Besides stock count, the most hotly debated topic in the international Smash 4 scene is the inclusion of custom moves. Although most TOs decided against them due to the poor logistics involved, the controversial decision to have them legal at EVO inspired several regions to practice with them and renewed the debate since. The core question I ask myself is whether the costs of having custom moves legal are worth it, considering the practical implementation, the case study of EVO and a potential split of the community. All things considered, I would prefer to move forward with a metagame without customs.
A world of possibilities… at a price
Customs are interesting in that they are a rare example of the competitive Smash scene turning on a setting that is off by default, rather than the usual limiting or customizing of default settings. They open up a great many moveset configurations, several of which affect specific match-ups or even impact the metagame somewhat. Turning them on or off can even affect character viability, prime examples being Charizard, Palutena and Mii Brawler. Although Smash 4 generally has no shortage of character diversity and several top tiers have great customs of their own, opening up new possibilities for tournament play is the biggest draw to legalizing customs.
I believe that customs would have been a staple of competitive Smash 4 if every character had their entire moveset unlocked from the start. They were common during the short tenure of the 3DS version, as every player could be held responsible for his own save file and they were seemingly quicker to unlock than on the Wii U version. It took me personally about a month of grinding on train rides to and from work to get every custom move in the game, which is not that long if the game is to survive for several years. It’s obviously much less work if you only focus on characters you actually use, which is a viable route for the 3DS, where you are on your own save file at all times.
That said, it still baffles me that the decision was made to lock such a fundamental part of gameplay behind several layers of grinding. A poor game design choice, not in the last part because you can get duplicates and are thus never guaranteed a new move even if you get a custom drop for your preferred character. This results in the unfortunate fact that you can hardly expect the average Wii U save file at a tournament to have every move in the game, which goes against the principle of uniform tournament settings and is the crux of the issue.
The most feasible solution to have custom moves at tournaments is to distribute pre-made common movesets from the 3DS version, which takes up costly tournament time, limits people to popular configurations and doesn’t negate the fact that many people don’t have access to them during practice. While you could tell players to grind it out, this is unheard of for a fighting game. Most TOs do not provide all of the set-ups for their events and this, in addition to DLC, would make it even harder to give players everything the ruleset entitles them to.
Considering that customs likely would have been a staple if unlocked by default, barring potentially broken moves, I believe the debate to be a question of “is it worth the hassle to include them under these circumstances?”, rather than a question of “should they be legal from a theoretical point of view?”.
EVO 2015: customs on the big stage
EVO’s decision to go against standards and include customs was not just arrogant from a community perspective, but also involved the risk of having ill-prepared players on what is potentially the biggest Smash 4 stream to date. The tournament did provide the biggest case study we could have hoped for, though it only being one event diminishes its value for sweeping conclusions.
Every player in the top 8 of EVO 2015 has done well before with or without customs and at least half of them opted to never or very rarely use them throughout the event. This tells us that customs don’t necessarily break the game at the current top level, though it should be noted that at least both finalists, ZeRo and Mr-R, have spoken out against customs before and might simply have stayed away from them because of preference rather than optimization.
We did see examples of several of the more notorious customs throughout the bracket. At least three Villager mains made it into top 64, making heavy use of the exploding balloons and tripping sapling to camp the ledge. The set between Larry Lurr and Captawesum was a good representation of what that looks like and there was significant spectator outrage in response to both this set and earlier events featuring that particular moveset. While viewership by itself is not a reason to ban something, it suggests we do not add entertainment value by making an effort for customs.
There are customs that simply seem overpowered from a reward perspective, although I would like to point out that often cited examples such as DK’s Kong Cyclone and Pikachu’s Heavy Skull Bash have yet to win EVO. Of course, with this many additional moves there is a realistic possibility that one or several of them end up actually broken. The rulesets for Smash are already bloated to the point that I don’t consider it desirable to specifically exclude certain moves or configurations, as that would add yet another threshold for casual players.
Things might have been different if Smash 4 needed the variety. At more than 50 characters there is already a lot to choose from and the metagame is constantly shaken up by patches and new DLC characters, which oddly don’t come with custom moves. If anything, the metagame would benefit from a period of stability to come to full fruition. The current barrage of new characters and rebalancing seems like a lot to take in for players who aren’t devoted to the game fulltime, yet still want to compete. This state of chaos also nullifies the argument that customs could rebalance the game, considering the game is already rebalanced every other month. Although I acknowledge that a character like Sheik is at risk of having simply no bad or perhaps even match-ups, it is too early to tell and customs could very well narrow the metagame further. Let’s also remember here that the top 8 of EVO still ended up consisting of the usual suspects.
Finally, we need to take a lesson from the past and consider what happened with the American Brawl scene once it got torn on particularly the Meta Knight ban. The split quickly became toxic through immaturity and personal attacks, something I feel the Smash community is still not above. A divided scene is obviously not very appealing to outside corporations, especially those looking to include Smash events with existing circuits. If a standard is established, those less familiar with the games can be directed towards the prevalent ruleset, rather than pick and choose or get the ear of someone with a particular inclination, something companies like EVO and MLG have proven themselves to be abysmal at.
I was enthusiastic about customs at launch and genuinely tried, and failed, to come up with benefits to legalizing them other than adding more variables. Smash 4 (currently) does not need the diversity, viewership benefits are questionable, top level player support is lacking, it adds barriers for newcomers and the logistics are simply too poor to push for a metagame involving customs, especially considering that that would mean forcing a split. To practice what I preach, my events will not have customs legal for the foreseeable future. While I encourage experimentation, rulesets should stay within a certain margin of variation for events that matter and I recommend TOs of major events to stick to a metagame without customs.