'Mario Kart' Meets eSports in Disney's 'Clash of the Karts'

Nintendo’s eSports potential is held back by brand control.

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Dec 6 2015, 7:57pm

Image: Disney.

Here's the thing about Mario Kart 8: It's a great video game. It's easy to learn and sort of hard to master. Most importantly, it's one of the best games to play with friends because it's such a low-commitment and high-dopamine activity. Yet, despite all of this, it's just not that dang fun to watch, especially if it's on the other end of a TV broadcast.

Last night, Disney XD, one Disney's cable channels, aired Clash of Karts: Mario Kart 8, a competition (and promotion) for the newest Mario Kart. It seems to be part of a growing relationship between the channel and Nintendo. Recently, Disney also broadcasted the Nintendo World Championship, though this marks the first tournament it's made exclusively for television. It also seems to recognize that, unless you're playing, Mario Kart looks like a bunch of Shy Guys on motorcycles bumping into walls and lobbing shells at each other until someone crosses the finish line.

The event paired eight excitable children with some self-described online personalities like AtomicMari and The Black Nerd. 50 percent or more of the broadcast cut the video game with b-roll of audience cheering and participants yelling, "Wario, here I come!" making Clash of Karts less like one of the biggest eSports events in the world, The International, and more like Video & Arcade Top 10, Southern Ontario's 90s game contest where prizes were fished out of a literal garbage can, with G-rated trash talk.

That Disney Channel wants to jump into eSports isn't surprising. It's become a dark horse investment for ESPN, a Disney-owned company, which has been capitalizing on the rapidly growing interest in professional game-playing. The more skittish participant then seems to be Nintendo, who makes competitive games, like Splatoon, but remains hesitant to see its games embraced by super competitive players. For example, the relationship between Nintendo and competitive Smash Bros. fans, of which there are many, is complicated, awkward, and overall crappy. The company has suppressed the game's presence at major tournament events and more recently its tense relationship with the unofficial Project M mod, made for the most roughneck players, is seemingly coming to a head.

Something like Clash of Karts looks like Nintendo feeling things out, but I can't imagine this format expanding too much, partly because it's boring compared to the clinches and high stakes of Dota and League of Legends.