Liquid Rivalries: Super Smash Bros. Melee
September 04 2020
When would you say competitive Smash Bros. was born? Was it on January 21st, 1999, when Nintendo released Super Smash Bros? Or on November 21st 2001, when Melee was released? Or on April, 2002, when Matt Deezie started the Tournament Go series?
I set the date two years later - January 10th, 2004.
That was the day Melee held its first national, Game Over. In my eyes, a sport doesn’t come alive just by merit of a ruleset or a tournament. To be living, a sport needs a full-fledged scene that spreads across several regions and people. To be more than a game, a sport needs to be a thing two tribes can fight over - a stand-in for interaction, a means for evaluation, and a reason for real competition. To be a sport, a game needs the raw legitimacy that makes it so much more than a game.
Howard Stern, French Nobility, and Title Legitimacy
By definition, sport is looser a term than people think. Here are two definitions, a long one from Cambridge and a short one from Merriam-Webster.
The second definition comes by way of etymology, loosening the meaning so much that it hardly matches how we use the word today. To understand what “sport” really means, we need to understand it as it exists in culture. In modern culture, sport is one of many terms of legitimacy - a title. Just like with having a title, being called a sport doesn’t necessarily give you anything. However, as a baron often owned a lot of land, a sport often has a lot of cultural power.
That’s why Howard Stern - or whatever talking head of the week - will reject esports as actual sports, usually for not requiring enough physical skill. Of course, watching a player’s inputs and reactions in any fighting game reveals incredible physical skill. Take, for example, this video which slows down and shows the individual inputs of an edgeguarding sequence common to high-level Melee.
With only the barest contextual information, we can understand how physically demanding Melee is. The same goes for fighting games in general.
The single most famous fighting gameplay in history, the Daigo Parry, required Daigo Umehara to parry 15 hits in a row, each parry nearly frame-perfect. Daigo had to hit a timing window of less than a tenth of a second 15 times in a row and he had to jump into the final hit to parry it.
Some talking heads lack the context to understand the physical demands of esports, but a lot of voices understand the physicality of esports and simply don’t want to give it that legitimacy. The term “esport” is its own linguistic compromise - a way to give games some but not all the legitimacy that comes with sport. You’re a part of the block but you’re still the new kid.
Similarly, a rich French artisan could buy land in feudal France but not certain titles. He could be a lord but not a baron and that distinction was a meaningful compromise that wasn’t all words. The baron didn’t endure certain taxes, and sports athletes have an easier time getting visas. For Smash - and any video game - becoming “esports legitimate” means far more than just pride. It means Leffen’s sponsorship with TSM, which means plane tickets and travel visas in an era of tightening borders.
When Melee erupted onto the scene, there was no guarantee that it would become a sport (or esport, if you’re feeling like Howard Stern or a 1500’s era French baron). And if it did become a sport in the eyes of some, that was no guarantee that it would survive, thrive, and eventually grow all of Smash into what it is now. (Ultimate is the best-selling fighting game of all time and Melee is one of the longest living esports - flat out.)
In fact, the smart money was on Smash staying a party game. Smash Bros. 64 did not make waves in the burgeoning world of esports when it was released. Melee, the oddity of oddities it is, became so successful that it made competitors revisit and optimize 64. Melee paved the way for its predecessors and successors.
But none of that was guaranteed, regardless of the dopeness baked into Melee’s mechanics. None of this network of tournaments that spans the globe, this fighting game that spawned its own sub-genre (platform fighter), this entire sport was not guaranteed by spectacle alone. Spectacle is only half of sport. The audience is just half of the game, and half of the audience doesn’t care about the mechanics of the game nearly as much as you think they do.
What that half of the audience really feels in their bones isn’t the way Hax$’s arm muscles dance like a creek in a torrential downpour in the video above. What they feel is the narrative. They feel a story made of complex interwoven parts all coming together at once. They feel the competition, the emotion, and the raw rivalry.
Smash did not even have the chance to live in legitimacy until it had its first rivalry - until the West and the East Coast battled it out.
