The past and present of Smash Bros. Crew Battles

Smash Bros’ competitive history has a tendency to stem from obscure origins. Take Trinity Church, for example, a medium-sized evangelical church based in South Bend, Indiana. Nothing exists across the street but wheat, grass and trees. Almost 20 years ago, a SmashBoards post advertised a regional tournament to be held at this unassuming location.

The tournament itself went largely as expected. Eddie Howells, the legendary Ganon player, took first place ahead of local talent like Daniel “KishCubed” Kish and Josh “Joshu” Ingram. The organizers of the tournament, the Kish family, decided to experiment with a team tournament as a side event in addition to the standard individual format. Despite lackluster attendance, a team fight nonetheless ensued, resulting in The Ship of Fools clinching victory over a strong Ohio force.

The crew battle format was buggy at this point. The rules were confusing and not intuitive. Still, in 2003 it set the stage for countless Smash Bros. crew battles to come.

Both crews secretly submit their player orders.
The #1 players (in order, not quality) fight first.
Each crew member is eliminated after two defeats. Losses carry over from battle to battle.
As players are eliminated, the next player takes their place in turn.
Each team may swap the current player for one of their remaining players ONCE per team game. This swap can be used before any game, and the other team is not allowed to respond to it until the next game
A crew wins when all members of the opposing crew are eliminated.

Over time, the Crew battle format has become much clearer and more consistent across events. Two opposing crews each send one player to start the event. Once a player on a team has lost all of their stocks, another player on their team comes in to face the opposing player who just defeated their teammate. This process repeats itself until one team has defeated all of its players, crowning the opposing team the winner.

A GIF explaining the format of a typical Smash Bros. Crew Battle

A GIF explaining the format of a typical Smash Bros. Crew battle / Courtesy of The Smash Brothers Documentary

Years after that event, team fights became a staple in hand-to-hand combat tournaments across the country. In a time before slippi or other forms of online play, team battles were the best way to test the relative strength of different regions. This idea of ​​regional rivalries being settled through team fights was seen in MELEE-FC3, where the East Coast demonstrated their dominance over the West. All-time greats like Ken “Ken” Hoang, Joel “Isai” Alvarado, Christopher “PC Chris” Szygiel and Kashan “Chillin” Khan all lined up to represent their coast and brag for nothing but the right. In a time before Nintendo supported competitive tournaments, Crew Battles let players fight for something worthwhile despite the lack of funds in the community.

That tradition continues to this day in every successive Smash Bros title from Brawl to Project M to Ultimate. In 2022 alone, at least six Smash Ultimate majors have featured crew battles of some sort.

More and more tournaments have worked to renew the now outdated format. Instead of changing the established format of Crew Battles themselves, tournament organizers have changed how these events are played and who gets to participate.

Traditionally, players who compete in team matches are the very best to compete in that particular tournament. Allowing everyone to play would take way too much time. For comparison, imagine that instead of a dodgeball team of maybe a dozen players, there were 100. None of the core rules have changed, but the time it takes to progress through the game has increased exponentially.

While it kept many players from participating in team fights, it also preserved how special they were. Fans of competitive Smash Bros. could name dozens of their favorite sets from more than twenty years of competitive play, while struggling to name more than a few Crew Battles that really captivated them. This is not a format error; it is a success in its prestige.

Those times have largely fallen by the wayside. Half a dozen team fights have already taken place this year, and that number continues to grow.

The latest twist on the Crew Battle format is Open Bracket Crew Battle tournaments. Despite the aforementioned impossibility of having a 100-player dodgeball team, dodgeball tournaments involving dozens of teams are held all the time. Anyone can compete and the events last a few hours instead of days.

This happened recently at Smash Major Rise ‘N Grind in Waco, Texas. A total of over 100 players competed in a single-elimination bracket that lasted approximately four to five hours. Players of all skill levels had the opportunity to compete in teams against some of the best players in the world. When all was said and done, a team of top players including Antony “MuteAce” Hoo and Luis “Lui$” Ramos took home the win.

