As street basketball fans descended upon downtown Spokane last month for the annual Hoopfest festivities, a different class of gamer was flicking joysticks for real cash across town.
Chris Hardin, known as Praxis to his fellow “Super Smash Bros.” gamers, sat next to team partner Ben Marks in a pivotal late-round match at the Black Wolf Gaming Center in Spokane Valley. More than a hundred bucks was on the line for the victors in a “doubles” match of the decade-old Nintendo video game, which pits members of the Japanese company’s massive character stable against each other in a king-of-the-hill style slugfest.
Hardin, playing as Simian scrapper Diddy Kong from the “Donkey Kong Country” series, knocked teammate Marks (as “Kirby” antagonist Meta Knight) into oblivion early in the game. The virtual equivalent of an own-goal in soccer, Hardin’s gaffe drew groans and good-natured ribbing from the assembled crowd of spectators.
“That always happens in a big match,” Marks said after the pair lost a close bout, shaking his head and laughing. “At a pivotal point, you just come out of nowhere and murder me.”
The tournaments organized by Marks and others at Eastern Washington University in Cheney have blossomed with the use of the Black Wolf venue and the rise in popularity of the “Super Smash Bros.” franchise among professional gamers. Dozens of combatants signed up for the tournaments held June 28, and Marks has watched the gatherings explode in size and scope since moving to the Valley venue a few months ago. The competitions will continue Saturday at Black Wolf.
“The community’s just getting bigger and bigger every month,” Marks said, taking a break from competing to supervise the tournament’s live Internet stream. The finance major from Spokane has invested his own money into technology that allows the group to stream its matches online, sharing competitions through an online community of gamers known as Twitch.
Friend Myles Cox designed the look of the stream from the ground up, teaching himself how to alter the look of the Smash Bros. game through modification.
“(Marks) came to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re a graphic designer, why don’t you design our stream?’ ” Cox said, describing the pair’s website, Bread N’ Butter Games, as their “baby.”
Hardin pulls up a tournament taking place on the East Coast, also airing on Twitch, on his cellphone in between matches in Spokane Valley. He describes the “Super Smash Bros.” game being played on a half-dozen screens around him as a kind of “uneven rock-paper-scissors” match, in which he’s memorized his character’s strengths and weaknesses and tries to anticipate the moves of his opponent.
“The best players in this game play off of prediction,” Hardin said, with the rapid-fire delivery indicative of his character’s speed on the screen. Watching a match of “Smash Bros.” among these well-practiced experts is an exercise in focus, as colorful characters such as Mario, Zelda and various members of the Pokemon franchise beat one another senseless in a frenzied, bloodless attempt to send their opponent flying from the arena.
Marks has taken pains to up the production values of the tournament. Live commentary accompanies certain matches, as fellow gamers offer their opinions of the strategies being employed. A webcam is always pointed at the players vying on a particular screen, their focused eyes thrown into relief by the glow of the screen and lips muttering strategies to themselves or teammates.
“Super Smash Bros. Melee,” originally released for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2001, has seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to a recently released feature-length documentary “The Smash Brothers,” and its acceptance as an approved title for Evo, the nation’s largest competitive fighting video game tournament held this month in Las Vegas. A tournament held by Major League Gaming in Anaheim, California, last month drew more than 500 players from across the country vying for $15,000 in prizes.
The Spokane group also plays “Project M,” a modification of the “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” title released for the Nintendo Wii in 2008 that reintroduces mechanics from “Melee” with the larger cast of characters available in “Brawl.”
The tournaments aren’t for the faint of heart. While gamers mingle and practice strategies in “friendlies” before play begins, all competitive banter and tips cease with the press of a start button. While the characters are cute, the strategies – and the money – is real.
“We played this game as kids, but we didn’t think of it in these terms,” Hardin said. “It takes a good four or five months to be able to do really well and see all the guessing games.”
But for Web designer Cox, the event is about more than the games.
“ ‘Smash’ has given me, basically, a second family,” he said. “It’s super cool to get away from everything, and just go have fun.”