The life and death of sports AKA - why you need rivalry
Despite what you heard in Field of Dreams, sports are not a “build it and they will come” scenario. If they were, a lot more people would be coming to Jai Alai games. Jai Alai was once a game of choice in Miami, Florida. It was never Basketball but it did get crowds over 10,000 large, a privilege some game developers would easily pay a fat million to have.
Jai Alai had a moment in the sun and it is now shriveling, despite the infrastructure that did exist and despite its inherently visually interesting nature. A mix of mob ties, anti-gambling laws, a player strike, and an actual assassination has made it a shadow of itself. In the world of esports, we are only more familiar with fantastic busts. You are currently looking at a brand that started as a Starcraft forum. Currently, our League team has more support staff than we have Starcraft players.
Survival is not guaranteed, let alone supremacy. Find a narrative or fall into the shadow of your former self.
One of the quickest ways you can cut to that narrative is rivalry. When I was a kid, I didn’t totally understand basketball or (American) football but I loved them both. To me, the fun was always in the story and the story was in the rivalry. I understood Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the broad strokes of rivalries - passing numbers were irrelevant. The fact that they knocked us out of playoffs in 2004 and 2005 was relevant.
Brady and the Patriots were always in the way, to the point that the AFC championship often felt bigger than the Superbowl. When we finally won a Super Bowl, we didn’t win against the Bears and Rex Grossman. That wasn’t the story, it was just the denouement. We won it against Brady and the Patriots. We won it in a 38 to 34 shootout between two of the best quarterbacks football has ever seen. We earned it by beating the biggest villains in modern football.
Rivalry springs from fandom and fandom is so effective because it fulfills the human desire for an ingroup and outgroup and it does so in a way that (usually) doesn’t result in death. We are social animals as many primates are and so we crave social dynamics and groupings. Games are a great social catalyst, to the point that they regularly show up anthropological studies, occasionally even as windows into a society’s value structure.
“People that identify with a local sports team, are social-psychologically healthier,” says Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology, in an interview with SB Nation. “It gives you this sense of belonging,” or, in other words an easy ingroup. If you’re in our discord, you’re in our ingroup, and we’re happy to have you. My being in this group with you is what got me writing for this website. The benefits of fandom are larger and more direct than you may think.
Rivalry ratchets up those feelings of belonging by introducing an outgroup to unify against. A 2003 study found college students felt more closely bonded to classmates leading up to a big rivalry match. College students are also more willing to pay extra to watch a rivalry match. Naturally, rivalry also increases animosity, which explains why I genuinely dislike Tom Brady despite having never met him.
In the early world of Smash, the normal roles of fandom and rivalry reversed themselves. The rivalry between the East and West Coast helped to create the game’s first fandoms. This is why the East and West Coast rivalry was so important. It stretched the feeling of belonging, the simulated tribalism, and the raw desire to improve at a bizarre, niche physical skill all the way across the country and set the foundations for Smash to become sport.
I sat down with Kashan “Chillindude839” Kahn and Ken Hoang to talk about this rivalry and, in turn, capture the moments that slowly turned in Smash into a sport. None of what you will read is to unseat the importance of the Five Gods of Melee or the role so many people had in keeping Melee and Smash alive. This is not another Smash Doc, it’s the story of the rivalry that made the Smash Doc and the Five Gods possible.
It’s also the story of raw passion turned to rivalry turned to genuine hatred. This is the rundown of the wild world of early melee where the meta was raw and the rulesets were in flux. This is the description of the era that created - and possibly destroyed - shit talk in Smash. This is how the crew battle was invented and the community was created. This is how Smash became sport.
It all began at some point in 2003, with internet shit talk.
The Internet Shit Talk Era
When I asked Chillindude how the rivalry started, he gave me the honest, ugly answer, “It was just the smashboards trash talk because we didn’t know for sure who was better. Back then we were convinced that our region was better and that our top players were better so we would just trash talk on the boards.”
Ken agreed: “Smashboards pretty much had everything. People would post videos and stuff and then people would say, ‘oh I can beat that guy. That guy’s not that good!’ They would just banter about stupid stuff. And rivalries would be made from that.”
