Martin Dandelion Kalawski and Davon Dexter Poindexter Credit: Kelyn Soong

It’s almost 7:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, and more than 100 video game enthusiasts are piling up inside Xanadu Games, an esports competition venue tucked in the corner of Laurel Park’s grandstand. Surveying the room, Dalton Hanlon decides it’s time for some crowd control. 

“Please do not use this machine up front for anything besides reporting scores,” he shouts into a megaphone as people hover around the front desk, their restless commotion becoming more palpable. “Do not use it to look at your brackets. Do not use it to look at the stream queue. Do not use it to randomly Google something.”

Most of the patrons—young and male, but racially diverse—have already plopped down in front of a TV, reclined in a gaming chair, and connected their Nintendo GameCube or Switch controller. Others are waiting to sign up last-minute for the impending event. Separate TV pods give the gamers ample playing space, and Hanlon, the tournament organizer who goes by the gamer tag “Vanilla,” guides any newcomers to the right place. A large flat-screen TV hanging above the gamers proclaims: “OPEN EVERY SINGLE DAY.” 

They’re all here for the same reason: to play Super Smash Bros

Since 2012, VGBootCamp (short for “Video Game Boot Camp”) has been hosting weekly Smash Bros. tournaments here at Xanadu, which moved to its current space in March of 2018 from a small business complex in Baltimore County. Hanlon, who started the tournament series Just Tryna Smash in 2015, hosts The Grind series every Friday night.

Esports, broadly defined as multiplayer video games played competitively, have entered the mainstream, with estimates that the market surpassed $1 billion in revenue last year, and Super Smash Bros. has become one of the field’s most popular fighting games since being released in 1999. Few places can claim that more than D.C.

In addition to events at Xanadu, the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly will host Super Smash Con, considered the largest Smash Bros. tournament in the world, this August. Northern Virginia native Justin Wykowski founded the annual event in 2015.

But unlike many other popular esports games with a professional league and the backing of major funders, Smash Bros. occupies a unique space in the esports ecosystem due to its grassroots, largely fan-driven competitive scene. Most Smash Bros. tournaments are not sanctioned by Nintendo, which hasn’t emphasized competitive play when it comes to its marketing for the game. Only recently has the Japanese company introduced official tournaments. 

The community’s passion is part of the game’s appeal, according to Josh Hafkin, the founder of Rockville’s esports training center The Game Gym.

“We host different tournaments, but Smash is our most consistent,” he says. “It’s the one that we can get most people to come out to.”

That doesn’t surprise Hanlon. By the time his tournament begins, 103 gamers have registered—a solid but unremarkable number. A few top local players are missing, he notes. It’s Valentine’s Day, after all.

***

This scene repeats itself every week—often more than once—in several locations across the D.C. area.

Xanadu, for example, hosts tournaments on Tuesdays and Fridays for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest iteration of the fighting game developed by Nintendo that features many of the company’s famous and beloved characters like Mario, Donkey Kong, Bowser, and Link. To win the game, players attempt to knock their opponents off the stage until one player runs out of lives. 

Gamers can also compete in Super Smash Bros. Melee, the second version of the series released in 2001, on Wednesdays and Fridays. The Game Gym organizes its own biweekly Smash Bros. tournament series on Fridays.

Much of the credit for the local rise of weekly tournaments goes to the VGBootCamp founders, Calvin and Matthew Lofton, says Hafkin. The brothers from Beltsville founded VGBootCamp in 2009 as a way to grow the Smash Bros. scene that they felt had been lacking. They saw a vacuum in live streaming for Smash Bros. content, and so they started their own Twitch and YouTube channels, using other fighting game communities as a model.

In 2013, outside factors caused the game’s profile to elevate considerably. At that year’s Evolution Championship Series, an annual fighting games event in Las Vegas commonly known as Evo, players voted to make Super Smash Bros. the eighth and final competitive game at the tournament. Also that year, a U.S. production company, East Point Pictures, released a popular nine-part documentary series, The Smash Brothers, that examined the competitive history of the Smash Bros. community. 

“A lot of people started getting interested in Smash, and it made me want to grind harder,” says Calvin Lofton, better known as “GimR,” his gamer tag. “Viewership started to rise. Within an eight-month period in 2013, we went from 5,000 concurrent live stream viewers at its peak to 20,000 to 30,000 viewers for big tournaments.”

