Mango vs. Leffen, Winners Semifinals
Mango has come into The Big House 9 looking inconsistent and subpar. Since his victory at Get On My Level 2019 in May, he hasn’t finished higher than 4th in six consecutive tournaments. His most recent placing is 13th at Mainstage, where he fell in a reverse 3-0 to ARMY, then proceeded to lose to his longtime friend and practice partner Lucky in tournament for the first time ever.
Meanwhile, Leffen may be in even worse shape. His recent placings have been markedly better — 3rd at Smash ‘N’ Splash 5, 3rd at Smash Summit 8, 1st at Super Smash Con 2019, 5th at Shine 2019 — but his Melee attendance has been relatively sparse, and his Twitter is more negative and toxic than it usually is. He complains of burnout, of hand pain, of inconsiderate and inhumane scheduling for top players of both Melee and Ultimate at major tournaments.
Neither player seems as if he’s at 100%. This isn’t one of their legendary slobberknockers — the quality of Melee on-screen is a far cry from Genesis 4. But ultimately, it is Leffen who takes the set, 3 games to 0. Every game is a one-stock affair, so ostensibly close, but Leffen feels in control, with a smothering stage presence and a ruthless offstage game. Meanwhile, Mango gets stuck in shine, grimaces after lost stocks, and eyerolls when he self-destructs, side-B-ing too early or too late, Falco falling helplessly to his death. He looks, as he has before, like a stubborn man who holds onto what he knows — all he knows — as the world moves on and leaves him behind.
What is it about Melee that compels us so? And by us, I mean the Melee community: the die-hards, the stragglers, the people who “don’t know how to move on.” The people who play a “glitchy mess of unintended consequences,” they say, people “stuck in the past,” who watch tournaments with “the same four people” doing the same things they’ve done for a decade.
The gap between the people who “understand” Melee and the people who don’t feels as if it has grown wider than ever, perhaps to a seemingly insurmountable place. People openly celebrate in the streets (of Twitter) when Melee is dropped from EVO. Read the comments section of a Kotaku article (or an actual article) to see people who don’t watch Smash tournaments shit on Melee in ways that aren’t factual or even logical. When Hungrybox wins a tournament, Melee is dead — thus spoke Sakurai. When he loses, Melee is saved. And so the cycle repeats. Schrodinger’s Melee. Who knows what the truth is anymore?
Mango vs. Fiction, Losers’ Semifinals, Game 1
Fiction is trying to make it his own way, right? And Mango did that, you know what I mean? And I feel like, there’s something really important about Mango to Fiction in that… for a lot of players… Mango is more than just a good player. He’s like a symbol of hope. That we don’t have to be mechanical robot players, you know? We don’t have to give up being dope, to be great.
Mango has always been my favorite player to watch. I suspect that’s true of many other Melee fans as well, maybe even a plurality of them. And Scar is close, here, I think. Mango is sick, Mango is dope, but it’s because he always brings something new to the table. “Every time you watch Melee you see something you’ve never seen before” is a common adage to Melee viewers, but it just seems so much more true when Mango is playing.
I suspect that what Mango taps into is the appeal of creativity over repetition, of mental craftiness and spiritual fortitude over physical skill and rote, if faultless, execution. There’s something about what Mango does that feels almost replicable, a sense of “if only I thought to do that” that seems more reasonable and plausible to us than it really is.
There’s a battle that’s being waged in Melee: the war of minds vs. hearts. Rare is the type of person who wants to practice ledgedashes and wavelands and fastfall timings in their room for hours on end, and in turn there is a natural resistance to accepting that the easiest path to optimization and victory in Melee lies in the pursuit of perfect execution. There’s a reason why we call Mew2king “The Robot,” and why people marvel at Armada comboing a level 1 Captain Falcon CPU for hours: It’s because no one wants to do that shit, and therefore we find it admirable. But when you watch Mango, it’s like there’s something in your heart that says, “If I could at least think like Mango, I could play Melee like this too.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Mango’s tech skill is top 10 in the world, if not higher (have you seen his wavedashes?), and thinking I could play like Mango if I were simply more creative is like thinking I could be an All-NBA point guard if I watched Jason Williams highlights. Mango isn’t the best player in the world, anymore, and Scar’s description of him is, at times, bordering on extreme. But if Melee is jazz, as they say, then Mango’s improvisations stand out, peerless, from the field. And it’s why the people love him.
Mango vs. Fiction, Losers’ Semifinals, Game 3
Game 3, set tied 1-1. Fiction is up two stocks to one. After an explosive 3-1 victory over Hungrybox with his patented orange Fox, Mango’s Falco is once again struggling. “You might be right about [Mango running out of] gas,” confides Scar, the biggest Mango fanboy on the planet, to his co-commentator, Toph. Seconds later, Mango fails a ledgedash and loses the game, a two-stock. It’s been a slow, slow set for a Fox-Falco match. This isn’t the high-octane Falco we’re used to seeing vs. Fox, with unorthodox and creative combo trees and gasp-worthy kill confirms.
