While Overwatch and League of Legends dominate the news, smaller groups of players put in just as much effort into their favorite games.
It was the biggest match of Leaf's Super Smash Bros. career, and her Lucas was one of the best in the game. All that stood in her way on the path to the tournament crown was a nasty Ridley player in a two-stock match. Leaf quickly dispatched Ridley's first life by luring them to the map's edge. But, immediately after respawning, Ridley knocked Lucas off the stage in a bold attempt to even the odds. Ridley then rushed forward to try and spike Lucas into oblivion, but whiffed the killing blow. Leaf quickly readjusted Lucas and gave Ridley a spike of their own, sealing the first-place finish.
Leaf, who prefers to go by her in-game tag, claimed victory in the Smash tournament, but she didn't actually play in the match--her Amiibo did. Leaf is an Amiibo trainer: she "trains" an AI-controlled fighter, Lucas in this case, by playing against it in matches. But when Lucas competes in tournaments, it does so all on its own. Leaf can only watch and hope she's prepared her Amiibo enough ahead of time whenever it goes to battle in the small, weird world of competitive Amiibo fighting.
Esports has become a booming industry with a huge number of players and spectators, but around the fringes of the games that get major attention, like League of Legends and Call of Duty, are the smaller, weirder competitions. Some well-known competitive games have smaller communities that focus on different aspects from the major competitors, such as with the Amiibo trainers or Rocket League hockey players. Other games that get little attention have thriving groups of competitors, like that of Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy dualists. These groups rely on their own organization and programming ability to create the competitions they want without support from the mainstream.
"I was a day-one trainer," Leaf said. It all started when Leaf's uncle gave her a Link Amiibo when the line of Nintendo toys launched in 2014. She scanned the NFC chip that comes with every Amiibo into Super Smash Bros. Wii U, which generated an AI-controlled Link for Leaf to play against, and which would level up and become more skilled as they continually faced off in bouts. These Amiibo AI-controlled fighters served as sparring partners for Smash players with playstyles that developed based on how their owners played. The act of training Amiibo fighters soon took on a life of its own for players like Leaf. She found that she enjoyed training her computer-controlled fighter more than playing Smash the traditional way. Now, almost six years later, Leaf is one of the best Amiibo trainers in the world. In fact, the Link Amiibo her uncle gave her is a Super Smash Bros. champion.
"All you can do is watch and believe in your training."
Leaf is part of a tiny but passionate and well-organized community of Amiibo lovers, one that put together a site hosting deep Amiibo training reports and guides called Amiibo Dojo (now known as Exion Vault) and a semi-regular tournament series with cash and custom Amiibo prizes.
The tournaments focus on a segment of the Smash Bros. community that uses the game in a very different way from other competitors. Participants don't actually play as they compete; instead, they watch their AI-trained figures fight. "By the time your Amiibo plays against an opponent, your work is already done," said "Cloud," the founder of Amiibo Dojo, who also goes by his username. "All you can do is watch and believe in your training."
The Amiibo community is much stronger today than it was after the figurines first launched in 2014, and is now home to several tournaments and many star trainers like Leaf. One of those is the Professional Amiibo League (PAL), hosted from Provo, Utah, by a Smash player who goes by the handle "Splice." As many as 80 Amiibos fight in the league's live-streamed open bracket before the top competitors go head-to-head in the playoffs and championship.
"I ran a small Melee league when I was going to college at [Brigham Young University]. It's still going today," Splice said during a Discord call. He had just finished commentating a series of matches for the PAL. "I was not interested in Amiibo whatsoever. They announced it for Super Smash Bros. Wii U and I thought it was weird ... but someone gave me a Wii Fit Trainer as a thank you for running the league."
Before Splice knew it, he was running a secondary tournament at BYU that featured nothing but Amiibo fighters. He eventually started helping another Amiibo Dojo community member set up the Professional Amiibo League by spray painting Amiibo for custom prizes (like a golden Pichu) and casting the tournaments on his Twitch channel.
Organizing tournaments for Amiibo was a little different than creating those for players, though. Participants had to actually mail their figurines to tournament organizers in order to participate, thanks to the way the figures work--they store all the information for the AI fighters inside the physical toy, which meant the only way for a tournament to pit Amiibo fighters against each other was for them all to be in the same place. It was a huge pain logistically and some players worried about never getting their figurines back.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate brought online functionality to the Amiibo community, but that didn't actually solve the problem. Nintendo's poor online infrastructure has led organizers like Splice to keep tournaments offline. Luckily, competitors don't have to mail Amiibo anymore; they've since figured out how to rip the AI data files from the Amiibo figures themselves. "[Competitors] can send a .bin file and then I spoof it," he said. "We still do it all offline since the [online] lag is so bad."
The Professional Amiibo League and the community that competes in it is a prime example of a small but vibrant esport that has all the trappings of an Overwatch League or IEM Katowice, just without the expensive production value and booming fan-filled arenas. The Professional Amiibo League and organizers like Splice will never rival the ESL or Major League Gaming in size or popularity, but still come together to offer prize money, stream a month-long tournament, run an open bracket, and navigate various hardware hurdles for what many would consider a "weird" competitive game.
A 15-year-old community rallied around dueling one-on-one with lightsabers in Star Wars: Jedi Academy is another instance of a niche community sprouting up around an addicting competitive aspect of a game. The third-person Jedi-fighter came out in 2004 with what fans call some of the best lightsaber combat ever. "You have a lot of free movement and can direct your swings in almost any direction you want to," said Smoo, a player who competes in Jedi Academy tournaments. "Mike Gummelt, who worked on the saber combat, was inspired by Bushido Blade; if you are skilled enough and have good timing, you can kill your opponents in one hit."
