Super Smash Bros. Melee in competitive play
Super Smash Bros. Melee has been played competitively since its inception in 2001 (although it started with relatively low popularity until 2003), and it continues to thrive in the competitive scene to this day. The scene has gone through several "eras" of smashers: the "Golden Age", the "era of The Five Gods", the "Platinum Age", the "Chaos Age", and the "Rise of Netplay".
Early history (2001-2004)
While Smash Bros. has been viewed as a "casual party game" by Nintendo, Masahiro Sakurai (the series' main developer), and the general public, this did not stop fans from playing the game at a competitive level. Following Melee's release in 2001, avid players started to utilize the game's unique physics engine to generate fast movement unexpected for a game like Smash. As players began perfecting newly discovered techniques such as wavedashing, dashdancing, and L-canceling, many smashers began hosting small tournaments for the first time; these tournaments were usually held among small groups of friends in basements or video game stores. However, Matt Deezie is credited as the founder of the competitive Smash scene, when he began hosting the Tournament Go series in Northern California, in April 2002. Tournament Go helped bring to attention a standard, unified ruleset of legal stages and tournament procedures, and generate increased competitive interest in NorCal and across the United States. By the time the tournament series concluded with Tournament Go 6 in 2004, Matt Deezie had hosted the first 100-man tournament with the best players from all corners of the United States, such as Ken, Azen, and ChuDat, in attendance. Meanwhile, other large nationals such as MELEE-FC and Game Over sprung up in different regions of the country. This initial surge of tournament activity paved the way for increased support from large video game organizations, such as Major League Gaming, into the young Melee scene.
The "Golden Age" (2004-2008)
The Golden Age of Super Smash Bros. Melee kicked off with Major League Gaming's addition of the game to its largest tournaments, such as MLG New York 2004. Following large public interest in these early events, MLG began expanding its presence in the Melee scene, featuring the Nintendo game at more and more of its big events. Ken, Azen, ChuDat, Isai, PC Chris, and KoreanDJ competed with a rising star in the form of Mew2King for the top spots at MLG tournaments in 2005 and 2006; Ken was notably dubbed the "King of Smash" for his incredibly consistent level of dominance at these events. Major League Gaming's professional sponsorship resulted in large prize pools compared to the number of competitors (PC Chris won $10,000 for his victory at MLG Las Vegas 2006), creating a solid foundation for the nation's top players and the competitive community as a whole.
While MLG dropped Melee from its tournaments in 2007, EVO, another large fighting game tournament series, added the game to its roster the same year, generating new waves of excitement and interest in the competitive community. Although Smash Bros. had continually been criticized and shunned by the rest of the fighting game community for its unorthodox gameplay and perceived "casual" appeal, it had still made it into the largest video game tournaments through the dedication and persistence of the grassroots community. Following Ken's retirement from the game in 2007, a new challenger, Mango, began to dominate Melee tournaments along with Mew2King, setting the stage of the competitive era in years to come.
The "Dark Age" and the era of "The Five Gods" (2008-2013)
After Nintendo released its newest Smash Bros. game in March 2008, Melee players questioned the survivability of their game as much of the community moved on to the new title. These fears turned out to be true, as 2008, commonly known as the Dark Age of Melee, became completely dominated by the Brawl scene; not a single Melee major was held for around a year, and the few small tournaments held registered paltry attendance numbers compared to those of just the year before. The Melee scene remained stagnant until Alukard held Revival of Melee in Nanuet, New York, in March 2009. This tournament was the first American event to feature Melee's best players from across the country (such as Mew2King, Mango, PC Chris, and Azen) since Pound 3 in February 2008, and was the beginning of a gradual revival in tournament attendance back to pre-Brawl levels. The renewed surge in attendance was aided by the fact that many Melee players disliked the slower, less combo-oriented gameplay of Brawl and returned to the former game shortly after its release. While EVO and Major League Gaming added Brawl to their major tournaments, the Melee community held on through a strong grassroots presence. Melee players' desires to remain a strong presence in the Smash scene led to the hosting of bigger and bigger tournaments, including GENESIS and Pound 4, and Melee was able to maintain tournament numbers similar to those of Brawl, even though the 2008 game attracted more newer Smash players than its predecessor.
Following the declining activity of Melee's strongest players, such as Ken, KoreanDJ, Azen, and PC Chris, the tournaments of this age were dominated by The Five Gods: the five very best players of Super Smash Bros. Melee throughout this time period. These five players, Armada, Hungrybox, Mango, Mew2King, and PPMD, won nearly every Melee tournament where at least two of them were in attendance from 2008 to 2015, while rarely losing tournament sets to players not among the gods themselves. The sole exception was Don't Go Down There Jeff, where Mango sandbagged for part of the tourney.
