Stay In Your Lane: The Role-Swapping Woes of Team Naventic

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From an esports perspective, Bloodlust 2017 was a fascinating event. Obviously, the tournament was a ton of fun, Jake and crew were super entertaining, and there were lots of hype matches. However, when your job is to react and analyze data collected over a tournament weekend, this sort of event is tricky. How do you evaluate GFE or Tempo when they’re obviously hiding drafts for the Western Clash? Roll20’s win proves me right to some extent regarding the Goku signing, but you can’t really make a statement about their overall power level when they beat two teams who were holding back.

That said, I think I’ve found the key takeaway from this weekend. What’s more, I believe the lessons we’ll explore today can translate directly to any team or group of players looking to improve. So, let’s get into it and examine what we learned from Team Naventic.

When We Last Left Our Heroes

Some quick background–at the start of HGC Phase 2, Naventic moved Kenma to a coaching role, and brought in iDream to be their melee flex. They then moved Bigempct to support. After a poor showing in the first week, BigE and Tomster swapped roles, with BigE moving to ranged flex, and Tomster going to support. They progressed in this way for a few weeks, struggling every week. This weekend, we saw Zuna committed to main tank, Bkid at melee, and iDream floating around doing all sorts of stuff. There are a number of issues I have with the team’s decision-making on roster changes. We’ll address each one in turn and then extrapolate what you can apply to your own team.

However, before everything we must go into this discussion identifying a MASSIVE caveat. Every bit of analysis we’re about to do falls apart the moment Naventic has determined they actually need to make a change to their 5-man roster. Because of Blizzard’s intense roster restrictions, Naventic is locked into this roster until the end of the season, including their inevitable crucible match. I have lots of issues with this rule, but with it in place, the only thing Naventic can do if they see an unsolveable problem is to shuffle the players around to different roles. I still disagree with much of how they’ve done this process, but that point has to be acknowledged before we get into it. Now, let’s get into it.

BigE to Support….Then Not

The first massive red flag came after week one. Naventic had two available roster moves during the break. They removed their support player in favor of a Melee, but at that point still had a hole at the support position. Rather than pick up and groom an amateur support, the team chose to move BigE to that role. I was hugely in favor of the decision. BigE has great mechanics, and with time likely could have been a great support. However, after one defeat he immediately abandoned the role, either because he disliked it, or because the team decided to make a reactionary change.

First, you have to acknowledge that role changes take time. This is something HOTS players could really learn from the Fighting Game Community. Your role in this game is just like your main character in Street Fighter. You have put the most work into it. You know the ins and outs, the limitations and strengths. There are aspects of the role ingrained in your muscle memory from hundreds of hours of play. For a pro player, your main role is where all of your competitive time has been invested.

There is no possible way for you to quickly transition to a new role and expect to play at the same level. I don’t care how mechanically skilled you are or how many games of Hero League Malfurion you’ve played. It just flat out takes time to transition to a new competitive role. When a top pro in Street Fighter picks up a new character, they spend hundreds of hours practicing before you ever see that character in a big tournament. They have to master all the unique mechanics, learn the matchups, and get the techniques ingrained in their muscle memory before ever hoping to compete with that new character.

Whether by his own decision or the team’s choice, BigE was never given enough time to transition into the role. For the team to make the change that quickly makes me think that there were problems with BigE in the support role all throughout scrims leading up to that first week.

This brings me to the other point here–don’t role swap just to keep your roster. This is a hard lesson to learn, and one I’ve screwed up as a coach many times. 95% of all players in any sport are “system players”. They need to be in the right role, in the right system, or they cannot be truly successful. This doesn’t mean that they are bad or limited players, it’s just the reality of high level competition. If Bigempct is a Ranged Assassin, then he should play Ranged Assassin. This is a core problem that’s plagued Naventic for almost a year now. Zuna and BigE are at their best in literally the same exact role on a team. As long as both players are on the team, Naventic is always going to struggle with solidifying their roles (more on that later).

The same is true for your casual friend group, Chairleague crew, or Open Division roster. If you’re at your best in a specific role, it’s the role you love playing, and it’s where you want to play  DO NOT SWAP. You may think you’re helping the team, but really you’re just covering up a true problem and reducing the quality of the team’s play across the board.

#FreeTGod

Quick rant, but as long as I live I’ll never forgive the people that ruined Tomster’s professional career. On King of Blades, Tomster was the fastest-rising star in the game. His Thrall was unparalleled. He was the unquestioned carry of that roster. Then some enterprising manager scooped him up, put him on Sylvanas, and wondered why the team couldn’t win games. YOU TOOK THE BEST MELEE PROSPECT IN NORTH AMERICA AND PUT HIM ON SYLVANAS. The same thing occurred on Naventic. My prayer when I heard about the signing was that we’d see the return of the melee T-God, but nope. Flexy Sylvanas for all time!

If you are literally carrying a team on your back because of your outstanding play in a role, do—not—change—your—role. Trust yourself, get a team built around you, and earn your right to remain in your carry position. Who knows if Tomster even still has those melee skills left in him after so much wasted Sylvanas time, but my genuine hope is that he is removed from Naventic in the offseason and put on a team who wants to take the time to return him to his former glory.

Anyway, when BigE moved off the role, Tomster got stuck there. It was really the only option and he’s been doing fine. However, if rosters weren’t locked, I would be screaming from the mountaintops for Naventic to release Tomster and sign an Open Division support.

Zuna To…Tank?

Strap in kids, this is going to get real. We might actually have to use Subheading 3 for, like, the first time ever on this blog. I want to discuss the insanity of this move, the inevitability of the move, and dispel one of the worst myths in HOTS all at the same time. You know what, yea.  It’s time for Subheading 3.

No Faith in Bkid

I was shot down in the offseason by a number of people, so let me crow a bit. I called that Bkid was not an elite warrior anymore. I think he is going to be a great situational player for teams that need to fill a hole at the position, but Naventic’s decision to move him to Melee proves their lack of faith in his Warrior play. Think about it. They took iDream out of the role they signed him for, and replaced him with one of the longest-tenured Warrior players in North America. If iDream’s melee play was the core problem, they’d have put Zuna in that role, not swapped him to warrior (ignoring the myth we’ll get into later for a moment). To me, this move says that the team had lost faith in Bkid as a warrior. They moved Zuna there because that’s what the team keeps doing when they struggle ever since Erho left. It was inevitable that the team throw Zuna back there, but it still doesn’t make much sense.

Same Song and Dance

So, this move is completely insane on three fronts. In two different ways, we already know that it is doomed to fail. First, we’ve seen Zuna on warrior before. We know how poorly that goes. His hero pool is limited, he gets caught on a regular basis, and the team just does not succeed with any consistency when Zuna is in this role. They tried it for a really long time last year, we know for a fact it does not work. Further, we’ve also seen iDream play as a Flex. We’ve seen the struggles of his Sylvanas and Kael’thas. Sure his hero pool is a bit weird with stuff like Rexxar, but we’ve never seen him reach that level of dominance when hanging out in the backline. We know that Zuna doesn’t work as a warrior, and we know iDream doesn’t work as a Flex.

Finally, Bkid has only ever been a warrior. He’s one of the longest-standing warrior mains in the region. As we discussed earlier, it takes a long time to transition to a new role. You can’t for a moment expect Bkid to suddenly show up and carry games on Malthael or Genji. Heck, you can’t even expect him to play exceptionally well on Sonya or Thrall–he’s pretty much only ever played tanks at the competitive level. With this roster move, the team put three players on weak positions where we already know they can’t succeed. The only reason this move makes sense is if Naventic wanted to get Zuna into the Warrior position so that he could be in the best role to shotcall.

The Biggest Lie in HOTS

Put simply, I am fed up with this myth. I’ve seen it cripple amateur teams, pro level teams, and everything in between. There is no optimal role for shotcalling, it is a flat out lie. “But Trent,” you type frantically before reading my ensuing argument, “the Warrior player is the one initiating fights! They’re in the best position to call when the team should initiate, so that’s the best place for a shotcaller!”

Let me get a bit condescending for a minute. I apologize in advance, but this lie is ruining teams at every level and it needs to die. So, first, hush for a bit and listen. No, hey! Stop typing. Stop it. Listen, or I guess in this case, read some more before typing. Have you competed at an international event in a MOBA game with your warrior as the shotcaller? If not, then you’re not in a position to refute me on this. I have studied shotcalling across multiple MOBAs. I’ve interviewed the best coaches, analysts, and shotcallers to ever play these games. This myth also cropped up in League of Legends when the tank meta was super prevalent, and we squashed it there too.

