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Virginia native Arjun “lloD” Malhotra clocked in at No. 21 on the 2018 MPGR, the official year-end ranking of the best Super Smash Bros. Melee players in the world. It was the highest rank he had ever achieved since he started entering Melee tournaments as a 10-year-old in 2005.

Yet, lloD started medical school in 2018, meaning he couldn’t devote nearly as much time to the game as other top players. Despite that, his peak placement up to that point came at a time when competitive Melee “took a backseat” in his life.

Even as lloD’s attendance at majors declined, going long stretches of time without playing Melee at all, he still continued to improve and climb up the ranks. In recent months, he has become one of the best and most consistent players in the world following top-eight finishes at three consecutive majors. Now, he is in contention for top 10 in the world and is the only such player who is not a full-time gamer.

Meanwhile, lloD graduated from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and maintains a long-held passion for music. His older brother and fellow Melee player, Rishi, said lloD’s threefold balancing act is all about distributing his attention among the things he loves.

“He doesn’t go 50% on anything,” Rishi said. “He would come and visit in Virginia for stretches of time. If he was in study mode, I wouldn’t see him, period. There’s been times where he’s been home for months at a time and we don’t play [Melee] once. Then, when he’s in Smash mode, he’s thinking about it hard.”

On July 1, Melee will likely take a backseat again as lloD begins his residency, shifting his focus back to his medical career. Nevertheless, his desire to keep excelling in each of his passions remains steadfast.

Super Malhotra Bros.

Growing up, lloD spent countless hours playing Peach against Rishi’s Marth. Like his brother, Rishi is also a top Melee player, peaking in the top 30 of an official ranking in 2018.

“We pushed each other a lot,” lloD said. “We both kind of wanted to be the better brother, so a lot of our motivations to improve were specifically directed at being better than the other.”

Nevertheless, Rishi said their sibling rivalry never became toxic. Instead, he said they have tended to be each other’s biggest cheerleaders.

“I always feel a lot of pride when he does better and I think he feels the same when I do better,” Rishi said. “When he’s playing in tournament, especially a set that could go either way, I become the most stressed person in the world.”

LloD said he owes much of his current success in Melee to his “golden pathway” to improvement. It involves learning everything he can about the game — from kill percents to common neutral interactions — and constantly re-evaluating how to incorporate that information into his gameplay in order to accomplish certain goals.

“This perception is a big reason why I haven’t really gotten much worse over the years, even during periods where I don’t play that much, and the reason why I haven’t really hit many plateaus in my competitive career, just because I usually can figure out what the next best thing to work on is,” lloD said. “I don’t ever see myself getting worse.”

However, despite his best efforts, lloD’s ambitious pursuits have occasionally fallen out of balance and his Melee results have suffered. At Pound, his first major of 2019, lloD placed a disappointing 33rd, losing to two players who hadn’t even cracked the top 50.

Nevertheless, lloD wasn’t deterred by such setbacks; he returned for two more majors later that year, placing fourth at Super Smash Con and ninth at Shine. As a result, he only dropped four spaces on the 2019 MPGR.

Rishi said lloD will spend weeks at a time thinking through a set of unfavorable in-game interactions and coming up with solutions for them, which he then applies whenever he is able to play the game again.

“So much of his improvement can just come from him thinking about the game, as opposed to him needing to put in 20 [or] 30 hours per week in the game, which he just doesn’t have time for,” Rishi said.

The genesis of lloD rising to the top of Melee

The last portion of lloD’s fourth year of med school mostly consisted of clinical rotations, where students spend about a month at a time working with doctors in different specialties. With the most rigorous portion of med school behind him, lloD was able to play Melee more and attend more majors in 2022.

Even before the first offline major of the year, Genesis 8, lloD had already been accruing impressive results at online Melee tournaments. The weekend before Genesis, he placed first at GIGASCHWAB 3, where he defeated Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma’s Jigglypuff after an hour-long pair of grand finals sets.

