It’s often said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting a different result. This quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein or Ben Franklin, but the truth is neither man said it. Nevertheless, the whimsical, folksy nature of the quote is more fun to imagine as said by a quirky inventor rather than a foreboding word of warning from a Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet, so the lie persists.
I thought about this a lot when reading fighting game news yesterday. For those who haven’t heard, the Smash World Tour Finals, a grand scale Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Melee tournament, the culmination of a year’s worth of events and promotion, with something near $250,000 in its total prize pool, was forced to cancel the event with less than a week to go.
The reasoning? To make a very long story short, Nintendo, who made the game, decided to pull rank – as the owners of the game IP, it is well within their rights to forbid someone from using it to profit off of it without their explicit say-so. But not only had the SWT crew been in direct contact with Nintendo the entire year, desperate to get a sense that everything was on the level, Nintendo was also running a grand prix of their own with Panda, an e-sports organization well known within the FGC. While Nintendo assured the SWT team that both tours could co-exist, the CEO of Panda, Dr. Alan Bunney, was (allegedly) talking to other tournament organizers who had signed on to both tours in private. While he at first encouraged them to drop SWT because it apparently was getting shut down, Bunney (allegedly) quickly moved to threats after being rebuffed, saying their events could be in danger of being shut down for being unlicensed by Nintendo, as the Panda Cup events were.
Nintendo reps and SWT have now gone to the mattresses, each accusing the other of lying, while Panda has, smartly, stayed silent thus far. There seems to be nothing short of a unanimous, global rolling of the eyes toward Nintendo, who has time and again muscled in on tournaments trying to run their games. Despite being a capital B Billion-dollar company, Nintendo has a long and sorted history of playing the victim while threatening to bring down a legal hammer, famously one of the most litigious companies next to Disney. Few are shocked, and most are just surprised that something like this didn’t happen sooner. At no point has it seemed like the NA side of the company hasn’t been talking out of both sides of its mouth, encouraging fan engagement to some while sending threatening legal letters to others.
Where most of the confusion and anger seems to lie is with Panda, who is one of the most visibly pro-FGC eSports organizations around. With deep roots in Smash and seemingly deep pockets, Panda has more or less made its brand on being irreverent and social media savvy, with an undeniably large passion for fighting games. Even moreso, Panda has sought to disengage from the general practice of most eSports and remain completely faithful to the communities it originated from, giving out prize pot bonuses and sponsoring smaller tournaments, as opposed to the typical status quo of using the communities as a funding wing. To quote Bunney himself, “They were taking advantage of the communities — they would just use them and drop them, treat them like cattle and not really understand the true value these people had.”
Irony is a mean motherfucker.
I’ll withhold on saying Panda is directly responsible for the debacle at play, as there’s likely more information to come in the coming days. That said, whether or not the SWT going under is their fault, we have confirmed accounts of Panda’s CEO (allegedly) trying to Godfather tournaments by dropping the Nintendo hydrogen bomb. Regardless of the intent, Panda’s commitment to building up a community that could support itself was clearly a lie. It was a lie when Bunney said it in that interview linked earlier, and it is a lie now.
But, like with the supposed Einstein quote, it’s a lie that isn’t meant in a harmful or malicious way necessarily, just one that feels prescient and progressive, something to get behind in the moment. Riding the populist wave is one of the easiest things to do to get goodwill, and it’s even better if followed up on by fairly consistent, meaningful action. The philanthropic efforts of Panda towards the various communities it orbited around weren’t nothing, and I’m sure the multiple different accounts of very nice, dedicated, and passionate people working for them are in no way unfounded.
And yet, it was still a lie.
Many were asking how it could have been that Panda, having somehow acquired Nintendo’s full cooperation for a pro tour, saw that these other tournaments were (allegedly) some sort of existential threat. What did Panda, or Nintendo, stand to gain from (allegedly) playing Calvinball with something so serious as exclusive licensing rights for the games going forward, knowing it could implode the scene as it operates entirely?
I don’t think the answer is so complicated, really, it just hurts to hear: Bunney believed he was doing what was best for the scenes, and most people in Bunney’s shoes would have (allegedly) done the exact same thing. All it takes is a little empathy to put yourself in Bunney’s shoes, and while this is pure speculation, I think I can see how it may have gone down:
You’ve just gone full time with this eSports gig, an increasingly large operation with not only talent to manage but lots of staff for both the main team and verticals that have spun out of the organization. The pandemic has completely shifted the way your bread and butter operates, meaning it’s time to think big and strike while the iron is hot. Finally, the ship comes in – Nintendo is willing to play ball with you to get an officially sponsored tour that is free to pursue big-time sponsors and operate with the full backing of their powerful name. It couldn’t come at a better time – the organization has gotten pretty big, and you’ll need all the help you can get if you want to keep your ambitions firmly in view.
