Every morning, the top three Super Smash Bros. Melee players from Australia wake up and head to the Doritos Locos Takis Jr. Gaming Center — their nickname for the living room of their Airbnb in Southern California. They took out the couch and replaced it with three PCs to allow for a “disgusting” amount of gaming.
On a typical day, they may spend hours yelling at VALORANT, League of Legends or Melee before they head to their shared bedroom so Miles “DonB” Dobney — the eldest of the three, who is less of a player and more of a manager these days — can read a bedtime story. Other times, they go to Ludwig “Ludwig” Ahgren’s house to play games with Melee legends like Joseph “Mang0” Marquez.
As members of an isolated region, they come to the United States as often as possible to make names for themselves in the world’s most stacked region. This is the fourth U.S. trip for Josh “Sora” Lyras, Australia’s current star player.
Sora’s most recent trip began after he received invitations to both Smash Summit 12 and the Smash World Tour Championships. He intended to stay with DonB and Jacob “Sock” Hunter until after Genesis, one of Smash’s biggest annual supermajors. Though Genesis 8 was postponed, they stayed long enough to compete in its replacement online event, the Ludwig Ahgren Championship Series 4. All three of them will return home on Feb. 22.
Fuck man it's really starting to hit me that I'm only in the U.S for 10 more days.
From Summit to SWT and everything else, this trip has been one I'll never forget and I'm glad I was able do a lot of things I dreamed for the last 2 years.
Excited to see all my boys back home 🇦🇺 pic.twitter.com/rLeEKPQHCS
— Sora/Joshman (@LilTrickshot) February 12, 2022
Sora is a self-proclaimed social butterfly. When he’s not busy making friends, he’s usually streaming to his more than 1,000 Twitch subs — up from little more than 100 before he came to the States in December — or grinding Melee, which Sora says he’s addicted to. With recent wins over the likes of Avery “Ginger” Wilson and Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson, he has established himself as a world-class player. Sora was even ranked top 30 in North America on MPGRContenders, the most recent official Melee ranking.
Despite the challenges inherent to living so far from the epicenter of competitive Smash, Sora has continued to improve at Melee thanks to the support of friends and his love for the game. Over the past three months, his skills have propelled him to a position of international prominence for the first time.
DonB paves the way
DonB is the trailblazer of the group. The 28-year-old first came to the United States in 2017 and stayed for about a year to prove that Australians could make it in the competitive Melee scene.
“So many people at home think AUS esports isn’t possible,” DonB said. “I wanted to be the guy that’s like, ‘If you go and you put a lot of elbow grease into what you’re doing, you save [and] you spend a lot of money to travel, there is a pathway.’”
DonB said he was essentially homeless at the beginning of his trip. For about five days, he slept on the floor of a card shop in Carson, California, called Final Destination Cards and Games.
“They would lock me in every night,” DonB said. “[It] was a total fire hazard. The guy told me, ‘Throw a CRT through the window if there’s ever a fire.’”
For another few days, he slept on the couch at a tournament venue called The Balcony. Then, he met Nick “envy” Vercillo, who invited him to stay at David “AmericanDragon_DavidChong” Chong’s house in Pomona. DonB spent the rest of his trip at what he came to know as the Chong House.
Sora joined DonB at the Chong House in May of 2017 and stayed for about a month. There, he befriended the likes of Anthony “Slime” Bruno, envy and Ludwig. He also began entering his first American local tournaments.
“Walking into your first SoCal local as an international player is really intimidating,” Sora said. “You never know who you’re going to sit down next to, who’s going to clean you up and put you to sleep. It was very humbling to finally come to SoCal and pretty much get my clock cleaned.”
Sora initially came to the United States for a Project M major, The Bigger Balc, since he was the best Project M player in Australia at the time. However, he eventually found that game’s character diversity to be overwhelming.
“The thing with Project M is there’s about 500 characters,” Sora said. “They put Olimar next to me on the TV and I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ! What does the purple Pikmin do? The blue guy’s got me in his hands. I’ve never seen this.’ I’m like, ‘There’s no way I’m ever going to be good at this game. There’s just too much going on.’”
Sora shifted his focus to Melee, which has fewer characters that are viable at the top level.
“Even though I’m at a massive disadvantage back home in Australia, at least it was like, ‘I can focus on these match-ups,’” Sora said.