Sure, tanks are usually the ones that initiate fights. Based on science, it is always faster for them to call a teamfight initiation because they’ll be able to react to the right opening faster than they would if they had to first hear a command from someone else. Absolutely, your warrior should call out when they are initiating a fight. However, that is one of the smallest aspects of shotcalling. A true shotcaller has to determine whether your team even wants to look for a fight in this situation. They decide when the team retreats, or when they push forward in the fight. They call out focus targets, determine rotations, coordinate objective timings, and so much more.

Being a true shotcaller is incredibly difficult. It is impossible to really understand just how hard it is unless you’ve tried to do it at a high level. You’re basically having to play chess against an opponent of equal skill while also playing Heroes of the Storm at the exact same time. Shotcalling is a talent, not everyone can do it. As a result, it is incredibly rare that you’ll find someone who has the talent to be a true shotcaller and also feels most comfortable in the Warrior role. Shotcalling takes so much mental energy, you cannot be thinking about your in-game execution to the same degree as other players. If you have someone with the capacity to shotcall, that person needs to be on their best role, whatever that is. They need to be playing the game by muscle memory so that their mind can focus on making calls.

 

So what’s the answer for Naventic? How could they make smarter role swaps in order to save their season? Truthfully, I don’t think there’s a right answer with this roster. The team does not have a support player, they’ve lost faith in their warrior, and they have two ranged assasin players with no true flex. You could have maybe move iDream to warrior with Bkid at melee, but that still doesn’t solve much.

In reality, this is just not a competitive Heroes of the Storm roster. I genuinely believe that every member of this team would be an upgrade for another team in the league. If my theory about Tomster is true, this is a team with 2 ranged, 2 melee, a weak tank, and no support. They need to make three roster changes at minimum, but unless the rules change they can only make two. If I were Naventic, I would release this team the moment their contracts are up (or pay a penalty to release their contracts now) and sign Khroen’s Open Division team. Then, regardless of whether or not they survive the cruicible, I would blow up this roster and scatter the players to the four corners of the NA HGC. Every player would be better for it, and the quality of every team would increase.

People are having a field day crapping on Naventic for their bad play, but every player on this team is an elite talent (with the possible exception of Bkid, we’ll see what he does on a new team). I don’t write any of this to attack the players as individuals, merely to point out the fragile nature of a HOTS roster, and the importance of sticking to your role, or really committing to the time it takes to role swap. HOTS fans love to complain about teams making roster changes to solve problems, but this is a situation where no other option exists. All that’s left is for Naventic to keep shuffling around trying desperately to find wins, until the roster can inevitably disband after they fail to qualify for Blizzcon.

 

That, or randomly they all show up after the Western Clash break as the most dominant team ever, and I just wasted two hours of my life writing this article. Either way works.

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Will Esports for Bits–Why Blizzard Chose This Weird Crowdfunding Model

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Earlier this week, Blizzard and Twitch announced a unique partnership that would allow HGC fans to support their favorite teams and earn in-game rewards by cheering for teams with Twitch’s bits system. The announcement was met with mixed responses. Many were excited to have any chance to support their favorite teams. Others were disappointed that their support had to come through a system surrounding something many people dislike or ignore entirely–Twitch chat.

We had a pretty good discussion about this process when I guested on Trollin HGC this week, but there wasn’t really time to go super in depth about why I think Blizzard went this route, and why many suggestions to “fix” this model have unexpected problems. Let’s dive a bit deeper into crowd-supported esports models today!

Why Not Boost the Prize Pool?

One of the most common reactions I saw to the announcement was this exact question. This is the exact process used for DOTA’s The International and they get insane money put into their prize pool. Why can’t we just buy an “HGC skin” that puts a percentage of the cost into the prize pool for clashes, the mid-season brawl, or Blizzcon?

The issue here depends entirely on your goal with crowdfunded support. Big prize pools look really cool. They get the interest of news outlets, make for a clear “interest draw” for casual observers, and make the victory at the end of a tough tournament feel that much more significant. If your goal is to just boost viewership and interest in your biggest tournaments, this is absolutely the best way to do it.

Everyone points to The International as this pillar of how to do crowdfunding right. It really has worked, but only for The International. Feeding money into the biggest tournament in DOTA has increased viewership and awareness of this one specific tournament, but it’s also really the only tournament anyone cares about. Taking a quick look at major news outlets, you’ll rarely see DOTA news unless it directly relates to The International. If a team fails to qualify for The International, there’s very little opportunity for them to build any sort of fanbase or sustainability in the DOTA scene with casual fans.

This is the same problem you’ll find if we used this model in Heroes. Only the very best teams qualify for international events in HOTS. In most cases, these are also the teams that already have sponsors, salaries, stream followers, etc. If all of our crowdfunding went to feed the Blizzcon prize pool, we’d only really be supporting the successful teams. You wouldn’t even see much extra support for the wildcard teams because the payouts for last place are so much lower (oh snap!). A scrappy little team like Naventic or Zealots would probably never see a cent from the community’s support.

Now, you could absolutely argue that Blizzard could do their current weird bit-thingy and then also release a “championship skin” that feeds the prize pool for big events. That way we’re supporting the scrappy underdogs while also getting that big boost from a huge prize pool. The issue here is that esports aren’t actually a charity run by gaming companies. In most cases, like Heroes, they’re a marketing tool that helps keep top players and influencers playing and talking about the game. Blizzard is already shelling out big bucks for their prize pools and providing every player with a salary. At a certain point they have to be able to get a return on this huge investment.

It’s simple economics. Your players only have so much capital available to spend on in-game cosmetics. If they spend all of that capital on cosmetics that give a portion of the profit away to esports teams, you as a company earn less revenue overall. It just doesn’t make great business sense to provide a bunch of ways for your player base to give you less of their money when the return in retention/marketing won’t be that much greater. A 2 million dollar prize pool doesn’t give you that much more news coverage than a million dollar prize pool.

Why Through Twitch?

So, prize pool support is cool but it doesn’t make your league more sustainable. Doing prize pool support alongside other methods would be cool, but doesn’t make much economic sense. Even so, Blizzard could still just put some Fnatic skins in the game and let me buy them directly through the game! This is absolutely a path Blizzard could choose to go, and I genuinely believe they will in the future.

However, right now there’s a key problem that make this plan less than ideal. The HGC is still insanely volatile. Teams disband, change brands, or get relegated every season. At any moment Superstars could be sponsored by Burrito Esports, and all of their in-game assets immediately become obsolete. Now Blizzard has to make a bunch of Burrito-branded assets, when suddenly Erho and Srey have a big fight about which episode of Dragonball Super is the best and the team disbands. Because of the way the HGC roster rules work, Burrito Esports loses their spot to Crappy Open Division Team and now all those Burrito assets are worthless. Before you ask, yes–Burrito Esports is a thing.

Now, this is already a problem that can and will happen with the current Twitch-integrated system. However, there is a key difference–it won’t clunk up the in-game store. Blizzard cares deeply about streamlining their presentation to newer players. It’s one of the reasons they don’t want to add more buttons to Hearthstone (that and the fact that the game’s engine is made from two guinea pigs duct-taped to a toaster oven). This constant overhaul of in-game assets would mean having to constantly tweak the store. Because people are making purchases directly from Blizzard in this case, you’d also likely see people demanding that their Superstars merch be transformed into Burrito swag. I know I would, have you seen the Burrito logo? It’s dope as heck. Ultimately, using Twitch’s system allows Blizzard to keep their in-game store clean while the HGC teams figure out all their many branding and stability issues. They also get to pass off much of the headache of data collection and management onto Twitch’s system.

Games Make Spending Fun!

Go back and read the official Blizzard announcement for this program. Notice all the words used like “unlock”, “goal”, and “progress”. Blizzard isn’t just providing a way to support HGC teams, they’re turning it into a game. Gamification is a huge trend in marketing today. To many people it’s frustrating, needlessly complex, and a complete turn-off. To others, it makes spending fun, makes the purchase feel more valuable, and encourages customers to remain loyal, frequent spenders. It’s really a fascinating marketing experiment. They’re attempting to encourage both spending and Twitch viewership by letting you play a unique buying game while you watch.

