Despite being nearly 15 years old and having had a couple of sequels, Super Smash Bros. Melee is still alive and thriving. The fans won't let it die. Usually, the community enthusiasm around Smash Bros. is admirable. But last weekend, at the biggest Smash Bros. tournament ever held, fans' endless love for Melee turned ugly.
I had the chance to go up to New Jersey last Sunday for the final day of Apex 2015, the largest Smash Bros. tournament of the year. I watched as a man won a tournament for Super Smash Bros. Wii U, only to have fans demand that he get off the stage, so that they could watch Melee instead. It was a moment that perfectly captured the long-standing rivalry between Melee and newer Smash Bros. games. It was also a tension I saw manifesting itself in a smaller ways at the tournament.
Nearly every top-level player in the world flew in to the sleepy town of Somerset, NJ that weekend for the tournament. Anyone near the Garden State Convention center could feel the energy: hundreds of players relieved to have found a refuge there after the original venue planned for the event turned out to be a bust, hundreds of players happy to be huddled around tiny CRT screens while Nintendo mascots duked it out in front of them.
At the end of the convention center was a stage where Melee players sat and competed against each other. Despite the fierce competition, and despite the intense rivalries between players, the set-up was cozy, intimate. Players were practically rubbing elbows with one another:
Two giant screens anchored the stage. On the left, Melee. On the right, the newer Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U. Both screens had dozens of seats laid out in front of them, for people to sit down and enjoy the show.
The first thing that struck me about being at the tournament was how quiet it seemed. I was used to watching Smash Bros. events on Twitch with 10, 20 times the size of the audience at Apex. I was used to the constant raw force of rowdy comments accompanying every second of a tournament. Apex, by contrast, practically felt like Wimbledon.
Even though I was sitting in the Smash Wii U section of the convention, I was fixated on Melee, on the other side of the stage. There was something about its sharp pace, and the elegant way that people played it, that commanded my attention more than Smash Wii U did, even though I actually like playing the Wii U game better. Melee made me feel like I was watching a high-speed version of fencing. I don't think I'm the only person that felt that way this weekend. Nearly everyone around me on the Smash Wii U side was actually watching Melee. Some people turned their seats in that direction, ignoring what was going on the Smash Wii U screen. Others loitered in front of the Smash Wii U screen without a care, something that, if done on the Melee side of the room, would have gotten a few angry Melee fans telling them to sit down. Furthermore, unlike Melee players—who were literally taking center stage at the event—Smash Wii U players competing on the screen were tucked away on the side, behind a few rows of spectators.
I had expected the newer game to be the main attraction: certainly, that's what courted Nintendo's sponsorship of the event. They want to sell more copies of Smash Wii U, and in their ideal world, players would forget about Melee. Remember when they tried to ban it from EVO 2013, and only relented after fan outcry? But however Nintendo might feel about it, Melee was at the heart of Apex, and everything else felt like a side-event.
I didn't make much of this initially. I knew that players regarded Melee highly, but that didn't actually seem like a problem. As the day progressed, the matches shown on the main screens changed. Instead of having both Melee and Smash Wii U on both screens at the same time, one screen displayed the Smash Wii U quarter finals, and the other screen displayed Smash 64. The top eight matches for Melee were scheduled to come later in the night. Since most people seemed to be there for Melee, they stuck around the area throughout the Smash Wii U matches: they wanted to stake out seats early, before the main event. While they waited, the crowd seemed to collectively stop caring about the tournament. The convention center got louder. People seemed more interested in chatting with one another than paying attention to what the players were doing.
Smash Wii U is not a fast-paced game—not in the same way Melee is, at least. People are still trying to figure the newer game out, too. The techniques that players use aren't as developed in Smash Wii U as they are in Melee, not yet. On top of that, matches for Smash Wii U were best out of five, instead of best out of three. I heard many players complain that the final segment of the Smash Wii U tournament felt like it was uninteresting, or that it was taking forever.
