It all started with a piece on Kotaku ranking the best moments in the history of competitive gaming It did floated by me on Twitter And I guess I had something I felt like Procrastinating that day because I clicked the link and it’s perhaps a sign of my age that I still expected thresh versus immortal to show Up anyway topping the list was a very famous clip of a street fighter match between Daigo and Justin Wong that I had never seen before which culminated in this moment I was amazed when I saw this actually I was confused I had to google what I was even looking at but then I was amazed basically everything else on the list was either incomprehensible Or uninteresting to me as a person who didn’t play any of the games mentioned but even without having played street fighter since grade school This struck me as a thing of beauty. A couple years later some podcast or other I was listening to mentioned that Evo Which is kind of the Super Bowl of fighting games was about to begin and I was “free” that week So I streamed some of the competition and it was the same deal as with the Kotaku piece Street Fighter was endlessly fascinating to me, but the other games on the roster just Weren’t. They weren’t accessible to me. The commentators would describe what was happening in ways that were really interesting in an abstract Game theory sense, and it seemed probably quite exciting for the people who played these games But as my relationship began and ended with watching. I just couldn’t get into it. Which is the same relationship I have with sports actually I often find sports interesting to read about or to think about because I like games and systems But.. as entertainment? I don’t give a fuck about sports, but the exception at Evo, besides Street Fighter, was Smash Specifically Melee which of all the games that Evo was the least like Street Fighter And I ended up watching a crap ton of it It was so fast, so dynamic, so unpredictable and that may have been true of the other games at Evo I’m not ruling it out. I just couldn’t tap into it. They didn’t work for me as a spectator Maybe the Linchpin here is that street fighter and Melee were the only games present that I had played even a little bit But, then again, I’ve never found competitive Soul Calibur interesting, and I’ve played a lot of Soul Calibur But the seed was planted. Later when I heard about the Smash Brothers Documentary I thought “Yeah, I’d watch that.” And I liked it. I mean I had problems with it of course I did, they treated their only female Smasher as no more interesting than somebody’s girlfriend. Awesome Well done guys, but overall I liked it then a bit later I bought my house mates old Gamecube™, borrowed my girlfriend’s copy of Melee and picked up Captain Falcon Because.. Why not? Then I started watching Youtube videos of captain Falcon players to, you know, learn through osmosis… And I found myself watching games by the other players I’d seen in the Falcon matches and picking up all the terminology from the commentators and before I knew what was happening I was ranting to anyone who would listen about the time Ax 4 stocks Silent Wolf on FOD in under a minute with a mid-tier character by identically executing the same absolutely amazing offstage Edge-guard and shh… it. I’m a sports fan. How did this happen? Listen to me I sound like Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting”: “…that’s not because he’s, he’s waving at the Bowl like a madman, he’s gonna “Right” Tell me if this sounds familiar since Captain Falcon was the first character I picked up I have this total and Irrational loyalty to him and will almost always root for Falcon in any matchup even as I know No one’s won a major tournament with him in years and I’m picking up the entire history of Falcon players: the old master who retired in his prime when he lost the love of the game; the former king of Falcon who’s now a traitor for switching to Fox; the new King who’s relentlessly fast, but can’t guard the edge; and the elegant, graceful west coast Up-and-comer. I’ve got players I think are punks for possibly no good reason other than it feels good to root against a villain; there are the [quote-unquote] “Five Gods” who win basically every tournament so I, as a rule, root against them in any matchup Until they start playing each other and then I have favorites. I get to this level of investment And Smash ceases to be just a game It’s drama – a collection of stories with comebacks and tragedies, monsters and savants and most of these stories Probably aren’t true, but they feel true now maybe you already love smash and this isn’t news to you or maybe you love sports and are wondering why I should get so Invested in a video game or maybe you don’t care about either, and you just love me and don’t worry I love you too. All I can do today is try to explain why I personally love competitive Smash, so that’s what I’m gonna try to do, okay? Okay. First, some context: Chris DeLeon has a series of articles and a degree talk about the idea that Sports and Board games have RULES – but video games have LAWS – that in soccer you don’t touch the ball with your hands because you’ve agreed not to, but in Fifa you don’t touch the ball with your hand because it’s impossible – there’s no button for it So in a sport, you can do anything that is not expressly forbidden by the rules. In a videogame You can’t do anything except what is expressly allowed by the system So in the case of something like Daigo versus Justin Wong, what happened? Is that Justin Executed a super art combo