A love letter to Melee and its community
By: Max Myers
In Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers franchise one title in the series tends to stand out in the fighting game community. For fans of the series (and people who read the title of this post), Super Smash Brothers Melee almost immediately comes to mind and does so for a few reasons. For some it’s the competitive scene, rich in storylines and decades old rivalries, for others it is the technical skill and speed in a complex, albeit janky, game engine. For me one of the most interesting aspects of the title is the longevity of a game, that by most accounts, should not have been able to survive this long. Played on decades old hardware with little to no support from Nintendo in the context of a competitive scene, the lifespan of this self-described “party game” seemed fleeting. While Nintendo continued to put out new titles in the series, you’d be justified in assuming that competitive Melee would eventually die out. Let’s talk about why it hasn’t.
The competitive Melee scene’s longevity stems from a few things: its continually growing player base, its grassroots origins, and perhaps most importantly, its tenacious competitive community. Despite its release in 2001, the barrier for entry into the scene has never been lower. Gone are the days of hunting down a physical copy of the game and a Gamecube to play it on. New players and veterans alike now have the luxury of playing locally and online without ever having to leave their homes. Through an emulator available on your computer, you can set up Melee and be playing within minutes. This widespread access allows new players to get into the game without having to go through the hassle of finding a retailer or friend to sell them a CRT (the old box tv’s), console, or physical copy of the game. Especially with the release of the low latency rollback netcode used by Fizzi in his new Slippi emulator, 2020 has proven to be a great year for competitive Melee despite the challenges faced by tournament organizers in the face of a worldwide pandemic. Online matchmaking and an influx of new players provides a promising future for the game’s competitive scene when the restrictions on social gatherings are lifted.
While Melee’s future looks bright, it’s impossible to disregard the impact the game’s grassroots origins has had on its competitive survival despite the release of new titles in the series. Before the days of advanced techniques like shield dropping and slide off DI had even been discovered, competitors were facing off for nothing more than a few dollars and regional bragging rights. Prize pools notoriously remain an issue in the scene, but major tournaments continue to grow, drawing in hundreds of entrants and millions of hours watched. This continual growth despite Nintendo’s lack of support demonstrates the strength of the grassroots movement that birthed the competitive scene as we know it today.
However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention pioneers in the scene like Calvin “Gimr” Lofton and Bobby “Scar” Scarnewman who put in countless hours to professionalize the Melee scene (click here for a great video on the history of Scar by Slush). Perhaps one of the most notable events in cementing Melee as a legitimate esport was its inclusion in the Evolution Championship Series, the Super Bowl of the fighting game community, after the Melee community raised nearly $95,000 to win a charity donation drive that would guarantee a spot in the tournament to the game who raised the most money. The impact Evo 2013 had on the competitive scene cannot be understated, creating hype, increasing attendance, and opening the door for further development of both local and major tournaments. While I’m going to save Travis “Samox” Beauchamp’s legendary smash documentary for another article, if you’ve got four hours or so to kill, I’ll link it here.
So far, we’ve talked generally about the Melee community’s ever-expanding player base and origins as a grassroots movement, but one thing intertwining those factors is the utter tenacity of the game’s competitors. I have the deepest of respect for the smashers who continually support the community through entrance fees and donations only then to go 0-2 in tournament (hey that’s me!) however for the purposes of this article I want to focus on those top competitors and veterans in the scene who have been active for so many years.
While the top 100 rankings in Melee can fluctuate from year to year, many top players could have easily retired to pursue more lucrative careers in streaming or other professional sectors. These things, while not being mutually exclusive, have presented dilemmas in the past for players such as Joseph “mang0” Marquez, weighing whether to attend tournaments at the cost of hitting Twitch sub goals. I’m not going to claim that streaming Melee is going to pay your bills, but for a select few the option of retiring and streaming Melee and a variety of games full time could be enticing. The tenacity of these top players who are consistently attending events is arguably the driving factor in keeping the scene alive. These are the players who bring in viewership to tournaments, allowing them to thrive and secure sponsors. That’s not to say new talent can’t bring in viewers, but what Melee fan can resist the thought of a loser’s bracket Mang0 or Wizzrobe winning a major with Captain Falcon? This tenacity from top players is especially prevalent in the case of Aziz “Hax$” Al-Yami. After a debilitating wrist injury and multiple surgeries, Hax was told he would never be able to play Melee at the competitive level again. As you might have guessed, this didn’t stop the highly technical Fox main, who, after a hiatus and some controversy, developed his own commercially available, ergonomic arcade-style controller to return to the scene as one of the most technical players to touch the game. The perseverance of Melee’s competitors continues to breathe life into this so called “party game” from 2001.
To be completely honest, I didn’t write this article because I thought I had anything groundbreaking or new to bring to light. I wrote it because I, like many others, grew up with the Smash Brothers series and fell in love with it all over again through competitive Melee. Despite what’s going on in the world I think 2020 has been an amazing year for the game and it’s something in which I’ve found solace. Congratulations for making it to the end of the article. This has been my love letter to Melee and its community.