Nintendo of America president and chief operating officer Reggie Fils-Aimé isn’t one to follow the same path as others.
It’s a Nintendo philosophy: Do things differently. That trickles down from its intellectual property to its games and, yes, its events. That’s why, going into the Nintendo World Championships on Saturday in New York City, competitors and viewers will know only one of the titles — “Metroid: Samus Returns” for the 3DS — that will be played in an event some Nintendo staffers call “the decathlon of gaming.” The rest of the games, including how many will be part of the “decathlon,” will be kept secret until the event begins.
“It creates surprise for the player, it creates surprise for the viewer and we think that creates magic,” Fils-Aimé said. “You don’t know what you’re going to play next, you don’t know how the challenges are going to play out, and for us, that means you really have to be an all-star in a range of Nintendo properties.”
From the Nintendo Entertainment System, released in 1983, to the Switch, circa 2017, any game is up for grabs. The competitive pool reflects that: There is a 25-year age gap between the youngest and oldest participant in the world championships. And in an effort to turn even further away from traditional competitive events, celebrities such as WWE star Bayley and actor Asa Butterfield will play alongside competitive “Splatoon 2” players and “Battlefield 1” streamers who happen to be huge Nintendo fans.
This isn’t really an esports event — Nintendo doesn’t even use that word when describing “competitive gaming.” But it is a signal that one of the best-known and longest-running video game companies in the world is preparing to get involved in the esports space.
With the typical Nintendo twist, of course.
“We’ve been in this space for a while,” said Nintendo Treehouse’s JC Rodrigo, who was one of the organizers of the event. “We just are trying to wade back in because we think we can offer something that no other company can offer.”
The first NWC took place in 1990, and the company put the championships on again in 2015 as an anniversary event that ran on the Disney XD network. The plan after that championship two years ago, Rodrigo said, was to make the event more than a one-off.
This year, the championships are back on Disney XD, with a livestream from the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom in New York, starting at 5 p.m. ET. And although Nintendo remains mum on what events it might put on next, there is, Rodrigo promises, a plan in place.
“You can see a little bit of a shift within us; I know that it feels that way, that we are thinking about the competitive scene a little bit more,” he said. “Having a hardware system and game that really accentuates playing together with other people as well as going into this space at the same time, I think it can be a really powerful combination.”
The Switch, with “Splatoon 2,” “ARMS,” “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” and “Pokken Tournament DX,” has several esports-friendly games to play with. That said, the company isn’t interested in leagues or big prize purses, Fils-Aimé said, and it doesn’t want to tread on the already-flourishing Smash Bros. community that’s formed around Melee and Smash 4.
Instead, Nintendo plans to play more of a supportive role in Smash Bros. while helping to flesh out tournaments for its newer IP such as “Splatoon 2” and “ARMS.” It will also focus on trying to draw casual players into the competitive space.
“There’s experimentation happening here in the U.S. — obviously, we executed a Splatoon 2 tournament that was featuring teams from across the world,” Fils-Aimé said. “We executed activity with ‘ARMS,’ and in fact the champion from ARMS at E3 will be participating in the Nintendo World Championships. There’s experimentation happening in Japan; there’s online play with ‘ARMS,’ in particular, that is laddering up to some competitive play opportunities.”
Although there are some generalities in this conversation, it’s a far cry from Nintendo’s statements to the esports community years ago. In 2013, the company issued a cease-and-desist to the Evolution Championship Series that was intended to stop streaming of Evo’s Super Smash Bros. Melee event. The stream went on as planned after Nintendo reversed course, but the reaction speaks to an unfamiliarity with the esports community that seems to be gone now.
Since then, Nintendo has hosted a Smash Invitational at E3 (2014), the 2015 Nintendo World Championships, an ARMS tournament at E3 this year and more events. As Fils-Aimé mentioned, the winner of the latter will compete Saturday, as will the winner of the 2015 NWC.
Nintendo’s approach to the Smash scene, in particular, has changed dramatically. The company went from that 2013 decision to putting its branding behind events, taking trips to tournaments to source ideas for the NWC and recognizing both the Melee and Smash 4 as integral parts of its competitive gaming projects.
“What we don’t really want to do is step in and make the community feel like we’re forcing our way into something that they’ve built, and that’s part of the reason why we’ve been a bit more behind the scenes in our support,” Bill Trinen of Nintendo Treehouse said. “But we’re continuing to look at the scene and continue to support it and ensure that both of those communities continue to grow.”
Although there’s no guarantee Smash will be a part of the Nintendo World Championships, the event is a nod toward Nintendo’s plan to make its mark in esports — even if it won’t call it that. And the accessibility of its games, new hardware in the Switch and familiarity with consumers worldwide have the potential to send ripples throughout the competitive gaming landscape.
“Nintendo is going to continue experimenting in this space. We believe we have a platform in Nintendo Switch which works well in the space. We have games that we believe work well in the space. And you’ll see us continuing to push forward,” Fils-Aimé said. “We’re going to do it differently than leagues and big-money purses and all these things that you see typically today. We’re going to approach this space in a variety of different ways because we think, for the mass consumer, the opportunity to participate, the opportunity to see themselves winning a tournament, we think that is something that is a uniquely Nintendo type of proposition and something that we’re trying to foster.”