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Smashing It, Small Time: Inside a Local Competitive Video Gaming Scene

Smash Down South is one of many Super Smash Bros. Melee communities keeping a 15-year-old game alive. We went to check it out.

by Henry Stenhouse
05 October 2016, 3:35pm

Tristan Bunyan, seated left, is the founder of Smash Down South. All photography by the author.

Released way back in November 2001, Super Smash Bros. Melee is a fascinating example of longevity in competitive gaming. Lacking any online features, Nintendo's fighting game has survived through the efforts of devoted communities spread across the globe. Its continued popularity is testament to the passion of this fanbase – one that operates both on a small, local scale and a wider, web-connected network of players and supporters.

One such regional scene can be found in Southampton, on the southern English coast. I paid these enthusiasts a visit to see what it takes to keep a competitive community alive for a game that's several console generations out of date.

Starting a Scene

Tristan Bunyan has been involved in competitive Melee since 2008, but in 2015 he decided to take his interest one step further, founding Smash Down South as a venue for weekly meet-ups and monthly competitions. Since its inception, SDS tournaments have steadily grown, attracting a hundred entrants at a time. With most multiplayer games making the move to online match-ups, it's easy enough to find people to play with. However, for an offline title like Melee, starting a community from scratch comes with a unique set of challenges.

"You need people who want to play the game," explains Tristan. "When you start from nothing, that's actually the hardest thing. It basically has to be one of your friends. You get them into the game, and then get events running. Smash has always been a community-run thing, and I think it comes from Melee being a purely offline game. You have to actually come and meet these people. Once you've got something set up like that, then people will come and enjoy the game."

Fortunately for the SDS crew, Southampton is home to a sizeable student population, with its universities offering the perfect meeting ground for new members. In addition to this, events such as local games conventions are a great chance to raise awareness.

"We basically went to other groups, like the local university's computer games society," says Tristan. "We didn't go because we wanted to play other games, we just wanted to associate and let people know about Melee. You obviously can't just put an advert in a newspaper, that's not going to hit the right audience, but associating with these other groups of like-minded people helps a lot."

The rise of social media has also provided a natural hub for discussion, with Facebook and Twitter enabling regionalised groups to advertise and communicate with minimal effort. SDS has capitalised on this, pushing its online presence through social media, streaming and a bespoke website. Melee may be an offline game, but its community has been fast in updating to the modern age.

Why Melee?

Compared to the more recent Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Melee can seem a little out-dated. But despite its ageing visuals, for many the game offers a flashback to childhood days, clustered around a TV beside friends or family. This is reflected in groups such as Tristan's, with a mishmash of 20 to 30 year olds forming the bulk of the assembled players.

"I think one of the biggest hooks for Melee is that people see this game that they played when they were a kid," he says. "The way you saw the game then was so simple, but then you see it played competitively and these characters you recognise are moving so much faster, in ways you can't even comprehend."

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Hugely successful in each of its iterations, the Super Smash Bros. series has a prolific nature somewhat akin to the Pokémon games: you'd be hard pressed to find anyone under 30 who didn't enjoy a few bouts during their younger years. This makes it an ideal game for bringing people together, encompassing those who might otherwise be put off by the slightly more serious demeanour of titles like the Street Fighter franchise. And among every group of friends, there are always those looking to take the extra step.

"This is the classic thing of people getting into Smash," Tristan says. "They think, 'I was the best when I was younger, I was beating my brother and sister all the time and beating my mates at school.' They think they're the best. Then they come to a tournament and get whooped. They don't win a single game but they still want it, you know? They still want that glory."

Community Spirit

Nostalgia may draw people in, but it's clear that the sense of community is what keeps them around. Smash Down South's atmosphere is overwhelmingly positive, welcoming all skill ranges. Southampton is home to one of England's strongest Smash contingents, and although appealing to these hardcore enthusiasts without ostracising new or casual players may seem difficult on paper, Tristan doesn't see it as a problem.

"I don't think an event being fiercely competitive is mutually exclusive with it being an enjoyable social experience," he says. "At every event, we make sure that in a second room there's always going to be sofas where people can have their lunch, relax and chat."

In an age where online games are rife with vitriol and aggression, the warmth on display here is a breath of fresh air. Players regularly offer advice during friendly matches, and Tristan is keen to stress the importance of cooperation in these smaller scenes.

"Obviously, competition means working against each other, but if everyone wants to be the best then you have to learn from each other," Tristan states. "Everyone is going to improve faster if they work together. There's no point saying someone is terrible because – let's be honest – you're probably terrible too in the grand scheme. Having petty arguments because someone is worse than you at a game... It's so pathetic, and that's obvious in real life. When you're face-to-face, you have a human connection that's lost online."

This ethos is echoed in the game's community as a whole. Running a hundred-person tournament isn't easy, requiring countless GameCubes, Wiis and old-school CRT televisions. Fortunately, other UK Smash groups are happy to help, even providing high-tech commentary equipment. Most involved in the scene are limited due to full-time jobs or study, but by working together the whole community prospers.

"It all comes back to everyone being friends," Tristan says. "We all know that Smash Down South needs to grow here for this to be sustainable, so we work together. If someone messaged me asking for some tips running their own tournament, I'll spend time chatting to them to help. The more Smash there is, the more people are aware of it. It all feeds into itself."

Future Plans

In recent years US groups have expanded dramatically, with sites like VGBootCamp and TourneyLocator becoming established as premier streaming companies. The UK is yet to undergo quite the same transformation, but Tristan is keen to do whatever he can take it there.

"My actual dream is to make my life and career to be doing Smash, whether as a coach, a commentator or an organiser," Tristan explains. "I look at the UK right now and I know that it's just not gonna happen. There's not enough viewership, money or sponsorship. So my goal for the next two years is to make Smash Down South as big as possible in the UK. If we can grow the domestic Melee scene to be as big as some of the other eSports, then we might be able to make this my job. That would be my dream."

There's a long way to go, but the spark is already in place. August's Heir 3 tournament attracted over 450 competitors to Nottingham, making it the biggest European Melee tournament so far. Whether the UK's keenest can truly "make it" remains to be seen, but there's no doubting the commitment on show.

"People say no one quits Melee, and that's pretty true," Tristan laughs. "I've seen countless people say they're retiring – but whether it's one, two or six months that pass, they always come back."

@fernoface

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Henry Stenhouse