The People vs. Nintendo: How a Nintendo C&D is sparking a revolution in the Smash Bros. community

The weekend of November 21 was eagerly anticipated by members of the competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee community, with players, commentators and spectators primed and ready to celebrate the 19th anniversary of their beloved game’s release with Smash Summit 10 Online, the community’s first online foray into the popular Smash Summit invitational tournament event.

However, this anticipation would sour on November 19, as community members learned the sudden news of a cease-and-desist letter being sent by Nintendo to organizers of The Big House Online, another highly anticipated online tournament for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Melee scheduled for early December, forcing the immediate cancellation of the event and leaving the community in disarray.

The news was crushing to the passionate community, with some members fearing a looming shutdown of the ongoing Summit tournament and a potential end to the online Melee tournament experience that has been so crucial to keeping the scene thriving throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ryan Ford, a veteran player and commentator, was one of many community figures to speak out against Nintendo’s decision.

“Especially during this pandemic, netplay is the only thing we have for competition, entertainment, and even some people’s profession and livelihood. It’s unbelievable that Nintendo would be so vindictive that they want to take that away from us, especially during all the hardships this year.”

In Nintendo’s statement regarding the situation, the company cited “use of illegally copied versions of the game in conjunction with a mod called “Slippi” during their online event” as the reason for issuing a cease-and-desist to The Big House tournament organizers.

Slippi, a software mod released in June 2020, enables Melee players to experience smooth, low-latency gameplay through instant direct connection and matchmaking via an online infrastructure, something which the 2001 Nintendo Gamecube title never natively supported.

Slippi operates through the Dolphin emulator, a program which enables users to play Gamecube and Wii games on PC with access to the proper game files. Emulation has historically fallen into a legal grey area, considering that while creating and using an emulator for any gaming console is considered legal, the files necessary to run games can only be legally obtained by extracting the files from the player’s own physical copy of the game.

This distinction has been cited by many fans as a rebuttal to Nintendo’s claim that “illegally copied versions of the game” are required to play Melee online, since there is no method of proving that players downloaded the game files from an external source instead of extracting the files themselves.

Joseph “Savestate” El-Khouri, a competitive Melee player and speedrunner, offered their thoughts on how Nintendo has been able to maintain the upper hand over Smash communities whenever the corporation chooses to step in and exert their legal power.

“Because of the strict IP and copyright laws that exist in the USA and throughout the world, Nintendo can shut down any stream or distribution of their IP for any reason at any time for no reason in particular. Because of this, they can feint with baseless threats like “Emulators are Illegal” or “Slippi Requires Illegal ROMs” while holding onto that trump card that actually has the power in shutting things down,” El-Khouri explained.

Edwin Budding, author of The Book of Melee and one of the Melee community’s most prominent historians, claimed that “As long as intellectual property is treated globally as this sacred cow that companies “own” and not more practically as a service after enough time spent within the marketplace, we will always be stuck in this bind with this company.”

Budding added that “Nintendo doesn’t [care] about us because it is a company that wants its fans to be mindless consumers and to never create or do anything that even remotely carries the threat of hurting their bottom line.”

The cease-and-desist controversy is the latest in a long and storied history of Nintendo interfering with operations within the Smash community. Most notoriously, after the Melee community rallied together to raise over $94,000 for breast cancer research to have their game inserted into the lineup of Evolution 2013 — the largest fighting game tournament series in the world — Nintendo denied organizers the right to put on the Melee tournament two days before the event began. The company received massive backlash for this from across gaming media and reversed their decision by within a matter of hours.

Melee fans were not alone in voicing their anger towards Nintendo, as many Ultimate community figures and popular content creators from throughout the gaming landscape and beyond joined forces and within several hours, “#FreeMelee” skyrocketed to becoming the top trend on Twitter.

Longtime Melee player Austin “Redd” Self has been fervently spreading the word about the fight to protect Slippi and the future of the competitive scene.