In summary, like we said on Wednesday’s show, this program is not ideal for everyone. I find bits and other pseudo-currencies needlessly complex, and I can’t stand Twitch chat. For people like me, this is a clunky, unappealing method of supporting my favorite teams. However, I understand why Blizzard chose to experiment with this program. At the end of the day, any way to support the HGC is a good thing. Hopefully, this is just the first step. As we see the HGC start to settle, as more teams are picked up by relevant organizations, I fully expect that we will see new and varied ways of supporting our favorite HGC teams. Until then, I remain optimistic, and choose to look at this program for what I hope it is–an interesting first step.

The Definitive Discussion–What To Do About Bayonetta

 

bayo.jpgYesterday was a fascinating day for studying the Smash 4 community. We witnessed some of our best and worst moments all at once. In the wake of an intense match we saw raw emotion come out, fans desperately searching for answers, for something to blame. In the end, that all fell back on the recurring problem of our game: Bayonetta.

For those unaware, let me set the stage for yesterday’s events. Grand finals of Dreamhack Atlanta saw CLG VoiD on the winner’s side facing MVG’s Salem. Salem was coming hot off of his EVO victory the week before, and VoiD was in position to finally win his first S-tier event. VoiD quickly went up 2-0 in the first set before Salem came all the way back with a reverse 3-0 to reset the bracket. The second set was a hard fought battle, but ultimately Salem grabbed the win with a low-percent combo off the top. Immediately folks took to Twitter on all sides. Some proclaiming the time was long past due to eliminate the scourge of Bayonetta from our game, some demanding credit for Salem’s victory, others lamenting our incessant need to react to everything with calls for a ban. As is always the case in these situations, there were interesting points and silly tweets on all sides, but no resolution. Today, I want to take a calm, systematic approach to discussing the problem without emotion or reactionary evidence. Let’s actually figure out what to do about The Bayonetta Problem.

Smash 4 Broke

First, we need to understand a fundamental truth when discussing any issues in Smash 4–the game is broken. From a competitive standpoint this is the most broken game currently played as an active esport. Let me explain what I mean:

First, the game was not designed with competition in mind. There are really only four stages (Smashville, FD, Battlefield, Town and City) without significant gimmicks or mechanical problems. Even then there are glitches and the problems with stretcher platforms. Many characters have broken hitboxes or have moves that do not function properly. There are three characters that don’t even have access to their full moveset in most tournaments. Most importantly, the game is not actively supported or balanced around competition and never will be.

So, whenever you discuss a problem with Smash 4, you must first acknowledge that the game as a whole is a problem. This should not be an esport, it frankly has no business being a competitive game. However, there’s enough love and passion in the community, and no other games that offer a suitable replacement, so players try to make it work the best they can. There is no way to “fix” competitive Smash 4 because it is broken on a fundamental level. If you want to play a well-structured competitive game, you need to play something that is not Smash 4.

Feels vs Data

So, we understand that the game is fundamentally broken. We’ll never see another balance patch for Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo Wii U. Once we accept this fact, we can start to approach real solutions to the problems with our game. However, there’s still a massive problem–we are run by our hearts.

There is no dev team studying this game. No one is collecting data from For Glory on win percentages. There’s nobody to address bug reports. We cannot properly gather the volume of data needed to properly balance a video game. As a result, most changes to the game start as emotional reactions and don’t go any further. We call for a ledge-grab limit after one popular player gets frustratingly defeated by a camping playstyle. We demand bans on stages based on a few clips of bugs on Twitter. We radically change our opinion on characters based on how the best players in the world perform with those characters. We think like spectators rather than a competition committee.

When approaching a problem with our game, we have to change the way we think. We need to look at the raw numbers. If you want Lylat banned, collect data. How many tournament matches have been affected by its glitches? Are these glitches reproduce-able? Are they exploitable? How do they function? If you want Lylat to stay, you need to argue your case with the exact same data. We have to stop reacting to how we feel, and start really studying our game with the intent of optimizing its competitive structure.

The True Bayonetta Problem

Right now, we do not have the data to even remotely discuss a character ban. Regardless of what side of that argument you fall on, there simply is not enough data yet to make a ruling. Even so, I can already settle the matter once and for all, referring back to the last section. Here’s the core issue: Bayonetta just feels bad.

Smash 4 is a weird, broken game. It is the slowest-moving fighting game played actively today. In general the game is settled by amassing enough rage to catch your opponent with your best aerial normal for a kill. many characters have low-percent combos and interesting kill setups, but at the core the game is about trading single hits back and forth. In her core design, Bayonetta doesn’t fit how Smash 4 is played. At any level of rage, her kills mostly come from extended, multi-hit combos. To anyone who finds Smash 4 boring, Bayo is an exciting change of pace. However, to people who love the game, to spectators who follow the game extensively, she just feels wrong to watch. Sure Meta Knight and Zero Suit Samus have ladder combos, sure DK and Bowser have grab setups that kill off the top, but all of those characters work within the established norms of the game. They have to setup their kills in ways that any experienced spectator can understand. When someone dies from Boost Kick or Ding Dong, you understand why. You generally know what the opponent could have done to avoid the situation. Watching a top level Bayonetta, it often just feels wrong. She doesn’t appear to have specific rage windows, or need a specific platform layout. It seems like she can just start a combo from anything, and at any moment the stock could end.

Now, all the Bayonetta players reading this are frantically typing their rebuttals. It takes a ton of excecutional skill to play this way. You have to read DI to get those combos to come out. Let me be clear–I am not discounting the intense practice and skill required to execute Bayo play at a high level. I’m not even arguing that she is too powerful at this point. What I’m attempting to do is help the community realize that, most often, they are reacting based on what they see and feel rather than the actual data of the sport.

Feeling Changes

The National Football League recently found itself making a seeing, feeling change. As the problem with concussions continued to grow, the league felt it needed to change something. As a reactionary move to the mounting complaints about the safety of their game, they banned hard hits. It really wasn’t more clear than that. There was some jargon about what constituted a hard hit, but in reality the calls were left to the referee’s discretion, and anything that looked “bad” got called.

However, this ruling actually did nothing to address the real problem. Often the hits that are the most dangerous to a player’s brain are the rudimentary, “safe” tackles you see on every routine play. By eliminating “hard” hits, the league officials had made the game look better to concerned parties, but had done absolutely nothing to change the rate at which players were getting concussions. They hadn’t really stopped to look at the data and make a rule change that actually addressed a problem with their game in the best way possible.

A ban on Bayonetta represents much of the same issues. As I said before, we flat out do NOT have enough data to determine that the character is actually a degenerative problem on par with Brawl’s Meta Knight. You cannot at this time present data that supports that claim. You may be able to begin to collect it and build a case, but you don’t have those results today to present before a Smash governing body (which doesn’t exist but really probably should at this point).

Further, a Bayonetta ban represents a number of problematic unintended consequences. A hasty character ban would effectively remove a large number of players from competition for a period of time. Players like Lima, Captain Zack, and Salem have dedicated themselves to mastering this character. Most Bayo players don’t have a secondary prepared (not that they need one) that can compete on the same level. For players like Zack and Salem you would be putting their professional contracts in jeopardy. We could see a number of players leave the game forever because their character was completely removed.

Further, bans aren’t really a thing in most games. Obviously other games get balance patches to fix problems, but even when a character is legitimately overpowered, players still have to learn to deal with that meta. They have to react, find counter strategies, and adapt their way of playing the game. If Mario simply cannot beat Bayonetta, that doesn’t automatically mean she should be banned, but it may mean that Ally has to develop a Bayo-specific counterpick. We already see this constantly in Melee. Every top player has developed a Fox to deal with Hungrybox, but no one is (seriously) calling for a ban on Jigglypuff.

If we ban Bayonetta, we also dramatically hurt the game’s spectator appeal to casual observers. Most of the reaction from people tuning into EVO was about how cool Bayonetta looked. People liked her combos, the danger of her kill threat. It took DC constantly discussing our hatred of the character for the rest of the panel on the Jumpoff to react negatively to her. Bayonetta brings so many unique things to competitive Smash, the entertainment product would be objectively worse without her (to people outside the community who don’t already hate her).

So, ultimately, right now we need to calm down and begin exploring the problem from an objective standpoint. Are character-specific secondaries a problem for the game? Does Bayonetta create a degenerative metagame, using Brawl Meta Knight as a known standard? Are view numbers negatively affected by Bayonetta in the grand finals? Does Bayonetta have an overly irregular win percentage in For Glory, or in bracket? These are the questions that have to be definitively answered before a ban could ever be realistically discussed.

