If Locals are Dying, How Do We Save Them?

FNM

During my morning bathroom Twitter-scroll, I came across an exchange that I wanted to expand on. While Twitter’s new character limit allows for more conversation than ever before, I feel like this topic deserves a little bit more discussion.  I’ve mentioned this topic in the past, but it appears that the conversation should be had again.

During this exchange, one party posited that attendance at Smash locals has seen a significant down-turn of late. The suggestion was that, because things like For Glory and Melee netplay have risen in popularity, players no longer need to attend locals to get good practice. Because people don’t have to attend an in-person local, they simply choose not to go.

Now, the implications here are concerning for every local tournament organizer, Smash or otherwise. As online play continues to improve, and as new games join the genre that offer even more satisfying online experiences, we could see the entire ecosystem of local, weekly tournaments die out! If people are only attending locals for decent practice, and they can now get that practice at home, there’s nothing local TOs can do to compete, and they’ll just see their attendance slowly wither to nothingness. Personally, I find this idea very silly, and I want to explain why.

No Substitute for Live Play

As some of you are likely already typing, the notion that players can practice just as well at home as they can at a local is just laughable. If you want to play in major Smash tournaments, there’s no way to prepare for that environment while sitting at home in your bedroom. Ignoring issues of lag and matchmaking, the mental preparation alone is worthwhile at a local. You get the experience of actually sitting next to your opponent, of having spectators huddled right over your shoulder. The whole tournament experience is replicated on a smaller scale, allowing you to enter a larger event with some idea of what’s going on. Even for veteran tournament attendees, keeping your mental game sharp is critical and cannot be accomplished sitting alone at home.

If you’re having issues attracting players to your local because they would rather practice at home, the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that your local event sucks. Maybe the venue smells, maybe there aren’t any other good players, maybe you or one of your volunteers is kind of a jerk, and being around you makes the event less fun. If you’re losing active players because they say they’d rather play online at home, don’t just throw up your hands and curse modern technology–look inward.

Movie theater chains have had to do some very similar soul searching of late. It used to be that the only way to see a movie on a decent screen was to go to a theater. Now, everyone has a massive TV in their living room with a high quality picture. Further, you can watch tons of movies just a short time after they come out in theaters through On Demand services and Redbox. Not only that, but going to the movies sucks! The food is way too expensive, the floor is gross, and there’s some old lady sitting behind you warning the hot blonde not to go in the basement. Lady, if she doesn’t go in the basement, we don’t get to see the monster!  That’s the whole point of coming to this movie!  I don’t want leave my house, sit in traffic, find a place to park, stand in line, and pay way too much money to watch “Hot Blonde Avoids Monster and Does the Crossword!”

Anyway, the point is, because the experience of going to the movies was worse than the experience of staying at home, movie theaters had to adapt. They introduced more food options, and many added alcohol to the menu. The old seats were replaced with high quality leather chairs that recline. You can pick your seat when you order the tickets so you don’t have to get there super early to save one of the four decent seats in the whole theater. Now, going to the movies is an experience on par with staying at home, and you get to see movies sooner. There’s an advantage to leaving your house on a Friday night to see a movie, because you cannot replicate a better experience at home.

Are Card Games Better than Smash?

“Listen jerkface,” you type furiously, “you don’t know anything about running Smash tournaments. Going to the movies means you get to see a movie before you could ever see it at home. With Smash, everyone already has the game. If they have a friend or an internet connection, they can do the exact same thing at home that they can do at my local.”

First, name-calling isn’t very nice. Second, I guess I’ll repeat myself. If someone can get an equal or better experience at home, then that means your local event is not a unique, enjoyable experience. That’s not the fault of the game, the internet, or the modern era–its an issue of not keeping up with the times.

Smash locals are like card game shops. In the 90s and early 2000s, the only way to play card games like Magic: The Gathering was to find a group of people to play with in person. Now, Magic Online has literally every card in history in its database. There are games like Hearthstone and Shadowverse that exist entirely online with modern aesthetics and mechanics. You can have an incredible card-game experience just sitting at home with your laptop and a beer.

And yet, card game shops across the world are thriving. Magic is as big as its ever been. Why? Because playing Magic at a local game store is an experience that cannot be replicated at home. The game is more fun when you’re sitting across from your opponent in person. Playing in a draft means you get to keep the cards, and possibly earn some prizes. There are formats like Commander, Canadian Highlander, and Conspiracy that cannot be played properly online. You get to see your friends and discuss your matches, or get together for a draft after you all get knocked out of the tournament. Playing at a local Magic event, being part of your local Magic community–it provides an experience that Magic Online simply cannot replicate.

It’s time for Smash locals to evolve and join the modern gaming era. If you were just providing a place to play Melee, and your patrons no longer need that service, you can simply retire knowing you did a great service for your game. However, if you are passionate about cultivating a local scene–if you want to run a business–you have to evolve to remain competitive. If you’re losing attendees, find out why. What about your local experience no longer appeals to those people? Once you figure out what that is, fix it and get them back.

That said, there will be some people you cannot get back. Melee is a very old game at this point. Many of the most active, passionate players are reaching an age where going to a regular local event is no longer viable for their lifestyle. Over the next five years you will see the old guard slowly fade out of local scenes simply due to their time in Melee having run its course. That’s not a bad thing, its just a part of life. Priorities change, responsibilities force you to adjust your life, and sometimes you just lose interest in something you’ve loved since you were a child.

As a local TO, you have to prepare yourself for inevitably losing your most active and passionate players. Most people are eventually going to leave the scene. However, that doesn’t mean the scene is dying. It only dies if people leave and we don’t replace them. Start cultivating the next generation. Build a relationship with local schools and afterschool programs. Introduce the game to kids, encourage the kids who already attend to bring their friends. Always keep your customer pipeline full so you can replace attendees as they leave. If you’re trying to make money from running a local, or at least break even, you have to treat it like a business.

 

To me, there should never be a reason that the local Smash scene dies outside of the entire community just getting bored of the game. Based on major tournament attendance and view numbers, I’d say there are still plenty of people out there who are passionate about Smash. There are probably scores of gamers in your local community who would love to become passionate about Smash, you just haven’t told them about it yet. Go let them know. Do some marketing. Clean your venue. Smile at people. Offer some food and drinks. Make your local not just “the place we go to practice Smash.”  Make it an experience they can’t find anywhere else.

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