'Splatoon' Competitive Scene Hints at Nintendo's Esports Future

'Splatoon' Competitive Scene Hints at Nintendo's Esports Future

The lively 'Splatoon' competitive scene points to a rosy future for competitive Nintendo games Nintendo

After years of neglecting its thriving competitive communities, it looks like Nintendo is starting to get it

After years of neglecting its thriving competitive communities, it looks like Nintendo is starting to get it

"I killed one person. I killed another person. I killed another person. I got like seven kills straight in a row in the space of 15 seconds. At that point, the set was 3-1, and basically, if we lost this game, we were out. I was just screaming and shouting, 'Let's go guys! Let's do this! We can do this!' That was probably my proudest moment."

Kadeem "Dude" Carrington-McKenzie, a 21-year-old Splatoon expert from West London, flew over 11 hours to the Kalahari Resorts waterpark in Wisconsin this past weekend to compete against almost 100 North American players in an esport he's devoted the past two years of his life to perfecting. Wisconsin's Smash 'N' Splash 3 was only the most recent step in his journey; Dude has traveled the world, ranging from Seattle to Paris, to play in competitions like this, sometimes on the dime of ESL (the world's largest esports company), garnering tens of thousands of fans and significant acclaim along the way.

Dude's successful trajectory sounds atypical for a colorful Nintendo game drenched in the cheerful aesthetic of stylish squids and pastel paint splatters, particularly when contrasted against more popular (and significantly more violent) competitive shooters like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But Dude's story seems likely to grow more common as the hardcore Splatoon fanbase continues to flourish.

Against all odds, Splatoon launched to enormous success in 2015 on the struggling Wii U, eventually selling over 4.8 million copies, a remarkable achievement considering the console itself only sold 13.5 million units. That means one out of every three Wii U owners bought a copy of a brand new, unproven IP, an achievement that places Splatoon comfortably alongside Super Smash Bros. as one of Nintendo's most popular titles of the previous generation.

While many have doubted Splatoon's viability in the cutthroat world of competitive esports, Erik Jacome, owner of Endgame TV, who hosted this past weekend's tournament in Wisconsin, has seen participation grow with each competition he's held. "Splatoon just simply has built-in strategic depth and mechanics that create power spikes and shifting tides of momentum," says Jacome. "It's a game that mechanically, at least when driven by its top players, is incredibly fascinating." While the number of Splatoon teams that participate in EndGame TV's LAN tournaments number in the dozens, with Twitch stream audiences that range from 500 viewers to a few thousand, the steady interest in the game and the consistent showings of stellar talent give Jacome hope for the competitive scene's future prospects. "We're able to see that this is actually happening. This is not just like some fairy-tale fantasy that we could only dream of."

With larger-than-life personalities, dedicated fans who cheer on their favorite teams, and easy to grasp yet deceptively deep mechanics, Splatoon has a handful of similar ingredients to franchises that hit it big in the world of competitive games. Jason Xu, the CEO of Battlefy, a platform for major esports tournaments such as Blizzard's World of Warcraft Arena World Championship series, also sees Splatoon's potential. "There's been an esports graveyard littered with games who try to impose an esports regime over the players, and then realized that there was no real support behind it," says Xu. "But from what we've seen in terms of how players have reacted to, say, Nintendo's Splatoon U.S. Inkling Open, players are 120% behind these events."

Battlefy, a company that notably received its initial funding from former Riot Games' board member Jarl Mohn, officially partnered with Nintendo for the U.S. Inkling Open, an online tournament in April that featured 140 North American Splatoon squads facing off for a chance to compete on the world stage in Splatoon 2 live at next week's E3. "The esports community should start paying more attention to Nintendo," says Xu, "I think they're going to be a major player in the next few years in this space."