 

Closing Thought

Hopefully we all acknowledge that there will be no more patches to Smash 4. No developer is ever going to nerf Bayonetta. However, I’ve been thinking for a few weeks based on my own observances that Bayonetta is indeed a bit overpowered. But only just a bit.

She simply has, like, one too many tools. When explaining it to my wife I said it this way: if all the top tier characters in Smash 4 have 8 tools, she has 9. No balance designer would ever remove the character, but they would tweak her. What if, after collecting the proper data, we nerfed Bayonetta? What if instead of banning the character, we banned Bat Within? Or we banned the stupid guns attached to her aerials? Instead of trying to remove one of the ways that a lot of people enjoy this game, what if we just toned it down at the competitive level? Is that a viable solution? I don’t know, but I think it’s another avenue that isn’t being properly explored yet.

Let’s Learn About Public Relations: The Unintended Consequences of Salem Stealing Online Tournaments

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Before we get into today’s topic I want to muse on something. It is utterly fascinating to me how powerful ANTi’s social media presence has become. He is a brilliant model of success if you want to study self-branding through social media. Every tweet he makes about the Smash ecosystem demands a response from top leaders in the community. He could bottom out and drop even lower on the next PGR, and still likely keep gaining followers and retain his Immortals contract. If any players reading this are curious about how to get signed to a good team, study what ANTi does. Shoot me a message and I’ll help you identify exactly what makes it work so well, and how you can adapt those strategies to your own brand.

Get On With It

Right then, on to last night’s drama. As mentioned above, this is actually pretty old drama but ANTi’s commentary demanded responses from MVG higher-ups which created a perfect opportunity for learning.  Yay learning! For those unaware, here’s the scenario:

Salem is ranked #11 on the PGR. With a slightly better start to his season, he’d easily be top 10. He is sponsored by Most Valuable Gaming, an esports company with Melee god M2K as its spearhead. They are a solid company and a great force in the smash world, but by no means a top tier sponsor in the grand scheme of esports. Over the last few months, Salem has entered a number of online tournaments where the prize was a paid trip to a major event. He won the Naifu Wars that awarded a trip to EVO, and ANTi’s recent tweet was in reference to Salem’s registration for the Nairo sub tournament awarding a trip to Shine.

There are two “problems” that some people have with Salem participating in these events. First, many feel that it is unfair for Salem to be allowed to enter. He is obviously at a far higher skill level than the majority of entrants. Second, he already has team that should be funding his trip to big tournaments. Since he does not strictly “need” the prize, he should not be depriving other players the opportunity to attend these events. First, I want to clear up a couple facts of the situation, and then explore the optics and public relations consequences of those facts.

The Facts

Fact the first–these tournaments are run by Nairo. He is the tournament organizer. You can only enter these tournaments by subscribing to his Twitch channel. Nairo has the right to decide the parameters of his tournament, if he chooses to allow Salem to enter, that is entirely his decision. Salem also had to pay the entry fee like every other entrant. He received no special treatment. Remember, every single smash tournament ever is a simple open bracket. We don’t block top players from attending locals, monthlies, regionals, etc. In fact, there are many who want top players to attend more minor offline events. Salem being allowed to enter Nairo’s sub tournaments actually represents consistency across all smash events–you pay your entry, you get your shot.

Fact the second–MVG has gone on record stating that they are more than happy to pay for Salem to attend these events. His decision to enter the sub tournaments, according to MVG representatives, has nothing to do with their inability to pay for plane tickets. According to them and Salem himself, Salem would rather earn his trip to big events and get some good practice along the way through these online events. We’ll get to the opinions and optics on this, but these are the facts as they have been relayed by the parties involved.

Fact the last–Salem is not evil. If you’d seen any content or talked to any player, you would know that Salem is a genuinely good person who loves the community and is grateful for his opportunities. His entry into these events does not represent some malicious act to deprive Cosmos or Icymist of their chance to attend a big tournament. I am willing to believe that Salem’s reasons for entering these events are pure regardless of the optics. That said, it looks really really bad.

The Optics

If you follow me on Twitter, this is a phrase you’ll hear me use a lot. When we talk about “optics” we’re referring to a public relations/marketing idea. Essentially, the optics represent the way a situation is perceived by people who do not have all the behind-the-scenes facts. For example, let’s say you come home to find some dude stabbing your wife repeatedly in the chest. As soon as he sees you, he drops the knife and starts to run towards an open window. In your rage and surprise, you grab the dropped knife and chase after him. He escapes out the window and you can’t follow. You run back over to your wife and attempt to stop the bleeding by pressing on the wound with your hands. Suddenly, the police burst in and they see you hovering over your dying, super stabbed wife with blood all over you, a knife with your fingerprints all over it, and no sign that anyone else was in the house. The reality of the situation is that you didn’t kill your wife, but the optics make it look like you are super duper going to jail.

You may have heard the phrase “perception is reality”. It’s an old cliche but it remains relevant. In public relations, we go one step further and say that “perception creates reality”. Optics are everything in my business. The matter more than reality because most people build their opinions and make their decisions based on optics rather than truth. Truth should always matter more, but it’s the responsibility of the public relations team to make the optics match the truth.

So, let’s look at the optics of this situation. Again, this is not 100% reality, but it is how the situation looks to people without 100% of the information. You have the 11th-best player in the world, now an EVO champion, entering amateur subscriber tournaments in order to win a trip to Shine 2017. When he wins (and he’ll probably win) it means we will not get to see a popular unique player like Cosmos or Icymist attend that tournament. Now those players won’t get the chance to improve their PGR stock. Clearly MVG must be a fake sponsor since they couldn’t even shell out the money to get their player to the most prestigious tournament in the world, and now they also can’t pay for Shine? What do they even do for Salem? Is this just another weird org that doesn’t actually do anything to help their players? Salem better ditch these guys soon and get a real sponsor, MVG clearly doesn’t value him if they can’t pay for the travel of the EVO-freaking champion!

Stay With Me

Now, as we said above, that is very clearly not the full reality of the situation. However, it is a reasonable conclusion to make based on the available data. The general public did not know that Salem declined MVG’s offer to pay for his EVO trip. They don’t know that he considers these tournaments to be a great practice opportunity. All they see is the EVO champion having to fight a bunch of unsponsored, promising players for the right to attend a tournament. It is the cross-section of Salem’s skill and his team that make the situation a PR problem. Were Salem still in the 20s on the PGR, no one would really care that he was in these tournaments. Were he still a free agent, more people would likely support his decision to try and get his trip covered.

What lead to me writing this article was this tweet from M2K. Because he has all the facts, he sees ANTi as intentionally spreading misinformation. However, ANTi and I drew the exact same conclusion based on the information we had at the time. I saw no press release from MVG stating that they’d offered Salem a plane ticket and he declined. Nothing from their side of the story came out until enough shade had been thrown their way to demand a response. What I want to make clear in this article is this: the general public are not responsible for the optics of a situation. That is the responsibility of the player or organization. If you are in a situation with bad optics, you didn’t do the work necessary to protect yourselves.

This is true in every area of life: you cannot blame people for reacting based on the available information. If you have only given me some of the data, I can only draw a conclusion based on what I know. It is unreasonable to expect someone to say “hey Salem, it’s sort of weird that you are still entering these sub tournaments. Did MVG offer to pay for your flight, but you refused because you want to earn it yourself?” Because Salem is entering a tournament who’s prize is a trip, it is reasonable to assume that Salem could not get that trip another way. You cannot attack ANTi for spreading “misinformation” when you did not give us the correct information to begin with.

Smash isn’t grassroots anymore. We were on the freaking worldwide leader of sports! Even minor organizations within the community have to level up in terms of their marketing, public relations, and professionalism. You have to consider the optics of every decision. It is the job of the organization to protect their players from PR scandals, and to also protect their image. Salem said that he entered these tournaments because he loves his sponsor and doesn’t want them to have to pay if he can go another way. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many he may have done more harm to MVG by attending these tournaments. It is the job of a marketing or PR representative at a company like MVG to consider these unintended consequences and develop strategies to prevent them.

Let’s Chill Out

Now, all of this being said, I still have not stated that Salem did anything wrong by entering a sub tournament and winning a trip. The tournament rules allowed him to attend, he is well within his rights to compete. He did not commit some sort of crime, he just played in a Smash Bros tournament. That being said, every player in this scene is now more in the public eye than ever. When you have a public profession, you don’t get to avoid optics. It is your responsibility to think about how a situation my be perceived. Then, you can decide whether or not to continue with your chosen course of action.