Calvin, 30, was able to quit his day job as an audio mixer and dove into VGBootCamp full-time. The company’s live streams and YouTube videos, which have reached over 270 million total views, are often a first point of entry for local players looking for tournaments to compete in. They have inspired others, like The Cave Gaming Center in Fairfax, to host tournaments.

Calvin partly attributes the game’s popularity to its simplicity.

Smash is a fighting game, it’s pretty simple,” he says. “You throw someone off the stage. Anyone can watch that and can figure it out. And Smash has every [Nintendo] character—it’s the biggest crossover in history. The sky’s the limit at this point.”

***

Ingrid “D3LISH” Castillo, one of the competitors at Xanadu on Friday, wants people to know that it doesn’t smell at Smash Bros. tournaments. At least, not the ones at Xanadu’s new venue.

It’s a stigma that has followed the Smash Bros. community around for years: As the rumor goes, they stink. One Kotaku article from 2018 is headlined, “Smash Players Plead With Each Other to Please, For the Love of God, Stop Smelling So Bad.” It can be an unfortunate side effect of sitting in a room for upward of six hours with dozens of other people.

“It’s not very stinky,” Castillo, a 23-year-old from Rockville, insists. “A lot of people like trashing the Smash community for being stinky, but like, if it’s air conditioned, things are okay.”

Bigger problems plague the scene. Like with other esports, stories of toxic players and bullying exist in the community. Some people have accused Smash Bros. players of being hostile to beginners. 

Castillo hasn’t experienced that either. As one of the few girls in the space, she says she’s been pleasantly surprised by how easy it has been to talk to people and make friends in the community since she started competing seriously in 2018.

“I mean, you’ll get occasionally, like crabby people who … aren’t really responsive,” she explains. “But you’re gonna find that everywhere. And it’s not the only toxic community out there. I think of the places I’ve drifted around because I play Siege and I’ve played [first-person shooters]. That’s way more toxic than Smash.”

Calvin Lofton calls Smash Bros. fans a “really passionate online community,” and believes that any toxicity comes from “the vocal minority.” 

“For the most part, they’re not actively involved in the community,” he says. “If you go to a Smash tournament, it’s one of the most welcoming communities in the world.”

Some in the esports industry even consider Smash as being a positive force for being a more affordable game. Players who want to get involved won’t need high-end consoles or computers that cost thousands of dollars. The Nintendo Switch runs at $300, and gamers can show up to tournaments with just their controller.

The family friendly characters and graphics also lend to its mass appeal.

“Mario, Donkey Kong, parents are down with this game,” says Hafkin, The Game Gym founder. “It’s a very entryway to the competitive gaming scene.”

***

More than five hours have elapsed since the start of the Valentine’s Day tournament at Xanadu, and Hanlon can finally relax. The crowd has dwindled to just a couple dozen who have stuck around to watch the final match of the evening: an intense bout between 24-year-old Baltimore resident Davon “Dexter” Poindexter, ranked third in MD/VA for Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Jason “Wal00gi” Lilly, a 15-year-old from Pasadena, Maryland. 

Hanlon uses the down time by getting in some games himself.

“The thing I love about Smash in particular is there’s something about that cartoonish charm,” he says. “It’s all ages friendly, it really brings in every corner of the audience you can think of: people as old as 30, as young as 12. It can be something as casual as you want … like a side hobby to trying to make something big out of it.”

Because the tournaments aren’t sponsored by Nintendo, the prize money for these tournaments is low compared to other high-profile esports. The entry fee to Hanlon’s tournament is $15.

But that doesn’t mean players can’t make money. Lilly’s father, John, realized his son had a talent for esports when he performed well at the 2018 Super Smash Con. Last year, Lilly earned money by placing top-eight in a tournament for the first time. Poindexter made over $10,000 in 2019 off his winnings from tournaments at Xanadu alone.

It’s a little before 1 a.m. when Hanlon hands out his final prize money envelopes. 

In the end, Poindexter walks away from the evening $265 richer and with another tournament title to his name. Lilly, the runner-up, takes home about $100. 

Hanlon doesn’t pack up to leave. He starts another game. For fun.