Home turf: Michigan's Melee masters on The Big House

James "Duck" Ma, right, is poised to make waves at Combo Breaker 2018. Thomas Tischio/TischPhotos.

For Super Smash Bros. Melee players, the word offseason is a bit of a misnomer. The once seemingly brief Summer of Smash didn't end this year after Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma collected his Evolution Championship Series trophy at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Recent events like Clutch City Clash, Super Smash Con and Shine gave players who felt like they didn't live up to their potential in June and July more opportunities to showcase their talents. Some even congregated at Dairly Beloved, an event that featured not just a Zachary "SFAT" Cordoni victory, but also a wedding.

While players have a longer and longer list of events they can choose to attend, there is no question that certain events are currently venerated for various reasons; however, they rarely start that way. Five years ago, it seemed like the Midwest was a barren spot for Melee players, but an event in the shadow of Michigan Stadium did more than attract top players from outside the region to Ann Arbor. The Big House showed the world that the Midwest had talent -- they just needed the right opportunity.

"When I started ... it was a dark time for Michigan Melee," James "Duck" Ma explained. "This was during 2009 when Brawl was taking over everything and most of the Michigan Melee players had quit or switched over. It took a pretty long time for us to get more than 20 to 30 entrants."

The Melee scene hadn't had a major event held in the region since FC Diamond in 2007. The following four years would see a dearth of high-level competition in the heartland. Players would have to travel east for the Pound or Revival of Melee series or west for Genesis to get a taste of what other regions had to offer and witness the rise of some of the most esteemed players today.

Things would change Oct. 22, 2011.

"When The Big House rolled around, our whole region was extremely excited, simply because we never got to see how our good players would do against some top out-of-region talent," Abhishek "Prince Abu" Prabhu said. "People traveled much less back then, and there were far less big tournaments, so it was really cool to see SFAT, [Johnny "S2J" Kim] and [Oscar "Lovage" Nilsson] come to the Midwest."

Lovage would eventually defeat S2J to take that initial event. Despite the fact that the last remaining players were California natives, the newfound interest in Michigan would innervate the entire region, helping a new generation of players rise to the occasion with each passing year.

"I first started playing in Michigan in summer 2012," Kalindi "KJH" Henderson recounted. "My first Big House was The Big House 2; this was also my first national ever. Despite not making it out of Round 1 pools, I did beat [Weston "Westballz" Dennis], who was like a hero to me at the time, so that was cool. I was still unfamiliar with the community at the time and didn't know anyone really, so after Day 1, I just went home and watched the rest on stream, which was a big mistake.

"The Big House 3 was different; I felt like I had improved a ton, made more friends and was ready to compete. I played Hungrybox, [Aziz "Hax" Al-Yami], [Kevin "PewPewU" Toy] and finally had made it to the last day. The Big House 4 was huge, [Joseph "Mango" Marquez], [Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman], Hungrybox were in attendance, and it was so cool to see [Adam "Armada" Lindgren] and [William "Leffen" Hjelte] playing in Michigan."

Last year, some would say the event was overshadowed by Leffen's absence and what it might portend; this year, the Michigan scene wants to become the star of the show. The players want to show that they, and the Midwest as a whole, have grown and evolved as a region and can't be overlooked any longer.

"It is the only major tournament where the whole crowd goes wild for Midwest players, and playing in front of a home crowd like that is a huge motivation boost," Prabhu continued. "I'll never forget how crazy the crowd went at The Big House 4, where [Kyle "Kalamazhu" Zhu] beat [Joe "Lucky" Aldama], [David "Kirbykaze" MacDonald], [McCain "MacD" LaVelle], and almost beat Hax to finish at ninth, and [Kelly "Kels" Smith] made an insane losers run to place fifth. Or last year, where Duck beat [James "Swedish Delight" Liu] to place ninth, and [Stephen "Abate" Abate] beat S2J and [Jeffrey "Axe" Williamson] to make top eight. That kind of atmosphere is something that makes Big House really special as a Midwest player, and I have no doubt that The Big House 6 is going to be equally hype, especially if one of the top Midwest players breaks into top eight."