Further, MVG is a fantastic smash organization. They put on solid events, they provide awesome content with both Salem and M2K, and they’ve enabled Vayseth to keep pushing for the inclusion of Japanese competitors at US events. We should absolutely support them. The fact that Salem has not already dropped them to try and court bigger teams should tell you just how much they support their players. The reality of the situation is very clear–MVG and Salem have a wonderful working relationship, and any fre agent player should be excited to get an offer from this team. Unfortunately, they didn’t do a great job of protecting themselves from the optics of this one weird situation.

Salem is completely within his rights to attend a sub tournament. The public are also completely within their rights to view this as a problem. Anyone who’s actually attacking Salem and saying anything overly rude or hurtful is a stupid jerk and should stop. However, discussing whether or not top players should be allowed in these events, being disappointed that free agents can’t go, even wishing that top players wouldn’t participate–these are all completely reasonable things for the public to do.

The world of Smash is changing. Players and organizations are going to have to change along with it, and that means putting more time and resources into considering optics, and adjusting for them.

My Icons Wishlist

icons

If you’ve been on the shiny new Icons subreddit this week, you’ve seen me over there. A lot. In, like, every thread. Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while may remember other posts about my high hopes and excitement for this game. I have (and will do so again) talked about my expectations for how the game will reshape esports in the genre. Today, I want to go a bit more specifically into my specific desires out of this game, both in-game features as well as the structure of their esports ecosystem.

For those unaware (or having clicked the link praying for more HOTS content, sorry that’s on the way but it’s EVO season so fighting games get all my brain space) “Icons” is the newly revealed name for Wavedash Games upcoming platform fighter. The game promises all the technically rewarding gameplay of Super Smash Bros Melee with, you know, a developer that actually supports their competitive community. The game will be free to play on Steam with a beta set for sometime in the Fall. Go check it out, it’s gonna be sweet. Now, onto what I want!

Features

First let’s talk about features. These are things I want to see directly in the game, or related to the experience of playing the game itself. In no particular order:

Not Loot Boxes

Free-to-play models are tricky. You need a system that encourages your whales to spend lots and lots of money, but also keeps your free-play player base engaged and grinding for in-game rewards. Loot boxes are cropping up in a ton of games, largely because of their success in Overwatch. For me, loot boxes are a huge turn-off. If I like a costume or a character, I want to be able to just buy it. I don’t mind the RNG in collectible games like Hearthstone, but if I have to crack a bunch of “space crates” or whatever to get the one skin I want for Kidd, I’ll be kind of bummed.

My hope is that the team get creative with their in-game purchases. Obviously fill the game with cosmetics, but let’s go deeper. Let me buy a new challenge pack of single player content once or twice a year. Stuff like Break the Targets from Smash. Let me pay to enter a tournament that rewards some sort of exclusive in game portrait or something. Give me the ability to purchase stuff for other players directly from the in-game store. This is something people want in every game, and when it finally game to League it worked out pretty well. Games like this are lifestyle games. When you play frequently, your fellow players become your core friends, your family. Buying them that costume they want, or the new announcer pack featuring their favorite commentator would be a great gift, and a great way to support their favorite game.

Biggest part of this–let me support esports through the game. Give me a Mango-inspired costume for Kidd when he wins Genesis in Icons. When there are sponsored players, let me buy in-game portraits to show my support with some of the revenue going to support that player/team. Make exclusives that directly support the pot bonus of an upcoming tournament. If this community becomes anything like the Rivals scene or Smash as a whole, people will want ways to not only support the game, but to support the people pushing it to its highest competitive level.

Deep Training Mode

This is likely too ambitious for launch, but I want a top notch training mode. I want a training mode so deep you can watch ESAM spend 12 hours in it on stream and never be bored. Let me pick every stage, every character, set exact percents for both characters, adjust how the computer DIs attacks, etc.

Most of all, I want to be able to record inputs for the training dummy. Let me practice edgeguarding by setting the computer to respond to hits the same way over and over again, from the same position on the stage. Give me the option to set their out of shield options so I can practice punishes, or set how they edgeguard so I can practice recoveries. The more features in the training mode, the better.

Tutorial

At this point, any game that doesn’t learn from the Rivals of Aether tutorial mode is just not worth playing. This game will be free to play on Steam, you’ll get a ton of people checking it out who have never seriously played a platform fighter. Educate them intimately on the basics, but also provide character-specific tutorials. At the very least, have something in-game that links directly to YouTube videos that show the basics for your character.

Daily Quests/Achievements

I love daily quests. Between my work schedule and obsessive need to absorb esports content, I don’t get a lot of time to play games. When I do, I want to feel like I’m accomplishing something. Daily quests and achievements give that to me. Daily quests are great in a game like this because they can encourage players to branch out to other characters or try out new game modes.

What I really want, though, are achievements. This is something the Might and Magic card game, Duels of Champions, nailed perfectly. I love card games, and I logged in every day for my daily log-in bonus. However, because I couldn’t play that often and was poor as heck, I couldn’t afford enough cards to really feel like I was progressing fast enough in the ranked mode. Fortunately, the game had over a hundred achievements I could focus on, each one rewarding in-game currency or booster packs. There could be achievements for winning ranked games with each character a set number of times, winning without taking damage, getting kills with a specific special move a number of times, and so much more! Achievements would give a player like me, who finds the game super fun but will never be able to climb the ranked ladder like they want to, an alternate success condition to chase.

Story

I want to know the lore of this world. I love the wacky lore in fighting games, and even more so I adore the people who know it intimately. My hope is that Icons will reward those players who want a rich backstory for their character. Whether through single-player content or just through teases in the voice lines, make me feel that there’s a larger, cohesive world out there.

Adding to this, I pray that there is supplemental content. No one is expecting the digital shorts of Overwatch, but even in the early days League of Legends had a small written short story for each character release. Something that gave their motivations and fleshed out the world a little bit. We know the names of all the big cities on Runeterra, we know the relationships between all the characters in League. They had enough story in a game with no single player content to have an actual lore-based show-match that affected the course of the world. I want that!  If Raymer and Kidd are rivals in the story, have Leffen and ANTi settle the score for them in a best of 7. Make the result of that match have real affects on the story of the world, and make some sort of in game collectible that reflects it.

Good Patch Notes

It is baffling how many games still have awful patch notes. Document every single change in a patch, and provide developer commentary on the goal of that change. Let the players know the reasoning for changes and the goals in your design philosophy so that they can properly test changes, and provide useful feedback.

Esports

It’s in my name, obviously it’s what I care about. I will likely invest in the esports of this game more than I actually play it, so here’s what I want to see:

Weekly Online Events

Whether through ESL’s weekly series or something unique to the game, there should be an official weekly tournament with an open bracket. These events allow online warriors to get a taste of the competitive experience, and are a great spot for amateur commentators to practice their craft. I think the ESL’s Go4 series is a perfect fit for this game.

No Developer Commentary

This was tough in the early days of Infinite Crisis. The dev team did all the commentary for every tournament. They choked the amateur commentary scene, and were not entertaining in the least. Events in early beta don’t need Scar and Toph on the mic, but there will be community members with good audio setups who are willing and able. Get them involved as early as possible.

A True Circuit

This is what will truly set this game above Smash in the coming years. Nintendo is a decade behind when it comes to esports, and there is no sign in the community of banding together to create a true governing body for the competitive scene. By 2019 there should be an official global circuit for the game. I’ll probably outline a proposal for such a thing in another post once I’ve gotten my hands on the game, but for now I just want the team working towards a true circuit.

This should be something with a universal set of rules, a clear understanding of how to qualify and what events throughout the year will award points, and a big world championship finale. My hope is that the finale of the circuit also not take place at a shared event. The finals should be special for this community, not sharing the stage at Genesis or EVO with another game. Ultimately, the main purpose of this circuit should be to provide the community with a central structure, and a clear arc to a season of competition.

More Than Smash

I don’t want Icons to just be a part of the “platform fighter community”, only showing up at Smash events. I want this game to be the infection vector for gamers in every genre. Hold major tournaments at anime conventions, do an invitational sponsored by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, take the gaps in the FGC calendar that Smash avoids. We see a pitiful Smash competition at Combo Breaker, make that a key pillar of the Icons season. If Icons is going to be more than just a smash clone, that has to be reflected in the esports structure.

