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Nintendo’s New Tournament Rules Limit Disabled Player Inclusion

On October 24th 2023, Nintendo announced that starting three weeks later on November 15th, Community Tournaments for Nintendo games such as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate would need to follow a new set of guidelines, or risk being shut down by the company.

These new guidelines, which many have described as restrictive, cover a wide range of aspects of how a tournament can be run ranging from event size, entry fees, prize pools, and who can or cannot be paid for their work as organisers.

A lot of the rules in the guidelines are understandable, to some degree. There are rules preventing modifying game software, which does prevent Melee tournaments for example from switching off stage transformations in the game’s Pokémon Stadium stage via mods for example. That’s an example of a rule which, whether I agree with it or not, prevents unofficial versions of Nintendo games being shown to an audience, and is about protecting Nintendo’s vision of how their games should be perceived by players.

However, today I want to focus on one specific rule found in Nintendo’s new Community Tournament Guidelines which is going to have a strong negative impact on the options available for disabled gamers to enter tournaments for Nintendo games going forward.

Under Question 16 in the FAQ – “What do “tournaments that are illegal or inappropriately conducted or that could be viewed as offensive or otherwise inappropriate” refer to?” – Nintendo states that “Tournaments that are illegal or could be viewed as offensive or otherwise inappropriate include, but are not limited to, tournaments that [allow]… Use of game consoles, accessories, and software not licensed by Nintendo”.

In practice, this means that any community tournament found to be permitting the use of unlicensed controllers could be shut down by Nintendo. A tournament could not make the choice to allow a disabled gamer to use an Xbox Adaptive Controller plugged into a Titan Two adaptor as their controller of choice, or an unlicensed third-party Joy-Con alternative that they find easier to hold. It would likely prevent players from using 3D-Printed one-handed Joy-Con grips, or PS4 controllers via an adapter if those are more comfortable.

Perhaps most notably it would heavily impact the use of the Hori Flex, the Nintendo Switch’s only officially licensed accessibility controller.

The Hori Flex is an accessibility controller for the Nintendo Switch which features enough buttons on its top face to emulate most functions of a Switch controller, outside of joystick functionality. It also features a large number of 3.5mm and USB input ports, designed to support plugging in external peripherals to customise a disabled player’s gameplay experience.

While the Hori Flex itself is a licensed controller, none of the external buttons, switches, and joysticks commonly connected to the device are officially licensed. Nintendo has not officially licensed ANY 3.5mm or USB peripherals for the Hori Flex, meaning that any gamer who uses the Hori Flex as a hub for external peripherals could, in theory, get a Nintendo tournament shut down.

As the rules officially stand, without clarification from Nintendo, a tournament organiser would have to deny a disabled gamer the ability to enter a Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament using a Hori Flex and external joysticks, or they would be running the risk of Nintendo shutting down their event.

If the mention of preventing accessories not licensed by a console manufacturer from being used feels familiar, that may be because this is a similar situation to one we discussed last week.

Xbox recently pushed out a system update which started presenting an error code, announcing that unlicensed peripherals would no longer be supported on Xbox consoles starting in mid November.

It is important to note, however, that the recent Xbox and Nintendo situations regarding banning use of unlicensed peripherals are not one to one comparable.

With Xbox, we saw the use of unlicensed controllers being banned on a firmware level, even if you’re playing single player games, alone, in your own home. While Nintendo doesn’t officially support unlicensed controllers, there are some controllers and adapters that still function on the system despite being unlicensed, and Nintendo doesn’t seem interested at this moment in shutting off functionality for those devices if you’re using them at home as part of your own setup.

However, the other major difference is that while Xbox initially didn’t comment on the impact that banning unlicensed peripherals would have on disabled gamers, after around three days they did update their support page and issue an official statement confirming that Xbox Adaptive Controller inputs, both 3.5mm and USB, would not be impacted by these changes, meaning that Xbox Adaptive Controller users would be able to use unlicensed joysticks and switches as accessibility inputs going forward.

While this doesn’t entirely fix the issue, many Xbox gamers are still losing access to gaming controller setups they previously found helpful, it did at least carve out an exception for accessibility controller peripherals, a baseline concession important to see made.

This is where Nintendo is currently worse by comparison. Nintendo’s tournament guidelines were announced around a week earlier than Xbox’s update was announced, and while many disabled gamers made the same points about accessibility to both companies, only Xbox responded with clarification of an exception for accessibility controller users.

Nintendo’s new tournament rules, on paper, ban a community tournament organiser from having any discretion to allow the use of unlicensed 3.5mm or USB inputs as part of a Hori Flex accessibility controller setup. The event organiser risks their event being shut down if they allow a disabled gamer to use a licensed accessibility controller the way it is intended to be used, paired with unlicensed peripherals.

Nintendo needs to, if nothing else, make an addendum to these rules allowing unlicensed peripherals in the context of the Hori Flex.

In an ideal world, they would make a broader exception, allowing any unlicensed peripherals in the context of accessibility, but I suspect that’s too much ambiguity for Nintendo leadership to be comfortable with.

If Nintendo would at the very least clarify, as Xbox did, that unlicensed inputs for licensed accessibility controllers are permitted for community tournament use, that would go a long way to lessening the impact of this ruling.

And if that clarification doesn’t come, which I suspect may end up being the case, I would ask that if you are a community tournament organiser, please consider allowing the use of the Hori Flex with potentially unlicensed peripherals in your tournament regardless.

I know that is asking you to take a risk, but I honestly believe the only way we are likely to see progress on this issue is either by Nintendo not stepping in to stop tournaments from allowing Hori Flex peripherals, quietly allowing an exception to form by example, or from the backlash that would be generated if Nintendo did shut a tournament down on those grounds.

Because, ultimately, Nintendo is the kind of company I doubt we will see directly respond to this situation.

They will either ignore accessibility input users in tournaments entierly, or shut down a tournament once and respond afterward when backlash manifests.

I’d love to see Nintendo prove me wrong. A proactively published exception for Hori Flex user’s peripherals would go a long way to showing you are listening to disabled gamers on this issue.

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