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Guest Column: Meet the Smash Sisters

Guest contributor Patrick Miller chats with tournament organizers Emily Sun and Lilian Chen about the origins, goals, and challenges of the women-only Smash Sisters event series.

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The language of Smash is universal. If the human race were to make contact with sentient alien life, I can think of no better way to initiate diplomatic relations than sending up a couch, a tiny CRT, and a GameCube with Super Smash Bros. Melee. And yet, for whatever reason, attendance at Smash events is mostly male.

Enter Smash Sisters, the new women-only Smash event that debuted with a casual session and a crew battle (a team-based competitive format) at Genesis 3 in January 2016 and most recently showed a crew battle at Pound 2016 in April. I spoke with Smash Sisters organizers and longtime players Emily "emilywaves" Sun and Lilian "Milktea" Chen (yes, the one from The Smash Brothers documentary) about why they decided to start the event and where they'd like it to go.

Patrick Miller: Who are you, where are you, what's your day job, and how'd you get into Smash?

Emily Sun: I’m Emily Sun, AKA emilywaves, and I’m a Senior Sales Analyst for Take-Two Interactive living in Brooklyn, New York. I started playing Smash because someone brought an N64 to debate camp and that’s all we did for the summer. If that sounds nerdy, it’s because it super was. I went to my first Melee tournament a few years later in college because I saw a flyer or something and it just seemed really cool. I’m now one of the head tournament organizers at Nebulous Gaming in NYC.

Lilian Chen: My name is Lil, though some may know me as “Milktea.” I am an Interaction Designer on the YouTube Gaming team, also a former New Yorker now transplanted in the Bay Area. I’ve been playing Smash ever since the first version released. I only started playing competitive after meeting a group of ambitious friends at a local anime convention. I wasn’t planning on entering my first tournament, but thankfully they signed me up without me when I wasn’t paying attention!

PM: What was the catalyst for starting Smash Sisters? What are your respective roles in putting it together?

LC: There’s a bit of a backstory here. I’d been struggling with my thoughts about women’s tournaments for several years. After thinking it through, I released a lengthy blog post detailing why I believe they might have potential to promote inclusivity in competitive gaming spaces. My hopes with this post were to lay down a foundation of understanding for whenever the first event would take place in order to reduce backlash. However, I was still to scared to host one in fear of messing up. Not to mention, I’m not an event organizer!

That’s how Smash Sisters began. Serendipity.

Lilian Chen

On the other end of the spectrum, Emily is one of the core Tournament Organizers for the Nebulous series in NYC. She had already been running small women’s tournaments for fun for some time. Paranoia wasn’t a factor for her because she’s badass like that. Emily was also the one who’s post I spotted in the Genesis 3 event page asking, “Who wants to do women’s crew battles at G3?”

By a sheer stroke of luck, her post and Genesis 3 came right after I released my post. I immediately reached out to offer my help in media, social media and branding. Twitter is my second home (for better or worse), and as a designer who’s spoken frequently about these topics, I knew I could work swiftly with her to garner interest. I stuck to my roles while Emily handled logistics. The fun part of this whole process is that the deeper we go into Smash Sisters, the more our roles actually overlap and blend together.

Within that same evening, over twenty girls had expressed interest. And that’s how Smash Sisters began. Serendipity.

ES: To reach even further back, in Nov 2015, Reno tweeted about an East Coast vs West Coast girls crew battle that originally got everyone excited too.

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What kind of experience do you want your participants to have? How can folks who aren't interested or eligible to compete still support the events?

LC: We want Smash Sisters to be a place where girls can get into competitive Smash Brothers and meet other gals who love Smash just as much! Our attendees range anywhere from brand new Smasher to veteran players who all ultimately wind up playing Smash together. We obviously want these events to be positive experiences and hope they reinforce the fact that yes, girls play Smash and there is a spot for you in our community. Our decisions on Smash Sisters revolve around protecting our participants, promoting camaraderie, and inspiring girls to compete amongst everyone else!

There is definitely space for everyone to be involved, regardless of gender. We’ve had guys volunteer to help us with local recording and work with us at setting up at larger scale events. But there are easier ways to help too; just showing your support whether in person or online does more than you could ever expect. Supporting Smash Sisters online makes new participants feel even more welcomed. Meanwhile at both G3 and Pound 2016, the guys that stopped by to root their friends on brought some serious hype! Both events garnered large crowds with lots of uproar!

What's it like being a woman attendee/competitor at a major Smash tournament? What kinds of stories and experiences (yours or others) motivated you to start Smash Sisters?

LC: That’s a tricky question to open with because every woman has very different experiences, and in return, they all handle differently. When I began, there weren’t many other women. At first, I didn’t mind being one of the few. However, eventually I began to notice the unspoken pressure of representing my entire gender as the byproduct. I also dealt with the accusation that I was only playing Smash for the attention, as opposed to my love for the game. Ultimately, I ended up only discussing gameplay with my closest friends, knowing they wouldn’t judge me. I definitely made some of my best friends through the competitive community, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.

