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Published Feb 4, 2017

I was playing 8-player Smash with a group of friends a week ago, and one of them said that it was an amazing casual game. Hearing this, I flexed my smug muscles and told him that there is a bustling competitive scene for not just Smash Wii U, but for Super Smash Bros. Melee as well, which is a nearly 16-year-old game. He was shocked, and he asked me “well, how can this be competitive? You hit them, they shield, they run, and there aren’t really combos.” I didn’t really have a good answer at the time, because we were all sleep-deprived. But now that I’ve collected my thoughts clearly, I think I can say why Smash is a fantastic e-sport.

This video will be directed to those who are confused as to why Smash tourneys consistently get Twitch viewers in the 5 figures, and why two Smash games were a shoe-in for the EVO 2017 line up. Those who are already knowledgeable about the competitive Smash scene, this video isn’t really for you, and you can click off now. But for those who are into e-sports, and only really see Smash as a casual experience, I hope I can help broaden your perspective. Also, please note that I am nowhere near proficient in the competitive melee scene as I am the Smash Wii U one. I have been to a few smash Wii U tournaments, but I have never been competitively good at the game. If what I say sounds like a lot of hogwash, then please let me know so I can better correct myself for the future.

Simple, Yet Masterful Controls

The biggest barrier to entry for a lot of fighting games for me are the controls. I feel that inputs for moves in Street Fighter, Tekken, and Mortal Kombat don’t flow as well for me. Doing a quarter circle to throw a fireball doesn’t really make much sense to me. Why do I need to undergo these technical hurdles to access the game fully? To me, a fighting game is a mental match between you and an opponent. It is like a game of chess in which you are able to read your opponent and adapt to their behaviour. You predict their movements in a few seconds, punish them for their mistakes, and win the game. It is a place for the best player to prevail, and it is open to many play styles. You can go all-out offense and assault your opponent, or you can turtle up, chip away, zone, and poke away at them to whittle their spirits. Fighting games are beautiful to me, but they have tough controls to master. I also do not like the 2-D movement in traditional fighting games. I understand that a dash is a commitment that can be punished, but the inability to run or truly maneuver well bothers me. I respect that jumps, back dashes, forward dashes, and moves are high-risk maneuvers, but I don’t feel fully in control in traditional fighting games. The standard plane doesn’t allow me to express myself fully.

Smash Brothers, however, mitigates this problem by being a platform fighter. What THAT means, is movement is completely free-form. Sure, you are limited to a walk, a run, and a double jump, but it is the minutia of movement and microspacing that really interests me. Smash Brothers also has a lot of great movement tech, but I will get into that in a later section. See Smash Bros. doesn’t make dashes or movement stiff, but it is very fluid. The entire stage is your playground. You can spend the whole match hopping on platforms, you can consistently go in on your opponent, or you still have the option to run and camp and zone them out with projectiles. Each stage is like a sandbox. Every player has complete access to all movement options, and they can easily go wherever they want. Movement is crisp and intricate, as you can jump, fast-fall, walk, tip-toe, and utilize advanced techniques to get perfect spacing. Spacing, is the best part about smash brothers. Micro movements are much easier and much more possible, which allows for gameplay that is intricate and hard to notice for the untrained eye. There are tons of pages and research on spacing and frame data for each Smash game, and each animation is meticulously designed to complement this free-form movement system.

For example, a character with a sword like Marth, just looks cool to the casual player. Swords are cool, right? I love swords. But to the competitive player, a sword provides what is called a “disjointed hitbox” This is a hitbox that is not attached to the character, and thus, can be thrown out without the character getting hit. What I mean by this, is when Marth swings his long sword, and an opponent tries to swing at the sword with a fist, the sword will beat it out and Marth will take no damage. This is true for any character with a disjointed hitbox. Donkey Kong’s back-air has a lot of range, but it will lose to Marth’s sword. However, to compensate for this, characters with disjointed hitboxes have worse frame data. This means that their attacks generally take a few more frames to come out, and have longer recovery frames. This means that, their attacks are slower, but only by 1/6th of a second. You might scoff when you hear that and say 1/6th of a second slower for a sword? Who cares? The range is awesome! Well, 1/6th of a second in a 60 fps fighting game is like an eternity. Sword characters often get beat out by characters with swift options like Mario. This is why movement is so important. Playing keep away with the sword, being able to zone and space properly will separate the bad sword players from the good one’s. Marth, in Smash Wii U, was considered a low-tier character for about a year. However, through some range and frame data buffs, he is now considered a top 10 character because players learned to utilize his spacing much more effectively. This advancement of a character’s abilities would not be possible without Smash’s air and ground control, and it is why I find it more fluid and satisfying than traditional 2-d fighters.

