You wouldn't think that the competitive Super Smash Bros. scene has a money problem while sitting in the mezzanine at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, watching top players grace the stage in front of strobe lights and a giant display for the Red Bull God’s and Gatekeepers Tournament. But, according to the tournament organizers, players, and commentators I spoke to, the scene surrounding the popular Nintendo fighting games has never had enough money flowing through it, few events across the country can break even, let alone make a profit. That lack of funds has always been a problem, but it’s starting to bring up more serious issues within the community that need to be addressed.
“The scene doesn’t really invest in itself anymore,” says Wynton ‘prog’ Smith, a retired Super Smash Brothers Melee commentator and competitor. “And the most difficult thing is that since we don’t have that kind of first-party support from Nintendo, we have to make do on our own.”
Nintendo has acknowledged the competitive smash community, but unlike developers of other esport titles they’ve remained hands off for the majority of tournaments and events. They declined to comment when we reached out to them about this story.
While there may not be a lot of money to go around in the community, the funds that do circulate go largely towards pot bonuses, money that’s usually contributed by a sponsor on top of the tournament pot that gets split by the winners, says at least one event organizer. These bonuses can reach up to $30,000 for some tournaments, but the amount depends on the size and type of tournament, and are usually designated by the sponsor.
“Pot bonuses have become common across the community,” says Champ Tangwongkitsiri, the organizer of Red Bull's Gods and Gatekeeper’s Tournament. “Potential sponsors look at previous events, and they always see that big amount next to the company name, and they end up wanting the same thing.”
Pot bonuses serve one primary function, attracting top players like Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma and Joseph "Mango" Marquez to tournaments. They bring higher viewership and attendance to the venue and streams, leading to more revenue. Currently, those numbers are the biggest indication of a successful event. Although, “event expenses are so high that most tournaments can only break even,” says Luis Suarez, the director of Panda Global’s statistic team. “If they offer a pot bonus to attract top players, they are sacrificing everything else.”
“Everything else” can include extra console setups, pay for the staff and streamers, money for better production as well as many other event related expenses that end up pushing organizers into the red, Suarez says. And in the end, that sacrifice only benefits a small part of the community.
“Pot bonuses pay the top eight, sometimes the top sixteen [players],” says Daniel “tafokints” Lee, a Melee coach for Team Cloud9. “It doesn’t help the hundreds of other players that attend the event and don’t win, or anyone else who comes to watch.”
Most popular tournaments prioritize the needs of top players, and give little incentive for other competitors, attendees, and the greater public to come and get involved within the community. That means that players who don’t place, typically don’t get paid at all. That focus also prevents tournaments from paying the people who help run different brackets, manage the production, and in some cases the tournament organizers and streamers themselves.
“It’s about sustainability, it’s reasonable to take these sacrifices when you’re young,” Lee says. “But when you get older and things like student loans, kids, and real life costs come up you’re gonna want to do something full time and not live paycheck to paycheck.”
“There is a huge amount a volunteering that happens all across the scene right now,” says Smash commentator Rodney Conyers. “You have to put a ton of hours in before you see any revenue.” And the streamers, production specialists, and tournament organizers that do get paid rarely get enough to get by on that income alone. “If the community doesn’t grow, a lot of these people will need to move on from Smash to make a living,” Lee says. “And these are incredibly talented people who’ll be difficult to replace, especially after people see why they are leaving.”
Community members like Suarez and Lee fear that Smash can’t continue the way it’s operating now, leaving the majority of players, tournament workers, and audience out in the cold with such a heavy focus on pot bonuses. Other esports have been able to use these bonuses to catch the eye of the public, but with far more money that the Smash scene can offer. “We don’t want to see the community fizzle out because of this,” says Phil “EE’ Visu, a popular commentator. “I don’t want to be in this position next year.”
A good start, it appears, could be redistributing pot bonus money so that it can trickle down past the top players in the form of staff wages and better events. But some top players rely on the pot bonuses as part of their livelihood, even though it's incredibly difficult to actually live off playing competitively. “Any time you touch pot bonuses you touch the living of these players,” says Suarez. “But top players know you can’t balance your checkbook knowing you’ve won the lottery, there is no guarantee that they’ll actually get that money.”
Knowing that, some top players argue that pot bonuses shouldn’t be as emphasized as they are, but the misconception that top players and streamers are incredibly well off makes it difficult to reform the pot bonus structure. “Everything has a grassroots feel but it’s dressed up as a glamorous esport,” says Conyers. “Everyone thinks we’re living luxuriously, but there really isn’t enough money for anyone to be able to make a living.”
Tracking the actual money these players make is difficult since it involves players travelling all over the country to tournaments that are coordinated separately, some players even compete at multiple versions of Smash, making the scene itself somewhat disjointed. A top player might make $120,000 over ten years, while a player ranked ten spots lower might only bring in $30,000.
The consensus among those interviewed for this story appears to be that the fundamental issue that the competitive community faces is finding a way to redistribute funds to benefit the entire community and not just a small number of talented players. Many of those interviewed believe one answer is the convention-tournament hybrid Super Smash Con that takes place annually in Chantilly, Virginia. It includes other convention-style elements like panels, cosplay contests, and booths that give both the public and players who’ve been knocked out something to keep them engaged.
“It’s not just a tournament, it’s an event that you can come to for a bunch of reasons,” commentator Visu says. “Not just to watch or play.” Super Smash Con has had no pot bonus but still brings in more players than tournaments with tens of thousands in bonuses. It also gives attendees, hardcore Smash players and non-players alike, a memorable experience that they can’t get at a traditional tournament.
A more accessible event like Smash Con can lead to higher attendance, which leads to more money coming in through admissions. Couple that with the money that would go to pot bonuses and you’d have some funds for tournament workers, production staff, and other support staff that are currently neglected. Nothing will get fixed overnight, there just isn’t enough money to go around right now. But redirecting what money there is could help foster growth in the community, encouraging community members to stick around if event organizers could actually pay them.
That money is also needed for marketing, since events are “posted and shared by smashers to other smashers, who tweet and talk about it with other smashers,” Suarez says. Neglecting the interests that gamers outside the community might have when attending a competitive event. So looking at alternatives, including an option like Smash Con, is essential to attracting new players to the scene and reinvesting money back into the community in order to build a stronger foundation.
“Pot bonuses are still important, but they shouldn’t be as overemphasized as they are—it’s a careful balance that we are still figuring out,” Suarez says. “The stagnation in the scene comes from the lack of quality of events and I think that’s something we need to address.”
Reforming the pot bonus structure won’t solve all of competitive Smash’s funding problems, but that money could be used in a way that benefits the entire community. “We need to cater to the masses and not just the top players,” Lee says. “Having more reasons for people and players to come back is going to be important. We’re never going to reach new markets and bring in more money unless we make a change.”