I am Bryce Stout and I am from the U.S. and I play Ganondorf in Smash Bros. I completed my BA in Sociology at the University of Iowa in 2017, my MS in Communication at North Carolina State University in 2020, and I am now in my first year of the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media PhD program at NC State. My work so far includes my thesis “Smashing some Bros: A Feminist Ethnography of Governance in Super Smash Bros” and a co-authored artical in Critical Media Studies in Communication entitled “Gender and the Two-Tiered System of Collegiate esports.”
Everyone is Here? An ethnographic exploration of competitive Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
This report is based on 18 interviews with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate players as well as immersing myself in the culture as much as possible, both at tournaments and through online platforms such as Discord. Reflexivity is especially important for me as someone studying this culture while being a member of the hegemonic group, [white] men (Witkowski, 2013; Taylor, 2018). Nintendo’s tagline for the game is “Everyone is here,” but this work outlines intersecting factors constraining participation and inclusivity in practice.
Hegemonic Gamer governance: Skill over all, as a given.
Within competitive gaming, skill is a stand-in for a person’s entire identity. Blindly valuing skill over all else carries with it implications that may be missed due to the layered intersections of race, gender, sexuality, financial status, or region of residence which alter players’ starting lines and constrain individual realms of possibility. Meritocracy makes “inequality among people seem fair and just” (Paul, 2018), opening the door to excluding people based on how good they are (or are not). An emphasis on skill influences who feels they have a right to exist in the spaces at all. Placing skill on a pedestal means alienating those who do not have the means to improve, which is problematic given the often invisible or distant structural constraints faced by potential competitors. A plethora of privileges coincide to allow some players more of a sense of belonging than others. These advantages are detailed below.
Privilege one: Owning a setup
As illustrated by anecdotes from players’ early days in competitive Smash, new players face jarring skill differentials with veterans, to the point that getting better feels necessary to belong. At first, I was attending tournaments and that was the only time I had access to the game. This proved to be a significant obstacle to feeling like a fully accepted member of the community as I could not practice at home to climb the meritocratic ladder. To help me pass as someone who “actually played the game,” my advisor let me borrow a Nintendo Switch.
Privilege Two: Playing in person
Having access to a Switch allowed me to experience Ultimate’s online play for myself, something several interview participants had shared negative stories or joked about. While I did have to endure noticeable network lag, I do not think I was experienced enough at the game to find the actual gameplay (when it was working) much different than playing offline, but veteran players certainly can tell a difference. Kam Steele, for example, shared his views, saying:
I try to avoid playing online mainly just because playing online usually isn’t the best way to get better at the game… Um, if I have to play online and if I do play online, I’ll play people that I know. (Kam Steele)
Negative views of online play by dedicated players further divides “Wi-Fi warriors” (people who play only online) and players who regularly attend face-to-face tournaments. The drive to play the game in person means players not only need a Switch, they need transportation.
Privilege three: Autonomous mobility
Continuing with the idea of in-person play being the ideal, Andy’s friend shared how he used to only be able to play online, and how that frustrated him because he knew he was not getting the “authentic” experience. He said, “Like I used to, um, really wish I could compete in tournaments back when I didn’t have a car and now I’m able to drive to them. It’s a really sweet thing” (Andy’s Friend). He had driven Andy as well as another friend from Charlotte to Raleigh, NC (150 miles each way) on a Monday night in September to play in an in-person tournament, all because he had previously experienced the constraints of playing only online.
While cars are useful, many participants who did not have vehicles still voiced their excitement to be living at a school with tournaments on campus. Student players like Jack Death, Taeng, Caroline, News, and Sean only attend on-campus events, limited in mobility by lack of cars. Their coincidental attendance of a university where tournaments are hosted is a privilege, in one aspect, but their lack of ability to travel further fundamentally shapes how they experience Ultimate.
Privilege Four: Carryover Clout
Since competitive gaming communities are so meritocratic (Paul, 2018), carrying over skill means carrying over social status. Legacies in Smash range from people who have been playing for two decades to Lori’s 13-year-old son who got into the competitive scene shortly before Ultimate came out. A longer relationship with Smash means more time to build up the mechanical skill required to be competitive.
When attending tournaments for fieldwork, I would frequently die to “cheesey” strategies (those that only work when the opponent does not [yet] understand how to counter them) due to unfamiliarity. Further, with Ultimate more closely resembling its predecessor Smash 4 than any other Smash game, those who played Smash 4 harbor embodied understandings of the physics of the game world, leaving them better oriented than newer players(Keogh, 2018).
Privilege Five: it’s Super Smash BROS.
The resultant embodied co-presence felt by tournament attendees due to playing face-to-face, born out of the public, physical spaces of arcades where fighting games were first played (Tobin, 2016), has historically led to relatively high levels of racial diversity in fighting game communities compared to esports as a whole. When participants were asked to describe their own ethnic background, responses were: 7 white, 4 Asian (1 Japanese, 2 Korean, 1 Vietnamese), 2 black, 2 Latino, and 3 people of two or more races. However, at best, all this means is the men (and boys) who attend these tournaments are a fairly diverse group of guys. The gender disparity that festered in arcades (Kocurek, 2015), is still plaguing gaming today. Of the 18 participants I conducted interviews with, only one identified as female. Both cis and trans women were present at tournaments where I conducted fieldwork, but in highly marginalized numbers. This is not an original revelation from my work, but a known problem in Smash, and esports broadly.
With due credit to Smash Sisters for the good the organization does, it is a community run effort built entirely on unpaid, voluntary labor, which comes with its limitations. Increased visibility may also mean painting a target on marginalized players’ backs, especially in Twitch chat. Female-identified players already experience disproportionate levels of harassment and, as former professional Counter Strike player and AnyKey co-founder Morgan Romine points out, “When a girl or woman competitor plays in a broadcast tournament, the harassment, sexism, and sexual comments increase exponentially thanks to the public chat stream” (Romine, 2019). Dr. Romine also echoes Smash Sisters co-founder Lily Chen’s points on the cyclical problem of the lack of female visibility in esports (Chen, 2015). In general, Smash Sisters gets flak for being a segregated event, which leaves them susceptible to gaslighters. Despite this, pushes for positively segregated events, aimed at those historically marginalized in esports, have proven effective (Romine, 2019). Within the context of my ethnography itself, it is important to note how framing tournaments as the site of analysis misses those who are interested in playing competitively but do not feel comfortable due to intersecting structural constraints.
Chen, L. (2015, May 26). How I responded to sexism in gaming with empathy – Lilian Chen. [Video] Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orOa-yRL4NI
Keogh, B. (2018). A play of bodies: How we perceive videogames. MIT Press.
Kocurek, C. (2015). Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. University of Minnesota Press.
Paul, C. (2018). The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture Is the Worst. University of Minnesota Press.
Romine, M. (2019). Women’s Esports Competitions: One Path to Equity. Medium. https://medium.com/@rhoulette/womens-esports-competitions-a-path-to-equity-65edbc7c6b29
Taylor, N. (2018). I’d rather be a cyborg than a gamerbro: How masculinity mediates research on digital play. MedieKultur: Journal of media and communication research. 34(21). 10.7146/mediekultur.v34i64.96990.
Tobin, S. (2016). Hanging in the video arcade. Journal of Games Criticism. http://gamescriticism.org/articles/tobin-3-a
Witkowski, E. (2013). Eventful masculinities: negotiations of hegemonic sporting masculinities at LANs in Mia Consalvo, Konstantin Mitgutsch and Abe Stein (Eds.) Sports Videogames. (pp. 217-235). New York: Routledge.
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