How Nintendo Is Finally Embracing the Grassroots Competitive Super Smash Bros. Scene

By | September 29, 2022

Like most major corporations, Nintendo is very protective of its brand as a leader of family friendly entertainment. This protectiveness has sometimes come at the expense of the competitive Super Smash Bros. community, which for years has often gone it alone to organize grassroots tournaments and nurture a passion they all share.

But in November 2021, Nintendo announced it was partnering with Panda Global on the first officially licensed Super Smash Bros. Circuit. A series of tournaments throughout 2022 will all lead up to the Panda Cup Finale from December 16 to 18. The Los Angeles event will offer a $100k prize pool for 32 of the best Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Super Smash Bros. Melee players across the country.

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Nintendo Embraces the Grassroots

The Panda Circuit could finally bring Nintendo together with the powerful grassroots community that has grown alongside the popularity of Super Smash Bros. IGN spoke with Nintendo’s Bill Trinen and Panda Global’s Dr. Alan Bunney about what the Panda Circuit means for Super Smash Bros. and its competitive future.

“For [Nintendo], Panda Cup was really an important kind of step for us and finding a way to partner with the community, finding a way that we can partner with a company like Panda who’s been in the community, knows the history of the community, and is really familiar with all of the grassroots efforts that have gone into it,” Trinen says.

The basic structure of the Panda Circuit is broken up into qualifiers at various grassroots tournaments, and existing events like CEO and Dreamhack will field competitors for the Panda Cup Finale. Online qualifiers have also taken place for additional competitors, with the final invitations handed out to players chosen by a panel composed of trusted members of the Super Smash Bros. competitive community.

Nintendo chose Panda for its ability to engage and organize the Smash Bros. grassroots community that has built itself over the years, and give it the official backing of Nintendo’s brand.

“We’ve been in this community for eight and a half years… We understand it very intrinsically. We know what it needs, we know we have that vision. But also we’ve been doing it, we create infrastructure, we create stability,” Bunney explains.

“Smash Bros. kind of epitomizes what has really been at the heart of Nintendo and the smiles that it tries to bring through the entertainment it creates.”

Along with elevating the grassroots tournaments, Panda can also upgrade the health and safety of these events and let these tournaments highlight the players who’ve dedicated themselves to Smash Bros. That’s a key element considering some of the controversies the community has faced over the years.

As for Nintendo, becoming an official partner means that these grassroots events can be taken to a new level of polish, with clear goals and prizes for winners.

“In terms of what we’re bringing to the table obviously number one is the license, and licensing this circuit with Panda means Panda becomes the only officially licesned Super Smash Bros. circuit that there is. That opens up a lot of opportunities,” Trinen explains.

Aside from having access to Nintendo’s partners for potential sponsorship opportunities, Nintendo is also helping with logistics, production, and even helping individual tournaments that make up the building blocks of the Panda Circuit series.

Trinen and Bunney point out that this is a true partnership, and Bunney wanted to clarify exactly what that means: “Some people see this little legalese clause that Nintendo’s not a sponsor at the bottom of some of our trailers and social media things and whatnot,” Bunney says. “They make a big deal about that. That specifically means that Nintendo is not paying us to put advertisements like a sponsor would. That is what a sponsor is… [Nintendo is] truly a partner of us.”

Overcoming Internal Challenges

Nintendo has hosted various Super Smash Bros. events and tournaments over the years, most notably the E3 2018 Super Smash Bros. Ultimate invitational. But the community has also criticized Nintendo for attempting to shut down some grassroots events and competitive ventures.

Trinen says that it is a result of internal challenges that can sometime override the grassroots community.

“We love the grassroots community, we want to see it thrive, we want to see it be strong, but there’s also- we as Nintendo have our own internal challenges,” Trinen says. “For example, if we run into issues where people are trying to do things that aren’t using the brand in a way that’s appropriate, that can be a challenge for us. If people are either not engaging with us or are maybe engaging with us without giving us enough time to be able to work through some of those questions or requests, that becomes a challenge.”

“That’s actually why we wanted to specifically partner with Panda, because they’ve been in the community for a long time as an organization. They’ve been around for a number of years and have been a part of that. But what it does bring is it brings a place where those grassroots tournaments can find a home.”

Bunney says that working with Nintendo elevates the production of these grassroots tournaments. “Nintendo also gives us access to assets that are official from the game, from the brand, and also know the guidelines to be able to assist these events – and doing promotional materials and to do things correctly.” Bunney cites access to “really high quality” character renders which Panda can use for its events.

“I firmly believe that we don’t really want to do the same stuff that everyone else is doing.”

It’s Ultimately About Smash Bros.

The crowning jewel of the circuit is the Panda Cup Finale in December and there’s one thing the Panda Cup has that other esports don’t: Super Smash Bros. itself.

“The thing about Super Smash Bros. – and really competitive Super Smash Bros. – is that there’s a camaraderie there that I think is unique among a lot of games,” Trinen explains.

“The way that game brings people of many different backgrounds together, you get exposed to lots of different types of people and the number of people that have made friends through that grassroots community over the years has, to me, been really touching.”

“I think that to me is really kind of what Nintendo is about. If you even go back to the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System or the Nintendo 64, or even the Wii, a lot of what Nintendo has been about is bringing people together in front of the television to enjoy that fun and enjoy that camaraderie and enjoy a little bit of that competition. Smash Bros. kind of epitomizes what has really been at the heart of Nintendo and the smiles that it tries to bring through the entertainment it creates.”

“I firmly believe that we don’t really want to do the same stuff that everyone else is doing,” Bunney agrees. “Everyone’s got what you think of certain ways for competitive play, you think that everyone wants to be that super cool thing and fog machines and all that stuff. That’s fine, that is totally fine. But we view this and the Panda Cup and what we want to create hopefully is more — it’s going to sound corny, I apologize — but magic.”

“We love the grassroots community, we want to see it thrive, we want to see it be strong.”

Presently the focus is on the Panda Cup final, and while Nintendo and Panda are keen on growing the competitive Smash Bros. scene they’re not ready to discuss plans beyond 2023 just yet. While the E3 2018 invitational was a huge event for the series, there are no plans for adding next year’s E3 to the event schedule just yet.

“I wish I could answer that question, but obviously, I think the E3 news, at least the most recent news, just hit [this week]. I don’t have any plans at the moment, but also we’re still looking at what the future holds and where we might try to put some of those tournaments and what tournaments Nintendo may be looking at running versus what Panda may do on its own for Panda Cup or how the two of those may mix together.”

While Trinen tells IGN to stay tuned, it seems clear that Nintendo is moving forward with competitive Smash Bros. Lucky for them, the enthusiasm and community for the game are already there, waiting for them.

Matt T.M. Kim is IGN’s News Editor. You can reach him @lawoftd.