A history of the Super Smash Bros family beef
Gonzalo Barrios, better known as TSM ZeRo, is a god at Super Smash Bros Wii U (aka Smash 4). His dominant mastery of Diddy Kong and Sheik vaulted him to an unprecedented 53 tournament win streak in 2015, when he was indisputable king of the Smash 4 world. Diddy mains, however, were not all that fun to watch. A dominant (pre-patch) Diddy was predictable, like watching former WBC heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko jab his opponent to a slow death on the scorecards, and Zero, the most dominant Diddy of them all, was essentially booed offstage last February at Apex 2015, one of the biggest SSB tournaments of the year.
As reported by Kotaku staff writer Patricia Hernandez, when “Zero was handed his trophy, the crowd’s reaction was a mix of booing, chants for Melee, and cheering. But the cheering didn’t seem to be for Zero, not entirely. Rather, some people were overjoyed that Melee was going to come back on the main screen, and Zero just happened to be the means through which it would happen.” Why has the Smash community disowned Smash 4 and, by extension, Zero? Is it because the game is just not as exciting as Melee? Is it because Zero mauls his opponents with a boring character, or fans find his personality uninteresting? How did we even get two Smash families in the first place?
Fifteen years ago, Nintendo released the second installment of a video game series they thought would appeal to casual party gamers, but instead morphed into the Fighting Game Community’s preeminent battleground: Super Smash Bros Melee. The game was fast, vast, and shot straight to the top of the Fighter universe. In spite of Nintendo’s agenda, Melee’s competitive scene proved undeniable, and a viciously passionate community formed around SSB Melee, internally dubbed “Smashers.” Smashers toiled away at their Gamecubes, honing their craft until they felt ready to wreak havoc on regional tournaments. But the emphasis was always on the process, not on the prize. The essence of Smashers might best be analogized by 20th century anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in his “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight (1973).” Geertz expands on the concept of ‘deep play,’ which he attributed to Utilitarianism founder Jeremy Bentham:
“The Balinese attempt to create an interesting, if you will, “deep,” match by making the center bet as large as possible so that the cocks matched will be as equal and as fine as possible . . . the center bet is a means, a device, for creating “interesting,” “deep” matches, not the reason, or at least not the main reason, why they are interesting, the source of their fascination, the substance of their depth.”
Smashers gave their game the same reverence: an infinite well of ‘deep play,’ with monetary incentive sprinkled in to add a little gravitas. So when eSports came around, it’s understandable that an old-school Smasher might be offended. All of a sudden, after over a decade of fighting for Melee’s underground soul, an opposite community rises from within, a young and materialistic nephew or niece that has their priorities reversed; instead of using prize pools to deepen play, it seemed, eSports Smashers were using play to deepen their pockets. Some were upset, some were accepting of a new era, but nearly all the old-school Smashers initially distanced themselves from what looked like a bunch of gamers that had mistakenly become pro athletes. To the veteran tribe, Smash shouldn’t be the NBA, Smash should be basketball, and a voluntary transition into the eSports world signified cultural suicide. In a world where Zero, or even Melee icon Mango, not only have Twitch streams but run commercial ad breaks on them, then they couldn’t be Smashers anymore. They became TSM ZeRo, and C9 Mango. They became Smashers™.
The commercialization of Smash split its community down the middle. Melee players struggled for the game’s legitimacy for so long that it began to pride itself on its history of illegitimacy. After all, until the dawn of Smash 4, Nintendo had publicly distanced itself from the competitive Smash scene entirely. SSB Creator, Masahiro Sakurai, in an interview with Colin McIsaac for Gamnesia:
“Personally, I feel that if you want to play a fighting game seriously, there are other competitive fighting games that are more suited to that . . . If you play Smash Brothers seriously as a competitive game, the game itself has no future . . . If I wanted to, I’m sure I could make a more hardcore Smash Brothers game. I could make the game speed much faster, increase the number of inputs…but then, beginners would no longer be able to play the game. When the game becomes more like a sport, a tool that more strictly rewards the player with more skill, the game tapers off more, like a mountain. Just like how a mountain tapers off into its peak, that area becomes more and more narrow.”