Hand-wringing about the death of Melee has been happening since the first time the game was brought to the brink of death, in the months following the release of Brawl. (You can’t revive something that hasn’t already died before, after all.) It flared up again, temporarily, in the wake of the release of Smash 4, though it was clear within a year of Smash 4’s release that Melee was here to stay. Still, every so often it feels like that wave of panic seizes the community: panic every spring, when EVO announces its main stage lineup, or when Hungrybox finally resorts to circle-camping a non-Fox player in game 5 of grand finals, or something else entirely. But really, no one obsesses over the death of Melee like Melee fans do.
There’s something beautiful about the fact that Melee has lived so long, and outlived two, possibly three, successors. That it’s lived long enough for it to be nothing but a bad memory in Masahiro Sakurai’s workaholic career, or that it’s lived long enough for players younger than the game itself to be making upsets. To be free of developer shackles, too, brings us freedom of spirit, and a unique identity that almost no other communities can match. But there’s also a stark reality that awaits Melee players, be it three or five or ten years away, a reality made so much more obvious by everything Sakurai and Nintendo have said and done, or not said and not done: There will never be a game like Melee ever again.
Can you blame Melee fans for obsessing over viewership numbers for every tournament, for bemoaning Hungrybox’s dominance, for feeling slighted and angry when EVO removes us from its lineup at long last? I know a lot of people who basically only play Melee. The Melee community is the only video game community that I’m really a part of, like many friends I know. If it dies, one of my most beloved hobbies is also dead, with nothing to replace it. Many of today’s top Ultimate players were once top Smash 4 players, and many of the top Smash 4 players were initially top Brawl players. That community will always have somewhere else to go, a future game to play. For Melee players, that dream died on January 31, 2008.
Sakurai was obvious with his intentions when he made Brawl, a game that was antithetical to Melee in nearly every way that mattered. Explaining the unique allure of Melee in words is hard, but what I can definitely say is that what I enjoy about Melee is exclusive to Melee, and that no other game, Smash or otherwise, has come close to it. And I don’t want it to leave, not just yet.
Mango vs. Leffen, Losers’ Finals
“This has just been harrowing, this feels exhausting…”
“I bet that the viewers can feel it themselves–”
“You can see it on their faces!”
–Toph and Scar
Something about Melee I feel more strongly than anything else I watch — esport or sport — is the sense of exhaustion that radiates off of players. It’s possible that everyone feels this way about the game they’ve invested the most into, or the game they know most about, but I played football in high school and have watched NFL playoff games that are shot with cameras more expensive than the entire prize pool of TBH9, where I can see the sweat dripping off of players’ faces and the fog of their breath misting into the air, and yet, high level Melee still seems more exhausting. There are times when Melee seems effortless, but more often than not it feels like attrition in motion.
Melee has many quirks due to its age, and one of them is aspect ratio. Whereas newer, 16:9 games often relegate player-cams to a tiny section of a stream’s screen, Melee runs at 4:3 (okay, to be technical, it runs at 73:60), and that extra space on the side gives us a larger look into the visages of the players. Every grimace, head nod, shake, deep breath, and heavy blink is unavoidable, and weighs on you. The enormity of every hit is momentous. The will to win feels palpable. And you can’t look away.
Mango vs. Zain, Grand Finals
The infinite players just want to see the game go on.
There’s an elation that I feel when I’m done watching great Melee that’s unparalleled.
It makes me pick up a controller and turn on my CRT, immediately.
It makes me tweet “MELEE WILL NEVER DIE” to my sub-100 follower count, 0 of whom give a rat’s ass about Melee.
It makes me rewatch VODs of the matches I just saw, hours later, as I can’t fall asleep.
It makes me play Melee again.
Mango feels like there’s so much more Melee left to be played. He feels like there’s more to be done here… we can take this so much further.
909 people enter Melee at The Big House 9.
96,700 viewers watch as Mango defeats Zain to secure his hard-fought victory.
@NintendoVS, Nintendo’s official mouthpiece for competitive Smash, hasn’t tweeted about Melee in five months.
Mango earns a paltry $3,636 for 1st place, after playing 20 consecutive games from losers.
All of this matters. But also, who cares? Because there’s so much more Melee left to be played.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me through this self-indulgent piece. If you’re so inclined, check out some other Melee pieces I’ve written:
(Correction: We previously stated that Mango played 19 consecutive games to win The Big House 9, when it was in fact 20. The article has been updated accordingly.)