New York -- At the Nintendo World Championships 2017 at a packed Manhattan Center, Thomas "Ito" Gonda overcame reigning title holder KickPunchBlock's John "John Numbers" Goldberg in a race to the finish line in the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey.
Unfortunately for Numbers, who played immaculately throughout the tournament, there was no bracket reset after his loss in grand finals. So, unlike other competitors, he never got a second chance to bring it back and retain the title he earned in 2015.
Nintendo prefers not to call the World Championships an esports event, which makes sense as it's unlike other competitive gaming competitions. It doesn't focus on one game, but rather a medley of Nintendo's past, present and future titles. Competitors, some as young as 8 years old, came to compete in a tournament that had a 25-year age difference between the youngest and oldest players. This digital decathlon was more focused on a fun atmosphere celebrating Nintendo's history, a contrast to high-stakes esports event.
Some of the games included The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Balloon Fight, and the original Game Boy version of Tetris from 1989. Given the roars applause that games like "Super Smash Bros. for Wii U" and "Mario Party 2" got, it was clear that the packed house had the hardcore Nintendo fans, both young and old, most decked out in some sort of Nintendo-branded paraphernalia.
Fans were thrilled to get a to get a glimpse of a never-before-seen portion of the upcoming Nintendo Switch title Super Mario Odyssey in grand finals, but it was apparent that both Ito and John Numbers were learning the game on-the-spot. At one point, John Numbers had a lead but lost it after making a critical error, allowing Ito to come back.
"He could never reclaim the lead because I was playing steady the whole time," Ito said.
But unlike Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, which both Ito and John Numbers are competitive in, Nintendo gave both players10 minutes to acclimate themselves on Mario's latest metropolitan adventure.
"There was one point where I asked the referee, 'So you can use the cap to capture enemies, right?' So I accidentally captured a Goomba," Ito said. "And I asked, 'How do I get out of the Goomba,' and I was pressing every button, and I couldn't figure it out. And he said, 'No, I can't tell you.'"
Eventually Ito was able to figure out how to de-Goomba himself, but it was a scary couple of seconds for the California native.
The tournament didn't have a typical dual-bracket structure, either. The lower bracket had players disqualified after each round, which allowed players to stay in the tournament longer.
Ito largely sailed through the tournament, but finally met his match while playing "Arms."
"I don't own a Switch, so I don't know any Switch games, and also they forced you to use motion controls," Ito said. "The only practice I had in that game was with regular controls, but they said, 'You're forced to use motion controls,' so all my practice was basically meaningless."
But Ito did praise the structure that allowed players to continue competing longer into the tournament.
In the lower bracket, Ito was able to keep composure in Mario Party 2. He played a safe game, shied away from the many shenanigans the game has to offer, and stayed alive to move on to Mario Maker.
In Mario Maker, Nintendo of America's internal product development division, Treehouse, had devised a level that punished impatience, which was particularly challenging given that competitors were racing for the best time. But John Numbers showed a lot of skill and patience, and in one instance was able to jump and squeeze between a small crevice on his first try, giving him a major leg up. It was clear why John Numbers won in 2015.
After losing in Mario Maker, Ito had one more shot to take on John Numbers, but had to beat another competitor, Cole G. in Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, originally released on the Game Boy Color in 1999. In this version of the game, there is a two-player race to the finish line. After eight rounds, and a tie-breaker, Ito overcame, moved on and went on to win the event sans-bracket reset.
Ito himself is an esports fan, and does like that Nintendo is starting to flirt more with competitive gaming. But he feels the real future for Nintendo in esports is Smash.
"Some people want Melee to be like the be-all end-all; the perfect game. They want a remake and want that to be the focus," Ito said. "But I don't agree with that. I don't think Smash 4 should be the focus, either. I think they can do better. But if I had to pick, I'd say Melee HD."
Ito will soon have to fly back to San Diego to attend computer science classes at San Diego State University, and he doesn't feel that many people will be approaching him with congratulatory praise. Nintendo didn't have any prize money on the line, only a trophy and bragging rights.
But they are some pretty hefty bragging rights.
"Online, I can talk some s**t, you know?" he said. "That's what really matters."