Gaming

The competitive Super Smash Bros. scene needs to grow up, or disappear

"We have to make it very clear that this is not a safe space to be an abuser.”

It's been a historically traumatic year for the fans and players of Super Smash Bros., the widely popular fighting game by Nintendo that's spawned an enthusiastic global scene of gamers. For the victims at the center of those events, this year has been life-changing.

Over a few days in early July, dozens of people accused some of the most recognizable professional players of sexual assault, rape, harassment, and grooming of underage players. Former pros and social media personalities, like Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios and Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada, have admitted to these allegations against them. All told, more than 50 people came forward, gaming site Kotaku has reported.

The movement started long-overdue conversations about how the community needs to change in order to root out the rampant abuse that has long taken place via direct messages, in shared gaming houses, and at tournament after-parties.

The competitive Smash community came to an abrupt stop when the Covid-19 pandemic made in-person events impossible. (A number of online tournaments — like the Quarantine Series — have tried to fill this gap, though Nintendo's notoriously spotty netplay led many of the biggest competitors to dismiss these events.) This break in the usual competitive scene has given once-silenced community members the strength to shine a light on the dark side of professional Smash, says one pro player.

The push to hold Smash’s biggest names accountable by survivors of abuse would have never happened without Covid-19, Smash Ultimate contender Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby tells Inverse.

Buzby has been a globally ranked top-ten Smasher since 2014. He's one of several Smash players signed to the esports organization Team Liquid, which fields international teams for Fortnite, Dota 2, League of Legends, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

“It was the right time for this to happen. I don’t think any of this would have come to light if coronavirus hadn't stopped events,” he says."It was significantly easier for people to talk about [their experiences] knowing that they were not going to see their abusers at events.”

Inverse reached out to more than ten professional Smash Bros. players for this story. Buzby was the only one who agreed to comment on the record.

A grassroots problem

The competitive Smash scene has long prided itself on its grassroots origins, evolving from small pockets of obsessed players in the early 2000s and into enormous tournaments with thousands of entrants from around the world, with little organizational help from Nintendo itself. That scrappy history and the game's cross-generational appeal has made it beloved by tens of millions of fans. But that same absence of infrastructure has also proven to be a double-edged sword. It's now all too clear that this lack of oversight has allowed a toxic and unsafe environment to take root.

Buzby seen on the right playing in a match of 'Smash Ultimate.'ESPAT Media/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Smash’s reckoning comes at a time when the wider gaming industry is confronting allegations of abuse and harassment against some of its most powerful figureheads. The largest fighting-game tournament, EVO 2020 Online, was canceled after sexual abuse allegations surfaced about its co-founder, Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar.

In recent weeks, the pro Smash scene has become a real-time experiment in how a self-governed gaming community can ensure safe space for everyone involved. Tournament organizers, top players, and content creators have come together to propose ideas on how to reshape the Smash community. Without tournaments or large-scale gatherings, these proposals are nothing more than concepts at the moment. There’s still a lot of uncertainty on the type of guidelines and restrictions that could be implemented once events start up again.

One thing is certain: The competitive Smash community will need to act independently, with no assistance from Nintendo, like it always has. Players and fans have again looked to Nintendo to act as a mediating force amid the slew of allegations, even as pros have complained for years about Nintendo’s lack of involvement in the scene. While the company occasionally hosts promotional tournaments, those events often include looser rules in keeping with its family-friendly marketing ethos. Nintendo has mostly stayed away from the competitive Smash community for years, and there's little sign of that changing anytime soon.

'Smash Bros.' tournaments have long been organized and governed their players. It could be time for a major change.Boston Magazine

Representatives from Nintendo declined to respond to Inverse's request for comment on this story. However, in a rare move, the company issued a statement to IGN in late July, expressing support for survivors of abuse:

At Nintendo, we are deeply disturbed by the allegations raised against certain members of the competitive gaming community. They are absolutely impermissible. We want to make it clear that we condemn all acts of violence, harassment, and exploitation against anyone and that we stand with the victims.

Buzby believes the recent scandals have given Nintendo a compelling reason to distance itself further from the competitive Smash community.

