Please stop trying to make Melee an “e-sport”

a slightly disorganized rant on professionalizing your e-sports scene, comparing melee to other e-sports scenes
by Nago/Nago#0050 on Discord

Jason “M3D” Rice, Team Lead for the game Icons: Arena. Quote from Metagame Episode 6: “People didn’t really realize early on just how powerful the online market was going to be and then you saw the rise of streaming services like twitch that popped up and it became this whole other thing; watching people play games became this viable way to make money. The rise of television transformed Sunday afternoons in America from the day you went and played baseball, to the day that you watched baseball on television; you watch the professionals do it. I think we are starting to see a little bit of that same shift happening in the e-sports world. We see it shifting from the participatory to the viewership, which means that big dollars are going to follow”

There is this narrative going around currently within the Melee sub-culture on the ol’ bird site about the recently posted twitlongers describing how Nintendo caused multiple tournament-organizers to give up on their attempts to create tournament circuits for Melee. The prevailing conclusion there is that Nintendo has ‘sabotaged’ the scene and has impeded the growth of the Melee scene. Now I’m not going to sit here and speculate on what could have been or if Nintendo is justified in their negligence and their more intentionally malicious actions recently, but instead I would like to make a point about how this desire to ‘legitimize’ the melee scene through corporate involvement isn’t necessarily desirable.

Who benefits from this corporate legitimization?

You know what, instead I will just tell who it mostly definitely does not serve. The majority of the people attending the tournament and the volunteers running the event. The people who benefit from the things that come with corporate involvement, mainly larger prize pools and higher budget for media tend to not inherently improve the quality of the tournament experience for anybody outside of top players who enjoy having a backroom to play friendlies in and having a fancy main stage to play streamed sets on.

For the majority of players, the quality of the tournament tends to not increase under high-profile sponsorship but will come tied with a higher entry fee as the tournament has to become more profitable as opposed to independently organized tournaments that tend to be run at a loss (not that this is a good thing, but I will get back to this later on). To illustrate this point, I only need to point to every EU melee major ever having more setups than NA majors even though EU majors have smaller attendance and less high-profile sponsorships.

Now this is obviously the more self-interested perspective, but the more important thing to look at is how this focus on the interests of the top players threatens the sustainability of the Melee tournament scene. Tournament organizers, particularly the ones running independent tournaments, tend to, as noted before, run tournaments at a loss. A large contributor to this is the fact that venue fees usually are kept as low as possible just to cover the venue rent and then the event fees tend to go straight into the prize pool of the event.

This creates a non-sustainable environment for tournament organizers to operate in. Running a tournament, depending on the size/scope of the tournament can be quite a large undertaking, having to spend an entire day juggling the schedule, people’s personalities when they insist on having a 15-minute smoke-break in the middle of winner’s bracket, yelling at people when they’re playing friendlies on bracket set-ups, coordinating the stream and whatever else may be required of them. To expect people to want to do this on a regular basis without much if any compensation is really unrealistic, very lax and extremely selfish.

What a grass-roots scene really needs is to have the people organizing these events that the community relies on so much, be compensated for their labour. They’re essentially working an extra part-time job and therefore deserve to get their time worth even if they are technically “doing it out love for the community”; love isn’t a sustainable resource, I’m sorry to you and myself for saying something so depressing. Money can be exchanged for goods and services, like helping pay your TO’s water bill that month. I’m sure they would appreciate that more than a pat on the back at the end of the event, even if that helps, than having to listen to Gamers complain that you cut off their super-hype $1 Puff ditto money match. It’ll probably be a load off their shoulders and if your monthly perhaps has a volunteer TO, you’ll be thankful when you don’t get DQ’ed for mouthing off at them because you overslept and showed up 15 minutes late. This extra money that goes towards the TO’s can of course at the TO’s discretion also be invested back into the tournament, perhaps going towards setups/stream equipment/better venue/etc.

Ok, ok. So, we need to give TO’s more money, but what’s wrong with sponsorships?

Alright, I’m going to give a very long answer, but the TL; DR is that large sponsors do not have the interests of the community at heart and only tend to care about making tournaments profitable which runs perpendicular to what the community wants. I’m not advocating against sponsorships at all, but I’m telling a cautionary tale essentially and want to hammer home the point that you need to do sponsorships on your own terms as to not ruin what makes your community a pleasant place to be in.

As Melee hasn’t ever had a lot of tournaments ran by top level ‘e-sports’ companies (outside of BTS) such as Intel, ESL, Dreamhack proper(never had a stage set-up, always a side-event or in the LAN area), I will be mostly looking at the way other games have handled rapid corporate interest and how it had effect on the development of their scenes. These games will mostly be PC FPSes as I have limited experience with other fighting games and want to avoid speaking with too much authority on scenes, I don’t have much, if any knowledge in.

