Wooley’s World #1: Competitive Smash

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Wooley’s World is our weekly column where educator Steve Wooley discusses games and technology in the classroom. 

It’s always novel, if not somewhat controversial, to bring a videogame tournament into a school. Faculty inevitably cringe at the unknown; it’s tough to say how many students actually know a given game, especially if their favourite YouTuber doesn’t regularly mention it; there can be a stigma against “geeky” pastimes,; the list goes on. I decided to try regardless–starting with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U–and here’s what I discovered.

Smash Draws People In

Before fully launching the tournament I decided to build interest by hosting occasional lunch hour Smash sessions in my room. The initial response went pretty well as expected, with a group of regular gamers coming in to play one another.

What I didn’t expect was for there to be storylines to emerge: sibling rivalries, factions based on grades, and even character dittos (matches where players select the same character) became narratives that enthralled those in the room. Passersby heard hoots and hollers and would drop by.

By the third day of lunchtime Smash there were more spectators than players.

Courtesy Nintendo
Courtesy Nintendo

Many didn’t have any real experience with Smash Bros. but were pulled in first by what they heard and secondly by what they saw. Pikachu laying a smack down on Mario. A laughing dog blowing things up. Princess Peach beating the competition with a frying pan. A random dude that turns into a dragon for some reason.

Smash, by virtue of its items, its stages, and its characters, is spectacle.

Easy To Learn…

These few Smash days went from being filled with regular gamers to a wide cross-section of my student body. Within no time the crowd was getting involved, asking if they could join in, fully immersing themselves in the show.

Quick instructions on the controls were given–and copies of this useful instruction page posted–allowing would-be players to jump right in.

Smash, a game about pummeling others away, brought my students together

With every controller configuration available to them, I was surprised to see these new players gravitating towards the Pro Controllers over the GameCube controllers, Wii Remotes, and even the GamePad. Most of these new players had some gaming experience–NHL, Call of Duty, games to that effect–and the controller most closely mirrored the controllers they were used to. In no time at all special moves and smashes were being doled out; given a little more time, grabs and shields were utilized too.

The regular players were gracious in their own ways against the newcomers, trickling out techniques like tilts, juggling, ledgeguarding, and character specific combos. The newcomers that couldn’t comprehend all this simply button-mashed to have fun; those that got into it began internalizing these techniques through experimental play and replication. While Smash is certainly easy to learn it’s also difficult to master.

Sensory Overload

This important phase of building capacity was something of a free-for-all. Matches had no restrictions on stages, item use, characters, or even number of competitors.

Courtesy Nintendo
Courtesy Nintendo

My regular gaming students were naturally more inclined towards eyeroll inducing “Fox only, Final Destination” type affairs, which made sense, but this soon started catching on with the spectators.

Massive, sprawling stages annoyed them; stage hazards became frustrations more than equalizers. Even the randomness of items wore thin: one student described them as “novel at first, now a nuisance”, lamenting an exploding crate spawning in front of a powerful smash attack he was in the middle of unleashing.

Smash Bros….is spectacle.

Some students reported that larger affairs were simply too much: the music, the sound effects, the vibrant visuals, and the chaos became too much to parse. Even the spectators were calling for limiting the stage selection and banning items.

Crafting A Tournament

As a group we decided the structure of a tournament, with the following input coming from students:

  1. Double knock-out: Students didn’t like the idea of being eliminated because they got a bad draw so a double knock-out tournament was introduced.
  2. Multiple chances: A match should consist of multiple sets (we settled on three) to maximize the amount of times someone can play.
  3. Some stages need banned: Students created a list of stages they deemed acceptable, with a smaller subset allowed in the latest rounds. For the first three rounds, students elected to make the following stages legal despite their regular omission from tournaments.
    • Castle Siege
    • Duck Hunt
    • Delfino Plaza
    • Skyloft
    • Wuhu Island
    • Luigi’s Mansion
    • Suzaku Castle
    • Boxing Ring

    These were in addition to allowing stages like Final Destination, Battlefield, and Lylat Cruise for every round.

  4.  Items (mostly) off: This drew the biggest divide between students in debating the merits of items but particularly Smash Balls. For the seeding round, Smash Balls were the only item allowed, with all items off for the primary tournament.

Both groups–regular gamers and (now former) spectators–loved that they got to create a set of tournament rules. Student choice is oft touted in education but it has a real impact: Student ownership raises engagement, but rarely does it go too far out of the bounds of what the educator may set. In this case, this tournament looks very similar to one I may set up with competitive players, with exceptions in stage legality and items. Such compromises are worthwhile.

Outcome

A number of students I didn’t expect to play something “cartoony” like Smash Bros. joined our tournament and began bonding with the gaming group.

Courtesy Nintendo
Courtesy Nintendo

Smash, a game about pummeling others away, brought my students together. And while the gaming group largely outplayed the spectator group, the results weren’t lopsided: Upsets happened, casual players chained together cool combos, and the broader selection of stages and unconventional opposition proved more challenging than the gamers imagined. One set proved a button-mashing Bayonetta is as deadly as anything else in the game, dominating a fantastic Rosalina and Luma player with a lucky Luma kill early on chaining into a massive, upward momentum combo. Spectacular.

It’s a testament to this game that everyone left having a good time. My room is now the hot place to be when the weather turns for the worst. And, since our tournament, I’ve seen countless positive interactions between students that couldn’t previously be bothered to say two words to one another.

Next week I’m looking at one of my students’ favourite learning tools: Quizlet Live! I’ll also be dropping hints, assessing the value of a Premium membership, and comparing it to some other gamified experiences that may suit your needs.

 

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