at a time when Daigo couldn’t take even a single hit and his only option was to parry every single hit of the combo which means knowing the exact timing of every hit down to a few Sixtieth of a second. The technical proficiency required to do this is off the charts But it’s something the developers knew would be possible from the moment they allowed super moves to be parried. However incredible this is, and it is incredible, it’s something the system was designed to do but the thing about systems is there’s what the system was meant to do and then there’s what the system can’t stop you from doing. In Smash an advanced technique like say, a shield drop, is put there by the designers But things like Pivoting, Wavedashing and D-sinking are not. These things were not designed They were discovered as accidents of the system And they often take phenomenal skill to execute reliably because it’s something the game doesn’t actively want you to do, but they are just as integral to competitive play as the things designers put in there on purpose, so Watching a high level smash game is sort of like watching High-level Street Fighter But it’s also like watching someone rocket-jump their way through Quake or like watching Humans learn to fly in Half-Life 2 or watching Siglemic parkour his way through Mario 64 – none of these things are done by hacking the code But they’re all done by people interested not just in what the game wants to do but in everything the game is capable of. It’s akin to taking a game’s rules and making a new game out of them. This makes Smash creative in a way that a more controlled fighting game generally isn’t. There’s a reason we say Isaiah invented Falkon; that Axe invented Pikachu; a reason why “hax stashing” is named after Hax; why “wobbling” is named after Wobbles; why this is called the “Ken combo” – these people quite literally changed the game Every so often the Melee community does tier rankings of all the playable characters listing each in order of their supposed tournament viability and sectioning the list into chunks: Which chunk can win tournaments; which chunk can place in tournaments; which chunk has basically been abandoned by serious players and Forest Smith has made a few handy charts showing just how much the tier lists have changed since release. Some characters rose after years in the mid-tiers, some tanked after being considered dominant, some went down, then up, then down again but once in a great while someone starts fiddling with a forgotten character from the lower tiers and unlocks their potential. This has already happened with Jigglypuff and Pikachu and something exciting about Smash today is it may be just starting to happen again So, let’s talk about a specific match that I think can illustrate a few points. If you follow competitive Smash you likely already know it aMSa [Vs] mew2king at Kings of Cali 4, consider the matchup: mew2king Is a central figure in the Documentary – one of the Five Gods. He’s one of the best players in the history of the game. To take a set off one of the gods is considered a towering achievement – hell, taking a single game, sometimes even a single stock, is impressive. Meanwhile, aMSa is a Yoshi player from Japan, one of the few Japanese players to attend American tournaments, and Yoshi is not considered tournament viable – he’s solidly low tier and what work was being done with him was largely abandoned several years ago aMSa had impressed over the previous years with Yoshi at EVO and APEX, but many still wrote him off as a gimmick player and it surprised no one when mew2king took the first game of the set with two stocks remaining. The commentator is understandably skeptical of aSAm’s chances – “Man. I love aMSa but can you see him taking a match? ehh-mm.” – but them, unexpectedly, aMSa of the Red Yoshi took game two. “Oh, that’s what Mew2king wanted… that’s what Mew2king wanted… OOOHH!! And then aMSa, the Red Yoshi, took game three. OH!! These eggs… don’t make sense… That’s it.. OOOOHHHH!!! OH MY GOD!!! Gabriel, please, show the whole crowd!! Try to understand what’s happening here: To use a baseball metaphor – Playing Yoshi at the tournament level is kind of like pitching a knuckleball – which, I guess, makes aMSa R. A. Dickey Thrown poorly, a knuckleball is just a slow somewhat unpredictable pitch but quoting a real-life baseball fan on Metafilter because, once again, I don’t give a fuck about sports – Little in Baseball is as much fun as watching a knuckleballer on a good night You can almost see the batter’s having nervous breakdowns at the plate.The rub is that to throw a knuckleball well, you have to abandon practicing any other kind of pitch. That’s how hard it is. Consequently almost no Major League pitchers throw them, but, consequently, almost no Major League batters have practice hitting them It’s the beautiful push-pull of the metagame: the more everyone does one thing, the more valuable it becomes to do Anything else. In this set mew2king has been playing Sheik and if you’re aMSa in this scenario playing at the tournament level you’ve played hundreds of Sheiks, hundreds of Foxes, hundreds of Marths . hundreds of Falcons. But if you’re Mew2king, how many competitive level Yoshi’s do you think you’ve played? The answer is: None. There are no competitive level Yoshi’s, not since Leffen switched to Fox and even then Leffen never did this: Winning it smash is not just about knowing your character But knowing the matchup, knowing what your opponent is likely to do and what you can do in response and not so much what