The year is 2008.
Baltimore is playing host to Pound 3, a major event boasting over 200 players. Legends of the day are doing their best to traverse through the bracket. Jonathan "Plank" Graybeal is running the event, making sure people report for their next match. Names such as PC Chris, Mew2King, ChuDat, Azen, Hugs, Forward, Cactuar, Silent Wolf, Drephen, and Cort echo throughout the venue.
While all of those players had established themselves long before this event, two legends would be forged throughout the weekend. A young Joseph "Mang0" Marquez goes to the loser's bracket in the first round after dropping a Link mirror to Otto "Silent Wolf" Bisno, and then goes on to make the greatest bracket run in Smash -- winning the event, the first of his many major victories.
Meanwhile, Aziz "Hax$" Al-Yami is on a couch, and the sound around him is far different from what's audibly coming from the desk of the tournament organizer. His parents let him travel out of state for the first time for a tournament and had no idea what they had unleashed on the world. Other New York players are screaming with every move he connects, turning the couch into the set of a horror movie for whomever sits down to oppose him. Some shout for "Baby Isai," as the thirteen year old dismantles one player after another.
"It was huge for my motivation," recollected Hax$, who "To this day, I ride off of the support of my fans, but back then it was especially crucial. When anything is relatively new - whether we're talking about a company, someone's first week at a new school, or a gamer's career - things that happen in the early stages are of really high magnitude. Being a fan favorite from early on very well could have led me to where I am today."
He'd finish at ninth place.
Fast forward to 2016.
For the first time since EVO 2015, the now twenty-one year Hax$ is in action at a major event. There is no couch this time, as he's sitting in the chairs provided by one of the sponsors of Pound 2016. The brick walls of the past don't reflect the game as well as the chandeliers currently hanging from the ceiling do. It doesn't even sound quite the same -- the crowd is deafening, with screams bellowing throughout the ballroom.
The two biggest stories from all the way back at Pound 3 are forced to clash, as Hax$ goes up against Mang0. The set count is tied at a pair of wins apiece, and with a trip to winner's finals on the line, Hax$ squanders his lead in Game 5. He gets down to his last stock and he's in a dire situation; Mang0 is counterpoking, trying to out-zone Hax$ approach game. Amidst a couple of mistakes, a delicate situation leads to Hax$ hesitating and getting grabbed for it. Mang0 opts for superior stage positioning and forces Hax$ off stage. Mang0 makes the right call on the timing of a second jump before Hax$ is able to get to the ledge. Victory in sight, Mang0 follows him off stage, but the expected spike never comes; a Dolphin Slash does, and Mang0 sinks to the bottom of the stage as Hax$ stalls long enough with a Firefox to steal a victory.
While the screams of 2008 signified a player being introduced to the world, the screams behind him after that stock some eight years later are an amalgam of anguish and joy: the two emotions that best depict his path back to contention.
As he heads to winners finals, he's disappointed. He doesn't feel he earned the win, and he demands better of himself as a player.
"I don't really have any doubts in my mind that I've been a top 10 player this whole time; I've just had things preventing me from playing at my peak," said Hax$, "But considering people thought I'd fallen off the face of the earth, I'm happy with how the weekend turned out. Once I'm healthy again, I won't be happy with third place. I have to become the best in the world."
It sounds dire, a need to become the best. Then again, Hax$ couldn't be satisfied with anything less. Insomnia has plagued him for the last two years, but he's working on it. A pair of surgical procedures on his wrists are well-documented, and a third is on the horizon. All necessary steps he has to take to become the best -- just like hanging up the pink boots that adorned his Captain Falcon.
"Most people don't know this, but a big reason I switched to Fox is that I wasn't enjoying the game much anymore," recalled Hax$. "I'd been playing competitively for eight years at the time, and wasn't finding Captain Falcon mentally stimulating enough. I felt that I had a lot of hidden skill I couldn't show with him. I knew it had to be Fox or Falco, but I quickly realized that Fox was capable of playing the game the way I'd always wanted to: aggressive, deceptive rushdown, without being reliant on a projectile. Of course, I also switched because I wanted to win.
"With the exception of my set against Nintendude, I wasn't really even close to my peak at this tournament either."
That set, the one that guaranteed a top eight spot, made Michael "Nintendude" Brancato question if he played a human or a tool assisted robot. To Hax$, it was a preview of the culmination of his mantra, "20XX". A dystopian future in Melee, where everyone has mastered Fox, and plays so optimally that the only way matches are decided is through port priority. That what he's reaching for with every set: mastery.
"The most standout things about my Fox are probably my technical skill and lack of laser. At heart, I'm still a Captain Falcon player," said Hax$. "I don't know how to use the gun as well as most other Fox mains; I really don't like stopping a pressuring dashdance to fall back and use it. In some matchups, like Jigglypuff and Peach, it is quite good, though."
In the winner's finals, he did succumb to a Jigglypuff. Of course, it belonged to Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, the eventual winner of the tournament. He'd have to win one more set to make it into grand finals. His opponent would be a man who he sent to that side of the bracket earlier: Mang0.
"We're good friends at the end of the day, so truthfully I'm happy that a challenge for me to overcome like him exists," revealed Hax$. "I think it's in Mang0's blood to want to be the unanimous crowd favorite. He's prideful to the point that he wants to crush anyone who opposes that. He realizes that I'm capable of being beaten by his secondaries, and the rest is history.
"We also have some drastically different views of the game; I'm the spearhead of the 20XX movement, which I know he really doesn't like," said Hax$. "For years he's made fun of people who try to view the game from an optimized perspective like I do. Likewise, I always throw jabs at him for some of the decisions he makes...We actually have really similar views on the neutral game. While I do believe that things like edgeguarding, ledge-play, combos, and shield pressure should follow a tree (to an extent), I try to play the neutral in the same unpredictable, psychological way Mang0 does. I don't pull off my best neutral very often, so a lot of people may not see this, but when I'm on point it's pretty obvious. Playing a robotic neutral game is death.
"I don't think Mang0 tried to disrespect me at all with his Marth pick this weekend, though," insisted Hax$. "I have a reputation for being extremely good at Fox dittos, and I've been the heavy favorite vs Mang0 in Fox dittos in the past. Considering his Falco -- a very difficult character to warm-up-play well with -- hadn't come out all weekend, and I've been losing to [Ryan "The Moon" Coker-Welch]'s Marth lately, it was actually a really logical choice in my opinion."
The Fox mirror would happen, and Mang0 sent Hax$ out of the tournament in three straight games.
"I was really spent by the time Top 8 of this tournament rolled around. My insomnia is still really bad," said Hax$. "By the time I had to play Mang0's Fox in losers, I didn't have any mental energy left. I was truthfully going to get destroyed by anyone I had to play in that loser's finals, so I'm glad it was Mang0. It made for the best grand finals matchup the crowd could've asked for at that point."
He unplugged his controller, only to be met with a standing ovation from a gracious east coast crowd. Third will do for now -- it's his best performance at an event of this magnitude. However, he's well aware of how much further he still has to go.
"I've played a ton of competitive games and there's really no other game I know of that has such a ludicrous ceiling, both in terms of execution and psychology," articulated Hax$. "The technical aspect of Melee is sickening while the psychological aspect is fascinating. Melee, especially when playing as Fox, feels like a quest for perfection. Nothing else really compares to it in that regard; it's surely the best game I'll ever know of in my life."
This year will be 20XX, if Hax$ has anything to say about it.