The road that led every top player to Super Smash Bros. Melee varies. There's no blueprint -- no definitive map of the plans. Even the reasons these top players continue to walk it now differ. For Weston "Westballz" Dennis, the path to greatness is constantly in flux. His own relationship with the game, events and placements is always changing and shifting gears. There is one constant, though. The path has only one direction: forward.
"[My friend Isaac] discovered Smashboards around 2007, and that's when we discovered the competitive scene," Dennis explained. "I remembered playing Star Fox, and Falco was the cool guy. It was how powerful Falco's forward smash was that made me love him!"
Gaming is an escape for many. For Weston, his title in Super Smash Bros. Melee shifted his life in a way that most could never imagine. Attending John Burroughs High School in Burbank, he quickly realized California wasn't the right place for him back in 2009. With his grades suffering, his dad sent him to live with his mother in Burbank's Koreatown. The change in location didn't do anything to help his grades. Rather, the downward spiral would only continue.
"My mom was supposed to be taking me to school every morning, but the distance was an issue, and the fact that she was abusing drugs at the time pretty much sealed my fate as a delinquent," he explained. "I spent a little time with her and then moved in with the girlfriend I had at the time. She drove me to a lot of tournaments -- bless her for that. I had a lot of fun playing during those times, but it was anything but glorious. Prize pots were small. Winning a local wasn't guaranteed for me, either."
Making a living off of Smash is a rarity in the gaming community, even in 2016. For a Melee player in SoCal at that time, it was unheard of. The region is known for being arguably the deepest in Smash, where a myriad of the power-ranked players could end up in the top eight of any major event. Many players would crumble under that level of competition, but Weston was forged by it.
"I was playing for a couple years. It felt like overnight I went from a player that nobody paid attention to, to a player that people said had a lot of potential," he said. As Smash grew and opportunities came, his results and placings made it certain that he couldn't be overlooked. When Tempo Storm came knocking, he answered.
"Tempo Storm is a great team. I'm super-grateful for their commitment to me and Smash," he added. "I think teams are learning that Smash players are easy to sponsor, and the game has everything going for it: the high-level competition, the personalities, the community, the growth, the hype -- it's definitely a special thing to be a part of."
While fans have grown accustomed to seeing him in blue and white, more people associate him, or at least his Falco, with red. While that character has become his trademark in order to stay on top, he's looking to join the other top-level players who have a second option as good as the first.
"All of the characters have strengths and weaknesses. I feel like top players are working around Falco's weaknesses, using him as a counter pick, which can be very hard to deal with. Actually, as less players use Falco, the more interesting the meta is getting," he explained. "Falco is much harder to deal with as a back-pocket pick. Falco on Yoshi's Story? Not a joke, man. The difference between PPMD, Mang0 and myself is that I rely on Falco more, where they might rely on their Marth or Fox more. I use Fox a lot too, and it's something I will have to sharpen to keep up in the meta."
"For Westballz, that path is constantly in flux. His own relationship with the game, events and placements is always changing and shifting gears. There is one constant, though. The path has only one direction: forward."
Many players look at replays of their losses online on in order to figure out what they're lacking. Dennis figured out the key to his own evolution by looking in the mirror.
"My weaknesses have to do with my focus and health," he said. "I think you'll start to see not just a technically sound Falco, but a smarter one, as I start to improve my routine, especially with eating healthier and exercising. Looking back at how bad I ate and slept on the road at times, I laugh super-hard at some of my losses.
"I'll watch a bad loss and not even recognize my Falco. Up until recently, I haven't been able to focus on my weaknesses because I've just been so busy competing in consecutive tournaments over the past eight months."
Even while taking a short break, his goals are in sight, and he knows how to move in order to attain them: forward.
"I hope that my breakout performance is yet to come. I'd like to win Evo, or something big," Dennis said. "It gives me goose bumps thinking that I have a chance of being that good with some extra effort. I feel like I've had a lot of milestone performances. It was a big deal the first time I won a local. It was a big deal the first time I made it into my first top-eight at a major. Making it into grand finals with Armada, and when I beat Mang0 for the first time. I won't be satisfied until I'm a favorite to win a major -- just as much as any other top player. It wouldn't be right if I had lesser goals."
The time he's taken off has served as a welcome respite, but a time to reconnect as well.
"I've been appreciating home life lately. It has been fun to chill at home and spend a little [less] Melee money," he said. "I'm mostly trying to save my money to prepare for a better future. I almost signed up at Santa Monica College. I took the orientation and assessment but didn't end up taking any classes. It wasn't long ago -- maybe one and a half years -- where my family had literally no interest in my Melee career. The other day, I saw my dad wearing a Smash Summit shirt. I guess he bought some merch during the compendium! They are insanely supportive now. My brothers have a flat-screen in the living room with the Twitch channel set up, and they watch and study match footage almost as much as I do!"
Many coming from the kind of home that Dennis had in Koreatown would have struggled to make something of themselves. Melee was an escape at first. Now, with all of that behind him, he's looking to improve day by day. He wants to prove that he can soar higher than ever, and he's almost certain that his wings won't be clipped.