Nintendo hopes to broaden competitive Smash, Splatoon player bases

Members of Team Southeast hoist their titles from the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate North America Open finals in Boston this weekend at PAX East. The trio earned a spot at the world championships on June 8 in Los Angeles at the E3 convention. Courtesy of NintendoVS

BOSTON -- The Super Smash Bros. Ultimate North America Open finals at PAX East didn't feature top esports competitors, but for game developer Nintendo, that was fine.

The company opted to use its more casual ruleset for this online qualifying event, bucking the esports community and leaving many upset in the process. But for Nintendo, the open and its Boston finale weren't about creating the next Genesis or Big House. The company is aiming to bring in new, younger players to the world of competitive Smash.

Nintendo didn't make its decision out of a lack of understanding of the Smash world: The game developer expected this response from hardcore fans who weren't the target of the promotion.

"We look at it as sort of -- particularly with these tournaments -- as being an opportunity for people to get their first taste of tournament play," said Bill Trinen, the director of product marketing at Nintendo.

Trinen has been with Nintendo for the last 20 years and is one of the company's most vocal and boisterous esports advocates. Whether it be Melee, Ultimate or Splatoon 2, Trinen engages with top players on Twitter and even laments when some of his favorite players, like VG Boot Camp and Red Bull's Masaya "aMSa" Chikamoto, lose in tournaments.

And being with Nintendo for so long, Trinen is all too aware of the passion of its esports fans. He saw the Open as an event for newcomers with the goal of easing new players into the competitive scene. That's why Nintendo opted to leave items on, even if it added a bit of randomness to matches.

"We'll start with a more casual ruleset, and over the course of the tournament it starts to focus in on less items and things like that," Trinen said. "And it's really geared towards making that initial opportunity as broad as possible so anybody can feel like, 'I have a chance.'"

Nintendo had 10,000 entrants for the North American Open, and Trinen noticed the finalists were not the typical players you'd see at major Smash events. The finals were a three-on-three regional competition, with the three members of the Southeast region winning the title and getting the opportunity to play at the world championships on June 8 in Los Angeles during E3.

Details of the world championships for Ultimate and Splatoon 2 are still slim, but like past Nintendo events, players will be competing for bragging rights and not prize pools.

"Our hope is then that they'll go on and be able to compete and perhaps start to climb the echelon on the more competitive side of things," Trinen said.

So, if the goal for Nintendo is to take a new generation of competitively-curious Smash fans and convert them into full-blown Genesis and Evolution attendees, the question is, why?

Well, over the last five years Nintendo, has been quietly supporting events like Genesis, CEO and Frostbite. While Trinen didn't specify anything beyond logistical support, tournament sources told ESPN that sponsorship from Nintendo could range from tweeting out the event to bringing hotly anticipated games to the convention show floor, which would push ticket sales. Tournament sources were careful not to go too much into detail in fear of upsetting Nintendo but said that support was varied and highly valuable.

"One of the things that we have seen over the last five years that we've kind of been doing at some of our own tournaments and some of these partnerships has been a steady increase in the number of people that have been participating," Trinen said. "We've also seen quite a bit in the way of viewership growth," Trinen said.

The benefit for Nintendo is this: By supporting local third-party events, the company can increase participation and interest at its own events. And by coming out to where hardcore fans are, Nintendo can drum up some support for its other titles as well.

One of those games is Splatoon 2, which ran the Splatoon 2 North America Inkling Open finals during PAX East as well. Splatoon 2 is a four-on-four, third-person, team-based shooter that can be best described as a hyperactive game of paintball.

Compared to the Smash scene, Splatoon is far newer and a lot smaller, but the young multiplayer-only game (barring a few single player side missions) is perhaps the most competitively-focused title Nintendo has ever published.

Nintendo saw 500 teams register for the Inkling Open, which equals 2,000 total players. While not nearly as large as the Ultimate total, it does show promise. Nintendo has also partnered with other major Smash events in the past to have Splatoon 2 tournaments on the side. Unfortunately, with so many eyes on the various Smash streams, Splatoon 2 tends to hover around a couple hundred to a few thousand viewers.

"We've been having Splatoon tournaments as a part of our activity over the last couple of years," Trinen said, "and that's helped to drive interest in it, and I think drive participation."