It's been out for only four months, and yet Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has already made a huge impact on the Smash community. Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U is a distant memory in the minds of most players, and even some Melee players have started to seriously invest their time and energy into Nintendo's latest hit.
Ultimate, a game with more than 70 fighters, has seen a wide variety of characters in various top eights across Genesis, Frostbite, Don't Park in the Grass, and Smash Ultimate Summit. We've seen Lucina, Wario, Olimar, Ike, Inkling, Fox, Palutena, Pichu, Peach, Pikachu and a handful of outliers represented by the best of the best. But as more time has passed, players have started to narrow down the fighters who stand out from the rest. It begs the question: Have we started to reach a point where the meta is established?
"We kind of already have," Panda Global player Eric "ESAM" Lew, who'll be competing at Full Bloom 5, told ESPN. "We already know about Lucina, Wolf, and the other upper-tier characters. A lot of people realize who the top seven or so characters are, then everything else beyond that is a lot muddier.
"It was similar in the first four months of Smash 4," he added. "People realized it was Sheik, Rosalina, Diddy Kong and others on the top. We're in the age of discovery with so many players digging into the game, things get uncovered so quickly. There will be changes throughout the game's lifespan, but we're already seeing something complete here."
Full Bloom 5, while not as large of a tournament as Frostbite or Genesis, is one of the final big events happening before a months-long break in a packed tournament schedule. It's a good taste of where the meta is before the major events like EVO, CEO, Smash 'N' Splash, Shine, and Super Smash Con. "It's a smaller scale event before the big break from events throughout spring," Full Bloom organizer Alex Myers said. "It's kind of the last taste of Smash for the first part of the year."
With more than 250 entrants so far in the Ultimate bracket, Full Bloom is set to be a lighter competition where we could see some variety in character picks. Players like ESAM (Pikachu), Brian "Cosmos" Kalu (Inkling), Jestise "MVD" Negron (Snake), and others will be in attendance in Bloomington, Indiana, this weekend. "Based off the players attending Full Bloom, I expect to see Snake, Pikachu, Megaman, Roy and a few others in the top eight," MVD said. "Maybe some Wolf players and a princess, too."
MVD had a different opinion of Ultimate's meta, saying it could be fickle for some time. The expanded roster, heightened level of balance in Ultimate and more support from Nintendo could lead to a healthy, changing meta for a slightly longer duration of Ultimate's life span.
"I think it will take at least until EVO, with a few DLC character drops and patches for the community to accept a definitive list of characters for the top slots," he said. "We already have some universally agreed-upon characters, but we still need more time to fully figure it all out."
Obviously, metagames are subject to the whims of a developer, so nothing is definite. Before Ultimate came out in December, talk of how overpowered the Inklings and King K. Rool would be dominated the community discourse. That changed quickly once counterstrategies popped up and after Nintendo released its first patch.
The most plausible scenario is that both ESAM and MVD are correct about Ultimate's evolving meta. While an upper echelon of characters has been identified, patches and new characters could throw a wrench into that established list -- pushing it to change deep into 2019. "You never know what you're going to get with one of Nintendo's patches," Myers said. "They could make something completely busted or nerf a character into the ground. It's unpredictable at times."
While patches are an uncontrollable factor that might change the meta, counterpicks can become a more prevalent way of expanding the list of feasible characters. "I've always said that it's extremely hard to solo main a character in Ultimate," MVD said. "With so many characters and matchups, even the best characters can have something they struggle with, so I do think it will be smart for top players to have more than one character in their arsenal."
There's a growing debate in the Ultimate community on whether or not counterpicks will become more common than mains. "We'll still have mains; you have to be better than your character," ESAM said. "You don't have to counterpick a losing matchup -- it's the smarter choice but you just have to play better."
Ultimate's huge, growing roster will make matchup experience far more vital with character picks, as knowing the intricacies of each character and play style will matter more than a basic comparison between two characters. That's probably where we'll see the most success going forward in Ultimate.
"The characters that people think are the best in the game -- Olimar, Peach and Pichu -- none of those characters have won a major," ESAM said. "That's because MkLeo won Genesis with Lucina and Ike, Tweek won Frostbite with ... Wario. Most of the characters people are complaining about aren't winning.
"You can always assume the top tiers are going to get better more quickly because they have good players using them," he added. "That's just a fighting-game thing. This game is too fun, too fluid to get stale, though. Ultimate doesn't have a lot of set ways to play, there isn't an 'always do this' option."