Smash is absolved from complex move inputs as well. I sound like a huge casual when I say i’m not a fan of quarter circles, but smash mitigates this problem by simplifying it. You hold either left, right, up, down, or no direction, which is called neutral, and hit either A or B. These are your two attack buttons. Sounds simple, right? Well, it gets simpler. This series of commands are universal for every character, meaning that if you can do these simple inputs with one character, you can do it for every single character. Now that sounds a little too easy, right? Well, nobody’s move is the same. Although the input the PLAYER has to do is the same for every character, the output ON SCREEN is different. Donkey Kong’s Side B headbutt has vastly different uses and properties than Villager’s side b projectile. So once a player gets an understanding of the controls, it is easy for them to find a character that its their playstyle. Do you enjoy the grappler/bruiser of Bowser? Or do you enjoy the rushdown and combos of Fox? You know the controls, so any option is open to you. This is where the mental battle of Smash comes in. Each character feels natural with their button presses and movements, to the players are focusing on reading their opponents tendencies, trying to be unpredictable, and maximizing punishes. The controls are incredibly simple, but that’s okay, because Smash Brothers makes up for it with its movement tech.

Movement Tech

If you’ve been browsing the internet at all, I’m sure you’ve heard terms like “wavedash” and “shine spike” float around occasionally. These are references to Smash Brothers’ movement tech. See, the free form platforming and controls are there to facilitate the advanced movement techniques. Some of these were put in purpose like Perfect Pivoting and Foxtrotting, while some were accidental exploits like Wavedashing and Dash Attack Cancelled Up-Smashes (or, DACUS for short). Movement Tech is another aspect of Smash Brothers that separate the newbie from the expert, especially in Melee. An average game of high-level melee has, on average, 6 inputs per second. That is absolute insanity. That is akin to competitive Starcraft, which is no easy feat. It requires hundreds of hours of technical prowess to even scratch the surface of melee’s intricacies and movement. To some, this is seen as a huge barrier to entry, and to others, this is seen as something fantastic. A lot of technical skill means that there is always new goals to reach and a meta that can always develop. Even for melee, a game that is 16-years-old, there are new developments in the metagame. This movement tech does come with a few problems, though. Melee’s movement is such a huge wall to overcome, that the top players have been the same for roughly 5 years now. The game is thankfully at a point where there are plenty of sponsors for more players, so they can devote a lot of time to getting better, so this stagnation can hopefully change. Melee may not have the Shoryuken and Hadouken inputs, but it compensates by having movement tech that allows players to quickly and efficiently approach and space against their opponent. This seemingly instant gameplay forces the mental part of melee to be faster as well. Making decisions about where to jump, when to approach, how to track an opponent’s tendencies, it all requires an absurd amount of practice. Learning these movement abilities, how to execute them consistently, and how to not suffer hand cramps is what will allow a player to become better.

Now it’s time to get controversial. Smash Wii U doesn’t have the insane movement tech of melee, but it does offer a few more tricks up its sleeve. Smash Wii U is all about Microspacing, and arguable has more emphasis placed on reading an opponent than comboing them. See in melee, there are much fewer defensive options than Smash Wii U. The airdodge in Melee is very weak, and shields aren’t very effective because you can apply so much pressure to an opponent. It feels like in Melee, offense is the only option. In Smash Wii U, airdodging and shields are much more effective. Furthermore, in Melee, there is a lot more of something called “hitstun”. This hitstun is, when you get hit, you are stunned. Easy enough to understand. When you get hit into the air in Melee, you are stuck in hitstun, and in hitstun, you cannot do anything. Hitstun lasts a lot longer in melee, and couple that with weak airdodging, combos are dominant in Melee. So although it doesn’t look like there is a dedicated combo system, a large hitstun length allows for absolutely bonkers combos that can kill an opponent in a single combo.

