LAS VEGAS -- In the dingy basement of the Mandalay Bay Events Center, William "Leffen" Hjelte sat unassumingly among a crowd of reporters and video producers. His thumbs continued tapping away -- his controller noticeably absent -- on his phone. On Twitter.
Moments earlier, he became the fourth player to win the coveted Super Smash Bros. Melee title at the Evolution Championship Series since the Nintendo GameCube made its return to the tournament in 2013. He joined good company, including the "gods": Adam "Armada" Lindgren, Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma and Joseph "Mang0" Marquez. His string of tweets showed both a sense of catharsis and release.
This win means so much for me personally. Not because of "prestige" or money, but because I had to overcome so many personal struggles to win. Evo has always been my worst tournament perfomance wise, but I finally managed to focus just doing my best for the task at hand.
- leffen (@TSM_Leffen) August 5, 2018
For Leffen, and for Smash, the win was the culmination of two journeys: one short, one long, but both a sign of the times.
In 2014 and 2015, Leffen earned himself the title of "god slayer" after he became the first player to defeat Armada, Hungrybox, Mang0, Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman and Kevin "PPMD" Nanney, collectively, the five gods of Smash. Three years later, Justin "Plup" McGrath also achieved that accolade. An even bigger slew of formerly lower-ranked players, like Zain "Zain" Naghmi, Justin "Wizzrobe" Hallett and Masaya "aMSa" Chikamoto, have accelerated and challenged the best, earning themselves top-10 placements in the 2018 Summer Melee Panda Global Rankings.
The narrative of the "Five Gods" is dead. And Leffen, with his Evo championship in hand, is rightfully leading the pack.
Getting here wasn't easy. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security denied Leffen entry into the United States as he set out to Detroit to compete in The Big House 5. Weeks later, he was told he would not be allowed to enter the country for an entire year. The U.S. government did not recognize Super Smash Bros. as a sport, making him ineligible for a P-1A athlete visa. His journey of consistency up until that point -- and potential to break through as a top player -- was stalled.
"In some ways, you could've seen that as the worst possible thing, like bad energy or something like that," Leffen told ESPN. "After that, when I came back, my results were worse. But for me, it was rough, but it was the same thing again. I had to struggle and I sat home and did nothing. Eventually [Get on my Level] happened. It was the showing of all the negative energy I had. When I got my visa, I had a much more positive outlook, but it also meant I didn't have as much of the drive to perform."
Leffen said during that period of his life, being separated from the competition made him complacent. On the track back to the top, losses would make him incredibly emotional -- including salty rants on social media -- something he has been criticized for immensely. His mentality is something he has had to improve and the results speak for themselves.
"I woke up today happy, even before I played. When I lose, it doesn't hurt me as much. The fact that I was able to do it, and do the rest of my life good too, it means a lot more than if I just had this one win and the rest of my life sucked."
In nearly three years since, the Melee community has had a third breath of change. PPMD retired -- and for younger players, the opportunity to join the likes of Leffen and Plup disappeared. Armada, the best player in the world until Hungrybox eclipsed him in 2017, has become beatable. On any given weekend -- from Las Vegas to Boston to Oakland, California -- the winner has become a toss-up. This is the future of Melee. Though some events may be uncertain, the community is anything but stale. The game will turn 17 years old in December, and by that time, three of its sequels will already have been released into circulation. Melee is undying and just when it seems one player has figured it all out, another exposes a way to beat them. It's a never-ending cycle that has kept Evo's oldest fighting game kicking.
But that might all change, with head organizer Joey "MrWizard" Cuellar tweeting that Evo may include only one Super Smash Bros. game in 2019. With the impending release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on the Nintendo Switch, it's expected that Nintendo, for the first time, will provide full-fledged financial support to the top Smash tournaments each year.
3 smash games will never be at Evo. Also with Melee players requiring 3/5 for 64, we can't accommodate them at Evo, so this could possibly be their final year at Evo. I hope Melee is super exciting in the arena this year!
- Joey Cuellar (@MrWiz) June 12, 2018
"It would mean a lot for our game in a negative way," Armada told ESPN.
With more than 195,000 people tuning into the finals event on Sunday night, he has a point.
"[Evo] is a really good event to bring all fighting game players together. It's the tournament that brings in the most people. Honestly, I don't think Melee will get replaced. Before I saw the numbers I was concerned. We had over 1,300 entrants. If numbers were down to 700 entrants, I'd understand. It just shows that Melee is here to stay. It'd be a bad decision to remove Melee."
Whether Evo 2019 features Melee or not, events such as Genesis, Shine, Super Smash Con and the Big House will continue to carry the mantle. And unlike the past decade, Leffen, Plup and the others will keep reinventing the wheel. Welcome to the newest era of Melee.