The week of August 16, 2015

I fought at the biggest fighting-game tournament in the world

By James Chen

It’s a month before I’ll attend the biggest fighting-game tournament in the world, and a bunch of amateurs have me smeared across the metaphorical pavement. We’re playing Super Smash Bros. for Wii U on a humid night down at a back-alley apartment in Taipei, Taiwan. The last time I touched this franchise was as a kid, messing around with the Nintendo 64’s bizarre, three-pronged controller with old friends. That was 15 years ago, at least.

“I’m trying to think of a better way to say it, but you don’t play very smart,” says Kevin, a fellow Asian-American who’s staying over on the island for part of the summer. We’re walking to the light rail stop after the meetup. In his hesitation to offer advice, the unspoken criticism is all the more clear: I basically need to improve everything. “You need to move more,” he says. “You know fox-trotting, right? I think you need to focus on movement before trying trickier stuff.”

The Super Smash Bros. series is Nintendo’s first-party dabble into the fighting-game genre, a cartoony brawler between company mascots like Mario, Link, and Pikachu. Its success and continuing popularity have been wildly disproportionate from anyone’s expectations. If you see people heaving heavy old-school CRT televisions (the big, blocky ones that preceded flatscreens) at a gaming or anime convention, chances are they’re Smash players setting up for a tournament on equally ancient Gamecube consoles.

Like most fighting games, Smash is a rock-paper-scissors game played out in milliseconds. But unlike most fighting games, you don’t win by pummeling your opponent into digital unconsciousness: You need to do enough damage to blast them off the stage. Shields, analogous to “blocks” in Street Fighter, beat attacks (until your opponent breaks the shield). Grabs beat shields but are usually short-range, with a long recovery time. Most attacks beat grabs, assuming they come out at the same time. And if your reflexes are good, you can identify which attack your opponent’s throwing out and react while they’re stuck in its animation.

Kevin’s referring to a movement trick in the Wii U version where you rhythmically tap the control stick to “trot,” minimizing the time you’re locked out of options, but it’s a technique I’ve overlooked in my own practice. This meetup was supposed to give me a test drive on my skills, and I’d mostly been working on “B-reversals.” With a tap of the B-button and a quick tilt of the control stick, you pull off some moves while facing away from your opponent. It’s useful in a pinch: Getting behind a player usually leaves them vulnerable for a whole range of punishments. It’s not so useful if everything else you do is slow as molasses and as predictable as a well-read book—as was my case.

Like most fighting games, Smash is a rock-paper-scissors game played out in milliseconds.

“Why are you going to Evo?” my Taiwanese peers asked earlier that evening as they witnessed my Ike plummet to his death for the umpteenth time in a row. It’s an innocent query but also an unspoken criticism. Evo’s reputation speaks for itself: It’s the world’s largest fighting-game tournament, and the den of competitive gaming’s most acclaimed legends, heroes, and monsters. I have as much of a chance of success and victory as a goldfish does climbing Mount Everest.

Evo has a distinct magnetism. It draws people regardless of whether they’ve played 10 years or watched 10 minutes online. It’s not quite the Super Bowl and it’s definitely not a Wimbledon. But it has a prestige that’s similarly world-class. It’s a take-on-all-comers celebration of sheer skill. The only way to truly appreciate it is to take part. And so, for the next month, I’ll work at sucking less.

The road to Evo

In 1996, 40 Street Fighter 2 enthusiasts gathered in Sunnyvale, California, for the Battle by the Bay. It kept growing, from 40 to 700 in 2004. The tournament now takes place every summer, on the main streets of Las Vegas for a weekend in the middle of the clay-hardening heat, boasting a live attendance rate of more than 22,000 this year and hundreds of thousands of viewers on the game streaming site Twitch.

Before Twitch, before Dota 2s breathtaking $18 million prize pools, and long before esports team sponsorships, Evo was the bright beacon on the horizon for competitive gaming’s nascent days, the rallying point for anyone who wanted to test their skills against the very best in the world. It’s since grown to be almost a dinosaur, the last event of its type and prestige in esports. That’s despite—and at the same time, partially thanks to—its tenaciously grassroots community nature.

