Opinion: Nintendo shutting down The Big House 2020 is heartless

For those of you who haven’t heard, Nintendo issued a cease and desist to The Big House. What’s that? For the past nine years, it’s one of the biggest Smash Bros. competitions, usually held in Michigan. This year they were going to run their Melee tournament online this month via emulators with the use of “Slippi,” a brand new tool that essentially implements high-quality tournament-ready rollback netcode into the game. Nintendo then shut it down.

Here is Nintendo’s reasoning by way of a statement to Polygon:

“Unfortunately, the upcoming Big House tournament announced plans to host an online tournament for Super Smash Bros. Melee that requires use of illegally copied versions of the game in conjunction with a mod called ‘Slippi’ during their online event. Nintendo, therefore, contacted the tournament organizers to ask them to stop. They refused, leaving Nintendo no choice but to step in to protect its intellectual property and brands. Nintendo cannot condone or allow piracy of its intellectual property.”

First of all, no. You’ve probably heard this argument a million times before, but playing a copied version of a game you own via an emulator is, in fact, legal. The Big House was, in no way, offering up ROMs or distributing illegal copies of Smash Bros. Melee which means, that the people playing in the tournament would have to supply the ROMs themselves. Is Nintendo honestly asserting that Melee pros, people who are quite literally so good at this game that they play it for money, don’t own the game and thus are using illegal copies to participate in the tournament?

Regardless, Nintendo’s flimsy reasoning is secondary here. Nintendo has offered up a million reasons for issuing C&Ds to fan projects, and they always get us groaning and just accepting that it’s just the way things are with the big N. Heck they tried to shut down a Melee tournament at EVO after it raised $200,000 for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in a charity drive to get there!

Many people argue that this is something Nintendo “has to do” but it’s simply not true, because many other companies simply don’t. Sega, for example, is so supportive of its fan communities and their projects that yearly conventions are held specifically for using emulators to play hacked versions of Sonic games. This was actually what brought us the developers behind Sonic Mania.

But this all happens because Sega allows it to. They would be well within their rights to shut these conventions down just like Nintendo was well within their legal rights to shut this tournament down.

It was a legal thing for Nintendo to do. It’s also the most heartless thing I have seen them or any other video game company do in recent times.

Why? Nintendo has done this before. They have some absurd obsession with the idea that all emulation is piracy (it isn’t) and illegal (it isn’t). As a matter of fact, Nintendo’s classic collection that you can play on the Switch runs in an official Nintendo made emulator. So they obviously know that emulation is not 100 percent evil.

And in all other years, I would be willing to look this over. But 2020 is a weird year, a year where we are all stuck inside during a pandemic which is killing people who decide to take the chance to meet face to face, and Nintendo just doesn’t care.

The thing is, Nintendo does not offer a “legal” way to play Smash Bros. Melee outside of owning the original game and playing it on a Gamecube or Wii with Gamecube backward compatibility. They have never re-released it and the original did not have any sort of online mode to speak of.

This means that there is no “legal” way to play Super Smash Bros. Melee without getting together with your friends in meat space. There’s no way to hold an official tournament that Nintendo won’t have legal problems with without putting yourself at risk for COVID infection.

And the Smash community solved this. They found a way to make the high-speed frantic gameplay of Melee work in an online context. However, without a Nintendo-sanctioned way to make Melee on the Gamecube go online, their only real choice was to play it in an emulator.

Here’s the thing that angers me personally about this. I’m not a competitive Melee player. I’m barely a competitive fighting game player. However, Nintendo was faced with two options for this community. They either could turn the other way, just this once, and let them play online, or they could shut it down and basically tell this community “if you want to play you need to risk COVID infection” and they were more comfortable with their fanbase risking infection than they were with their fanbase emulating one of their games.

That’s what’s so unbelievably heartless. Nintendo didn’t just shut down a Melee tournament, they shut down the only safe way to play in a competitive Melee tournament in the middle of a global pandemic because they refuse to acknowledge that, yeah, sometimes emulators can do good. Good like keeping people safe from a possibly fatal respiratory virus.

Now I’m not saying Nintendo wants people to put themselves in danger. There is another option after all: don’t play. I want you to think about that for a second. There were three options here. Play Melee online with Slippi using dumped ROM images of Melee disks, play Melee face to face using original hardware and disks and risk COVID infection, or simply let the competitive Melee community die in 2020.

Nintendo actively sought out to remove the first option. That means that they are either perfectly OK with the risk of infection or perfectly OK with the Melee scene dying. There is no in-between regardless of how much Nintendo issues apologetic remarks like “Nintendo appreciates the love and dedication the fighting game community has for the Super Smash Bros. series. We have partnered with numerous Super Smash Bros. tournaments in the past.”

This move isn’t just groan-worthy. It isn’t just stupid. It isn’t just heartless. It’s reckless. Nintendo removed an outlet for playing their games safely during a pandemic. No matter how much they would like to say that the behavior of their fans is not their responsibility, it is, at least in a very small part.

If even ONE competitor that would have played in this tournament goes out to play Melee face to face instead and gets infected, infects someone else, or otherwise helps COVID-19 spread, that is on Nintendo’s hands. The probability is good that someone, somewhere, is going to get very sick, and their lives are going to be changed for the worse forever because Nintendo made this one decision.

A decision they did not have to make. Twitch Rivals planned an Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament using Parsec and cloud servers, a technology that Capcom never authorized anyone to use with their game, which allows a single copy to be played by every tournament entrant. Capcom did not issue a cease and desist.

Fightcade is an online platform for emulating old fighting games with GGPO netcode. Official tournaments are run on it all the time, and they require people to use ROMs, just like the Melee players would have to do with Slippi. Capcom, SNK, Netherrealm, and all the other developers and publishers that have games that are emulated on that platform don’t issue a cease and desist, even though these tournaments are held weekly!

No, despite the fact that The Big House 2020 would keep the competitive Melee community safe during the worst pandemic we have seen in our lifetimes, Nintendo just didn’t care. They cared far more about their intellectual property and their petty war on emulation than they cared about the well-being of their fans and the livelihood of their competitive community, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

Yes, Nintendo, you were within your legal rights to do this.

But you shouldn’t have. This is not a good, kind, or moral decision and you know it, and you deserve every ounce of the Smash community’s anger and disappointment.