Nintendo was so adamant in their stance against Smashers that Melee’s sequel, SSB Brawl — a much slower game — felt like an outright amputation of the game’s competitive limb. But Brawl was more than a dismissal of Smashers. It was a call to reemphasize a more childlike mode of play. For Sakurai, the err of Smashers was, and still is, their insistence on seriousness. Nintendo wants to make games for all players, not just Smashers. Considered an aberration by the FGC, Brawl puts in perspective the identity war at hand today. If one disregards the intentions behind Brawl’s release, the spirit of SSB becomes a binary debate, but it is not, as it may seem, a question of the Fighting Game Community being more authentic than eSports, or vice-versa. It is a matter of correct play versus deviant play, of whether one can map boundaries of play as if it was all just uncharted territory. Brawl was not a detour from Smash, it was a response specific response to a moral crisis at the heart of a video game. Brawl, at its core, defied the spirit of Melee, and that has helped fuel the revolution that forged Smashers into the immovable boulder they are today, the kind of stubborn traditionalists that boo Zero off-stage. Ironic that those Smashers went on to defy (or perhaps oppress) the new Smash 4 generation.
After the Fighting Game Community rejected Brawl, Nintendo released Smash 4, it’s most recent installment which is best described as halfway between Melee and Brawl. The speed of the game wasn’t quite as fast as Melee, but the mechanics proved rewarding enough for more than a few Melee veterans to either switch over or double dip in the new arena, a non-reality with Brawl. Melee, however, did not diminish in popularity at all (quite the opposite, in fact), so the larger competitive body was stuck with two official sets of player rankings, two different brackets in each tournament, and two different games for two different consoles separated by thirteen years of history. At this junction, the community found itself at a political impasse. Both Smasher parties endorsed their opposing terms for ‘correct Smash play’, and Nintendo either couldn’t make up their mind or thought Smash 4 should welcome both competitive players and their casual counterparts.
Prior to Smash 4, the lines in the sand were quite clear. Smashers wanted a game that featured a broad pool for movement variations, while Nintendo wanted Smash to be easily accessible — by smashers, moms (too lofty an ambition), and newbies alike. There were two doctrines for the Super Smash spirit — one for competition, and the other for play. But with Smash 4 on the scene, the community splintered in two— the ‘sell-outs’ and the ‘O.G.’s (Original Gangstas)— and Smash 4 was thrust into the crossfire. The ‘O.G.’s saw the Smash 4 players as sell-outs, and the sell-outs saw the old Melee guys as grandpas.
It’s unclear why the ‘O.G.’ Smashers protested ZeRo at Apex. The ludological preference for Melee explains the lack of affection for Smash 4, but it doesn’t explain the active protest. A deeply ingrained tribalism might be at work here, perhaps reflective of a generation threatened by growth in a new direction. Play-theorist Bernie De Koven, in Chapter Three of “The Well-played Game (2013):”
“By empowering each other to create new conventions, by establishing guidelines, we assure each other of a common intention and mutual respect for the willingness to play, for the need for safety and trust. We need to recognize that these guidelines are fragile and fictitious, despite all the legislation we went through to be certain they were mutually held. The only real assurance we have lies within the community of people with whom we are playing.
The need for this kind of community holds true whether we are players or spectators. As a spectator, I want to be able to scream for my team. If the spectator sitting next to me wants to scream for her team, and if she insists that I also scream for her team, the likelihood is that we will wind up screaming at each other.”
A Requiem for the ‘O.G.’s
It feels wrong to blame the ‘O.G.’s for their reaction. With Smash 4’s arrival, an era of underground legislation was forced to reckon with its own passing. Although Melee is flourishing, it has become an eSport, for better or worse. Because eSports is so much more lucrative as an infrastructure than Smash’s underground era, the ‘O.G.’s have been left with only two options — either survive or accept their exodus — and most of that generation has adapted to the lay of the colonial land. Some of Smash’s most storied players like Mango and Mew2King have signed to eSports organizations, and both compete in Smash 4 as well as Melee tournaments. In terms of both finance and visibility, Smash is better than ever. But one man’s treasure is another man’s devil sometimes.
When the ‘O.G.’s tossed aside Brawl, one can only imagine the sense of immortality they felt. It must have broken their hearts, perhaps on a subconscious level, to see the game get buttered up and ready to roast. The Smashers that once worshipped the mystical Melee player Isai and his Captain Falcon don’t have any mysteries to hold onto anymore. Zero is sponsored by TSM, the most prestigious eSports team in North America. He has an official Twitter account, YouTube editors, and a team uniform. Small Smash tournaments are still a big part of the community, but they now live in the colossal shadow cast by MLG, EVO, and Apex. There’s a sense that when Smash traditionalists boo Zero, they were defending their home turf from an overwhelming invasion of professionalism. Not too long ago, that struggle of the ‘O.G.’s was admirable — an inspirational win for scrawny David against the unmovable Goliath. But at some point, the underdog became the bully, and his revolution became a frat that didn’t mind hazing. Whether the ‘O.G.’s were the real Smashers or not, assuming any one faction can actually embody a “real” Smasher, the scene has moved on. David’s frat has disbanded on account of an inability to fundraise, and nearly every brother has pledged elsewhere.