Williams' Smash Ultimate tournament harkens back to community's roots

Smash Bros. Ultimate in studio (6:10)

Bill Trinen of Nintendo America, joins Miles Yim to talk Smash Ultimate and choosing the cast for the game. (6:10)

SANTA MONICA, California -- Sky Williams walked into his cavernous recreation room with two armfuls of blankets and dropped them on the ground.

"First come, first served," he told the players he'd invited to the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate invitational.

From that moment on, everyone knew that this would be no ordinary tournament. The Dec. 14 event would be a callback to the community's humbler days.

The invitational began with James "VoiD" Makekau-Tyson and Brian "Cosmos" Kalu rushing to the pile of blankets as if they were racing for the last spot at a lunch table. Tyrell "NAKAT" Coleman watched the competition before huddling into his corner of the room and retiring to his phone. As players settled into their selected spaces on the floor or the spare couches, the conversations were filled with debates on tier lists and the newest tech videos.

The rec room atmosphere didn't match up much what the esports scene looks like today. There would be no hotel rooms, media sections and certainly no ball room with casual setups as everything played out. Although Williams' home was impressive, there was none of the grandeur of a Genesis or Evolution Championship Series tournament here.

This tournament was supposed to be a different kind of invitational from the start. The prize pool was $15,000, with $10,000 of it coming from William's pocket. And from the player's commentary to the smaller field of selected players, he wanted the event to feel every bit like the Smash community that he fell in love with.

There were still some remnants of the corporate nature that tournaments have taken on in recent years, Williams said, but his goal was more grounded.

"This event was supposed to be grassroots," Williams said. "Events like this speed along the metagame and tech because it brings top players along with a hunger for a sizable pot. I like seeing people passionate and engaged into the conversation on the screen. Their responses and emotions are addicting."

NAKAT recognized the recent rarity of events like this. As a player that approached every new iteration of the Smash series with wide-open eyes, he appreciated the opportunity to partake in something that broke the modern standard for a competition.

"As we go deeper and deeper into an official esports, we start to lose track of our grassroots beginnings," NAKAT said. "It's not a bad thing as we go into a business-like operation, but we won't see many invitations, and if we stick to just that we will lose what made this community so special in the first place. This is very special. It's hosted by someone from the community -- once a Smasher, always a Smasher."

For Williams, the Super Smash Bros. series was more than just a game, and its community was more than just a group of players. Smash represented a chance for a new identity and family.

Williams said he felt lost in his teenage years but was able to use video games to reinvent himself. He entered the Smash scene as a newcomer, and he thrived once he was given the opportunity for a new beginning.

This tournament was meant to thank the community for about 15 years of love and show his passion for the game.

"Esports was difficult because it took a lot of the family element away, and tournaments became a transaction instead of an experience," Williams said. "Before, you paid money, and there was food, and you watched your friends play -- there were no restrictions, and you just came to play."

Although VoiD's start as a professional was quintessential esports, his old-school mentality of withholding complaints and focusing on individual improvement separated him from other young players. It was his ability to view competition and training in a very positive light that led to prolonged success.

Events like the December tournament are often where growth for the scene, from top to bottom, begins.

"Invitational events are more structured," VoiD said. "It's tough to run an invitational and have it accepted in the fighting game community because it needs to appeal to both grassroots and esports people. The tough part usually comes from the selection process."

VoiD said the most noticeable difference from past Smash iterations to Ultimate was Nintendo's care for its esports community when crafting the game. From the demos at major fighting game tournaments to the aid of Japanese professionals when creating the AI of the game, Ultimate was a product honed by the people that love it most.

The blanket-laden floors in that rec room took an esports community nearing its peak and reminded players and fans of Smash's competitive beginnings.

Whether or not the game was the star of the invitational was a moot point. This was something special. Despite his modest opinions of the final product, Williams could not hide his excitement that the community and game he put his life behind was finally in the bright lights.

"We never were accepted by the fighting game community, and people will say what they want, but Smash is not a traditional fighting game," Williams said. "Invitationals serve as a way to focus and reward the raw talent. With Ultimate, there will be significantly less invitational events because we are accepted at fighting game tournaments. We're the main characters, and it's a recent development."