Nintendo announced today that it will be investing in varsity esports, with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Splatoon 2 set to join popular games like Rocket League and Madden in high school competitions in Fall 2021. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe will be added starting in Spring 2022.
The initiative is part of a new deal with PlayVS, a company that has partnered with high schools around the country to create varsity esports teams. PlayVS works with the National Federation of State High School Associations [NFHS] to host and stream matches, make schedules, and compile statistics.
In other words, it may soon be possible to letter in a varsity Super Smash Bros. or Splatoon 2 team. What a world we live in.
Bill Trinen, a senior product marketing manager at Nintendo, characterizes this initiative as a “first next step” in growing Nintendo’s competitive fanbase. He shies away from the term esports, preferring to characterize it as a community-building initiative.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trinen says, Nintendo of America had embarked on a large expansion of its hardware loan program. The PlayVS partnership is an outgrowth of Nintendo’s desire to host more physical tournaments when in-person events are safe to resume.
“We obviously view having healthy communities as being paramount and we want to make sure we’ve got healthy communities for Super Smash Bros Ultimate. We want to make sure we’ve got healthy communities for Super Smash Bros Melee and for Splatoon 2 as well. We’re going to continue to take an approach that looks at the games and the communities and try to find what’s right and what fits with Nintendo’s own philosophies,” Trinen says. “At the same time, we are working on plans and ideas around how we can enhance the support over what we’ve done in the past.”
Nintendo has historically had a complicated history with competitive play. When Smash Bros. Melee was added to the EVO 2013 lineup, Nintendo tried to keep the event from being streamed, only backing down after a widespread backlash. In 2020, Nintendo served a cease-and-desist to a major Smash Bros. Melee tournament using an unofficial mod to make the game playable online. Asked if Nintendo has any takeaways from that event as it pushes forward with new plans to support competitive play, Trinen reiterated Nintendo’s stance against allowing modifications to its games.
“I think, unfortunately, we were in a situation where a tournament that was using the game and illegally copied versions of the game in a way that didn’t fit with Nintendo’s overall philosophy towards how we protect our IP, meant that we didn’t really have a choice in [shutting down the tournament,” Trinen said. “I think for us, as we’re continuing to look at how we can support the community, we are going to continue to focus on our own online tournaments. We are going to continue to focus on looking at supporting physical tournaments, but we also need to make sure that people are respecting the IP, respecting brand guidelines and things of that nature.”
For its part, PlayVS has been aggressive in working with high schools across the U.S. to launch new esports programs. It was founded in the wake of the NFHS sanctioning high school esports, and has grown rapidly since then.
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“We’ve already got roughly 45 percent of the high school market, and so things are growing really quickly,” says Aakash Ranavat, senior vice president of operations at PlayVS. “It speaks to not only the interest that students have, but the product that we’ve built and just bringing iconic titles to the platform. These titles from Nintendo have been some of the most talked about titles, and so we’re glad to be working with Nintendo to bring these to coaches and players.”
The initial PlayVS deal will allow players to compete in officially sanctioned high school Smash Bros. Ultimate, Splatoon 2, and Martio Kart Deluxe matches. PlayVS and Nintendo plan to provide Nintendo Switch systems to hundreds of schools, with roughly 3000 qualifying schools receiving either Smash Bros. or Splatoon 2 and a 12-month Nintendo Switch Online membership. Nintendo says the qualification details will be revealed at a later date.
To enter, schools will be encouraged to check with their state athletic associations. High school coaches can also join a waitlist for the next season of competitions. Trinen says that Nintendo will monitor demand over the first couple seasons. If things go well, Nintendo says that it will consider adding additional games. “For us, we’re going to look at the number of schools that sign up for these games. We’re going to look at the number of players per school, and we’ll see what the demand is. I think from there, we’ll continue to look at, are there opportunities to continue to grow that? Is it bringing more schools into what PlayVS is doing? Is it bringing more players into each of these different games? I think those are the main areas that we’re looking at.”
One way or another, high school players will soon be able to play Splatoon, Mario Kart, and Smash Bros. Ultimate with clear eyes and full hearts.