If you see people heaving heavy old-school CRT televisions at a gaming or anime convention, chances are they’re Smash players setting up for a tournament on equally ancient Gamecube consoles.

Esports at large has developed in a more curated direction than Evo. The competitive scene for the biggest esport in the world, League of Legends, is tightly controlled by its creator, Riot Games. Prize funding, broadcasts, commentary, and even locales are all strictly circumscribed by Riot and its regional representatives. The restrictions make it a highly polished, competitive product but also one that the vast majority of its player base won’t be able to experience except as an audience. You don’t just get to walk in the door and play for the title of best League player on the planet, and the same is true for Dota 2’s The International, or any Counter-Strike major.

RP2_0076-fbThe Super Smash Bros. crowd at Evo 2015 | Photo by Robert Paul

Fighting games have generally been a little different. Now played largely on consoles, games like Street Fighter (the ur-example of the genre) reflect their arcade roots, where anybody with a quarter can wait for their turn at the machine—a more communal and less supervised form of competition. But now the top-down approach has trickled into fighting games, too. Capcom, the Street Fighter developer, launched the yearlong Capcom Pro Tour circuit in 2013, with $120,000 on the line for the winner of the Capcom Cup finals. Microsoft is working with Europe-based ESL to hand out tens of thousands of dollars to Mortal Kombat X specialists. But both are very recent developments for a community that’s held a pugnacious pride for its anti-corporate grassroots basis.  

For two decades, fighting-game enthusiasts had largely developed their own communities, their own tournaments, their own rivalries, and their own mythmaking moments—like in Evo 2004, when legendary Japanese ace Daigo “The Beast” Umehara secured an impossible victory at the very last possible moment in a flurry of millisecond-perfect parries (Evo Moment #37, as it is referred to, was credited by defeated rival Justin Wong for revitalizing a scene that was then dying out).

In Smash Bros.‘s case, the relationship between fans and Nintendo is cordial at best. Smash creator Masahiro Sakurai’s design philosophy conflicts with what the competitive community wants. “I feel that if you want to play a fighting game seriously, there are other competitive fighting games that are more suited to that,” Sakurai said in an interview with Japan’s Nindori magazine.

At the same time, the community distrusts Nintendo’s involvement. A fanmade modification called Project M was suddenly dropped from major tournaments last year, and the exclusion was blamed largely on corporate influence; either Nintendo doesn’t like it when tournament focus gets taken away from official games, or sponsors were getting skittish about the same. For instance, despite Super Smash Bros. Melee‘s inclusion on the Evo 2013 roster as a charity fund-raiser, Nintendo’s legal department tried not only to block streaming of gameplay but also to shut down that entire portion of the tournament and only reversed their decision after last-minute negotiations with tournament organizers.

Things have gotten better recently, with Nintendo offering tournament support in the form of coverage and equipment. Sakurai officially acknowledged the scene during Japan’s Chokaigi 2015 tournament. But unlike all the other major games represented at Evo 2015, Nintendo did not opt for a pot bonus for either Melee or Wii U.

Compound this with the standoffish relationship between Smash players and every other segment in the fighting-game community, and it’s a wonder they’ve managed to persist for so long. That’s why I made Smash my game for the tournament, to better understand the drive and passion that nurtures its community despite everything stacked against it.

My month in Taipei is spent “in the lab,” using the game’s training mode just to practice how to make my character move when I want it to move, how I want it to happen. Short-hops: the distance a character jumps based on how hard or gently you tap up. Fast-falls: forcing a character to drop faster by double-tapping downward, narrowing the window in which they’re vulnerable in the air. I learn what moves are safest to use when you drop your shield, the outermost distance from which I can grab my opponent, how to recover from a missed grab, and, most importantly, how to string it all together in a single fluid motion.

The hours of Zen-like, trancelike solo practice blur together until the day finally arrives. I wrap and pad my Wii U and controllers with cotton T-shirts, like religious relics reverently stored in cloth.

