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Nico “Ryobeat” Rodriguez lit a spark in the Super Smash Bros. Melee community with a single tweet noting that the community hadn’t produced an official Melee tier list since 2015. While it took almost a year and a half to do something about it, PGStats released a new list on March 29 that finally reflected the modern state of the game.
Id REALLY love to see an MPGR Top 100 Meee tier list; our current one is so outdated and im curious to see what the average opinion is !!
Maybe I should make/hand out a ballot for it👀
— antifa(lco) super solidier (@RyobeatPeach) November 1, 2019
Tier lists — the rankings of playable characters and other gameplay elements — are a hallmark of competitive gaming. They are distinctly popular in the fighting game community (FGC), where ever-shifting metagames and a focus on head-to-head competition makes them particularly useful. In the FGC, tier lists are created and debated so frequently that making one to rank everything from fast food chains to breakfast cereals has become a mainstream meme.
Critics had grumbled about the outdated Melee tier list for years, but the idea of supplanting it with an updated version didn’t pick up momentum until Ryobeat started gauging the interest of other top players. He enlisted PGStats project lead Andrew “PracticalTAS” Nestico for logistical support, and the two decided to get input from as many of the 100 top players featured in the Melee Panda Global Rankings as possible.
“The only exception to that rule is that [Adam] “Armada” [Lindgren] also submitted a survey,” PracticalTAS said. “We included him as a GOAT of the game and past number one.”
All in all, Ryobeat and PracticalTAS convinced 64 top-level Melee players to fill out a survey ranking each of the game’s 26 characters, then averaged the results, normalized them and ran them through a clustering algorithm in order to create grouped tiers.
The PGStats list has now replaced the 2015 version as the official character ranking by all accounts, but its legitimacy comes from its star-studded list of contributors. Yet when it comes to the most widely accepted Super Smash Bros. tier lists, the word “official” has always been accompanied by an asterisk.
These tier lists were not handed down by Nintendo or developed by Smash-supporting esports leagues such as Major League Gaming. Instead, the groups that created them gained their legitimacy entirely through the support and respect of the grassroots competitive Smash community.
Formed on Smashboards, these “Back Rooms” were filled with a mix of top players, frequent posters and other community leaders who would fill out character ranking ballots that were then averaged to create each tier list. When Smashboards died, so did the potential for any future Back Room tier lists.
“Everybody moved on to Facebook, and then Twitter,” said PracticalTAS. “There is no longer a sphere of influence around the Back Room.”
In retrospect, some of the character placements in the 2015 Melee tier list were questionable to even an occasional viewer of competitive Smash. Captain Falcon was ranked at No. 9, behind Ice Climbers and Peach, despite the fact that no competitor in the MPGR top 10 plays the latter two characters.
“Now, three of our top ten is Captain Falcon,” Ryobeat said. “They’ve won nationals and beaten multiple gods.”
Fox was also ranked within his own “SS” tier in 2015, though the character is now thought to have several losing or even matchups. And Jigglypuff was once No. 5 on the list, despite being the character of choice for three-time MPGR No. 1 player Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma.
The PGStats tier list has fixed these discrepancies and resolved many of its predecessor’s most glaring issues. Captain Falcon is now ranked at No. 6, above Peach and Ice Climbers. Though Fox still occupies the No. 1 position, the character now shares a tier with Marth, Jigglypuff and Falco. Jigglypuff has risen two spots and is now considered the third-best character in the game.
“It’s not that it discredits Hungrybox,” Ryobeat said. “But it gives the viewer more of a lens to see what actually makes ‘Puff strong.”
After months of careful shepherding, Ryobeat and PracticalTAS said they are satisfied that their tier list accurately reflects the Melee metagame in 2021. They also hope to resolve long-standing community debates by querying top players about a range of hot-button topics, including the legality of the Ice Climbers’ infinite combinations and the use of low-latency monitors (rather than CRT televisions) at offline tournaments.
Meanwhile, the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate scene has never put together an official tier list despite being the most recent entry in the series of games. Will these positive changes inspire members of the Smash Ultimate scene to create a standardized tier list of their own?
For reasons both practical and philosophical, Smash Ultimate may very well become the first Smash title to never have an official community tier list.
“Ultimate, specifically, is one of the least important games to have a tier list in because 30 to 40 characters are legitimately tournament viable,” said top player Eric “ESAM” Lew.
With such a wide range of viable characters, a Smash Ultimate tier list would risk having more variance than any algorithm or normalizing process could handle, making the process of collecting and averaging top players’ opinions a potentially fruitless endeavor. Furthermore, the presence of downloadable content and rolling balance patches in Smash Ultimate has prevented the metagame from stabilizing to the point that a tier list would remain relevant for more than a few months.
Since the shutdown of all in-person tournaments in March 2020, Nintendo has released five DLC characters, including the ARMS-inspired Min Min, whose unique mechanics make it difficult to gauge how she would perform in offline tournaments. And though the developer releases balance notes for every version of the game, they can be cryptic and often list a few significant adjustments alongside a deluge of relatively minor tweaks.
“We have at least 10 to 15 characters that get fundamentally changed in how they play from patch to patch,” ESAM said.
Most top Smash Ultimate players also don’t feel the need to create an official tier list because they feel their gameplay and tournament results provide a sufficient guide for newer players looking to get into the game competitively. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many top players to work double-time as entertainers, constantly streaming and producing videos to share their opinions with legions of fans.
“You can kind of build an average tier list in your head—like, these top players think this character is generally good or bad,” said Panda Global Rankings Ultimate No. 9 Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby. “But also, outside of the absolute garbage characters like Little Mac, Ganondorf, or Jigglypuff, you can kind of play whoever you want.”
This flexibility stands in stark contrast to the top-heavy Super Smash Bros. Melee metagame, which can punish new players for picking non-viable or mid-tier characters.
Both ESAM and Dabuz were quick to point out that any Smash Ultimate tier list based on the last year of online competition would have to be thrown out when offline tournaments return, as the online metagame has diverged significantly from its offline counterpart.
“Online, a lot of winning matchups are extra winning, but a lot of losing matchups feel unwinnable,” Dabuz said.
On the other hand, the new Melee tier list is supported by years of offline meta development and the low-lag online play enabled by the rollback netcode of Project Slippi. Until the in-person scene bounces back, any discussion of creating an official Ultimate tier list must inevitably be postponed.
Projects such as Ryobeat and PracticalTAS’s used thorough research and meticulous calculations to weld together the opinions of many top players, allowing the resulting tier list to approach objectivity. While the relative decentralization of the Ultimate community makes it unlikely that an equivalent project will ever come together for the Switch title, the same fusion of top player opinions happens naturally in the Ultimate scene.
At the end of the day, tier lists represent a coalescing of community opinions into an easy-to-understand ranking. This consensus can still exist in the Ultimate scene, but finding it might require digging a bit deeper.
As for PracticalTAS, he said he’s excited to share his new tier list with the world, and he’s confident that his project reflects dynamics of top player power that predate the era of the Back Rooms.
“It’s less of a re-centralization to me,” PracticalTAS said, “and more of an exercising of influence that has been present for a long time.”
Alexander Lee is an editor and freelance writer based in New York City. He has covered esports and the FGC for national and regional publications such as the Washington Post, the Nation, and ESPN. Top-level Super Smash Bros. Melee players have described his Jigglypuff as "pretty good."