When Kevin "PPMD" Nanney joined Evil Geniuses in May of 2014, it was a time of rampant change for the competitive "Super Smash Bros. Melee" scene. That change was mirrored in his own life, as he moved to a new city and picked up his degree in Psychology, all before the ink dried on his contract. When the time came to pick the number for his jersey, he decided to adopt "the Nanney number."
"My jersey number is 11, which is my family soccer number. All of my brothers and sisters played soccer with me, and 11 somehow came to be the number we all used on different teams. The Nanney number." The Nanney number may have seen some battles on soccer fields throughout North Carolina, but the wars it sees in esports are ones that PPMD has to figure out for himself. The biggest fight in 2016 isn't going to be with a Gamecube controller in hand.
"2015 was definitely the year that could have been," he said. Out of the gate, PPMD took APEX 2015, the first major event of the year, and discussions started to creep up all over again: Exactly how good is PPMD? Winning the whole event and taking down both Adam "Armada" Lindgren and William "Leffen" Hjelte was a huge statement on its own. But winning your first major after being relatively invisible in the scene since a fourth place finish at EVO 2014? Just as planned. "People think long breaks mess up your game really badly because you can't play others. In Melee, where you mostly have to play people in person to get a big benefit from play, this is a fair argument. However... I can improve playing on my own and thinking on my own and watching videos. To me, improvement is an idea, an internet connection, and a Wii."
The victory celebration for APEX continued as day broke on that snowy February morning in New Jersey. The trophy was added to his collection back home, with many expecting him to need a new shelf or two with all of the events planned for that year. It wasn't meant to be. PPMD sighed, strictly stating, "It was a year of anticipation and then let downs." While many were eager to see old rivalries renewed and perhaps the start of new ones, PPMD would end up having his biggest fights outside of the game.
Depression kept PPMD benched throughout the latter half of 2014, and he had quelled it before his appearance at APEX. A mystery illness would hinder him throughout 2015. "I got sick continuously after my big win last year, partly due to stress for various reasons and partly due to the fact that I made more mistakes like keeping a poor sleep schedule without knowing how badly it would affect me over time. I barely got over being sick for months in time for EVO, the premiere fighting game event. I managed to finish third there which I'm proud of, but I'm disappointed in my play there. Many began to doubt me at that point." He couldn't figure out the illness, nor did he want to face people without knowing exactly what was wrong.
Even his character selection reflected the internal struggle. His Falco is a reminder of everything that caused him to originally fall in love with the game: the technical prowess, the capability to combo, speed, and control are all reasons PPMD still showcases the character. "Many people think I am a slow, calculated player only. While that's true those are big parts of who I am, I also have a strong desire to be part of the heat of battle and overwhelm my opponent at times." The slow, calculated mindset comes into play when he does unsheathe his Marth. "He must be exact in his choices. He must make little things have huge consequences. These types of things are tied in to my deliberate, and, if you don't mind a bit of a play on words, surgical way of thinking. Marth for me is all movement and minimal swinging."
"I hope to have both of my characters strong at the same time, because every tournament since my Marth has become strong, I always have one character way better than the other. This is due primarily to different health factors and how they relate to the characters. Falco is more upbeat so when I am anxious or angry or something then he plays better than Marth. Marth requires lower energy so when I was more depressed or sick, he was stronger."
The Twitch stream and Twitter feed would remain silent. "I haven't enjoyed it at all because I love talking to people, but I just didn't like giving them bad news and having them be upset. I was upset enough I felt I couldn't control what was going on. As it turned out, I had low testosterone due to after effects of all the stress and depression, as well as the poor sleep. This was found out late in the year, but could have been found out earlier if I, well, felt more motivated to work on it and didn't feel kind of stuck. That's kind of the thing with testosterone. When it's low, you don't feel like doing anything, even if you know you should."
He wouldn't find that out until after November's Smash Summit Invitational. "My play was absolutely pitiful since it was my worst health condition I've had to date. I finally set out to find out what was wrong with me, despite seeing doctors many times that year, and ended up discovering the low testosterone issue. I was put on a supplement that was supposed to help, and it slowly did, but has had many awful side effects like insanely high heart rate, inability to sleep, crazy thoughts and a pent-up feeling constantly. I found another doctor this year which is pretty good and he's helping me with different ways to approach the issue." On Feb. 17, the mystery illness was given a name: adrenal fatigue. "I plan on learning more about this and how to handle it now but since I know the issue and have some good resources for combating it, I feel more confident in my recovery coming this year...I could be totally in fighting form around the middle of the year, give or take some time."
