Smash Sisters events invite women gamers to play, connect and smash

Alex Wallace reacts to a win at the Smash Sisters event held during Genesis 4. Preston Gannaway for ESPN

On a Saturday in January, as millions around the world march for women's rights, two women fight in the San Jose Convention Center. About 100 people watch and cheer as kicks land, bodies flip and turnips fly.

The opening match of an all-female competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee event features Peach-on-Peach warfare. Michelle "Cakes" Lissogorski, the starter for California, is locked in on the screen as the home crowd roars at each big hit.


"Pick me up! I can't see!"

"She's so sick."

There's tension in the eyes and hands of the competitors, but smiles flash between knockouts.

Across the street, people congregate to prepare for San Jose's Women's March. Here, at Genesis 4, a competitive fighting game tournament in which Super Smash Bros. Melee and Smash 4 are the main events, a very different battle takes place. But in some ways, this fight addresses the same problems that the people with pink hats and homemade signs hope to.

For those wholly unacquainted with esports, Super Smash Bros. is a competitive fighting game that has been around since 1999, when the original title launched for Nintendo 64. Nowadays, people compete in tournaments around the world in Melee, the GameCube version of the game released in 2001, and Smash 4 for Wii U.

Top-tier players can make a living off of Smash. Genesis 4, for example, had a prize pool of nearly $60,000, and the top Melee finisher earned more than $8,500. That player, Adam "Armada" Lindgren, has made $33,551 from his past 10 events in the game.

But women are nowhere near the top. Like most esports, the Smash scene is predominately male. None of the best 100 players in Melee, the most popular Smash rendition, is female, according to SSBM Rank, which lists the best 100 players at the end of each year. Although the Smash community is one of the least toxic in esports -- perhaps because players have to sit next to each other in order to play, rather than competing online -- there is an absence of women, maybe because the atmosphere of a male-dominated tournament is intimidating or because recruiting women into a predominately male community takes dedicated advocacy for women's inclusion, which doesn't exist in most esports.

Smash Sisters, an all-women series of team elimination matches in Melee and Smash 4, is an answer to the status quo. The event, created by Lilian "milktea" Chen and Emily "emilywaves" Sun during Genesis 3 in 2016, has drawn competitors from California, Arizona, New York, London and other places across the globe to a pocket of TVs near the front of the venue. More than 3,500 people registered to compete at Genesis 4, so this crowd, though impressive, is small. It's loud but not as loud as the hundreds of people standing toward the back of the venue watching top pros battle on a movie theater-sized screen.

This is what progress looks like, though. Smash Sisters is about women being visible in an environment that is predominately male, and today, about 40 women players get to sit, connect with and compete against one another.

The subject of all-women competitions in esports is tied up in the same complications faced by the march, whether these Smashers like it or not. And most don't. They just want to play. The thrill of pounding an opponent off the stage in Smash is more important than making some kind of statement.

The Twitter trolls can wait. Today is about the literal fighting.

One woman in the back of the tightly packed group gets up on a guy's shoulders so she can see the action. Cakes, in front of a hometown crowd, wins her first match, and the crowd -- of women and men -- lights up again.

"What's this?" a bystander asks.

"It's the Smash Sisters," another says, as if it's something everyone should know.

Meanwhile, in New York, a man wearing a Smash Sisters shirt and wristband poses for a picture and posts a tweet.

"@Smash_Sisters: an initiative that brings out the female fighter and shows their potential. The fight is strong here #WomensMarch #NYC."

Chen retweets it. How could she not? There's a crucial crossover between her group's message and the one being shouted beyond the convention center walls.

"After this many years of talking about, 'Oh my God, women are being harassed in gaming, sexism,' we've all gotten tired of it. We understand that it's an important issue, but after so often talking about it, it does have a threshold. Let's just talk about the game." Lilian Chen, Smash Sisters cofounder

Chen, 27, has jet-black, shoulder-length hair, though she likes to mix the color up. She found her passion for Smash during games with her brother in "The Office," the back room of her parents' Peking House restaurant in Willimantic, Connecticut. Then came competitive play at local tournaments, a deep dive into the game and, with it, a strong connection to people -- men and women -- who Smash.

Chen made a name for herself through exceptional play at local tournaments and national competitions. She also appeared in The Smash Brothers, a nine-part episodic documentary about the game. But as Chen became known, problems surfaced. She was scrutinized online. She was called a "harlot," accused of just liking the attention, labeled as "the girlfriend" because she dated another prominent Smash player. The Smash community is diverse and welcoming, and it thrives because of its grassroots, person-to-person dynamic, but misogyny and harassment aren't strangers to its players.