Even though many of us still see Smash as a grassroots esport, it has grown a lot since those early days. In the current era of Smash, any Melee or Ultimate player can meet trash talk with results. Between online matchmaking and a jam-packed tournament schedule, competitors have more chances than ever to shut a trash talker’s mouth.
“No one was able to play each other,” Ken said of the very earliest days of Smash. “Tournaments were on either the west coast, east coast, south, midwest, whatever. And people would just be the best in their area.”
Chillin made it simple: “We just figured that we’re better than the other regions.”
That kind of bluster and arrogance was typical to both the world of fighting games and the early internet. It became part of what motivated Melee players to gradually expand their regional communities into a national one. It wasn’t just about being the best player. In those early days, everything was unknown and so everything was up for grabs.
Best region, best crew, best doubles team, even best ruleset. It could all belong to anybody. It was a far, far cry from the clear cut competition in modern Smash. MKLeo has been number 1 for 3 ranking seasons straight, if you count his dominance at the end of Smash 4. Hungrybox has held the crown in Melee for 5 ranking seasons straight - that’s three years.
The national Melee scene started with inklings, little droplets forming into wider rivers and narratives. The history of those days are so garbled and lost in Smashboards threads, wayback machines, vertical videos, VHS tapes, and teenage blog posts that it may be impossible to know when the first droplet formed.
Ready, Set, Tournament Go!
According to Pikachu 942, a favorite Smash blogger and historian of mine, Snexus 2 and Tournament Go 5 might be the first moments the separate regional streams started to congeal into a river that ran through the nation. Snexus 2 TO Snex flew Westcoast talent out to the Midwest for one of the earliest inter-regional trials.
This was so early into Melee that Ken hadn’t erupted into the scene yet. Recipherous and Isai (now mostly a 64 player) represented the West Coast and took 1st and 2nd place respectively.
The threads really start to come together with Tournament Go 5, probably the most successful of early Melee’s tournament series. To give an idea of the early Smash scene, it was one of the largest Smash events yet at around 100 attendants and the TO hosted it at his house. At the time, it was a massive feat pulled off by one of the game’s top talents - Matt Deezie.
Matt Deezie brought in players from across the country and even from Europe. Even if the scene couldn’t yet see Smash as being the biggest fighting games in esports, they could see it was something special. Tournament Go 5 was crucial for laying down the groundwork of Smash’s big East Coast, West Coast rivalry because it pitted several regions against each other.
And the East and West clearly came out on top. Players from either the East or West Coast took nearly all spots in the top 9 of the bracket and that matters. Everything may have been up for grabs, but everyone wanted to grab 1st place. 2nd, 3rd, or 4th was worth something, just not as much. Tournament Go 5 drew the starting line for Smash’s first great rivalry. Game Over would fire the starting starting pistol.
How they do it on the East Coast
The West Coast had its chance to host the rest of the country, now it was the East Coast’s turn, this time under the leadership of a teenage Chillindude. In several ways, it was Chillin’s moment to shine. And Chillin would shine, just not as brightly as Ken.
Chillin missed out on Tournament Go 5 because his parents weren’t about to let him go all the way to the West Coast to play in a video game tournament hosted in a stranger’s home. At the time, Chillin represented the MD/VA (Maryland/Virginia) area as part of the H2YL or - Haha You Lose - crew. Yeah, everyone was a teenager back then.
Although that aspect of the community hasn’t changed much. Smash still shows all the peaks and perils of youth. Chillin was the rule, not the exception - a 16 year old running not just any tournament but the biggest one Melee had yet seen. The very first East Coast national.
Even though the West Coast had clearly shown up the East in Tournament Go 5, the East still had a lot to say. A lot of it had to do with the meta. At that time, even the ruleset was up for grabs.
“I didn’t make the tournaments,” Ken said, “but people over here [on the West Coast] were having items and all sorts of stages where you could kill people at like 20 percent off the side. There was a lot of luck factor on the West Coast. So pretty much the East Coast players were shitting on the West Coast players for playing on all these stupid rulesets. Saying, ‘how could you guys even be good if you’re playing with items.’”
Chillin agreed, though not in the interview, in his “History of a Smasher” posts he wrote for Smashboards all the way back in 2010. In those posts he wrote, “Of course, items were on this tournament [Tournament Go 5], a fact we weren’t willing to let go easily.”