“We're going to see Nintendo backing away from events, almost guaranteed, which will lower the quality of many events once they come back,” he says. “I don’t blame Nintendo, given the negative PR around the scene. Maybe it’ll eventually feel safe supporting us, once we’ve shown improvement in how we take care of safety.”

That’s more optimism than many pro players seem to have at the moment.

Nintendo has long kept its distance from the competitive 'Smash' community. There's little hope of that changing now. Stuff We All Get

Ending Smash’s culture of silence

A majority of the allegations involve prominent members of the Smash scene using their status and power in the community to keep the people they abused quiet. That’s prompted legitimate skepticism about whether the community can truly change from within in the weeks and months ahead.

Jacqueline “Jisu” Choe, a popular artist in the community, spoke out on July 2 about her experience living in a shared house with Smash 4 top competitor Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios. She accused Barrios of sending her explicit Craiglist ads for sex workers and hentai when she was 15 years old. Barrios admitted to doing “terrible things,” and his gaming sponsor, Tempo Storm, officially cut ties with him on July 4.

Choe, now in her 20s, told Kotaku she feared speaking out against Barrios at the time because of the backlash she would get from his fans.

“I can’t speak for every other community, but I know in Smash, there was never a voice to speak up and air out the truth. While the world at large has finally reached its boiling point and sparked change through movements like #MeToo, the insularity of Smash culture has made it hard for anyone to talk about anything outside of the game. These types of behaviors have been happening for years, and when sporadically brought up, were quickly swept aside because it upset the people. Even worse are people calling it an attempt to ‘clout-chase’ or ‘stir drama’ because the viewer is incapable of seeing how these players they idolize could be horrible people.”

So far, organizations within the Smash community have responded to these accusations in a piecemeal fashion, in keeping with the scene's diffuse and unofficial structure. There are five major national tournaments organized by a handful of directors, but each of those regions has its own ecosystem of local tournaments. That's made predatory behavior even harder to police and prevent, and it's the single biggest challenge staring down the community as it reevaluates its future.

House of 3000, a major tournament organizer in the Tristate Area, has set up anonymous tip lines that can be used to report misconduct. This information would be passed on to community leaders and event organizers who have the power to ban players from tournaments. A few national tournament organizers have pledged to increase security measures, and Buzby says he's spoken to Tristate Area directors who plan to implement anonymous tip lines. This is a step in the right direction, but the bigger goal of the competitive scene must be to eliminate opportunities for abuse.

Tournament and event organizers plan to instigate anonymous tip lines and limit all-ages 'Smash' events.GoNintendo

What’s next for competitive Smash

For now, the lack of events has given tournament organizers ample time to figure out how to make tournaments safer. Buzby estimates large-scale Smash tournaments in the U.S. won’t take place until mid-2021 at the earliest. That could be pushed into 2022, depending on the country’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic. When tournaments do start up again, there will be immediate changes from tournament organizers.

“We’re going to see very limited alcohol or even an outright ban of it at events,” Buzby tells Inverse. “There has also been talk of passing out wristbands at events to label who is underage and who isn’t. That way there’s clear indication of who’s interacting with who.”

He says esports organizations that have long sponsored Smash tournaments — like Team Liquid and Panda Global — could use their resources to have more staff on the ground to make events more secure. (Panda Global did not respond to requests for comment from Inverse.) Tournaments could also be expanded to include under-18 events to foster a community among younger players, a lot like the Smash Sisters, which puts on women-only brackets.

While these aren’t concrete solutions to competitive Smash’s deep-rooted issues, they could be the start of a more united and caring community. That community will need to be transparent in its dealings with offenders and take a firm stance against any sort of abuse.

“We have to make it very clear that this is not a safe space to be an abuser,” says Buzby. “That’s very important because that was not [the case] before. If there’s no standard for handling this, then it’s much easier to get away with.”

The decade-spanning urge to be the best at Smash isn’t going anywhere. But for the community to grow, it needs to shed past obsessions with elite players to become an inclusive environment where gamers can come together without fear of harm. There’s no one right answer to solving these problems, but the future of competitive Smash depends upon the community’s success in willing this vision into existence through hard work and commitment to change.

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