““#FreeMelee” is important because our voices matter. Nintendo cannot be allowed to continue to do what it does behind the scenes, making promises and breaking them, and then acting like it’s no big deal,” Self said. “If calling them out and giving them negative publicity is the only way to get a somewhat genuine response, then that is the route that we are willing to take.”

Many players shared their most cherished experiences with Melee as both a plea to Nintendo to reconsider their stance in a manner similar to the Evolution 2013 situation, and a rallying cry to exhibit the strength of a community that has endured for nearly two decades despite frequent hardships and setbacks.

Ford has been vocal in sharing his love and support for Melee in the wake of the controversy.

“Melee is the reason I’ve had many unique experiences, met many people around the world, wild stories to tell and why I have gotten to see many places I probably never would have.” Ford said. “It was something that I and others had to maintain and grow until it became self-sufficient and was definitely worth spending half my lifetime thus far for.”

For Linus “Pipsqueak” Nordin, a top European player, Melee was a saving grace in a time of sheer desperation.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Melee likely saved my life and has continued to inject colour and passion into my life for the past few years in a fantastic way,” Nordin stated. “It started as my perfect escape, something to let me forget the difficulties of my regular life. But it ended up as something so much bigger than that.”

For several days following the news, numerous Smash community figures came out with stories detailing several other long-rumored but rarely spoken-of instances of Nintendo interfering in the development of events for not only Melee, but nearly every other game in the Smash Bros. series.

These stories and threads included Project M, a fan-made mod of Super Smash Bros. Brawl which added new content and tweaked the gameplay mechanics to make the game more competitively viable in a similar fashion to Melee. At the peak of the game’s popularity in 2015, many major tournament streams sabotaged the rapidly growing Project M community by quietly phasing it out of their lineups and forcing commentators to not mention the game in an effort to appease Nintendo into offering material support for their tournaments, something which the company rarely ever followed through on.

“Reading the thread detailing every event and opportunity Nintendo has ruined for the community is both distressing and lamentable,” Nordin said. “Hindering the game does nothing but hurt Nintendo’s biggest fans. Disenfranchising your community quickly turns your loudest voices of support into your loudest critics.”

Nintendo — a developer known for their accessible, family-friendly approach to game design — has historically rejected the notion that their games should be experienced in a competitive setting. Masahiro Sakurai, creator and director of the Super Smash Bros. series, initially conceptualized the series as a departure from the execution-heavy fighting games of the ‘90s, so when fans of Melee began to discover the many oversights in the game’s mechanics which made for a deeper competitive experience, Sakurai intentionally designed the following games with mechanics that aimed to shorten the skill gap and distance the series from the technical depth of the series’ Gamecube entry.

Curiously, Nintendo has shown a great deal of material support for the competitive communities of several of the company’s other intellectual properties, such as Arms and Splatoon, despite these scenes being generally less successful than that of both Melee and Ultimate.

Nintendo’s neglect of Smash in favor of their other IPs came as no shock to John “KoDoRiN” Ko, who feels that Nintendo has effectively shunned its most lucrative competitive community.

“We have the infrastructure. Nintendo didn’t expect that and realized that despite all of our roadblocks, we can stand on our own whereas other IPs don’t have such infrastructure and are unable to take off,” Ko explained. “Even then, it’s not like Nintendo is really helping their other IPs that much compared to other developers. They just realized that we’re doing fine on our own and use us for free marketing.”

The ability of the competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee community to persist as a fully grassroots operation for almost two decades speaks wonders about the passion its players and other figures have towards the game. The game has certainly cemented its legacy as one of the most popular competitive fighting games of all-time, but many within the community feel that the scene could grow to much greater heights within the realm of mainstream esports if Nintendo could either support the scene financially and materially — as most major developers do for their competitive games and as Nintendo does for several of their own — or simply let go of their stranglehold on a game which they no longer monetize in any form.

El-Khouri still holds onto their hypothetical view of a Nintendo-backed Melee scene and imagines what it could potentially entail if the company wasn’t insistent on sabotaging any progress the community conjures together.

