Super Smash Bros. tournaments take Central New York

Central New York's video game tournament, Syracuse Smash, celebrated its 50th biweekly tournament on August 19.

A woman in a pink evening gown with long golden hair stands opposite of an anthropomorphic fox in a green jumpsuit and silver vest. They’ll soon have mere minutes to knock each other out of bounds until one runs out of lives—or until the clock runs out.

Such is the basic gameplay of Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. franchise. The series has become wildly popular among competitive gamers, but not on purpose, according to Austin “TheEvilTurnip” Hernandez, former event coordinator for Binghamton Smash.

“You’ll find these groups wherever passion for the game exists, which now is all over the globe.”
- Erik Garb

“Nintendo makes party and family games,” said Hernandez. “The fact that Smash Bros. became competitive was an accident.”

Hernandez is one of a few hundred people who take part in Central New York Smash Bros. tournaments.

In North America alone, the Smash Bros. franchise has sold 20.05 million games, according to VGChartz’s game database. National tournaments such as EVO in Nevada, GENESIS in California, The Big House in Michigan, and Super Smash Con in Virginia attract up to nearly 5,000 attendees. Even more fans watch the tournaments on ESPNU and Disney XD or online using Twitch, a live-streaming service. Over 2 million dollars have been awarded over the course of 2,143 tournaments, according to E-Sports Earnings, with top players winning over $100,000. Some players even have sponsors that cover tournament entrance fees and travel expenses, according to Hernandez.

Regional and local tournaments exist as well, but operate on a much smaller scale. For fans in Syracuse and the surrounding area, there’s Syracuse Smash, which celebrated its 50th biweekly tournament at Cloud City Comics and Toys on August 19.

The first publicized Smash Bros. tournament was held by Matt "MattDeezie" Dahlgren in 2002, according to ESPN. The Syracuse Smash and its tournaments were started by Erik “TheManaLord” Garb roughly three years ago when he moved to Syracuse, New York.

Years before starting Syracuse Smash, Garb had attended a fighting-style esports event at Cloud City which gave him the idea to hold tournaments at the comic book store. He reached out to owner Jeff Watkins, who is big on community involvement. 

“Everything we do is superhero,” said Watkins. “Whether that’s buying somebody’s comic collection or if we’re asked for a donation, we do what a superhero would do.”

Now, every other Saturday, between 50 and 100 players show up to play Smash Bros., according to Garb. The tournaments are often set up like other esports with double-elimination brackets. Once eliminated from the main bracket, players join the “losers bracket.” The top player from each bracket face off in the final round. Games are played one-on-one and in teams of two. Rules vary based on which version of the game is being played.

While it’s not the most popular esport, it is the largest grassroots one, according to Garb. Other game developers pour money into tournaments and the community surrounding their games. Yet Nintendo has avoided even acknowledging the community that’s been built around Smash Bros., according to Garb.

“The people make it happen,” said Garb. “You’ll find these groups wherever passion for the game exists, which now is all over the globe.”

Unlike other areas where Smash Bros. is popular, the communities in Upstate New York are fairly spread out, according to high school junior Jack “ThoughtfulJack” McGuirk. While this makes it harder to travel to other local-level tournaments, it makes the community tightly knit. Competitors spend so much time together that they see each other as friends first, said Hernandez.

“Most Smash players in general are just happy to help each other out,” said Hernandez, “even if it’s your opponent.”

The nature of these games have attracted a younger audience when compared with other esports, according to McGuirk. Smash Bros. as a franchise—and specifically the Wii U version, often called Smash 4—has less of a learning curve than other games. Nintendo also releases a new version for each new console, so every few years a new wave of players joins the community.

Smash 4 also increased the number of playable characters to 58, offering greater diversity. This gave Magdhi “Mags” Hill, a college student from Syracuse, the chance to start with a player he identified with: Fox from “Star Fox.” 

“I started using him because I see myself in him,” said Hill. “Up until 11th grade, I was really short and skinny, but fast. He fights like I do. But now that I'm good, I play him because he’s so mobile and can exert so much pressure on my opponents.”

Using characters from other franchises, Nintendo allows newcomers to quickly feel familiar with the game. Jacob “Naga” Markusz, an incoming freshman at Onondaga Community College, was excited to use one of his favorite characters, Mario, when he started. But the game’s complexity and the nurturing community are what keeps players coming back.

“The community is absolutely fantastic; everyone will try to help you and get to know you at the same time,” said Markusz. “They kind of are like family to me.”

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