Luis “LemonTea” Rojas was outnumbered and on his own. His partner Chris “Jut” Atalaya had fallen earlier in a doubles set of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
The commentators and crowd quickly counted the round as a win for LemonTea’s opponents, but the New Jersey native wasn’t going to go down without a fight at his first major tournament.
His Wolf bobbed, weaved and threaded its way between Joker and Mario, landing jabs when it could. This reminded LemonTea of when he goofed off with Jut, relieving any tension that may have been in his shoulders as he leaned forward on the main stage.
A sudden up-smash took Joker out, leaving only the chubby plumber.
LemonTea didn’t notice the dozens of people that had gathered around the stage at the Kalahari Resorts Sandusky in Ohio, in the late morning of Sept. 10, 2021. All energy was focused on him, as an underdog on the brink of victory. One back-air exchange went the wrong way for Josue “Vemnzr” Reyes and the game was over.
The comeback was complete. A cheer rolled up from the crowd like a wave just before it crashes on the shoreline.
“The electricity that that small moment sent through my body made me realize we’re back,” Riptide tournament organizer Joshua “Jaaahsh” Marcotte said. “‘We’re home. This is where we’re meant to be.’”
A moment that was a year and a half delayed
The home of LemonTea’s incredible comeback, Riptide, was the first in-person major since March of 2020. Three thousand attendees filled the resort with GameCube controllers and cloth masks as they brought their competitive hobby back from the pits of online play.
“I felt pretty comfortable knowing most of the attendees [were] vaccinated,” LemonTea said. “Smash events have been one of the safest environments I’ve been in since the pandemic.”
Like the rest of the world, the competitive Super Smash Bros. community came to a standstill as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. While the Smash community has hosted dozens of local, regional and major tournaments since, the ongoing pandemic and recent emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has forced the Smash community to reevaluate what it means to host tournaments safely.
“There were a couple times when large crowds formed around hype sets and it started to feel a little bit claustrophobic,” said Super Smash Bros. organizer, player and coach Ryan “L4st” Krichbaum. “However, 99% of the time, event staff did a great job of quickly breaking up the crowd, or at least dispersing them to the point where people weren’t packed shoulder to shoulder.”
Organizers have been strict about making sure attendees follow COVID-19 protocols, even when local governments are far more relaxed when dealing with the pandemic. Major events have required temperature checks, and tournaments have been flooded with hand sanitizing stations and masks.
Despite these challenges, the ongoing Smash World Tour and a recently announced Nintendo-sponsored Panda Global circuit have the potential to shape the future of the competitive scene.
This year has been less about picking up where Smash left off in 2020 and more about paving a new way forward.
A community pushed apart by the pandemic
In March of 2020, Cyrus “Cagt” Gharakhanian helped run the Smash Ultimate bracket at CEO Dreamland. Amidst rising COVID-19 concerns, numerous players opted to drop out of the event, including top competitors like Enrique “Maister” Hernández Solís and Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson.
In fact, so many players requested refunds that Head Event Organizer Alex Jebailey set up a PayPal account to raise funds to cover the costs of the tournament.
Cagt, Jebailey and the rest of the CEO Dreamland team worked hard to put together an event for the players who chose to attend, recognizing that it would likely be the last Smash major for the foreseeable future.
“We basically made the best of it and thought, ‘You know what? If this is going to be the last event for a while, let’s make it a good one,’” Cagt said.
One by one, major organizers announced that the pandemic would prevent them from running their events. Some tournaments were outright canceled, including Super Smash Con, Shine and Riptide — the first iteration of which had been scheduled for September of 2020.
“We were all so anxious and fearful and nervous about the health of everyone around us,” Jaaahsh said. “I think canceling it made a lot of sense.”
Other offline majors were postponed multiple times. Ultimately, none of them actually took place in 2020.
“I was in a state of shock,” Super Smash Bros. caster Phil “EE” Visu said. “Then as the months rolled on, I just kind of got used to it. But it did build anticipation. I knew when events finally came back, it was going to be ridiculous.”
Most Melee and Ultimate players didn’t want to stop competing altogether. While both games lacked an efficient or fair way to play online, tournament organizers did whatever they could to make sure hungry players had something to satisfy their appetite with. Little did they know that one modification would change the community forever.
Slipping back into online play
Software engineer Nikhil Narayana was ready for a hectic day on Discord, but he never could have prepared for the influx of support tickets that would come. He had just helped Jas “Fizzi” Laferriere launch Project Slippi, a rollback netcode mod for Super Smash Bros. Melee that made online play as smooth as the feather gel in Falco’s blue do.
