What the Nintendo Switch Means for Esports

The long anticipated Nintendo Switch has been announced, and it looks like Nintendo has definitely made a true successor to the Wii. The Switch innovates console gaming in an entirely new and unexpected direction by bringing together the traditional console and mobile gaming. This puts Nintendo in its most optimal position; creating and playing their own game(s), rather than trying to outdo Sony or Microsoft. The Nintendo Switch will be no different, but there are plenty of people who can tell you that. I’m going to be examining what it means for esports, the golden snitch of gaming.

Background

Nintendo has notoriously lacked support for esports in the past, specifically a lack of support for the already existing scene around the Super Smash Bros. series. The worst of which was attempting to get the game pulled from the worlds largest fighting game event, EVO, in 2013.

That’s why it was such a big deal when in the original reveal trailer (2:38) for the Switch, Nintendo displayed obvious hope for their latest successful IP, Splatoon, to become a major esports title.

Nintendo finally committed to esports, and gamers everywhere rejoiced and said “Let there be LAN’s,” hoping this newfound support would extend to other popular titles. With the announcement event now concluded, we have a better idea of the titles available at launch and the consoles potential for esports.

The Good

While Nintendo didn’t mention esports or releases for their current competitively played games, they did announce a sequel to Splatoon and a new fighting game IP called ARMS. In addition to Nintendo properties, EA’s FIFA was announced as being a future title, adding an established esports title with existing support from Premier League teams to the Switch’s lineup.

There is little question whether Splatoon 2 will be successful as a game with its predecessor selling over 4 million copies, meaning a third of all Wii U owners bought a copy. The question is, can Nintendo foster an esports scene for the title. The original had forays into competitive play, having online play and appearing at Gamescom 2016, but the viewership just hasn’t been there. The game’s largest strength is also its biggest weakness; it’s nothing like any other esport title we’ve seen. I believe if Nintendo commits to supporting Splatoon 2, it can absolutely become an esport in some capacity, but to what extent remains to be scene.

ARMS is an intriguing title. Nintendo has once again delivered a twist on an existing favorite. The developers took the longest standing competitive game genre and changed the way it’s played. ARMS has the potential to be the first esport where viewers can watch players physically act in sync with their onscreen characters, rather than pressing buttons on a keyboard or controller.

Another positive for esports on the Switch is paid internet service. I know, I know, people don’t want to pay for something they’ve had for free since the GameCube, but it’s worth it. Nintendo has traditionally had awful online play. With the advent of paid internet, it should improve the service, fostering online competitive environments previously impossible due to performance issues.

Finally, the best sign for esports on the Switch is the existence of the Pro Controller. While the Joy-Con is an interesting concept, I just can’t see it being used in a competitive environment. The buttons aren’t well enough defined and the layout doesn’t lend itself to quick motions, which doesn’t bode well in a setting where milliseconds count.

While there isn’t much information on esports on the Switch available yet, what we do know so far is a good point to start from. Nintendo still has a lot of work to do to enter esports, but they’ve started the process.

The Bad

Nintendo dropped the ball on two counts for esports at their press conference.

First of all, nobody ever used the word “esports.” The closest Nintendo got to mentioning esports or competitive gaming was when they pointed out that eight Nintendo Switches can play together on wireless, which isn’t much in the way of esports. Perhaps Nintendo doesn’t want to use the word esports and want to brand it as their own thing, that remains to be seen.

The biggest problem was another absence, or absences. We heard nothing of existing competitive titles such as Pokemon, Pokken Tournament, or Super Smash Bros, three franchises with existing competitive scenes around them already. After rumors surfaced this summer that Nintendo was working on a port of the successful Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Switch, it was certainly a disappointment to hear nothing on the subject.

The Super Smash Bros. competitive scene has been ignored and at worst disrespected by Nintendo in the past, so the lack of mention wasn’t a total surprise. Despite being one of the few games at EVO 2016 to not receive prize money contributions from the game developer, Smash 4 and Melee drew just under 5000 combined entrants to Las Vegas to participate, only 100 players fewer than Street Fighter V and its $50,000 bonus from Capcom. Smash fans have dealt with Nintendo’s mismanagement for years, but the failure to address a very passionate fan base of one of the most successful video games in the world can’t be categorized as anything less than a mistake.

Nintendo needs to embrace the existing competitive scenes around their franchises if they want to enter esports. It’s absolutely foolish to take fans that are so passionate about your game that they have elevated it to a competitive level and dismiss them like they don’t matter.

The Future

Above anything, the Switch press conference left esports hopefuls with more questions than anything else.

Will the Switch support the Nintendo GameCube controller?

Will Nintendo finally support Smash and other existing esports games they own?

Can Nintendo create an esports scene around new franchises while still remaining accessible to their target audience?

If Nintendo embraces their existing esports scenes and nurtures them, they are guaranteed growth within esports, it’s just that easy. If Nintendo wants to be more ambitious and attempt to create esports around games entirely different from existing esports, it will be tough, but the payoff could be massive. People who play or played sports typically watch sports, the same is true for esports. With more accessible games, Nintendo could tap a massive esports fan base that prior to this was either ignored or in mobile games.

The road forward is not without challenges, but Nintendo has a simple path to esports in front of them with a massive potential for growth. The question isn’t can they do it, it’s in what unique Nintendo way will they? And will it work?