by Jason Waddell

Forward smash. Forward smash. Forward smash.

Husband wagered he could beat me with a single move. He wasn’t wrong.
The year was 2006, and I was living my own “fish out of water” tale. I was a scrub, but as a member of Major League Gaming’s writing staff, I had full access to Smash’s inner circle during the game’s golden era.
Truth be told, I had stumbled into this position by little more than chance. I was a “Halo kid”. I didn’t mean to fall in love.

April, 2006 (MLG New York Opener)

To give some context, 2006 marked a dramatic shift in Major League Gaming’s support of the Smash scene. In 2005, regular season MLG tournaments were often little more than glorified locals, with the scene’s top players often passing on the opportunity to compete for a share of the $1250 prize pools. The Orlando 2005 finals, for example, saw Eddie’s Ganondorf best Oro’s Samus. Las Vegas’ third and fourth place players are listed as question marks, lost to the sands of time. When Isai placed 5th in San Francisco, his $19.20 prize payout didn’t even cover his entry fee.

2006 changed everything. Regular season prize pots ballooned to over $10,000, and the addition of travel stipends for ranked players ensured that each of MLG’s 2006 events were bonafied “supermajors”, with top talent in full representation.

I’m going to be straight with you and say that I didn’t know any of this at the time. Prior to the Pro Circuit Season Opener in New York (read: New Jersey) , I had only played Melee once. I was 15 years old when Melee was released, in a delicate phase where I tried to assert my maturity through ridiculous claims. 15 year-old me would claim that the Gamecube controller was childish, that use of the C-stick was linked to sexual preference, and that my inability to win with Ness meant Melee was a bad game.

With this in mind, I can’t tell you if I fully appreciated the fairy tale that unfolded before me, when a challenger from Port Chester dismantled the King of Smash. I can’t say that I fully understood the passion that led a horde of Smashers to huddle around a CRT. I can’t say that I grasped what the East Coast / West Coast hullabaloo was all about.

But what I can tell you is that days later, I had a Gamecube in my dorm room.

May 2006 (MLG Dallas 2006)

When you’re a newcomer to a scene, it’s difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. What I remember quite vividly is that somebody was buzzing, absolutely buzzing, about the fact that Ken had developed Game & Watch to hard counter PC Chris’ Falco. A Game & Watch I got to face first-hand when Ken plugged in to my free-play doubles station. At the time, Ken carried his controller inside a cutout of the plastic shell packaging controllers were sold in.

Anyways, I took a singular stock from Ken (!), and the Game & Watch never saw tournament play. Cause and effect?

Ken’s doubles partner Isai had a characteristic Isai tournament, winning doubles before unceremoniously dumping out of the singles bracket in 13th. Even as an outsider, I could tell his heart wasn’t really in it. Melee paid the bills, but it wasn’t his true love.

After bracket, I saw Isai on a Nintendo 64 station, surrounded by onlookers. Isai dropped his opponent without losing a stock, then turned to the crowd an expression that was half “are you not entertained” and half “who’s next”.

June 2006 (MLG Anaheim 2006)

MLG events of 2006 technically hosted tournaments for both Halo 2 and Melee, but the resource allocation was anything but equal. Smashers had a small proportion of a venue’s floor space, and its matches were never featured on the main stage.

There was very little overlap between the two communities, but slowly the walls were coming down. Halo Pros like Walshy and Karma played Melee friendlies before events, and Ogre 2 had Smash 64 set up in the Red Bull Pro Player Lounge. From the other side, I taught Halo to Smash tournament organizer AlphaZealot. In return, he embarassed me in Smash. AlphaZealot insisted on fighting me one handed (yes, he played Peach), and between this and the Husband challenge, it seemed Smashers took special pride in devising original ways to beat unskilled opponents.

This community cross-pollination bore fruit when the Melee Grand Finals were featured on the Halo main stage. PC Chris had defeated Ken in the Winners Finals, and the community in the venue was Johning hard for Ken, citing post-Japan jetlag. Johns aside, you could feel in the venue that we were witnessing something special: the evolution of Melee.
There’s a famous story in Street Fighter lore about Alex Valle unveiling hidden tech in the finals. “Valle CC” was a previously unseen technique that allowed a player to perform an unblockable combo. His opponent, John Choi, not only learned how to evade the technique mid-match but implement it himself.

Watching the set live, it felt like Anaheim 2006 was the Smash equivalent. Ken unlocked the “tech” of “using Marth’s down-B at an alarming rate”. If you watch the set, Ken actually declares his intentions off the bat by countering PC Chris’ first attack. At one point, PC Chris fires a dying off-stage laser, which Ken hilariously counters. PC Chris, for his part, brought a new light-shielding technique for edge-guarding Marth.

Both players adapt. Later in the set PC Chris starts baiting out counters with empty hops, and Ken adjusts his recovery trajectories to get around the light-shielding trick.
In hindsight, neither tactic had a lasting impact on the metagame.

