MSU Smash Ultimate Club is more than a game: It's a community
When he was an undergrad at MSU, Danny MacAskill was a frequent competitor at “Smash Weeklies.”
Once ranked the 15th best Super Smash Bros. player in Michigan under the tag “SlamSHADY,” he’s won the weekly competition many times.
Since graduating last fall, it’s been more difficult for him to make it back for the weeklies. When he begins attending medical school in a different state this summer, it will be next to impossible.
In town to enjoy MSU’s NCAA tournament run, April 5’s tournament was a send-off for MacAskill. He made it count.
In what could be his last weekly, MacAskill emerged victorious.
“Smash and college were synonymous with each other,” MacAskill said. “It was pretty cool, playing all four years.”
From a dorm room to the “best venue in Michigan”
The organization behind MSU’s weekly tournaments is MSU Smash Ultimate Club, which holds its gatherings in room 154 of the Communication Arts and Sciences Building each Friday.
The club’s origins are humble. In 2017, Arts and Humanities senior Carter “Artisan” Prost and his friends got together to host a small tournament in the Snyder-Phillips Hall dorms. Trying to squeeze 16 people into a small room proved difficult, and Prost’s RA helped the group reserve a classroom for their next event.
After a few weeks of roughly 25 participants, the group was contacted by MSU’s Esports Student Association, or ESA, which encouraged them to form their own official student organization, Prost said. The group became the MSU Smash 4 Club, their preferred iteration of the series being 2014’s Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, or “Smash 4.”
Following a move to Communication Arts and Sciences that April and the release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Nintendo Switch in December 2018, the group regularly brings in more than 100 competitors each week from across the state. Participants come from everywhere, from Okemos High School to the University of Michigan, Prost said.
“All other competitive Super Smash Bros. players, regardless of where they live in the state, they’ve heard of what we’re doing here,” Prost said.
“It feels really neat to think that there was this already existing scene that myself and the other board members were able to tap into and make our own, and also be big enough that the Smash community of the state also accepts us as well and comes and supports our events too.”
Occasionally, the group will throw a larger Saturday tournament with an expanded prize pool. These tournaments often attract some of Michigan’s top players, Prost said.
“It’s pretty wild to think it’s bringing this much attention,” Prost said.
Having access to their new room was a big jump, said Samuel “Azura” Richardson, a computer science senior and the club’s treasurer. Featuring a plethora of monitors and other infrastructure, Richardson would go as far as to call the space the nicest tournament venue used to host weekly Smash Bros. tournaments in not only Michigan, but the entire Midwest.
“That’s absolutely contributed to holding a lot of our members,” Richardson said. “There’s very little like this, of this quality, in Michigan. It’s been huge for us.”
A grassroots community in a grassroots scene
The relative quality of the club’s venue is reflective of a scene where there’s little formal financial support for competitions, Richardson said. Most venues have traditionally been in bowling alleys, restaurants, or anywhere organizers could gather for cheap, he said.
“Smash is pretty grassroots. Most Smash organizations don’t have a lot of money because there’s no company behind it,” Richardson said. “You’ve got Riot (Games) funding League of Legends and the Big Ten pushing that scene ... Blizzard puts a lot of money into the Overwatch venues. Nintendo wanted nothing to do with Smash. Nintendo did not want to endorse the competitive Smash community because they had what they thought was a family party game, which is true.”
Having a high-quality university space doesn’t eliminate the need for group participation. While Richardson said the club is planning on purchasing some Switches with membership dues, every Switch system used for tournaments is currently brought in by someone playing that day.
“Smash only succeeds as a competitive thing because of what people are willing to give to it,” Richardson said. “You can go anywhere in the country and every Smash tournament will be very similar: It is individuals bringing setups, individuals that really make it happen.”
I entered into this week’s tournament while I was there. I’m decent at Smash among my friends, so I was cautiously optimistic, though I was almost certain I couldn’t beat anyone there.
My first matchup was against “Dayman.” He was calm and friendly, eagerly explaining the rules of picking stages to me when I asked. He picked Meta Knight from the Kirby series. I chose Lucina from Fire Emblem: Awakening, one of my “main” characters. He fist bumped me and said “good luck.”
He crushed me. I got “three stocked,” meaning he knocked out all of my character’s lives before I could even beat his once.
I switched to Inkling from the Splatoon series for the second game. Dayman, remaining as Meta Knight, wiped the floor with me again. I did take a stock off him though. I’m proud I got that far.
