SAN JOSE, Calif. -- 2016 was an interesting year for 25-year-old Super Smash Bros. Melee pro player Weston "Westballz" Dennis. Ranked as the eighth-best in the world at the end of 2015, the Southern Californian was expected in 2016 to challenge those above him, notably the five top players regarded as "gods," as well as Swedish star William "Leffen" Hjelte.
That didn't end up being the case, with Westballz taking sets off only Leffen and fellow Southern Californian foe and Smash god Joseph "Mang0" Marquez. Westballz was not able to overcome the other four on that list and become a true "godslayer," something only Leffen has ever done.
But 2017 is a new year, with Genesis 4 in San Jose marking the opening of the Super Smash Bros. Melee calendar year. Ranked eighth in the world once again after a similarly successful 2016, Westballz hopes to move his ranking upward this year and finally overcome those above him.
"To be able to beat [the players ahead in the rankings], obviously you have to be playing immaculately," Westballz told ESPN during his time in San Jose. "These guys play all the time, they work hard, so you have to work just as hard and even harder just to beat these guys. You have to put in the effort, and you'll reap the rewards. That's what I've been doing, and I think this might be the year I might start consistently taking sets off the top five."
Westballz said he has not only been practicing longer but also attempting to refine and improve his practice style. That journey began in December, when he traveled to Sweden for a week and stayed with Adam "Armada" Lindgren, the best Melee player in the world and a constant adversary for Westballz.
"I feel like I've been putting in a little extra more work ever since December," he said. "I feel like maybe I never put in my 100 percent, but recently, I've been grinding it out every day, practicing [Smash] Melee, everything I can. I feel like I've put in a little bit more effort than in the past. It's good to see I've been playing a little bit better, and it just shows that my practice is paying off."
"I feel like my trip to Sweden, practicing with Armada for a week and understanding how floaty characters [like Jigglypuff and Peach] do well against Falco [was worthwhile]. It's because they have a strong punish game, and you don't have one against them [as Falco], so you have to be very calculated. That's something I've been trying to do: [be] more calculated [and] more precise with my intentions. I feel like I've improved with that, and it improves my floaty matchups."
In 2016, Westballz found a love for SSBM's Fox, often declared the best character in the game. Westballz attempted to use Fox, who is similar in style yet slightly better than his main character, Falco, more and more with limited success. Now he says he is rededicated to Falco and wants to stay away from using Fox when possible.
"The thing with my Fox is that it's a character that gets in on Jigglypuff and Marth, which I really struggle with," he said. "I've been testing out what works with my Fox, and I really feel like I shouldn't be using him as much as I thought I was going to. I think I should stick with Falco a little bit more. I'm slowly realizing this, and I won't be using Fox as much, but I'll occasionally pull him out just like [Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman] with his Fox."
To conquer the five "gods," Westballz believes the regime should extend outside of the game. He believes his mentality, physical care and focus are equally important to his dedication to Smash.
"[I need to] be fully prepared mentally, physically and remembering everything I've studied for and the practice I've put in," he said. "Just basically preparing properly. That's what I've been doing recently, and it's been showing some improvements. I feel like I'm still getting better and I'm still learning how to prepare properly for these big tournaments."
He commends his friend and foe, Armada, for his ability to handle himself consistently while traveling throughout his home region of Europe and across the seas to the United States and Canada.
"It's actually very tough. I don't understand how Armada travels across the world and does it consistently. It's very, very respectable," Westballz said. "Just basically put in the work, and I feel like you can just see the rewards."
His attempt to overcome the gods and Leffen starts with Genesis. On Saturday, Westballz lost 0-3 to Armada but managed to bounce back in a losers bracket match against Northern California's Zachary "SFAT" Cordoni, a player ranked one rung above Westballz at the end of this year.
"I didn't show [that I can crack the top five on Saturday], but against Armada, he's just a tough cookie. He punishes you hard," Westballz said. "I still felt confident, even after the loss against him, but you just got to keep going. You just have to understand that this game is a very hard game. Just because you're getting four-stocked -- we've seen anyone get four-stocked. It doesn't matter how bad you're losing or how grim it looks. As long as you keep trying, you can eventually get there. That's my philosophy."