July 2006 (MLG Chicago 2006)

After tournament doors closed each day, the Smashing migrated to hotel rooms for the night. I know it sounds ridiculous, but these rooms often felt like exclusive clubs. To get in a good one, you either had to know someone or be someone. My MLG staff credentials put me in the former group, with fellow staffers like M3D, AphaZealout or Jv3x3 (of JV stock fame) putting me into contact with top players. To be clear, I had no official reason to be there, and was acutely aware of my position as the perennial worst player in the room.

One player really went out of his way to make me feel welcome. One evening, while practicing my wavedashing on a side screen, Wife joined me to play friendlies, and spent an hour giving me tips and things to think about. It was a friendly gesture that sticks with me all these years later.

On the other side of the spectrum: the stream chat. Let me make this clear, I never indended to commentate a Smash set. I’d hang out near the broadcast booth watching the tournament unfold, but when it comes to commentary, I was not what you would call “qualified”. My proximity to the casting station betrayed me, when AlphaZealot left the booth and M3D pulled me on to the mic.
He immediately put me on the spot. It was a Fox player against Ice Climbers, who I can only assume was Chu Dat.

M3D: “So where do you think <the fox player> is going to counterpick?”
Me: “I think he’ll pick Poke Floats, to take advantage of his superior mobility.”
The chat, in that endearing way that only a stream chat can, proclaimed that my answer was stupid. “Who let this guy on the mic?”.
The fox countered to Poke Floats.

August 2006 (MLG Orlando 2006)

I witnessed collusion and did not report it. Truthfully, I don’t remember the exact details, but here’s what I do remember: two doubles teams from one coast were scheduled to meet in the brackets, and they were pretty extensively analyzing which should advance and which had a better chance against the Losers’ Bracket opposition.
Even looking back on the situation a decade later, I feel conflicted. From what I was told, this sort of thing happened frequently. There were whispers of players losing Singles bracket matches to snipe players from the other coast out of the Losers’ Bracket.

What I do remember, very clearly, is that MLG League Operations hated all of these shenanigans. The eSports climate in 2016 is very different than it was 10 years ago. Back then, we were fighting for a sense of legitimacy, and the prevailing culture in the video game community was that competitive gamers were playing games “the wrong way”. Both Halo and Smash had rule sets that deviated strongly from how casual players played, and it’s no accident that memes like “No Items, Fox Only, Final Destination” sprouted up. Culturally, MLG was trying to establish itself, and throwing matches and manipulating brackets really was seen as undermining the entire spirit of competition.

I could say that that the reason I kept my mouth shut is because I didn’t think it was a big deal, or because I was a 20 year-old kid trying not to tarnish his (small and not very budding) reputation with Smash’s in-crowd, but the real reason I didn’t say anything is because this type of activity was so prevalent. I overheard so many instances of Smashers plotting and scheming, or bragging about previous plots and schemes, all chalked up within the community as a symptom of healthy “coastal rivalries”.

Years later, in 2010, MLG would ban Mew2King for bracket manipulation, and to my (admittedly limited) knowledge this type of behavior has been removed from the modern game.

November 18th – 19th, 2006 (MLG Vegas National Championships 2006)

Despite my full-time duties covering the Halo scene, my gaming time for the previous seven months had been spent almost exclusively on Melee. I’d progressed my game to the point where my presence on a doubles team didn’t signal automatic failure. One game stands out in my memory.

I was teamed with Jason “M3D” Rice (of Wavedash Games) against Husband and Jv3x3. I was the first to lose my stocks and Jason, perhaps unwisely, told me to take one of his. He soon hits the blast zone, and starts pumping me up with an absurd Halo-themed pep talk. Something about facing the Ogres 1 v 2. With each hit I took, his Halo analogy became bleaker. Now they had camo, and Rocket Launchers, and (gasp) host connection. Somehow I made the comeback, and everything I’e done since then has been one big disappointment.

I didn’t realize then that it would be my last night playing Smash in an MLG funded hotel room. None of us knew we were reaching an end of an era. Vegas 2006 was the last MLG Melee event for eight years.

Perhaps fittingly, the close of the Golden Age of Smash coincided with the North American release of the Wii (November 19th, 2006). During the event weekend, several Smashers took a taxi to a local Best Buy to camp out for the new system. My last memory of Smash on the Pro Tour was of Mew2King, standing in a hotel room, demonstrating to a room full of people that you could throw the ball into the next lane on Wii Bowling.

March 2016

2006 will always stand in my memory as a magical year for competitive Melee. Against all odds, the scene has grown and flourished over the ensuing decade. Looking back, MLG created a bit of a “bubble” for the Smash community. The company itself was propped up by tens of millions of dollars in venture capital. Major League Gaming never really found an audience that matched that level of involvement, and recently resorted to selling “substantially all” of its assets to assets to Activision Blizzard.

Smash, by contrast, endured the release of Brawl and the ensuing “Dark Age”. Over the years, the scene has grown organically, and is no longer so reliant on the support of a single organization. The past year has seen Melee make its way to PAX, Dreamhack, The Summit and SXSW. The scene, despite some rough years is stronger and more vibrant than ever.
As for me? The year is 2016, and I have a Smashfest to attend.