“It could easily become one of the biggest esports of all time with official backing from someone like Nintendo. We’re talking ESPN coverage, millions of dollars to help sponsor worldwide events, the works,” El-Khouri said. “Instead, Nintendo as a company is operating in the stone age and would rather shut down anything they don’t understand instead of trying to work with the community to make probably one of the greatest esports deals of all time.”

Michael “Radar” Gallagher, a YouTube content creator, shared his perspective on Nintendo’s relationship with Melee as a mainstream esport.

“If Melee was to ever be encouraged by Nintendo, I would assume it would be because we’re in an age where esports is so ubiquitous and so mainstream that it’s so foolish to not engage with it,” Gallagher stated. “I feel we’re already at that period, but in 10 years if Melee is still going and they’re still not engaging in some form of developer support, it would be a bit shocking.”

Smash players from across the aisle have begged Nintendo for any tangible form of support for years, but this sentiment seems to have largely gone out the window with the most recent revelations made regarding the cease-and-desist and past instances of the company blocking major third-party companies from running Smash tournament circuits that would have been lucrative opportunities for all parties involved, most importantly the players and other community members themselves.

Esports has boomed in popularity over the past decade, and many major teams and sponsors have taken notice of Melee’s potential to shine on the big stage, having extended an olive branch to popular members of the community through contractual sponsorships and other forms of support. However, with a lack of developer support uncommon among major esports, the prize pools have remained paltry and many hard-working community representatives have lost their sponsorships due to lack of revenue, thus showing that most cannot sustain themselves by investing themselves into competitive Melee.

Gallagher explains this “esports brain drain” phenomenon that has taken place in the scene, saying that “People get really involved with Melee, they run tournaments, make content or commentate with these really strong personalities and then they end up getting pulled to other games where their talents are more appreciated and compensated financially.”

Throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community has kept itself alive through a wide variety of one-off and recurring tournaments using Slippi online play which are organized by streamers within the scene, such as Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, one of the most successful Smash players of all-time, who hosts the monthly Frame Perfect Series for his Twitch subscribers, and the “Gaylee” Discord with their weekly tournaments for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Some of the biggest highlights of the online tournament era have come courtesy of Ludwig Ahgren, a popular variety streamer on Twitch with roots in the Melee community, who hosted the Ludwig Ahgren Championship Series (LACS) 2 tournament in July with a prize pool of $25,001, making it the tenth-biggest prize pool in the game’s competitive history.

Following the announcement of Nintendo’s cease-and-desist, Ahgren challenged the company to force their hand by announcing that the third installment in the LACS tournament series would have 100% of the prize pool to go the charity of the winner’s choice, with Ahgren putting forth $10,000 out of pocket towards the prize pool and putting any donations to his Twitch channel towards the pool. As of November 24, at least $44,500 has been raised.

The future of Melee is shrouded in mystery. Nintendo’s actions against The Big House have garnered lots of eyes on the scene that would not have been there otherwise, but there exists an imminent threat in the company holding the power to completely shut down Melee’s core online infrastructure at any time, thus forcing the community to wait until the pandemic has passed and potentially rendering all of that earned attention largely null and void.

Ko claims that “Overall, we don’t have much power individually, sadly. But, as a collective group, I believe we can make a lasting impact that Nintendo will feel in the coming years. It may not be tomorrow, but we will make them regret not supporting us in the coming years.”

The various hashtags in support of the Smash community have steadily gained steam since their ascent to the top of the trending topics, and Self hopes it remains that way.

“It needs to be said to not let this be a passing phase or fad. It needs to be a consistent effort,” Self said. “I am taking the time to tweet about it daily and I urge everyone else to do the same, for the foreseeable future. We are capable of more than we know.”

Super Smash Bros. Melee means so many things to so many fervorous people who will stop at nothing to ensure that the game and community they love will be preserved for decades to come. Regardless of the direction Nintendo chooses to take with Smash moving forward, there will always be so much more Melee to be played.

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