“We believe in empowering the community.”
Nintendo’s sometimes-back-and-forth perspective on embracing and not embracing esports and its surrounding culture can effectively be explained by that sentiment, which Reggie Fils-Aimé, Nintendo’s president, shared with me at E3 last week.
Esports is about community, sure, but it’s often a lot more orchestrated than that word would imply. When you think about gaming communities, you think about forums, about meetups and casual tournaments, about collaborative efforts to solve mysteries and take down obstacles, about streamers and speedrunners. A lot of that intersects with esports, but esports is also more widely about professional tournaments, about sponsored players and teams, about leagues and rankings and, when it comes down to it, big trophies and cash prizes.
“We talk about it in terms of social and competitive gaming,” Fils-Aimé said. “We don’t see where people need to do big dollar buy-ins to get the team. We’re not believers in sponsoring players and things of that nature. For us, it’s about enabling the community to want to pick up a controller and play the very best they can. Whether that’s in a living room or on a tournament stage, we think that promotes the game and that informs the player on how to play that particular game the best way they can.”
And he has a point. Esports began in a much less structured way than how we see it today. It began with the players, and with their natural drive toward competition. It began with small-scale tournaments amongst friends, and with speedrunners trying to one-up each other simply for the sport of it (or, a development that followed soon after, for various charity runs). It’s only been within the last few years that the structured idea of teams, sponsorships, and buy-ins started to come into the picture in a mainstream way (read: spreading beyond StarCraft’s community). But that’s also the way of things — for anything to be sustainable, it has to make money, and the people involved have to make money, too. That’s where corporate interest in esports has come into play, and that’s how players have begun to make entire careers out of what was once just their hobby and passion.
Esports is, whether it should or should not be, pushing forward along that trajectory as it sweeps across the culture of gaming (it was certainly one of the bigger themes of E3 this year, for instance). Nintendo’s perspective on esports, as suggested by my interview with Fils-Aimé, seems an earnest desire, at least on the surface: the desire to preserve the larger sense of community and good sportsmanship. But it’s also not in keeping with the current state of esports.
Without the sponsorships and without the buy-ins, wouldn’t it be more difficult for people to make their careers out of being a Nintendo IP-specific professional player? Wouldn’t a player be more inclined to go off and play, for instance, Counter-Strike, if that’s where the money is?
“That’s true today. Let’s see what the future looks like,” Fils-Aimé said. “I think that we’re all going to need to see how this is going to evolve. We’re not saying that elements within this competitive gaming area are completely hands-off to us and things that we would never do. It’s still emerging.”
“We’ve been around the space for a long time... We’re not going to do it the same way everybody else does.”
He continued: “One thing that we at Nintendo pride ourselves is we look at trends, we look at what’s happening, and we adapt and course correct as necessary. A number of years ago we did not have a lot of downloadable content. We have a lot now. For us it really is understanding what’s going to be best for the player, what’s going to be best for the community, and what’s going to be best for the company.”
Historically, Nintendo hasn’t always played ball with the trends in esports and its surrounding culture. Nintendo game streamers were hit perhaps the hardest by YouTube’s content and copyright restrictions. Nintendo has attempted to shut down tournaments, citing issues with tournament rules and how their IPs were being played. Though, fortunately, they almost immediately withdrew their cease and desist notices following major fan outcry.
“We’ve been around the space for a long time,” Fils-Aimé said, noting the popularity of the competitive community around Smash Bros. “But, again, we’re going to approach it differently. We’re not going to do it the same way everybody else does.”
In response to my questions about copyright restrictions, Fils-Aimé said that Nintendo’s developers strongly believe that people shouldn’t be able to profit from their IPs.
“Think of it this way: whether you’re Mr. Miyamoto with all of the characters that he’s created, Mr. Sakamoto with the characters he’s created, what have you, it really isn’t fair that someone else is profiting off of your IP,” he said. “That was the stance that we took. And we said, look, if you want to engage with our IP, then join our Nintendo Creator’s program. And we’ll give you benefits in that you’ll get access to executives, you’ll get access to events like what we did in January in NY. We have influencers here spending time with us whether it’s in this area or participating in tournaments. We’ll do things that will benefit you as a creator, but let’s just be reasonable in how you’re profiting off of our IP.”
And in response to the issue of tournament rules, Fils-Aimé said they simply wanted rules to be consistent across the board. “That hasn’t always happened across the wide-range of different tournaments utilizing our IP,” he said. “Our push was, ‘Hey, let’s standardize.’ Let’s standardize how the tournaments flow, let’s standardize how they get executed because that way it really then becomes the best player being able to compete and to win.”
When it comes to their newer titles, where Nintendo has had an opportunity to plan in advance, the company has been more supportive of the scene. Splatoon 2 and Arms are great examples of that. Both were hosted on this year’s E3 showfloor, with tournaments at the front and center of Nintendo’s booth. Nintendo has been hosting their own tournaments, and giving the players a spotlight. They’ve even previously at a third-party tournament (ESL). Nintendo has never liked to follow anyone’s lead but their own — this could very well be reflective of Nintendo getting up to speed with the growing atmosphere of esports and attempting to make it its own, stumbles over previous years aside.
Reggie Fils-Aimé’s points were fair. But, as he said himself, let’s see what the future looks like.