Attendance, revenue slide for Genesis, Shine and other Smash tournaments

One of the Super Smash Bros. Melee community's most-beloved tournaments, Genesis 5, is struggling with attendance and revenue, just as many lesser-known events did throughout 2017. Provided by Rob Paul

In a few days, thousands of fans will file into Oakland's Paramount Theatre to watch the flashy combos, hype matchups and fast-paced game play that Super Smash Bros. Melee is known for. But along with the excitement for the fifth edition of one of Melee's most-beloved tournament series comes a rising concern that the tournament bubble might be bursting.

Founded in 2009, the Genesis series entered a five-year hiatus following its second installment in 2011. Upon its return, Genesis shattered Melee's major attendance records, with Genesis 3 clocking in at 1,828 entrants, the largest turnout for a grassroots Melee tournament. Last year, Genesis 4 reached 1,704 entrants, coming within striking range of its predecessor's record -- and, perhaps more importantly, turning a marginal profit.

This year, though, Genesis seems to be suffering from flagging attendance. Genesis 5's Melee bracket had only 1,363 entrants as of Thursday, the series' lowest turnout since its return in 2016.

"There were just more majors in 2017 that people traveled to," said Sheridan "Dr. Z" Zalewski, one of the head organizers of Genesis 5. "I think, overall, the number of people attending tournaments is probably on the rise. It's just that perhaps the super-majors are not the place where they're increasing the most."

Dr. Z cited larger regional events, such as last year's Royal Flush in New Jersey, as examples of events that flourished in the midst of declining numbers at events like Genesis. He also said outreach to netplay players, to drive up both attendees and competitors, might give Genesis and other tournaments a bump moving forward.

"I think the next big step is going to be giving people something that netplay can't," he said. "I don't really think there's been any organized outreach to the netplay ladders at all, for major tournaments."

This is not just a Genesis problem. Some of the biggest Super Smash Bros. events in the world are being hit hard by rising production costs and revenue that doesn't match the needs of organizers. Shi "Rorec" Deng, co-founder of Big Blue Esports and one of the lead organizers of Boston's Shine series, said Big Blue Esports suffered a $20,000 loss for putting on Shine 2017. Many of the community's standby events share that story.

Shine's financial travails might come as a surprise to those who participated in the event. By traditional metrics, Shine 2017 was a burgeoning affair. The event's Melee tournament drew 1,156 entrants, making it the 10th-largest Melee tournament, and concurrent viewership of its live stream peaked at a solid 51,000 unique users.

"Basically, it was a lot of growing pains," Rorec said. "To make sure there were enough streams to go around, we had three streams this time instead of two. We had to pay for housing [for streamers and other staff]; if you take that and multiply it by the amount of nights we needed, that's a pretty significant cost as well."

Despite these roadblocks, Rorec is confident about the prospects of future major events. One promising sign is the drastic increase in non-competing spectators at Shine between 2016 and 2017; "at-door ticket sales were pretty crazy" this past year, he said. Rorec said he thinks the expansion of in-venue extras -- he used the word "content" -- would help boost those numbers even more and bring in revenue for the tournament.

"Maybe an arcade section, maybe doing panels," he said. "We should focus on the at-event experience."

Issues with profitability aren't unique to Melee's less-established events. In November, Michael "FullMetal" Buchheit, head organizer of the Tipped Off series, said he was forced to sell his home in order to cover the cost of the series' 12th installment.

Tipped Off is the South's premier event and one of Melee's longest-running tournament series, and FullMetal said he had planned on at least 600 participants for Tipped Off 12. But on the day of the tournament, a total of 394 individual entrants walked through the door, with 249 competitors entering the Melee bracket.

"We swung for the fences. ... We got the best venue in Georgia, hired four streamers, paid a bunch of staff," FullMetal said. "All the perks for staff: hotel room, salary pay, food, all this other stuff.

"The issue is that if you want quality work from quality people, you have to pay quality money."

FullMetal, who ran the Melee side of the fabled Apex series, said he thinks an overabundance of major tournaments in the modern Melee scene contributed to Tipped Off 12's lower-than-expected turnout. With so many other events on the calendar, many top players were simply unable to commit themselves to an event like Tipped Off 12.

Like Rorec, FullMetal said he believes major events need to differentiate themselves by increasing in both scale and number of extras.

"Everybody wants bigger and better," FullMetal said.

But bigger and better also costs more.

The success of future major tournaments will rest on organizers' ability to develop new and exciting content that not only makes their events stand out from others but also doesn't require a ton of cash. This is a tall order, but the Melee scene has persisted for almost 17 years, and there's plenty of reason to believe it has gas left in its tank.

"I think the community is growing still," Rorec said. "I don't think it's stagnated; I don't think it's dead. I think the health of the game is not represented by how many want to compete ... that doesn't mean they can't enjoy the game. Smash and esports put a lot of emphasis on the top players, but we shouldn't forget 90 percent of the players don't make top 64, and they need some love, too."