My Time With Melee

February 14, 2017

Casey Moore, Host

 

Esports (competitive video gaming) has evolved long past being simply a hot topic – it’s a tried and true phenomenon.  League of Legends tournaments rival the Super Bowl.  Dota 2 was featured on ESPN.  Nintendo is sponsoring their own titles at EVO.

Gaming for the sake of anything but gaming is something truly wonderful to behold.  Awesome (and Summer) Games Done Quick raises money for charity, folks I know personally stream marathons for charity, and competitive gamers are revered for their prowess almost as much as traditional athletes are now.  We “nerds” are becoming cool, at least relative to one another, and that’s just great.

In 2013, I met a fellow named Luke.  We shared an Intro to Programming class together and met our first day, bonding (though he’ll never admit) about Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.  Luke was, and is, the local patron saint of fighting games – from Guilty Gear to Street Fighter to Killer Instinct – and among his specialties was Super Smash Bros. Melee.

At the time, I was unaware that the game had any more of a following than that of nostalgic geeks like us, but I was radically misinformed.  There’s a large, even growing competitive scene for SSBM, with weekly, monthly, and annual tournaments that have prize money payouts in the tens of thousands.  Players of extremely high skill levels are recognized and looked up to, some even being referred to as the Gods of Smash.

In 2014, Luke and I were sharing a dorm room, and he introduced me to the Super Smash Bros. Documentary.  Simply put, it’s a crash course on the history of SSBM, its figureheads, and its meteoric rise to competitive stardom.  Narrating parts of this documentary is Chris Fabiszak, known more by his tag – a nickname used by players – Wife.  He eloquently describes the early days of Melee and passionately recounts his interactions with players in their youth, including the modern Gods in their early days.  I highly recommend his short story Team Ben, should you feel inclined to make a quick search.

I was hooked.  Competitive gaming wasn’t something I was tremendously interested in the year prior, my only experience then being competitive Pokemon in the early days of X and Y (in which I did very well, I’ll have you know).  Being a JRPG fanatic, it’s just not something I’d had much cause to explore, but Melee was a little bit different.  It was stylish, it was fast, and it was cool.

At least, I thought it was.  FGC purists have mixed, though mostly negative feelings about Melee, but to each their own.  I was intrigued not so much by the game as I was by the players.  PC Chris, Plup, PPMD, and Scar had won my heart and I wanted nothing more than to watch their characters dance on screen in ways I never thought possible.

I took the game up casually at first, alternating it with Project M, a mod of Super Smash Bros. Brawl that merges the finer qualities of both games.  I didn’t settle on a character and I could barely pull off the simplest of techniques, but after a few months I started to get the hang of things.  I started going to local tournaments, one such House of Fear and another weekly at a nearby arcade.  I wasn’t great, and I never became great, but I started to pull off some of those stunts that my favorite players were doing with ease, and I started to really feel the game.  By 2015 I had my own tournament-ready controller and an old TV I’d found by the side of the road – Melee can only be played appropriately on CRTs, you see.

That’s no exaggeration, either.  Melee is played at 60 frames per second (FPS), meaning actions can be done as quickly as 1/60 of a second.  This seems implausible but hardcore Melee players will tell you when your TV is off by so much as a single frame, and it will mess up their tempo.  Some may call this nitpicking, but I think it’s remarkable how sensitive to those details Melee players become.

By mid-2015 I’d settled on my character – Marth, partially to represent my then-favorite franchise, but also to be that much closer to replicating the style of my favorite player, PPMD.  I was experienced with other characters as well; Falco, Captain Falcon, Mario, and Fox are all in capable hands when I hold a controller, but none compare to the fanciful fencer you see under the control of Marth mains.  It was equally parts elegant and powerful, and I couldn’t get enough.

In 2016, I’ve met several friends through the game, which I can say with confidence is the best thing to have come from my time playing SSBM.  In my experience, the type of crowd you’ll encounter playing Melee isn’t the same as, say, browsing forums of games you like.  Not to call forum users anything in particular, but there’s an expectation of Melee players who go to these events to be more sociable than most expect from gamers at large – and there’s often alcohol involved.  Most of the people I met through Melee would fall into the general perception of “cool,” which is an odd thing to associate with a now 16-year-old video game.