He added that items influenced Azen’s character pick. Instead of going his classic Marth, Azen went Sheik since he felt she handled items better - probably due to her speed.
Game Over was a chance for the East Coast to prove that no items was the better ruleset and that the East Coast would do better on a better ruleset. It was also a chance for Ken and the West Coast to show that they didn’t need items, wonky stages, or luck to win. Not to mention, the lack of items would bump Game Over’s historical legitimacy above Tournament Go 5’s.
After all, it’s not johns if you got a Goldeen from your PokeBall and they got a Lugia from theirs. Or at least, it’s what Ken calls, “legit johns.”
Legit johns, losers runs, and the birth of the king
Ken was not ready for the first day of Game Over, at least, not nearly as ready as Chillin was. Chillin had a unique kind of momentum on his side, not just being a competitor but the main TO of the tournament. He was setting the rules, the seeding, and the schedule. The activity no doubt gave him a sense of momentum, and of course he was playing a home game.
Meanwhile, Ken tells me all about the legit johns he ran into on his first-ever trip to the East Coast. “I didn’t know how cold it was, you know? [...] The East Coast players were training in the cold and over here in sunny California we’re just in our shorts, t-shirt every day playing Smash.”
“Also, at the tournament, Chillin ordered pizza but I guess he didn’t order enough pizza for everybody so I legit went through the tournament without any food, any water. Once I went to Azen’s house, his mom gave me some spaghetti and I just got refreshed! But I was starving, that was like the first time I didn’t eat for like the whole day.”
“They were johns but they were something called legit johns,” Ken says. And he has a point even Chillin agrees with.
“Honestly, some of them were legit excuses but I think at the time there was no way to prevent them. The tournaments were so grassroots that you can’t really control stuff like that. These days at a major you can like, specify ‘oh I don’t wanna play on this TV let’s play on a bigger TV.’ You can at least have more influence over the condition of the match.”
In modern Smash, we take a litany of legit Johns. The venue was too cold. The venue has no good food. This competitor was sick, that one got no sleep. They redid this set due to crowd coaching (something you see in tons of old school VODs) or that set due to UCF being off.
Meanwhile, Game Over was hosted at an American Legion that kicked all competitors out at 1 AM, forcing the tournament to move to Azen’s mom’s house. Ken tells me of a time where no johns went horribly wrong and a Sheik main refused to pause or re-do a match where Ken’s shield button wasn’t working.
These legit johns partially explain Melee’s first major upset. Chillin and Ken met fairly early on in bracket and even though the game was young, Chillin knew what he was up against. In his “history of a smasher series” Chillin wrote, “I remember sitting down to play Neo [an East Coast Roy main] and joking that it didn’t matter who won since we’d both lose to Ken.”
Ken was so good that he hadn’t lost a set in bracket up to that point. In his prime he was such a force that Chillin describes facing peak Ken as “the ultimate test of your Melee skill.” Shocking everyone including himself, Chillin passed that test. Ken dropped one fateful edgeguard and Chillin made a comeback that would set his Smash career in motion.
But the tournament wasn’t over and in winning; Chillin might have done Ken a favor too. Ken finally bled, and to a relative unknown at that point too. “I didn’t consider myself a top east coast player yet,” Chillin remarked. At that point, he wasn’t. Wes, Dave, and Azen were the bigger names.
The loss galvanized Ken, who made Melee’s first major loser’s bracket run. After powering up on Azen’s mom’s spaghetti (god I love early Melee), he came all the way back, beating Chillin in the rematch, then Dave, Isai, and finally Azen. Ken decisively ended the debate: the King of Smash had been crowned.
At the same time that Game Over ended one debate, it widened another: West Coast vs. East Coast. You might think that Game Over would put the West Coast in the lead, but regional rivalries aren’t just about top talent, they’re also about depth.
Talent vs. depth and the birth of the crew battle
If regional strength was all about producing the best player, then Mexico would be the uncontested strongest region in Ultimate. As it is now, most Ultimate players will point to Japan or America as the strongest regions because the US and Japan have considerably more depth than Mexico. Mexico has MKLeo but the US and Japan have more players near MKLeo’s caliber.