The event ran without any noticeable problems. The only “problem” was the lack of visibility. Comparing the 1,100 viewers that the Rise ‘N Grind Crew Battle finale got on YouTube to the one Crew Battle at Delfino Maza RETA that got 158,000 views, there’s a clear difference. While the notoriety of players who participated in Crew Battles on Rise ‘N Grind was definitely lower, that difference isn’t enough to close the huge viewership gap.

Ultimately, more crew fights at the expense of notoriety for those crew fights is a trade most are willing to make, myself included. The nature of the fighting game community (FGC) has always leaned towards democracy. While other eSports like League of Legends and now Valorant are pushing for franchising of their professional leagues, FGC has always encouraged anyone and everyone to compete and play against the best in the world. Even if it reduces viewership, people who pay to attend Smash Majors can have a better experience than they otherwise would have.

With the current trend of team battles becoming rarer, the format is at a crossroads: stay the same or evolve. While casual Smash fans might not notice the evolution currently taking place in Crew Battles, it only takes place at the collegiate level.

Collegiate eSports has been a growing trend for almost a decade. Companies like CSL and NECC have sprung up in an attempt to become the eSports version of the NCAA: the organization that dominates traditional collegiate athletics. Compared to all other major eSports like League of Legends, Valorant and Call of Duty, Super Smash Bros. is one of the few eSports that offers 1v1 competition. This creates a problem for college organizers who are used to entering students in teams from the school rather than as individual competitors.

The solution? Adapt the existing crew battle format to college competition.

“Within the NSL [NACE StarLeague] – We always want to create an environment where teamwork and team-based competitions take place whenever we can,” said Kyle DeFrancisco, Operations Manager at Playfly Esports. “The appetite for Crew Battles among our community of Smash players has allowed us to make this transition smoothly, and our SSBU player base has grown [Super Smash Bros. Ultimate].”

Recreational sports are about teamwork and community. Most college esports competitors have no aspirations to play professionally. Unlike traditional esports, most professional esports players have turned pro before reaching college. The average age in the NBA is 26 years, in the Overwatch League a whopping 20 years. College e-sports is not currently a pipeline for professional gaming in the same way that collegiate competition is in the NCAA.

Aside from team combat having a positive impact on the player experience at the collegiate level, it certainly has an impact on the viewer experience as well. As Greg Adler, former leader of the Online Collegiate Smash Circuit, notes, “I like that team fights allow for a natural audience because the other members in each school’s group are watching as one person plays. It’s a great combination of team and individual environment and makes things really exciting.”

The viewership experience is one where collegiate esports has consistently lagged behind its traditional esports counterpart for years. While college football and basketball games reach millions of viewers on pay-TV channels, college esports struggle to garner just a few dozen viewers on free online streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube.

While the Crew Battle format doesn’t solve the problem of total viewership, it does create a more interactive experience for those watching in person. As Greg Adler mentioned, when teammates are waiting to play their games and cheer for their teammates, a natural crowd forms. While you don’t typically stand behind a Smash setup and watch two competing players, you’re more likely to join an already existing group of viewers to see what’s going on. The result is intense in-game moments made all the more exciting and cheering on by a sea of ​​spectators, some of whom may not fully understand what they are seeing.

The community aspect this format creates has not gone unnoticed by tournament organizers. As Kyle DeFrancisco notes, “It [NSL] has always believed that Smash has the strongest community within Collegiate… So it was natural for us to continue to have competitions for it and see where we can grow in the industry.”

With the advent of COVID-19 in March 2020, these crew battle events were largely moved online alongside every other collegiate esport. While this has worked well for most other competitive titles, Smash Ultimate in particular is struggling online due to its underperforming netcode. Still, online events continue to hold up strong for the platform fighter released in December 2018, and as COVID restrictions continue to ease in the United States, offline events are sure to follow. The past and present of Smash Bros. Crew Battles

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