Jedi Academy had players duking it out in several different modes, including duel, free-for-all, and team free-for-all. There wasn't a specific mode for team-based deathmatch, however, so players filled servers and played by their own rules in order to create competitions.
"There wasn't a competitive ruleset out of the box," said Steve, a member of the community who goes by the name "Inject." Tournaments had to be played using the team free-for-all option, with competitors careful to follow their own two-versus-two and three-versus-three rulesets. The community even went as far as to tweak the game's code to fit their needs. "We made a new build with some added console commands to streamline the tournament system. We added a command to reset the game state, giving a 1-2-3 countdown." They even found tips, like how some lightsaber hilts gave you longer attack reach, hidden in the game code.
A remaster of Jedi Academy launched on PS4 and Nintendo Switch earlier this year, but it's severely lacking in online functionality. It doesn't support playing directly with friends on the Nintendo Switch and only lets players come together in parties on PS4, which means players can only battle people on their friend lists. It's pretty hard to run a competitive tournament without being able to run your own server. While it's unfortunate, the competitive community may have to rely on the old PC version of the game indefinitely.
Rocket League has a big esports competitive league, but beyond the teams who play intense matches of the game's take on soccer with cars, there's another, smaller competitive community that goes for one of Rocket League's less-popular game modes. That community gathers on Discord servers that focus on competing in Rocket League's hockey mode, Snow Day.
"Psyonix introduced Snow Day as a temporary holiday mode," said DA Cook, one of the leaders in Rocket League's hockey community. "A small but dedicated core group of players petitioned them to keep it permanently after it was removed." They call themselves the Rocket Hockey League (RHL) and one of their commissioners actually delivered "a care package of NHL western conference hockey-pucks" to Psyonix to help convince the developer to keep the mode alive. It worked--Psyonix kept Snow Day as a permanent game mode.
Playing with a puck makes Snow Day vastly different from traditional soccer with cars, with its own idiosyncrasies that appeal to its competitors. One, a technique players use called "pinching the puck," can mean launching it at incredibly high speeds towards the net. "The fastest I've personally seen in regulation puck is 132 mph," Cook said. Many of the players that enjoy Snow Day rarely play Rocket League's standard mode. The community around Snow Day is hoping to kick off their sixth competitive season this June.
Like Amiibo fighting or Jedi Academy team fights, in-game Rocket League tournament features are lacking, so RHL fans have to turn to third-party options to run their league of 18 teams. While still small, the community believes they've helped expand the game mode in significant ways. Their enthusiasm also resulted in Psyonix adding a ranked playlist and balance patches to Snow Day specifically, but they are always hoping for more.
"I honestly don't think the devs think about us much, and that makes sense from a certain viewpoint given the small size of our community," Cook said. "We're looking forward to another season of growth and continued efforts to increase visibility and awareness of the mode and league."
While Cook, Splice, and Leaf would love for their communities to grow into something much bigger, they don't think the Professional Amiibo League or Rocket Hockey League will ever get close to being as big as Dota 2 or Counter-Strike. They do want to make both leagues sustainable to give Super Smash Bros. and Rocket League players a way to compete in their own way. As Splice explained, more players are coming into the Amiibo league each season, despite technical hurdles.
"I almost never play Smash regularly--I'm 35 and I can't keep up with these kids with 10-step combos and all the time to train," Splice said. Training Amiibos to fight in their stead is a way for people like Splice, who can't contend against players in traditional Smash tournaments, and Leaf, who doesn't live close to a local Smash community, to compete in their own ways.
But the current state of the toys-to-life genre has left the community's future a mystery. Amiibo are still popular, with new figures coming out for new Smash fighters like Richter and Incineroar, but players like Leaf don't know if that'll continue after the Nintendo Switch. And two other toys-to-life franchises that competed with Amiibo, Skylanders and Disney Infinity, have been all but canceled in recent years.
"That's the biggest question," Splice said. "There's been a Smash game for every system since the N64, but when they come out with the next thing, will it have NFC-reading technology? The community could die at the whim of Nintendo's decision."
"Amiibo is in a weird place right now; a lot of people have given up on collecting them."
Players also develop a real connection to their Amiibo.
"Amiibo is in a weird place right now; a lot of people have given up on collecting them," Leaf said. "Nintendo has accepted that they are a collectible item."
The same uncertainty can be said about the Rocket League or Jedi Academy communities. Their futures may not be as uncertain as the lifespan of Nintendo's Amiibo figurines, but those players also don't know if Psyonix and Aspyr Studios--the studio handling the remake of Jedi Academy--will respectively support each down the line. Even though it has a precarious future, Inject and the rest of the Jedi Academy community will make do by using the 2003 version of the game.
Regardless of developer and publisher support, all three communities strive to leave a legacy on the games they've sunk thousands of hours into. Cook and the Rocket Hockey League don't see themselves slowing down anytime soon and are working with the Hoops community--who play a basketball-inspired add-on mode of the game--to help Rocket League's side modes grow.
For now, Leaf, Cloud, and Splice are enjoying the popularity that the Nintendo Switch and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate have brought to their community. Leaf's planning on transferring the AI fighter from the Link Amiibo her uncle bought her in 2014 into a custom figure with the Fierce Deity skin that's featured in Ultimate. They've been through a lot together over the years.
"I'll be using shady methods to transplant the brain onto the custom Amiibo I have used, and will continue to use that figure," said Leaf, whose custom Amiibo should arrive in a few weeks. "It's the skin I put on him in-game. It seemed only fitting to get him a special figure due to his infamy."