Q&A with Nintendo at E3 -- The future of esports

What will Nintendo's future in esports look like? EPA/Franck Robichon

LOS ANGELES -- At the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, Nintendo unveiled the much anticipated Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. To celebrate the occasion, Nintendo hosted an invitational tournament with some of the best Melee and Smash Wii U players from around the world.

ESPN sat down with the president and COO of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aimé, to talk Smash, Splatoon, the Olympics and Nintendo's strategy moving forward with esports.

ESPN: Because controllers were made at different periods of time in different factories, controllers that were made in the early 2000s tend to be the best. Pro players are going crazy trying to hunt these controllers down, spending a lot of money. And as controllers break, that's one less in the supply chain. Why is Nintendo, under any circumstance, even as minor as UCF, against software modification to its games at tournament?

Reggie: Well, I think you have to start with the big picture, and the big picture is that in the tournaments that we endorse, we want you to first be using wired controllers, and we want there to be a stance of no modifications. We believe that's the fairest thing to do for the community and for the players. Our future hope with what we've unveiled in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is we'd love to see Super Smash Bros. Ultimate be the new defining Smash Bros. title across the tournament space. We think it makes sense because we've shown how you can use a pro controller, wired up to the hardware -- and obviously our pro controller, it's current, there's a ton of supply -- so it would address the player's concern of not being able to have a controller that is readily available. Additionally, you can use the GameCube controller in a wired situation. And again, the current GameCube controller, the ones that we manufactured for Wii U, and the ones that we're bringing back for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate -- there's a broad supply -- we think that's going to satisfy the needs of the player community.

So, that's our hope, but specifically why no modifications? We believe that fundamentally enabling modification starts putting the play at risk of any type of unfair advantage. The tournament space is like UCF, and tournaments that are not partnered with Nintendo do enable UCF as standard. If good tournament organizers can ensure no foul play with UCF, would that be something Nintendo could be open to? Look, I'd never say never. But certainly, again, our mentality is, we want there to be an even playing field. We want there to be consistency. Those are the things that we work with the Evos of the world, and the other tournament organizers. I get asked constantly, what's Nintendo's approach to the esports community. And our approach is we want to enable consistent standards. We want to enable an approach to the competition that's fair, that's balanced, that enables the players to showcase their skills. And therefore, that's why we work with the Evos. That's why we put on our own tournaments. That's our guiding principle. And that's why, to your question about the controller mod, that's why today we're not supportive of that. Even Splatoon 2 players opt to use the Switch pro controller wirelessly, as, for whatever reason, it has less lag. There are some weird little things.

And again, in the tournaments that we do. So you saw, we wire the controllers. And again, we do it for a number of reasons. One, eliminates the lag, and secondly, again, to make sure that it's these players who are playing, there's no other potential for interference. So, again these are the things that we do, the approaches that we take. What other competitions do, or how other events structure the competition, they're going to do what they're going to do. But we want to encourage these types of standards and these types of approaches.

Is there room for Nintendo releasing an elite controller, similar to what Xbox has done?

Reggie: Again, anything is possible. You know, for us it would come down to is, where's the opportunity, how does it make sense, how do we make it available to this community. But, certainly we understand for the pro player -- having a controller they love -- that enables them to perform at their best is something that's very important, and therefore, something we're always looking at. There's already an established tournament circuit for Splatoon. And with Smash, Nintendo is taking a more hands-off approach as that community is already well-established.

Do you think Nintendo might take the approach that Capcom has done with the Pro Tour, by partnering with already established tournaments to have its own Smash circuit?

Reggie: We believe that there are a number of Nintendo titles that could do exceptionally well in the competitive play space. We believe Splatoon can do exceptionally well, obviously Smash Bros. is doing exceptionally well. We've experimented with Arms, we're going to experiment with Mario Tennis Aces. We think that these games can do quite well. As we see success, we'll continue to invest, and that investment is going to look different than what other companies are doing. We may sponsor some sort of circuit. We may do things purely online as a way to encourage the community. We're going to experiment across a number of different titles and across a number of different regions. Japan is leading the global marketplace with the experimentation happening with Splatoon for example. We've done a lot of experimentation with Mario Kart here in the United States. So, we are going to push in this area. We're going to do it in a uniquely Nintendo way.

Would Nintendo ever consider giving out prize money?

Reggie: You know, again, prize money is the way other people are doing it. Franchises are the way that other people are doing it. We want to do this competitive gaming space in a way that honors the game, a way that honors the player. So those are the things that go through our mind. So, from that standpoint, while everything is possible, we do gravitate toward things that fundamentally reinforce the great games that we have, enabling the great gameplay that happened and enabling the community to grow.