The "Platinum Age" (2013-2018)
The era of Melee after 2013 became known as the Platinum Age, characterized by an unprecedented, explosive spike in attendance numbers, and another transition from a largely grassroots scene to an increased connection and involvement with the rest of the eSports community. After EVO's announcement of a donation drive to feature an eighth title at the world's largest fighting game tournament, Melee It On Me and other groups organized efforts that raised nearly $95,000, allowing Melee to become the final featured game at EVO. Hosted from July 12th-14th, 2013, EVO drew a staggering 709 entrants, becoming the largest Melee tournament of all time. The tournament surpassed Pound 4, the previous record holder, by twice as many entrants, and was the third largest game at EVO, even though it had not been featured in the series since 2007.
This landmark tournament, coupled with the October 2013 release of Samox's The Smash Brothers documentary, which detailed the history of the competitive Melee scene, is often attributed with creating a rejuvenated interest in the Melee scene that continued to break new grounds. Apex 2014 again topped the 600-entrant mark in January 2014, and the number of majors held sharply increased, but the biggest highlight of the year was the "Summer of Smash": Melee was to be featured at three of the world's largest fighting game tournaments in June and July. MLG Anaheim 2014, held from June 20th-22nd, marked the return of Smash Bros. to the stage of Major League Gaming after four years; this major was followed up by Melee's appearance at CEO 2014. EVO 2014 continued to surpass expectations of the previous year's event by attracting nearly 1000 entrants, raising prospects over the potential of a game over a decade old.
The excitement and energy generated by these three tournaments led to increased attention from the eSports scene as a whole, despite the fighting game community's persistent refusal to recognize Smash as one of their own. Many of the largest names in the competitive gaming industry, such as Cloud 9, Team Curse, and Evil Geniuses, began sponsoring Melee's top players, creating further growth and interest from other members of the gaming community. Nintendo was initially extremely hostile towards the competitive Melee scene, as showcased by its attempt to block the streaming of the Melee portion of EVO 2013 (and, as later discovered, to shut down the event entirely). However, 2014 saw a completely unexpected turnaround, as Reggie Fils-Aimé of Nintendo of America made a guest appearance through video at EVO 2014 just a year later, congratulating the tournament's top eight finalists, and the company has even sponsored tournaments such as Apex 2015. 2014 also marked the release of Super Smash Bros. 4, but the game's release had no real effect on attendance for the Melee scene, as the Melee fanbase continued to play the older game instead of moving onto Smash 4 due to the latter game lacking the speed and technical demand that Melee had, similar to Brawl (but not to the same extent). Since Smash 4's release, Melee has continued to set new attendance milestones; Apex 2015 broke the 1,000 entrant mark in the winter of 2015, and EVO 2015's 1,869 entrants topped even its previous years, setting a record for the largest Melee tournament of all time.
While The Five Gods had continued to dominate Melee majors in the new era, notably featuring Mango's two wins at EVO 2013 and 2014, Leffen and Plup had emerged as true challengers to them, and are the only two players who have defeated all five in a tournament set. Following his rise in 2014, Leffen won B.E.A.S.T 5, marking the first non-God victory at a major with at least two in attendance since 2008; he won his first American major, CEO 2015, that same year, with three of the gods present. He also won Get On My Level 2016, defeating four gods all in a row without dropping a set. Plup became the second player after Leffen to win a major with two or more gods in attendance, taking DreamHack Atlanta 2017 over Hungrybox and Mew2King; he would go on to win GENESIS 5, winning over Mango and Armada, and double eliminating Hungrybox.
There are several players whose level of skill lies just below the top players; iBDW, S2J, Fiction, and SFAT are currently the players most commonly considered the "demi-gods". These four players are known to frequently earn high placings in large tournaments, as well as for occasionally taking sets off of the gods and Leffen/Plup, but have yet to achieve the skill level or consistency of the players above them. In addition, Fly Amanita and Wobbles have each taken sets off of four of the gods, except for Armada. Axe, Zain, aMSa, Westballz, Shroomed, PewPewU, SFAT, ChuDat, Lucky, and Hax have each beaten three of the gods.
Moreover, the Melee metagame has seen a major shift towards Fox, the current undisputed best character in the game, sitting at the #1 spot on the tier list. Fox's incredible speed, mobility, combo ability, and KO power has given him a major increase in popularity far above the rest of the top tiers. Many former mains of other characters have picked up Fox as a main, attempting to improve their results by playing a more tournament-viable character. Most notably, Armada picked up the character to complement his Peach, while Hax switched over completely from Captain Falcon.
Tournaments in which all five gods participated
**Mango was sandbagging under his Scorpion Master alias.
The "Chaos Age" and "The Fall of the Five Gods" (2018-2020)
Towards 2016 and onward, many of the Five Gods stepped out of competitive Melee play. PPMD announced a hiatus in March 2016, citing numerous health issues. He would return to streaming Melee in 2019, though he is unsure of his future in bracket. Armada formally retired from Melee once again in September 2018.