I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

Black belt lessons

Smash Wii Us undefeated king, Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, is standing right next to me. The cherubic Chilean usually isn’t seen without his trademark white scarf, but he’s taken it off today on account of the searing Nevada heat. We’re at the end of a long switchback of the Evo registration line as it snakes its way through the Bally’s Las Vegas convention hall. The line winds through service corridors of utilitarian grey and beige, a stark contrast to the neon lights, chrome slot machines, and green felt card tables just a few steps away.

I’ve interviewed him once before, but we’ve never met face to face. An impish impulse seizes me and I sneak in a quick photo of him, messaging it over Twitter to amuse myself with his confusion as he scans the crowds for the photographer. The charade breaks when I fail to contain my laughter, and I shake hands with the single best player to ever play Wii U.

RP2_1588-fbZeRo at Evo 2015 | Photo by Robert Paul

ZeRo enters Evo on a 41-tournament consecutive winning streak. Whether in Japan, Los Angeles, or anywhere else, the stocky, scarfed competitor is a road warrior taking title after title. He won the two last major tournaments, Apex 2015 and Community Effort Orlando, and hasn’t dropped a single game in most of his victories this year. Evo could be his triple crown finish of an amazing 2015.

The prize pools for Smash Bros. competitions aren’t anywhere close to the levels of other esports, but it’s hard not to be flush with cash when you’ve won every tournament you’ve signed up for. Taking advantage of his steady flow of tournament earnings, Barrios practiced a little differently than I did.

“Basically, I flew in players that played controversial characters with customs,” he tells me after the tournament. The exorbitant cost of pulling in the cream of the crop for private practice might be out of reach for most players, but the basics of what he did are universally applicable. Record every game, study every matchup, and practice mechanics until your fingertips bleed—then tape them up and practice some more.

Evo’s reputation speaks for itself: It’s the world’s largest fighting-game tournament, and the den of competitive gaming’s most acclaimed legends, heroes, and monsters.

Smash Wii U, in contrast to its predecessors, introduced limited customization options to its cast: Special moves can be swapped out, equipment can be added to adjust stats and add combat bonuses, and even costumes can be replaced on the Mii fighter options. But its customs-enabled gameplay is controversial: A lot of the customizations are geared towards defensive play styles, making for boring spectating, and stat bonuses from equipment are almost unanimously criticized for upsetting game balance (and, thus, banned). Evo is the first big international-level test of customs viability in competitive play, and ZeRo practiced specifically with them in mind.

“Like Mii Brawler, Sonic, Pikachu,” he says, “all these weird characters that you’ll likely be able to lose to at Evo, I recorded every single match I played, reviewed them, took notes on what I could do better.”

The difference between practicing individual skills and practicing for tournament play is at least partially in preparing for specific players and matchups. At ZeRo’s level, he’s dismissing anybody below a certain threshold as a non-obstacle and focusing instead on what his peers have been drilling on. At my level, absolutely everybody is a threat, no matter how minor.

For example: big, fat, waddling penguin kings.

One on one

It’s 8am on Friday. The consoles and monitors for Smash Wii U, four to a station, crowd out the right side of the main hall, while squared-off blocks of spectator seats are lined up before the main stage. A harried staff of organizers yell out names and group numbers every few minutes.

There are a ton of no-shows, surely the norm at open tournaments (plenty of people register months ahead, only to forget or find themselves unavailable). Half of my group is MIA—but, alas for my luck, that doesn’t net me any first-round byes. My first opponent is Robert “Brillo” Medina, who’s clearly younger than me. He’s packing King Dedede from Nintendo’s Kirby series. Dedede’s annoying: extremely heavy and deceptively quick to dodge for a fat, waddling penguin, making him hard to launch off the stage. I also haven’t had much practice against this specific character.

A bubble, his shield, covers the character, neutralizing all damage. But the bubble can only take so many hits before it pops, leaving him stunned and vulnerable. I repeat again and again; he finally drops the shield as I drop to the ground, but that’s his error. I slash at his ankles, and he’s up in the air! Training takes over, and the roar of the crowd around me fades away as I concentrate solely on my follow-ups, trying to predict where he’ll dodge, where he’ll land, and how he’ll attack. My character’s so-called bread-and-butter combos are drilled into muscle memory, and I execute them automatically.