The Apex schedule had promised Melee back on the screen by 7pm on Sunday, but that time came and went, and still Smash Wii U was on the screen. Presumably, this was because the tournament lost an entire day on Friday, thanks to the venue relocation—it wasn't their fault. Still, players were getting exasperated. Diddy Kong wasn't helping.
Let me explain: many of the top Smash Wii U matches included the infamous Kong. People hate Diddy for a number of reasons, partially because he's powerful in the right hands, but also because people feel like they know exactly how players will use him. Diddy favors juggles, and he likes to keep his opponents in the air. Diddy Kong players will often grab their opponents, and throw them into an air using a very specific combo. He's considered predictable, and therefore uninteresting to watch.
The community has taken to chanting "HOO-HAH" every time Diddy Kong does this set of moves in a pro match, and while that chant is playful, it's also critical of the character. The heated arguments about Diddy can sometimes seem excessive, like the community is trying to find a character to be a new punching bag. Nearly every game has one such character, especially fighting games. Ken in Street Fighter, for example. But at one point during Apex, the matches literally became Diddy Kong vs. Diddy Kong.
Listen: I love Diddy Kong. I main Diddy Kong myself, and have done so since Brawl. But after watching an entire day's worth of Diddy Kong matches last Sunday, I started to see where people were coming from. I wasn't as upset as the people around me—at some point during the tournament, audience members started straight-up booing whenever a player picked Diddy Kong—but I could sympathize. People attended the event to be entertained, and when they could guess exactly how things would go down in a match, they probably didn't feel like they got their money's worth.
Later that night, a Smash Wii U match had technical difficulties, and the screen displaying the match turned black for a few moments. In response, people started cheering, "MELEE, MELEE, MELEE" as if to say, finally! The nightmare that is Smash Wii U is gone! Can't we get back to broadcasting the game people actually want to see? When the tournament organizers got the screen working again, people booed. One person next to me screamed "NO, NO, NO!" The announcer at the event had to get on stage to tell the crowd to stop and cool off.
Eventually, the Smash Wii U event did end, and the tournament could crown its winner: Zero, the Chilean man who mains Diddy Kong. Zero was handed his trophy, and the crowd's reaction was a mix of booing, chants for Melee, and cheering. But the cheering didn't seem to be for Zero, not entirely. Rather, some people were overjoyed that Melee was going to come back on the main screen, and Zero just happened to be the means through which it would happen. By winning, Zero put an end to Smash Wii U matches, which is exactly what some of the community wanted.
"It was very disrespectful but what can you do?," Zero said to Kotaku in an email. "I was very happy from winning, and that feeling won't go away with a few people voicing their voices like that. I don't care much at all, but it shouldn't happen."
On Twitter, Zero opened up a bit more:
I'd lie to you if I told you it didn't bother me.
I've been waiting to win an Apex for many, many years. I've dreamed of the moment where I can finally hold that trophy, and just smile. But when the crowd was cheering it wasn't for me, it was for the fact that the game was over and they can now see Melee. It wasn't cool and my heart was crushed, but I was only annoyed at the individuals who went ahead with it. I'm not saying all Melee players do this, but this is to those who did.
Let's make things different.
Don't apologize to me. That's not important. What's important is fixing an issue within the community. Generalizing isn't cool, but the friction between Melee and other Smash games has always been there. It's at events, in forums, and chats. I've seen disrespect, and I've been disrespected in many different ways.
Who draws the line? How do we fix it?
This issue is old. It's a part of the scene, regardless of how some feel about it.
I personally think that if we collectively bring light to the fact that this is a critical issue then we are one step closer to fixing the problem. The thing is that, while this is an issue, there's still people that find these things 'okay' or 'fine'. But if this type of attitude is actively punished and scolded then we just might see some change. Until eventually it becomes a very rare issue.