aMSa is doing but the WAY he’s doing it has largely never been seen before. So ok it’s game for aMSa is up  to  and the set goes to the first player to get three wins This is game point for aMSa and between games  and  Mew2king switches to Fox and that might just mean something. See there’s this veiling theory [slash] joke [slash] “superstition” that sooner or later everyone will switch to Fox Fox and his near clone Falco have been ranked as the best characters in the game for years. You look at the rankings of the top 100 smash players and Fox’s all over it. Four of the Five Gods have Fox or Falco in their arsenal. Fox is extremely hard to play well but go up against a well played Fox and just what are you even supposed to do? And I’ve always read that with this undercurrent that to play anyone other than Fox is an affectation that you play Captain Falcon either because you’re not good enough with Fox or because you’re so good that you can even win without Fox so it’s easy to read Mew2king character switch as saying: “Okay, We’ve had fun but good luck with this.” And it’s easy to reframe this match as being between two aspects of the meta game on the one side that in an unbalanced system and Smash was never balanced for this kind of play, there is often one dominant strategy that trumps all others and on the other side that knuckleball, the weirdness and variety that can trump a dominant strategy just by being different. And for me being a person who fell in love with the weirdness and variety of Smash Someone whose heart would be broken if Smash became an endless stream of Fox dittos, this match starts to mean something and this This right here. This is so incredibly sweet. “That’s it!” “aMSa takes it! He does a Shuryuken in celebration!” Wow! Now I will be the first to say it: I’m reaching. Of course I’m reaching. I’ve taken a mixture of true skills, statistical probability and blind luck in who the fuck knows what proportions and made it into a story and by necessity that means I’m leaving things out, for instance that mew2king isn’t of “Foxes The Future” type – he switches to Marth at least as often as he switches to Fox. In fact many would argue that the top Of the top tier is rock-Paper-scissors between Fox, Falco, Sheik and Marth is it this way or that way? I don’t remember. And mew2king often plays worse when the crowd is against him or at least that’s how the stories go and the stories feel true. The truth is there are no sabermetrics in Smash, a few stats are tracked But no one’s calculated the vegas odds on aMSa VS. Mew2king Did aMSa win at two-to-one against or 50-to-one – we don’t know. Does Mew2king actually lose more often when the crowd is against him or is that confirmation bias? We don’t know. Does aMSa have any staying power or will he slide back down the power rankings once other players figure out his bag of tricks? How much will he adapt to the competitive scene and how much will the competitive scene adapt to him? We don’t know. The power rankings, the tier lists? They’re all calculated by casting votes – opinions. Competitive smash is built entirely out of stories. It’s not just a game, It’s theater. And just because something’s a story doesn’t mean it isn’t also true, at least partially, I do see aMSa as a sign that a sea of Foxes would leave everyone ill-equipped to fight anything other than Fox. And as a beacon of hope that Smash will stay weird, at least for a little while. I’m reminded of Chuck Klosterman writing about football describing the time when suddenly every team was relying heavily on the read option and how in a few years they would almost certainly all be doing something else and being that that essay is a few years old by now they presumably are. And it makes me think of how different the Smash of today already looks from the Smash of the Documentary and wonder how different from today Smash may look in a few years. It’s hard to believe that Smash will ever bore me, and that’s a story I hope is true. And I’ve gathered that this kind of mythologizing is what Sports fans do. Do you remember that cynical line from “High Fidelity” that insists we make connections not based on who we are but whether we like the same things? “What really matters is what you like. Not what you are like.” I’ve always felt that making connections is less about what you like than why you like it. So I can still honestly say that I don’t give a fuck about sports But smash makes me feel like for the first time I think I get why people do Which is an interesting feeling for a former high school nerd because holy hell I love this game! And I love telling people why I love it I love how different all the characters are even as I hate Fox I love the racial diversity of the players even as I don’t so much love their monolithic maleness. I love the commentators I hate the trash talk. I love spending the morning watching Captain Falcon matches and then practicing short hops with my girlfriend. I.. LOVE.. THIS.. GAME. And if you don’t give a fuck about Smash That’s fair you do you I’m not trying to pressure you into liking what I like I just hope you see how it’s even possible For something so weird and seemingly innocuous to inspire so much passion. How a party game that’s basically the video game equivalent of a twelve-Year-old smashing their toys together can be fun, hilarious, freakishly complex and, from the right vantage point, even.. beautiful. Oh… Oh.. oh.. WHAT?? OOHHHHHH!! What the crap?! Are you kidding me?! Did that just happen?! What.. what.. I just kicked my bike over, bro?