For the Love of the Game

Esports enthusiasts are finding ways to keep the competition going strong

Photos by: Carson J.S. Reichardt

The recent release of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 is a reminder of how widespread and mainstream video games have become. While most gamers enjoy it as a simple hobby, some enthusiasts have taken their interest to a much more competitive level. Tournament scenes give these players an opportunity to come together over a shared love of the games they’ve put thousands of hours into practicing.

Take, for example, the Super Smash Bros. franchise, published by Nintendo. While ostensibly a party game where fans can have casual fun battling their friends as iconic video game characters, the games have given birth to a massive competitive scene. Both the most recent game, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and a nearly 20-year-old entry, Super Smash Bros. Melee, maintain active, enthusiastic player bases. These fighters are always looking for more opportunities to play the games they love.

David Fuentes, a Smash Bros. tournament organizer based out of Des Moines, IA, knows this passion well. He first started hosting Melee tournaments in Sioux City, IA before moving to the city he now calls home. “When I moved here, I’d met all the people I know here from them coming to my tournaments, so I had this TO [tournament organizer] experience,” Fuentes says. “When I moved here and tournaments weren’t happening very frequently, I knew I was gonna be the person to bring them back.”

This sort of tournament, completely organized by individuals for their communities, is extremely common in competitive Smash. “The big tournaments that really represent the Smash scene are 100% community-ran,” he says. “Pretty much all of the huge tournaments like Big House and Genesis started as people getting together to host a tournament, and now they’re big events hosted in convention centers where thousands of people go, but they all started grassroots.”

One of those proclaimed “grassroots” organizers is 23-year-old Chase Nuekam, the current Esports Director of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA. Before Nuekam was in charge of 38 college students, he was a trailblazer for esports tournaments and organizers all across the Midwest.

“I graduated from Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana. I created Cardinal esports over there,” Neukam says. “Cardinal eSports was the esports org for Ball State. There was nothing pre-created before that on campus for esports. So, I dug in deep, really did the grassroots work.” 

That work paid off for Nuekam, as he saw his kick-start organization grow from just eight members in 2015 to 200 members and eight competing teams in 2018, when Nuekam graduated.

“We were running intercollegiate tournaments, inviting Butler University, Indiana University, Purdue University, Notre Dame, all out to compete on a zero-dollar budget, we had zero money,” Neukam says. “It was really as simple as come out, bring your PC’s, we’ll set it up, and whoever wins has bragging rights. And so, we did that in the fall and spring of 2017 and 2018.” 

Shortly after graduation, Nuekam took a job offer as the esports director of a new company called Paradigm, which is a virtual reality and esports training and gaming center in Davenport, IA.

“The idea with Paradigm was to, throughout the day for our daytime model, have virtual reality equipment that we do both as entertainment and that we do as education software. But in the nighttime, we did esports events,” Nuekam says.

The position allowed Nuekam to develop deep relationships with multiple communities, across multiple subjects, expanding his knowledge and getting

“to learn more in that one year than
I did all of college.”

Chase Nuekam

Over his time at Paradigm, the grassroots organizer ran over 120 esports events, with thousands of competitors across games such as Call of Duty, Apex Legends, Fortnite, Rocket League, and much more. But the game that stumped them all was the Nintendo classic, Super Smash Bros.

“My biggest accomplishments as a tournament organizer were through the Smash Bros. and fighting games community,” Nuekam says. “I ran what was considered Iowa’s first major esports event, Paradigm Shift. We brought in 350 players from over 15 represented states, but mostly around the Midwest. And we gave out $28,000 in prize money at Rhythm City Casino, so that was very impressive.”

Unfortunately for fans of Melee, tournaments have become much harder to come by in the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of players have decided that in-person competitions simply aren’t worth the risk to themselves, their friends, and their family members. 

Other fighting game franchises have turned to online tournaments to alleviate this issue. Brawlhalla is hosting its annual world championship completely online, with players able to compete for the prize pool from around the world. A recent event in the Capcom Pro Tour, a series of Street Fighter V tournaments organized by the game’s publisher, had over 4,000 entrants, all of whom competed using their own video game consoles.

Melee didn’t seem to have this option. Originally designed for the GameCube, the game’s first online play options were created by fans, but as a result, there was a considerable delay between when a player would input an action and when their character would begin to actually move—known as input lag. However, a recent innovation changed the game, as a group of players took it upon themselves to create new netcode for the game that enabled reliable play over the internet.

As Fuentes describes it,

“It feels like you might as well be playing with someone right next to you. That was a huge breakthrough for Melee.”

David Fuentes

This fan-made netcode has revitalized the scene, and it’s all thanks to a dedicated community wanting to safely play the game they’re so passionate about. “They’ve spent thousands of hours writing new code for the game so that we can play the game we love while we’re stuck inside, which is another testament to how much people love Melee,” Fuentes says.

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