Sitting in the audience at the San Jose Civic Center on the last day of Genesis 3, I could feel the crowd settling down a bit after watching a nail-biting best of five between C9.Mango and Liquid`Hungrybox in the losers bracket finals (or “alternative bracket to success finals”) of melee singles. A fellow behind me suddenly yelled, “Get f*cked, Hungrybox!” I wasn’t sure how to react, but before I could decide, the person next to me turned around in his seat to face the guy who yelled. “That wasn’t very nice,” he commented, firmly but not antagonistically. “Yeah,” I bandwagoned, turning around slightly myself. And … that was it. There was no argument about who was right, no defensiveness or insults, no protests about whether or not Hungrybox deserved it. The yeller accepted the rebuke and didn’t do it again.
All the the action I watched that day was incredibly memorable, from Isai’s ruthless momentum through the lower bracket in Smash 64, to ZeRo’s unbelievably intense set vs. Ranai in Smash 4, to Mango’s dominant 3-1 over Armada only to have the 3-1 tables turned on him when they faced each other again in Melee singles’ grand finals. Aside from all of that, though, I’ll also remember that moment in the crowd when the smasher next to me took the time and the risk to stand up for something: being courteous to someone even if you don’t like something about them, and even if you can hide behind the anonymity of a crowd.
This is fascinating to me because it’s not necessarily an expected trajectory as an esport grows from basements to big-time. If anything, one would expect that the community would lose its friendliness, its homeyness, its niceness, as the crowds grow larger and larger and the gap between the casual competitive smasher/spectator and the full-time pro widens.
To understand my reasoning, it might help to know my background. I first encountered the SSBM community in 2008 as a Bostonian StarCraft nerd interested in esports communities, and it felt like all the tournaments I went to – Mass Madness, ROM II, DJ Nintendo’s birthday smashfest in the Bronx – had this consistent core of talented players, some of whom have become some of the most recognizable smashers in the scene today. They saw each other at tournaments all the time and played against and alongside each other, so they had reason to treat each other with care and respect. They still do.
Today, I imagine that the incredible growth of the scene means that it’s less feasible to feel a human connection to people outside of one’s local community (much less people one only knows through YouTube videos or Twitch streams). The less of a connection there is, the easier it is to dehumanize people and see them only as the win/loss stats, the gimmicky player, the one who totally let you down in the finals after you bet your friend they would win. The easier it is to dehumanize people, the easier it is to be careless and cruel. In other communities I’ve seen, “bm” (bad manner) or trolling can be officially frowned upon but secretly cheered on for its drama and shock value. It would not have surprised me if Smash had developed this kind of perspective, at least in part.
And yet, even though people at Genesis 3 seemed to love rooting for M2K’s opponents at every single match he was in, Jason’s post in the Facebook event announcing that he had found his lost suitcase had tons of likes and nothing but positive, supportive comments.
The Smash Sisters crew battle – the first of its kind at a major tournament – felt like a completely normal event, with members of all genders cheering uproariously and discussing competitors’ gameplay skill as opposed to appearance. Huge props to EmilyWaves, Milktea, and the other organizers and competitors for making it happen.
ZeRo apologized on Twitter for jumping out of his seat after his match win against Ranai, even though he had acted out of sheer relief and excitement as opposed to malice.
The mystifying-yet-adorable “scrub that dish” chant heard from Axe’s fans was actually a euphemism for a less appropriate phrase that the community “cleaned up when we became more of an esport.”
There’s an amazing combination of sportsmanship, citizenship, and good humor that has matured here over the years. As someone who works in community management for online games as a career, I can tell that Smash really stands out in terms of how much it feels like people care about maintaining high standards for behavior in their community. It’s not perfect – nothing is – and folks who are more involved in the community know its areas for improvement better than I do, but it makes a difference.
Why point all this out? It’s because I really appreciate it. I came back to a scene after disappearing for seven years and saw people’s eyes pop as they exclaimed how great it was to see me. I was invited to join the NorCal Smash sisters crew for next time even though I hadn’t even brought a controller to the tournament (whoops). Mango gave me an ineffable, chill smile and fistbump after his long day of top 8, and Armada was sincerely gracious when I told him I enjoyed watching his games. There’s a high that I get when I realize that I can let my guard down and be an earnest, happy person enjoying a competitive game and expressing my enthusiasm without worrying about negative vibes.
There’s a reason Smash has come so far on its own steam, even making the front page of the esports section of ESPN. Counter-Strike might have its own televised league, and DotA 2 might have its $18M prize pools, but the reason I root for Smash hits much closer to home. I’m rooting for the ascendance of a supportive, resilient community despite having less of almost everything compared to the larger games. I hope Smash can become a voice for the power of niceness on the grand stage of global esports. I think we’d all be better for it.
To the Smash community: thank you all for doing what you’re doing – I can’t wait to see what happens for Smash in 2016.