Smash Wii U has much shorter hit stun, and thus, combos are much harder and much shorter. Some see this as a detriment, and say that Smash Wii U is much more boring to watch than melee. This may be weird to say, but I think I like that Smash Wii U is a bit slower than Melee. It is much easier to track and analyze your opponents movements, and as a spectator, it is much easier to understand the depper thoughts behind decisions. There is much less technical execution required to play at the top level, so the top competitors can vary a lot. There are much more younger players who are making a rise in Smash 4, and its meta is also very fresh. People are always discovering how to best maximize combos and followups at certain percentages. The ease of controls and lack of super advanced movement tech means players focus on their opponents and optimizing punishes more.

Melee’s meta has evolved to the point where, if you aren’t consistently doing 6 inputs a second and getting these advanced maneuvers down, then you won’t make it in a tournament. It is such a barrier to entry, that newer players are often discouraged to join. It’s why I don’t really enjoy playing melee. I don’t want to go through the frustrating grind just to be able to compete. there is such a hurdle that must be overcome if you want to get to the core of Smash Bros.: The Mental game. Smash Wii U, although it has less movement tech, doesn’t require hours of dull, bitter training to master it. I feel like in Melee, i’m fighting against a game at points, whereas in Smash Wii U, I don’t even think about the controls. They all flow naturally for me. However, this is just my personal opinion, and I’m sure to get a lot of lambasting in the comments because of this. Which is okay, if you’re fine with Melee’s controls, that’s awesome. You can find worth in something that I couldn’t. Smash uses advanced movement abilities to compensate for its lack of fancy dancy combos, and that makes it even more unique and accessible to more players.

Directional Influence

If you’re a savvy Smasher, you may have noticed that I absolved from mentioning Directional Influence, or DI, in the movement tech section. That’s because I believe DI is the most important aspect to Super Smash Bros., and what makes it my fighting game of choice. You ever play Street Fighter, and then somebody lands a move on you, and you eat a 12 hit combo that obliterates half of your life bar? Doesn’t that make you salty, how that one hit led to all of that damage, and that there was nothing you could do to escape the combo? Well, DI lets you escape combos in Smash Bros. See, in Smash, when you get hit, you can influence the direction you get hit in. You can move the analog stick in any way, and you can either reduce the amount you get knocked back, or you influence the direction you are hit in. This has many properties. You can get knocked in the air and get bopped for a combo, but then when they hit you, you could hold your stick in the direction behind them. This could allow you to escape combos. DI means that combos aren’t just a guaranteed punish. After every hit, you have to predict what movement your opponent will do in the air, or if they’ll do any at all. Couple this with the crazy hitstun in melee, and DI is the main defensive option.

In Smash Wii U, DI isn’t AS useful, but it is there. When the game first came out, DI was pretty much impossible, but through some patches and player discoveries, people found ways to survive much longer than before.

DI means that, as a player, even when you are getting hit, you HAVE to be thinking. Your mind always has to be processing the next move, or you just eat a massive combo and die very quickly. DI keeps you on your toes constantly. It goes even deeper than just escaping combos. Do you DI in anticipation of getting hit by your opponent? If YOU, hit an opponent, where will they DI? You don’t really know if it’s your first time. But if they haven’t been mixing it up, then you know where they will DI and you can follow accordingly.

So I believe it is this ability to control your movement and the constant mental activity that entices so many people to Smash. Complex move inputs aren’t a problem, but maximizing movement for punishes and defensive options are why people flock to Smash as an alternative, less-restrictive fighting game.

Doc Kids

ALL SMASH PLAYERS THINK THEY ARE ANIME PROTAGONISTS

Well, that’s not fair to say, and that doesn’t really make much sense, so let me try and elaborate. In 2014, a Youtube channel called EastPointPictures released a Super Smash Bros. Documentary. In this documentary, it details the history of the competitive scene for Super Smash Bros. Melee. The documentary takes place from 2002-2013, and shows how certain players were kings of their time, and how the game progressed until EVO 2013, which is what truly revitalized Smash Bros. as an e-sport in many people’s eyes. It is a great, 4-hour documentary, and it’s very informative of one of the longest-running competitive scenes in video games. I recommend you check it out.

But what’s important, is that it got millions of views, and got many people into Smash Bros. The documentary followed 1 year after EVO 2013, and now Smash Bros. Melee is a mainstay in the Evo lineup. It used to never be considered before, but now it is a shoe-in. It has one of the largest and most dedicated fanbases, and melee is fast and hype, so who doesn’t like watching that?