Sora returned to the States in January of 2019 and 2020 so he could attend American locals and enter Genesis. Since Slippi had not yet launched rollback netcode for online Melee, Sora played little Melee when there weren’t any tournaments and he was sick of playing everyone in the Chong House. As a result, he’d resort to “degeneracy incarnate,” waking up at sunset and playing Magic the Gathering.
Even so, Sora improved at Melee as the trips went on. He began to rack up top 100 wins and was listed as an honorable mention on the 2019 MPGR. However, his results paled in comparison to those of Te Tuhi “Spud” Kelly.
The New Zealand native was ranked No. 1 in Australia at the time, just ahead of Sora. Spud beat players like Cody “iBDW” Schwab, Zac “SFAT” Cordoni and Edgard “n0ne” Sheleby. As a result, the Marth main was ranked top 50 in the world in both 2018 and 2019.
“He was definitely very inspiring,” Sora said of Spud. “If this guy can do it, what’s my excuse?”
Sock tags along
Sock, who is DonB’s junior by nearly 10 years, tagged along on a U.S. trip for the first time in 2020. Before he became friends with Sora, Sock was a quiet introvert who struggled to come out of his shell and was also a bit of a rager.
However, that began to change when Sock was 16 years old, thanks to Sora. After losing a tournament and “emo-posting” on Twitter, he received a message from Sora reminding him that the point of playing Melee is to have fun and that he should be a pleasant person to be around.
“That really resonated with me, because that was the first day I realized that Melee was never about being the best,” Sock said. “It’s about hanging out with your friends. It’s about having good experiences with new people. Josh definitely taught me a lot about being a good guy [and] what it meant to interact in a broader space.”
these boys got 2 modes pic.twitter.com/3BhOVM5dSY
— Miles (@LGC_DonB) December 31, 2021
Sock and Sora both placed 65th at Genesis 7 in January of 2020; an overperformance for Sock and an underperformance for Sora.
“That was a crazy comparison,” Sock said. “Even all the top 100 wins he was getting over here [weren’t] enough for him. It was the biggest dogs that he wanted to be taking down.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person competition and limited international travel, Sora didn’t get another shot at the biggest dogs for nearly two years. While he continued to train and improve, it was a dark time for Sora mentally.
“Two years is so long to look over across the ocean and see everyone playing in netplay tournaments with all these fantastic players and [be] like, ‘When is it going to be my turn?’” Sora said.
Spud stopped playing over quarantine, making Sora the “biggest fish in the small pond” by default.
“I was unceremoniously bestowed No. 1 in an online era of the game and I felt gross,” Sora said. “The game lost the magic to it. But, I’m really thankful for my friends who said to me, ‘If you’re not going to do this, what was everything for? Why don’t you just give it one fair crack and stick it out and see what happens?’”
Sora takes another crack at top-level Melee
Sora attended Smash Summit 12 as a vote-in player in December of 2021. It was his first American major since Saving Mr. Lombardi 2 in February of 2020.
On previous trips to the States, Sora said he felt pressure to perform well since one American major could be his only shot to make a name for himself for a whole year. This pressure was exacerbated by the fact that a simple lack of top-level experience could end up being his downfall.
“An issue of it being the small pond is that you don’t have these ideas in front of you and being used against you that counter what [you’re] doing,” Sock said. “So, by the time that you have your chance to go to the U.S., you might just [face] someone round one of top 64 who’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this one before,’ and they put you to sleep and it’s back on the plane to Australia.”
However, after spending two years away from top-level competition, Sora said he didn’t expect to get good results on his latest trip to America.
“I think I sat down at Summit with the least nerves I’ve ever had in my life,” Sora said.
In the past, Sora said he would get so anxious at tournaments that he couldn’t eat. At Summit, he didn’t have that problem. Ironically, his ability to eat freely nearly cost him his chance to compete.
The day matches at Summit were supposed to begin, Sora awoke around 4 a.m. with a stomach ache. After throwing up, he deduced that he had gotten food poisoning after eating at Chipotle the night before.
I don’t really know how to say this, but I’ve woken up with pretty severe food poisoning
I’m not really sure if I’m gonna be able to go to venue today until this clears up, and that’s most likely not going to be in time to play today
Feels beyond awful
— Sora/Joshman (@LilTrickshot) December 10, 2021
He reached out to some of the other Australians who attended the tournaments as VIPs, including Cailan Kingsbury, Dom Hynes and Sora’s sponsor, Mindfreak CEO Michael Carmody.
