Protecting and Growing Local Scenes

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Earlier this week we discussed a potential road map which could lead to Melee HD. There was some awesome discussion on Reddit with that post and I really appreciate the community getting so engaged in this topic. However, one concern was brought up that I want to discuss further today.

Some were concerned that Melee HD would bring with it a better and broader online competitive experience. If that happens, it could potentially kill many local scenes. Why would nerds leave their house and drive two hours to a weekly when they could just play online? Now, some of you reading this are saying “that would never happen, Smash is all about competing in person and that will never change.” To a certain extent I agree with you, fake internet person I made up for the purpose of this conversation.

Clear and Present Danger

However, let’s consider something for a moment. I would imagine Blockbuster thought in much the same way, until Netflix and Redbox came along. Taking that analogy further, more cable providers are getting access to movies while they are still in theaters. Movie theaters are having to adapt, or risk losing business. Same with card shops. Where once you had to go to the shop to play in tournaments, now games like Magic Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon all have online versions that are accessible from home. This is a very common issue for most industries. Everything stays the same way it’s always been, until something changes. While I don’t think local play will ever completely die, a great online Melee experience could potentially hurt local scenes.

Obviously, Melee HD is largely a pipe dream at this point. Even using my road map from earlier, we are still at least a decade away from release. However, It is entirely possible that Nintendo could decide to make Smash 4 online not suck. If they added an official ladder with interesting incentives, you could very well see the same threat to local Smash 4 scenes.

Let’s even assume Nintendo never gets their act together and their online systems always suck. Smash is rapidly gaining competition in the Platform Fighter genre. Games like Rivals of Aether, Brawlhalla, and whatever Wavedash calls their game will have active developer support and care deeply about a quality online experience. As those games gain support and investment, they represent real competition. You could very well see players become disenfranchised with the local scene, and abandon their favorite Smash game in favor of the online scene for an indie platform fighter.

Prepare for Tomorrow

So, while the threat is not immediate, it is absolutely something we should be thinking about now. I’ve spoken often about the importance of “future-proofing” your organization. Whether you’re a massive brand like VG Boot Camp or a tiny local in Idaho, you need to take time to plan for the future and solve problems before they exist. We need to learn from movie theaters and card game shops who have been dealing with this issue for years. Today let’s examine some ways to make your local “future-proof”. Hopefully we’ll also show you some things that can help grow your scene today.

Ambiance

Most movie theaters used to suck. They were dirty, the movie didn’t start on time, the cashier was rude, and the food was mediocre at best. Your house was way more comfortable, but it didn’t have the new Xmen movie, so you were forced to go to a theater. Now, you can sit on your comfy couch and watch Xmen on your giant TV with no loud old dude asking his wife why the guy with the claws is so mad all the time. Movie theaters were forced to adapt. They couldn’t change their product or compete on exclusivity anymore, so they had to compete on ambiance. They added reclining chairs, more food options, bring that food to you in your seat, serve alcohol, etc. By adding all this ambiance, they made going to the movies feel special. You don’t have to go to the theater, but you get a better viewing experience than you would at home.

This should be the same at your local event. You have to make the experience of coming to a local better than sitting at home. Every time I go to a Magic release event, the venue either sells snacks, or has a deal with the restaurant next door. One place actually had an iPad where you could order a burger, and someone from next door would bring it over to the venue. Do you have food for your attendees? Can you bring in a fridge and sell snacks? Could you partner with a local food truck or diner?

Card shops don’t do as well with our next point, but the ones that do thrive beyond belief: cleaning. Think about it: much of your target audience is below the legal driving age. If they want to come out to a local, they need Mom to drive them. How comfortable is Mom with your venue? How bad is the smell? How many spots are there on the carpet? How many holes are in the wall?  Even if you don’t own the venue this is fixable. Run a vacuum, light a candle, bring some posters for the wall and a rug for the spot on the floor. If you have the space, create a “Moms and Girlfriends Chill Zone”. These people are almost more important than your actual attendees, because they control whether or not that kid gets to come back next week. With minimal effort, you can make the experience of attending a local far better than sitting alone playing wifi at home.

