Splatoon 2 community continues to grow on grassroots efforts

Nintendo's marketing support of Splatoon 2 tournaments has helped the grassroots esport continue to grow. Provided by Nintendo of America

LOS ANGELES -- The scene at the Belasco Theater for the Splatoon 2 World Championship in Los Angeles was electric.

Teams from all over the world flew in to compete, with Japan's GG Boyz inching past Europe's Backsquids to take the crown. The championship was one of the biggest events in competitive Splatoon, but it was only a taste of what the growing community has to offer.

"It's the only opportunity for the best from all over the world to travel and play against each other," said SettoDestroyX player Austin "Penguitt" Whitt, who played in the tournament during E3 in June. "It's also a perfect opportunity to showcase the highest form of competitive Splatoon in front of a new, global audience."

Splatoon 2's competitive community, while still on the smaller side, has shown an accelerated amount of growth since the sequel's launch in July of last year. The game's most recent community-led tournament at Smash'N'Splash 4 in Madison, Wisconsin, featured more than 215 entrants, making it the largest Splatoon 2 LAN outside of Japan.

The community is growing in other ways as well: Ghost Gaming recently announced that it will sponsor a Splatoon 2 squad, and EndGameTV announced a new online tournament, InkStorm Cup. The top two teams in that event will be flown to Tokyo for Platinum Cup 4.

While the first entry in Nintendo's colorful shooter sported a passionate competitive scene, the second game provided a base that makes it easier for community members to organize. The Nintendo Switch hardware has made LANs easier to set up and run, and the commercial success of the console has brought in more players.

The Splatoon 2 development team has used lessons from the first game to make the current iteration a more enjoyable competitive shooter.

"The Wii U hardware created a load of headaches for us during the lifespan of the first game," said A.C. Williams, events manager at EndGameTV, a Splatoon tournament organization. "We had interference between gamepads, and the actual console itself didn't have LAN capabilities, so we had to use ethernet for online connections while we were all in the same room."

Switch hardware has helped community organizers come together to host more LAN tournaments, with several taking place as side events at Super Smash Bros. tournaments. Only a handful of Splatoon 2 LANs happen each year, but dozens of online tournaments held by EndGameTV, InkTV, and independent organizers fill in the gaps.

Nintendo also has introduced a spectator mode that makes watching and commenting much easier as well as an improved ranking system that makes matchmaking better for team play. But the most important change could be how the Splatoon developers at Nintendo have made competitive play more interesting.

"The majority of their balance changes are aimed at making high-level play better," competitive player Nick Hitzel said. "They are paying attention to competitive Japanese play and adjusting based on that; they only step in for low-level players if things are completely off base."

Like any other competitive shooter fan base, Splatoon players became adept at finding the strategies that give them the best advantage possible. The primary strategy to come out of the first game was the combination of quick respawn, which shortened respawn time after being killed, and stealth jump, which removed the landing icon that was visible to all players when someone performed a super jump nearby.

But Nintendo completely changed how abilities and specials work in Splatoon 2, to the benefit of competitive players.

"The meta included using these two abilities to make taking big risks less punishing since you could get back into the action quickly," Hitzel said of Splatoon. "Nintendo had designed quick respawn to be a crutch for new players, not something that could be abused for aggressive play.

"They changed it so that quick respawn would be better on the defensive. It won't work if you're trying to play aggressively, which is what they originally intended."

This change, though seemingly small, had big implications for gameplay styles.

"Splatoon 2 has been more about specials and staying alive; those risky moves had to be dialed down since you couldn't respawn as quickly," Hitzel said. "It makes thinking ahead and playing smart more important."

Most competitive Splatoon players believe the meta developed in the sequel is more fun to play and watch. Splatoon 2 encourages more teamwork and coordinated pushes to take advantage of the game's variety of special attacks such as the Inkjet and Tenta Missiles.

Nintendo's active approach to balance has continued to keep competitive Splatoon fresh and has been the best example of the company's support for esports. At E3, producer Hisashi Nogami confirmed that Splatoon 2 post-launch support, including additional balance patches, weapons and maps, would continue further into 2018.

Although most in the community believe that Nintendo will never provide huge prize pools or official circuits, tournament organizers have received social media marketing support and equipment setups that have made putting on events easier.

"I don't think Nintendo will ever be at the level of supporting prize pools; they don't see that as where they want their games to go," EndGameTV's Erik Jacome said. "I think they want a presence at the grassroots level. They want to help enable organizers like us."

There are still some challenges for Nintendo and Splatoon 2, though.

The accessibility of competitive multiplayer is still an issue, Jacome said. Casual players face a barrier to entry, even if they've enjoyed their time with the game, in needing to grind to reach the multiplayer experience.

"One of the most important things that Nintendo can do is open up the base game," Jacome said. "For a lot of people just starting out, you can't play with others in squads until you are at a certain level -- a lot of people are just playing alone online."

Jacome also said Nintendo's lack of dedicated servers, the uncertainty of the future paid online service and in-game restrictions like prohibiting players from joining squads until they get to a certain level are only hurting the longevity of the series.

"The challenge we've run into has been tapping into that casual audience," he said. "I think Nintendo is aware of these issues, and hopefully they'll get fixed, but right now it's just another barrier."

Despite these concerns, the excitement at the Belasco and events like Smash'N'Splash 4 is only growing. Nintendo's continued work with the Splatoon 2 community might not be pumping money into the scene, but it is lending a hand to the do-it-yourself approach Splatoon fans have taken since the competitive scene's inception.

That sense of ownership and passion is at the core of the Splatoon community. It's what has community members excited for the future they're building.

"The scene will continue to grow, the grassroots will keep working. I can see more sponsors coming in," Hitzel said. "As a community we have been on a constant upward trend, and I don't see that stopping now."