You famously offered Team Liquid's Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma a job at Nintendo if he dropped the match between you two at the Nintendo World Championships in 2015. He didn't drop the match out of pride. Is there any part of you that respects that decision from Hungrybox?

Reggie: Look, I have the utmost respect for Hungrybox, and in fact, Hungrybox and I have run into each other at the Game Awards. I missed him -- he was at the invitational -- but I didn't get a chance to speak to him. I mean he's a great player.

Is that job still open, or has that been completely shut down?

Reggie: What? No! Look, I don't know that Hungrybox really wants to work for me, but I think that he's been a great ambassador for the Melee scene and I've got nothing but respect for him. And it's true for so many of the well-known Smash players, whether they're from the Melee days or playing Wii U. It just highlights what they do. I have to admit, when Hungrybox and I played, I was not forewarned that we would be playing with GameCube controllers. I was a little bit out of a competitive advantage. But he would have smoked me anyhow. He's the best player in the world. The technical skill required to play Smash Bros. is just tremendous.

Would you guys be excited to see Smash, or any Nintendo properties, at future Olympic games?

Reggie: Absolutely! First, for our form of entertainment, as an industry, to be highlighted at the Olympic games would be phenomenal. Whenever it happens, wherever it happens, it would be phenomenal. For Smash Bros., to be included as one of those particular intellectual properties that are highlighted would be such an honor. And so, from our perspective, like you, we continue to have conversations -- we encourage as an industry the committee to consider this form of sport. And we're eager to see what the future holds.

Japanese Smash players are concerned that they'll never be able to have a career in Smash, or that they would need to constantly travel to the U.S. to earn a living. But to get around some Japanese anti-gambling laws, there have been these pro-gamer licenses created. That means that pro Street Fighter, Tekken and Puyo Puyo Tetris players can finally win some money. But Nintendo of Japan has blocked Smash Bros. from being a part of this program. I'm sure Nintendo has its region over in Japan, but does that conversation happen on a global Nintendo scale?

Reggie: I can't answer the specifics with what's going on with the player license. How does it work? I can't answer those details. But what I can say is that your initial point is absolutely true that regionally, different activities are happening with different games. And Nintendo philosophically believes that enabling the regions to drive the activity in a way that makes sense in their marketplace is very important. We also believe we need to create opportunities, where on the global stage, teams can compete. We've obviously done that with Splatoon, twice now. And so, those are the conversations I get involved in. How do we create an environment, for example, that's beyond doing an invitational; How do we do an open competition that allows everyone to compete, and for the best player, or players, to be crowned.

Looking at the esports space, Melee and Smash 4 are at 11th and 12th place respectively.

Reggie: So, based on what?

Hours viewed.

Reggie: And purely just looking at Twitch?

I think Newzoo looks at specifically Twitch.

Reggie: The reason I'm poking at this is because we did a number -- here in the United States -- we did a number of broadcasts last year -- competitive play broadcasts. And we saw that Splatoon -- exceptionally high. There was an Evo broadcast for Smash Bros. both Wii U and Melee, both were extremely high. We did something unique with Mario Kart 8. The viewership on that was quite strong in both linear and nonlinear viewership. I haven't seen the Newzoo numbers, and therefore that context is not something I'm aware of. But the data that I saw, which was a different service provider pulling the numbers, linear and nonlinear, we did exceptionally well. Better than some of the long established competitive play content.

If you combine both Melee and Smash 4, Smash would be at ninth place, beating Street Fighter. And with Smash Ultimate, it could jump even higher. How much are you at Nintendo of America willing to relay some of the concerns that the current competitive community has about Ultimate to the team over in Japan? To then maybe coalesce both the Melee and Smash 4 scenes into Ultimate?

Reggie: Well, I actually think there are two different things that are going on. First, the community themselves need to rally around a particular title. Meaning, as the Melee community gets their hands on Smash Bros. Ultimate, and they see the speed, they see some of the gameplay mechanics that Mr. [Masahiro] Sakurai has put in that, if they get excited about that -- and we had some Melee players get their hands on the game, and they were quite excited -- we could see a consolidation of Smash play, competitive play, behind Ultimate, which in our view would be fantastic. Because what that would then enable us to do is again, standardize the rules of play, make sure that the setups, the wired controllers, all of that is there, so that there's no more excuses. There's no Johns! There's none of this if only I had done X, Y or Z and we truly have the best players of the world competing.