Nintendo's enthusiastic support for Splatoon's competitive community may come as a surprise to many who recall the company's lukewarm response to earlier esports competitions, including its initial trepidation over the Smash Bros. Melee event at EVO 2013. But a lot has changed since then. Jamie "CryptikSpoon" Thompson, the co-founder of InkTV who ran the stream for the U.S. Inkling Open, spoke positively of Nintendo's engagement with the Splatoon community. "To be honest," says Thompson, "when we first started, we really didn't think we'd get support from Nintendo. We thought we'd just be running tournaments, having a good time, trying to build the viewership our own way. Then Bill Trinen [Senior Product Marketing Manager at Nintendo of America] starts watching our stream, starts tweeting it out and going 'This is great.' …They seem to want to work with the community and listen to us. They're mentioning the teams by names. I love everything Nintendo's done for us."

One element that may be easing Nintendo's transition into the volatile world of esports is the type of players Splatoon attracts. In my talks with forum members, fans on Discord, team captains, and community organizers, everyone echoed the sentiment that the scene's welcoming attitude and diversity sets them apart from other competitive games.

AJ "Spe©ter" Smith, one of Splatoon's most talented and respected chargers (the game's paintball equivalent to a sniper), says she finds the lack of sexism she encounters in Splatoon refreshing. "A lot of people don't have to worry about being mocked for being a girl or being LGBT, which tends to be a problem in a lot of other gaming communities," says Spe©ter. "We have a lot more feminine representation in Splatoon and we've been lucky that it's really friendly all around."

Spe©ter traveled over 700 miles from "the middle of nowhere Arkansas" to put on a riveting performance at Wisconsin's Smash 'N' Splash 3 tournament this past weekend. The team that she captains, Two Moons, made it to the grand finals for an explosive showdown against the top-ranking team Hanran. With several last-second comebacks and an incredibly tense 3-3 final match for the set, the mood in the room was electric. Although Spe©ter's team ultimately came in second place, the frequent eruptions from the commentators and the crowd as she deftly controlled the map brought to mind the jubilation that accompanied Street Fighter champ Daigo's legendary 15-parry win. It was in these moments where the potential for Splatoon's future as a competitive game felt palpable.

And that jet-setting Splatoon all-star from West London mentioned at the top of this article? "Dude" happens to be Spe©ter's boyfriend; he also subbed in as a Two Moons teammate for this tournament. Their continent-crossing relationship began as professional colleagues who respected each other's Splatoon skills, but as their camaraderie grew, sparks flew. The pair are frequently referred to as the "power couple" of Splatoon, a term they've jokingly embraced. They even surprised each other at LAN meetups with the ultimate fan gifts: custom 3D-printed replicas of their favorite Splatoon weapons, Dude's signature Splattershot Pro and Spe©ter's deadly E-Liter 3K. If your heart's not warmed, you may not have one.

While neither Spe©ter nor Dude ranked high enough to land a spot in Nintendo's upcoming E3 Inkling Invitational (Dude clinched an agonizingly close second place in Europe's tournament), all the players I spoke to look forward to the upcoming match with anticipation and consider the talent on display world-class. Parker "Silver" Schoen, a Splatoon player for the high-ranking team Yami, says "a lot of the community has been pretty stoked" for the E3 tournament. "Everyone's excited to see it, especially because they'll be competing in Splatoon 2." With teams from North America, Europe, Japan and Australia all competing, it's a global assembly of highly-skilled and dedicated players, not just a PR exhibition.

Nintendo continues to signal its support for the competitive side of Splatoon 2 with its announcements of frequently requested features such as private spectator view, which allows tournaments to showcase a variety of viewpoints during competitions, as well as a feature that allows for up to 10 Switches to connect over LAN, a significant upgrade over the Wii U's restricted capabilities.

While hopes run high for Splatoon 2, the franchise as an esport undeniably remains in an incubatory stage, with tournament prizes ranging from game consoles to cash pots in the hundreds, not millions, of dollars. As InkTV's Thompson aptly states, "You're not going to have Team Liquid jump on the board with this and start sponsoring Splatoon teams because there's four Switches for grabs at first place. For example, you see Blizzard really going into it with the Overwatch League and Dota has their $10 million tournament. Nintendo, if they really want to take it very seriously, may need a monetary push."

It's a bold new world for Nintendo. Next week, we may see a glimpse at how bold the company is prepared to become.