Game Over showed that Ken was the best Melee player and Isai was top 5. However, the other competitors from the West didn’t show up nearly as strong. The East Coast took up most of the top 16 of the bracket. You could write that off as home field advantage, but when Tournament Go 6 rolled around, the East Coast had as many players in top 8 as the West Coast while playing an away game in California.
Chillin attests to letting Ken have “best player” but not letting the West Coast have “best region.”
“Ken had pretty much established that he was the best single player but we kind of insisted on the East Coast that overall we were still better. Even though West Coast had the single best player, we thought overall our depth was better than theirs. We wanted to prove that with a crew battle.”
That large point of contention between East and West leads to the crew battle. Crew battles had existed before the Coasts started shit talking each other but it took a major regional rivalry to hone it into what it is today.
“There wasn’t any crew battle system,” Ken says. “They actually made the ruleset to make a crew battle, like if you lose a stock you have to go into the next battle a stock down. So it was different. [...] It’s different because there’s a crew battle format where you have strategy.”
The early days of crew battles had the same ruleset struggles that all of early Melee did. Melee wasn’t outright made to be competitive and players had to shape into an ideal form through trial and error. The first crew battle system made a major mistake by allowing stocks to refresh after each match. So if one player won by a stock, they’d go into the next match with all four.
The problem became that this didn’t test the depth of different crews as much as it tested the endurance of the best player in the crew. When the best player subbed in, they could rinse the enemy crew like it was a singles bracket. Like Ken said, the format also lacked any unique strategy. The optimal strategy would pretty much always be to save the best for last to keep their endurance up and have them run through the enemy.
Melee developed the current crew battle system where both teams have a total stock counter in no small part to settle a huge regional rivalry. The East Coast wanted to show they had more overall talent than the West and they’d do that at Melee-FC 3. This Smash major would host the crew battle to both end and begin all crew battles.
Where the rivalry ends and everything else begins
Melee-FC 3 took place in 2005, when the game was still pretty young but old enough that the scene was starting to become truly legitimate. The tournament had 186 total attendees, went for multiple days, and managed to snag a church for a venue! A notable step up from an American Legion branch, which itself was a notable step up from someone’s house.
The humble beginnings didn’t matter. What mattered was that the best of both regions had showed up, the rules had been ironed out, and the stage was set. 40 stocks, eight competitors on each side, eight matches total, the two regions would finally settle the score. And they wouldn’t do it quietly.
Back then, Melee wasn’t a job. It was personal. Many of the people crowded into the church that day genuinely did not like each other. Plenty of them hated each other.
“We pretty genuinely hated each other back then,” Chillin says chuckling nervously. This is a joint interview and both Ken and Chillin are in the call. “It was not limited to the game at all.”
“We weren’t friends,” Ken agrees. "We didn’t hang out with each other, we didn’t talk to each other. At a tournament, we just wanted to beat each other.”
“The trash talk as well,” Chillin adds, “it wasn’t just about the game, it got outside of the game. There were a lot of personal insults thrown around. ”
Every player came into the crew battle invested, even if it was just being invested in shutting the other side up. The trash talk is constant and heavy, a lot of it coming from the East Coast. Throughout the crew battle, in trash talk and in competition, the East’s depth shows. They get to about a 3 stock lead and mostly keep it - even against the West’s top competition.
Isai comes in against PC Chris, a rising star who would soon be a top competitor. PC Chris styles on Isai the first two stocks and the East Coast trash talk reaches a peak. This backfired immediately as Isai is notorious for responding well to pressure. Motivated to actually try, if only to shut up the hecklers, Isai bodies PC Chris and takes three stocks while only losing one.
Chillin now has to come in to stop one of early Melee’s strongest competitors - an Isai that actually gives a shit. Chillin goes even, 2 stocks for 2. Crucially, he limits Isai to only taking 5 stocks. That means a lot given the West’s top talent is their main advantage. The West sends in Sastopher, at the time a top 10 level player. Chillin nearly goes even but feels himself and the crowd too much and SDs while going for an edgeguard. Though he only took 3 stocks with his 4, they were crucial ones.
