros community has its own Twitch stream, and while it has a small following, Jake “Nevarc” Craven – otherwise known as the “stream guy” – uploads content from the tournaments whenever possible.
“I make the overlays and the visual effects, then that goes on Twitch. Once it’s there we move the videos over to Youtube,” he tells VICE. “A lot of people are at home watching these events on Twitch. They see them and they just look us up.”
Jake was also responsible for organising the group’s transition into a remote, COVID-safe operation, putting together online competitions to keep player’s skills up to scratch and give some sort of content to their growing audience. Most of this was organised through discord.
“I would generally say that the offline [events] outpace the online [events],” he says, “Offline people are a very tight-knit group. They know each other very well, and the online kind have their own community but in a different way.
“It’s 100 percent better offline though. You get to see people face-to-face.”
On the main floor, Marcel points to someone through the dark expanse of the gaming lounge: “This guy’s actually the number one player in Australia at the moment,” he says. “The GOAT.”
Between the jostling crowd of boys, 22-year-old Jonathan “Jdizzle” Douglas peels away from a conversation with another gamer. Dressed in a Legend of Zelda t-shirt, he readily offers himself up for a conversation, gesturing politely. “I’m a media man”, he says. “I have no trouble with interviews.”
When asked how he came to be number one in Australia, he laughs. “I want to say there’s a secret, but there actually is no secret. I just worked really hard and played a lot. One of the main things is experience.”
Jonathan started playing Smash Bros with his two older brothers in 2015, when he was 16 years old. Four years later, he unofficially became number one in Australia – and in 2020, when the official rankings came out, it was written in stone.
“I attended a lot of tournaments and always tried to improve as best as I could, just like any other sport or activity,” he says. “I was always really motivated and eventually that hard work paid off.”
In less than two weeks, Jonathan will head to the U.S., where he’ll be competing in the first-ever Super Smash Mario Bros World Tournament. It’s a competition with a $200,000 prize pool – a hefty part of that going to the winner.
“I wouldn't say it's a huge prize pool compared to other e-Sports that are out there,” he says, “I don’t know if I’ll win, but I’ll be there to really put Australia on the map.”
Though this year’s event is the first of its kind, it is not affiliated with Nintendo, a company that has long been hesitant to join the ranks of other e-sporting tournaments. In 2020, Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa told business journal Nikkei (translated by Kotaku) that this was because, “Our strength, what differentiates us from other companies, is this different worldview, not an amount of prize money.”
Though Nintendo has long been adverse to moving it’s games into global competition, the gaming giant is set to fold under the pressure of the Smash Bros fanbase in 2022, when the first Nintendo-backed event is scheduled to take place.
It’ll join a number of other esports competitions, that for years have presented its winners with massive monetary gain, and also the promise of celebrity.
The International, arguably the biggest and most popular tournament in the world, sees its players raking in thousands, and even up to millions, of dollars no matter their placing. This year, at the 2021 tournament, Russian team Team Spirit took out the top spot, pulling in $18 million to share between its players. The total prize pool was $40 million.
For Jonathan, though, it’s not about the money.
“The fact that I get to make a little money on the side is just a plus,” he says. “I just love the game and the community. It doesn’t feel like a job or a chore to me.”
Jonathan is known throughout the Australian Smash Bros community, making a name for himself as the number one player to beat. When he’s called away for a game, his opponent is an olive-skinned, shaggy-haired kid named Aiden.
“I started playing online back in 2018 and decided I wanted to take it more seriously and go to offlines,” the 18 year-old tells VICE. “I get to meet new people and actually make a name for myself”.
When playing the game, the pair pull dextrous combos, described in hyper-specific terminology that is indecipherable to those unfamiliar with the game: Dair’s (Down airs), Nair’s (Neutral Airs), Side Smash, Smash Attack, Aerial’s, Air Dodges. Both stare at the screen with unwavering concentration.
“It’s all a mental game,” Aiden later says, “Jonathan actually beat me at the mental game last week. I got fatigued. But he’s been doing it for longer.”
Aiden says he almost won a game against Jonathan last week – the first time anyone’s come close to beating Australia’s number one – in what has since become a highlight of his career.
“I want to become number one in Australia, and then number one in the world,” he says. “The number one player globally – I look up to him.”
“I watch him all the time to learn his play style. I don’t want to copy him; he’s just my inspiration.”
Though Aiden clearly has the talent to compete in these tournaments, he says the main barrier to taking it further as a career comes through his parents.
“My dad isn't really supportive of me playing this game,” he explains. “He doesn't really understand. But I’ve told him I'm competing against the number one player and he’s started to come around”.
As the competition continues to roll-out into the night and the prize pot, consisting of a hundred or so dollars, sits unclaimed, the hubbub of the crowd waxes and wanes between each game.
Towards the end, the finalists will float towards the main screen in the middle of the room, which casts blue shadows on the grey-linen couch below. A small crowd will gather to watch on.
Jonathan practices against lesser opponents, making use of his last couple of weeks before heading to the states. The other players mull around, chatting, watching on, lounging in the various gaming chairs that litter the interconnecting rooms.
As each of the players takes a turn in the tournament – some novices, some closer to professional – the reason for the survival of this burgeoning scene over COVID lockdowns becomes apparent. Super Smash Bros has become a culturally-embedded video game, attracting players from all over the globe. In Melbourne, the growing underground tournaments create a space for young gamers to join a face-to-face community in an industry where gaming is often stereotyped as an isolating activity. It also paves the way for Australia’s up and coming professional players to travel internationally to the newly created Super Smash tournaments.
At the end of the night, while the players mill out, Marcel packs up his various pieces of equipment; His gaming PC, a laptop, 6 monitors, cameras, headsets for gamers and commentators, a sound mixer, a bunch of cables, power boards and his Nintendo Switch. The Tuesday tournament is done. The $100 or so prize pool has been taken, and goodbyes have been said. Next Tuesday, it’ll all begin again, and with Jonathan away in the US, a new player may rise to the top.
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