But here’s where the anime protagonist thing comes in: The way the documentary is paced and edited, the way it focuses on 7 protagonists and edits it to be very dramatic, that’s where the anime protagonist thing comes from. Everything is really over-the-top and yu-gi-oh-esque. So when you have impressionable kids watching it, myself included, you have an audience that deifies these Smashers. They’re painted as either heroes and villains, not regular human beings. That adds to the spectator aspect of Smash. It feels like, despite it just being a stupid video game, we are watching professional wrestling. Like there are storylines and these people are characters, not regular, average human beings. So, that adds to the massive Twitch numbers for people.

It also doesn’t help that there are plenty of anime videos that re-affirm this suspicion and better instills the belief in people, but WHATEVER.

Tight-Knit Community

A blessing and a curse for competitive Smash, is that it cannot be played online. Although Smash Wii U has an online option, it’s bad. Like, really bad. There is a lot of lag, and Nintendo has pretty much forgotten about the Wii U so playing competitively online is impossible. Therefore, like any fighting game, to play competitively, you have to get off your butt and go to a tournament. You have to leave the house. I know. Scary. And even scarier? You have to INTERACT with people. Like, socialization. It’s terrifying. I’d know because I’ve done it a few times. I’ve gone to a few tournaments, and, guess what? They’re a ton of fun!

Although in my video I made about tournaments nearly a year ago, I said that there were a lot of fedora warriors, I take it back. You really see that these people are just like anybody. The first tournament was held at the University I went to, and they all had things to do. They all had regular schedules and social lives, they had dreams. They certainly didn’t think they were anime characters.

But that’s appealing, right? Knowing that, even at a very small tournament, you can run into individuals who already have something in common: Smash. You guys can unite over arguments are agreements. People from different walks of life come to a tournament to be different people, and you are able to gain new perspectives on life and others. This is applicable to any fighting game really, and it is a reason why people are drawn to them. Even if you go to a tournament, pay 20 bucks, and lose, you still have a fun time. It’s like a big convention that happens nearly any weekend. You always have something to do: play smash, and you always have people to talk to. There is always food available at the venue, it’s basically like you’re at home but with a bunch of homies over. You learn new tech about your respective game, you grow better as a player and as a person.

This is a very localized perspective, but it is why Smashers are so tight-knit. They HAVE to talk and they HAVE to get to know one another. It’s why there is so much passion for certain regions in crew battles. It isn’t just out of pride of where you are from, it’s because you probably know at least one person representing your region, so there is some sense of community.

Personally, the fact that the prize pool for smash is so low compared to other e-sports is a testament to how dedicated Smashers are to their craft. 1st Place in supermajor tournaments with 2000+ entrants nets players around 15000 dollars, and it is near impossible to make Smashing a career because of low prize amounts. Getting 7th at EVO gets you like 500 dollars, which probably covers the plane ticket to get there. So winnings aren’t really what push people to play Smash. If they just cared about the money, they’d go play Dota, League, or CS:GO to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they chose Smash. They chose an incredibly hard game that has little payout because of love for it, and I think that’s brilliant.

I mean, you don’t NEED camaraderie to enjoy Smash Brothers, but it’s a reason why its fanbase is so dedicated.

Content Creators

Mah goodness, these guys have come out strong. There are so many highlight compilations, so many top 10s, and so many well-edited videos about Smash Bros. online than there was even 2 years ago. This community has significantly grown in the last year because of YouTubers like GRSmash, Plasma Smash, Dragon Smash, Grtr4sh, and much more. Although their subscribers don’t reach the millions like other e-sports, they are still keeping the community strong with good, entertaining content.

They post frequently too, so YouTube’s algorithm loves what they do. That means Smash lists reach a larger audience, and people watch the highlights and get hyped. They can then discover a Facebook page of their local Smash scene or the smash bros. subreddit, which has 216000 people subscribed to it as I write this. The people who analyze matches, the people who make in-depth training regiments; These dedicated people didn’t even exist 2 years ago! The Smash scene is always growing, and both Melee and Smash Wii U are in fantastic places. Content Creators allow newer players to be intrigued and brought into the game.

Conclusion

I hope I have cleared the air for a lot of people, why this Pokeball throwing game you play with friends is played so competitively as one of the biggest fighting game e-sports. Its accessibility and alternative movement to the standard 2-d fighting game appeals to a lot of people. Its online community fosters camaraderie and pushes people to get better, and local communities offer people a chance to broaden their Smash horizons. Smash is an e-sport, and it will continue to grow as one, and that’s fantastic.

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