On Sunday, July 18, at 3:36 p.m, during Smash Summit 11, the biggest tournament in Super Smash Bros. Melee’s 20-year history, Joseph “Mango” Marquez was ready to go home.
Following a rocky first few days to the tournament, dropping back-to-back sets to Yoshi extraordinaire, Masaya “aMSa” Chikamoto and Justin “Plup” McGrath’s Shiek, the Melee legend found himself in the lower bracket. Mango had traversed this treacherous road before, but this Smash Summit was different. Recovering seemed almost infeasible after 15 months away from playing in person.
Hopefully losing and going straight home
Play like garbage all weekend should have given my spot to yinglings cousin
— Joseph Marquez (@C9Mang0) July 18, 2021
It was OK. The 29-year-old was still a successful streamer and valued part of the Cloud9 organization. Mango’s cupboard had more trophies inside than most million-dollar traditional athletes. The candid, bearded jokester had pulled off miracles before, but this time he was conceding.
His play wasn’t good enough.
He’d get them next time. Or so it seemed.
Six hours later, Mango sat, locked into the screen before him, top-ranked Zain Naghmi sitting beside him. One moment his hands were in the combat of their lives, fending off Zain’s Marth, and the next, they were in the air, triumphant.
Mango had just won the biggest tournament in the game’s history and earned $46,700, the most ever awarded for Melee. Eight years earlier, when he won the Evolution Fighting Championship, the crown jewel event in the calendar, the grand prize was $3,205.
In mere hours, Mango went from waving the white flag on social media to waving a gold medal at Smash Summit 11.
Surpassing the limit
The fight from the bottom began with a do-or-die match against Canadian Fox player Kurtis “moky” Pratt. After a swift 3-0 sweep, Mango followed up with another clean win over Edgard “n0ne” L. Sheleby, propelling him into a fight with Cody “iBDW” Schwab, one of the rising stars in the scene. Again, the once checked-out Mango eliminated another opponent, dispatching the up-and-comer in four games.
A rematch with Plup came next, and Mango responded with a reverse of the 1-3 defeat his opponent handed him earlier in the tournament. Mango had cleared another hurdle, clawing and scratching his way from the lower bracket to reach the penultimate match. Zain, not having dropped a single game the entire weekend, sat in the grand finals.
So who was waiting in the lower-bracket final? The only person it could be: Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma. Since the two players ran around fields outside of Melee events as teenagers, their careers had always intertwined.
Mango had always been loud and rebellious — a natural showman with the incredible ability to whip a crowd into a frenzy regardless of time or day. He was an aggressive fighter who could sweep an opponent in the blink of an eye, rushing them down and knocking them out before they could even get their hands warm. He’s a cult of personality; a beer in one hand and a controller in the other, a wake of admirers behind him.
Hungrybox had always been reserved and pragmatic, a chemical engineering student who saw the allure and glamour of esports superstardom but never wanted to rely solely on a Nintendo game to make a living. Whereas Mango would rush in and let his intuition take over, Hungrybox played the generally fast-paced fighter like a chess game. On his signature Jigglypuff, he’d become the best defensive boxer in the world, using every pixel of the stage and every microsecond on the clock to his advantage.
It wasn’t about creating a spectacle. It was about being the last person standing.
Through the years, Mango and Hungrybox had clashed on and off of the virtual battlefield, at the best of times seen as rivals and, at their worst, sworn enemies. So, of course, at the first live Melee tournament in almost two years, with the grandest cash prize either of them had seen through their decade-plus of playing, Mango and Hungrybox had to play.
In this entry of their ongoing saga, nothing could stop Mango on his rampage to the top. Hungrybox had chances to take the series but he came up short. In the end, he ended up just another victim on Mango’s list of players on his run back to the top. Hungrybox even admitted in the post-match interview as such. To Hungrybox, a tournament of this magnitude should end with the two strongest players in the building. Those were the undefeated Zain and the reinvigorated Mango.
— Beyond the Smash (@BTSsmash) July 19, 2021
While not the cleanest play to ever grace professional Melee, the grand final was a slugfest for the centuries. With the prize money hanging over their heads and a crowd of rivals, peers and production crew downstairs watching, the two threw down the gloves and swung for the fences.
Zain, fighting to etch his name among the legends in the game and solidify himself as the No. 1 player in the world. Mango, on his last legs after playing match after match in the lower bracket, wanting to whip a crowd into a frenzy one more time with a bit of magic. And as the series turned to a 2-0 advantage for Zain, with a single life remaining, everything seemed lost. The white flag seemed back on the menu and the Tweet from earlier returned to the forefront of the community’s mind. But Mango had fought. He had fought hard, and a second-place finish after being at rock bottom was nothing to scoff at with so much prize money already assured.
However, a silver medal wasn’t good enough for Mango. The 0-2 score line transformed into a 3-2 victory to reset the bracket. As the crowd from below the gaming room shook the building with yells and expletives, the two finished their instant classic with another five-setter.
— Tai (@TeeAyEye) July 19, 2021
In the final game, both players were visibly at their limit. Zain slipped by an inch and the veteran champion took advantage, delivering the final K.O. punch to complete a magical run for the ages. The young finalist deflated, a perfect weekend shattered in half an hour.
A game nearing its 20th birthday with little to no support from its developer somehow, someway delivered a night to remember. More than 100,000 people tuned in to watch the final match, which happened past midnight on the East Coast of the United States.
The greatest of all time
Beyond the final itself, the most memorable moment of the entire weekend might have happened when the lights went off on the official broadcast.
Hungrybox, streaming the Smash Summit after-festivities from his personal account, brought over a victorious Mango. What in the past could have been a cold moment between two people with different ideologies, not only as players but as people, turned into the ultimate show of respect between two of Melee’s icons.
“Hey,” Hungrybox said, reeling back in a jovial Mango. “I’m going to say this right now. I was always a firm believer in this but seeing how far you’ve been here and [winning that], I think I might be ready to call you the [greatest of all time].”
— Beyond the Smash (@BTSsmash) July 19, 2021
It was a moment that can only happen in so few esports. We’re in the day and age where everything needs to be new, fast, shiny. If something doesn’t work or becomes tired, there needs to be a sequel to rejuvenate it. If an esport is falling off, then close the doors, make a new game and try again. Legacies in other games can come and go like a short-lived television show, not alive long enough to see the attended ending.
Melee is a game that hasn’t had updates or developer support. People have even had their attempts to move the esports scene forward thwarted by Nintendo themselves. But through all of that, you have stories like Mango and Hungrybox.
Boys who have become men during their time playing Melee, a game that enchanted them as children and became their livelihoods as adults. A community and base of players that not only wants to keep the scene alive but thriving, raising the next generation of players — a generation that wasn’t alive when the game was first released.
When Melee is at its best, there might not be anything better. And on Sunday, a day that the game he loves needed heroics, Mango made sure there was no one better.
Tyler Erzberger is entering a decade of covering esports. When not traveling around the world telling stories about people shouting over video games, he’s probably arguing with an anime avatar on Twitter about North American esports.