The Past and Present of Smash Bros. Crew Battles

Courtesy of Nintendo

Smash Bros competitive history has a tendency to stem from obscure origins. Take for instance Trinity Church, a mid-size Evangelical Church based out of South Bend, Indiana. Across the street exists nothing but wheat, grass and trees. Nearly 20 years ago, a SmashBoards post advertised a regional tournament to be hosted in that unassuming venue. 

The tournament itself went largely as expected. Eddie Howells, the legendary Ganon player, took home first place over local talents such as Daniel “KishCubed” Kish and Josh “Joshu” Ingram. On top of the standard singles format, the organizers of the tournament, the Kish Family, decided to experiment with a crews tournament as a side event. Despite lackluster attendance, a crew battle still managed to take place, resulting in The Ship of Fools taking the win over a fierce squad from Ohio

The crew battle format at this time was flawed. The rules were confusing and unintuitive. Still, in 2003 it set the stage for countless Smash Bros. crew battles to come.

  1. Both crews will submit their player order secretly.
  2. The #1 players (in order, not quality) will fight first.
  3. Each member of a crew is eliminated after two losses. Losses carry over from fight to fight.
  4. As players are eliminated, the next player sequentially takes his place.
  5. Each team may swap the current player with one of their remaining players ONCE per crew match. This swap may be used before any match, and the other team may not respond to it until the next match
  6. A crew wins when all the opposing crew's members are eliminated.

As time went on, the crew battle format became much clearer and more consistent across events. Two opposing crews each send in one player to start the event. Once a team’s player has lost all of their stocks, another player from their team comes in to face the opposing player who had just defeated their teammate. This process repeats until one team has had all of its players defeated, crowning the opposing team as the winner. 

A GIF explaining the format of a typical Smash Bros. crew battle
A GIF explaining the format of a typical Smash Bros. crew battle / Courtesy of The Smash Brothers Documentary

For years after that event, crew battles became a staple at Melee tournaments across the country. In an age before Slippi or any other form of online play existed, crew battles were the premier way to test the relative strength of different regions. This idea of regional rivalries being settled through crew battles was seen at MELEE-FC3 where the East Coast proved its dominance over the West. All-time greats such as Ken "Ken" Hoang, Joel "Isai" Alvarado, Christopher "PC Chris" Szygiel and Kashan "Chillin" Khan all competed to represent their coast and fight for nothing but bragging rights. In a time before Nintendo supported competitive tournaments, crew battles let players fight for something meaningful despite a lack of funds in the community.

The tradition has continued to this day across each successive Smash Bros title from Brawl to Project M to Ultimate. In just 2022, at least six Smash Ultimate majors featured crew battles in some way.

More and more tournaments have worked to innovate on the now-aged format. Instead of altering the established format of the crew battles themselves, tournament organizers have been changing how these events happen and who gets to participate in them. 

Traditionally, players competing in crew battles are the very best competing in that given tournament. Allowing just anyone to play would take far too much time. For comparison, imagine that instead of a dodgeball team consisting of maybe a dozen players, it instead consisted of 100. None of the basic rules have changed, but the amount of time to go through the match has exponentially increased. 

While it kept many players out of competing in crew battles, it also preserved just how special they were. Fans of competitive Smash Bros. could name dozens of their favorite sets over the more than twenty years of competitive play while having trouble naming more than a few crew battles that truly captivated them. That isn’t a failure in the format; it’s a success in its prestige. 

Those days have largely fallen by the wayside. A half dozen crew battles have already taken place this year, and that number is only going up. 

The newest variation on the crew battle format is open-bracket crew battle tournaments. Despite the aforementioned infeasibility of having a dodgeball team with 100 players, dodgeball tournaments with dozens of teams happen all the time. Everyone gets to compete and events take only several hours instead of several days. 

This happened recently at the Smash major Rise ‘N Grind in Waco, Texas. Over 100 total players competed in a single elimination bracket that spanned roughly four to five hours. Players from all skill levels were given the opportunity to compete in crews against some of the best players in the world. When all was said and done, a team of top players including Antony “MuteAce” Hoo and Luis “Lui$” Ramos took home the win.

