Their strategy mapped out, eight jersey-clad players on two teams emerge from the concourse and onto the stage. A stadium full of screaming fans, eager to see a great match, await them. Or do they? If Nintendo has its way, those fans will be there. Last October, the company showed us a vision: thousands of cheering fans filling a stadium to watch squid people shoot paint at each other. It sounds weird, which makes it sound like Nintendo. But does it sound realistic? Can Splatoon 2 become a thrilling esport?
With Splatoon 2’s July 21 release date fast approaching, is Nintendo prepared to make the cephalopod shooter an esports phenomenon? The company’s stable of beloved multiplayer franchises like Mario Kart and Smash Bros. has, for many years, appeared to be the perfect vehicles for riding to incredible online multiplayer success. Yet, Nintendo has repeatedly come up short in this realm. Now, it seems to finally have the desire to get serious about online PvP gaming, but it’s using one of its newest and goofiest — and that’s saying something for Nintendo — franchises to test the waters.
So, after making fans wait for about a decade and a half, is Nintendo really, finally ready to do this competitive play thing right? And is it ready to do it so perfectly right that thousands of spectators show up to watch Splatoon 2 matches? Well, the company isn’t really saying. Nintendo declined to speak to Twinfinite for this story, and its recent delay to the rollout of its premium online Switch service to 2018 certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.
Speaking with Glixel during E3, however, Nintendo of America President and COO Reggie Fils-Aimé did offer some insight into the company’s esports strategy. “What I would say is different in how we think about competitive gaming is that we think about the community,” said Fils-Aimé, “we think about trying to encourage and empower the community – you see that with Splatoon, you see that with Smash Bros. – and for us it’s about having more and more players engaged and having fun and battling each other versus how others are thinking about in terms of leagues and big startup money and things of that nature, that for us is not as interesting, at least not today.”
Of course, as we’ll get into in just a bit, some would say Nintendo has actually not done a particularly stellar job supporting the aforementioned communities. But the company did launch Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in April and Arms last week, and both have free online multiplayer. Next month, the console holder will follow those up with Splatoon 2. And in a first for Nintendo, it even beta tested the latter two games. Beta testing multiplayer games is a standard, obvious move for virtually any other publisher, but it’s a shocking break from tradition for Nintendo.
Bill Mooney, a former EA and Zynga VP and currently the chief product officer of mobile esports company Skillz, tells Twinfinite that in addition to likely testing lag and connection issues, Nintendo’s newfound interest in beta testing is a sign that the company is testing the waters. Nintendo has always taken things painfully slow when it comes to integrating technologies into its consoles that the competition has long-since made standard. Whether it was disc-based games, high-definition graphics, online gameplay, or, currently, ultra-high-definition gameplay, the company has been reluctant to follow Sony and Microsoft’s leads.
While Nintendo has technically allowed some form of online gaming on its consoles since the GameCube, the experience has tended to be less than stellar. Now, between its beta testing and its inability to get a paid online multiplayer system out the door in the same year it launched its latest console — let alone on the same day, as competitors Sony and Microsoft routinely do — Nintendo, Mooney thinks, might be taking another cautious look at whether or not “there’s an appetite” for pay-to-play online multiplayer.
“The big thing about multiplayer is it’s all about balance and the metagame,” he adds. “Is there enough there? They sort of lucked into that, and it’s clear with Splatoon that they need time to get it right.”
But even if players enjoy Splatoon 2’s content, is Nintendo ready to let them start playing competitive online multiplayer en mass next month? Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s launch seemed to go smoothly enough, but Mooney cautions that the game ran on existing code, as it was a re-release of a 2014 Wii U game with some additional content. The beta test should have helped some in this regard, but is a beta test alone a sign that Nintendo is taking competitive online play more seriously? Given that the Switch’s premium online service won’t be out this year and that even the most basic of details about it only just emerged months after Switch’s launch, it’s hard to not be a little skeptical.
“It still doesn’t feel like as much of a focus as you might expect,” says Mooney. “I would have expected to see more features out of the gate that felt like they were sort of online, tournament-friendly. I would have had a launch title, even if it wasn’t the greatest, had some third-party launch title just to play with the stuff. Because they’ve had months to see how this stuff works, but they haven’t really battle-tested it in a way that is relevant.”
While he understands Nintendo’s attraction to testing things with Mario Kart 8 first since the company has years of data and experience from the Wii U version, it doesn’t seem like the best first step.
“It suggests to me that it’s not the most important part of their strategy or they’d already have something out,” he adds. “So, it should work, but if I were Nintendo, I hate learning on Mario Kart 8.”