The release of Ultimate saw many top Melee players give the new game a fair shot, as was done with Brawl and SSB4. Unlike with those games, however, a significant portion of those Melee players continued to play Ultimate well after its release. All of the Five Gods, save for PPMD, and many other top Melee players have frequently live streamed the game and have entered Ultimate singles. Mew2King took a hiatus from Melee to play Ultimate and did not compete in Melee singles for 8 months until The Big House 9. Although Leffen continued to play Melee, he put a large amount of focus on Ultimate and achieved moderate success in bracket, culminating in him winning DreamHack Winter 2019. He ultimately redirected his focus back to Melee, citing issues with Ultimate’s online service and his small local scene making it difficult for him to improve, among many other factors. After deciding to play Smash full-time, Hungrybox picked up Jigglypuff and decided to commit more time to Ultimate while also commentating at several Ultimate tournaments. Several players have made good bracket runs as well: Wizzrobe impressively making top 8 for both Melee and Ultimate at Smash 'N' Splash 5; Plup had placed 17th at EVO 2019 and The Big House 9; and Armada had placed 17th at Mainstage and The Big House 9. Still others have seen less success in the game but acknowledge its importance, with Mango commonly stating that Ultimate has made him a better Melee player.
2018 and 2019 marked a period of Hungrybox’s dominance; he won 9 Melee tournaments in a row, starting from DreamHack Montreal 2018 to Pound 2019 before finally placing 2nd at Come to Papa 3. He would still continue to place well and win other majors, placing 1st at CEO 2019, Low Tier City 7, Shine 2019, and Mainstage. This has sparked renewed discussion on Jigglypuff’s placement on the tier list, with Armada claiming that Jigglypuff is currently the best character in the game. Hungrybox’s dominance with what many perceived to be a highly defensive play style sparked discussion of a ledge grab limit, with one later being enforced at Super Smash Con 2019 and Mainstage.
Many new players would also go on to defeat the remaining gods and win majors, some with unconventional characters. At EVO 2018, Swedish Delight defeated Armada early in winners, and Armada would make an impressive losers run only to lose to Leffen in Grand Finals, marking Leffen’s first EVO win. Zain would claim victory at Shine 2018 over Mango and Hungrybox and has continued to be a threat to the gods; he would later go on to win his first supermajor at GENESIS 7 as well, once again defeating Mango and Hungrybox. Wizzrobe would get his first supermajor victory at Smash 'N' Splash 5 by double-eliminating Hungrybox, marking the first Melee supermajor won by a solo Captain Falcon main since Isai at MOAST 3 all the way back in 2005. Similarly, Axe would take 1st at Smash Summit 8 while defeating Zain, Mango, Leffen, and Wizzrobe, marking Axe’s first supermajor win and the first ever major win by a solo Pikachu. The rise of unorthodox characters has spurred renewed interest in Melee, and rise of many new challengers to the Gods has signaled the end of their reign.
In February 2019, it was revealed that EVO, the tournament series responsible for Melee's rise in popularity in 2013, would not feature the game in its next incarnation, instead relegating it to a side event. While arguably inevitable, this announcement drew some concern from the Melee fanbase, for it could possibly compel other fighting game tournaments to drop the game as well and thus lead to its eventual demise. Observers remarked, however, that worry over the exclusion of Melee from larger tournaments would do more damage to its popularity than the exclusion itself. Melee remained strong throughout the year even with the noticeable decline in interest thanks to the release of Ultimate and the reduced prominence of the Five Gods.
The "Diamond Age" and The Rise of Netplay (2020-present)
Main article: COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on competitive Smash
Going into 2020, Melee retained its stature from the previous year. The Smash World Tour 2020 circuit, with tournaments for both Ultimate and Melee, was established to provide players with a large, formalized prize pool across several major tournaments.
Similar to Ultimate's competitive scene, tournament activity for Melee took a hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with numerous tournaments being either delayed or cancelled, players remaining inside and not travelling abroad to attend the few tournaments that were open, and the MPGR and Smash World Tour being suspended to further dissuade players from attending in person events. Many Melee players began shifting to online netplay via modified versions of the Dolphin emulator, thus formally beginning an online tournament scene for the game. The use of delay-based netcode, however, meant international play was nearly impractical due to the drastic latency such long distance connections would introduce. Because of this, online tournaments were restricted to certain regions and as such Melee tournament activity became far less common than that of Ultimate. Despite this, several tournament series such as Rona Rumble, Untitled, and East Coast Fridays, managed to garner a regional-level size of attendance and many top players. Outside of these smaller scale tournaments, in place of Pound 2020 was Pound Online, which drew nearly 1000 entrants for Melee and had Zain beat out Hungrybox in grand finals.
As frustration with the state of netplay grew and online attendance waned, a surprise announcement was made on June 22nd, 2020. Fizzi had announced that the team behind Project Slippi had managed to introduce rollback netcode into Super Smash Bros. Melee, allowing Melee netplay to work over large distances with little latency. With the arrival of a viable, practical alternative to major international tournaments, many Melee players, along with some Ultimate players who were frustrated with the game's online service, began flocking to the netplay scene, thus allowing it to thrive.