The main e-sport I’ve been a part of for a significant amount of time was the Team Fortress 2 scene, predominantly as a player, but also as a member of the media landscape (commentating, writing, and organizing). During this time, I feel like I’ve gained some insight on the inner workings and mentalities of members of that scene that can be applied to the Melee scene as well.

Team Fortress 2 and its volunteers

For a quick summary on the state of the Team Fortress 2 scene, it’s a small grass-roots community based around an FPS released in 2007 to critical acclaim, advertised mostly as a casual game. The game never quite flourished as a big e-sport, being featured in some late 2000’s one-off tournaments such as the PC Gamer Showdown 2008 LAN and CGS Pro-Am Season 1 (more on CGS later), until reaching a competitive high during the mid-2010s when the game was featured prominently in the summer edition of the BYOC (Bring Your Own Computer) LAN series Insomnia in England.

During this stretch the scene held an uninterrupted streak of five LANs between 2012 and 2016 that had at least two crowd-funded teams from outside of the European continent. These teams were mostly based in North America but there were also three teams from Oceania featured during this period. Outside of a short two tournament stint at the Southern California based E-sport venue Esports Arena, the scene has never quite gotten moved beyond its BYOC LAN roots, though they have in 2018 started a relationship with the annual Copenhagen Games LAN series, perhaps the largest BYOC LAN within the Counter-Strike Global Offensive scene.

There are many contributing factors one could name or theorize to explain why Team Fortress 2 never quite reached the same prestige as some of its contemporaries, such as Halo 3/Reach and League of Legends and instead went the way of other late 2000s FPSes like Call of Duty 4, Enemy Territory and Battlefield 2. While doing a large-scale, historical analysis of Team Fortress 2 to discover why it hasn’t ever burst through onto the main-stream e-sports scene would be interesting idea in its own right, I will be specifically focusing on the failure of the Team Fortress 2 scene to sustain itself. For this I will be mentioning my experiences behind the scenes of the Team Fortress 2 scene between 2017 and 2019.

Team Fortress 2 has been a scene that is perhaps a bit insecure about itself for a while. Discourse about why the scene has never quite reached the highs that other e-sports have, even though Team Fortress 2 has historically been quite popular and is made by Valve, a company who also made both Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the top 2 games when it comes to total amount of prize money as of January 10th, 2021 according to This may be attributed by some to Valve’s negligent attitude towards Team Fortress 2 as the game never has had the developer backed tournaments that their two big games had.

This community sentiment of aspiring to be a large e-sports has led to an approach to the grow the scene that is quite unsustainable. The scene is exclusively volunteer-run, the main online leagues: ETF2L, RGL and Ozfortress, are all maintained by volunteers and rely on ads, donations/patreons and personal investment to pay for server costs. Volunteers specifically do not get paid as noted in the Ozfortress patreon bio, while excess money goes straight to the very modest (lower-middle triple-digits) prize pools.

The only tournament organizers that consistently get monetary compensation are LAN organizers, as Team Fortress 2 LAN tournaments have almost exclusively been part of already existing BYOC LANs that then pay Team Fortress online tournament organizers to admin their LAN tournament as freelancers. Outside of LAN tournaments only the people behind the Phoenix Red Team Fortress 2 Cups get consistent compensation for their labour.

This focus of the community towards making the scene more marketable towards sponsors through increasing prize-pools and the crowd-funding of international teams has caused an issue where prominent top tournament organizers constantly leave their position due to a myriad of reasons such as motivation and time, that at least partially can be traced back to the fact that working essentially a part-time job for nothing is not sustainable over time.

Due to volunteers often being relatively new to tournament organizing it causes issues when people need to learn the skills necessary on the fly. Volunteers perhaps aren’t fully familiar with rule-sets, comfortable with being a public figure and fully prepared to deal with the customer-service aspect of the position. A particular example that I feel is important to note when it comes to grass-roots scenes like Team Fortress and Melee as well is that volunteer tournament-organizers are in particular often not well versed in dealing with inter-community moderation such as with personal harassment and general bigotry.

What about games that aren’t tiny and dying tho?

So hopefully you will now agree with me that this aspiration and active pursuit of becoming a ‘big e-sport’ can cause adverse effects on your scene. Now I would like to now present a cautionary tale about embracing high-budget corporate involvement without a healthy amount of skepticism. Let’s talk about Counter-Strike.

Counter-Strike grew into one of the first big e-sports in the early 2000’s, back when broadband internet wasn’t as universal within the Global North as it is now. As such, online play hadn’t yet developed as a very viable competitive playing field and so LANs were the main way of conducting tournaments at the time. The e-sports landscape at the time was mostly grassroots local LANs and so the larger-scale events would often use the same general tournament format, open-entry, some sort of group-stage into a double-elimination bracket.

