On Dec. 7, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was released worldwide with five million sales in the first week. Not long after, EndGameTV hosted Don't Park on the Grass 2018, the first major tournament for what's shaping up to be Nintendo's biggest foray into competitive esports. That would be enough to put all eyes on the tournament -- and for EndGame, it was also a shot at redemption on the biggest stage.
Two years ago, EndGame put on the original Don't Park on the Grass. The tournament was meant to be a coming-out party for a highly motivated team of young event organizers. EndGame had notched their belt by hosting a year of well received regional tournaments in Seattle and sponsoring of some of the scene's most promising up-and-comers. Armed with a Coca-Cola sponsorship and a large serving of community goodwill, it sought to seal their status as one of the premier organizers in Smash.
"We were all really young," says Aiden McCaig, COO of EndGame.
At the time of the original DPOG, he was 19 years old. Now 21, you could still mistake him for a college freshman. "None of us had any serious large-tournament experience. That was such a scale up from anything we had done prior."
Unfortunately, that inexperience showed. On the day of their Sunday finals, EndGame's streams went down for five hours. For a majority of the day, the only stream was a tape-and-nails affair provided by a local den of smashers dubbed "the Tukhouse" for its location in Tukwila, Washington. Twitch chat was thoroughly entertained; for EndGame, it was an unmitigated disaster.
"After that first Don't Park was over, I was really struggling personally for a while," says McCaig. "That was probably the most down I've ever been in my life."
Attendee feedback for the tournament had been largely positive, but faced with the harsh reality that the tournament had been unwatchable for most spectators, EndGame decided to take a year off before embarking on a sequel.
In the two years following the original Don't Park on the Grass, EndGame regrouped and solidified their identity. Slowly but surely, they carved out a reputation as organizers whose regional events brought a mixture of grassroots go-getter energy and high-polished professionalism. Events like "The Gang hosts a Melee tournament" with its "Always Sunny in Philadelphia"-referential name are emblematic of EndGame: Homegrown and tongue-in-cheek but with no concessions to quality.
On Oct. 13, 2017, a full 14 months before the event, EndGame quietly announced that they had selected a date for the second Don't Park on the Grass. This time, they were going to do it right.
It's the last day of finals at the University of Washington, and most students are either preparing to leave for the holidays or have left already. But as the morning goes on, a steady trickle of cars arrive in the loading zone for the Husky Union Building, each unloading a troop of young adults. They could easily be mistaken for students, if not for the boxes of monitors and recording equipment. One driver wearing a baseball cap that says "Maui" comes and goes, his car filled with CRT TVs to be ferried to the ballroom upstairs.
Connor Kelly, 21, is unsure of his title. "I think right now it's just Senior Event Director," he hazards a guess. "There's some sort of event lead -- internally, we refer to ourselves as leads. We don't have an operating agreement right now so I don't think we have official titles."
What he is sure of is EndGame's mission. "I think we strive to give a better experience than just a room full of TVs in the tournament. What I'll say is 'best tournament per dollar guaranteed,'" Kelly laughs. "Our motivation is: if we were going to this tournament, if it was our first major, what would we want to get out of it? How do we make this the best experience for 50 bucks or whatever? Everyone is paying the same amount and for some people it's a lot of money for them. We want to make it worth that money."
That dictum became all the more important when the EndGame team realized that the date they'd selected was just a week after Smash Ultimate's release. The previous Don't Park had only 201 entrants for Ultimate's predecessor, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U; by contrast, Don't Park 2018 had a staggering 581 entrants eager to compete in the new game.
"When you're the sort of introductory tournament for people to the community, you're going to be the kind of make-or-break event for them in a lot of ways, and whether or not they want to keep attending," says McCaig. "Because they don't have an understanding that if the event goes poorly, then not every other event is going to be like that and that they should keep attending."
Panda Global's Eric "ESAM" Lew, who won Smash Ultimate teams with his teammate Jestise "MVD" Negron and placed second to said teammate in singles, says, "My experience at Don't Park on the Grass was fantastic. The venue is amazing, the staff were very friendly, there were tons of hype matchups and the top eight was fantastic."
But Don't Park was specifically an event tailored for the everyday attendee in place of the pro player. The "No 0-2 Ladder," which EndGame ran in partnership with Smash.gg, allowed Melee singles entrants to match up with other players of their skill level and potentially qualify for top 128 of the event by winning enough matches. "It was originally Aiden's idea and I think it's genius," says Kelly, who organized the event. "I think we broke the record for most tournament matches because technically every ladder match can get you to grand finals, right? And we broke 1,500 matches just in ladder alone."
In total, Don't Park had over 2,500 Melee singles matches played.
"I think [Don't Park] combined aspects of grassroots-tournament feel while still having the amenities of a larger tournament," says commentator Vish "ViciousVish" Kumar. "They do such a good job making the tournament experience great for all skill levels via things like the ladder and the Parking Lot local tournaments."
"Parking Lot" refers to a series of local tournaments EndGame hosted in the days leading up to the event at a local Airbnb where they were housing players. As opposed to pursuing the biggest names in Smash, EndGame flew out international players who hadn't had a chance to prove themselves in the spotlight yet. In total, ten international competitors were flown out from the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and Australia, some even staying in McCaig's Seattle apartment.
One such player, New Zealand native and competitor for Australian esports club Dark Sided, Te-Tuhi "Spud" Kelly, ended up making a slew of upsets to place fifth at the tournament, with victories over CLG's Zac "SFAT" Cordoni and Aziz "Hax$" Al-Yami.
"I would say it's motivated me more than I probably ever would have been," Spud says of his journey to the United States.
In the week leading up to Don't Park on the Grass, he also won Portland regional Bridgetown Hyper Blitz over competitors like Edgard "n0ne" Sheleby and Aaron "Professor Pro" Thomas, victories he says has had international implications.
"I think that tournament may have been a catalyst for my scene back home to start playing again."
"I think the premise behind EndGame was always to get people we saw as really valuable assets to their local community to become a team together," says McCaig. From the start, EndGame has had its roots in the local scenes that are the bedrock of any fighting game community, specifically, those of the Pacific Northwest.
EndGame isn't shy about its origins. When Ammon "Ka-Master" Styles, a Washington Luigi, made his own miracle run to top 8, McCaig sprinted to the stage to wrap him in a bear hug. As top 8 started, Connor Kelly hopped on the loudspeaker. "Hey guys, we need to clear this area for top 8 -- and let's f---ing go Ka-Master!"
The phrase "don't park on the grass" is itself a piece of specific Washington lore, a reference to the Tukhouse, whose overgrown lawn was once mangled by a wayward pair of tires. Earlier this year, the Tukhouse ran into financial troubles. But through a GoFundMe proliferated by the scores of players who had stayed at the Tuk over the years, the house was saved, and still plays host to this day.
At the end of the weekend, it was Tempo Storm's Johnny "S2J" Kim who took home Melee Singles. But the most memorable moment of the tournament wasn't his win -- it came a half hour later, as attendees were being ushered out of the venue. Volunteers clad in Pacific Northwest green started congregating in a corner of the venue, rallied by cries for a group photo. Soon, those cries turned to chants of "Aiden, Aiden, Aiden," prompting the TO to join in. Not everyone was wearing their staff shirt -- McCaig himself wore maroon -- but from where I was standing, it might as well have been an unbroken expanse of emerald.