What is it like to attend tournaments for a game that you created?

Heat Wave 2 took place at a gaming lounge in Tempe, Arizona in October 2018.

I just got back from a grassroots videogame tournament in Arizona. The event was called Heat Wave 2 and the videogame that they were all playing was Rivals of Aether. Unlike other tournaments that I have attended in the past, I was not there to work. I attended Heat Wave 2 to compete even though I had no intentions of winning the event or doing well at all.

Halloween 2018 Art by Marc Knelsen

You see, a few years back, I began Rivals of Aether with just an idea, some computer programs, and my partner/composer flashygoodness. Now we are a team of about 10 people and we all influence the development, but the game at its roots is still my baby.

Top players doing some friendly doubles at Super Smash Con 2018.

Since launching on Early Access in 2015, we have been supporting the competitive scene and doing our best to make it grow. As a small indie studio, we aren’t hiring event staff or sending buckets of money to events in order to host a tournament for our game. Instead you can find myself and our community manager, George Rogers, at nearly every single event that has Rivals of Aether.

Setting up at Shine 2018

We often run the brackets. We pack multiple small computer setups in our suitcases. We bring signage. We supply prizes. We make skins to celebrate events. We even sometimes compete in the tournaments ourselves. I will say that George does considerably better than I do.

Me actually winning a set on stream at Heat Wave 2. Source: AZ Rivals of Aether

But Heat Wave 2 was different. The tournament was not being run by George and me. We were not the main forces making sure the event happened or succeeded. Instead a local scene in Arizona led by Stephen “SBS” Sobansky has been growing for years and threw their second homegrown major. They handled everything from the stream to prizes to setups and more. I was there to engage with the community and just enjoy the event as a participant for once.

Showing off the CEO themed stage skin at CEO Dreamland in April 2017.

Attending this tournament and others throughout the years, I sometimes get asked “What’s it like knowing that you created the game that we’re all playing?” Or “Did you ever expect Rivals to get to this point?” Since it seems to be a popular question and it is not an experience that a large amount of developers can share, I thought I would share some thoughts on Rivals of Aether and being part of its tournament scene.

Me at the ID@Xbox Pre-PAX event in 2015

The first aspect of going to tournaments is that they are different from conventions. They have different people, different interactions and different goals. While working on Rivals of Aether, we have attended many conventions from PAX to GDC to E3 and more. We have done booths, kiosks, one-on-one meetings and everything in between. But tournaments are not quite the same. While events are for explaining the game and trying to make new fans, tournaments are for our already existing fans. People at tournaments already know what the game is about. We are there to give them a fun experience and that adrenaline rush that you can only get when you are in a close tournament match. We prioritize having a good stream for viewers at home and fun things to do at the venue for players.

The Top 6 competitors at Genesis 5 in January 2018. Source: Xenos McCloud

The second aspect of going to tournaments is getting to meet all the players and forming friendships with them over the years. Rivals of Aether is lucky in that our top players are incredibly passionate. We have players like Penguin and MSB who have attended pretty much every local Rivals of Aether event all across the country this year, easily besting my own attendance. We have top players like FullStream and CakeAssault who have dominated both singles and doubles brackets for long periods of time and often supply the best possible Grand Finals. But going beyond even the players, the community has expanded to support more roles. We have commentators, esport teams that began around Rivals such as Tuxedo Esports, and content creators like youtubers, custom controller makers and more. At conventions you might remember a face here or there but it’s hard to form bonds. At tournaments, I see many of the same faces and have made a lot of friends in the scene.

Me congratulating FullStream on his win at GT-X 2017. Source: VGBootcamp

The third aspect of going to tournaments is that fan interaction is unique. As the “creator of the game” meeting people for the first time is often an experience — a varied one at that. At Heat Wave 2, I had five different people introduce themselves by telling me to delete a certain character from Rivals of Aether that they don’t like. The ironic part is that no character was mentioned twice. Depending on who you ask, there can always be a different character that gives them trouble. I will also get a lot of people reporting bugs at tournaments. You might think that gets annoying but honestly there have been some bugs that I found out about at events and fixed after getting home. Our online forums, such as discord and subreddit, have too much activity to be on top of it all the time so sometimes going direct to the source works. I can’t say its a successful way to report bugs though because usually I have forgotten all the details about the event by the time I get home. Players often ask me to sign something and at Super Smash Bros events, I have become a bit of a B-List celebrity. Sure somebody might ask me to sign something but only if a top Smash player like Mango or Armada is not nearby.

I got destroyed in the Rivals of Aether Bracket at Evo 2018

The next aspect of going to tournaments is that as a person, I have become a meme myself. Because the top players destroy me at my own videogame, the online fandom has determined that I am terrible at my own game. To the point that if you lose to me at an event on stream, you would never hear the end of it on our discord. There was a point in time when I was one of the best players in the game. I was in the top 5 worldwide for sure. That point was the first 10 minutes of the game launching on Early Access in September 2015. As soon as players got their hands on it, my skill was eclipsed overnight and the players have only gotten better from there. It is fun to surprise people sometimes when I do something that is not terrible. I do play the game and practice but it’s hard to keep up when the majority of my time playing it is working on new features or stomping bugs. Often times if I want to relax, I’ll play something else or watch Netflix since I have been staring at Rivals all day while working.

Playing on stream against Nikioni at Shine 2017. Source: Big Blue Esports

The next aspect of attending tournaments is doing commentary. Since we started attending events tied to Super Smash Brothers, we have had the benefit of going on large tournament streams such as VGBootCamp and Beyond the Summit for our finals. I often do commentary at the biggest events with either George or an experienced commentator from Smash Bros or other fighting games. Being a developer on commentary has its pros and cons. I can say that my play-by-play is probably my weakest aspect but I am able to give insights into the game that no one else could share. The problem is when I start doing those mid-match. I have gotten negative feedback that I need to stop rambling and pay attention to the match. In my defense though, sometimes there are sets where one player is demolishing another and it’s not even close. And in my opinion, that’s the perfect time to talk about your zany character ideas that did not make it into the final game. Doing commentary does help you learn about players you might not have seen before and keeps me close to the ground when it comes to balance. It is great to watch the top players perform while discussing out loud what someone COULD do in a situation they are losing.

Doing commentary with ThePhenomenalEE at Genesis 5 in January 2018. Credit: Xenos McCloud

Finally, attending tournaments allows me to be close to the biggest moments in the game’s competitive scene. We currently have a great rivalry between two top players FullStream and CakeAssault with each of them earning first place at the last two Rivals of Aether season finals. The third season final is coming up in February 2019 and the story lines are only going to get more hype leading up to it. I get to watch how the meta is unfolding but also get to see the players up close. Genesis has been an amazing event for our game. The stage is huge and the crowd is extremely loud and excited. The stream consistently becomes our most viewed event each year, besting the previous year. Last year at Genesis 5, we saw one of the greatest Grand Finals the game has ever seen.

Commentating at Genesis 5 in January 2018. Credit: Xenos McCloud

Rivals of Aether has been an amazing game to work on. I can only thank the community for the reason why we are still able to work on it today. The game was never meant to be this big honestly. I started it in 2014 and planned to be completely done with it by 2015. But like most games, things took longer than expected. Beyond that, we also had a passionate group of players surround the game so we decided to add more content. We increased the roster from 8 to 14 characters. We added more stages. We launched on Xbox One. We are working on improving the online features and coming to more platforms in 2019. Now that Rivals has an amazing scene, we know that development will eventually end, but we would like to set it up so the community never will.