The series is known for its no-nonsense attitude, as organizer Robin "Juggleguy" Harn is noted for being especially stringent with how the event is run. When talent in the region wasn't a draw, the efficiency of the event had people planning their trips to Ann Arbor months ahead of time. Out of his own pocket, Juggleguy helped bring S2J and Lovage to the event and made one of the best investments for the Midwest as a whole.

"It's probably the only tournament series where you can guarantee everything will run smoothly and on time," Ma added. "Juggleguy has instilled the fear in everyone, shown that he doesn't tolerate lateness, and he's willing to disqualify anyone. Beyond that, the tournament boasts 63 of the top 100 players this year, in addition to legends like Lovage, [Tony "Taj" Jackson] and [Charles "Fuzzyness" Kimmelman]. People are willing to go out to a tournament they know is going to be amazing."

Discipline is a must for potential entrants, as you can't prove how good you are if you are disqualified for breaking tournament rules. That philosophy has spread beyond tenets of event organization and into how the region is managing its own growth and shaping its future.

"I play friendlies at locals nonstop now, and play with Duck maybe once or twice a week," Henderson remarked. "A key for me to close the gap is to use my time wisely, meaning if I can't play as much, then I should study my sets more, theorycraft with other players and overall just think about the game more in my spare time."

"Free time to play is extremely limited, but I have been making efforts to play a little every day to keep my execution and movement smooth," Prabhu expounded. "More importantly, I theorycraft with Duck, KJH, and Kalamazhu, as well as regularly think about the game and analyze my play as well as Hungrybox's. When I study myself, I try to look for and fix specific scenarios I regularly get outplayed in, or spots where I could optimize my punish more. When I study Hungrybox, I really try to look at his neutral game in every matchup and figure out what makes it so much tighter and better than mine. I look for positioning, SDI and little tricks he uses to trap his opponent in positions where he can open them up and kill them.

"Moving forward, I need to continue to improve my neutral and my knowledge of every single matchup, and in addition, I think I need to start learning how to better play the player as opposed to just the matchup ... I need to learn how to take advantage of specific player habits -- habits that separate [DaJuan "Shroomed" McDaniel] from Swedish Delight or Lucky from [Aaron "Professor Pro" Thomas] from [Mustafa "Ice" Akcakaya] and so on. Every player plays differently, and there's no magical formula to beat every option for most matchups involving two good characters. Mastering the art of adapting and countering specific strategies and habits is a huge skill I need to work on. "

Although this level of preparation is generally needed for top players, the stakes are higher when some are looking to you to carry a region on your back.

"The Big House 6 is the second or third most important event to me," Prabhu explained. "Overall, I'd say making top eight at Evo would mean more to me, and making top eight at Genesis would mean slightly more to me. Because of the size and stacked nature of The Big House 6, as well as the home-field factor, it is extremely important to me, and I can't wait to go out and compete."

"The Big House has definitely been a roller coaster for me," Ma confessed. "The first one [was] where people from the coasts learned who I was, so it holds a special place for me. My placements actually dropped almost every year as the competition got harder and harder. I was finally able to make it to a ninth place finish last year but was just short of top eight. My goal this year is definitely to make that top-eight spot and represent the Midwest. Making top eight would be the culmination of all the hard work I've put in since last year. It would be my first top eight on American soil, and it would mean a chance for the Midwest to play in another top eight at a national. Doing it at The Big House 6 on home soil would just be icing on the cake."

There has been no offseason for Melee in Michigan. Every second they're not working to improve is a second that someone else is working to catch up to them; every minute they take off lets those that are ahead of them push further. The region has come so far in the last decade. Last year showed that they were on the cusp of brilliance, and this year they intend to show that they have broken through. There will be plenty of other opportunities to do so as the tournament scene grows, but of course, there's no place like home.