By: Ignacio Martinez
To an entire community within Austin, Texas, I am not known primarily as Ignacio Martinez. To an entire subculture of Super Smash Bros. fanatics within this city, I am first and foremost recognized through my tag: Palaver.
Super Smash Bros. Melee is a fighting game released by Nintendo in 2001, whose cast is composed of many iconic characters from the company’s many long-running series, including Mario, Link, Samus and Pikachu. Originally intended to be played as a party game, the wealth of advanced techniques within the game quickly resulted in the emergence of a die-hard competitive scene. For the past 15 years, Melee has seen periods of purely grassroots tournaments to support and sponsorship from many big name organizations. Currently, due to the recent increased legitimization of e-sports, Melee and its community are thriving.
Weekly competitions, meticulously maintained rankings and leaderboards, and hours of practice are what makes Super Smash Bros. Melee a thriving and strong community, even on a local scale. Attending a local tournament in a game store or sports bar is a wholly unique experience. The game is played on CRT TVs – cathode ray tube, or TVs that were popular before flat screen technology, so they are bigger and bulkier – to reduce input lag, so these antiquated screens are seen in droves at any Melee tournament.
Tournaments facilitate relationships with competitors beyond regular practice partners. Meeting people from other regions who have been playing the game for a few week or a few years is an instrumental aspect of the Melee community, as it helps players adapt and evolve. Played competitively for over 15 years, Melee has persisted both because of its technical perfection and the unwavering devotion of its players. “How fast-paced it is, and the level of movement control the game gives you makes it perfect,” says Andrew Harrison, a San Marcos resident who travels to Austin weekly to compete.
From March 17-19, the Austin Convention Center hosted the Battle of the Five Gods, a Melee tournament hosted by SXSW Gaming. The tournament was invite-only, so the competitors were among the top 20 ranked players in the world and the prize pool of $25,000 was the largest in history. Although most of the talent hailed from the United States, Europe was represented as well by Armada (Adam Lindgren) and Ice (Mustafa Akcakaya) from Sweden and Germany, respectively. Spanning three days, the tournament was a marathon for the players’ stamina and competitive mentalities. Given the stakes, the production values, and the caliber of the participants, the event managed to surpass the mental block of “just watching people play a video game” and legitimized itself as a serious e-sport.
“The amount of energy in the room was through the roof everybody was hyped and rooting for their champion,” said event spectator Derek Medina after watching the grand finals between Jigglypuff player Hungrybox (Juan Debiedma) and fan-favorite Mang0 (Joseph Marquez).
After Hungrybox won the match in a decisive 3-0 in the second set of grand finals, ending the tournament, it was clear that this event had changed the landscape of Melee and extended the reach the game has as an e-sport.
After being dormant for several years, Melee has seen resurgence since 2013 due to the release of the Kickstarter-backed, nine part documentary The Smash Brothers directed by Travis Beauchamp and Melee’s inclusion in the EVO 2013 (international fighting game tournament held in Las Vegas, Nevada) game line-up which was secured by fans voting for the game’s inclusion by donating nearly $95,000 towards breast cancer research.
Melee’s revival can be felt in its entirety at a local level as in Austin, where weekly tournaments can bring in over 50 competitors. In fact, the audience of the Battle of the Five Gods was primarily composed of members of the Austin Melee Community.
Although the prize money at local bouts is not on the same tier as professional tournaments, the bragging rights definitely are. Power ranking based on tournament results determine a player’s rank by city, state, and region of the country and dictate their position in the hierarchy of the leaderboards. At the heart of it all, though, the point of Melee is the fun of competition and the community. Melee at a local level provides a great source of camaraderie for a group of people with a shared passion.
The Varsity Pizza & Pints, a sports bar on Duval Street, hosts a weekly Melee tournament. Given that tournament brackets are created and seeded based on past performances and current skill level, I often run into Sorry (Nova Courtois). Courtois is an Ice Climbers player, a character far from the top of the tier list but armed with a bevy of specialized techniques, and they themselves are a devoted mainstay in the Austin Melee community. Nova is also non-binary and uses they/them as their preferred pronouns.
Nova is frequently misgendered by match commentators and tournament organizers. Despite the challenges Nova faces, they keep returning to competitions out of sheer love for the game. “I don’t think people are actively trying to be malicious, but the community can be toxic,” Courtois says.
Courtois cites multiple instances at from Melee events where they had to correct others on their form of identification such as being called for matches or interacting with new, unaware players. “I’m a very outspoken trans smasher,” Nova says in regards to correcting people, as they believe making people aware is crucial to facilitating acceptance and correcting these mistakes.
Nova is a member of a Facebook group for Trans Melee players. This subgroup within an already niche community illustrates how this game can bring people together. However, Nova also describes their desires to not be pushed aside to one corner of the Melee world. “I don’t think its progressive for people to want to feel welcome everywhere. How many people does it take for a community to not be a safe environment? I mean, it takes one person really, ” says Courtois.