In a very short space of time, Nintendo are hosting serious national competitions for Splatoon 2 and ARMS, while their Smash Bros franchise is represented twice at the prestigious EVO tournament. Competitive play of their games, or esports if you prefer, seems like the real deal. This is a far cry from the Nintendo of only a few years ago, threatening legal action to try and remove Smash Bros Melee from a tournament.
This is a very new, very different Nintendo. With the Switch, they’ve shown a savviness that was sorely missing in the Wii U years. With Breath of the Wild, they’ve proven their willingness to look outside, at the larger games industry, and taken some of the lessons that have been learned. This is a Nintendo who are willing to embrace the 21st century gaming scene and their place in it.
Perhaps most important for their changing face on the esport stage, and certainly for my own sudden upturn in interest, are the games. Part of this all-new modern Nintendo has been giving a chance to new properties from young developers. Properties with an eye on online play and a surprisingly huge cultural cachet, at least in Japan.
I’ll admit to always feeling a little lost in the whole esports thing. I didn’t have anything against it on principle. I understand the competitive side of gaming, and the appeal of watching people who are really good at games play one another.
The problem was always the games. RTS and MOBA games have always flown over my head; they’re my brother’s jam, more than mine. Then there are shooters, which I can enjoy a game of but find disorienting and kind of boring to watch.
The closest I ever got was Street Fighter. Anyone can understand the sight of two characters punching one another, the health bars ticking down to one or the other going out for the count. I’m quite fond of Street Fighter overall; I like the silly X-Men characters, the ridiculously over-the-top lore, the cheese and the bombast.
As for playing it, the competitive scene has passed me over. I had some good sessions back in the day, with friends and family, but with no sparring partner getting into the modern game is an intimidating prospect. Without being able to understand the finer details, watching top-level play is a great fireworks display but difficult to invest in.
Then there’s Smash Brothers. This is a game I actually do thoroughly enjoy, and pour serious numbers of hours into. Unfortunately, the precise and technical tournament game, with two fighters and all the items and silliness turned off, doesn’t feel like the same game I love to play.
Now, they have ARMS. The bright visuals, hyped music and enjoyable Global Testpunch grabbed my attention, but ARMS truly grabbed me during last year’s E3, when Nintendo streamed an invitational tournament.
ARMS is built around a deceptively simple input system of punches, throws and blocks. The game resides not in complex attacks, but in movement. Spacing and timing are key, as in any fighting game, and easy to follow even for a fairly untrained eye.
The beauty of watching high-level ARMS is that it’s easy to understand good technique even for a player who can’t quite pull it off yet. Like an armchair enthusiast of a real sport, I find myself critiquing and making suggestions as I watch people who I couldn’t really touch.
I picked up ARMS and put a considerable number of hours in, battering my way through the singleplayer challenges and even climbing the online ranked modes. I haven’t reached the absolute top levels yet, having unfortunately to concentrate on work and a social life, but I found myself absorbing video content, online discussions and hours of gameplay like I never have in a fighting game before.
When I recently had the opportunity to attend the ARMS Japan Grand Prix 2018, the atmosphere of watching a game in person was palpable. There was an electricity among the crowd, who were all confidently able to read the game. When a player made a good call, or a bad one, the crowd gasped and applauded perfectly. The feeling was exactly like the one at a football match or a wrestling show. ARMS has got that magic ingredient, whatever it is.
The other big new esports push from Nintendo was a little less obvious for me. Splatoon, and even more so the Switch sequel Splatoon 2 are among my favourite games. I love the aesthetic, the world and characters, the inventive singleplayer campaigns and most of all the addictive multiplayer. I never thought I would enjoy watching it quite as much as I did.
I mentioned earlier that I find it disorienting and unenjoyable to spectate shooting games. The complex three dimensional movement, quick pace, and large number of players mean watching one or multiple individual feeds is almost impossible to follow. At the same time, a single god’s eye view of the game is rarely how it was made to be viewed. Characters float inhumanly and the action is vague and dull.
The primary reason Nintendo’s Splatoon broadcasting set-up works so well is that a constant view of the map makes it very easy to understand the flow of a game. One team or the other will have painted the map, and from the changing colours and splashes of ink, you can see where the action is. From there, the small teams and ink-based movement make it easy to watch a player’s feed and follow their involvement in the game.
As well as watching the ARMS Grand Prix, I was able to catch the Kanto regionals of the Splatoon Koshien. The teamwork, the sense of fun and camaraderie, the capacity for games to end in heroic comebacks or tight draws, meant I found it easy to be drawn into the excitement.
I’ve heard people talk before about watching Esports events and wanting to go home and play more of that game themselves, be it Street Fighter V, Rocket League or whatever. Watching ARMS players make poetry from a game I myself had already begun to improve at, I definitely felt that feeling myself. With Splatoon, I mostly just felt a sadness that I’d been unable to gather my friends into a useful team and play online regularly. Part of the blame there does lie in Nintendo placing a few too many hoops to jump through before playing that enjoyable team-based game that I saw displayed.
So maybe Nintendo don’t quite get Esports yet.