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The Smash community’s great unifier goes back underground

Kevin “The Doctor” Ascate burst into tears as a crowd of friends rushed to hug and congratulate him. He had just won Undertow, marking his first major tournament victory in the Super Smash Bros. Brawl mod, Project+.

Trin “meleesadposts” Schaeffer, Undertow’s head tournament organizer, had been rooting for Zachary “Lunchables” Sain. Lunchables finished in second place, entering grand finals after a five-set win streak in the losers bracket, but failing to overcome The Doctor. Nevertheless, meleesadposts was overcome with their own emotions after seeing their favorite player perform so well.

They also had a headache. Just two weeks earlier, Smash major Riptide had removed Project+ from its lineup at Nintendo’s request, leaving meleesadposts and other TOs with very little time to cobble together an alternative event.

Still, they pulled it off. After grand finals, meleesadposts took a seat for their first break in 14 days. Then, the crowd began to chant “MSP” to honor the work meleesadposts had done to make Undertow a reality.

“I started crying,” meleesadposts said. “I’ve never had my name cheered before.”

It was a touching moment, albeit one that was only possible because of the community’s antagonistic relationship with the company responsible for its existence.

Historically, Project+ and other similar Smash mods have struggled to maintain equal status with official Smash titles due to Nintendo’s general opposition to modifications. Nevertheless, Project+ community leaders have persisted in keeping their favorite game alive, even when they have had to do it behind closed doors.

The project begins

Project M, the predecessor to Project+, had its first demo release in February of 2011 and was updated sporadically until the dissolution of the Project M Development Team in December of 2015.

The mod tweaked several of Brawl’s existing mechanics while bringing in movement options and other techniques from Melee, giving the gameplay a much faster pace than vanilla Brawl. The developers also brought back Mewtwo and Roy, two characters who had been cut in the transition from one game to the other.

Project M attained widespread popularity following the launch of version 3.0 — the first non-demo version of the game — in December of 2013. Top Melee and Brawl players would frequently enter and perform well in Project M brackets at Smash majors. One such major, SKTAR 3, even saw Project M attract more entrants than either Melee or Brawl.

“We were the biggest Smash game,” commentator and TO Ian “Studebacher Hoch” Hendren said. “I think a lot of people tend to forget the history that PM has as this kind of binding force that was just stripped away from us.”

Then, nearly two years later, the PMDT ceased development after version 3.6 despite indications that they had more content planned for the game. Major Smash tournaments also stopped hosting Project M for reasons that, to this day, aren’t entirely clear.

“It’s kind of a murky situation,” Studebacher Hoch said. “There’s some indications that there may have been some Nintendo threats. It may have been fear of legal retribution after the fact by the PMDT. Twitch was also forced to no longer have the Project M category and tournaments were ‘politely’ advised that they couldn’t run PM at their tournaments or have PM on stream.”

Project+ logo and playable characters
The logo and playable roster for Project+. Provided by Project+.

In addition, Nintendo seemed to take greater interest in the competitive Smash community in 2014, inviting numerous top players and community figures to compete in an invitational prior to the release of Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U. For this reason, several Smash TOs opted to turn Project M away in the hopes of attracting a Nintendo sponsorship for their events.

Of course, whenever those Nintendo sponsorships did materialize, they didn’t amount to much. According to Studebacher Hoch, the primary benefit Nintendo would confer was legitimacy, making it easier to attract other sponsors to the tournament. However, Nintendo has shied away from contributing money to the prize pools of grassroots Smash majors.

Nevertheless, the mere prospect of developer support was enough to force the Project M community underground. They began hosting unofficial side brackets at majors or creating their own tournaments altogether, but they never shared the same stage as their official counterparts.

While this made it difficult for the scene to grow, it never disappeared. In fact, the biggest Project M major to date, The Even Bigger Balc, happened in 2018, well after the game was forced out of the public eye.

Though Project M had ceased development in 2015, a separate set of developers eventually got to work on a spiritual successor. Project+ launched in April of 2019 and included Knuckles the Echidna, a brand new character to the Smash series as a whole. Since 2019, the Project M community has widely adopted Project+ as the tournament standard.

In the meantime, discontentment with Nintendo was brewing within the broader Smash community and reached a breaking point in November of 2020.

#SaveSmash

On Nov. 19, the TOs behind The Big House, which was previously a Nintendo-sponsored event, announced they had received a cease and desist letter from Nintendo. This forced them to cancel the online Melee and Ultimate tournaments they had planned.