“I should have called the day off,” Narayana said with a laugh. Thousands of players had jumped into the official Slippi Discord to ask for help with problems that came up with the new mod. “We only had two people doing support.”
The Discord saw an increase of 3,000 people on June 22, 2020, when rollback netcode was introduced to the mod. Narayana, Fizzi and the rest of the team were thrilled to see friends playing with one another from opposite sides of the country, and even the world.
“It was one of those days where I really wanted to play Melee, but there were so many people asking for help,” Narayana said. “It was better to serve the community.”
The pandemic would have devastated the Super Smash Bros. community if not for Slippi. Online play was the only option that tournament organizers, players, casters and even fans had if they wanted to compete. Online for Ultimate was far from perfect, as players were forced to deal with a large amount of input delay.
Many decided to take a step back from competing altogether.
“I was so frustrated because I started to understand the game, and then COVID-19 happened,” Matt “Elegant” Fitzpatrick, one of the best Ultimate Luigi players in the world, said. “It was sad because I had to play Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi is just like … not good.”
The online modification single-handedly carried Melee through the dark during the past year and half. It’s been so successful that some community members have begun work on a similar rollback netcode modification for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
“It is one of Melee’s biggest changes,” Narayana said. “One of the biggest accomplishments in terms of modifying the game.”
A change this notable doesn’t go unnoticed, though. There was a different type of commotion buzzing throughout the Slippi Discord server five months later, on Nov. 19, when Nintendo issued a cease and desist order to the organizers of The Big House for using Slippi. Narayana had to parse through hundreds of posts and messages about the controversy, many of which debated the legality of Slippi.
That wasn’t a question that Narayana cared about much, so he locked several channels. The entire Slippi team was long past asking permission from Nintendo. They had made the source code for Slippi and its rollback netcode public the day it launched. They said they won’t back down if Nintendo comes for them directly.
“I don’t think we would ever falter,” Narayana said. “It’s Melee, man. We love this game.”
Super Smash Bros. grassroots grow back after the pandemic
The community eventually came out on the other side of lockdowns and quarantine. Just as Cagt had been there at the last pre-quarantine major, he led the charge 447 days later at Ultimate’s first large post-quarantine tournament, InfinityCON Tally, in June of 2021.
InfinityCON was originally supposed to be little more than a regional for players in Florida. But, as news of the tournament spread around Twitter, it awakened a hunger in Smash players for a return to offline competition. As a result, the tournament grew far more stacked than Cagt would have ever envisioned and ultimately attracted 422 attendees.
“It was an incredibly stressful experience,” Cagt said. “I didn’t think I would be the first one to bring back offline events. To be honest with you, I didn’t want to be the first one.”
Hosting the tournament had not been Cagt’s idea; he simply agreed to run it after he was approached by the InfinityCON staff. Nevertheless, he said the tournament was an important step for the mental health of the many players who were eager to come out of isolation.
“Even if it may not be the safest — obviously, COVID’s still around, and we still have to wear masks and such — I think it’s important to have these events again because we need to have that interaction,” Cagt said. “We need to be able to create those connections again.”
After InfinityCON, more tournaments began to pop up across the United States. Many organizers reopened locals and smaller regional tournaments throughout 2021. Additionally, organizations like Beyond the Summit and the Smash World Tour brought high-level competitors together for invitationals.
The United States lacked an open-bracket major until September, when Jaaahsh and the rest of the Riptide team held their debut event. Despite the pressure of venturing into unknown waters with their water park tournament, the Riptide organizers were confident that they could host a major that was safe for attendees.
“We were very nervous that someone else would do it poorly first,” Jaaahsh said. “When the organizers of Riptide had a conversation about whether we wanted to be the first [major] back, it was less about any sort of prestige and more about [knowing] we can do it right and we’d rather the first one back be done right.”
Jaaahsh said he and the rest of the team were “overly cautious” as they enforced a mask mandate in their event space, even though the resort did not require masks. Additionally, the Riptide organizers required attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. They also set up the venue to encourage social distancing and one-way foot traffic, they provided lots of extra masks and hand sanitizer, and they even required some of the top 192 sets to be played backstage so that attendees wouldn’t crowd around “hot sets.”
“As you can see, based on how many events exploded soon after Riptide’s announcement, events were ready and raring to come back from a public hunger perspective,” Jaaahsh said. “I do think that events needed a good first catalyst to sort of say, ‘This is the new standard going forward.’”
Since then, American competitors have enjoyed multiple Smash majors, including Super Smash Con: Fall Fest, Mainstage 2021 and CEO 2021. Even as attendees continue to deal with masks and entrant caps at tournaments, as well as ongoing uncertainty about future variants and the longevity of the COVID-19 pandemic, a sense of normalcy is returning for a community devoid of in-person interactions for 15 months.
