Introduction: Japan, Land of Hidden Bosses
If there’s anything that the Japanese Smash 4 competitive scene is known for, it’s a high average skill level across its player base, as well as a great amount of character diversity. Many of the world’s greatest character specialists come from Japan—Ranai and his Villager, Kameme and his Megaman, Shuton and his Olimar, and a whole slew of powerful Duck Hunts. A lack of monetary prizes is frequently cited in online discussions as a reason why so many Japanese character specialists exist, but I think that’s just a starting point and not a sufficient explanation by itself.
On occasion, fans will point to the extremely volatile rankings at Japanese tournaments as proof of Japan being a haven for character specialists, while others will counter that the average format of Japanese tournaments (Best of 1 round robin pools, followed by Best of 3 double elimination often even into grand finals) is inherently inconsistent. However, while this inconsistency might be a strike against the tournaments themselves providing reliable results, I think the format Japan uses is actually a key factor in helping its player base grow and improve compared to the common formats elsewhere (double elimination throughout, starting Best of 5s much earlier in the bracket), especially when it comes to creating those intimidatingly strong character loyalists.
The Mother of Invention
One of the reasons Japanese tournament matches tend to be so much shorter than their North American and European counterparts is time constraints. Often times, these events last only one day at venues that cannot allow them to stay later. They’re working with what they have. Yet if you look at how they use that limited time, it’s clear that the format is designed to give all players the most amount of playtime possible. Best of 1 round robin means that, even if you don’t make it out of pools, you potentially get to face a far greater number of opponents than the two you would encounter in a double elimination bracket. Everyone, even the worst players, get to gain real experience against more characters and more play styles.
Fostering Young Lions
Top players in Japan seem to prefer the “Western” style more because it favors them—as the best, their skill gets better rewarded the longer the sets are. While not going in that direction works against the best of the best, it’s also clear that the Japanese tournaments are meant to be as hospitable to newbies as possible. In addition to the round robin format initially, there’s also something called the “B-class tournament,” which is a separate bracket for all of the players who didn’t make it out of pools. In other tournament formats, less skilled players are usually given a chance to improve by dedicating a section for non-tournament “friendlies.” The B-class bracket is an opportunity to continue to play in a tournament-style setting.
When Japanese Smash 4 tournaments first began, there was even a question of whether or not to restrict the stage selection to Omega stages—flat levels without any platforms—only because it was the only stage type available on Nintendo’s default online competitive format, For Glory. While the Japanese scene ultimately went away from this idea, it shows a desire to cater to newcomers. Combined with extremely reliable high-speed internet that makes Japanese online play better than other parts of the world, this means Japanese tournaments are a good environment for those who are considering transitioning from online play to offline events.
Best of 1: “Random?”
Another aspect to consider is that the Best of 1 format itself might help advance player improvement. Although Best of 1 matches are not preferred for showing who can win consistently, it does foster certain skills that longer formats do not, as once pointed out by fighting game commentators UltraChen. A player can’t wait until the second set to try and figure out their opponent; they need to do it now. Super Battle Opera, once Japan’s most prestigious fighting game tournament, used a Best of 1 format, and its players adapted to it. While a Best of 5 match shows who can adapt the best over a longer period, Best of 1 forces players to learn how to adapt extremely quickly, which in turn teaches them how to “gamble” better when the chips are down. This might be why Japan is somehow known for both more reserved play and riskier (but not necessarily aggressive) styles as well.
What’s more, the inconsistency of Best of 1 pools might actually help in giving more players experience as well. If the very best players advance every single time, this means that the lesser players do not get to feel what it’s like to move up the bracket and face increasingly tougher opponents. With the “randomness” of Japanese tournaments, many more players get to feel what it’s like to be in a Top 16 or Top 8 against the country’s best.
The Japanese format is geared towards expanding the Smash 4 tournament scene by being an inviting space for players of all stripes. Best of 1 pools and B-class side tournaments not only allow all competitors both strong and weak to experience a variety of players and characters, it allows character loyalists and champions (two groups which do have crossover!) to level up at a higher rate. Shorter matches also foster a certain type of adaptation, and the inherent volatility potentially gives many more players to get accustomed to playing at later stages of a tournament. Whatever the ultimate goal of a given player, the Japanese tournament format provides the foundation for a strong player base.