Even though Panda Cup is a big deal, the spotlight is on the Super Smash Bros. community and its players.
Esports is always expanding, whether that be from a business, community, or content perspective. So when Panda announced that it was going to be running the first officially licensed Super Smash Bros. circuit in partnership with Nintendo of America last November, it opened a lot of doors and raised a lot of questions in one of the biggest grassroots communities.
The Panda Cup entered the scene at a point where many Smash players and fans had just expected Nintendo to always be a player on the sidelines when it came to competitive playtwisting that narrative around as NoA partnered with an organization born from the fighting game community (FGC).
Starting in June with CEO 2022, Panda has brought a lot to the table for both sides of the Smash community with additional support for various tournaments in the form of increased production value and other aspects. Not to mention the enticing shadow cast by a Panda Cup Finale featuring a $100,000 prize pool split between Melee and Ultimate for those who qualify.
Heading into the second half of the circuit, Panda co-founder and CEO Dr. Alan and Nintendo of America VP of player and production experience Bill Trinen spoke with Dot Esports about how the Panda Cup partnership first came about and its focus on enhancing what was already great about the Smash community. And there might be some little tidbits of Nintendos plans for further support in other games thrown in too.
How did the Panda Cup come about after years of Nintendo and the Smash scene at the highest level mostly being separated, barring Nintendo VS events and invitationals?
Dr. Alan: Panda was established in 2015, and we are a competitive game organization that was founded in the Super Smash Bros. and fighting game communities. It all started with former competitive players who met 15 or 16 years ago over a game of Super Smash Bros. Melee at the University of Michigan. That is how far back this whole thing goes.
A big passion of ours at Panda has always been giving back to the community and trying to help it grow. This community is our lifeblood and where we came from, so obviously we saw so much potential in it.
Working with Nintendo, it has sort of been a long road to get here, but it has honestly been worth it. Nintendo has been an amazing partner of ours and we were so excited to announce the first-ever partnership like this last November. Just a couple of months ago we were able to get it off the ground and launch Panda Cup, the first-ever officially licensed circuit in North America for Super Smash Bros. And we hope it is just the beginning of showing off our community and what we can do togetherelevating these players, these stories across Ultimate and Melee.
Trinen: From Nintendos perspective, weve kind of dabble in some of our tournaments and partnered with grassroot tournaments in the Smash scene in the past, but weve been a bit more in the background in terms of when and how weve been engaging and supporting. With that being said, over many of those years, weve actually been looking for somebody that would be the right partner to start something and get an officially licensed presence within the community.
We obviously never want to replace the community because to us the grassroots nature of Super Smash Bros. and the players is really something special and unique even within the fighting game and other video game communities. For us, it was about finding a partner that understands that and is committed to that but is also going to try and bring support and stability to create a place where some of that community can kind of align and unify in a way that is more than just one-off tournaments. Not to take away from those events but to kind of bring it all together and give players something like a cohesive season while supporting everyone along the way.
Talking about those grassroots, how big of a deal was it for Melee to be included during the planning phases?
Trinen: I would say that was priority number one. Dr. Alan spoke about how he got his start in Melee and I actually worked on the localization for the game. So I was playing that game from pre-release until I dont even know how many years later. We actually used to have lunchtime and after-work matches at the Nintendo office for close to a decade [laughs]. We love that game.
Just from a passion perspective, there is a lot of it for that game, in particular, extending beyond those of us at Nintendo and our friends at Panda because it remains so strong within the Super Smash Bros. community.
So for us, it was important to find somebody who was eager to work with the existing grassroots community and both Ultimate and Melee players to ensure weve got support for both sides. I think that has been great so far, it has been amazing to see both games at some of these in-person events and were looking forward to seeing both as part of the Panda Cup Finale later this year.
Dr. Alan: I dont even think there was a part of the discussion that didnt have the entire Smash community together like this from the very beginning. Its always been a desire from both parties from day one. And being able to showcase this amazing community is awesome.
This is one that has been asked a lot in regard to actually running the circuit, specifically on social media. So to clear the air on it, how does the Panda Cup being the first-ever officially licensed championship circuit differ from being sponsored or partially run by Nintendo, because a lot of people lump them together when that is not the case?
Dr. Alan: This is something Ive been trying to hammer home on Twitter because honestly, its just a little bit of a legalese line that you use on social media and some official copies for PR and videos. All that means is that Nintendos not paying us to do advertising. Thats what a sponsor does, they pay us to advertise on our broadcast. We just announced today a new wonderful sponsor, Wonderful Pistachios and we also have GrubHub as well. Those are sponsors.