Chen, one of the first people to be publicly critical of the lack of women in the Smash community, needed to step away. She made her way back, not just as a player but as an ambassador and public speaker. She also did her best to "raise awareness in a way that did not shame male gamers," as she said in a TED Talk about a panel she co-founded and moderated in May 2014.

"Women in male-dominated spaces, especially like Smash or competitive gaming in general, they face challenges that most men don't," says Genesis 4 tournament organizer Sheridan "Dr. Z" Zalewski. "There are a lot more things that make women not want to join a competitive gaming community."

Chen persisted, though, and she found like-minded women, such as Sun, in Smash. Sun, 29, had tried to set up women-focused side tournaments at local events in New York, but the response wasn't strong. When she asked if people would be interested in a women's event at Genesis 3, Chen responded, as did many others.

The Smash Sisters wanted to bring more women into the game and give the ones already playing a place to get together at tournaments. The combo of Chen and Sun makes that possible.

Chen's the social media expert and takes care of outreach to players, something that suits her skills and popularity in the Smash community. Sun is an organizer, a planner, and she has that New York bluntness to her; she makes sure things get done leading up to the tournament, and when she isn't playing, she's darting around the venue with a city-style walk.

"Smash Sisters was also, in addition to getting people to compete and play, it helped empower women in other ways," Chen says. "Women can compete and not be an anomaly, and it's normal, and there's nothing worth there being a controversy over."

When the two pitched the idea for Genesis 3 to Zalewski, he was immediately receptive. Chen and Sun were careful in their approach to the event as well. The Smash Sisters times would not compete with the main tournament's big events; it was to be framed as a crew battle, a gathering, rather than a separate tournament. Most importantly, this wasn't a proactive feminist movement.

"After this many years of talking about, 'Oh my God, women are being harassed in gaming, sexism,' we've all gotten tired of it," Chen says. "We understand that it's an important issue, but after so often talking about it, it does have a threshold. Let's just talk about the game."

And play.

Smash Sisters preregistered its competitive crew battle rosters for Genesis 4 and pulled five women in four regions for Melee: North Coast (they know it sounds weird), East Coast, California and Arizona. Chen and Sun had to turn some women away from competitive rosters, but casual play, which drew around 30 players, was open to any women interested.

The atmosphere at their events is no different from the tournament at-large. It's hilariously vulgar, occasionally electric and -- it bears repeating -- loud. The only additional rules? Have fun. And no trash-talking.

For the organizers, it's a bit more hectic. "I'm gonna go rip shots after this," Chen says, half-joking. Keeping a high-quality recording setup running, putting commentators on the air for it and pushing the pace behind the scenes is difficult, and there are heightened expectations this year.

A man clutches a Bulbasaur plush toy to his chest as a pink puffball and a teenage psychic with a bat pummel each other on-screen. Chen throws some Smash Sisters swag to the crowd.

"YAAAAAASS," someone shouts. A few passersby, attracted by the crowd and the T-shirts flying all over the place, crane their necks at the edge of the crowd. Players repping NorCal and SoCal, meanwhile, are deadlocked on the screen at the start of a casual crew battle. After a round finishes, they loosen their grips on their controllers. One stretches her fingers and wipes sweat from her palms. The crowd surrounding the locals is boisterous.

Near a set of TVs about 15 feet away, Sun, an East Coast native, raises her voice above the California crowd.

"Do NOT get outcheered by Cali."

Another woman walks up, smiling.

"I thought we weren't allowed to s--- talk?"

Sun laughs.

"Just Cali."

These events are a revelation for players, including Cakes. She's from Southern California, where she knows of only one other woman in Smash, and she spends almost the entire day Saturday at the Smash Sisters play area.

Cakes took part in the competitive portion of the first Smash Sisters event at Genesis 3. Before that, the 21-year-old thought she was one of the only women in the competitive Melee scene.

She lives with two top-100 players in Melee -- Jeremy "Squid" Deutsch and David "Kira" Kim -- and seems to always be at a console during tournaments. Although she isn't as steeped in the game as Chen or Sun, Cakes is plenty familiar with some of the remarks women get online and in person in gaming spaces.