When that focus finally fades, I’m 2-0 up. I’ve passed my first round.

Disbelief, then elation. I’ve done it! I’ve managed to survive Evo’s pressure at my first go. With a no-show in the following bracket, I’m only a couple steps away from breaking through the group stages and into eliminations—way better than I’d expected. And that’s when I run head-first into a brick wall.

I made Smash my game for the tournament to better understand the drive and passion that nurtures its community despite everything stacked against it.

Jose “TrickyJose” Colon is my next opponent—a more heavyset player who looks like he’s in his late 20s, like me. He’s running Animal Crossing‘s Villager in the next match, and his play style is exactly opposite of my rush-in-and-hit-things aggression. Villager, especially with customs, plays a keep-away game led by a long-range slingshot. The style is enabled by an impossible ground approach thanks to Timber Counter, a move that sprouts a sapling that trips you if you run across it. Add to that his Extreme Balloon Trip ability, which covers the gaps in his defense with a field of explosive balloons that can also be used to lift him up when he goes over the stage.

The first game is completely lopsided. I just can’t get close enough to do anything. The second game is a closer match as I adjust to the timing of his attacks. But in my greed and frustration with the drawn-out match, I attempt something I hadn’t practiced much for: jumping downward off the ledge to chase him for a finishing blow.

I miss and plummet down. One loss.

RP2_1561-fbThe Evo 2015 trophy | Photo by Robert Paul

If TrickyJose was a brick wall, my next match is an unstoppable train heading straight for me. Andre “Choknater” Felix is decked out in team gear, with the blue-black-gray of his squad, Break Out Gaming, coloring his sponsor logo-clad jersey. The Modesto, California, resident is a power player who’s considered second-best overall in central California, a well-seasoned competitor.

I didn’t feel particularly slow or awkward in my previous matchups but sure as heck feel it here. Choknater’s Captain Falcon, from the classic F-Zero racing series, had the speed to make it look as though I’m moving in slow motion. Every time I throw out an aerial attack, he waits for the blade to swing harmlessly past, then runs right up in my face for another dizzying combo. The percents start racking up on my Ike—unlike traditional fighting games, damage isn’t measured in decreasing hit points, but as increasing numbers. It’s mostly an arbitrary figure, as hitting 100 percent isn’t especially meaningful, except that characters fly farther when hit at higher values.

I didn’t damage Choknater above 10 percent in the first round.

Even with the brutal speed of the first round on my mind, I’m unable to adapt or compensate for our skill differences to survive the second round for much longer. I’m caught in the air, and even a fast-fall doesn’t drop me fast enough to avoid it: Captain Falcon closes in, and one thrust of his knee at zero range sends me rocketing to the side of the stage.

Two losses; strikeout.

The triple crown

For ZeRo, much of his success is in his inhuman reflexes, catching his opponents in the middle of milliseconds-long attack animations on a consistent basis against even the best players in the world. The Smash Wii U grand finals on Saturday boil down to ZeRo and a Dutch player known as Mr. R. Instead of playing the ninja-like Sheik, from the Legend of Zelda series and currently considered the overall best character in the game, ZeRo opts to play Diddy Kong. Diddy was the victim of repeated nerfs, or changes to his programming that made him weaker overall. ZeRo was among the most vehement critics of Diddy’s most recent changes, claiming that the character’s significantly gone down in tournament viability because of it.

Record every game, study every matchup, and practice mechanics until your fingertips bleed—then tape them up and practice some more.

For the entirety of Evo, ZeRo hadn’t touched Diddy.

“I mean, Sheik destroys Diddy,” ZeRo says when I interview him the next day. “Sheik counters Diddy solidly. She has the better tools, the better frame data.”

