What’s your Niche Community?
GOML 2022: Canada's Premier Smash Tournament
Shawn Gouralnik, President, Radio FWD
What’s your niche community? Whether it be slaying Dragons in a role-playing game, folding paper cranes with a local Origami Club, or playing avant-garde jazzcore with a 9-piece band, there is a universal component of weird clubs meeting up locally to divulge a shared interest. For Super Smash Bros players, organizing weekly tournaments is a core feature in Smash communities all around the world. A trial by combat, a way to try out new tech on your opponents who you’ve seen week after week and have pieced their habits together. More importantly, it's a time to see your best friends, duke it out in some friendly matches, and make way for some social free-time in an otherwise hectic world. Lockdown had a tremendous impact on niche communities everywhere, and for some local Smash scenes, it was almost fatal.
Fast forward to Get On My Level (GOML) 2022, a Super Smash tournament boasting 1800 entrants right in the heart of downtown Toronto broke the brutal absence that the Ontario scene was experiencing. Featuring some of the world’s top talent in both Ultimate and Melee, this return to form for the True North’s resident tournament series was electrifying. We arrived to capture the aura of this special occasion, and through interviews and jaw-dropping moments, we began to build a full picture of how special this scene really was. Namely, how grateful everyone was to get their community back together in the age of loneliness.
As a quick aside, we promise you will not need a shred of experience with Smash, fighting games in general, or even video games, to get a feel for how much energy and excitement oozes out of a last stock, game-5 moment. Take a look for yourself:
The shared appreciation from this niche community is the driving force behind its longevity. For example, there’s still a part of the Smash scene that is playing SSB Melee, which originally came out in 2001. The storylines, rivalries, rises and falls of various legends across the scene is akin to the storied history of any major sports league, like the NHL, to use a stereotypically Canadian example.
This time around, the story is particularly Canada (especially Toronto) centric. Rising Canadian star Michael “Riddles” Kim was recently ranked in the top 10 Ultimate Players in North America (source). While a disappointing end to his tournament run placed him at 3rd on home turf, the crowd had his back the entire time, with ground shaking “RIDDLES! RIDDLES!” chants following his every set. On Melee’s side, two Canadian players, Edgard “n0ne” Sheleby and Kurtis "moky" Pratt, both ranked in the top 15 in the world, with n0ne recently signing with the Golden State Warriors’ affiliated esports team, Golden Guardians. Hometown advantage seems to work in esports too, as 4 Canadian players made it into their respective top-8 of bracket (n0ne and moky for melee, Riddles and Big D in Ultimate, with the latter shocking everyone by making the biggest upset in bracket in GOML History).
Through various interviews with pro players, audience members, content creators and artists, we pieced together an idea of the internal ecosystem that makes up the Smash Community. For instance, an interview with veteran Tournament Organizer “Rickles” described the intricacies of putting together a tournament of this size, running a bracket, getting a venue and more, all the while, having to keep your scene afloat running virtual tournaments. We talked to Team Liquid coach and part time TO “L4ST”, whose insights into the world of training and practice regiments elicited shades of Bill Belichek and King Richard.
It was a particularly heartwarming experience talking with audience members who just wanted to get a word in about their local scene. We talked to members from various Canadian locales (Nova Scotia, Montreal, Quebec City, Hamilton), some European players (France), and even one player (who made an incredible deep tournament run in the melee side) from Australia. It didn’t matter where the person was from, however, as the language remained the same. Discussions about recent events in the community and predictions about who might win the tournament were all pretty much the same. There was a growing collective consciousness emanating throughout the venue, all motivated by this niche, grass-roots community.
Speaking of grass-roots, the entire community has consistently remained self-sufficient, without much help at all from Nintendo or otherwise. Sure, they had some pretty top-tier sponsors (Red Bull gave out free drinks all weekend), but everything at the soul of the production, from the sound team to the commentators, are all members of the community for a very long time. A discussion with legendary commentary duo “Vish” and “Toph” had them reminiscing about past tournaments, crazy moments throughout history that they not only witnessed, but brought to life with their shout-cast. Not to mention that all of these very tournaments are also all organized by grass-roots, bottom-up members of the very community which the tournament seeks to serve. The case was identical for GOML.
Some of these local scenes almost didn’t survive COVID. But again, the resilient nature of the smash scene ensured they would. Prompted by the closure of nearly every tournament venue and weekly tournament, the Melee community was invigorated by the advancement of a way to play online amongst anyone across the world in a game that was not designed with online play in mind. This project, called Slippi, jolted the scene back to life, and weekly online tournaments kept Melee’s story going. On Ultimate’s side, brutal online connectivity posed some bumps along the road, but a similar situation happened here, with brand new “wifi-warriors” coming out of the woodworks and making a name for themselves.
Smash wasn’t the only game represented at GOML, either. Side events for Nick All Star Brawl (NASB), and full brackets for Rivals of Aether and Guilty Gear: Strive represent other members of the fighting game community (FGC). Games like Smash, also called platform fighters, often get pooled together, so it’s not surprising to find NASB and Rivals at the same tournament. Guilty Gear has had an incredible launch, bringing new people to traditional fighting games for the first time, and recently passed over a million units sold. The FGC is expanding on a daily basis, and representation is varied across different games, aesthetics and interests.
There is something special happening in the microcosm of the Smash community. There seems to be something for anyone, whether you are competitively, artistically, managerially or communicatively inclined. The world map is littered with these local scenes, and they are waiting with open arms. In such an isolating and lonely time, the grass-roots nature of Smash is a bastion for those looking to connect with like-minded people. At the tournament, we witnessed the absolute insanity which is a Game 5, last stock situation, backed by the OO’s and AH’s of a mesmerized crowd. We also saw the pinnacle of creativity and the grassroots nature of the internal smash economy through the Artist Alley (which is covered here (INCLUDE LINK)) and all of the people involved in making a tournament production happen. So dust off your gamecube controller, find your old copy of Melee or get your switch and boot up Ultimate. Turn off items, all of the fun looking stages, and practice combos for hours. You might find yourself in the midst of a self-sustaining community with endless bounds of potential for anyone interested.