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Fighting game esports are becoming more mainstream with eye-catching events such as Street Fighter 6’s $2,000,000 Capcom Pro Tour, and a never-ending hype train for Riot Games’ upcoming Project L. Yet over the last few years there’s been an often-overlooked title that continues to expand a robust, international competitive scene with no signs of slowing down.

Brawlhalla recently celebrated 100,000,000 lifetime players — a monumental achievement obtained in part due to developer Blue Mammoth Games’ tight-knit relationship with the game’s competitive community. David Keltch, Brawlhalla’s esports operation manager, recalls the early days of the scene in an interview with Esports Illustrated

“Back then the devs would come on to a stream and talk to chat, and chat would say ‘Hey we have this cool idea for a game mode.’ And they would take that idea, sometimes even code it and make it on the dev stream, and you would see it two days later in the game.”

One of Us

Long-time Brawlhalla fans will remember that, David was a member of the community before joining the company. He’s not alone. In fact, a significant portion of the Brawlhalla esports team is composed of its most passionate and invested players. Director of esports Mateo “Toast” Palfreman described how despite graduating from university to become a music teacher, he ended up in esports instead.

“Teaching was my main gig and this was on the side. We hit a point in 2018 where we were doing a lot of the online production for Brawlhalla, and the studio basically said ‘You guys are cool, here’s some money, run some tournaments for us.’ At that point me, David and one of our friends Veey went to the esports director at the time and said ‘Hey, we’re doing a lot for you, what if we did your in-person stuff too.’ And to our surprise, they said yes.”

Brawlhalla esports events have continually increased in scale as the years went on, with the current Year Eight Season featuring a total prize pool of $1,000,000. While that number may seem small compared to tier 1 esports like League of Legends and Dota 2, no other platform fighter even comes close. In an era where “Smash Killers” are colloquially crowned every time a new release features wavedashing, Brawlhalla has stood on its own by offering a highly accessible entry point to the genre.

Free-to-play has remained a hot topic within the fighting game sphere. For David, Brawlhalla being free made it an easy game to pick up and play with his brothers.

“I grew up playing fighting games. There are still VHS tapes in my mother’s garage of me and my brothers playing older fighting games on the Sega Genesis that I then stuck a tape in and recorded. Some of them over cherished memories that I won’t be held responsible for. We were always looking for the next thing. And we found this back when it was in closed beta and just fell in love because it was free. When we went our separate ways, we were all still playing together. And so the fact that it was free to play and that it was kinda an easy access, easy to learn, but still high skill ceiling game, just kinda hooked us.”

You Can Do It Too

Crowd cheering at 2022 Brawlhalla World Championship

This beginner-friendly approach appeals to a different demographic than what is seen in new platformer fighter releases. As more studios attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle of Super Smash Brothers Melee, Mateo says professional Brawlhalla finds its depth from a different source.

“Movement is big, but I don’t think the movement options exposed to you are actually that complex. One of our coworkers who’s really into Melee will talk about some of these frame-perfect things and I’m like ‘You’re speaking another language. We have some of that, but what really gets me past the clean movement is the decision-making skills at the top level. You’ll see these pro players who have very similar levels of technical aptitude, but the thing that defines who is better is the person who’s better able to make the decisions to win —the person who’s better able to read out the opponent's movement to figure out where they need to position, what’s the best option to position themselves in that place.”

Brawlhalla works to maintain a relationship with its professional community as strongly as its casual player base.

“There are things we’ve done for them that are hard to justify I would say,” said Palfreman “For instance, our community felt very strongly that 240hz monitors are important because the performance is ever so slightly better, so we invested in a fleet of 240hz monitors we bring to every event now. And so it’s things like that where the players know that they can reach out to me or David, or any of the other esports-facing people. They have a direct line to us at any time, and they know they’ll get some sort of response, positive or negative from us. And I think that’s something that is really hard to do, and does have its pitfalls in that it puts you out there constantly, but it also means that the community feels heard.”

Building a Better Esport

The love for the professional scene extends far past what BMG runs itself. The Brawlhalla Community Tournament Initiative provided over $100,000 in prize money and operational support towards grassroots tournaments in 2022 alone. Tournament organizers can apply to have their events featured, with promotion via official Brawlhalla channels and in-game rewards given to participants.

A hyped up crowd at the 2022 Brawlhalla World Championship

Fans leap to their feet during a match at the 2022 Brawlhalla World Championship

David went on to discuss how the initiative formed. “We had organizers that were running tournaments week in and week out, and we noticed that and they were quality events and the community liked those events and so it’s like ‘hey, we see you doing this sometimes with your own money, let us give you money for prize pools.’” He further clarified that the game and esports only perform well because of the players, and so giving back to prominent community members is a top priority.

With such an established player base, a new player might feel it’s too late to get invested in the scene. David says otherwise.

“There has never been a better time to jump in. In the history of Brawlhalla and official tournaments, North America has won every 1v1 event. This year North America has won the first one, but then South America won the second LAN and kinda broke the seal, and Europe won the most recent LAN. And so we are going into the World Championship in November with a person from each major region having won a LAN.”

Having an esport without a clear dominant region is a rarity in today's landscape. By giving equal support to all competitive scenes, offering a free-to-play, newcomer-friendly platform fighter, and working with talent from within its own community, Blue Mammoth Games has created an esports ecosystem lasting nearly a decade with many years still to come.

How to Watch BCX

Registration for BCX, Brawlhalla’s world championship, is now live. The event will take place November 3-5 in Atlanta, Georgia. Spectator tickets are now available and the touranment will be broadcast on the official Brawlhalla Twitch channel.