Nintendo Breaks the Silence: The Uncertain Legal Future of Competitive Smash

Written by: Jefferson Deery, Associate Editor

Most kids who grew up with a Nintendo console have played some iteration of Super Smash Bros. (“Smash”), Nintendo’s premier fighting game. For some players, Smash is more than a game: it’s a spectator sport. The competitive Smash scene started in 2002 with the release of Super Smash Bros. Melee. While most of the world viewed Smash as a casual party game, some players saw greater potential in the game and started competing in tournaments held in garages, basements, and video game stores. Players competed for prize money and fans of Smash gathered to watch high-level gameplay. Competitive Smash has come a long way since its grassroot beginnings. Instead of being played on CRT TVs in basements, the game is now being broadcast on jumbotrons in Las Vegas and streamed to hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch, the world’s preeminent livestream website.

For twenty years, fans of competitive Smash have relied not only on “DIY” spirit, but tacit approval from Nintendo to run tournaments. Even throughout the competitive lifespan of the most recent installment in the series, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Nintendo largely ignored all competitive Smash events. Even the major tournaments such as EVO and Genesis, which garnered hundreds of thousands of livestream viewers, occurred without comment from Nintendo. Recently, however, Nintendo broke its silence on unlicensed Smash tournaments, and its new stance threatens to send competitive Smash back to garages and school auditoriums. In a statement regarding the Smash World Tour, a worldwide Smash league modeled after the PGA Tour, Nintendo announced that it would no longer allow any unlicensed tournaments to be held.

The Copyright Act gives “exclusive rights” to the owner of a copyright to control the use of the protected work. Video games like Smash are categorized as “audiovisual works” under the Act. As the owner of the copyright for the Smash games, Nintendo has the power to shut down any “public performance” of the game pursuant to Section 106 of the Act. The steady rise in the popularity of competitive Smash was made possible by Nintendo’s decision to not exercise its right to shut down unlicensed “public performances” of the game via tournaments.

In the past, tournament organizers took Nintendo’s refusal to recognize competitive Smash as tacit approval, but given Nintendo’s decision to shut down the Smash World Tour, it seems the company revoked its unspoken assent. Since the announcement, the financial viability of Smash as an e-sport (i.e competitive video game that is a spectator event) has been called into question. E-sport teams are dropping top players like MK Leo and Tweek. The longstanding Smash broadcast organization, Beyond the Summit, is closing down. Although fans and players alike are waiting to see how far Nintendo will push its crackdown on unlicensed tournaments, its new stance is more than just a slap in the face, but a Falcon Punch to the gut for competitive Smash players, tournament organizers, and fans.


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