I don’t actually believe that there was any specific motivation to start Smash Sisters, at least for me. It’s not like a wave of harassment against women surfaced and Smash Sisters sprung up as a knee-jerk response solely to combat it. I think we thought it’d just be cool to create a safe space for women to get into competitive Smash. Of course, such a space wouldn’t be necessary if the landscape and gender balance of women in gaming were different, but Smash Sisters aims to be a positive initiative more than anything. Not all women feel as comfortable being one of the few in a sea of men, and hopefully Smash Sisters can help with that. These events expose new women to aspects of competitive Smash but in more digestible bites. Showing everyone that such a community exists also ideally normalizes the idea that ladies play Smash too!

Not all women feel as comfortable being one of the few in a sea of men, and hopefully Smash Sisters can help with that.

Lilian Chen

ES: Women receive a lot of attention at tournaments and it can be both positive and negative. Good players are more willing to play or give advice, bad players seem more salty when they lose, and some guys will try to show you they got game and you have to combat unwanted attention. But nowadays, I don’t notice much of a difference in NYC/tristate area since I know everyone pretty well and help run events. Or maybe I just don’t notice it anymore.

I was motivated to start Smash Sisters for very positive reasons. I invited Sailor Mercury to my apartment for a fest and we bonded over just being super girly. We saw a creepy insect and both leapt atop my couch, freaking out and refusing to check for it or touch the floor. It was so silly and fun for me to unleash that inner girliness that normally doesn’t get a chance to surface. This may be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had and simply put, I started Smash Sisters because I wanted more female friends.

Do you think the ideal future Smash community would divide tournaments by gender? What is the end-state that SS is aiming to help build?

Emily Sun
Emily Sun

LC: Absolutely not. No, no, no. In my opinion, I believe women’s events only developed as a concept due to preexisting social constructs. They don’t exist because we believe there is some mythical, inherent difference between each genders’ ability to play games! The ideal for Smash Sisters events is to feed back into the co-ed events in the long run, where competitive women ranging anywhere from low to high levels becomes a normalized phenomenon.

Can you tell me a little bit about the specifics of how you make these events feel good for the attendees? What's the secret sauce in the execution that makes it work?

ES: I think it’s important that we’ve both been in the community for years. We were always about Smash long before being about these kinds of events, which may lend an air of legitimacy to the cause. We are also always looking for feedback from our attendees so that we can improve and continue to evolve with the ‘girl meta’. For Genesis 3, we literally polled all of the attendees who had signed up in advance if they wanted the event streamed, recorded, or neither. And we weren’t just looked for a majority vote - if there were even a few people who didn’t want to participate because of a stream, we wouldn’t do it. In terms of a ‘secret sauce’, I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s just our teamwork: I’m amazing at execution and Lil is incredible at exposure.

LC: We put listening to our attendees’ feedback as the number one top priority. This helps us improve our events moving forward. We also went into this recognizing that Smash Sisters is an exploration that will need much reiterating. That gives us some wiggle room to try new things and make mistakes. Branding and design is another aspect that most don’t give enough credit to. The combination of branding and understanding the landscape of the “women in gaming” conversation has been key in how we portray ourselves and communicate to others. Lastly, the fact that Emily and I are able to have mature, open conversations has been invaluable to Smash Sisters! We don’t always see eye to eye, which I am actually thankful of. It allows us to discuss and hit more angles than we would have otherwise.

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ES: We’ve had some guys attempt to sign up in some 'hilariously' defiant act, and when I’ve privately asked if they are serious about competing, they did not try to take it any further. Also, I’m not sure why someone would do this for easy wins in a competition that has zero effect on rankings.

What would you like Smash Sisters (or any future incarnation) to look like in 2 years? 5? 10?

ES: It’s hard to say since the community in general continues to change in lightning quick ways. I’d like to see Smash Sisters crew battles become a staple side event that you only see sporadically like events with items on, all stages legal, low tier tournies, etc.

LC: This is one of my favorite questions to answer, because the answer is: I don’t know! Due to the controversial and polarizing nature of the topic, people often believe that there are only two sides to women’s tournaments: right or wrong, will work or won’t work, good or bad. Why? Despite being one of the co-founders of Smash Sisters, I try to routinely remind people that I am not married to the idea of women’s tournaments. Although I recognize the potential in promoting inclusivity that women’s events hold, I also recognize that it is a lengthy experiment. Letting others know that this is an exploration gives us more room to explore, iterate, and make mistakes (which is how we make progress). The format could adapt and alter itself, but I have no idea how as of right now. It all depends on what success we see from it and the feedback from participants.

You can find more info on Smash Sisters on their Twitter and Facebook pages.

This interview has been edited for length.

Patrick Miller does a lot of thinking, talking, and writing about fighting games. When he's not managing communities for Radiant Entertainment, he's tweeting inane stuff @pattheflip, teaching fighting games onYouTube and Twitch, and writing on Medium. Make sure to check out his chat with Austin on this past episode of Giant Bomb Presents!