The Competitive 'Super Smash Bros.' Meltdown Continues

Next week's Smash World Tour Finale event was canceled, and that's just the beginning.

It’s been a longggg week in competitive “Super Smash Bros.”

One of esports’ longest-standing titles, the Smash community has seen mudslinging between two of its most notable tournament organizers and drawn additional fire for game developer Nintendo amid unclear communications about their involvement in a cancellation of a major, year-end, community-organized event.

It started Tuesday, when VGBootcamp—which produces broadcasts for the majority of all of the major “Super Smash Bros.” esports events of the year—announced that it would be cancelling the Smash World Tour Finale event, which was scheduled to take place in San Antonio, on Dec. 9-11.

But the announcement didn’t just cancel the event. The Smash World Tour organizers also alleged foul play from one of its competitors, Panda, an esports organization which is organizing its own circuit, bookended by an event on Dec. 15-18. Panda, whose circuit is officially-licensed by Nintendo, had allegedly threatened its competitors over the past year that they would be shut down if they did not join the Panda Cup circuit.

The Smash World Tour shutdown post also covered another sour subject for long-time “Smash Bros.” fans: It alleged that Nintendo forced its hand, refusing to license the finale event the night before Thanksgiving and stating that unlicensed events were not allowed. Therefore, the World Tour organizers felt they had no other choice—shut down or be at the whims of legal action from one of gaming’s big-three console makers.

The fallout over the past four days has been nothing short of a mess. Fans have dogpiled Panda and its CEO Dr. Alan Bunney; they’ve chastised Nintendo for once again stepping on their scene’s aspirations; and they’ve mourned the World Tour event, which was set to award $250,000 in prize money, the most ever in a community known for being home to struggling players.

The communication, however, is confusing. After the World Tour shutdown announcement, Nintendo released a short and concise statement to Kotaku, refuting that it told the World Tour organizers to cease activity.

“Unfortunately after continuous conversations with Smash World Tour, and after giving the same deep consideration we apply to any potential partner, we were unable to come to an agreement with SWT for a full circuit in 2023,” a Nintendo spokesperson told Kotaku. “Nintendo did not request any changes to or cancellation of remaining events in 2022, including the 2022 Championship event, considering the negative impact on the players who were already planning to participate.”

Hours later, in the middle of the night, the World Tour organizers clapped back, stating that while Nintendo did not deliver a legal cease and desist, that it implied in writing and in conversations that the 2022 finale event could not go on—despite ongoing conversations since January to license the circuit and since April to license the finale event. The World Tour organizers also published the email they received from Nintendo:

“It is Nintendo’s expectation that an approved license be secured in order to operate any commercial activity featuring Nintendo IP. It is also expected to secure such a license well in advance of any public announcement. After further review, we’ve found that the Smash World Tour has not met these expectations around health & safety guidelines and has not adhered to our internal partner guidelines. Nintendo will not be able to grant a license for the Smash World Tour Championship 2022 or any Smash World Tour activity in 2023.”

To that, Nintendo issued a lengthier response to IGN. It said it is concerned over the Smash World Tour’s health and safety protocols—implying its COVID-19 policy—and said that it verbally let the World Tour organizers know they could move forward without cancellation.

“Any partner that we grant a license to has to meet the high standards we require when it comes to the health and safety of our fans,” Nintendo told IGN. “It’s also important that a partner adheres to brand and IP guidelines and conducts itself according to professional and organizational best practices. We use this same approach to independently assess all partners.”

And on Panda’s behavior?

“If we discover that a partner is doing something inappropriate, we will work to correct it,” Nintendo said.

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So in a way, both Nintendo and the World Tour group are telling the truth? But the nuance is what matters, and there’s a distinct lack of it here.

Conspicuously though, despite the mudslinging, Panda went dark on the subject for the better part of three days. It did not post, nor did Bunney, despite many of its employees, professional players—like “Melee” pro Cody “iBDW” Schwab, who announced his departure from Panda Friday—and others speaking out about it. YouTube creator Jacob “Alpharad” Rabon IV, who is a minority owner in Panda, said he asked Panda management for an update on Wednesday and did not receive a response.

Then, on Friday, the Panda statement finally came. It contained very little nuance, it did not refute much of the Smash World Tour’s allegations with proof and it said it would continue on with the Panda Cup on the 15-18th, even as players have started to withdraw from the competition. Its only concession was an apology to another organizer, Beyond the Summit, who said Panda had attempted to strong-arm it into joining its circuit.

“Panda has listened to the community and changed some of our approaches to working with tournaments based on that feedback,” the statement read. “In the Smash World Tour statement there are a number of accusations leveled against [Bunney], the CEO of Panda. In reality, [Bunney], as Nintendo of America corroborated, has been one of the more vocal supporters of the broader community and the Smash World Tour organizers in internal conversations.”

The Panda Cup will seemingly go on, even if it will lack more than a handful of its original competitors.

It will also be counterprogramed, though, as famous YouTube creator and longtime “Super Smash Bros.” community member Ludwig Ahgren announced the “Scuffed World Tour” — an invitational featuring the top-8 ranked players from the Smash World Tour’s “Melee” and “Ultimate” rankings, in Los Angeles, on the same day as the final of the Panda Cup, Dec. 18.

Nintendo’s involvement—or lack thereof—has often been a sore spot for the “Super Smash Bros.” esports community. The developer has notably been hands off, but in 2013, it sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Evolution Championship Series (EVO), the largest fighting game event in the world, requesting it pull “Super Smash Bros. Melee” from its competition lineup.

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Amid extremely negative PR and community uproar, Nintendo reversed its decision and let the EVO competition go ahead as planned. Since then, Nintendo and diehard “Smash” fans’ relationship has involved a lot of animosity, much of it on display this week amid the Smash World Tour news.

Nintendo has also made legal threats to developers of community mods, like those behind “Project M,” a “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” mod that made it more competitive and akin to its “Melee” predecessor (while not confirmed by its former development team publicly, sources familiar with that incident say Nintendo did send a cease and desist to that team in November 2015).

By contrast, till this point, Panda has held a mostly positive reputation among “Smash” fans. One of the oldest-standing esports teams in that game, it has signed fan-favorite players, commentators and others to its roster, some who have stayed for the long term and others who’ve moved on to better horizons. Its alumni include Zain Naghmi, arguably the best player in “Melee” competitions in 2022, and Justin "Plup" McGrath, once a top five player in the world.

When it announced the Panda Cup in April, the community welcomed the circuit with open arms—especially because it was the first time Nintendo had officially licensed a tournament circuit, a major deal in that contentious relationship.

Now, though, all of Panda’s goodwill is mostly dead. It’s a blunder unlike any other in esports’ not-so-forgetful memory.