The Puff match-up is Peach’s worst by far, even considered to be one of the worst match-ups among top tiers in Melee. Nevertheless, lloD said it happens to be his best match-up. In 2019, he became the first Peach player to take a game off of Hungrybox in about nine years. Then, in 2020, he became the first Peach to win a set against Hungrybox in about 12 years.

LloD also said he learned a lot about the match-up from watching Matt “Polish” Warshaw, who remains the only Peach to beat Hungrybox at an in-person tournament in recent history. While lloD used to take a more grounded approach that would have him approach Puff from below, he has started to incorporate aerial approaches that involve falling on Jigglypuff from diagonal angles.

Despite his successes, lloD said he is farther ahead in the match-up than most other players and the match-up could eventually become unwinnable.

“That match-up admittedly is pretty underdeveloped from Puff’s side and so it’ll be pretty scary once Puffs start doing actual good things in the match-up,” lloD said. “I don’t think we’ve even come close to seeing how degenerate [and] uninteractive Puff can play, and then how hard she can punish Peach for overextending.”

Nevertheless, lloD said he felt he had made significant improvements in the months leading up to Genesis. He ended up placing seventh at Genesis, although he said the placement felt undeserved. One of his projected opponents, William “Leffen” Hjelte, dropped out of the bracket. As a result, lloD had an easier road than expected to the top 12.

In addition, lloD got into top eight by beating Ice Climbers main Hugh “SluG” Hegarty. Just like Puff vs. Peach is considered nearly unwinnable for Peach, Ice Climbers vs. Peach is considered nearly unwinnable for the Ice Climbers.

However, the feeling of undeserved victory didn’t last long for lloD. As it turns out, placing seventh at the biggest Melee tournament since 2017 would be the least impressive of his accomplishments for the month.

Doctor by day, musician by night

LloD exudes confidence; he’s smart and he knows it. Yet, he has a reserved personality and typically is only sociable in select situations he’s comfortable in.

“He’s not a ‘life of the party’ kind of guy,” Rishi said. “He’s the kind of guy who will be happy to talk with one person and talk for hours, especially about Melee.”

Llod started playing clarinet at the age of 11 and has since picked up the piano, guitar and ukulele. He also conducts and was in an a cappella group called Choral Pleasure while he attended the College of William & Mary.

LloD’s passion for medicine stems from the interest in neuroscience he developed while attending Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. His balancing act continued at William & Mary, where he majored in music and minored in biochemistry, and he said attending med school was a natural step in order for him to maintain that balance.

“I figured that it’s a lot more feasible to have medicine as my career and music as a hobby than the other way around,” lloD said. “I realized that whatever I ended up choosing, I would still maintain both in my life — I decided that my dream path would be to be a doctor by day and then an orchestral musician by night.”

Fittingly, his goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand surgery.

“It’ll let me use my hands, so the dexterity that I’ve developed through my musical endeavors as well as my Smash endeavors will be put to good use,” lloD said.

Rishi said that lloD takes an all-or-nothing approach to most things in life. While it has allowed him to find success in disparate fields, Rishi also said it could be a weakness, as lloD will completely ignore things if he doesn’t identify them as important.

Hard-earned Melee victories for lloD

A fourth-place finish at Pound 2022 reaffirmed lloD’s improvements from earlier in the year. After losing to John “KoDoRiN” Ko before top 16, he went on a run that included victories over KoDoRiN, Polish and last year’s No. 1 player, Joseph “Mang0” Marquez.

In 2021, Polish boasted a dominant 9-2 record against lloD at offline Melee tournaments. However, Polish said they have been left playing catch-up in light of how quickly lloD has improved since the beginning of this year.

“New lloD is a completely different beast,” Polish said. “My last set with him at Pound, he was just beating me in ways that made so much sense. I just lost an interaction [and] I was like, ‘Oh yeah, he was just better.’”

LloD was seeded eighth at Smash Summit 13, meaning he had to play the No. 1 seed and best player in the world, Marth main Zain “Zain” Naghmi, during pools. Rishi had his doubts about lloD’s chances of winning, considering lloD had lost to KoDoRiN’s Marth at Pound and was losing about half of his practice matches against Rishi.