Official Esports Twitter

No one comes close to Riot Games on this front, but there’s so much benefit for doing it right. There needs to be an official Twitter account that provides updates during tournaments. Following tournaments on Twitter is so fun in Smash, but we have to rely on PGStats to tell us when upsets happen, and we rarely get other details outside of a bunch of vague tweets of “did that just happen?!?!”

If I want to keep up to date with a tournament stream until I get home from work, there should be one Twitter account I have to follow for those updates. It should be tweeting out set counts, upsets, clippable moments, and constant links to both the stream and the bracket.

In-Client Support

If you are playing Icons, you should know about the tournament scene. There should be a button on the homepage that let’s you watch the stream of this weekend’s circuit event from within the game. Every week the in-game landing page should be announcing tournaments, linking to registration pages, and giving you updates on how the season has progressed. If your only connection to Icons is the game itself, you should still have resources to actively follow the competitive scene.

 

 

What sort of features are you looking for in Icons? Are there any dealbreaker features for you that absolutely must be included? What is your ideal esports structure for the game?

The ZeRo Popoff–Genuine Love for the Game

In case you were unaware, Team Solo Mid’s ZeRo is the best player in Smash 4. Like, he’s really good at this video game. He still holds the game’s longest win streak, has been first on every PGR, and continues to be the clear favorite at every tournament he attends.

Naturally, being the best comes with its own special brand of hate. Like the Yankees or the Patriots, ZeRo’s dominance paints a clear target on his back. It is often more fun for fans to cheer against the Chilean king of Smash than to cheer for him. While rooting for the underdog is perfectly normal, the hate against ZeRo has a unique, mean-spirited flavor.

Hate The Best

When someone is so uniquely dominant, the usual defense is for a critic to try and invalidate their success. You would say that the Yankees only win because they buy all the best players. Someone might argue that the Patriots can only win so many Super Bowls because their coach is a dirty dirty cheater. There’s a degree of truth to both of these claims, but the teams still have to go out and execute in order to win, so the teams still garner plenty of true, loyal fans.

The strategy most often used to attack ZeRo is slightly different. The most common criticism you’ll see of ZeRo is that his playstyle is boring. He camps too much, he doesn’t play with enough aggression, Diddy is a stupid character, etc. This is a fascinating circumvention of form. No one is actually trying to say that ZeRo cheats to win, or that he has some sort of unfair advantage. Few people even try to argue that Diddy is too powerful and he’s being carried by an overpowered character. Instead, the tactic is to invalidate ZeRo’s entire place within Smash because he is not entertaining. They say that he’s ruining the game, that he doesn’t respect his opponents because he just plays lame against everyone.

Smash is such an interesting sport in that so often a player’s persona is directly tied to their character and play in the game. Play a low-tier? You’re probably a fun person. Play Bayonetta? You’re probably a bad person? Play a super campy Diddy Kong? You’re probably a boring person. Today, I want to try and separate the in-game character from the human person of ZeRo.  To do that, let’s take a look at the way ZeRo pops off at the end of a set.

The ZeRo Popoff

There have been some truly great popoffs this year. We’ve had the unique….style of Dabuz, the raw emotion of ESAM, and the pure joy of HIKARU. However, the one that truly sticks out in my mind is ZeRo’s celebration at the end of Grand Finals at Royal Flush.

To set the scene, ZeRo had made it through the tournament in Winner’s Side. Mr. R came through the Loser’s Finals, and reset the bracket. His Cloud took ZeRo all the way to game 10 of the set. The last game went all the way to the final stock. Then suddenly, ZeRo was able to get Mr. R off stage and spike him at low percent, claiming the victory. The set is embeded at the top of this article. Go watch, and skip to about 36:20. Watch the way ZeRo reacts here. He immediately jumps up and is so excited that he rips off his jacket and slams it on the ground. It’s actually very reminiscent of ESAM’s Pikachu throw at Civil War. Such raw passion and relief.

However, ESAM’s popoff came as a result of finally conquering his biggest demon. He had a known Mario problem. Ally was a guaranteed loss when the two met in bracket. Down a game, having completely abandoned his main, ESAM took a risk with Samus and took out his greatest foe, and the player ranked 2nd in the world (at the time).  It was his greatest victory on Smash 4’s biggest stage–Civil War.

None of these factors were true of ZeRo’s victory at Royal Flush. It was a small tournament with very few top 10 players present. Mr. R and ZeRo have played many sets, but no one would classify Ramin as one of ZeRo’s “bracket demons”. Outside of Ally, ZeRo really doesn’t have any demons at this point. So if the tournament wasn’t that great, and the win wasn’t that big of a deal, why get so emotional?

It’s simple: because the set was good.

Love of the Game

These are the moments that make me such a fan of ZeRo. It’s the same pure joy and emotion you see in his interview at Frostbite after the finals against Tsu. ZeRo is a true competitor. He doesn’t want to be the best so that people will love him. He doesn’t want to be the best for the money. You can see from his YouTube, his interviews, and even his popoffs that ZeRo just genuinely wants to play great matches of Smash 4. You’ll always see him at his most excited when someone challenges him. When the set is close. When he has to come back from the losers side.

This is the last player who wants to ruin the game–he’s the game’s biggest advocate. Every weekend you’ll see ZeRo directly tweeting at Twitch’s esports people reminding them to promote Smash events. I’ll never understand the argument that ZeRo is a boring player, but that is subjective. What you find entertaining is entirely up to you. I happen to find precision and perfect execution beautiful, but that’s me. However, even if you don’t enjoy his play, you can never deny the genuine love ZeRo has for this game. You can’t ever say that ZeRo the player is boring–he has more passion for his play than you or I will ever have for anything.

I am a die-hard ZeRo fan. Not because he wins everything, not because he makes the flashiest plays. I love ZeRo because Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios inspires me with his passion, work ethic, and pride for his game. I see that in the way he celebrates his victories. I feel his joy. It makes me want to celebrate with him. It makes me want to cheer for his victory so that we can celebrate again.

ZeRo will always receive hate. Most of that hate will be disproportionate, hurtful, and genuinely mean. It is an unavoidable by-product of being the best. However, my hope is that more people will come to love the man behind the wins, see the human behind his monkey avatar, and celebrate his success as a person. Thanks for creating so many awesome moments, ZeRo. Thanks for being the reason I’m part of the Smash community at all. Keep grinding, and those of us who recognize your passion will continue to support you and be inspired by you.

 

TL,DR: TSM! TSM! TSM!

Smash Marketing 101–The Issues With ARMS Saga

arms saga

Ok, so there are a few different emotions happening in readers right now. Some of you are super excited, expecting a rage-filled takedown of all the failures of the titanic organization, 2GGaming. That’s not what’s about to happen. Others of you have already hit that downvote button, assuming this is just another rant about some minor mistake on the part of a great organization, and someone trying to puff themselves up by taking on someone bigger and better respected for free views.

Honestly, that second one is sort of true. Writing about 2GG has always gotten the best response on this blog for anything Smash related, the only exception being my mock PGR. They are a huge name in the scene and probably the most well-respected organization. Writing about them at all brings out critics, defenders, and casual observers alike. It’s just smart content creation to write about what gets a response.

That said, today’s article has been sitting with me since the moment ARMS Saga was announced. I was hoping to be wrong about it, and have no reason to write this. I was hoping that 2GG would continue to be immune to any of my concerns, and unaffected by any of the mistakes I thought they were making with the 2GGC. However, from a marketing perspective, there are some serious issues with the concept and execution of ARMS Saga that I think are super useful. This is not going to be a critique of 2GG as an organization–they are amazing. Easily the best org in Smash 4. What we’ll be looking at today are specifically the ways in which ARMS Saga does not work as a concept, how 2GG failed in it’s execution, and how that has resulted in the lowest attendance of any saga yet this year.

Bad Numbers

The primary reason I’m writing this article is because of an indisputable fact. ARMS Saga has a surprisingly low turnout for a 2GGC event. At time of writing there are 200 entrants for Smash 4 singles. This is a whopping 131 entrants less than the second-lowest attendance this year, 331 at Midwest Mayhem Saga. Only 200 entrants for a circuit event with a pot bonus run by the best org in the game. To me, that’s a big deal, and a great learning opportunity. Further, there are only 50 people signed up for the ARMS bracket–the thing the whole event is designed around.