The event ran without any noticeable issues. The only “problem” was the lack of visibility. Comparing the 1,100 viewers that the Rise ‘N Grind crew battle finals received on YouTube to the one crew battle at Delfino Maza RETA that garnered 158,000 views — there’s a clear difference. While the notoriety of players competing in crew battles at Rise ‘N Grind was definitely lower, that difference isn’t enough to cover the enormous gap in viewers. 

Ultimately, more crew battles coming at the cost of the notability of those crew battles is an exchange that most are willing to make, including myself. The nature of the fighting game community (FGC) has always leaned towards democracy. As other esports such as League of Legends and now Valorant have pushed towards franchising their professional leagues, the FGC has always encouraged anyone and everyone to enter and play against the best in the world. Even if it reduces viewership, the people that are paying to attend Smash majors get to have a better experience than they would’ve had otherwise.

With the current trend of crew battles decreasing in rarity, the format finds itself at a crossroads: remain the same or evolve. While casual Smash fans might not notice the evolution currently happening with crew battles, it is occurring, just at the collegiate level.

Collegiate esports has been a growing trend for nearly a decade now. Companies such as CSL and NECC have sprung up in an attempt to become the esports version of the NCAA: the organization that dominates traditional collegiate athletics. In comparison to all the other major esports such as League of Legends, Valorant and Call of Duty, Super Smash Bros. is one of the only esports that features 1 vs 1 competition. This creates a problem for collegiate organizers since they’re used to signing students up in teams by school rather than as individual competitors.

The solution? Adjust the pre-existing crew battle format to fit collegiate competition. 

“Within the NSL [NACE StarLeague] - we always want to create an environment around teamwork and team-based competitions when we can.” said Kyle DeFrancisco, Operations Manager at Playfly Esports. “Seeing the appetite for Crew Battles with our community of smash players allowed us to make that transition smoothly and has seen an increase in our player base for SSBU [Super Smash Bros. Ultimate].”

Recreational sports are all about teamwork and community. Most competitors in collegiate esports don’t have aspirations of playing professionally. Unlike in traditional sports, most professional esports competitors have already gone pro before they reach college. The average age in the NBA is 26 while in the Overwatch League, it’s a measly 20 years old. Collegiate esports is not currently a pipeline for professional play in the same way that collegiate competition in the NCAA is. 

On top of the crew battle positively impacting the player experience on a collegiate level, it also certainly affects the spectator experience as well. As Greg Adler, former head of the Online Collegiate Smash Circuit, notes: “I like that crew battles allow for natural audiences because the other members in each school's group watch as 1 person plays. It's a great combo of team and singles environment and makes things really exciting.”

The spectator experience has been one that collegiate esports has been consistently falling short of its traditional sports counterpart for years now. While college football and basketball games receive millions of watchers on paid TV channels, collegiate esports struggles to bring in just a few dozen spectators on free online streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. 

While the crew battle format doesn’t solve the problem of total viewership, it does create a more interactive experience for those that spectate in-person. As Greg Adler mentioned, a natural crowd forms as a result of teammates, waiting to play their matches, cheering on their teammates. Even if you might not normally stand behind a Smash setup and watch two players competing, you’re more likely to join an already existing group of spectators to see what’s going on. What results is intense moments in the game made all the more exciting by a sea of spectators, some of whom might not completely understand what they’re witnessing, cheering on the players. 

The community aspect this format creates hasn’t gone unnoticed by the tournament organizers. As Kyle DeFrancisco notes: “It [NSL] has always felt Smash has had the strongest community within Collegiate... So it was natural for us to continue to run competitions for it and see where we can grow in the space.”

With the emergence of COVID-19 in March 2020, these crew battle events have largely been pushed online alongside every other collegiate esport. While this has worked fine for most every other competitive title, Smash Ultimate in particular has struggled online due to its subpar netcode. Still, online events for the platform fighter released in December 2018 continue to hold strong, and as COVID restrictions continue to relax throughout the United States, offline events will surely follow.