"It's really cool to experience girls that really are interested in the game and genuinely are interested in improving in the game like I am -- they're not just a girlfriend and kind of here to sit around, you know?" she says. "It's kind of motivating, just knowing that there's other girls out there that like what I like. It makes me feel more comfortable."

Smash's growth from a cult esport to a pillar of the fighting game community can't be seen much more clearly than at the game's largest tournaments. Genesis 1 and 2 took place in a gymnasium. Flash-forward to Genesis 4, and the finals are filling the main floor of the City National Civic in San Jose.

"You definitely meet a lot of people you've never met before with different skills. It forms friendships with people you'd never get to meet. It's insane how many women there are." U.K. competitive player Chelsea "Chelly" Toms

Women have been part of tournaments the whole way, but they share stories similar to Chen's. It's easy to feel isolated as one of the few women at big events such as Genesis. It's easy to be mistaken for someone's girlfriend, as Alyssa "Risu" Buecker, who helps organize the Smash 4 side of Smash Sisters, has been countless times. Weird looks, mansplaining and the gamut of microaggressions persist, both on message boards and in tournament matches against strangers.

Buecker, like Chen, gave up on Smash for a while because of the fatigue that comes with facing those hurdles. But seeing what Chen and Sun were doing inspired her.

"Smash Sisters is one of the things that brought me back into Smash," Risu says. "I like having a purpose."

When they've streamed events online, they've received hateful comments. Every tweet, Facebook post and logistical error is heavily scrutinized. This year, Sun said, was more stressful than 2016 because Smash Sisters is getting more attention.

"We have a small group of women in Smash," Chen says. "They all talk. We f--- up, they all talk. We succeed, they talk. Additionally, we have eyes on us. And finally, the topic of women's tournaments is extremely controversial, so we have to carefully walk that line constantly because if we mess up for something logistical that's not even related to gender, it can be spun into something on the Internet: 'You see? Women's tournaments do fail.'"

For all the success it has had, Smash Sisters still walks a line similar to that of many women: In order to make themselves known, they must run an event that is better than the main attraction.

Mission accomplished, Zalewski says, in the past and now. Smash Sisters has been overseas, at local tournaments and on the major stages such as Genesis, and for every disgusting comment online, there are dozens of women and men who support the ingenuity Chen and Sun bring to the game.

"Pretty much everything that I had heard, especially from participants, was extremely positive," Zalewski says. "I think even Lilian was surprised at how positive it was, based on the past experiences that she has had."

Part of what makes Smash Sisters successful is what makes Smash different from League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or other esports titles, which have all-women teams but nothing like the Smash Sisters. Smash is a shoulder-rubbing game. There are online matches on Wii U, but the best Smash happens when players come together.

"We have had to play our games with one another in person for a long time," Zalewski says. "You had to go over to somebody's place and sit next to them and play with them. That inhibits a lot of the toxic behavior that you see online, and it gives you a chance to just genuinely understand the person sitting next to you.

"You can really only get that by playing next to someone and being near them for hours at a time."

That's all Chen and Sun want. Spend some time. Get to know who's playing next to you. See something other than a girl playing games.

See a person.

Not all women are Smash Sisters, but any woman who wants to be can be one. That goes for transgender women too, something Chen made a point of clarifying on Twitter days before the event. And it goes for "Zeccet," a 10-year-old Bowser player who showed up to a Smash Sisters event in March 2016. She got "the most hype kills," U.K. competitive player Chelsea "Chelly" Toms says.

"Smash Sisters isn't a new thing, in the sense that a lot of the girls who are playing have been playing," Chelly says. "They've always been there. It's just the event that's the new thing that brings them together."

Chelly has made hundreds of connections to players through Smash Sisters, including to the women who hosted her a week before Genesis 4. Two fellow Smash players housed Chelly and brought her to Disneyland prior to the trip to the tournament.

"You definitely meet a lot of people you've never met before with different skills," she says. "It forms friendships with people you'd never get to meet. It's insane how many women there are."

The talent is improving too. This year's competitive crew battles were back-and-forth matchups, and the level of play, participants said, was much higher than at Genesis 3. That isn't a knock on the past year; it's an indicator of what is to come.

Laurel "sp1nda" Yoho is an example. Genesis 4 was the second national for the 15-year-old Fox main. She said she enjoys the Smash Sisters events because she gets to play against former competitive players such as Chen as well as other tough foes to sharpen her skills.

"Once I start making it out of the tournament brackets, I'll probably focus on that more," she says.

"Maybe one day I'll win Genesis."