How the success of a game suppresses its competitive scene.
Photo credit: Nintendo/Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the highest selling racing game ever. Nothing to wonder about. The series has always been a success story. The gameplay formula has aged pretty well since Mario and his friends and enemies pushed the pedals for the first time in 1992.
One would think that the success and competetive fun the game brings to so many people around the globe might easily pave the way for a popular esports. Contradictory to that, nearly no official competitions exist to date. Let alone high value broadcast productions. The competitive scene still lives, well hidden in the depth of the world wide web.
A favorite child left alone?
Mario Kart’s publisher Nintendo has always been very reserved about pushing games as esports. The most famous (or infamous) examples are Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Meele. Both are played at several tournaments around the world and even broadcasted on YouTube, but the tournaments never received relevant monetary support from Nintendo.
Instead the game’s director Masahiro Sakurai stated once that Nintendo doesn’t want to put the focus on a small group of top level competitors. He feared that the fun aspect playing might suffer when it comes down to the superior mechanics and skill smashers display.
It would go against Nintendo’s philosophy to play a game for any other reason than fun: “It comes to a point where they’re playing the game for the money, and I feel that kind of direction doesn’t coincide with Nintendo’s view of what games should be,” worried Sakurai.
While tournaments in Super Smash Bros. and Splatoon 2 are at least supported logistically, Mario Kart events are nearly impossible to find. They do exist to be sure, but events like the Mario Kart North American Open put things into perspective: It was only broadcasted by some attendees, the prize were Nintendo Gold Points, worth $25.
Gameplay made for fun, not for competition
If you have a closer look at Mario Kart, it becomes clearer why Nintendo does not want to spend too much money on the game’s esports future. The gameplay draws a lot of its fascination from the chaos going on. This comes along with a considerable random factor, the items. As you cannot say which items you are going to get during a race, you will never be in full control, eliminating equal chances.
Also the characters are not perfectly balanced, which will never be a problem for fun sessions with friends. However, it does affect gaming on the highest levels. With competetive integrity built on such a fragile basis, it would be risky to aim for a professional career from a player’s perspective.
Other fun racers like Blur have made a step to more controllable gameplay. In case you want to know more about it, have a look at our article about the game. Anyway, if Mario Kart adjusted to that, it might lose a lot of its essence that makes the game as accessible and loved as it is. A very tricky situation for Nintendo. So why whould they take any risks while the game is selling great and being popular as ever?
The hidden competitive scene
It should be clear by now, Mario Kart is no game to make a living off. But for those who strive for maximum competition there is a scene. The community of Mario Kart runs a lot of different self-organized leagues and tournaments on a high competitive level.
The biggest problem this community has is that it is hard to find it on the internet. Mario Kart’s great success and periodical omnipresence make it impossible to find the entrance to its esports world without knowing what to search for.
One of the biggest tournaments is “Mario Kart Universal”. Try to find it with Google and you will get many results with articles about the Mario Kart attraction at the Universal Studios, but nothing about the tounament. Most of the magic happens on the Mario Kart database MKCentral.
There you get information about players, teams and tournaments. Those who really want to race have only taken the first step though. The whole communication takes place at MKCentral’s Discord channel. So at latest, here players with ambitions have to contact a team to get an invite.
Despite its reputation of being quite toxic in competitions, the community mostly welcomes newcomers warmly. In Mario Kart most players are organized in teams. Matches are called ClanWars. These competitions are a time travel trip to the origins of esports in general.
Play it differently
Because of the game’s random factor, the community has worked out some very unique game modes to maximize the integrity and also raise the tactical appeal. Although the game is played in teams, only all vs. all is used in-game to enable friendly fire. This way players have to be very careful with their items.
Especially mighty ones such as the blue and red shells or the lightning are dangerous to your own mates. So everyone must be aware of who is in front and right behind of them. Communication between the team members becomes very important as well. This takes Mario Kart to a whole new level.
The community proposes and discusses new modes as well. One of them is the mouse mode, where only one player in a team can collect points and must be protected by their team to reach the highest placement possible. The “mouse” of the other team is about to get hunted down of course.
There are a lot of interesting approaches to increase the game’s competitive integrity. Maybe it will become a true esport on a technical level someday as well.
Whereas it is unlikely that Nintendo will change their philosophy about gaming and esports in the near future, it is what contributed to the reputation of their games. The main point is not even about hefty prize pools though. That is something that must not and cannot be forced. It would just be great, if the visibility of competitive Mario Kart benefited from its developer’s support.
Right now ClanWars are only streamed on a low scale by MKCentral members. They do so passionately, but to really gain relevance, they need way more professionalization. And this is something a great game like Mario Kart deserves.