But there’s a problem. The Smash World Tour exists too, and it has plans to continue in 2022. Not only did they have the experience in running a mixture of online and offline events to a global playerbase, but it went off relatively well despite the pandemic hiccup. Maybe in order to secure yours and Nintendo’s working relationship, you may have made some assurances that the SWT’s existence contradicts. Nothing is bigger than a Nintendo sponsorship, but they’re no slouch themselves, having amassed a pretty healthy prize pool for their finals. The Panda Cup is quite the feather in your cap, but there’s pretty stiff competition that already exists.
It doesn’t matter, however. You’ve got the responsibilities and dreams of lots of people, from junior staff down to the talent, who need this thing to work. It has to. There can be no other alternative. For the Panda Cup to succeed it has to stand out, and if that means SWT loses steam or is forced to face the reality that it’s an unlicensed event, so be it. You don’t want those guys out of a job, or to lose hundreds of thousands in building this up, but the Panda Cup needs to succeed.
You need the Panda Cup to succeed.
We on the internet have a pretty bad time examining many issues past a simple view of who’s wearing the black hat or the white hat. Few are willing to summon honesty to admit that perhaps this chase, this eternal dream of monetizing fighting games is exceedingly difficult and rare, with success largely not dependent on your effort. That’s a bleak truth, and sometimes the only way to keep moving along this incredibly difficult path is to own a black mirror. Inside, there’s only room for one reflection, not a “community,” and that reflection can only show a reality where your success becomes a stand-in for the entire “community” you claim to be a part of.
Again, this is a lie, but it’s comforting. Everyone wants to be the hero, so if you can, like Atlas, put the globe on your back while also doing what’s going to make you happy, how can you resist? ‘My success will actually be your success too, so it would be best to support my endeavor, preferably monetarily, and if you don’t, that lack of support will lead to the death of the community.” Or, alternatively, “We really need to coalesce around this particular organization or brand, ignore every single red flag that comes from it, because if they go away then we’ll go back to having nothing again”
It’s an extremely harsh word, but whether they like it or not, video game hobbyists who want to monetize their skill have to be parasites, in the most clinical sense – they are completely reliant on others in the space (Twitch/Rights holders/Esports whales/other players and creators) in order for their endeavor to succeed. That’s not to say they don’t work hard, and it’s certainly possible to be successful in these avenues by sheer grit, but that is putting in a Herculean effort for something that luck will ultimately play a huge factor in. And, for someone trying to be a big name online, there is the possibility that at any time, one of those people you rely on to succeed could throw you under the bus to parasitically appeal to another in-group member. You could get your channel mass-reported and taken down by YouTube or Twitch and have no verbal warning or avenue for appeal. Someone could dig up your internet history and weaponize it against you to make you look foolish. There’s no way to exist but to always be on the defensive, knowing that people could and would try to tear you down if it meant they might overcome the desperation, dejection and anger they feel at their lowest moments. It drives people into being paranoid wrecks.
You see it bubble up every now and again, these moments stemming more from genuine frustration and helplessness than malice, where people lash out at those they deem a threat to…some ephemeral chance of success. Whether it’s the lurker who doesn’t donate, or the overly skeptical eSports cynic, or just someone who disagrees with them on some inane topic, there’s always someone to blame and more work to be done. Share the right tweets, raid the right streamer, hang around the right Discord, and one of these days it will pay off. One day. Mark Twain knew this over a hundred years ago:
I see this game of desperation, dejection, and anger play out almost every single day. Because of that, many people are very concerned with their image as projected through social media, and do a lot to cultivate a certain characteristic, a ‘brand’, if you will, and wish it into reality. That sometimes can be a convenient cover for when the desperation, rejection, and anger I mention turns dark. And it almost always does – I’ve seen creators and players, who I consider extremely nice, who have donated money to charities and friends, snap and, in a moment of weakness, throw people under the bus or jump in on a social media pile on, because it seemed like the right thing to do. It likely isn’t indicative of their total character, but it usually reveals how reliant on being perceived as good by certain insider groups matters to them, regardless of how it might look otherwise. Even if the sense of scale is completely, radically unbalanced by any reasonable perspective, I remind you once again that the black mirror distorts people’s perception. Failure to win over the insiders is akin to complete and total failure, so anyone who could harm that potential relationship is a potential threat, regardless of how ridiculous that might seem.
In addition to that, the job stability of an eSports endeavor is almost entirely beholden to markets, platforms and audiences that are, by nature, fickle. Mortal Kombat 11 will be hot until a ‘vibe shift’ happens and rumors of a new title start cropping up, and now your 100 concurrent viewers might go down to 30 or 40. You get a strike on your YouTube channel because of a DMCA note from someone about music, and now you’re missing out on putting up VODs that help fund your business. The pressure is then on to suddenly make an abrupt shift in what you do, and that is not exactly easy when you’ve sunk a lot of money and time into specializing in one particular skill.
