Very few games have garnered the cult competitive following of Super Smash Brothers: Melee.Its predecessor, Super Smash Bros (for Nintendo 64), and its successor, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, have virtually no present competitive scene. Yet, Melee, fourteen years since its creation, still amasses thousands of people from around the globe to play the game the only way it can be: in the flesh, in front of heavy CRT monitors. The game runs at sixty frames a second and playing online or on any other equipment creates lag- and for competitive players even one or two frames is unacceptable. It’s difficult to explain why, but at some point you have to accept that the sacrifice is made because Melee is a fantastic game.
At its highest level, the gameplay is stunning. Players dance around one another with intricate, frame-by-frame movement, tools not dreamed of by its developers. The aim is to rack up damage with perfectly timed and spaced attacks and punish your opponent’s mistakes with beautiful and creative combinations of moves, in order to get them off the stage- and keep them off.
Over Skype I talked to ex-Melee pro, commentator and Washington DC native Chris Fabiszak. Fabiszak doesn’t fit the popular idea of a professional video game player: he’s progressive, clean shaven, eloquent, and married.
“I know this is controversial, but I think it’s the best game ever created,” Chris writes, “I think it’s better than football. There, I said it. I think the game holds a beauty that is unmatched by other sports. I think the game when played at its highest level is a work of art, more so than sports”.
His book, Team Ben: A Year As A Professional Gamer, details his experience of a formative period in competitive video games, and how he dealt with trauma when his life revolved around Super Smash Brothers.
It is commonly said that Melee is more about interacting with players than it is about interacting with a game. There is no one system that can bring competitive success, since beating skilled players always involves constantly adapting to a multitude of factors and personal styles. This is central to Chris’s love of the game.
“If you’re lucky, you learn when they’re afraid, because for me it’s all about fear… you can see when they start doing dumb stuff and they know better but they’re scared, and you push on that and that’s when you beat them.”
Learning the game’s advanced skills, practicing them, and competing in tournaments all necessitates that players be together, in the same room. There is a symbiosis where the game’s survival depends on the community, and the community depends on the game to keep it together.
It is a sad indictment of Smash circles that there are almost no women involved at any level- and there are clear structural factors for why the disparity is so. Gender aside, the Melee brotherhood in the United States is an unlikely, diverse hodgepodge of people from African American, Hispanic, and Asian-American backgrounds, with many members from the queer and non-neurotypical (ie. people with developmental disabilities) communities, too. This diversity permeates the highest levels of the game’s play, organisation, and commentary. When I asked Chris why this is, his guess is that “it’s just the power of a good game” and I agree.
But Chris’ experience of “the power of a good game” goes beyond transcending traditional social boundaries.
“When I was seventeen I had a real close knit group of us four friends, we were gamers, and nerds, and we weren’t involved in a whole lot else than that, and there was this bizarre situation with a very sick and very hurt individual who decided that he wanted to kill one of our friends… He was able to order cyanide off the internet shockingly easily… he was able to poison my friend and kill him. We were seventeen and it shaped the rest of my life. I was going through the heavy grief of losing my best friend, and [Competitive Melee] was this wonderful escape … we played Smash all the time with Ben, of course, and to this day I consider myself ‘Team Ben’”
This story resonates with me. In the early nineties, my Uncle (now perfectly healthy) received a near-terminal cancer diagnosis. Every day when my Dad was there to care for him, my Uncle would turn on his Game Boy and play game after game of Tetris. My Dad, tired at the end of the day, would go to a particular arcade in Hoboken (which had a fairly new Doctor Whomachine) and spend a significant amount of time playing pinball, alone.
It may seem sad to many readers that people enduring so much pain spent so many hours on their own, expressionless, in rooms lit only by the flashing lights of preprogramed, emotionless machines. We all grieve differently. What unites the experience is that it takes us time to move on. For some, that void between experiencing trauma and a return to normalcy are best spent immersed in predictable activity.
But outside of the game, sometimes, your friend is killed. Sometimes your brother gets cancer. Chris and I agree: the period between being heaved into the pit, and making your way out is lengthy. Your brain has to fundamentally reconfigure how it conceives.. Everyone deals with their time in the pit differently, and some people just need preoccupation. I don’t see anything wrong with that
“It created a lot of energy in me,” Fabiszak says, “There was some anger, some anxiety, just a lot of pent up energy that could have gone to some less desirable places. Instead, I channelled it all into competitive Smash, and you could do a lot worse.”
What separates competitive Melee from other games is that it has an infinitely high skill ceiling, and that skill ceiling matters. In tournament, the better player always wins. It’s a rare sight for someone who is even the fifteenth best player in the world to win a set against the fifth. There is order in place- the more you practice, the better you are, and the less you lose sets.
The competitive game can be incredibly cruel when you’re playing someone who’s clearly better than you, but that predictability gives the game an order which is appealing, given the cruel chaos of the outside world.
In his book, Chris also writes about his struggle with depression. Within the Melee community, Chris is not alone. Two of the top six players, Jason “Mew2king” Zimmerman, and Kevin “PPMD” Nanney have publicly taken long breaks due to depression.
“The community provides a safe place for persons dealing with depression. There can be something wrong and that’s okay. I feel that in other walks of life if you’re not feeling okay, you have to fight it, but the Smash community is great for that. PPMD could say “I need six months off right now, I just can’t do it, sorry guys” and it is what it is. His sponsorship and all his fans are waiting for him when he comes back and people don’t demand to know why, or to know any more about it. That’s my experience, too. People don’t ask you more than one question if you’re not willing to talk about it.”
It’s an progressiveness that leads to an openness that I wish we all could share.
“People in the Smash Community are always talking about their feelings. They’re rewarded for expressing their weaknesses and you may not be elsewhere.”
In the fourteen years since Melee was released, the international fraternity of its players defeat many of the assumptions people have about competitive gaming. It appears that the game is creating real world, grassroots collectives rather than fake online “communities” which only exist to sell YouTube ads and merchandise. And in an age where male online communities are rapidly radicalizing and isolating people who would like an alternative to society’s status quo, that’s something they should be proud of.