“I messaged my Australian mates who were in the hotel and I was like, ‘Help,’” Sora said. “‘I need Hydralyte. I need biscuits. I need a f***ing heal ASAP.’”
Beyond the Summit rearranged the tournament schedule so Sora could play all of his pools matches the next day. After one day of rest, Sora returned to the Summit Gaming House to play a gauntlet of sets, even though he still felt “kind of dodgy.”
“Up next, we got Ginger versus the flu game himself,” commentator Brandon “YungWaff” Collier said before Sora’s first set, referencing Michael Jordan’s legendary performance in the 1997 NBA Finals while suffering from food poisoning.
All in all, Sora exceeded expectations at Summit. He beat Ginger and Gio “null” Rossi, and narrowly lost five-game sets to SFAT and John “KoDoRiN” Ko; the latter of whom he had traded sets with before quarantine.
“I think it’s a one-way thing, but I see [KoDoRiN] as kind of a rival in some ways; kind of like a goalpost,” Sora said. “To see that goalpost fly up to the top and for me to be like, ‘It’s not out of reach,’ it made it feel like the work I put in for two years was not for naught. That was massive for me.”
Even after losing 3-0 to both Zain “Zain” Naghmi and Dan “Swift” Petruso, Sora still walked away with productive takeaways.
“With Zain, it was the first time I’ve been 3-0’d like that, even though I felt like I played pretty fantastic,” Sora said. “It was nice to know where the top is. It wasn’t even humbling. It was just inspiring. I felt hungry. Then, playing Swift, I get my f***ing clock cleaned by a little rat, a little Pikachu. That guy is just so talented. It was nice to see someone who’s a cool bloke, who’s also putting in a massive amount of effort.”
— Beyond the Smash (@BTSsmash) December 11, 2021
Part of the conversation
Since then, Sora has continued to perform well at American tournaments. He beat Axe and Ben “Ben” Strandmark en route to 17th place at the Smash World Tour Championships. Sora also placed 13th at the online LACS 4 after eliminating n0ne.
“[It] was a laggy set, so I’m not counting any wins, but it still feels nice to not lose,” Sora said.
Additionally, Sora exposed his personality to a broad American audience for the first time by commentating at Summit, precipitating the tenfold increase in his subscribership on Twitch. Sora also played his LACS matches at Ludwig’s house and commentated some of the top 12 matches alongside Ludwig. Now, he says he’s “part of the conversation,” opening up the access to other top players that he lacked on his previous trips to the U.S.
“Back then, I wouldn’t even dare touch their DMs,” Sora said. “That’s a sacred place. I don’t want to be another random messaging these guys. But now, it’s like, ‘Yo, we’ve already met in real life. We’ve talked about this and that. You want to play?’ Usually, they’ll say yes, so the level of practice I’m getting on this U.S. trip specifically is 10 times better than when I was waking up at sunset playing Magic the Gathering.”
In previous years, Sora said he was “shafted” on the annual top 100 rankings.
“Being in Australia, no one cares about you,” Sora said. “Unless you’re Spud and you’re coming here beating insane players, no one cares if you’re beating bottom-end top 100 players.”
However, when he made his debut on an international ranking, MPGRContenders, he couldn’t help but think about players like Swift and Zuppy, who he believed were more deserving.
“I think I’m overrated to be honest,” Sora said. “It’s nice to be on that list and to get that recognition, but I don’t think I’m there yet.”
Sora’s love for Melee fuels his intense dedication to it, whether he’s playing against other people or practicing ledgedashes by himself with the UnclePunch modification. It’s that dedication that has taken him across the planet so many times, which is basically a requirement for any Australian looking to make it in Melee.
“I wish there was a way this game could truly be more global, but I just don’t think it will ever happen,” DonB said.
Nevertheless, Sora’s drive to improve is as high as ever; he currently plans on moving to Canada to give him easier access to netplay practice and offline tournaments in the United States. Yet, for him and the rest of the Australian crew, the journey has been far more important than the destination.
“No expectations,” DonB said. “If he loses every set after this, we’re still best friends and we still did it. We still did it our way.”
Dylan Tate is an alumnus of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a gaming journalist with a love for Nintendo esports, particularly Super Smash Bros. and Pokémon.