If you ask the average esports fan when Super Smash Bros. became a blip on their radar, most will point to one event: The Evolution Fighting Championships 2013.
Some players were making six figures in esports in 2013. During a breast cancer charity drive to see who could raise the most money, the fighting game community ended up raising over $250,000 for a good cause, and for a bit of friendly pride. The event led to a competition between many subsects of the fighting game community, or FGC, with each title looking to show that their fans were the most diehard, and that they deserved a shot to be venerated on Evolution's main stage. Of it, the victor was a section of the fighting game community that you'd consider that distant cousin discussed at reunions: the Smash Bros. community.
Smash Bros. isn't your typical fighting game. We've seen a myriad of arguments as to whether the Smash games are "true fighters." Players stated that they are mechanically different, but they do share more than in-game fundamentals. They share a lineage of how the scenes were formed.
Back in 2002, years after quarters were tossed in arcade slots for that Player 1 spot, the competitive Smash Bros. scene can be traced back to Gamecube discs in Matt "MattDeezie" Dahlgren's home. Across the country, and later the globe, smashers started collecting in basements and backrooms just for the chance to test their skills in the same way. The scene for Super Smash Bros. Melee esports sprung up, and dedicated niches would also pop up for the original Super Smash Brothers, and the sequels, Super Smash Bros. Brawl for Wii and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, as well as community created mods. First party support was a pipe dream, but the scenes survived because of people who had something to prove to their opponents; then they saw that the world was filled with potential opposition.
After the trophies were handed out at Evo in Las Vegas in 2013, we got a chance to soak it in. It wasn't just a bracket that the community received, it was a reintroduction to the ballrooms that many smashers doubted they'd see again. Smash hadn't been a main event at the Evolution Championship Series in five years. Maybe it's the spectacle of it all, the clicking of controllers, missed plinks on arcade sticks and the ringing of slot machines in the distance. Maybe it's knowing what that stage means as a fighting game player, how it hearkens to a collective memory of whispered names and moments like people talking about Babe Ruth's "Called Shot," but there is something special about Evo.
The esports world at large was forced to take another look at Smash after Evo, and an old friend returned to the fray. Eleven months after Smash appeared in the Las Vegas desert, Major League Gaming extended a hand to the community. MLG's history with Smash isn't just footage of Christopher "PC Chris" Szygiel and Ken "SephirothKen" Hoang, rather Brawl players still reminisce about Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman and Elliot "Ally" Carroza-Oyarce squaring off, as well as their storied circuit. In 2014, both Melee and Brawl were presented at qualifying events, yet Melee made it to the main stage while Brawl players wondered what was next.
To many smashers, it was remarkable being mentioned in the media again. It seemed like we were eons removed from Chris "KillaOR" McKenzie being on MTV's "True Life" or Ken "SephirothKen" Hoang was featured in Electronic Gaming Monthly. Imagine our surprise when Nintendo descended from the hills. The lack of first-party support in the formative years of the scene made it what it is today: self-sufficient. Our players became more than players, they became anything and everything they needed for the health and sustainability of the scene. The first time we heard from Nintendo, it wasn't what we envisioned at all. Before ink could dry on the bracket sheets, we heard that Evo was going to be canceled. Not just the stream, but the entirety of the bracket for smashers present. Quickly after news hit, the same people who found us interesting enough to recount our journey asked their audience why the journey would come to an abrupt halt. Nintendo later asked itself the same question, rescinding its decision and opting to watch from afar.
Shortly after Joseph "Mango" Marquez won his first Evo trophy, and six years after collecting third the last time Melee was on that stage, people had the chance to learn about him and a couple of other Smash legends. Travis "Samox" Beauchamp released a documentary, The Smash Brothers, a grassroots project from a player who wanted to talk a bit about the lineage of the game he loved: Melee. It traced some of our community's history through events like past trips to Evo and MLG, but also recounted some of our homegrown efforts that kept the scene afloat when we didn't have support from anyone. As the scene around Melee scene began a resurgence after Evolution broke attendance records, Brawl began to slowly fade. At one point it had been bigger, even in the early half of 2013, but after a Melee resurgence in the latter half, the community that had been so strong at one point began to sputter.
On the other end of the spectrum, esports teams had been looking at our players again. When Team Liquid signed its first two players, they weren't eight top finishers at Evo, they were two players with a legacy: SephirothKen and Daniel "KoreanDJ" Jung. The image of Smash being an overnight sensation was shed when homegrown players representing MeleeItOnMe, VideoGameBootCamp, Clash Tournaments and Smash Studios traded those shirts in for jerseys from Evil Geniuses, Cloud9, Alliance, Counter Logic Gaming, Team SoloMid, and others. The scene, and esports, itself had certainly grown since players represented Team Carbon and Eric "ESAM" Lew wore a shirt for vVv.