Quickly, there are obviously some other factors. The PGR concluded last month, some players might be taking July easy. EVO is the following week, some players are surely resting this week. If there were 300 entrants, I think this would be very reasonable. Sure, the entrants are lower because July is a tough month.

However, every month has been completely stacked this year. We’ve had Genesis, Dreamhacks, CEOs, Smash ‘n Splash–there have been huge conflicting events all year long. EVO is a big deal, but Smash has always been somewhat contentious with it. I don’t buy that EVO alone would cause that big a drop in entrants for a 2GG circuit event with a pot bonus. Factor in the compendium-funded players, and ARMS Saga has lower entrants than many C-tiers this year. That is not simply a fluke of scheduling, it speaks to a larger issue with the conceit of the event. That’s what we’re going to discuss and learn from today.

Initial Theme

Let’s start with the concept of this particular saga. For every other 2GG saga, the theme has been around an influential part of the community. The player sagas celebrated a top pro or high profile player. Civil War celebrated the rivalry between Ally and ZeRo. I wrote in detail about my issues with Greninja Saga, but at least that was based on a character people enjoy watching. Every saga was a celebration of Smash 4 and its community.

Then we have ARMS Saga. If you just saw the name, you would have no way of knowing that this event had anything to do with Smash 4. ARMS Saga does not celebrate the Smash community in any way with it’s core theme. Yes, they found a way to shoehorn Smash in with the Little Mac compendium, but no one can argue that this is core to the theme of ARMS Saga. There’s no Little Mac round robin, there’s no exhibition that celebrates a character or persona in Smash. This is just a Smash 4 tournament with an ARMS side event.

When you’re designing a theme for your event, you have to consider your audience. Smash players are notoriously loyal to their game. We consistently discuss breaking away from multi-game tournaments. We value our grassroots origin and our community above all else. Most smashers don’t even play or watch other fighting games. When creating your theme, make sure it runs parallel to the values and desires of your core audience.

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Pre-Planning

Now, I’ve considered the natural response to the failure of theme. “But Trent, 2GG said they’d only do ARMS Saga if they got enough retweets. The community clearly wanted this saga, so it must be a good idea.”

There are a couple issues with this. First, planning anything based on a Twitter poll or request for retweets is fundamentally flawed from a marketing perspective. It is very easy to hit that retweet button. A retweet doesn’t even necessarily mean you agree with something or want it to happen. It could just mean you want to share in the discussion, or let your followers see something that’s happening in social media today.

Second, even if every retweet was someone agreeing that they want to see an ARMS Saga, that doesn’t make it a good idea. As we said above, this takes away from the tradition of the sagas. It makes the curse clunky and less hype. It doesn’t fit as part of Smash 4’s first and only major circuit. It’s not the responsibility of your followers to consider tradition, longevity, and brand consistency. Twitter is for immediate emotional response. “Hey ARMS is in the news, 2GG is cool. I like both these things, so I’ll hit retweet.” That’s the level of engagement you get in a Twitter-based decision. Further, everyone loves 2GG, myself included. Their sagas are consistently awesome. I hate the theme as a Smash 4 circuit event, but even I was curious to see how 2GG executed on it. Getting a thousand retweets on an idea doesn’t give you any indiction of how that will translate to actual attendance. It just shows that a thousand people like 2GG, have heard of ARMS, and are intrigued by the concept.

This is now two events in a row that were left up to forces outside of 2GG’s control when deciding their theme. First Greninja Saga was decided by a round robin after community voting. Then ARMS Saga was what appears to be a fun idea that they floated on Twitter and then suddenly had to build an event around. The theme is so important. Civil War earned the highest view numbers of any Smash 4-only event in history based on the strength of its theme. Nairo Saga was incredible and a perfect celebration of Nairo because it had time to be properly planned.

At the start of the year, I would have bet money that 2GG had the theme for every saga already planned out. Now, I’m genuinely concerned that they don’t yet know what the theme for August Saga or September Saga will be. If I were on the marketing team, I would be freaking out. The theme for your event determines everything else. It informs the marketing, the banners, the overlays, the schedule, the side events–everything. When you’re waiting for the community to decide your theme, you put everything else on hold. Nothing can be done in advance because you don’t even know what you’re doing yet.

Note: I wrote this article yesterday, but had to come back in and add an edit here. 2GG just literally asked last night on Twitter for saga ideas, and said they may run a poll and use one of them for August Saga.  It’s already July 6th!! That is not enough time to plan a themed event! It is wonderful that they want to involve the community, but have them choose the saga three months from now, not three weeks! This is very clear evidence that 2GG has not been learning from the planning and marketing issues of the last two sagas. If the numbers for August Saga shoot back up well over 300, then maybe I’m just a senseless critic; but either way no one should be looking at this as an example of how to run an event. I genuinely believe that if they took their pre-planning more seriously, we’d see more sagas closer to 500 entrants instead of hovering in the 300s.

Pre-planning is so important, and it’s one of the points where 2GG usually shines as the example for other orgs. It is only at these last two events where that has fallen short. When you’re planning an event, make sure your theme is determined a few months in advance. That way you have the time to confirm relevant players, design exhibitions and graphics, and put together a comprehensive marketing strategy.

Execution

So we have a hastily-designed theme that doesn’t fit the tradition of the sagas. All of this is recoverable if we can still execute well on the theme. Let’s examine how 2GG executed.

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On the ARMS side, we have the side event. As mentioned before, the ARMS side bracket has a total of 50 entrants right now. That’s with a $1000 pot bonus for that bracket. Clearly just having a side bracket with a pot bonus was not enough to draw entrants. If this is going to be ARMS Saga, and the whole event is designed around arms, there needs to be more exhibition around the game. There should be side events for the mini-games within ARMS.  Maybe do a cosplay contest with an ARMS focus. Put the main stage in a boxing ring. If ARMS is in the name, the reason someone should be attending is because this is a celebration of Nintendo’s new fighting game. This is Smash’s newborn baby brother, and we’re welcoming it into our community.  That’s how you sell an ARMS Saga as part of a Smash event. Instead, there’s just a side bracket.

Then, we have the actual Smash side of the theme–the compendium. The compendiums have been awesome and well themed this year. Civil War was about the whole world of Smash joining the fight, so the compendium brought in the best from around the world. Greninja Saga had to bring the frogs. Nairo Saga was brilliant for funding players who regularly appear on Nairo’s stream during his Naifu Wars.

For ARMS Saga, there’s no good way to use the compendiums. There are no ARMS characters in the game. Still, 2GG is about the community, it’s one of the things that makes them so well-respected. They still wanted to use this opportunity to fly in some unique players. The best they could do was the Little Macs. They also have boxing gloves, so it totally works! However, this saga is not about them at all. They are an afterthought, not a feature. They are the tangential connection. This was the least successful player compendium to date for the sagas, when talking about the theme-specific players.

I will say that I like bringing in the winner of the Nintendo VS event to defend his ARMS title, however, the rest of the compendium just does not excite. I still have major issues with the Japan Squad goal. It has nothing to do with the Saga, and it features a player who is sponsored by 2GG. Champ has said before that if Komo attends an event, they bring out Ranai for doubles, so it doesn’t make sense that either player is on the compendium, a compendium that again has nothing to do with the theme of the saga. In fact, this one likely took away from getting more of the Little Macs funded, who were at least tangentially related to the theme.

When you execute well on a theme, everything fits. Look at Civil War or Nairo Saga–every side event, every compendium, every everything worked within the theme of the event. When they plan it out and are on top of their game, no one touches 2GG in terms of theme. They have reaped all the benefits of their excellence in event design, it makes it all the more puzzling that they are suddenly falling short in this area.

 

So in closing, what’s the point of this article? Why can’t I leave 2GG alone? It’s because to me, 2GG represents everything that frustrates me about Smash. They are an amazing, passionate organization. They love this community and have done more for it than almost anyone. However, they are also wasting so much potential. Smash 4 is still insignificant in the grand scheme of esports. This isn’t because Nintendo won’t support us. It has nothing to do with a lack of money in the scene. It has everything to do with our organizers and community leaders not capitalizing on their full potential. 2GG could be a goliath in esports if they wanted. They have so many resources at their disposal, and fewer hurdles in front of them than any other Smash 4 TO. To whom much has been given, much should be expected.

