esports

How the Internet Accidentally Made 'Shrek SuperSlam' into an Esport

For years, the game was franchise spinoff rotting in a dustbin. Thanks to memes and Reddit, it's now threatening to become much more.
October 19, 2016, 3:57pm
Via WikiShrek

It goes without saying that Shrek SuperSlam was never meant to be taken seriously. It is the exact sort of paper-thin, cheaply licensed flotsam that fools grandparents and kindergarteners across the country.

The gameplay takes obvious cues from wildly more popular titles like Super Smash Bros. and Power Stone: choose a character from the limited Shrek cast, pound out simple two-button combos, and politely ask your mom to drive you back to Blockbuster. It wasn't supposed to be remembered in a month, much less a decade, but thanks to a few entrepreneurial kids who refused to let the joke die, SuperSlam is threatening to become bigger than ever, and a bona fide esport. All it took was the power of the internet and more than a little irony to make it happen.

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Shrek SuperSlam arrived back in 2005, right when the Shrek multimedia franchise was riding high off the release of its first, hugely successful sequel. The developers, Shaba Games, put out a version on every platform known to mankind: Playstation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, DS, Gameboy Advance, PC, whatever. Dreamworks demanded a $50 product to stack next to the Toys R Us action figures and Halloween costumes, and the industry delivered.

After Shrek the Third was released in 2007, Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had brazenly declared that the series would continue for two more films, but in the midst of the critical and commercial apathy surrounding 2010's Shrek Forever After, the brand was put on hold. The Shrek franchise is one of the highest grossing of all time, earning more money than both Superman and Twilight. Thanks to the Smash Mouth, and the Eddie Murphy, and the reliance on circa-2003 tabloid references, however, its presence in pop culture has almost completely dissolved.

In that void, a generation of internet kids resurrected the character as demented meme icon. It's 2016, and I've seen far more of Donkey in montage parodies than on TBS reruns. The Shrek page on KnowYourMeme has 22 different references. There is something quietly hysterical about the lack of appreciation for one of the most recognizable characters, statistically, of all time. That's why a group of chuckleheads started examining the inner workings of Shrek SuperSlam.

"We were really into watching competitive Melee and we also really loved Shrek memes," an 18-year-old who goes by the Reddit username Jaylez says. "So when we found an old copy of the game Shrek SuperSlam laying around, we thought the combination of fighting games and Shrek was hilarious. We joked about this being the next big fighting game and how funny the idea was of people taking a game about Shrek seriously so we created /r/ShrekSuperSlam just as a joke."

For years, the Shrek SuperSlam subreddit lay dormant. A few joke posts were permanently calcified on the front page but it mostly existed as a silly, private running gag between friends. But then, about a year and a half later, an anonymous wizard with the Reddit username Snowman_Eater flooded the subreddit with videos of esoteric techniques and highfalutin game theory. He, like Jaylez, was just trying to enjoy the meme.

"I'm the inadvertent 'creator' of the scene," says Snowball_Eater, who now serves as a mod for the subreddit he made famous. "After running some tournaments and making some videos, people started to notice and misinterpreted what I thought was a clear joke as something serious. From there it just snowballed to what we have today."

Yesterday's dustbin title might be the esports moneymaker of tomorrow. Via YouTube

R/shreksuperslam's entire existence was predicated on letting a group of people roleplay an alternate universe where a Shrek fighting game was digested with the same sincerity as, say, Street Fighter. Without warning, that dream theater became its own reality. Initially, the Shrek Super Slam Discord channel—think Slack, but for gamers—received "maybe two messages a week." But after Snowball_Eater showed up and made his jokes, people slowly began to divorce the game from the meme. Radical techniques were perfected, new terminology was coined, and the people who originally founded the scene were gleefully left in the dust.

"I haven't played the game in a while," Snowball_Eater admits. "I [entered a tournament] a couple weeks back and did terribly." The guy who cracked open Pandora's Box is now getting lapped by all his indirect protégés.

It goes without saying that Shrek SuperSlam wasn't meant to be played at ultra-high levels, but as the scene grows, so does the infrastructure. A website called ShrekBoards keeps an up-to-date tierlist pinned to their front page. The site's founder, Josh Bernard-Cooper, also records a regular podcast about the scene, and hosts the first-ever Shrek tournament over netplay, Slam in the Swamp.