Eight months after the release of the documentary, the phone rang again with Nintendo on the line. It wanted to promote its new console release, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, And with Smash returning to the public eye, why not have a few community members do it at an invitational event? Some of those individuals had been picked up by teams, others were heavily featured in the documentary, others were voices the community had grown to love, however, the story was the same one that resonates with many smashers: a Smash game changed their life. When Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios won the whole thing, it was more than just another trophy. While he had collected many as one of Brawl's top players, he got to set the tone for the year to come; he would continue those winning ways and dominate the first full year of the game, later waving the banner of Team SoloMid.
To me, 2016 is a result of what happened in 2013. We're connected with the fighting game community again, we see tournament organizers from both sides of the fence learning from one another, and we've grown to love Evo's ballrooms and Community Effort Orlando's ring as much as our own majors. The esports world has realized that we aren't a passing fad. Until recently, events such as Beyond The Summit, Electronic Sports League and DreamHack were not possibilities; now, we hear of one being announced and people start planning their trips, hoping for a chance to compete. Nintendo has sponsored a couple of events, and we've grown accustomed to seeing Cognitive jerseys dueling next to TempoStorm at our events. Even now, we continue to challenge our attendance records with each passing major with no slowing down.
The community is the embodiment of going from basements to ballrooms.
2016 has us starting with a return to our roots. We'll be setting the pace with a community run event, Genesis 3. The past couple of years have seen the northeast as home for the first major event of the year, but the return of the Genesis series reopens a lot of old chapters and the chance to write new ones.
"Super Smash Bros." has held on strong, and while it may not be spoken about as much as the others, there is a dedicated scene for a game that can buy cigarettes in a couple of months. Based on registration numbers, it already is the largest tournament the game has seen to date. Players from Chile, Brazil, Japan, Canada, and Mexico are coming to compete, knowing that their title doesn't have the opportunities presented to the other two games present. They have as much pride on the line as every other competitor attending.
Brawl may see its stars square off in a special attraction, however many of those rivalries began anew in "Super Smash Bros. For Wii U." The new title lit a fire under many of Brawl's top players, many looking to match their success in the a modern era of esports that many thought couldn't be attained with the decline of their past love. ZeRo ruled 2015 with an iron fist, but old foes such as Ally, ESAM, Ramin "Mr. R" Delshad, and Samuel "Dabuz" Buzby have their sights on him. Yet many wonder if he'll get a measure of revenge against the man that ruined his win streak at MLG's New Orleans event, Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada.
The game's release also brought a new legion of smashers who made this their first entry into the series. Some have taken to it quickly and are seasoned vets a year after release. Foreign players are more eager than ever to appear at major events, so players are scouring match footage from all over the globe, with special interest being paid to Mexico and Japan in particular. ZeRo is the king, but the castle is being besieged from all directions.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
For Melee, Joseph "Mango" Marquez has a special reason to be hungry for this event: He wants to beat Adam "Armada" Lindgren. Alliance's Armada may have been the top player in Melee last year, and the two have become our Magic and Bird. Each battle between the two leaves mouths agape, and that happened for the first time at the Genesis series. Armada surprised the world at Genesis, but fell short to Mango in the end. At Genesis 2, Mango tried to prove he was still the top dog, but Armada showed he was going to be a thorn in his side for years to come.
Names such as Mew2King, Kevin "PPMD" Nanney, and Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma are other favorites for the event, however we all know nothing is guaranteed. Those five players, and William "Leffen" Hjelte, who will be absent from the event due to visa issues, have won every major event for years, but the field is catching up faster than ever. We've seen players such as Jeffrey "Axe" Williamson, Robert "Wobbles" Wright, Justin "Plup" McGrath, McCain "MacD" LaVelle, DaJuan "Shroomed" Jefferson, Weston "Westballz"Dennis, Kevin "PewPewU" Toy, Zachary "SFAT" Cordoni, and countless others show that they are far more than a supporting cast and are capable of ruining the hopes of any competitor who dares to look past them.
At the start of 2016, everyone has the same question: What does the year hold for Smash? We all know good things are on the way, but as we saw our own MattDeezie on stage at Capcom Cup, we know that there is still a lot more growing for us to do. The good news is we have a lot of room to do it in.