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Wanna Smash, Bro?: UNC students unwind with virtual tournaments


DTH Photo Illustration. The video game "Super Smash Bros", played on the Nintendo Switch, has brought together members of the UNC Super Smash Bros. Ultimate team for weekly matches. 

Every Friday, after a long week of grueling online schoolwork, members of the UNC Super Smash Bros. Ultimate team gather virtually for a night of fun and gaming at their weekly wifi tournaments. 

Despite the challenges that a virtual landscape poses for the game, the community has been working hard to stay connected. 

“You make really good friends in Smash that it becomes almost like a family,” Phil Register, the head of the UNC Super Smash Bros. Ultimate team, said. “Especially at UNC, because we’re a much closer scene.”

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the latest installment of the Super Smash Bros. video game series, which has been an ever-growing community since 1999. The fighting game features characters from a wide variety of video games, making it appealing to different fan bases.

“It has a pretty broad appeal,”  Dylan Tate, a member of the team, said. “Even if you’re not an avid gamer, you probably know who Mario is, or who Pikachu is, or famous characters like that.”

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was released during Tate’s first semester at the University, and he joined the team in his second semester. He’s been an active member of the team ever since, even after the team’s tournaments went fully online.

“It’s very easy to just pick up and play with your friends,” Tate said. “You don’t have to be good to do decently at it.” 

Register attributes the game’s popularity to its gentle learning curve. 

“Smash is easy enough to get into that there’s a constant influx of new players,” Register said. “It’s really satisfying to learn more about it. You can tell when you’re learning and when you’re getting better.”

Register became involved with the Super Smash Bros. community at the age of 14, began running tournaments at 15, and has stayed an avid member of the community ever since. 

The Super Smash Bros. community prides itself on being grassroots — the tournaments are organized by the community rather than Nintendo, the creator of the game.

“Smash is always something that’s been by the community and for the community,” Register said.

Even so, the transition to virtual tournaments has been a significant change for members of the community who believe that the game is ideal to play in person. Between lag issues with the game’s online feature and the friendships that in-person gameplay fosters, playing virtually is a different experience.

At in-person tournaments, Tate’s favorite character was Fox because of his fast-paced playstyle. But this didn’t transition well to the online version of Smash, which suffers from a slight delay between the time you press a button and the time your character attacks. So, Tate has switched to playing another character, Cloud, because of his safer playstyle.

“I do have fun with Cloud,” Tate said. “But I think I’d have more fun if Fox was better online.”

Andrew Weider, another member of the team, highlighted the importance of in-person interactions to Smash’s gameplay. 

“It’s really a game designed to be played in person and with people,” Weider said. “There’s a personal side to it where it helps to be sitting across from somebody. But, no matter how much we complain about it and hate not being able to play in person, it’s really a great way to stay in touch.”

Weider played his first game of the Super Smash Bros. franchise as a kid but became more involved in the game when he joined the Ultimate team after the team went online.

Weider plays as Ness because he’s a fan of the character’s game, "EarthBound." He enjoys both the casual and competitive aspects of the game.

“It’s been a really great way just to stay in contact with people from Chapel Hill,” Weider said. “And it’s been a really good stress reliever from school and everything.”

The team has managed to compensate for some in-person aspects of the game through the use of Discord, a messaging platform that was initially made for gaming communities. 

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“It’s been great and really useful,” Weider said. “Without a communication channel like that, that’s so intuitive and geared toward those kinds of needs, we wouldn’t really be able to do what we do.”

But Discord has more than just messaging capabilities. It also allows the team to use a bot to automatically organize the virtual tournament brackets.

“Discord has definitely proven to be useful in that regard,”  Tate said. “It’s so much easier than having to manage that all themselves.” 

Discord has also been utilized to add new prizes for the virtual wifi tournaments. The winner of the week’s wifi tournament is given a special role on the Discord server, which allows them to choose the next tournament’s name, the name of the main channel where the team communicates, and the emojis that they can use on the server. 

A second prize for the winner is provided by the UNC Esports Club: a Steam Key that can be used to purchase a game from the online video game distributor Steam. 

“It’s kind of sponsored this innovation that we can take into in-person tournaments,” Register said. “Which I think is really cool.” 

Members agree that they are looking forward to in-person tournaments returning in the fall — not just because of the better gameplay, but because they’re excited to see their friends in person. 

“It's nowhere comparable to the degree of friendship and the interactions that you would get in person,” Tate said. “So, for me at this point, there’s very much just a longing for when we can get back in person again. Hopefully, I can make some more memories.”