Nintendo’s decision was largely based on the TOs’ intention to use Melee mod Slippi, without which the nearly 20-year-old game could not be played online, and during a pandemic, could not be played with others at all.

Members of the Smash community quickly took to Twitter to criticize Nintendo’s actions. Shortly thereafter, hashtags like #FreeMelee and #SaveSmash started trending. While The Big House cancellation had affected Melee and Ultimate players, support for Project+ began to emerge throughout the Smash community because of it.

As the community at large became increasingly dissatisfied with Nintendo and more aware of how the company had negatively impacted them, many thought it best to ditch the hopes of ever getting real support from Nintendo. Accompanying this was the desire to offer the public support to Project+ players that had been taken from them years before.

“It felt like for the first time in a very long time that the rest of the Smash community really understood what it was like to be the enemy of Nintendo, this company that we all loved that really genuinely hated us and wanted us not to exist,” Project+ TO Ryan “Sabre” Weinberg said.

As the Smash scene began to return offline in 2021, Project+ was prepared to make a resurgence. There were four Project+ majors scheduled for the fall of 2021. While Blacklisted 6 would be a standalone Project+ tournament, the other three — Riptide, Low Tide City and Mainstage — would feature the mod alongside Melee and Ultimate.

But, Nintendo had other plans.

The Project+ community drowns

On Aug. 27, 2021, meleesadposts woke up excited, knowing that Riptide was only two weeks away. They rejoiced at the thought of meeting some of the friends they had made over quarantine in person for the first time. Then meleesadposts checked Twitter.

“I just see a bunch of tweets like, ‘Oh my f***ing God Nintendo, I can’t believe you did it again,’” meleesadposts said. “Then I saw the worst thing you want to see as a P+ player; a company’s background with some sans serif text on a blank sheet, and you’re like, ‘PM just got destroyed again.’”

Nintendo had put a stop to Riptide’s Project+ tournament 14 days in advance, despite the fact that it had been announced nearly three months earlier. As a result, many players had already made travel plans, making the cancellation potentially costly for several members of the Project+ community.

For the sake of such players and any others who were looking forward to the event, meleesadposts dove in headfirst to plan an independent Project+ tournament to coincide with Riptide. However, it soon became apparent that what had happened to Riptide would not be an isolated incident.

On Sept. 1, Sabre and Beyond the Summit made the call to preemptively pull the plug on Mainstage’s Project+ bracket. On Sept. 14, just over two weeks before the beginning of the event, Low Tide City announced that, after being contacted by Nintendo, it had removed brackets for three Smash mods: Project+, Beyond Melee and 64 Remix.

Like Riptide, Low Tide City had announced its intention to host these brackets months in advance. And unlike The Big House, none of these events had any direct affiliation with Nintendo.

“It really felt like the floor kind of dropped out from under us with no notice after years of Nintendo not saying a word,” Sabre said.

Back to the shadows

Following these cancellations, Project+ TOs reverted to their previous modus operandi: shadow majors. Instead of properly appearing at Smash majors, they would host concurrent Project+ events at nearby venues.

Meleesadposts put together Undertow to coincide with Riptide. Studebacher Hoch headed up “Definitely not P+” Singles at Shipwrecked — just a short distance from the Low Tide City venue. And Sabre will simply host “Brawl” Singles at Jailbreak in a different room of the exact same venue as Mainstage.

“It’s our act of rebellion,” Studebacher Hoch said.

Currently, the plans for Blacklisted 6 remain unchanged. Since Nintendo has never targeted a Project M or Project+ exclusive event, the community doesn’t expect the tournament to face legal repercussions.

Despite all the pressure Nintendo has put on them and the broader Smash community, Project+ players are unwilling to give up on their favorite game. For them, the mod created by members of their own community is unrivaled by any of the other Smash games.

“[Project+] is just an incredibly expressive game,” Sabre said. “It has the greatest combination of viable characters and advanced tech.”

However, no game on its own would be worth the effort of organizing tournaments inconspicuously or the heartbreak that comes when aspirations of mainstream popularity are crushed just before they have the chance to manifest. No, the community isn’t so persistent because of Project+; it’s because of the people who play Project+.

“A lot of us are willing to put up with things that would realistically kill any other competitive game,” Sabre said. “No one else would keep trying to play their game after all of this if they didn’t love the scene and the people they’re playing it with as much as we do.”

Love has kept Nintendo from extinguishing the community it has tried to crush for so many years. Whether they’re competing on the big stage alongside their official counterparts or in the confines of private hotel rooms, Project+ players will continue to play the game they love with the people they love even more.

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