I’m new to Smash, but I’m already not satisfied with where we are. I want every TO and top player making a full-time living wage for their work. I want the PGStats crew getting compensated for their work. I want the cinematography of Civil War at every significant event. I want a real circuit, a governing body, and a clear global competitive structure. All of these things can happen, but only if we as fans expect more. It only works if we keep pushing our best and brightest to be better. 2GG is the cornerstone of Smash 4. Our success rises and falls with them. They got us to a new height with Civil War, but have not maintained that momentum. I want more, and I want our best organization to be leading the charge, to not get complacent, and to always press forward. I want it to be ok for us as a community to demand excellence. Our leaders are equal to the task. We know they can deliver. It’s up to us to give them the drive to keep climbing.

What HOTS Players Can Learn From Smash Players

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If you’ve read my blog, or you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have two great loves in esports. As is obvious from where you saw this, one of those loves is Heroes of the Storm. The second is Super Smash Bros, and by extension fighting games as a whole.

My love for Heroes came as a natural evolution of my first passion in esports–League of Legends. The Fighting Game Community (FGC) caught me completely by surprise. I happened across the grand finals of Smash 4 at Genesis last year and was transfixed. Since then, thanks in large part to the YouTube channel Super Couch Fighters, I have developed a love for nearly all fighting games. At their highest level, fighting games are beautiful to watch. A high level battle in Super Smash Bros. Melee requires the APM of a Starcraft match with the reaction time of a game of tennis.

What’s especially interesting is the crossover that already exists between Smash and Heroes of the Storm. I’ve tweeted it before, but our own SolidJake was featured in The Smash Documentary, a YouTube film which details the history of competitive Melee. Old school HOTS fans will remember countless pictures of the Cloud9 squad warming up for their matches by playing a few rounds of Smash. As a passionate member of both communities, it is my belief that these parallels go even further. In fact, I think there are many things that the hardcore players of each genre can learn from one another. In my next two articles, I’m going to explore these parallels and what each scene can learn from the other. Today, we’ll begin with what HOTS players can learn from Smash (and the greater FGC as a whole).

Note: these thoughts are primarily focused at players in a competitive setting–team league, amateur tournaments, and HGC.

Know Your Main

Fighting games don’t have the degree of variance you find in HOTS. In a game like Smash, the battleground still influences gameplay, but it rarely influences character selection. Instead, nearly all serious FGC players have a main character that they play in the bulk of their tournament matches. They become so connected with this character, and play them so frequently, that often the two become one in the eyes of their fans. Your main is a part of your identity. If you asked a Melee fan who Leffen is, their first sentence to you would include the words “he’s a Fox main…” There are even memes that discuss how your main says something about your personality.

When someone chooses a main, it has two primary factors. First, how well can I compete with this character? Does playing them come naturally to me? Do their combos and special moves feel right in my hands? Second, can I have fun with this character for 10,000 hours?

In a fighting game, much of your time spent with your main will be what’s called “labbing”. You’ll sit in the training mode practicing movement techniques and combos over and over again. In Smash, you’ll also have to practice all of your options for recovering back to the stage. You have to know everything that your main can do, and know exactly how to make those options happen exactly when you need them. If you play Zero Suit Samus, you’ll be practicing grab>dthrow>uair>uair>up-B over and over again. Is it still fun after the 500th time? Are you still excited to use your main in a tournament?

Now, obviously in HOTS you cannot simply pick a main character and be successful in a draft environment. When we talk about a “main” in HOTS, let’s focus on knowing your “role”. Are you a tank, a healer, a ranged, a flex, what? What role feels most connected to your identity as a Heroes player? What role is the most fun for you? Which heroes could you spend hours mastering, and still want to play over and over again?

When I coach a HOTS team, the first thing I do is ask each player what heroes they can play at a competitive level. I’ve reached the point where I now shudder when I hear someone tell me “I can play anything.” That is a player who does not know their main. They have not developed an identity as a competitive player. They have not taken the time to really study their play and understand their role.

A competitive fighting game player would never tell you “I can play anything.” At a tournament level. They may have a few secondary characters prepared, but each of those has been carefully selected and practiced. They know those few characters almost as well as they know their main. If, as a HOTS player, you tell me you can play anything, you’re saying that you’ve put just as much practice into your Rexxar as you have your Zeratul. You’re saying there is zero difference in your mechanical accuracy with Kael’Thas and Stitches. You are telling me that you know exactly the right talents to pick  with Alarak, Artanis, and Arthas in every possible scenario.

A true Ice Climbers main knows every scenario in which they can execute a wobble (a complicated maneuver that guarantees a kill every time). Similarly, a true melee player in HOTS should know exactly when Kerrigan can dive an enemy team. They’ll have practiced against enough compositions that they know when they can blow up a target, and when they’ll get punished. They should know the situations where Illidan can solo a core. Identify your role, embrace it as part of who you are, and invest the time in mastering that role.

Play the Matchup

In fighting games, matchup knowledge is critical to success. You have to know what options are punishable, which moves can kill you, and how that character wants to win. In a Smash game, you even have to know the angle every attack will send you. However, just having this knowledge isn’t enough. You have to figure out how to adjust your play around the strengths and weaknesses of the matchup.

For example, let’s say your character has a good projectile and your opponent does not. In this matchup, you might want to stay far away from the opponent and throw projectiles, trying to rack up safe damage. Conversely, your opponent will be looking for a way to get in close to you so that you cannot safely throw projectiles anymore. There are no unwinnable matchups in fighting games–every character has tools that they can use to overcome the strengths of their opponent. The key is to identify these strengths, and adapt your style of play to capitalize on them.

In HOTS, the matchups are your team compositions and the map. You need to know where your composition is strong, and where they opponent is strong as well. Then you must identify how the map affects those strengths. This is one of my primary coaching points for any team with whom I work. Every weak team I’ve ever coached will draft their composition, and then spend the whole loading screen talking about how Wonder Woman was an overrated movie. Like, yea it was good, better than most DC movies, but there wasn’t anything particularly special about it. I did think Chris Pine was really good, and the chick they got to play Wonder Woman was really well cast, but—wait what? The game started? Crap, what lanes are we focusing, what talent do I pick? Guys is this a game for jugs or Water Dragon?

Don’t do that. Instead, use that time to analyze the matchup. Look at the enemy composition. How are they going to try to win? What did we draft that can help counter their strategy? What is our win condition with this comp? Are we stronger than them before 10? Are we stronger at 16? In every match, you should have a clear strategy for the full game before the gates open.

Pick a Top Tier

Character tier lists are a big thing in the FGC. Every pro and community has their own personal ranking for every character in their game. While many people will disagree on the actual number ranking of most characters, there is usually a consensus at the top and at the bottom. There is always a clear set of characters who are consistently bad. They struggle in most matchups, their frame data is bad, and their moves don’t do enough damage. You can absolutely win any game with these characters, but you will have to work much harder, and play near-perfect every time. If you play a bottom tier, a single mistake will often lose you the game.

Conversely, there are characters with amazing tools for every situation. They win a lot of the relevant matchups in a tournament, put out lots of damage, and often have some sort of mechanic that they can rely on in a pinch to consistently guarantee a win. Most FGC pros will tell you to choose a character you love, but the road will be so much harder if you don’t fall in love with a top tier.

In HOTS, we talk a lot about the “burden of execution”. There are so many moving parts in a MOBA. If you add to that a complicated team composition, it will often backfire. You may have a ton of fun with your Butcher/Tyrael Judgement dive comp. It may even win a ton of games in Quick Match. But, when you come to a tournament, think about how much work goes into setting up that perfect engagement. If you fail to execute, how hard does your team get punished? Is it worth investing the time into this fun, cheesy comp if it won’t succeed deep in a tournament? When theorizing drafts and compositions, try to develop strategies that play to your strengths, but also keep the burden of execution on your opponent.

Know Yourself

Ultimately, this is the core of success in any competitive game. Smash players know exactly which characters they can play well in a tournament, and which characters need work. They know why they lost that game, and how to put in the work to fix it. They know their bad matchups, and they know everything about their main.

Even though HOTS is a team game, the fundamental truth remains the same. You are the only thing you can control. How hard you work, how much you practice, how well you play–these are the only things you can actively change. Stay focused on what you need to do better. In each loss analyze how you could have played differently before you examine your teammates. Ask yourself how well you fit into your current role. Study the heroes you play, make sure you know them perfectly. Work on your execution, your knowledge, and your passion for perfection. When you know yourself, there’s nothing that can stop you from reaching the top.