Later this week, some of the top fighting-game pros gather in Las Vegas for one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world — and the event now has an unexpected sponsor.
Nintendo is one of 20 companies providing financial support for the Evolution 2014 fighting-game tournament, which begins Friday. Many in that community are expressing shock that Nintendo is sponsoring the event because it attempted to block Evo from using its classic GameCube release Super Smash Bros. Melee in the 2013 tournament. By sponsoring the tourney this year, Nintendo is continuing a turnaround that has seen the company embracing these dedicated gamers. This is likely part of the publisher’s plans to generate excitement for its upcoming Super Smash Bros. games for the 3DS and Wii U, which both launch later this year.
D’ron Maingrette, one of the top Smash Bros. commentators, posted the list of sponsors on Twitter yesterday:
Nintendo joins other companies like Microsoft, Atlus, and SNK Playmore in providing sponsorship to Evo 2014. Those companies all have their own fighters (Killer Instinct, Persona 4 Arena, and King of Fighter, respectively) that they hope to promote. The fighting-game community has grown over recent years, and it has shown a lot of influence in what games are popular in that sphere.
Nintendo’s sponsorship of Evo isn’t its first attempt to court the these gamers. It has teased news about the upcoming Super Smash Bros. over the last year, and it has targeted much of that information directly at the most hardcore players. This includes the recent reveal that the company will release a GameCube-controller adapter for the Wii U that will enable fans of Smash Bros. to continue playing with the same controller they’ve used since the GameCube release.
The publisher also was the first major company to hold an e-sports competition during the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo tradeshow. In early June, Nintendo gathered more than 2,000 fans in the Nokia theater for an invitational tournament that had some of the best Smash Bros. players testing out the new Wii U version. The company broadcasted the event online, and it attracted thousands of viewers.
Nintendo is clearly taking a top-down approach with the new Smash Bros. games. It seems to think that if it can get the most-hardcore people who are still playing the GameCube version that the everyone else will follow. That is a strategy that seems like it is working as it is difficult not to get excited when others see the pro players getting excited.
Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and especially for Wii U are both incredibly important products for Nintendo. After more than a year and a half on the market, the Wii U has only just started to find its ground. The system struggled to sell as gamers yawned at the prospect of more Mario games. The PlayStation 4, which launched a year after Nintendo’s latest home console, has already outsold it worldwide. With more than 7 million PS4s in gamers hands compared to 6.5 million for Wii U, Nintendo looks like it is in a lot of trouble.
In late May, however, the Wii U got a boost from another classic Mario game: Mario Kart 8. The latest entry in the long-running racing series surpassed 2 million copies sold in less than a month, and it has also seemed to help the system find its “voice.” With PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC all serving up much of the same content (and with PC often doing it better), Nintendo seems to want to position the system as the only unique console offering. Coming out of the E3 event, many industry-observers noted that the Japanese publisher had the best show. Combined with Mario Kart, the company seems to have almost-tangible momentum.
The publisher’s challenge now is keeping gamer excitement until it can deliver more products. That’s likely what the Evo sponsorship is about. Super Smash Bros. will hit 3DS on Oct. 3. The Wii U version won’t hit until later in Q4—and potentially not even until December. Maybe by engaging with its gamers and hardcore communities, Nintendo can bridge the gap between the excitement of E3 and the actual release of its next potential system seller.