Organizers face tough task in crafting Smash Ultimate rulesets

Should Nintendo be like Capcom? (6:11)

The Capcom Pro Tour has had a successful few years with Street Fighter. Should Nintendo adopt a similar format for Smash Bros. Ultimate? (6:11)

It has been almost six years since Nintendo tried to torpedo the Super Smash Bros. Melee livestream at Evolution Championship Series 2013. Since then, the company's attitude toward competitive Smash has warmed considerably.

Smash Ultimate, with its decreased aerial landing lag, stage hazard toggle function and cinematic kill sequences, was designed to woo the competitive audience, and so far, Nintendo's efforts have been rewarded. Ultimate's release has heralded stunning Twitch viewership, thousands of new subscribers for Smash streamers and record-high registration numbers for the first Ultimate super major, this weekend's Genesis 6.

Ultimate's bevy of competitive gameplay changes notwithstanding, Smash players can't just sit down in front of a Nintendo Switch and expect to play out a tournament set. The game requires an intermediary, a set of parameters that ensures competitors are given an even playing field and chance will have no impact on the outcome.

To be viable as an esport, Smash Ultimate needs a competitive ruleset.

Creating balanced rules for a new title is daunting but necessary for any tournament organizer. So, armed with years of know-how from past Smash titles, the tournament organizers of the first Ultimate majors were given no choice but to start writing.

Robin "Aveean" Radloff was the head organizer of the first large-scale Ultimate tournament, Don't Park On The Grass 2018. Registration for this event closed only two days after the release of the game. Aveean, aided by a committee of top players and Washington tournament organizers, had to create a ruleset for a game that she hadn't played.

"There was actually a tournament that was held in Spain," prior to Smash Ultimate's release, Aveean said. "They gave a lot of information to us about stages and time limits. ... We watched and analyzed the footage."

Using video from the Invitational Individual at Barcelona's Saló del Manga convention in early November allowed Washington tournament organizers to calculate the average time per stock loss in Smash Ultimate. They found that the game's faster pace would allow them to run three-stock matches, an increase from Smash 4's two-stock standard, without having to worry about their bracket running long.

"The matches actually moved very quickly," said Aveean, "and we finished every single block of the tournament before our estimated completion time."

Constructing a standard tournament ruleset for a Super Smash Bros. title is not easy work. Super Smash Bros. Brawl never really had one; at the height of the game's competitive lifespan, a "Unity Ruleset Committee" failed to produce standardized practices after the committee's decision to ban Meta Knight was widely disregarded by pro players.

Smash 4, which had recognized guidelines by the end of the game's competitive lifespan, had its fair share of hiccups. For example, tournament organizers banned and then unbanned Lylat Cruise in 2017 amid a debate about the stage's merits in tournament play.

Even Melee has seen the rise and fall of many rulesets in its 18 years as a competitive esport, too. Those lists have differed greatly in their treatment of controversial elements such as items, nonstandard stages and Ice Climbers' "wobbling" infinite.

Just like those games, Smash's meta and other elements present challenges.

"Stages were an ordeal," Aveean said.

"I feel like there's a time and place to experiment with more liberal rulesets. I'm definitely down to see what other stages look like in action. But for a major, especially a very early major ... it's always safer to have less stages than to put something crazy on." Max "Max Ketchum" Krchmar, Let's Make Moves tournament organizer

Starting with a list of standbys such as Battlefield and Final Destination, the Don't Park committee gradually tested stages and considered community feedback until they had a list of 10: five neutral stages and five counterpicks.

After Aveean and her group determined that players could use Mii Fighters -- an open-and-shut decision, she said -- the committee was left with one more choice: how to treat the hazards on/off toggle on Smash Ultimate's stage select screen.

"It seemed pretty obvious that Nintendo was designing 'hazards off' for competitive play," Aveean said, "but 'hazards on' had a lot of benefits, like for instance Smashville."

This stage, which has been popular since the Brawl days because of its simple layout, is the most-used competitive stage to be affected by the hazard toggle. When hazards are turned off, Smashville's single platform ceases to move, instead remaining locked in the center of the Animal Crossing-inspired stage.

Some members of the committee proposed a mixed ruleset that would force players to switch between hazards on or off for some stages.

"It felt too messy to me," she said. "And that was just a call I made as the head TO. I said we're either doing all-on or all-off."

From there, the all-off choice was easy.

Stages were also a focal point for Max "Max Ketchum" Krchmar, one of the tournament organizers behind the East Coast's first Ultimate major, Let's Make Moves. To build his ruleset, Max Ketchum drew from 15 years of experience in competitive Smash.

"I feel like there's a time and place to experiment with more liberal rulesets. I'm definitely down to see what other stages look like in action," Max Ketchum said. "But for a major, especially a very early major ... it's always safer to have less stages than to put something crazy on."

The result was a rousing success. Let's Make Moves drew over 500 attendees and not a single ruleset complaint.

"I don't think I would've retroactively added anything," Max Ketchum said. "And yeah, I mean, you're gonna get to see the total opposite side of the coin at Genesis."

Genesis 6's ruleset represents a departure from the rulesets used at Don't Park On The Grass and Let's Make Moves. Its stage list allows players to choose between 11 options, including the controversial Yoshi's Story, which has a relatively small blast zone and sloped ledges that may give an advantage to certain characters.

Genesis organizer Bassem "Bear" Dahdouh believes this larger list is best for Smash Ultimate's long-term potential as an esport.

"We believe that it's important to be careful when removing stages from a competitive ruleset," Bear said. "Once something is removed, it'll rarely make a return in the competitive life of the game."

In both Brawl and Smash 4, for example, reasonable changes proposed midway through the game's competitive lifespans failed because competitors had already become accustomed to previous guidelines. In Brawl, the Unity Ruleset's Meta Knight ban was opposed by top-level players whose livelihoods depended on their skill with the character; in Smash 4, Mii legalization was caught up in early debates over custom moves, and by the time the Mii Fighters became an independent issue, inserting three new characters into the metagame was difficult.

Though the Genesis ruleset differs in its stage list, its Mii policy puts it in the same camp as Don't Park On The Grass and Let's Make Moves.

"I actually co-main Bowser and Mii Swordfighter, so I was a heavy advocate for all things Miis to ensure we could allow the maximum amount of customization that'd be competitively balanced but also time-efficient," Bear said. "I was in heavy discussion in the PGstats Discord with many regional TOs and data analysts, along with some players."

If there's one thing Smash tournament organizers have learned from previous iterations of the game, it's that a good ruleset naturally takes shape over time. Some choices that might be unclear during the early days of Smash Ultimate will likely become obvious as players gain a better understanding of the game.

If an untested ruleset leads to surprising or unexpected results, that's fine; such outcomes are part of the fun of a Smash title's early meta. As the Genesis organizers experiment with a new and relatively flexible ruleset, it may behoove both spectators and players to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.