Nintendo is not a sponsor, theyre a partner of ours. We are actually kind of surprised people really get caught up on that line as if Nintendo is not involved at all when that couldnt be further from the truth.
Trinen: Certainly part of our involvement is just the license, with Panda being the only officially licensed Super Smash Bros. circuit. What that means is anybody thats interested in sponsoring the circuit in any way knows exactly where to go if they want to be with a licensed partner whos gone through all the hoops and obtained the rights to run a circuit in nature. I also want to note I am a huge fan of Wonderful Pistachios, so todays announcement was really big news for me personally [laughs].
Another thing, from a Nintendo perspective there are a number of different ways that we are able to support the circuit. Weve got our own Nintendo Versus program and channels, along with the official Nintendo channels that weve been able to use and highlight some of the Panda Cup activity there. We also provide logistical support, some production support, along with general support for some of the events that have been part of Panda Cup.
We are very excited to see Panda Cup come to fruition and we are working behind the scenes to ensure that we are there to support them.
In that behind-the-scenes realm, it was all over socials a bit ago now, but how did it feel to see the Panda Cup trailers popping up on the Nintendo Switch natively?
Dr. Alan: That was in the works for a bit and Ive held it close to the chest. Being able to actually text my family and friends to say “hey, turn on your Switch right now and go to Nintendo Switch online” and they see the Panda logo right there? It is almost a moment of validation after benign part of this community for so long and being able to display what were doing so prominently.
This is the Panda Cup, but its not about Panda its about the players. Its about these stories and people, showing them to everyone we are able to and showcasing awesome it is to watch and be part of the Super Smash Bros. community. That was really cold and I hope it was just the beginning of something great.
Trinen: Ill just add that it really connects to what has been our approach for Super Smash Bros. for a very long time.
We had our first official tournament at E3 in 2014 and that was an invitational where we were showcasing the game but also the players and casters from the community. And weve had tournaments in the years since and run online circuits with our partners at Battlefy or the online in-game tournaments we do. Weve even had tournaments at San Diego Comic-Con in the past and are working with our scholastic partners at PlayVS, which have all been about bringing a new audience to Smash.
A big part of all of that and the Panda Cup is just trying to introduce as many people to what really is sort of the magic of playing Super Smash Bros. competitively. Especially through the scholastic high school setting where players can even get a varsity letter playing games like Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and Splatoon.
Those are all places we think we’re able to reach audiences that maybe historically haven’t been a part of the community or haven’t maybe even been aware of the community, and help shine a light on what is, you know, kind of that magic. And hopefully, through making things approachable, we’re able to see more people get interested and want to participate.
The Panda Cup took the approach of partnering with existing tournament organizers that have been part of the Smash and fighting game communities for years and decades in some cases. How do you feel that approach has helped both the Panda Cup during its first year?
Dr. Alan: Thats another element that was never a question right from the beginning. We are not a replacement for the community, we are a product that came from this community.
We want to showcase the community and help tournament organizers break through to that next level that as individuals they couldnt do before. And that isnt to blame anyone, its almost impossible to do from a singular standpoint, but together as part of a greater whole, we can all achieve something bigger. And thats really what the goal here iswork with those community events as much as possible and try to enhance them in ways they cant normally do.
For example, weve been really focused on production enhancement through the use of stuff like databases that we have access to or stats that help bring these storylines to life in a way that no one else in the community can do because they dont have those resources or the backend that we do.
We are just adding to the community and helping in areas like inclusiveness, the safety, you know, the production, the experience of the people on the ground for the events that we’re we’re really closely linked with, and we hope to continue doing that.
Trinen: The other piece of that is that this is only year one. And year one is really about getting Panda Cup off the ground, up, and running. Through that, we are hoping to turn it into the place where independent tournaments and community organizers want to be part of as the only officially licensed Super Smash Bros. circuit.
Ultimately, what we want to see is Panda, as an officially licensed partner, is there to help build some of that sustainability and be a place where those tournament organizers know that they can go to be part of something and get support.
I also think that is where we have a lot of value because, in the past, a lot of the community hasnt really known how to reach out to or engage with Nintendo, And so by having an officially licensed partner, it makes it easier for all of them to kind of look at that opportunity for future years.
We are right on the cusp of the Panda Cups halfway mark, so as two people behind the scenes of the circuit itself, what have been your biggest takeaways from the first leg heading into Lost Tech City?
