Smash Ultimate ushers in potential for sustainable circuits

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate made waves at winter major Don't Park on the Grass 2018. Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

It's been 12 years since the "Golden Age of Melee," the first competitive Smash circuit that ran nationwide through cities like Orlando, Chicago and New York. Major League Gaming had tapped into something special at exactly the right time, bringing forward a hype the community hadn't experienced previously.

Since then, the community has grown into a massive network of tournaments across the country, making it difficult for organizers to unite efforts and find enough funding to make something stick. While progress in fixing those issues moved slowly, the release of Smash Ultimate could be enough of a spark to get a new circuit up and running.

"Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will definitely bring more incentive for someone to put a circuit together. There is a huge opportunity for investment there," said Genesis tournament organizer Sheridan Zalewski. "There are so many problems that a well organized circuit would fix, including giving a narrative structure to the whole community."

Most organizers that ESPN spoke to believe that a national circuit is the next step in competitive Smash. It could help organize the scattered network of events and organizers, give players a clear path to improving, and provide a consolidated way to push for sponsors and funding.

"There hasn't ever been a true community circuit at the national level that really involved all of the big events," said Shine series organizer Matthew "MattDotZeb" Zaborowski. "Localized circuits, individual to regions, that involve most of the local events and track player standings over time into a final invitational are more frequent."

Competitive Smash has gone through a few major circuit attempts in the past, but nothing has remained sustainable enough to stick around long. The most recent attempt was the Smash Masters League, a series of tournaments hosted by Esports Arena (ESA) that featured official events at their locations in Santa Ana, Oakland and Las Vegas. Other major and regional events were part of a point system that determined the seeding for a championship tournament that was scheduled for December.

Unfortunately, the league got off to a rough start and never reached completion. Confusion surrounded what tournaments were included in the system. There was no centralized hub to get information, and there was little marketing to get more eyes on the official events. This gave the Smash Masters League a flimsy foundation to stand on.

Ultimate's December release date was the nail in the league's coffin, since most interest in Super Smash Bros. Wii U will have moved on by the end of the year.

"There has been a lot of changes that have come up with Ultimate's announcement, and right now the league is effectively halted due to them," ESA's Smash Project Manager Stephenson "BAM" Bamidele told ESPN. "There are plans for it to come back in 2019. Ultimate's reveal has made the landscape clearer so it's easier for us to make decisions, but we're not ready to announce official details yet."

Bamidele confirmed that new staff members had joined the ESA since the beginning of the league, meaning more coordination with community members and organizers across the country that would hopefully bring in more unification to the scene. All remaining events that were part of the league are going to be independent while they work out the details for their 2019 attempt.

"We're talking about how we can build something out that can accommodate those players who traveled and competed with the intention to get to the championship this year," Bamidele added. "We understand that and we want to do right by these guys."

Ultimate's release, while causing harm to the league's inaugural season, may be the push that the community needs to finally create a circuit that sticks. It's given sponsors and organizers a clearer look into the future, since a Smash entry on Switch hadn't been confirmed until earlier this year. It'll also bring many players, viewers and interested companies back into the fold. Although no one knows where Nintendo stands, few believe they'll change their typical lack of support for the competitive scene.

But regardless of excitement, two major challenges still stand, including finding a way for the majority of the community to band together into one series and securing enough funding to keep it going after one year.

"Sustainable is the key word here. I do think it begins with the largest tournaments banding together and selling to sponsors as a group," Zaborowski said. "As little as we like it, these events do require money and being able to sell a group of the largest tournaments can net each event more from sponsors than they could individually."

Zaborowski went on to say that sponsorships can't be the only source of continuous income -- other forms of monetization like tiered entry costs or merchandising could work, but no one has gotten that far before to see if it was a feasible option.

"You need to unify all the tournaments since the legitimacy of a circuit is based off which events are part of it," Zalewski said. "Not just the major ones, you need to find some way to involve all the regionals and even the locals. It's a huge project if you want to involve everyone playing Smash, but if you're not doing that, what's the point of your circuit besides self promotion?"

Most organizers also emphasized that while a circuit would need to include the majority of the community, it would also need major representation from within it. Organizers would have to be recognizable faces that players trust, and not someone that might be there for profit alone.

Organizers have talked about the possibility of a major circuit in Smash for years, but with most splitting their time between Smash, full-time careers and their families, it's hard to dedicate the time needed to effectively set one up. With Ultimate only a few months away, many believe that we'll start to see the makings of the most successful Smash series yet, but whether it turns out to be the Smash Masters League or something else remains unclear.

"The community has and will continue to exceed expectations for a grassroots scene," Zaborowski said. " As long as the scene continues to grow I would be surprised if a full community circuit doesn't emerge over the next 5 years."