“You could tell there was this catharsis of walking into a room, seeing friendlies being played, hearing Captain Falcon knee an Ice Climbers on the Melee setup on stage,” Jaaahsh said. “There was a je ne sais quoi of Smashness returning.”
Circuits, Smash and the future
Amidst the chaos of 2021, the Smash World Tour has been one of the Smash community’s few constants. Though its first iteration was cut short after beginning in March of 2020, the circuit returned with a brand new transitional format to bridge the gap between online and offline competition.
Organizers hosted a series of online regional qualifiers for Smash Ultimate, which fed into in-person regional finals later in the year. Likely to avoid conflict with Nintendo, they didn’t host any online Melee qualifiers through Slippi, instead directly inviting all of the players for each regional final.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 still greatly impacted the execution of the circuit. Competing in the online qualifiers was a nightmare for many Ultimate players disenchanted with the game’s poor netcode. Several of the regional finals were rescheduled multiple times. The Oceania Melee and Ultimate Regional Finals were even canceled completely, with Joshua “Sora” Lyras and Jonathan “Jdizzle” Douglas receiving direct invitations to represent Oceania at the global finals for Melee and Ultimate, respectively.
“This is really unfortunate,” Australian Ultimate player “Danklin” tweeted after the cancellation of the Oceania Regional Finals. “Hopefully Aus and NZ can get more of a spotlight one day as we are a really incredible, but underrepresented region.”
Other regional finals couldn’t go on as expected either. The South America Ultimate Regional Finals were hosted online instead of in-person, as originally planned. Additionally, none of the non-Japanese qualified competitors could get into Japan for the East Asia Ultimate Regional Finals, so they were all replaced by Japanese players while Hong Kong’s Timothy “XIFL” Chan automatically advanced to the global finals.
“Can’t say I didn’t see this coming at all after not hearing any news regarding SWT,” Filipino Ultimate player Kendrick “PSI Force” Lolarga Cheah tweeted. “All that tolerance with the disaster that is Smash online never really [paid] off. Congrats to [XIFL] for advancing to SWT Championships. You’re damn lucky.”
However, despite all its pitfalls, the Smash World Tour still provided viewers with a steady stream of high-level competition and helped set the stage for the broader community to transition back to offline play.
“I think it was a very necessary circuit, and I’m very happy that the Smash World Tour team was able to push through despite all the challenges in their way,” Cagt said.
The wild ride that was competitive Super Smash Bros. in 2021 will climax at the SWT Championships from Dec. 17-19. All of the previously qualified players will compete for the title of Smash World Champion, while hundreds of others vie for a chance to join them at the Last Chance Qualifier.
It’s uncertain what the future will hold for the Smash World Tour. Esports organization Panda Global recently announced an unprecedented collaboration with Nintendo to host a North American Smash circuit for both Melee and Ultimate. While it will lack the global appeal of the Smash World Tour, it’s also unclear how the Smash World Tour will be able to compete with a circuit officially sponsored by the developers of the Smash series.
Then there’s the Nintendo problem.
For years, Nintendo has had a troubled relationship with the competitive Smash community. The company has attempted to shut down multiple events, sometimes succeeding and, at other times, backing down after caving to community pressure. In addition, the tournaments that Nintendo has hosted have featured non-legal stages and items, making them incompatible with the traditional competitive ruleset.
While many in the community are cautiously excited about the Panda circuit, others worry about what it will look like in practice and how it will impact other grassroots events.
“I trust Panda to be able to do the job properly,” Cagt said. “I’m not sure if I can fully trust Nintendo yet. But, I would like to be proven wrong.”
The pandemic has brought permanent change to Smash
Things still felt familiar for Melee legend Daniel “Tafokints” Lee as he pushed the crash bar on the door to enter the Ontario Convention Center in Southern California. He was heading into Mainstage 2021 on Nov. 12, one of the biggest tournaments to be hosted since the pandemic spread through the golden state.
He said that he wasn’t too worried going through the security checkpoint and getting his temperature taken or being around hundreds of other players and fans.
“I played in the World Series of Poker,” Tafokints said. “[That] had everyone vaccinated and I was generally okay with it. I didn’t really touch anyone or go up to interact with people.”
But Tafokints wasn’t going to let the protocols stop him from attending tournaments now, after months of tournament-less agony. He, like many others, has had to change the way he interacts with other people. He said that he has to be more mindful, more cautious when he attends tournaments.
“I think the main difference from then vs. now for Mainstage is that I wasn’t inclined to give handshakes and some other forms of human contact and would wear a mask,” Tafokints said. “I’m OK with that.”
Story by Dylan Tate and Aron Garst