This is pretty much how the rest of the crew battle goes. The West will start to close in, only for the East to send in slightly better players and widen the lead again. Early Melee could be particularly defined by counter picks as well, since the meta hadn’t developed the pieces of counterplay needed to mitigate things like chain grabs and juggles.
The East’s depth meant a wider pool of characters to counter pick with too. Ken went out having taken 6 stocks, but he probably would have managed even more without character counters. He picked Fox to counter a Jigglypuff then got countered and chain grabbed by a Peach.
The East wins with a 5 stock lead. That 5 stock lead is so commanding that it shuts down all debate. Even if ChuDat, who shifted loyalties between East and West, went to the West Coast it’s hard to imagine him making up 5 whole stocks. That’s a whole additional player and some change. ChuDat took an incredible 6 stocks in the actual crew battle, but he would have needed to take 9 to hit the mark. Not to mention, the East has strong old school players like Wife in reserve, so they possibly could’ve afforded to lose ChuDat.
The rivalry petered out, as did the trash talk.
“Honestly, that crew battle kind of settled it just like Ken had kinda settled the singles discussion by that point.” Chillin said. “I think when East Coast beat West Coast at FC 3 there was a lot less trash talk after that cause West Coast couldn’t say that they were better overall. It kind of peaked at that point and went downhill from there.”
Ken doesn’t disagree. He’s more familiar with the West’s lack of depth than anyone. He took six stocks and it wasn’t enough. In a crew battle with the Midwest that took place in the same tournament, he took a whopping 8 stocks. In our interview, he bemoaned the growing pains the West.
They had started with flawed item-focused rulesets that didn’t prepare them for the future of Melee. They lost key players like Recipherous and Matt Deezie very early on. They were separated by the wide Californian sprawl and couldn’t get together like New York or MD/VA could. After a while, they just weren’t as invested as Ken was. Where Chillin had loud-mouthed, hard-nosed New Yorkers at his back, Ken had go with the flow Californians who rode the current away from Smash.
But Ken’s work wasn’t for nothing. He was the first to show just how high the skill ceiling on Melee could go and in the early stages of his career, he pushed the meta forward by opening up entire combo trees - not just the Ken Combo. He’s even rumored to have discovered and popularized chain grabbing. In the late stages of his career, he was running the local tournaments that Mang0 came up in. The rivalry was lost but Ken worked to make sure that West Coast Melee wouldn’t be.
New era, no rivalry
While the rivalry died down, it was crucial in creating the next era of Smash. In terms of competitive play, the rivalry had a clear, traceable impact. It created the crew battle into what we have today. It pushed both the East and West Coast into making smarter decisions for the meta - the West Coast removing items and the East Coast turning on team attack and using 4 stocks.
At its peak, the rivalry motivated players to travel and turn Melee from game to sport. For Chillin, it was the reason for improvement.
“It was definitely super motivational because if we, for example, had just stayed within MD/VA and conquered that other crew. We’d already be the best in the region and we didn’t go beyond that we’d probably would’ve stagnated a little bit and not had as much motivation to keep practicing. But there was always like a bigger goal to hit, another player or another region we wanted to conquer.”
The rivalry started so much of modern competitive Smash but it in the process, it may have killed the very thing that gave it life: shit talk.
Make no mistake, shit talk still exists in Smash and all fighting games - no matter what the veterans say. Still, the trash talk has died down a lot over the years, to the point that most beefs have been squashed. Hungrybox and Leffen pose together in a shared drunken stupor. Mang0 gives Hungrybox the credit he couldn’t in the earlier days of their godhood. The game has changed and so have the ways we talk about it.
I asked Ken and Chillin if they could see another regional rivalry akin to the Coastal one they were a part of. Neither of them could see it happening. Chillin answers first, “It just doesn’t feel like the same level of pride is there because people just accept that one side is better or one player is better and then the trash talk aspect is definitely way, way less.”
Ken comes in to add to his argument, “Nowadays, if you’re an east coast player you play with the west coast players. Like your friends, you hang out, you do other things. There’s technically no rivalry besides in-game rivalry. [...] back then nobody was friends. We just hated each other and we just wanted to beat each other.”