As a result, the Malhotra brothers spent a couple of hours playing together the night before pools began at Summit. Rishi told lloD to try floating with Peach just outside of Marth’s neutral-air range so he could entice Zain to overextend to try to hit him.

Over the course of their session, lloD began to implement the tactic against Rishi, better positioning himself and better punishing Rishi’s attempted approaches. The next day, he utilized the same tactic to beat Zain 3-1, becoming the first person to win a set against Zain this year.

“This era of his play is the fastest I’ve ever seen him listen to the things I ask him to practice, whereas before he would kind of hear what I had to say but we would argue a lot about it,” Rishi said. “We’re not arguing as much anymore.”

Slog to the summit

Smash Summit ended up being a grind for lloD because of its format, which became especially convoluted after a handful of COVID-19 cases caused four players to miss portions of the tournament. While the tournament’s champion, Cody “iBDW” Schwab, only had to play six sets, lloD ended up playing 13.

In addition, the tournament was full of ups and downs, as lloD barely finished with a positive 7-6 record. Nevertheless, lloD said he was glad to have the opportunity to play so many sets, even if it was an exhausting experience. He also walked away with a 3-0 win over Leffen, becoming the first Peach main to beat Leffen since 2014.

Now, Polish says lloD is the best Peach player since Adam “Armada” Lindgren, a perennial top four player from 2009 through his 2018 retirement from Melee. Polish also noted that lloD has adopted some of the best tactics from other top Peach mains, like Álvaro “Trif” García Moral and Kyle “Kalamazhu” Zhu.

“He is so comprehensively amazing at this game right now,” Polish said. “LloD’s taken so many of the good things that I do, and he’s just doing them better in combination with other options and I’m like, ‘Damn, he just has it like that, huh?’”

While Rishi said there are still clear improvements lloD could make to his gameplay, he agreed that lloD is becoming a “complete Peach,” and that his current playstyle could be the early implementation of what the optimal Peach meta will eventually look like.

LloD beats Aklo with "GAME!" flashing on the big screen in the background.
LloD scores a win against Dawud “Aklo” Rahman at Pound 2022. | Provided by @RellFGC

No time for full time

LloD said he thinks “all the time” about what his life would be like if he had gone full time in Melee instead of balancing it with such a difficult education and career path. Nevertheless, he knows it wouldn’t have been the right call.

“I’m not really the kind of player who can even put in too many hours into this game, just because I have pretty low stamina when it comes to Smash in general,” lloD said. “It might be helpful for me to have a full year or two just to play Smash, but I don’t think it would be as beneficial to me as it is to the other players. I think my current pace works for me.”

After Smash Summit 13, Rishi said he would rank lloD as the sixth-best Melee player in the world; an impressive position for someone whose “dream path” involves two careers that aren’t Melee. And yet, Rishi said he still doesn’t think lloD has reached his peak.

“I know he’s capable of being best in the world,” Rishi said. “The gameplay pretty much speaks for itself.”

Previously, lloD said he didn’t think a solo Peach main could be No. 1 in the world as long as players like Leffen, Hungrybox, Mang0 and Zain were still active. But, after beating all four of them in the past four months, he says he’s started thinking it might be possible.

Still, he’s unsure if he’ll be the one to do it. LloD said he doesn’t know how often he’ll be able to compete at major tournaments once his residency begins. Even so, he said he thinks Slippi’s new unranked queue will help him by allowing him to quickly find high-level opponents online without feeling guilty about leaving after a short period of time.

“I think that’s going to help me maintain my skill level throughout residency, because if I have a half an hour here or there, I can probably find a way to still play everyday,” lloD said.

Ten years down the line, even as he expects his career as an orthopedic surgeon/orchestral musician to take up much of his time, lloD said he still intends to remain a part of the competitive Melee scene.

“I really don’t see myself quitting ever,” lloD said. “If I’m not a player, I’ll probably still be doing lessons by then. I think, regardless, I’ll still be pretty active in the community.”