Is Melee heating up? Reflections at the start of the Summer of Smash

Adam "Armada" Lindgren, left, and Joseph "Mango" Marquez, right. Robert Paul

As we continue in this "platinum age" of Melee, it's shocking to compare the landscape of the first Summer of Smash to the one we are on the cusp of. The summer months of 2014 saw William "Leffen" Hjelte's star continue to rise, Kevin "PPMD" Nanney showed what he was capable of after a hiatus, and Joseph "Mang0" Marquez and Adam "Armada" Lindgren traded major victories back and forth. Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma and Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman were always in contention, but were mostly able to take hardware home where Mango and Armada weren't in attendance. Doubles was in a vice grip, as the hand of the empire was firm thanks to Armada and Mew2King being tested, but never dethroned.

A lot has changed over the years, and as we enter what looks to be the most action-packed Summer of Smash yet, it makes sense to look over the first third of the year to find out what the next few months might have in store.

Teams is up for grabs

Fans who were upset with Melee not concluding on Sunday at Evo can relax; the Fuse Doubles Circuit was announced back in February. Doubles brackets at Evo have been side events, run by community members without a lot of fanfare. But as Sheridan Zalewski, Genesis Tournament Organizer and one of the driving forces behind this circuit stated, the uniqueness of doubles is something that is always valuable and usually understated.

"A big part of why people love the Smash scene so much is that it brings people together like no other game does, and we have a crazy diversity of personalities," Zalewski began. "Static teams is something that highlights both of those great aspects of our community and drives story lines that will last for hopefully years to come."

To the surprise of very few, many of the usual pairings are currently atop the leader board: Armada/Andreas "Android" Lindgren, Zachary "SFAT" Cordoni/Kevin "PewPewU" Toy, Leffen/Mustafa "Ice" Akcakaya, Hungrybox/Mew2King, McCain "MacD" LaVelle/Sami "DruggedFox" Muhanna, Jeffrey "Axe" Williamson/Justin "Plup" McGrath, Kashan "Chillindude" Khan/Daniel "ChuDat" Rodriguez, James "Swedish Delight" Liu/Anthony "Slox" Detres, Hendrick "DJ Nintendo" Pilar/Ryan "The Moon" Coker-Welch. With event organizers able to opt in as part of the circuit, many duos are looking to get into position to be part of the eight-team invitational in Las Vegas. With a third-place finish at Royal Flush, DaJuan "Shroomed" Jefferson McDaniel and Johnny "S2J" Kim look to be making a run to claim one of the coveted spots.

Doubles is far from a sure thing for the any of the teams in contention. The Alliance pairing of brothers Armada and Android are likely the favorites, but long before they finished in third at DreamHack Austin, they dropped a set to Leffen and Ice at Genesis 4, forcing them to make a jog through the losers bracket; that history repeated at Royal Flush as well, showing that the biggest threat to their continued success may just be another team from Europe. Leffen and Ice's double Fox is possibly the best iteration of that duo, and it's only a matter of time time before they end up being in the top spot at an event; being bridesmaids to Team UGS on multiple occasions this year must only increase their drive. PewFat hasn't found the same level of success this year that many expected from the Counter Logic Gaming duo, and while Hungrybox and Mew2King have shown prowess, the pairing are still a dark horse, but certainly one that can't be underestimated.

That said, this entire circuit has helped push not just doubles as a whole from a sideshow to a main event, but showcase that these teams are worth following.

"The PewFat and UGS teams are great examples and great stories in their own rights," Zalewski added. "And we want to do our part to get the next generation of those relationships started."

Ten years gone

With Robert "Wobbles" Wright on hiatus to focus on school, Jeremy "Fly Amanita" Westfahl sightings treated like Bigfoot in the wild, and Michael "Nintendude" Brancato recently resurfacing in a top eight, some folks were afraid there would be a dearth of Ice Climbers representation at events. While Kyle "Dizzkidboogie" Athayde would have a couple of placements, it's fair to say that no one has expected ChuDat to return to prominence as if he turned back the clock.

Placements don't always tell the story, as you have to look at the names taken, and in his case, it adds up. Sets over Professor Pro, Trifasia, S2J, Shroomed, Justin "Wizzrobe" Hallett, Mango and Mew2King. The only Ice Climbers player to take a game off of Armada's Peach. Oh, and he's done that more than once.

"It's pretty cool to be back on top again," Rodriguez explained. "I've been training myself mentally for a long time now so it's cool that my hard work and discipline is finally paying off."

The victor of the very first Pound event back in 2006, a man who was contemporaries with folks like Ken "SephirothKen" Hoang, Daniel "KoreanDJ" Jung, Christopher "Azen" McMullen, Cand hris "PC Chris" Szygiel has never truly faded into obscurity. It seems like it took 10 years for a return to the forefront, which has surprised more than his contemporaries. That's why we aren't shocked by a ninth-place finish at Genesis 4 or 13th at Royal Flush; rather, we're awestruck that he can get a second-place finish HFLan 2017 while being sandwiched between arguably the two best Peach players in Europe, another at DreamHack Austin, and a smattering of other top-eight finishes at events.

And we aren't the only ones caught up in the wonder of it all.

"I'm very surprised with my results," Rodriguez added. "My goal was to get 13th at every tournament this year. I have far surpassed that and I'm very excited to see how far I can go and what my limits are. Breaking my limits is the best part of competition! It also feels great to be unnoticed and underrated for a while now that I'm one of the best."

It's safe to say that Rodriguez is doing everything he can to seize any opportunity that falls in his grasp. Of course, not everyone is happy with his results. Knocking out other fan favorites will always stir the hornet's nest, but a long set against Hungrybox has been one of the most talked about sets of the year for all of the wrong reasons.