This is the format used by the one of first big tournament series in Counter-Strike, CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League for fans of 90’s/early 2000’s e-sports lingo). CPL lasted from about 2000 to 2007 running open-entry majors. Unfortunately, it was plagued in its later years with problems such as cancelling events and not paying out cash prices, it did function as the initial big tournament series in the CS scene. The other majors held during CPL’s heyday were the odd stacked local LANs and the national qualifier based WCG and ESWC tournaments. WCG (World Cyber Games) was a tournament series meant to emulate the Olympics, but for e-sports. It held these massive events for a lot of different games with teams needing to only have players of one nationality on them. ESWC wasn’t quite like this but also used national qualifiers to decide who actually got to attend the events. Both these tournament series didn’t always have a consistent format for these qualifiers, most often offline but not always open-entry and sometimes even completely online.

In 2005/2006, the first more modern style tournaments series started popping up such as the WEG and the now infamous CGS. WEG was a relative oddity at the time, a two-month long tournament in South Korea (at the time not a strong region for CS) and fully invite-based. CGS, on the other hand, was this awful, mismanaged, franchising league that on the one hand is truly a product of its time while also being quite similar (in all the bad ways) to other more modern e-sports “super-league” initiatives such as Overwatch League. There’s a lot to be said about the awfulness of CGS and the lasting effects it had on the scene as a whole, I recommend reading this article about it as getting into it here would be too long of a tangent.

During the CGS years and following its inevitable demise in 2008/2009, Intel launched its Intel Extreme Master series. IEM helped push the now standard format of an 8/16, occasionally 24 team event, where the team are partially invited in and partially qualified through online-only tournaments with convoluted qualifiers events for other qualifiers. This format has mostly survived into the modern CSGO era aside from some slight adjustment when in 2016, the Major/Minor system was introduced which essentially made one of the final qualifier stages an 8 team LAN event. Of course the reason why this modern format became so prevalent is that it’s way cheaper to run than the old large-scale open LAN events that had to find venues to accommodate hundreds of attendees.

The big takeaway from all of this is that one of the biggest and longest tenured e-sports in our current day used to be a predominantly grassroots, open-entry focused community. Over the years different corporate interests hacked away at the large-scale tournaments until now, where the ‘major’ tournaments consist of long complex online qualifier system that end with a closed-off tournament that is more of a spectator experience than a social one for the largest portion of the community. It has gotten to the point that the only significant open-entry LAN event series (Copenhagen Games) still does invites, but still struggles to attract even top 20 teams due to a lack corporate support. To end on a positive note, the LAN series does manage to attract 300+ attendees every year, but it doesn’t have the prestige the massive media spectacle events that have prize pools that are in the 7-digits.

Ok cool, but Melee hasn’t devolved into invitationals yet right?

Now I would like to go back to Melee to take a look at the one major e-sports tournament organizer that does show up within Melee, Beyond The Summit. To be fair, to call BTS a major player in e-sports comes with the caveat that of all the big companies in this industry, they have quite a different approach than you’d normally see. Their events are private and have a more informal vibe as opposed to the prestige of high-budget, big attendance, ‘E-SPORTS’ events with massive lights with Flash walking out of a fucking jet to make this entrance on stage. But still, what quintessential part of the Melee scene lacks in BTS’s tournaments? It’s an 18-player invitational tournament, closed off from the general public where the community’s involvement is boiled down to a popularity contest, one where people have to buy BTS merch to acquire more votes. The only other thing people can do is be spectators from home, making the tournament more akin to League Worlds 2020 than the large community gatherings such as Genesis 7. CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE THO, THEY DID HOLD MAINSTAGE

Perhaps you’re more interested in Melee as a story, where a group of less than 10 people fly across the world to compete in tournaments to be able to call themselves the best Melee player, while effectively being a professional streamer as opposed to a professional athlete. Maybe you care more about who wins and who loses, watching hype sets where two titans duke it out for the glory of victory, then you probably like these exclusive tournaments that allow for pools formats where you get to see those rare top player matchups that you don’t see at normal tournaments. This is a perfectly valid viewpoint to have and I’m not going to claim some moral superiority as if I wasn’t at the edge of my seat during grand finals of Smash Summit 8.

It’s just that as somebody who came from games who almost exclusively existed online, I got into Melee for the community aspect, the fact that all the tournaments(pre-covid) were held offline and were open entry. No more having to organize 6 months in advance to attend the LAN event that happened every year, I have a weekly in my area to meet local friends and majors happen frequently enough that I actually have a choice when/where to spend my limited budget for international travel. I’m not attending these majors just to sit in a packed auditorium as a faceless observer watching top players play against one another, instead I get to go to a large open venue where there are tons of people I don’t even know and I have the opportunity to bond with as people, you know. idk just sounds a lot more fun to me tbh