If you'd asked me four years ago where I thought the competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee scene would be in 2016, I'd have shrugged and guessed that it would be a distant memory by now. But as it happens, fate had something special in store.
The year 2013 saw something of a revolution for Nintendo's accidental fighting game masterpiece, with two huge events converging to elevate the community beyond all expectation. The nine-part documentary The Smash Brothers dropped, boosting the then-dwindling grassroots community with a huge influx of new players. This, combined with the Spirit Bomb moment in the Evo 2013 donation drive for breast cancer, granted SSBM a place at the tournament. Fast-forward three years, and Evo 2016, taking place in Las Vegas from July 15 to 17, is set to be the biggest SSBM tournament of all time.
Nobody could have predicted the growth that the SSBM scene saw in 2013, or that it's seen since. For starters, it was an outcast among fighting games. Traditional fighters tend to have more adult aesthetics, and Nintendo has a reputation for being childish among hardcore gamers. Not to mention the completely different take that SSBM offers on fighting games. As a dedicated member of the competitive community, I've often felt that it was the plight of our community to remain on the periphery.
SSBM has avoided the fate of the other games of its late-1990s/early-00s era, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Marvel vs. Capcom 2. It has far outlived the lifespan of a traditional competitive fighting game. This is in no small part due to its ability to stay fresh to its players and spectators, despite being 15 years old. At the highest levels, Melee is a deeply complex game. Its seemingly simple systems allow for multiple layers on top of a traditional fighter's rock-paper-scissors system of block, grab, and attack. It takes years to be able to understand the depth at which some players are able to see SSBM. What spectators get from watching Melee, across many levels of play, are custom combos that play out at hyper speed, topped off with flourishes of competitor individuality.
My own career as a competitive Melee player started on the morning of Saturday, May 25, 2002. I was a Nintendo fanboy, 13 years old, and desperately awaiting the arrival of SSBM in the mail. In the ten minutes I had to play the game before my tennis lesson, I picked a newcomer to the series, Princess Peach, and floated around on the Kirby stage, Green Greens. Instantly, it felt far better than the original Super Smash Bros. had on the Nintendo 64. Almost exactly five years later, and with countless hours sunk into it, I was utterly convinced that I was the best player to ever touch a Smash Bros. game. Time to find a tournament, then.
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In May 2007, at age 18, I walked into a working men's club in Yeovil, Somerset. The room was full of smoke and glowering men, a fine location for some Melee competition. I would "drown in pools" at this tournament—which means I went out in the round-robin stage. Evidently, I was not quite as good as I thought I was. Undeterred, I plugged away at the game for several years, reaching the lofty heights of the British top three and a top 20 ranking for Europe. I never pictured myself at the age of 27 and wanting to compete at this game more than ever. Yet here I am.
Personally, I feel that the mechanics of the game are what keeps it fresh. Precise control of your character is fundamental to competitive SSBM play, and the game itself is unique in the control it grants the player. There are numerous exploits, or advanced techniques, to master. Given that it takes a number of months, and in my opinion years, to learn to move fluidly at a competitive level, it amazes me that new players continue to join the community so long after the game's release. But it's not so difficult to understand why those of us that have spent years playing it love it so much: Once mastered, the movement becomes almost addictive to perform.
A core mechanic that stands out among other fighting games I've played is the control SSBM grants a player after you take a hit from your opponent. Directional Influence, or DI, plays a huge part in defining a player's skill, and can dictate the outcome of competitive games. Melee also grants the player analogue control of the characters in the air, even after jumping. This is vastly different to traditional 2D fighters such as the Street Fighter and King of Fighters series, which have fixed animations for forward and backward jumps. I couldn't say how many variations of a back jump the analogue controls of SSBM allow for, there are so many.
But while its longevity continues to amaze, Melee truly is a fighting game of its era. By which I mean that there are broken parts of the game. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is well known for its broken infinite combos and overpowered characters. Melee, too, has powerful moves, characters that some argue are unfairly strong, and even its own infinite combos. The difference is that these broken elements have evolved with the game, and influenced its rules. For example, Fox's waveshine infinite is limited to one tournament legal stage, and for some reason, though not particularly difficult to perform, it's not seen widely in tournaments. This might partly be due to players' inability to perform it consistently.
The growth of Melee, both inside and outside the game, and its place in the hearts of its spectators is maintained through the narratives of its players. Any initiate of the Melee community will tell you that there are Five Gods of Melee. Well, there were, as in 2016 a sixth God has risen: The Godslayer. William "Leffen" Hjelte took recent Canadian international major Get on My Level with alarming confidence, beating the four Gods of Melee in attendance on the way to the win. The constant flux among these top players and their battle for the number one spot is fascinating to behold. The top three players in the UK have lost fewer than five times in six years to opponents ranked outside the top three. This is a skill gap that needs to be shortened, clearly, but the community respects that it exists on many levels and upsetting the status quo won't happen overnight. But that's just another gripping part of playing and spectating Melee: watching players getting close to and bridging this skill gap separating the very best from the incredibly talented.
Leffen wins at Get on My Level
Melee redefines the rules of competitive fighting games and competitive video games as a whole. As a fighting game, its meta-game is constantly shifting, while outside the game the Melee community has demonstrated the power of its passion. When Nintendo stepped in to block Melee at Evo 2013 from happening, the community rallied and Nintendo ultimately allowed it to go ahead, something that the community is ever grateful for. Leffen was blocked from entry to the USA for months after his competitive video games visa was denied. The Melee community came together once more and generated more than 100,000 petition signatures—enough to elevate the issue to the White House. He was also granted a temporary visa for the summer of 2016.
Melee has survived and emerged as the breakout star of fighting games largely due to the unbridled passion of its grassroots community. It's exhilarating to watch, frustratingly addictive to play and emotional to be part of. If you've played it for years and never attended or watched a tournament, I urge you to start now. Otherwise, you're missing out. It might be 15 years old, star a cast of cuddly cartoon characters, and not be as visually arresting as the modern competition, but for me, Melee is without a doubt the most exciting eSport to watch in 2016, and anyone tuning into Evo 2016 would do well to prioritize it over the alternative fighters on offer.
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