You can't really understand how it [is] being on the other side of the topic. To be honest, I didn't understand until I was on that stage. When Nairo got the same treatment I didn't think much of it. But we dedicate our lives to being good at Smash, to put on a show of high level display for you, and when we finally get the validation of winning something as big as Apex...when you are looking to your Smash family for support you just…
I've seen top players in different Smash games not feel as important to the community because they don't play Melee. And that's not okay. This shouldn't be the Melee Community or the Smash 4 community, but rather just the Smash community.
I get it, fine. You don't like the other game. That's fine. But it really sucks to see more disrespect from people inside our community, than the people outside. Do you really have to be so vocal about it? So public to show it? Does it really have to? That's my point.
If anything, we have to work to do as a community. We're growing, and we're doing great things. This past Apex was a milestone in many, many ways for our wonderful community. I really hope this one issue at some point can be resolved. But I believe we can do it. It would take time, but it's possible.
At the end of the day no matter what game you play the person behind the controller is a part of this Smash family. We all share the same passions, and that's Smash. It's amazing how many times we forget that.
As Zero says, not all Smash Bros. diehards booed, or cheered for Melee. At least some people online were appalled with how the community treated Zero after his win. "This is why people say the Melee community is toxic and harmful," one thread on Reddit said. "The crowd and how it reacted right after Zero won Apex 2015 Smash 4 singles was absolutely unacceptable on all accounts...it makes the entire Smash scene look bad."
The way the community reacted to Zero's win isn't an isolated incident. At last year's Apex, the Brawl grand final was also met with chants of "MELEE, MELEE, MELEE," robbing a different player called Nairo of his grand achievement, which Zero referenced in his statement on the matter. For comparison's sake, the winner of the Melee grand finals this year was met with unanimous excitement, with nearly everyone getting on their feet to clap, and quite a few people rushing to the stage to congratulate him. With good reason, too: he deserved the praise and the support.
Right now, the Smash Bros. scene seems to be in a transitional moment. More than one hundred thousand people tuned in to watch Apex on Twitch. With the release of Smash Wii U, there's a renewed interest in Smash Bros. I'd wager that Smash Wii U is doing more work than Melee is when it comes to bringing new players into the fold.
Melee might be considered the more technical game, but the elitism around it is causing tensions—and these tensions might influence the fate of the Smash Bros. community. Judging by the incredible efforts by the community in the last few years—like bringing Smash to EVO despite bans, or finding a new location for Apex 2015 after the first convention center didn't work out—I'm optimistic that the scene will keep blossoming, and that incidents like the one at Apex are just growing pains. I just hope that next year, all of the winners at Apex will hear cheers for their victory, regardless of which game they were playing.
UPDATE: This post by Bobby Scarnewman touches on some of the reasons that Melee chants happened at Apex this year:
Everyone who attended Apex 2015 for Melee had to find their way to Secaucus, NJ, spent Friday running around in confusion, and made the 45-minute journey to Somerset, NJ at least once. Most of them were from out of the state of NJ. Many of them had obligations (work or school) on Monday.
Some of them had to wait for hours for a bus from the Clarion to Somerset, only to find that there wasn't enough space. They had to pay for a cab to the venue and they were DQd from their pools.
On Sunday, SSBM fans came to the venue to watch on Finals day – those who watched teams arrived in the AM hours.
Melee Bracket was supposed to end at 5pm, but it didn't. Smash 4 Finals were supposed to end at 8pm, but it didn't. Melee Finals were supposed to start at 8pm and end at 10pm, but it didn't.
There were a lot of things that went wrong at Apex, and as a result, we were still watching Smash 4 Finals past the time the whole event was supposed to have ended. Instead of being on their way home, SSBM fans were stuck waiting for top 8 with no updates on when it might start. On top of that, snow threatened to cancel flights and make the late-night drives home even scarier.
You can read the rest of it here, if you're interested in hearing more about why the chanting incident might have happened.