"[From] a fan's perspective, it probably sucks to watch floaty matchups," Rodriguez divulged. "I personally hate fighting floaty matchups since they are so boring so I can feel the pain of the audience."

""It's going to sound counterintuitive, but we need stuff to dislike. We need things to strive against, especially as competitors. We need it on a meta level as well; things that aren't fun so we can fight those and prove our way is superior."" Robert "Wobbles" Wright

And of course, the stigma of playing the Ice Climbers is one that he can't shed, as players and fans argue over whether or not wobbling should be banned once more.

"When people are suggesting that something be eliminated from the game, especially when they are motivated by what is 'good for the game,' you need to remember something," Robert "Wobbles" Wright explained. "People don't leave because they see something they don't like. Sometimes they stick around longer to see it lose! I remember a YouTube comment on one of my matches which just said 'Man, I was hoping Wobbles would lose.' That's it! They watched to see me fail! But the key thing is this: they watched.

"It's going to sound counterintuitive, but we need stuff to dislike. We need things to strive against, especially as competitors. We need it on a meta level as well; things that aren't fun so we can fight those and prove our way is superior. Viewers need that as an emotional part of the story that makes them stick around. The question here is, does keeping wobbling hurt more than it would help? And the answer is no. It barely hurts at all, but eliminating it would hurt more.

"It aggravates people. It aggravates them a lot, and sometimes individual players even quit as a result. But guess what? Start selectively slicing out boring or frustrating elements, and you will just create a new standard, except even fewer items are present to keep people interested. Having the wobbling IC, even as a villain, keeps people hooked on the story. People like Dizzkidboogie are amazing for the scene, because he is a nice happy dude who looks a bit like Jack Black from the right camera angle. He's novel; people want to see him lose, and people want to see him win. They argue with each other in Twitch Chat, and they stick around to see what happens. They're the viewers you keep, the ones for whom you provide the service.

"This is a game. If you have a personal emotional win-condition of 'wobbling not winning,' then you will feel MORE satisfaction from defeating it than from being warped to the end credits. Especially in the competitive community, we aren't hooked on victory, the noun, we are hooked on winning. Notice the "ing." It's a process. You want to play. People who don't want to play at least want to watch the process, to see how it unfolds.

"If we're going to talk about long-term community health, we also need to talk about the long-term process of play. It involves rising up to challenges, which means having challenges to overcome, which sometimes means a villain or a thing you don't like."

The death of Melee?

One of the least discussed differences between the initial summer of Smash and the one that we are heading toward is the widening of the gap between spectator and player mindsets, and how it only continues to grow wider with each passing event.

Spectators demand a show, they often cite classic sets, back and forths, big risks that become etched as legend. Moments like those have done more than create the fan base as it currently stands, they've also inspired a myriad of players to pick up controllers and to get involved in a scene that is still struggling to balance all of the opportunities being given to it.

At the same time, the mantra of a competitor is all about the win, and you do what it takes to get there. You experiment, you fail, you hopefully learn from it and succeed. The game has developed into something so punish heavy that some know the flowchart on what the "best" thing is in every situation, by the book. You can't blame them for taking that route. It seems like a contradiction to play for the fans and to constantly play for those moments while expecting to consistently take home first place.

Fans have helped elevate this game into where it currently stands, and have to realize that the days of playing for peanuts in church basements for the biggest events of the year are over; some folks still play for pride, but others are playing for their retirement funds. Fanbases can bloom and shrink over a single performance, but as long as people are talking about the game, Melee continues to trudge on.

We've heard the same discussions for years now -- what can and can't kill Melee. The discussions over the consistency of top players killing the game only gives them more credibility as they continue to find regular success in the most researched era of the game's life. We see top players struggle with the days when they don't play at their pinnacle which is a testament to the myriad of things, in and out of game, that can go wrong. Those moments also make people wonder what will happen when they are firing on all cylinders, what will happen at their next event, when will the bracket align so they can square up again.

It seems as if top players duel every couple of weeks, and names continue to rotate in and out of top eight, with various permutations of brackets leading up to it, and no matter what, there's always a memorable set, or a clip of an amazing play. Every one of those moments is special for a reason, when someone goes outside of the box in order to seal a victory, those moments are instantly enshrined, people watch those sets and break them down, and for the players, well, those victories usually end up with a reminder in a trophy case. The discussions continue, and people keep watching.

There's a reason why after all of the complaints, the fans were in a frenzy when Mango made a jog through losers to face Armada, and eventually take both sets in grand finals. It isn't just about their storied rivalry, it isn't just about people wondering "if sleeping on the kid" is a viable option, it isn't just people looking for Armada to be taken down for a day, it isn't just their fanbases. It's also about the clashes of styles, of mantras, of personalities.

It isn't about Mango, Armada, Hungrybox, Leffen, or any player in any bracket being a hero or a villain. It isn't about their successes, it's also about each time the fail. Each player, their approach to the game, how they place, their bracket, it all adds to the whole experience. It's why we watch, wondering for redemption when someone is in a slump. It's why we wonder how long someone can stay on top. It's why with the number of players who are injured, we wait to see when they'll be back. It's why PPMD hasn't competed in over a year and people still wish him well, and want to see him in action.

"I wouldn't try to make Melee a game completely free of cheese, boring play, or defensive play, even if I could," Wobbles said. "They are actually an integral part of the tension that makes the game interesting to watch in the long-term. Kill that, and you kill the game."

All of those emotions show a concern as to the future of the game, and if anything will kill the game, it won't be those discussions of who and what are killing the game, if the clock needs to be adjusted. It'll be when people at all levels stop caring, and that's a future that is as far off as ever.