Despite being old enough to get a driver’s license in much of the United States, the undying Super Smash Bros. Melee has been haunted by a controversial technique for at least a decade. Wobbling, which can only be used by the Ice Climbers, is a whimsical term for a move that is actually quite controversial due to its infinite grab possibilities. Recently, wobbling got banned at certain events in Tennessee, but the steps that tournament organizers took to get there were complicated and rife with false starts.
While it’s hard to find concrete evidence of the first-ever use of wobbling, it’s long been said in the Super Smash Bros. Melee community that wobbling was discovered by Japanese players in the mid-2000s. It only gained widespread attention and a name, however, when American competitor Robert “Wobbles” Wright made repeated use of the technique to place ninth at a 2006 tournament. Since then, Melee heads have had widely differing opinions on whether its usage should be permitted in competition.
Wobbling is controversial mainly because of how it slows down Super Smash Bros. Melee matches by locking players into an infinite string of attacks. There are many ways to wobble, but they all begin with Ice Climbers point character Popo grabbing the opponent. From there, the Ice Climbers player must desync their fighters—a technique that allows both characters to be used independently, giving the player greater control over the pair—and then repeat a series of attacks in a specific rhythm. If done right, the opponent will be locked into the grab indefinitely and, once enough damage has been built up, the Ice Climbers player can then eliminate their foe. As wobbling can easily lead to timeouts due to its ability to repeat ad nauseum, most tournaments allow the technique but limit how long it can last and/or the damage percentage to which players can escalate.
It may sound strong, but wobbling isn’t a guaranteed win button by any means. The technique can only be utilized once the Ice Climbers have done a decent amount of damage to an opponent, and landing that first throw can be a chore due to the Ice Climbers’ short grab range. The Ice Climbers themselves are actually pretty average once wobbling is taken away, and some players argue that it’s only thanks to the infinite that they have remained relevant in high-level competition.
The most recent chapter in wobbling discussions started during last weekend’s Genesis 6, one of the most important Super Smash Bros. events of the year. Edgard “n0ne” Sheleby, a top Melee player from Canada, tweeted negatively about the technique’s prominence on the tournament broadcast, going as far as to say that, thanks to the arrival of and interest in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, wobbling “would kill Melee off” if nothing was done to curb its visibility in competition. It’s not like Ice Climbers players had dominated the event, though. The highest-placing Ice Climbers player at Genesis 6 was community veteran Daniel “ChuDat” Rodriguez, who has been playing the character since at least 2003, and he tied for seventeenth. Sheleby’s comments nevertheless sparked a new round of wobbling conversations on social media, with one player even going as far as to solve a Rubik’s cube while wobbling to show how easy it is to perform once the first grab has succeeded.
Among the cacophony of opinions, a surprise announcement surfaced on the Super Smash Bros. Melee subreddit on February 6 saying that wobbling would be banned in Tennessee. The post, which quickly racked up over 1,700 upvotes, was made by a user named KoKingpinBrawlMinus. Many assumed this to be retired player and tournament organizer Matthew “KOKingpin” Cronnon, and thus didn’t question its authenticity or abruptness until Cronnon himself came forward to say the post was bogus. Unconfirmed screenshots of a Discord conversation appear to indicate that another local competitor, James “Kimchi” Kotel, was the person behind the impersonation, but so far, no one has stepped up to claim responsibility. Kotaku has reached out to Kotel about this matter and will update if we hear back.
So, someone jumped the gun with a fake post about it, but it also turns out that Tennessee tournament organizers already had been working behind the scenes on a wobbling ban. Clarksville-based organizer William “Bubblewrap” Kotel—who just so happens to be James Kotel’s brother, although he denies James was responsible for the false announcement—told Kotaku that serious discussion about removing the technique from competitive play started over the last year because of two impressive Ice Climbers players, Armand “ARMY” Del Duca and Connor “Bananas” Lamb. While neither player is from Tennessee, organizers in the state noticed their rise in high-level competition and believed it was worth exploring the possibility of a ban. Around the same time, an Indiana tournament, Full Bloom 5, considered making wobbling illegal before redacting that decision. The community reaction to this turn of events furthered Tennessee tournament organizers’ willingness to examine their wobbling rules, and after Genesis 6, their local community began pushing for a ban even more. It was while these conversations were still ongoing that the fake announcement was made, which then prompted the Tennessee organizers to publish an official statement on the morning of February 8 via Reddit.
“First and foremost, many members of our community voiced concerns over the wobbling controversy, even though we do not have many Ice Climbers players in state,” the Reddit post reads. “Even with as few Ice Climbers players that we had, the topic was polarizing on a national scale and the community felt Tennessee should push the side of the issue they felt was correct. It was with this consideration we chose to begin discussing the banning of wobbling.”
The full statement details the three-prong approach Tennessee’s organizers took to making their final decision. First, they opened a poll in the state’s Super Smash Bros. Melee group, allowing both local and out-of-state community members to voice their opinions. Second, a smaller poll was taken from just regional competitors. And lastly, the organizers voted amongst themselves. In all three polls, a ban was favored for wobbling, with four out of the six tournaments organizers voting to make the technique illegal. As such, regional organizers within the state that voted in favor of the ban will do so, while the other two are free to continue allowing wobbling at their events.
“As we stand, we want our community to be inviting for all players, which includes not alienating the cities we have,” the statement explains. “Therefore, Chattanooga and Memphis are opted out of the ban completely and are not required to run events with wobbling banned. As for the ban, the following regions will have the wobbling ban put in place for singles and doubles: Tri Cities, Cookeville, Clarksville, and Middle Tennessee. This ban will be in place until future notice. We hope this will take us in the right direction and convince others to at least test the idea and see how the community responds.”
Due to the grassroots nature of the fighting game community, it’s hard for any one person or group to enact widespread change for competition. But recently, the Super Smash Bros. Melee scene in particular has started to organize themselves into a more complete body. Last year, for example, saw the formation of the Harassment Task Force, a group of community members hoping to reduce incidents of harassment and abuse within the community. This task force was instrumental in the banning of Vikram “Nightmare” Singh from a number of Canadian tournaments after one of Singh’s friends said that Singh had been charged with “sexual interference,” a crime similar to statutory sexual assault in the United States. This task force has continued to work with tournament organizers to make Smash events more welcoming spaces.
When it comes to deciding tournament rules, the closest thing Super Smash Bros. Melee has to a governing body is the Competition Committee. In the past, the organizers in the committee have made decisions about various aspects of Melee competition, such as which controllers are allowed. During the Competition Committee’s initial voting phase in July 2017, they overwhelmingly decided to allow wobbling in their recommended Melee ruleset, although amendments can be made in the future.
Will Tennessee’s ruling on wobbling lead to a sea change in Super Smash Bros. Melee competition? One look at the term’s search results on Twitter should be enough to dissuade anyone from that. This is a controversial discussion for a reason. Hardcore Melee players, casual viewers, and everyone in between has an opinion on wobbling’s legitimacy in serious competition. It all comes down to personal philosophy. Do you believe players should have every opportunity to win as long as they aren’t cheating? Or is it more important to appeal to spectators, whose ideas of excitement may not line up with the slow pace that wobbling can inflict on a match? As with everything, the Melee community has a lot of soul-searching to do, and the compromise found in Tennessee might be the start of a new, productive chapter in this lengthy saga.
Ian Walker loves fighting games and loves writing about them even more. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.