Both players admit that trash talk was just a part of the era - as was the cultural and lifestyle battle between the coasts. After all, this coastal rivalry came hot on the tails of a national coastal rivalry in the rap and media world. That rivalry accelerated to a much hotter boiling point than Melee ever saw (thankfully), but the residual heat still slipped into Smash. It was a different time.
And not necessarily a better one. If you watch the full VOD of the crew battle, you’ll notice the trash talk. It is constant and honestly insufferable. “We were a lot younger and more immature, so we just were more prone to talking shit to each other, essentially,” Chillin admits. “Now that we’re a little older, a little more mature, we kind of acknowledge when someone is actually better than us.”
That immaturity constantly radiates through the VOD as players literally flex on each other, shout over one another, and spam the same insults over and over. It feels slightly like IRL Twitch chat and embodies the arguments for and against trash talk simultaneously.
On the one hand, There’s an energy that you can read in each set. The players feed off of it and respond. You can feel how Isai snaps under the harassment and funnels his rage into PC Chris. You can see how a young HugS falters under the pressure and gives up more than his fair share of stocks. You can watch Chillin become too hyped by his side after he waveshines Sastopher off the level. He feels himself too much, and runs off and dies.
The pressure does things to competitors and, to some extent, we like to see it. We like to see how a crowd can interfere in a match. We like to see people overcome those crowds too. But it can go too far. When the crowd becomes the show, the show goes wrong.
It happens in real sports as it happens in Smash. I still remember when a drunken Detroiter threw a beer bottle at Ron Artest. The fight that ensued resulted in the Indiana Pacers losing one of the best defensive players ever and the best chance it had at a championship. That single moment of midwestern rivalry gone awry sent my favorite franchise into a years-long spiral. The crowd became the show and the show fucking sucked. It sucked even worse when you lived in Indiana so you couldn’t change the channel.
In the world of Smash, the fear of the crowd is a salient one. In Smash and basketball, the crowd is almost too close to the action. They’re in range to get body slammed by Lebron James and to throw a crab at Hungrybox or coach against Marss. The shit talk is gone but I’m not sure Smash could have endured the shit talk.
It’s silly to pretend that shit talk, the crowd, and the rivalries themselves have no downside when riots have cost cities millions of dollars in property damage and resulted in actual deaths. Some rivalries in (European) football get so bad that cities begin to legislate against them, as has happened with the Rangers and Celtics in Scotland. It’s silly to pretend there isn’t any skin in the game when there’s blood on the ground.
In some ways, I think the rivalry between the coasts was the birth and death of much of Smash’s trash talk culture. Ken would retire in no small part due to the pressure. “ZeRo got it too,” Ken says of the pressure. “Hungrybox gets it. It doesn’t matter what type of person you are, if you keep on winning people are gonna find a way - a reason to hate you.”
As the Smash scene gets older and more professional, it becomes harder and harder to stand by shit talk. The negative effects are a bit too obvious. ZeRo stopped competing in Ultimate due to fear of negative opinion and fatigue from the pressure. If you wrote a biography of Hungrybox, you’d have to devote multiple chapters to his battles with the community. Even Mang0, one of the most popular players ever, got hate from a young Bobby Scar.
In the new era, it feels like there are no rivalries. Or at least that rivalries are muted. After hearing about the battle between the East and West Coast, it feels obvious why. Who would want to relive that? Who wants some punk player from some punk region screaming the same dumb jeer in their ear, over and over and over? Who wants to experience that now, when the crowd is ten times the size and Twitter exists?
There is something to miss in all that passion overflowing, but I wouldn’t blame the players for refusing to replicate it.
League of Legends CoreJJ: Death Of Pride // Birth of Skill "If I lose many games, I'm gonna keep playing till I win. If I win enough games, then I just watch Netflix or YouTube."
League of Legends Jatt: Beating the Team in Front of You "Your preconceived notions of Worlds doesn't matter. What matters is beating the team in front of you."
League of Legends Broxah: Believing is the First Step "I came to Team Liquid with two goals. One was to win LCS. The second was to be part of the first TL team to get out of group stages at Worlds."