Dayman is an MSU College of Music doctoral student named James Yuhas.
Yuhas has played Smash Bros. games his whole life, but didn’t take it too seriously until grad school, he said.
“I got the original (Nintendo) 64 Smash for Christmas the year that it came out,” Yuhas said “I’ve always enjoyed the series, but always as a casual player until around late 2015. I decided I wanted to take it a bit more competitively.”
At the time Yuhas was getting into competitive Smash, he was looking for something to force him to be nervous and give him a reason to have to perform well. It’s difficult to artificially create those situations, he said, but he found a way through Smash.
“It’s hard to just drum up a tennis match out of nowhere, but you can always find someone to play Smash with,” Yuhas said.
Yuhas can’t travel to a lot of events outside of MSU because of his schedule, so he loves coming and competing at the weeklies, which he’s been doing since January 2018. He said his top finish at the weekly tournaments is fourth place, so I don’t feel bad about losing to him. He’s good.
“We’re very fortunate that we have the facility that we do, and not only the infrastructure and all our setups and everything, but there’s a lot of people at MSU that want to play Smash,” Yuhas said. “Getting all those people together is a lot of fun.”
Some involved, like Richardson, are relative newcomers to playing Smash Bros. Many, like Yuhas, have been playing previous entries in the series for most of their lives.
Chemistry junior Mika “Seraphim” Glotzbach, the club’s content manager, has enjoyed the game since picking up the original Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 when he was seven years old, he said.
According to Prost, a big part of the success of Smash Bros. is what it is at its core: A collection of Nintendo’s biggest characters all in one place, plus some other video game icons. Being able to play with others who have experienced those characters and share that background of nostalgia is part of the appeal, he said.
“Nintendo was a huge part of most gamers’ childhoods. Everyone either had a Game Boy, had a DS growing up, had an N64, or a Gamecube,” Prost said. “When that type of a game brings all these characters together that we’ve all grown up with for a while, it’s that sense of nostalgia.”
More than a game
They called my name again – for the second game of the double elimination tournament. This time, I was paired up against “Mess.” I chose Lucina again, hoping my luck would change. He chose Cloud from Final Fantasy VII, and proceeded to wipe the floor with me. I changed my character to Young Link from the Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda games for the second round. It didn’t help much, as I lost once more in two matches.
Despite completely destroying me, neuroscience freshman Brendan Messel doesn’t approach Smash Bros. from a competitive perspective.
He mostly plays with his friends, having started over the summer and continued in the dorms. He’s frequently attended the weeklies since coming to MSU.
“There’s so many like-minded people,” Messel said. “It’s a good place to meet new people if you’re having trouble finding friends in college and you enjoy Smash Bros.”
Glotzbach joined the club after he sought it out at Sparticipation. Competitive play is relatively new to him, but the game is only one facet of his enjoyment.
“It’s not just about the game,” Glotzbach said. “The social aspect of Smash is definitely something that defines it as a cultural phenomenon.”
The same 50 people who come every week all know each other, and that core has become their social group, Glotzbach said.
“It’s kind of like with a sports team where your sports team is your friend group and you see each other all the time,” Glotzbach said.
Competitive Smash Bros. play is set apart from most other e-sports because of the in-person interaction, Glotzbach said.
“With a lot of e-sports, you just sit at a computer and play through the computer,” Glotzbach said. “The fact that we have to come together is one of the reasons that we’re one of the biggest clubs, and also is what makes us so close to each other, because we see each other face to face every week.”
Richardson has been playing for about two years, first starting at the Snyder-Phillips tournaments. He plays because it’s fun, but doesn’t have a lot of nostalgia associated with the game; the community is much more important to him.
Most of Richardson’s friends have been made through the club. He enjoys running tournaments, he said, and gets the most satisfaction from seeing the same people return week after week.
“If I found the Smash Club and I didn’t know anyone in it, I probably wouldn’t go,” Richardson said.
“It’s really the people that I come to see ... Everybody is just pretty fantastic here.”
Like Richardson, MacAskill said most of his friends were made through the game. It was also a conduit for his personal development – he said he’s grown more confident in himself as a person.
“I think it’s been a very inclusive, happy, positive environment where people can hang out, have fun and let loose,” MacAskill said.
“It’s a very welcoming scene and a great place to get started, to meet new people and to have fun. If you’re a social gamer, this is your thing.”