If failure is the quintessence of humility, then as I sat slumped over a fold-out chair in a bar beside a CRT television, GameCube controller in hand, I was the ultimate product of video game shame.
It started with arrogance. I thought I could walk into a competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament and breeze through the first round. That arrogance was only strengthened by my Melee doubles partner, who is one of the best players in the world.
My ego wasn’t completely unfounded. Not only have I been playing video games all my life, I’ve been playing Melee for a decade, and I can take on friends or a random passerby at PAX and win. Surely I could translate that skill into a small local tournament.
I got the somewhat presumptuous idea to approach OG Esports’ James “Swedish Delight” Liu, a professional Melee player from the New York and New Jersey area. I was already certain I could go decently far in a tournament on the singles side of the bracket, but with the 16th best player in the world at my side, I thought we could destroy the doubles side of a small local tournament. Then, of course, I could tell everyone that not only do I attend locals, I sometimes walk away with first place wins.
I approached Liu with my proposal, and he agreed with humorous bemusement. The tournament, It’s Lit in Brooklyn, was about a week away. We agreed on some times that I would trek to his apartment so we could practice. He would lay down some strategies, get me caught up on any technical know-how, and then we would go on to take the tournament.
I chose Liu for his skill, but also because he seemed like a good team player. Liu himself is very sociable; reaching in, shaking hands, and holding conversations. He proves that any stereotypes of hardcore competitive gamers should be left at the door. He doesn’t like to brag about his professional side-career as a competitive gamer, but doesn’t mind letting people stumble into it in conversation.
On a snowy March night in 2017, I went to Liu’s apartment for our very first practice session. After he let me inside, I saw that he was in the middle of making dinner: pork dumplings. He offered me some, but I had to decline due to my religion’s predisposition towards swine. After he finished eating, we pulled two chairs in front of an old-school CRT television, turned on the GameCube, and began.
Winning at competitive video games ultimately comes down to finding and exploiting exploits. Unlike tic-tac-toe, a one-dimensional game with a limited set of moves, Melee is a computer program. And regardless of complexity, all computer programs can be reduced to ones and zeroes. In essence, the game is binary and cannot react to unforeseen human input. If a person can find a technique in the game not intended by the developers, then that player has found an advantage.
It’s these discoveries that change the game, and create a metagame.
The metagame, or the game within the game, is the zone in which professional-level players compete. In chess, a novice may only be thinking one or two moves ahead, while the grandmaster is diving far deeper. They are thinking ahead multiple moves, trying to figure out which strategies their opponent is laying out, what mix-ups they can employ to confuse their foe, and even whether their opponent’s hands are twitching. On the surface, a viewer may simply be seeing two pros move pieces and pull them, but the players see something far greater.
As with any metagame, different cultures or groups develop different styles. In Melee, the West coast has a very aggressive style that employs riskier techniques; it relies on conditioning, as well as reading and overwhelming opponents. The East coast chooses to optimize, which is to say, going for the “optimal” options according to a data-driven approach. Japan has its own meta around supposedly non-competitive characters, opting to surprise opponents with unknown techniques and strategies. And Europe, which once lagged behind the Americans and Japanese in Melee, caught up by playing a purely optimal flowchart strategy. It wasn’t flashy, but got the job done.
Liu was trying to be patient. I was far more inexperienced than I thought I was, and it was showing. I assumed that because not only had I been writing about competitive Smash for years at that point, but had been playing the game too, I’d have a better grasp of the technical nuances. Turns out, while I may have more Smash knowledge than the average fan, it pales in comparison to the deep well of wisdom that is necessary to be competitive.
My hands weren’t reacting quickly enough. Situations in which I had milliseconds to react felt particularly challenging. For top players, gaining consistency takes hundreds of hours of repetition, until reaction becomes muscle memory. Here I was, learning a new technique and trying to master it in less than a week.
After two sessions, Liu came to terms with the dire situation and decided to to develop a strategy around my limited skill set. It was simple: I would use a specific move when an opponent was nearby, and that move would launch the opponent towards Liu, and then he would do his magic. It was a simple strategy that even I felt I could handle.
The following week, we reconvened at Lantern Hall, a small bar in Brooklyn. Rows of televisions were set up towards the back, and the atmosphere was relaxed and light. Many of the players competing were unknowns, just there to have a good time.
The first round of doubles started. Liu and I sat down, greeted our opponents, and began playing.
Right away, I became overwhelmed by the barrage of fast-moving characters on screen. Not only could I not keep pace, I wasn’t thinking strategically. Like a lame AI opponent, I was throwing out the same move repeatedly, hoping it would land and translate into a kill by Liu. I had enough trouble during the practice sessions, but now, the tournament nerves were getting to me. My mind became a fog of self doubt. Our opponents soon picked up on our strategy and adapted to my incessant spamming. Liu could not hide his frustration.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Liu yelled at me as we started the second game of the best-of-three match. We had lost the first. His comment caught me off guard. Going in, I had assumed that Liu only mildly cared. But turns out, regardless of how serious the competition was, Liu was competitive and was taking it very seriously. I was too, I just didn’t have the skills to back it up.
In game two, I didn’t fare much better, but we still won, thanks to some clutch plays by Liu. Unfortunately, my mediocre play in game three resulted in a loss.
We ended up in the losers bracket. As we sat among the other players who had lost their first matches, Liu pulled me aside. He didn’t give me the words of encouragement I was hoping for. Instead he laid out how cruddy of a situation we were in, with me being the root of the problem. He then told me to play more comfortably. He had picked up on my nervousness and told me to relax. As he was trying to calm me down, we heard our names called for our next match, the one that would determine if we would stay in the tournament.
As the second match commenced, our opponents immediately started going after Liu.
Their tactic worked. As Liu fell off stage, he made a final effort to fly back on with his Fox. He wasn’t going to make it. Yet, I realized, there was a way for me to save him. I could jump down, risk myself, and hit Liu upward towards the stage letting him back on.
There was no time to weigh the options. I took my shot, and it worked. As I propelled my partner back onto the stage, I heard an audible “wow,” from Liu. He was surprised, as was I. I had somehow tapped into a part of my brain that slowed down the game. For a brief moment, I saw clarity. The game wasn’t so frantic, and my goal was clear: make sure Liu stays alive. As the game progressed, once again, Liu ended up in danger of plummeting to his death, and once again, I risked jumping off stage to hit him so he could get back on. I heard another “wow,” from Liu. The inner complexities of Melee had started to synthesize inside my head. Things were starting to make sense.
Sadly, those few moments of clarity were not enough to overcome the skill gap. Liu and I walked away from that set, losing both games. Once again, Liu pulled me aside. He admitted that I wasn’t very good, but that I was starting to get it. And with more practice, it was possible for me to become a more consistent player.
On the way home that night, I reflected on my newfound respect for what it takes to be a top player. The hours of rigorous practice, the losses, and the level-headedness required to perform in the heat of intense competition, all characteristics worthy of admiration. My confidence had proved to be nothing more than empty internal braggadocio. But as I boarded the train making my way back to Manhattan, I realized that I shouldn’t feel so down on myself. I did something cool.