This is all to say, what Mr. Bunney (allegedly) did to these other organizers isn’t a bug, but a feature. When a hobby becomes your business, it definitionally can’t be about the community, it has to be about your staff and talent first, because so few things are guaranteed. I think you can want to do right by everyone, but if people could simply erase the market so they were the only game in town, and thus provide the best possible future for their employees and themselves, who wouldn’t? Bunney (allegedly) thought he had the golden ticket, Nintendo’s blessing, and finally the leverage to push even Beyond the Summit to heel, and he took it. Again, how is that not the logical end point for his business?
There’s another old quote who I won’t even bother attributing, because who knows (I think it’s Maya Angelou) but it goes like this: when someone shows you who they are, believe them.
Despite John D’s absence from Capcom now, I don’t think this sentiment is unpopular; to the contrary, I believe it to be shared amongst many, many people. Most people will naturally cry foul at the idea that a few succeeding will be best for everyone, because it’s so unlikely to be true, but you’re not looking in the black mirror. The lie has to be believed.
How else could you find hope?
Ultimately, it boils down to the people pursuing these dreams of grandeur without ultimately having very much control in their pursuit, regardless of how much time, effort, and money they put into it. They see the very few people who make a great living and have been rewarded for their work, and can only hyperfocus on that future for themselves, no matter how futile it might be or how myopic and selfish their actions turn out to be. It’s pretty natural to start wondering how these people, involved in such a risky endeavor, got to be so entitled, before you remember all the dreams you’ve had, then it becomes all too relatable. However I might feel about it, I can’t help but feel sorry for them, because a lot of behavior is totally understandable. Understandable.
It does not make it healthy, nor does it exactly build something we’d call a “community”.
No doubt many will read this and conclude that I’m bitter, cynical, joker-pilled, and mostly jealous of the success of the few that are successful. Nothing could be further from the truth. I feel bad, mostly; I like all this stuff too, just not the tortured politics surrounding it. And it makes me feel worse that people have this kind of harmless dream they want to act on, but it demands unhealthy ends in order to fully maximize it. If it were possible, I wish everyone could do what they wanted and make a decent, consistent wage and have basic needs met while doing so. I’m sure that would do quite a bit to dissuade the toxic behaviors that run rampant in these spaces.
But we don’t live in a world where that’s possible right now.
Instead, people are forced into being a parasite for an industry that tends to reward brutal efficiency, nepotism, and luck. Fall deep enough into that, and the black mirror will consume your whole life. It has nothing to do with being nice, or “deserving” it, or anything like that – the natural endgame is to pull all the same moves that many rightfully decry as unfair and cruel, and the black mirror is going to make it so you don’t see why that’s not a good thing to do.
A community is a concept that has existed since life began in the oceans, but a community worth its salt has to have a few basic facts nailed down. Aside from layups like population, sentiment, and territory, it also has to have a wide aim. If people in a community are there to fulfill their very myopic needs only, it’s not going to last terribly long. That’s why I am always wary of when I notice one organization or company starts to become ubiquitous across dozens of communities – how long will it be before that unchecked ambition starts to hurt these communities as much as it helps them? That’s exactly the line where the term “community” starts to blur.
So when I hear things like Alan Bunney (allegedly) attempting to coerce a host of fellow organizers into business with him in order to secure his future, I don’t know if I see a community. When I hear that Ten/0 management is blackballing certain people from working with them, choosing to be silent even after numerous good faith approaches to try and understand, a tactic many decried Capcom for doing to commentators, I don’t know if I see a community. I’ve talked before about the ever-present tension between organizers and players, and this is mostly an extension of that: how can you be faithful to a community while also trying your best to succeed in a game that demands the pot be shared by as few as possible?
I do not mean to say that everyone’s pleasant experiences with what they consider the ‘fighting game community’ are fake or otherwise not real, I’m sure they are. I don’t have any regrets about the time I’ve spent with this hobby, nor do I take the real relationships I’ve forged for granted. At the same time, I’ve only really ever seen it as a hobby – I don’t own the black mirror. There is a very particular sickness where those same basic traits of niceness, of generosity, are absorbed into the black mirror so as to become a tool to achieve success by any means necessary, a standard enforced by a system that only rewards very few. Someone who claims they were sick and tired of eSports orgs using the community like cattle will go and (allegedly) endanger every event existing in the space, and they’ll do it while smiling and retweeting community fundraisers and Matcherinos.
I have no idea how to square that, but I do know one thing: a space where those two realities must coexist isn’t really a “community.” Not by a long shot.