Smash Sisters: Why Community and Competition Doesn’t Always Mix

Alexandra Orlando
Jan 23, 2018 · 7 min read

I attended my first Smash Sisters event only to leave disappointed, my female friend who participated with me decided never to play Smash outside her home again. Smash Sisters has been heralded for progressive initiatives for getting women into the Smash community and competitive gaming in general. So what went wrong?

Esports community management and inclusivity has been under fire as of late, organizations and diversity groups are trying to pave the way to make the industry more appealing to new fans and existing marginalized groups.

There has been a big push lately to make competitive gaming spaces more inclusive to women and other minorities. AnyKey an organization lead by ex Frag Doll Morgan Romaine and T.L Taylor professor and sociologist seeks to provide support to marginalized people in gaming communities and produce research to help improve the current state of gaming. All-female teams have seen success, especially in CS:GO at the Intel Challenge Katowice.

But diversity for diversity’s sake is doomed to fail as seen with the unsuccessful PAX Diversity Lounge. Events like Smash Sisters asserts the need for women’s-only gaming spaces in the face of a hostile-male dominated esports community. Conceptually, tournament spaces like Smash Sisters can make or break an outsider’s perspective on the industry, giving newcomers a taste of what communal gaming spaces are like and creating a community of support and belonging where female leadership is hard to come by. Creating this community is also beneficial to women interested in a career in esports where for example, finding a female practice partner has proven to be statistically more successful for a woman’s career than when practicing with a male partner (Ratan et al, 2015). However, creating the space is only half the battle and how the event is run in the first iteration will determine how successful they are in the future.

Purple and pink Smash Sisters branding

In attending my area’s first Smash Sisters event, I learned that although events like Smash Sisters are necessary in concept, it is especially crucial that inclusivity and community are at the forefront of operations. I anticipated the event feeling excited and optimistic; seeing the photos from past events nearly brought tears to my eyes knowing that teenage me would have killed for a community of Smash-playing women. Being somewhat of a brand, attending Smash Sisters came with a set of expectations of, as the name suggests, sisterhood and I wore the group’s deep purple and pink colours proud. To my dismay the event did not turn out as expected and by the end, lead to my friend’s denouncement of the game altogether. You may be thinking, “So what? Plenty of other people seemed to have a good time”. And indeed, you may be right as there is something to be said for the stream of pictures of smiling women fist-bumping that come out of the events. But when it comes to inclusive events, even one person who comes out hurt is too many.

The biggest mistake?

Not separating casual and competitive play. Casual crews during the first Smash Sisters event at Genesis 3 as stated by Smash Sisters co-founder Lily Chen “was great that those who hadn’t gotten a taste of this competitive spotlight finally had a chance to experience it”. Indeed, giving newcomers a chance to experience being in the hot seat of high level play is valuable and exciting but not always the goal of casual players who want to connect with a community. While other Smash Sisters events advertise the separation of casual and competitive play, this was highly overlooked for the event which I attended.

When you mix players looking for a community to break into the competitive scene with others looking to make friends and to learn about basic gameplay mechanics and tournament etiquette, you’re going to end up scaring the newcomers away and leaving those looking for fair fights unsatisfied. There is no money to be won in these events and no time on the main stage which could cause for exaggerated performances. The low stakes of the event along with the clear mixed skill levels in the crews kept me wondering why winning was so important to some of the participants. Which leads to another major problem:

Knowledge of proper tournament etiquette was assumed.

At the event, my friend shook the hand of her opponent pre-game and began to strike up a conversation to get to know her better. Her opponent then replied, “Are you trying to game me?”. The rest of the match was played silently as my friend, who hasn’t played Smash in years was crushed by her opponent who was clearly playing to win. This small encounter encapsulated a failure in communication that resulted in a breakdown of the entire event. Those interested in competition already perform normalized geek masculinity and what I would argue is required to survive the competitive scene. I was shocked at what I saw; my friend who didn’t even know what “gaming” (attempting to psyche the opponent out) means was rightfully confused and taken aback. Trash talking, gloating and periods of silence and concentration are normalized performances of competitive play but can be intimidating and alienating to newcomers who may not be familiar with these concepts or just find them unpleasant. The casual players looking to form friendships and building a community would not find them at this event.

Photo from Lil Chen’s site, by Robert Paul

In the same vein, when creating an inclusive, diverse event, you can’t expect everyone involved to be an ambassador, leader or role model to the newcomers, which is especially true of those players interested in competitive play; those out to focus on their individual careers instead of making friends as a primary goal. While some women were more than eager to share their controllers to those who didn’t know to bring theirs, it is not something that should be expected of everyone. This is also the case for explaining rules and tournament etiquette. It is the role of the organizer to not only make sure that the tournament is conducted correctly, but that they are also leaders in sustaining a communal atmosphere.

Every staff member are also staff members of the inclusive space.

While it is great that the inclusive event space was included within the larger tournament space, this also meant any person walking into the space (on purpose or accident) could compromise the environment. Issues from staff at gaming tournaments is a larger symptom of most industry events where many of these staff members are young, unpaid and given minimal or no training of any kind. This was very much true at the event I attended where staff of the larger tournament. This also means that all staff need to have safe space training, even if they aren’t directly working in the space.

There tends to be an over-eagerness for getting women into esports without the proper infrastructure and support for these desires to become a reality. Smash Sisters could be seen as an entry point, but once the event is over, these women still need continuous support through practice partners, sponsorship and management that (hopefully) doesn’t involve all the marketing directed at their appearance, which is often the case if women go pro. That’s why Smash Sisters is a great start but if the events don’t go smoothly it might scare women away forever. I think there is a high desire for women to be “the first” or “one of few” pros in their game because it does come with a lot of media attention. It’s that special snowflake, “cool girl” (Cooke-Garza 2015) syndrome that often causes women to be misogynistic or just plain cut throat in the industry.

This has not been my first Smash event as a player or organizer. I have experience in hosting esports events from local tournaments to The Collegiate StarLeague and international events like the NASL 3 for example. I’ve even hosted my own extremely successful all-women Smash event. Despite the difference in games featured or size, the culture of competitive gaming often remains the same and I am currently using these experiences in my own research to explore these trends and to make tournament spaces welcoming to all.

Smash Sisters events are important and necessary in the face of hostile, exclusionary behaviours of competitive gaming communities but they aren’t for everyone and that needs to be made clear. I’m not entirely sure if we are at a state right now in the esports industry where we can support women in gaming careers and welcome new members in the same event. Competition is inherently exclusionary even outside of the particular performances of esports. This is why it is more crucial than ever to run inclusive events with careful consideration and well-trained staff. Even though I’ve been playing Smash since the first iteration in 1999 came out, I’m not sure if I’d attend another Smash Sisters event. I’m not sure if it’s the community for me and that’s okay. I’m fine stepping aside and letting women interested in competitive Smash to gather and practice because we need a community like that so badly, but please don’t scare away others in the process because those women might be your biggest fans later on.

Works Cited

Cook-Garza, Kennedy. “The Cool Girl Trap: Or, Why Sexism in Tech Isn’t Going Away.” Medium, October 6, 2015.

Ratan, R. A., N. Taylor, J. Hogan, T. Kennedy, and D. Williams. “Stand by Your Man: An Examination of Gender Disparity in League of Legends.” Games and Culture 10.5 (2015): 438–62. Web.

Alexandra Orlando

Written by

Critic, writer, scholar. @Twitch streamer. @PlayWarframe partner and fashionista. Find me on @FPSweekly, @waypoint, @thefworduk.

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