Super Smash Bros. Melee is an infamously difficult esport, with dozens of advanced techniques that push the average player's speed and dexterity to their limits. But there's one technique that competitors at all levels can execute: complaining about seeding.
From the most prestigious major to the dinkiest local tournament, there's nary a Melee bracket that someone can't find something to complain about. As recently as Shine 2017, Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman accused the tournament organizers of bracket manipulation, tweeting out a complaint about his Ice Climbers-filled bracket. Though Mew2King is particularly vocal about his grievances, many players harbor suspicions about seeding without fully understanding the systems that contribute to the construction of Major brackets.
Top player complaints are one of several factors that highlight the importance of good seeding in Melee. Because of the depth of skill throughout the scene, it's becoming imperative that tournament organizers standardize seeding across Melee's majors. At last weekend's Red Bull Gods & Godslayers, the previously obscure teen phenomenon Conner "Cal" Daughtery was able to make his tournament-winning run because the organizers didn't seed him to face off against a top-25 player in the first round of pools.
So who makes sure that players like Cal are seeded fairly? A collective of Melee's best minds, known as Melee Stats, has stepped up to make sure that all Major tournaments are seeded through a fair and holistic approach. This organization, described by member Eryk "Ambisinister" Banatt as a "stream monster Illuminati," has had a hand in the seeding of almost every Major in 2017.
To many Melee fans, the mere mention of Major seeding conjures up an image of hooded figures scrawling competitors' names on a piece of parchment, performing occult rituals to determine player matchups and likely outcomes. This isn't quite the case, but it isn't too far from the truth, either. Since Genesis 3, Melee Stats, which includes community members such as Daniel "Tafokints" Lee, Leon "ycz6" Zhou, and infamous stream monster Damien "algebra123230" Jiang, has provided tournament organizers with a suite of detailed spreadsheets that contain information about every top player's tournament results and head-to-head records.
Using unparalleled knowledge of the international Melee scene and custom tools designed to project an array of different top-64 brackets, these fans of the game have taken on the responsibility of seeding Melee's Majors, motivated by a desire to eliminate the regional bias caused by unstandardized seeding.
Melee Stats isn't directly behind the development of any major tournaments. Instead, it's the prerogative of tournament seeding directors, such as Shine's Sean Thomas "STOC" O'Connor, to enlist the group's services.
"One of the head organizers asked me to hit up the Melee Stats people and get down to business," O'Connor said. With Shine's judgments backed by the wisdom of Melee Stats, the tournament organizers were able to make some eyebrow-raising seeding decisions, including their choice to seed Justin "Plup" McGrath above William "Leffen" Hjelte for the first time.
With an unprecedented wealth of data and some of Melee's greatest minds at their service, it's no surprise that Shine's organizers had the confidence to make this decision. But how exactly were these calls made? By using the go-to methodology of Melee Stats.
Major seeding starts from the top. Before starting, Melee Stats members and tournament organizers discuss each top player's chance of placing highly. Although most major's top five seeds are normally SSBMRank's top five players, the exact seeding of each player can differ significantly from his ranking. At Shine, for example, Joseph "Mango" Marquez supplanted Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma as the tournament's first seed, and Plup leapt ahead of Leffen to take the fourth spot. These seemingly small changes greatly influence whom each player faces to make the top eight. So why didn't Melee Stats honor Hungrybox and Leffen's higher ranks when seeding the tournament?
"The difference between ranking and seeding ... has to do with trajectory," Banatt said. "At certain points in the year, if you looked at the results, Hungrybox had a clearly stronger year. But if you looked at the second half of the year, Mango was winning a lot. A lot of that is [about] who you think will have a higher chance of placing better at this tournament. And I think that's a fundamentally different question from, 'Who is a better player?'"
Leffen's legacy is certainly stronger than Plup's, and his relatively recent win over world No. 1 Adam "Armada" Lindgren might even give him the edge in the year-end rankings, but he hadn't performed well enough going into Shine to match Plup's recent runs at DreamHack Atlanta and Super Smash Con. Plup first- and third-place finishes at those tournaments supported the assertion that he was likely to outplace Leffen, particularly at a tournament without Armada, the only "god" of the game who Plup has so far been unable to defeat.
Throughout the seeding of the best 64 players at Shine, Melee Stats factored in this idea of momentum, often defying the summer rankings showcased by Red Bull eSports in July. For example, Daniel "ChuDat" Rodriguez's was seeded after Justin "Wizzrobe" Hallett, no doubt because of ChuDat's subpar performance at the majors leading up to Shine, and Ryan Ford's seeding jumped up to 21, far above his summer ranking of 37th in the world.
Although decisions at the top level are important, after top 64 is where Melee Stats' seeding gets really interesting. Players seeded 65th and lower are grouped into 15 different sets, or "buckets," based on their perceived skill. As an organization comprised of the game's most dedicated spectators, Melee Stats is able to provide tournament organizers with detailed knowledge of almost every local scene, including such far-flung locales as Japan, Europe and the deep Midwest. Players are sorted into skill brackets, many of which are created by comparing perceived player skill across regions, and the tournament organizers plug the players into a smash.gg system that distributes the buckets throughout pools in order to create an even gradation of skill as the brackets progress.
This means that each pool is seeded all the way down to eight, nine, or even 10 of its sixteen players. This results in a competitive, and intricately seeded, bracket. For example, Shine's 64 first-round pools meant that the event's tournament organizers seeded more than 600 competitors, or over half of the tournament's 1,156 entrants.
After plugging the player buckets into smash.gg, Melee Stats members comb through the pools, using their knowledge of local scenes to ensure that competitors don't travel hundreds of miles to play people from within their region, college or crew. Of course, no system is perfect, and the seeders make sure to give players time to send in feedback about their pools before the bracket is finalized.
"The vast majority of submissions are regional conflicts," Jiang said. "There's very rarely any kind of skill level complaint."
With the amount of knowledge collectively shared by the members of Melee Stats, Jiang, Banatt, and their comrades are confident that very few skilled players would fall through the cracks of their system.
And Mew2King's gripe about tournaments being seeded with matchups in mind? Totally false.
"That's a big misconception that people have," Banatt said. "I guarantee you we don't do that. We're just like, Mew2King is here, all these players are here. Let's click the button that projects who plays who -- oh look, Mew2King has all Ice Climbers players."
Ultimately, even if done by the numbers, seeding is subjective. Upsets are inevitable, and Melee Stats can't always predict when the next Syrox, Cal, or netplay master will make his or her way out of the woodwork. As the next season of Melee majors approaches, the organization can only strive to produce the best brackets they can with the information they have.
"You have to take into account a lot of factors," O'Connor said. "The past, present, and sometimes even the future."