Welcome Newbies

Smash is constantly growing, and will continue to do so for several years. As it grows, you are going to get new people showing up for your events. At your next local, go outside and try walking in as a complete newbie, someone who’s never been to a tournament in their life. When you walk in, do you know where to sign up? Is there someone there to walk you through the process? Are the rules clearly posted and available? Is someone on staff assigned to welcome you and walk you through registration?

Never underestimate the power of a greeter. This is something we can learn from churches. Go to any church with crappy attendance, and see how long it takes for someone to greet you. Next, go to a bigger, successful church. Odds are someone is there the moment you get out of your car. They guide you to the “welcome desk” where you fill out a card with your information. You probably get a welcome gift. Then someone explains the flow of service, points out the bathrooms, and escorts you into the sanctuary. They guide you to your seat, and the people around you immediately shake your hand and welcome you once again. Then, within the next week you get an email or handwritten letter thanking you for coming and informing you of the next upcoming events.

How’s that compare to the first timer experience at your local? I promise you, get a greeter on staff and some solid welcome practices, you’ll be amazed at your retention rate. Don’t sleep on that follow-up email either. This is a powerful tool that takes no skill and little effort for massive returns.

Special Events

This is something that movie theaters are nailing lately. The whole marketing tactic for theaters now is to make attending the theater special. Ambiance plays a role in this, but so do special events. Many theaters will show limited runs of unique movies like Dragon Ball or Mystery Science Theater. They broadcast live opera, making it more accessible to people who don’t live in New York City. League of Legends partnered with a bunch of theaters to show the World Championships last year. These events make it so that going to the theater is more than just a weekly routine to see the latest Fast and Furious film. They pepper in these unique events to grab a different audience or give their regulars a new experience.

One could argue that Smash already succeeds at this. We have monthlies and majors that break up the routine and provide a bigger experience. However, to a casual observer a monthly is just a bigger version of the weekly. It’s not really a unique experience. Maybe a PGR player gets flown in, which is cool, but it’s not necessarily special when compared to the weekly experience. It’s still just a singles bracket and doubles side event, just with more people. Plus, monthlies don’t necessarily translate to increased attendance at your weeklies. I’m talking more about special events that shake up the weekly routine.

If your weekly is close to Halloween night, have a costume contest. Once in a while do a ladies night where women get free registration. Once a month do a theme night where the venue gets decorated. Introduce different side events. Talk to your regulars, see what would be fun for them.

The key to these events is marketing. Make sure you plaster flyers and branding everywhere you can. Advertise at the venue at least a month in advance. Encourage your regulars to invite their friends. Put up flyers at every local college and mall. Get the word out, and deliver on the promised experience.

Incentivize Attendance

You want your weekly to be a habit for your regulars. Ideally the event is enough fun each week that people want to come back. However, life often gets in the way, and it’s easy for gamers to get distracted and miss a week here and there. You cannot allow this. When people break their routine it is hard to get back on track. If someone misses a week, they are way more likely to miss the next week. Regular attendance is critical. You need to be able to count on numbers for planning, marketing, and growth.

Every card shop rewards attendance at their weekly events. All Magic leagues have a point system that carries over multiple months. Think about how well daily log-in rewards work in mobile games. That same psychology works with attendance rewards at your weekly.

Local power rankings are a great place to start. Players need to keep attending events in order to compete for that top 10 spot. However, PRs are fundamentally flawed for incentivizing attendance because they exclusively reward performance. When you want your weekly to grow, you can’t just reward the 15 best players in the region. You need to reward that awful Ganon player who busters out every week but hasn’t missed a weekly in two years. That guy matters so much!

Go a step beyond PRs and come up with a loyalty program for your weekly. Give out prizes, let people earn points of some kind just by showing up. This will take some planning and organization, but it goes such a long way. You make missing even one weekly a decision with consequence. You’re not trying to punish people with lives, but rather you’re rewarding the people that keep you going. This is also useful for retention. When someone new shows up, now they’ve got these floating points that have no value unless they come back next week. If done right, an incentive program more than pays for itself.

There are plenty of other ways to keep improving your local events, but let’s hear from you guys. What do you do at your local that’s been working great? If you attend weeklies, what could your local TO do better? What’s he doing that well? What else can we be doing to “future-proof” our local scenes?
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