Walking through the doors, the first thing that hit me was the sound: 20 joysticks clacking ferociously like a horde of angry plastic insects. Tables along the walls of the long room were each topped with an old boxy CRT televisions and hooked up to a Nintendo GameCube — a game console from a decade and a half ago. Sitting before each set up, in cheap plastic chairs, players focused intently on the screen in front of them and the unfolding Super Smash Brothers Melee matches.
Melee, a fighting game featuring Nintendo characters, was released in 2001, some 16 years ago. It was a sequel to the 1999 game for the Nintendo 64 console and was marketed as a party game for kids to play with their friends. The game was a fun way to pit the likes of Mario and Kirby against Pikachu and Donkey Kong. For many that was all it ever was, and when the next big game came along they forgot about Melee.
But for the players huddled around CRTs that Friday night in Iowa City, Melee was anything but a casual party game. They played intensely, fingers dancing quickly over their controllers, cursing or groaning under their breath when they made a mistake. Occasionally they stopped to make conversation with opponents or others around them, but they were always quick to get back to the game.
This little collection of players represented only a tiny fraction of the global competitive Melee community. Despite being 16 years old, practically archaic by video game standards, the game’s player base stands thousands strong today. At the 2016 Evolution Championship Series (Evo) in Las Vegas, the largest fighting game tournament of the year and the largest Melee tournament to date, Melee received 2,372 entrants. Tens of thousands more tune in to online livestreams to watch the finals of each major tournament, with the 2016 Evo tournament getting over 200,000 viewers on Twitch, a livestreaming video platform.
The game is thriving with little to no help from Nintendo, its developer. Most other major competitive video games, known as esports, receive ample support from their developers in the form of corporate-sponsored tournament circuits and thousands of dollars in prize money. Super Smash Brothers has none of this; its competitive scene is almost entirely grassroots, supported only by the efforts of its most diehard players, fueled by an intense love for the game. In fact, in response to a callout from one of the top Melee players, Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma, asking for increased corporate support, a Nintendo executive said that the company hopes to keep the scene grassroots.
The Melee scene has not always thrived as it does now; after the release of the third game in the series, Super Smash Brothers Brawl, in 2007, the Melee scene nearly faded from existence. However, its community was reinvigorated in 2013 by the release of an independent documentary series, The Smash Brothers, on YouTube. This documentary, produced by Travis “Samox” Beauchamp, a community member infatuated with the game, chronicles the history of competitive Melee and its greatest players. It breathed new life into the scene.
I came to the Iowa City tournament primarily as a spectator, having discovered the Iowa Smash! Facebook page earlier that week. Melee was a favorite pastime of mine, but a cursory glance around the room told me that these people were playing at a level far beyond that of me and my friends.
I brought my own controller, something I understood was customary at these events, but all the setups were full and I stood awkwardly, unsure of how to proceed. I was worried about drawing strange looks as a newcomer, but everyone was much too focused on their games to notice me. Finally, I spotted an opening at a console in the corner and quickly made my way across the room.
“Mind if I hop on?” I asked the player still plugged in to the console. With his former opponent departed, he had been practicing combos against an AI opponent.
“Sure,” he said, only glancing up from the screen for a brief moment. I plugged in, selected my character and took a seat.
He destroyed me. Utterly and completely. Coming in, I had expected to be outclassed, but I could hardly touch him. Each player gets four lives or “stocks” per game, which are lost by being hit hard enough to fly off the borders of the screen; I was rarely able to take more than one of his stocks each round. His character moved around the screen in a blur, making mine look sluggish and stupid in comparison. Every hit he got on me led into an elaborate combo, while every time I hit him seemed like dumb luck. Still, we played on. That’s what we were there for, after all.
I played several people and each one slaughtered me more brutally than the last. In between matches, I tried to find out more about this grassroots community. Most people told me they’d been playing for around three or four years, lining up with the explosion of popularity produced by the documentary. One opponent, however, told me he had been playing competitively for around five years and practicing what he called techskill (a general term for a variety of advanced Melee techniques) for 10 years.
“Actually,” he told me with a tinge of pride in his voice, “Back before anyone here was good I was probably second best in the state.”
I continued to play until late into the evening and even entered a small tournament. As expected, I failed to win a single game, but the tournament was only $5 to enter so I wasn’t too heartbroken over my losses. After several hours of having all my perceived skill as a gamer completely invalidated, I began to tire. I seemed to be the first to depart. The clacking of joysticks still filled the air as I left.
Randy Davenport is a freshman at the University of Iowa studying English and creative writing. His passions include musical theater, old Nintendo games and drinking lots of milk. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 233.