Dr. Alan: Honestly, I thought it would take a little longer for the community to see what were doing. Obviously, our full vision has not been revealed yetI think only after the Finale people will truly understand what were trying to do.
We dont really see Panda Cup as having any comparison or competition out there because we arent trying to do the same thing you see in other competitive titles. Were not trying to be the cool kids on the block with fog machines and confetti, though I will say there is nothing wrong with that because we might use those [laughs].
Were trying to build experiences, magic through storylines and memories that are important to everyone and transport the viewers or attendees when theyre watching at home or in person into this world that the communities have been able to build.
A lot of that stuff we do is behind the scenes, and we prefer it that way. We prefer that our partners are the ones that are elevated and these community events get the visibility. But the community has been noticing things like the production value being increased or how we are bringing new things to the table that they can appreciate since day one and were really thankful honestly. We’re telling the storylines of the players and of their history.
Trinen: It is great that weve got this partnership with Panda, and honestly the thing that Ive been most happy to see is that, within those events, the magic that is Super Smash Bros. has really come alive.
There have been some big moments at several tournaments on the circuit so far, but the one that really spoke to me was the PAX West Almost Pro tournament. It was an event showcasing the kinds of players who are part of the community but who dont always get the limelight or make it into top eight rounds at bigger events. The winner of that tournament, the emotion that he was overcome with when he realized he had won and was going to the Panda Cup Finals was one of those moments you just cant beat.
To me, that is what this is all about. Its not just about the players at the top or the biggest tournaments, it’s about the community and every one of the players that are there, helping them find a path to become part of the bigger community. I feel like the Almost Pro and broadening the audience through the online qualifiers is how we will do that, while also creating a really unique mix of top players and players who may be stepping onto a big stage for the first time at the Panda Cup Finals.
Dr. Alan: I am a big believer in hidden bosses FYI. Im really curious to see what happens with the players who made it in through the online qualifiers since we redesigned the regions based on our data and the back end trying to like maximize that player density. So I really hope that we’re gonna see some sleepers come from that, because a lot of players out there that just don’t have the opportunity to travel and being able to showcase that talent, I think it’s gonna be really cool.
And, since we are within shooting distance to the Finale now, how much of a relief is it to see that proverbial light at the end of the premier circuits tunnel?
Dr. Alan: You say relief, I say fear and trepidation [laughs]. We’ve brought in really incredible people from around the industry that are well respected and known for putting on quality events and obviously, Panda will be there since it is our event. With familiar faces and people that are trustworthy, I think we can tap into that event experience and bring something new to the table.
A bit of spoilers here, but it is going to be a free entry event in downtown Los Angeles the weekend before Christmas, so we really hope to showcase this community to people off the street. Kind of like walk on in and see how incredible these players are, see how amazing Super Smash Bros. is in the competitive setting and how electric this audience is, you know?
I can’t feel relieved until we’re able to achieve our vision, which is hard. No one’s ever done something like this, to my knowledge, at the very least. And will we succeed? I don’t know. I hope we will, I really hope we will, we’re going to work our hardest to. For now, I am fully focused on just getting that finale and making something truly special because this community honestly deserves it.
How has this experience working with Panda been from the Nintendo side of things? And what could this potentially mean for additional expanded esports-centric approaches in the future for games like Splatoon?
Trinen: Well as many know I am a big Splatoon player and fan, though I like to think Im better than I really am. But thats okay [laughs].
You know, I would say in regard to the Panda Cup, just seeing the response so far and seeing how the circuit has gone within the community has been great. I think we still have opportunities to continue to engage with the community and try to get them on board and get them excited and hopefully get them showing up for the finals. So for that, we are going to continue to do the best we can to support Panda and continue to be there going forward as something the community can continue to welcome and embrace.
Now in terms of other games, we actually held our first Splatoon 3 tournament at PAX West too alongside a Mario Kart 8 Deluxe event that I honestly felt went really smoothly and were exciting to see. I was especially thrilled to see the response to Mario Kart because that is another game that has its own niche community of competitive players that we have done a few online tournaments for. But being able to do a big event like that in person was a lot of fun.
Weve been working with partners like PlayVS on the scholastic level for those titles in the high school space and are looking at the games like hey, what can we do to get more people engaged and competitive Splatoon more people engaged and competitive Mario Kart, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
You know, we’ve had, we’ve had fun doing a lot of different types of tournaments in the past at different events and things like that. And I think we’ll continue to explore what some of those opportunities are. But for us right now, we’re really focused on Panda Cup and the Panda Cup Finals, and then what plans we may have coming for games like Splatoon 3 and Mario Kart.