Being at the pinnacle of the game, not reaching your own expectations, and being absent for so long would be heartbreaking for many. For PPMD, the heartbreak comes not from faltering, but from being cloistered away. "The bigger issue for me with breaks from competing is that many people think I get worse or think I am somehow not taking competition seriously, as if I would choose this way to live if I had a choice right now. The social isolation, admittedly somewhat self-imposed, somewhat necessary due to low energy, is hard. I miss my friends who live farther away. I miss my fans and being able to tell them good things. I miss being able to just compete and really being able to enjoy the thrill of it all. It cuts deeply when the artist cannot create. It's my art and without it I feel incomplete doing shoddy work.
There isn't a several-hour span of a day where I don't think about how badly I want to be better and what will happen before the next big event. Will I finally be healthy? Will I at least not be sick this time? Will people lower my seed more and make my odds of getting a worse placing happen again? Will people all give up on me? These types of questions are always there."
So now, the search for balance is what he strives for, in and out of the game. "I believe preparation is more important than actually competing, so I spend many hours figuring out how to improve my game on my own time. As I feel very strongly that mind and body are connected, I care deeply about making sure I can physically stand the test of competition." When he can, he's out there running, building his stamina. "Since you need continual energy to run, you'll also take advantage of that boost when you play 'Melee' and have to focus on the screen for long stretches of time. Lost focus for a split second could mean everything, so training your body is key."
Honing his mind is where PPMD differs from most of his compatriots. "The mental training is more extensive since so much thinking is involved at a high level of play." For that, meditation has been his number one option. "I tend to increase my meditation times closer to events because meditation calms the mind and focuses it, clearing out nerves and allowing for pure focus on the game. I can tune into this with breathing, and that's part of the link between body and mind here. I have to make sure I'm not overconfident, or disrespecting my opponents, or playing solely to get love from fans, but also for myself and the love of the game. Any of these traps can be dangerous, but together they're killer. Meditation gives me time alone to check my mind and be sure to put the appropriate thought processes in place and keep my emotional connection with them strong. This helps me have a lot of fun when playing and really encourages me to do my best, as well as be happy for my opponents if they beat me. "
Many would call the approach esoteric, but there is a more mainstream option that he specializes in. "I have no problem sitting in front of one 20-minute video and watching it for a whole day or more if I can find new angles on the game or new things to learn about myself or my opponent. I look for ways people respond to my ideas, how their ideas have changed since last we played, both generally and versus me, and I also see more nuanced in-game and psychological things. When you become good enough, working on the game and working on yourself can both achieve big rewards and complement the other so I look to improve myself in many ways and see how my opponents are in and out of game, when playing or otherwise."
Does he actually play the game before the event? Of course. "I must have been practicing hard and developing new strategies and techniques all along to be successful, but I'll ramp up the training more before an event to be prepared. A day or two before I leave, I often stop playing and just try to let my work settle into my mind and trust my preparation."
With a full return months away, PPMD is already mapping out his return to the forefront of the game. " My first goal is to throw everything I possibly can at my body until it is fixed. When that is achieved, and it will be achieved, make no mistake, I will take all of my physical and mental lessons I have learned, and begin working furiously on my game. Bringing all of my old knowledge together with my new knowledge." He wants to share that knowledge with the world too, dusting off his stream, and reigniting meaningful discussion on forums such as Smashboards.
The mantra of PPMD continues to evolve, and he'll evolve with it. His ideas may be odd to some, but it is all part of his approach, and you can't argue with success. When summer rolls around, fans are hoping to see that eleven on his back at some of the biggest stages in Smash.
What's he hoping for? Victory.
"It's obvious, whether the end of match screen says my character won or lost. But that tends to matter more when a stronger player is controlling the opposing character. We like challenges and overcoming them. So victory to me is at least partly a meaningful win over an opponent who is very skilled and pushed to do their best. The other part is much harder to explain and I don't have a complete answer on it. If my focus is truly on the enjoyment of challenge and not necessarily on the end result, then if I am enjoying the challenge and doing my best, I have met my goal. What happens if both players do this? Do they both technically "win" in a way? Does the person whose win screen reflects their feelings of immersion win MORE than the opponent? I don't have a very good answer. But I will say that if I am able to achieve my goal and be immersed in a match and perform well, then I shouldn't have regrets. I shouldn't feel like I lost. That feeling and knowledge are more important to me right now than the answer. Winning is my experience, and funnily enough, the win screen in the game can be more likely to come up for someone who is really immersed in the challenge than for someone who plays to win."