There's a loose confederal authority, too, which recently banned the egregiously overpowered Red Riding Hood from tournaments. Snowball_Eater released a mod that removed all items from the game to enhance the competitive integrity of the pro format. Communities like this excel at taking care of one another because they don't have anyone else looking out for them. The closest comparison would be Melee, another Gamecube party brawler that attracted a passionate group of pro players despite a total lack of publisher support. It's messy, it's counterintuitive, but it's kind of fun when fans are left to their own devices to fill in the gaps that developers never anticipated.

"Shrek SuperSlam is insanely unpolished. It was made on a pretty low budget and as such there are quite a few bugs, glitches, and overall unbalanced aspects to the game," says T.J., a 13-year old who's been messing around with SuperSlam since August. "For example, the majority of the cast have [infinite combos,] some of which are very easy to get, others are nearly impossible to set up and execute.... This actually makes Shrek SuperSlam fun, as you could play and find something new at any moment."

Currently the subreddit boasts nearly 1,000 followers. The Discord channel hosts a few hundred more. When you compare that to the scores of gamers competing for a $500,000 prize pool at Mortal Kombat tournaments, Shrek SuperSlam looks ridiculously niche. Even with the growth over the past few months, this is still an old, ugly game locked away on outdated technology. Sure, there's an outside chance that scene continues to flourish and top players earn sponsorships and team contracts, but that's not really the point.

No one is more surprised by Shrek SuperSlam's evolution than the people who made it. Sylvain Dubrofsky was a senior designer at Shaba Games from 2002 to 2005 and, in keeping with the theme of this story, even his role in creating the game was something of an accident.

"I remember we shipped Wakeboarding Unleashed and started working on an original project called Skillz__,_which was a hip-hop _GTA_-style game. After six months of work on that, Activision decided not to pursue it any further," he says. "I don't remember the exact details of how we came to work on [_Shrek SuperSlam_] but I remember it being a little bit of a bummer. It was better than one of the options, which was a video game based on the Dreamworks movie _Over the Hedge."

Developers aren't ignorant; they know when they're working on shuffleware. There's not a lot of artistic credo when you're building products to complement overarching brands. Paul Culp, who worked as an outsourcing manager at Shaba, said he was "very cynical" about the task, but somehow it still found a way.

"I hated Shrek. Still do. I didn't give that game my best. The rest of the team could have easily phoned it in and moved on but they didn't," Culp says. "I don't know how much you've paid attention to the art and animation in SuperSlam, but it's all pretty great, especially for the time. A lot of love and attention to detail went into that game, from the destructible environments to the VFX to the concepts. The design and the tuning of the characters is way better than it needed to be or anyone thought it would be. Personally I drank a lot during that time, but everyone deals with it in their own way."

It's a jarring dose of reality within an industry that's more than a little overwrought. People despair over the perceived death of StarCraft, for instance, because it no longer hosts the biggest tournaments in the world. That's the video-game equivalent of first-world problems. What's actually sobering are stories like Dubrofsky and Culp's, people who matriculated into the business to pursue a dream, only to confront a day-to-day grind of pushing out a product they disdain for an audience that almost certainly will not care. Even worse is when that consumer leads to those shops going bust, the way Shaba was shuttered less than a year after Shrek SuperSlam's release.

No matter how belatedly or the reasons behind it, though, a few kids are embracing the decade-old hard work of a dead developer. That means the developers behind it have succeeded, sales figures be damned.

"I've been talking with a bunch of ex-Shaba folks about it and everyone is blown away," Culp says. "As a game developer, the goal is to give people a good time, so the best thing ever is hearing people are having fun with your game over a decade later."

The genesis of the SuperSlam revival is tongue-and-cheek, but the intentions are pure. Things don't always have to make sense. With enough patience, enough dedication, and enough irrationality, even a Shrek 2 arena fighter can have value. And who knows, maybe it will take over the world, just like all those memes have.

"The Shrek name helps us to get noticed [but] it also makes it difficult to be taken seriously," Bernard-Cooper says. "Once we get more tournaments going, I think we should pick up the pace a little. Another thing we have planned is an invitational featuring some of the best players in the scene. That way, we can dispel any myths that the game doesn't work competitively. Hopefully, before you know it, we'll be on the main stage at EVO."

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