Yesterday, I was lucky enough to attend the Massuchsetts leg of Nintendo and Best Buy's National Super Smash Bros. Brawl tournament. With over 500 people in attendance and 256 competitors in all, there was nary a dull moment during the seven hour event. It was a full day of awkward social interactions, first hand impressions of Brawl, and that certain sense of community that can only be found at a video game tournament of this scale. Hit the jump for more details of my adventure, and the unedited video of the tournament's final match.
The day started off tense, with over 500 potential tourney goers packed together like sardines in the hallways and stairwells of Worcester Polytechnial Institute. There were many surprising sights to be seen in this line up, including multiple cosplayers, a smelly weirdo who predicted his own victory in the tournament though he had only started playing Super Smash Bros Melee a week prior, and perhaps most endearingly a small acoustic folk band called "Team Tacgnol" who played Portal's end theme Still Alive to a grateful crowd. Near the end of the song, I counted at least ten people singing along to every word.
Then it was off to the VIP section, where the Nintendo staff and WPI students running the event went to mentally regroup and reload. There I chatted with Jaime, the head of Worcester Polytechnical Institute's Game Developers Club. He couldn't have looked more excited, with a Totoro-esque smile beaming from ear to ear. It turns out that he had contacted Nintendo's PR firm in July of 2007 asking if they could hold a pre-release tournament at WPI, but he never imagined Nintendo would actually take him up on the offer. Jaime wtatingas especially impressed with Nintendo's interest in reaching out to the aged 18-24 hardcore gamer demographic, by stating "If Nintendo only cared about 'the casuals', they wouldn't be spending all the time, money and energy to put on this tournament. Brawl will sell itself, they don't need to do this for promotional purposes. They're doing it because they love their hardcore audience."
Also in the VIP lounge was a food services guy who had made the mini-burgers and fruit salad for the event's staff and guests to consume. I interviewed him briefly, very briefly, as he could barely detach his eyes and brain from Brawl's adventure mode. He told me he didn't own a Wii, that he only owned a 360 "but really only played sports games". Yet he had started playing The Subspace Emissary at 12pm, and had not stopped once by the time I started talking to him at 2:30pm. For my money, that confirms Brawl's single player mode as the ability to hold the attention of even the least Nintendo-friendly gamer.
Later the VIP section would be joined by Joystiq.com's resident dreamboat Alexander Sliwinski, and the children of a certain high ranking Nintendo of America executive. Alexander, the kids and myself held our own unofficial Brawl tournament there in the lounge, occasionally joined by the random Nintendo staffer or WPI student. This was my first time playing the game, and though it's already been said a million times before, I have to tell you from the heart that Brawl is an incredibly engaging game.
Brawl surprised me in two ways. The first was how unpolished the graphics looked at times. The Shadow Moses stage, for instance, has some really ugly textures that looked nearly PS2 in quality. They looked very out of place next to some of the game's characters like Charizard and Wario, who both look like they could be from a first gen 360 title.
The second thing that I didn't expect about Brawl was how little the tiny details like the above mentioned graphical flaws, or even the bigger features of the game like the character roster and the stages seemed to matter to me while actually playing the game. No matter which character you're playing as or what stage you're playing on, this game is extremely captivating. My sense of scrutiny for detail about Brawl, which I've been fostering for almost a year by reading every damn Smash Bros Dojo update that has come down the line, completely melted away after my first actual play of the game. When you play Brawl, any sense of awareness of the game's minutia completely melts away. It's a game of pure fun, plain and simple. Brawl could have N64 quality graphics and I'd feel that same way.
After a few hours in the VIP lounge it was time to get back to work, so I headed back out into the fray. I saw that another huge line had formed at the event, but this time it was for those unlucky event attendees who didn't make it into the tournament. They too would get a chance at Brawl. There were three kiosks set up for this privilege, with four players per kiosk, and still this line had about 100 people in it. I saw many players, including the above mentioned members of "Team Tacgnol" finish their matches, only to circle around to the back of the line to wait another half an hour just for 5 minutes of Brawl play time.
All the while, obnoxious club music and over-excited commentary from the tournament floor blared an abrasive soundtrack to the event. At the very beginning of the tournament, I couldn't stand to be in that area for more than ten minutes at a time. Not only was the room offensive to the ears, but to the nose as well. It smelled like vomit and body odor in there. After the first round of play was over, which consisted of 256 players, the crowd thinned out a bit and the smell dissipated, so I decided to stick around and take a look at Brawl from a competitive standpoint.
But it's not all wine and roses for Brawl. Not only were some characters from Melee removed from Brawl's line up, but many of Melee's advanced techniques like wave dashing and L-canceling have also been cut or dumbed down. This has many Melee die-hards already complaining about Brawl, although most of them have not yet even played the game. Maybe it was just their excitement talking, but none of the tournament level players I spoke with at WPI had any complaints about Brawl.
One especially articulate competitor likened the differences between Brawl and Melee to those between Street Fighter Alpha 2 and Street Fighter 3. Street Fighter Alpha 2 is generally more rewarding to offensive players with it's emphasis on high damage combos and super techniques. This is opposed to Street Fighter 3, which thanks to it's parry system, is notorious for long, drawn out, "turtle" packed matches. L-canceling and Wavedashing are both defensive maneuvers analogous to SF3's parry's, as they allow for skilled players to defend against any offensive moves with little to no risk to themselves. With out allowing those kinds of nearly impenetrable defenses, Brawl is generally more fast paced and violent than Melee. The risks that come with the necessity of playing Brawl in a more offensive style makes for an extremely exciting competitive level game, both to play and to watch.
Also worth noting is the increased amount of match altering items that Brawl has over Melee. More than a few matches in tournament were decided by a well placed final smash or hard earned hit with the instant kill item "The Dragoon". However, even with L-canceling gone, even these big damage moves can be defended against, and some times even countered. In general, all who I spoke with were in agreement that the hardcore Smash Bros. community was just seeing the tip of the iceberg as to what competitive Brawl play has to offer.
Speaking of which, embedded below for your viewing pleasure is the tournament deciding final battle between 19 year old Daniel Jung and the man known only as "Compton", a member of the New York City based gaming crew "Deadly Alliance". After watching this match, I could not help but ask myself "What does the WNBA got that competitive gaming hasn't got?" This tournament opened my eyes to the very real potential games like Brawl portend for a future where millions of people worldwide tune in on TVs, computers, or through in-game spectator modes to marvel at the skill and techniques of others playing video games.
The WNBA has never caused my jaw to drop, but after watching this tournament, I could barely get my jaw off the floor.