John “John Numbers” Goldberg, 25, woke up on an October afternoon in a Nintendo-provided room at the The Wyndham New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, right down the street from Madison Square Garden.
The Queens native opted for a staycation in Manhattan prior to the Nintendo World Championships at the Manhattan Center — the extra rest at a place closer to the venue would do him some good, after all.
With the event starting at 5 p.m., John Numbers decided to sleep in. After waking up fully refreshed at noon, he ran downstairs to the Tick Tock Diner, where he ordered a frittata with lox and a side of avocado toast, also courtesy of Nintendo. Afterward, he went back up to his hotel room to practice a shield-surfing mini-game in “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” on the Nintendo Switch, “Metroid: Samus Returns” on the 3DS and the “Super Smash Bros. for Wii U” Home Run Contest mini-game.
John Numbers, the reigning champion of this event, only knew a few of the 15 games that would be up on the big stage. The rest was guesswork.
Around 3 p.m., John Numbers made his way to the Manhattan Center on 34th and 8th Ave. where Nintendo gave all the contestants lunch and a rundown of the tournament.
The stage was set, with 24 contestants brought out, including invited celebrities like WWE professional wrestler Bayley and Asa Butterfield, star of the movie “Ender’s Game.” Unlike the original Nintendo World Championships, where there were age-based categories, there were no separate brackets at the event for younger and older players.
Nintendo knows how to play to its fanbase. Before the first game of the video game decathlon was announced, the alternating piano keys of “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” reverberated through the ballroom. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause ready to see 24 Links shield surf down a snowy mountain.
Nintendo didn’t call its World Championships an esports tournament; the event lacked the high-stakes drama you’d would find at the League of Legends World Championship. At its core, Nintendo of America considers itself a family entertainment company, with a focus on its well-known cast of characters and more lighthearted, experimental fare such as Splatoon. The winner of this event got a golden Mario trophy and bragging rights; it felt more like a bunch of friends gathering to play games, and that’s what Nintendo was going for.
But this isn’t Nintendo’s first foray into video game competition. It can even be argued that the original Nintendo World Championships was the progenitor to esports.
The first Nintendo World Championships were held from Dec. 7-9, 1990, at the Universal Studios Hollywood, in Tampa, Florida. The finals were comprised of gameplay on a custom cartridge that contained mini-games from “Super Mario Bros.,” “Rad Racer” and “Tetris.”
In 2015, Nintendo brought back the World Championships at E3 in Los Angeles on June 14 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original. The finals were between John Numbers and speedrunner Narcissa Wright (formerly known as Cosmo Wright), with John Numbers coming out on top in “Super Mario Maker.” The creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, made a surprise appearance and awarded each finalist an autographed Nintendo 3DS XL system.
Esports are typically about watching the world’s best duke it out, using highly-tuned technical skill to outperform their opponents with quick reflexes in tense 50/50 situations. The Nintendo World Championships have always been different. Some in the esports space are critical of Nintendo’s meager support and its use of competition as a marketing tool. But Nintendo has changed its tune, slightly, over the past few years.
Nintendo has sponsored tournaments like Apex, The Big House and the Evolution Championship Series. While the company isn’t throwing money in the pot like The Pokémon Company does with Pokkén, by sponsoring tournaments, Nintendo helps keep tournaments profitable by covering some of the venue costs and assisting organizers when logistical hurdles come up. And major figures within Nintendo of America, like Bill Trinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager and one of Shigeru Miyamoto’s go-to interpreters, are fans of the competitive Smash scene and actively participate, both on social media and on the ground.
Nintendo’s misstep in 2013, when it issued a cease and desist order for the broadcast of Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo, seems like a thing of the past. And as the World Championships showed, even if Nintendo won’t use the word “esports” when talking about the event, there is a huge appetite for competitive play on its platforms from casual and hardcore esports fans alike.
John Numbers and Thomas “Ito” Gonda’s grand final was more fan service than high-level competition. The last game of the Oct. 8 event was “Super Mario Odyssey,” which released today on the Nintendo Switch.
The first round in “Super Mario Odyssey” was awkward, as both John Numbers and Ito were unfamiliar with the game. Nintendo had only given the two 10 minutes to play around with “Odyssey” before the event, so both John Numbers and Ito were guessing and experimenting, and John Numbers found himself stuck, giving Ito the lead.
“Ito played so clean on that World-1. I had no way to catch up,” John Numbers said. But in the second round, John Numbers brought it back, catching an early lead and cementing a win.
A slipup in the third round decided the tournament. John Numbers misread a jump and fell to his death, while Ito was playing at slow and steady pace and avoided making any errors.
By the time John Numbers caught up, Ito had finished and taken the tournament. And unlike in a typical esports setting, there was no bracket reset.
“Even if I didn’t make any mistakes, Ito still might have taken the tournament. He was slightly sub-optimal, but he never made a single mistake,” John Numbers said. “I’m a little upset that I didn’t have a chance to come back after losing a game, you know? That was the first game that I lost. And then, that was the end of the tournament.”
But given his loss, and the lack of a losers run, John Numbers is not upset with the overall results.
“I’m fine with it for the most part. No, not for the most part. I’m completely fine with it,” John Numbers said. “I guess I’m a little disappointed I didn’t get a second chance, but that’s all. I’m still fine with Ito winning, because he played excellently for the whole tournament.
“Yeah, I guess it would be nice if there was like a grand finals reset, but it’s not like necessary honestly. It would be nice though一add to the intensity, it would definitely add to the intensity.”
And it’s a beginning to something that would mean a lot to Nintendo fans, and esports fans, everywhere. Perhaps that’s why, despite the organizational slipup, John Numbers was OK with how things panned out. I felt the same.
While I can be critical of Nintendo, especially in its neglect of its thousands of Smash competitors worldwide, I can’t help but look back at all my years of playing Nintendo games with fondness.
From the first time I played “Super Mario World” at a friend’s house, to traversing the alien environments of Tallon IV in “Metroid Prime,” there’s a magic to Nintendo software. And I’m hoping in the coming years Nintendo brings that magic to esports. When other video game manufacturers would take gaming too seriously, making it a grudge match over graphics and technology, Nintendo was there there to bring things into perspective.
At the end of the day, gaming is about having fun. Nintendo could bring a fun twist to an esports industry that often tries too hard to emulate the seriousness of traditional sports.
And while Nintendo may look at esports with wariness, its esports fans are looking back at Nintendo with open arms, ready for the company to make a long-coming realization and embrace back.