In early 2016, I went to my first somewhat significant tournament.  I believe it was Sweet 24, and was held at the University of Michigan.  Three friends and myself, two of them also competitors, took a weekend trip and about a 6 hour car ride to clash with some of the greats – including arguably the greatest, Armada, and other talent in Duck, Swedish Delight, and Prince Abu.  There was no chance we would win, but it was the spirit of the game that drew us, as well as the opportunity to meet some of the top players.  The venue was small, cramped, and hot.  It was sweaty and the only food around was the overpriced university cafeteria, but we were surrounded by hundreds of people who loved the game.  It was a truly great experience.

Unfortunately, at that time my love for Melee had burned to little more than cinder.  I was unable to keep up with the practice necessary to improve any further than I’d already come due to work and school, and playing had separated me from my other hobbies.  Melee is an enormous time investment if you want to be even average compared to the national talent, and while that’s enticing to some, it was more stressful than anything to me.

What I had loved was the weekly, House of Fear, and the people there.  Through no fault of his own, the host of the event had to shut things down, and my local tournament a stone’s throw from my campus was gone.  Another player, Void, opened his apartment to keep the event alive, which was admirable and he was an excellent host, but it just never took off to the same extent that the previous iteration had.

It was no longer a place to drink and hang out with friends after school, rapidly improving from a baseline of casual skill to something vaguely resembling proficiency.  It was no longer an exciting new hobby.  It was no longer a three-times-a-week drink-a-thon practicing tech skill after work until we passed out.  It was a job.  Most of my other friends had quit playing as well, and my only reliable means of playing was to go to the weekly at the arcade – which while nice, conflicted harshly with my schedule and was a longer drive than I was willing to make regularly.  Watching Melee tournaments was no longer exciting as I came to expect the outcomes, and playing in them was discouraging because I wasn’t improving.

Which is only my fault, but I feel no shame in that.  I knew that I wasn’t practicing – I knew I didn’t want to.  There were about three months where I knew my enthusiasm was slipping, which is why after going to Sweet, I hung up the controller.  I had to go to one tournament, to see if it lit that spark once more.  I wanted to meet top players and I wanted to travel, and in finding this finality in myself it certainly wasn’t wasted effort.

Lots of good came from playing Melee and I wouldn’t trade any of that away.  I don’t keep up with all the people I met and Melee isn’t the glue holding some of those friendships together anymore, but I appreciate (almost) every person I met and competed with.  My local community was encouraging, it was fun, and there was a camaraderie that I haven’t seen encompassing any of my other hobbies.  I enjoyed the crew battles, I enjoyed watching tournaments like professional sports, and I enjoyed theory-crafting the game from the ground up with friends of my skill level.  I liked the rising action, but I knew I would never find myself at a climax, and I’m fine with that.  I stopped playing exactly when I needed to take the most from this hobby as I could.

Sometimes I miss it, though.  I miss people cheering my tag – Trill – as I drunkenly four-stocked someone in a Project M weekly.  I miss the matches that go down to the wire, win or lose.  I miss feeling impressed by my own improvement.  I miss creating a team called D,ICA (Dad, It’s Called Anime).  I just don’t miss the stress, and I don’t foresee myself returning in any permanent way.

Recently, I went to a bar with some friends to play in a Melee tournament.  It was awful – single elimination, one game matches, and two legal stages, barely resembling official rules at all.  I pulled off second place in both singles and doubles, and got no award, but it was nice to have Marth back in my hands, dancing around the screen, tech-chasing and showing off for a crowd.

If you feel so inclined to try out Melee, or to just watch tournaments, I highly encourage you to.  It didn’t last for me but there’s nothing I would trade those years involved in the game for.  I can’t speak for every community but mine was welcome and inviting, mostly.  Being a competitor and actively practicing to improve was something that really stuck with me as an experience, and even though I’ve hung up my controller, albeit in a drawer to play Fire Emblem with instead, I still enjoy playing from time to time.

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