ZeRo entered the grand finals at a deliberate, even arrogant, disadvantage. And to Mr. R’s credit, it showed. For most of each game, the Sheik player has a distinct and visible advantage, racking up damage and combo strings on the Chilean ace, slapping him across the stage with forward-air attacks as if Diddy were a helpless rag doll. Mr. R is landing multiple hits to every one of ZeRo’s, bringing him to the brink of a game loss multiple times—exactly what ZeRo expected to happen.

He really only needs one opening.

“The headsets they gave us were really good, I had really good reflexes,” he says. “A lot of the time, I’ll hear Sheik move, like roll around or something, and I’ll power shield like that.” Shielding on exactly the moment an attack connects not only cancels out the damage done to the shield but allows a character to move immediately, rather than shaking off a stun. ZeRo’s quick reflexes forced open opportunities that would normally not exist with Sheik as an opponent.

In the third and final match. ZeRo’s Diddy is at 175 percent damage—just about anything would’ve rocketed him off the screen—while Mr. R’s Sheik is at a healthy 38 percent. The only thing keeping ZeRo alive on his last life are the small nudges he can make to the angle of knockback when he’s struck: Instead of flying to the nearest stage border for the knockout, he angles for a longer flight to the corner for a chance to return to the fray. But a little more damage, and even that won’t save him anymore.

Then, with 1:44 minutes left on the clock, Diddy recovers from another kill attempt, waits out Sheik’s grenade, and rolls back onto the stage. Sheik rolls too, backing away to get some distance—and Diddy follows, slapping her with both hands. Sheik rolls again, just as ZeRo predicted. Diddy slaps Sheik again, then grabs her, throwing her up into the air. He chases after her as she tumbles, and a double-fisted hammer slams Sheik against the topmost platform. Another grab, another throw upward, and an upward aerial sends Sheik flying off the screen.

RP2_1602-fbZeRo (right) battles Mr. R in the Smash Bros. Wii U finals. | Photo via Robert Paul

I’m near the back when this happens, and scramble out of my seat as a sudden jungle of bodies block my line of sight. The crowd roars.

ZeRo just carved his name into history as the game’s first triple crown victor.

The edge

ZeRo tells me he’s at a loss for what to do next. All three major titles are his to defend, but ZeRo seeks challenge for its own sake.

A few months ago, he knowingly paired with Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma, a Melee player unfamiliar with Smash Wii U, and placed third at an international event full of veteran and established partners. “That was the day I had the most fun playing Smash in general,” he says. “All Smash games together.” He picked Diddy Kong going into a poor matchup in Evo’s grand finals just to prove to the world and himself that it was his own skills that brought him this far, not whatever quirks of design, programming, and statistics that lay behind his character choices.

His decisive win did just that, but at a hidden cost: He has no rivals left. No challenges left. At least until the rest of the community steps up. Could “everybody else” ever include me?

The next week and a half’s a blur: a wedding (congrats to my sister), travel, incredible amounts of jet lag. I’m actually late turning in this article, thanks to a combination of exhaustion and equipment failure, and it isn’t until I’m back in Taiwan that the final shape of it settles.

I’ve dropped Ike as my character. He’s too slow. I respect the talent and capabilities of players like TrickyJose and his Villager. But their meticulously cautious strategy is as frustrating to emulate as it is to play against, and I am still haunted by that last whiffed attack over the edge.

Roy, the new character from Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series, feels right up my alley. Just fast enough to punish whiffs with a grab, just powerful enough that I feel like a threat at most stages of a game, and easy enough to handle that it isn’t a chore to figure out his combos and options. That was how I spent most of my flight home: mashing out combos on the 3DS until my eyes grew heavy.

The taste of it is still fresh. I can write a hundred thousand articles, watch a century of VODs and streams, and none of it would’ve bridged the experiential distance. What drives the passion of an increasing number of gamers of all ages, all genders, and all backgrounds to the halls of Evo and tournaments like it is at that fine edge. Two contenders and their weeks, months, years, or lifetime of efforts are compressed into one infinitesimal moment—and one is sent crashing down.

I squeeze in one more round before my flight lands. Next year, I’ll do better. It can’t come fast enough.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai