Throughout the summer of 2016, the buzz had been building for Shine 2016, the first three-day major SuperSmash Bros. tournament to ever take place in Boston. When it was over, the conversation about the event intensified further, all because of something far removed from the actual gameplay: a VIP room.
That term comes with many connotations, but within esports' network of fighting games—better known as the Fighting Game Community, or FGC—a VIP room mostly amounts to a quiet area where competitors can get away from the hustle and bustle of packed venues. Some offer perks like catering and comfortable accommodations for top players, whose presence drives up spectator numbers.
Shine 2016's accommodations were far more modest. One video taken at the event showed a subdued cluster of players crowded around a bank of screens, gearing up for the next round of live-streamed matches. It was one part locker room, one part practice space—the sort of space that is ubiquitous within traditional sports. On its face, there's nothing controversial about this.
But that weekend, social media brimmed with criticism that such rooms are not only exclusionary but elitist. Team Evil Geniuses' Kenneth "KBrad" Bradley, a Street Fighter V and Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 player, unleashed a scathing video response that went viral in a hurry.
"I've been in top-eight before, I understand how that feels. You want to warm up. Do it," he said in the video. "But for the people that are saying, 'I just need a place to get away from the fans, it's too hectic, FGC you don't understand, we're getting huge now, we're bigger than you,' you probably are. If you are, congratulations, but that doesn't take away from the fact that you need to support these fans."
When Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios, the top Smash player in the world, thanked the organizers for the VIP room, it seemed to confirm the suspicion that even the tournament participants were segmented into haves and have-nots, a sentiment that was only reaffirmed when the team behind Shine 2016 asserted that the room was only available to those in the top eight of the tournament bracket.
No one thinks twice about private spaces like locker rooms in traditional sports. They grant teams a reprieve from their opponents and fans to discuss the game, prepare in privacy, and speak their minds (without backlash, should you subscribe to the Donald Trump school of thought). The locker room is expected to be a sacred place of mental preparation, pep talks, and coaching.
When the sanctity of these spaces isn't respected, like when Ron Washington's pep talk to the Texas Rangers prior to Game 7 of the 2011 World Series was leaked, or when the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown recorded coach Mike Tomlin's postgame speech earlier this year, it's taken as a huge affront to sports culture. To fans and athletes alike, some measure of privacy is regarded as a fundamental right.
In the traditional FGC sees all players, regardless of sponsorship or ability to make it out of pools, as equal. Giving players preferential treatment, such as access to secluded spaces, flies in the face of that philosophy. The scene isn't used to isolating mechanisms, which is why that bland, blue-carpeted room invites so much hostility. But as the larger esports world grows and evolves, the question now is whether a tradition of subverting established norms about private spaces in sports will go by the wayside.
Esports has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry, and that includes the FGC. In 2015, the winner of the Capcom Cup, an annual fighting game tournament, the winner took home $120,000. One year later, the prize for first place nearly doubled. This year, Super Smash Bros. Wii U will have its own dedicated circuit, the 2GGaming Championship series (2GGC), with a total prize pool of $100,000. The prize pool for the Super Smash Bros. Wii U tournament at EVO 2016 was just $26,620.
It only makes sense that as the business model falls more in line the traditional sports leagues, the infrastructure would follow suit. But some FGCers don't agree with the idea of esports and the corporate mentality that comes with it. Fighting games are still a niche genre, albeit one with an extremely passionate fan base. To some, doing things like "regular" sports and even more established esports flies in the face of a decades-old culture.
"[Some] players were like, 'Oh no, the fans get too hectic, you guys don't understand, so I just need a place to get away from them,'" KBrad told VICE Sports. "I'm like, you have your own hotel room just like anybody else. You shouldn't be treated differently because [the fans] came all the way here to see you.... Let's say you usually could interact with this person [at events] and one day they're like, 'Nah, I'm just going to sit in my VIP room the whole time.' That'd make me feel some type of way as a fan."
That has the potential to snowball into a serious problem, thanks to a tournament structure that blurs the lines between players and spectators. Major events take place over three days, with the spectator crowds gradually getting larger after low-level players drown in pools (FGC parlance for not making it out of the preliminary round and into the official bracket) on Friday, and stick around for the rest of the weekend to cheer on their favorites. If it weren't for all the player spectators, tournament scale would take a nosedive, with diminishing populations and prize pools.
"Without the casuals, we couldn't do this," said Elliot "Ally" Carroza-Oyarce, the Smash 4 champion at EVO 2016. "They're the reason we have stream numbers, spectators, and pot bonuses.... A lot of players enter for fun just to see how they do, but they're definitely there to see players play. A ZeRo fan is going to go because ZeRo is going."
For people at Shine 2016, it was obvious that there wasn't a ton to the VIP room itself. Even KBrad concedes that it's "not a big deal" for players to want a space to practice. Part of the controversy stemmed from top players allegedly using VIP rooms to avoid their fans because they get hounded for autographs too often. One prominent early adopter of VIP rooms, the Canada Cup, temporarily discontinued theirs due to players misappropriating them.
"We cut it off, because in 2013 and '14 people started abusing it, passing each other their passes," said Lap Chi Duong, the tournament's head organizer.
In 2016, however, Canada Cup brought the rooms back. I attended the tournament last year and while their room was still fairly restrained, it was also a bit more spruced up than the one at Shine 2016. It was a quiet, cold room with a few CRT and LCD monitors, as well as a big basket of candy. (The tournament took place over Halloween weekend.)
"It's just a place where some of the professional players can have some quiet space," said Duong. "Every tournament has their own ways of hosting players and making them feel good. I feel, if you're willing to put the money up, why not?"
It's important to note that VIP rooms are hardly standard. Whether or not they're widely adopted in the future depends on how they're handled now, and in what capacity. Perhaps it's the Shine 2016 format, which opens its doors only to the most exclusive membership. Or it could be like Canada Cup, where anyone can gain entry if they're willing to buy designated VIP tickets. Maybe it's something else entirely.
There is also a wealth of motivations that could push VIP rooms to the forefront. Some are purely psychological; as more money flows into the game and more players garner sponsorships, the pressure to perform ratchets up. Others are more practical. The use of coaches in the FGC is another thorny issue, with some tournaments banning them entirely during matchplay. A more widespread ban would make more defined private spaces imperative for analysis and tape review at the highest levels of competition.
For now, the FGC is rife with divisions, and not just over the use of VIP rooms. There's still a long-running debate about whether the Smash franchise, among the most lucrative and recognizable fighting series in existence, is even considered part of the community. It only follows, then, that the discussion over VIP rooms is not going to end anytime soon. Among the topics still up for debate are whether esports athletes should be afforded the same privacy as other athletes and, for that matter, whether the FGC is esports at all.
But Shine, the tournament that helped usher in the controversy, appears to have its position set.
Registration is now open for Shine 2017, and Big Blue eSports, the team behind the tournament, confirmed that it will continue the use of two private spaces, henceforth referred to as a "staging area" and a "green room."
"None of us expected [Shine 2016] to turn out the way it did," said Shi "Rorec" Deng, head organizer of Big Blue eSports, in an email. "I think it's good though that we got to talk about it. Originally, we were trying to figure out a solution to the problem of having to chase people down to let them know they're on stream. Waiting in the stream queue can get really boring and the tendency to walk away is high. We were trying to solve that headache for us as organizers but at the same time provide some value to the players."
As prize pools creep into six figures and teams establish track records, access to any competitive edge will be paramount. Meanwhile, the growing influence of corporate sponsors will sway things in a more regimented direction. The grassroots days of FGC are on the wane, in other words, and it's inevitable that the scene will shape itself accordingly. Much of it you'll see right before your eyes. The rest will probably take place behind closed doors.
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