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Ever since the first Smash Summit event in 2015, the invitational has been used to shine a light on the game’s biggest and brightest stars. But for some players like Aaron “Aaron” Wilhite, the light shines on them even before the Smash Summit stage is set.

This is thanks to the Smash Summit vote-in process, which is what makes the event so special. The absolute best players are automatically invited, but everyone else — from other high-level players to popular figureheads and even unknown hidden bosses — has to sell themselves to the world.

Over a couple of weeks, players campaign for votes in a competition that combines popularity with monetary donations, doing whatever it takes to get into the exclusive tournament. From eating whole onions to offering coaching lessons, and even drawing obscene images on their faces, truly anything goes in the Smash Summit vote-in process.

But even after 14 total Smash Summits across two generations of games, candidates are still finding ways to stand out from the rest of the ballot. And Aaron’s case was special. Against all odds, he got in through the vote-in process and he was the first player in that phase to get into Smash Ultimate Summit 3, which now has the biggest prize pool at a Smash Bros. tournament of all time. In a campaign contested by more popular players, and players backed by rich organizations, Aaron’s underdog story, according to him, wasn’t a fluke.

“I knew when I have to rally the troops and I knew that if I could, it would work,” Aaron said. “I was pretty confident I would get in.”

From humble beginnings

Aaron, formerly known as “Dyr,” used to be one of the top 50 players in the world during the Smash 4 era. The Diddy Kong main from Florida had high hopes heading into Smash Ultimate. But, with the COVID-19 pandemic halting Smash tournaments everywhere, Aaron tried out streaming. Then, after getting laid off from his job, Aaron decided to take a gamble.

“I said I’ll use the last bit of money for one month to stream,” Aaron said. “If I’m able to at least sustain rent, then I’ll keep doing it.”

After squeezing out enough money to make rent during his first month, Aaron tried it again for month two. His gamble paid off as he slowly started to amass a following on Twitch. He credits his success to his upbeat personality.

“When it comes to the Smash section on Twitch, Hungrybox is the only streamer that brings high energy content as I do,” Aaron said. “I use my innate ability to talk to people and make everyone feel comfortable to build a very cult following.”

According to Aaron, that following is growing rapidly. From starting with only 20 viewers and around 2,000 followers in July of 2020, Aaron’s efforts have led his community to grow tenfold in a year’s time. As Aaron started to see his following grow, he realized that one of his dreams — attending a Smash Summit — could become a reality.

“Smash Summit has been one of the biggest things I wanted to do because it is so focused on personality,” Aaron said. “I think that I have a lot of spice that I can bring to the scene that other players don’t.”

All hands on deck

Smash Summit Aaron
A piece of merch Aaron had for sale was this “Dog Water” shirt of Smash Bros. Ultimate’s Isabelle. | Provided by Rardi b

Smash Ultimate Summit 3 was originally set to take place in June of 2020 but organizers postponed it due to the pandemic. When the new date for the four-day event was announced for Aug. 26-29, many players started to come up with campaign plans. Aaron was scheming long before anyone else.

“I started my campaign a month before opt-ins were even announced,” he said.

Sticking to his give-it-all mentality, Aaron quickly formulated a campaign task force. He had a team of around 15 to 20 people doing various things to spread the message of “Aaron4Summit.”

Aaron had people designing merch, spying on the competition and raising morale. One of the campaign leaders and one of Aaron’s best friends, Matthew “2Unit” Raymond, acted as Aaron’s right-hand man.

2Unit has been friends with Aaron since before he was even a star in the Smash 4 scene; back when Aaron and 2Unit were part of a small Smash Bros. Melee community in Florida. When it came time for Aaron’s Summit campaign, 2Unit said he knew that to get into Smash Summit, Aaron would have to do some crazy things. But based on the persistence 2Unit had seen Aaron show at other points in his life, he said he’d always known that Aaron was capable.

“One time when he first started streaming, he watched that Stick bug video for 12 hours on a loop,” 2unit said. “He’s just very crazy.”

Crazy is one way to describe Aaron’s Smash Summit campaign plans, but Aaron’s hype was also infectious. Aaron’s team went to great lengths to support the cause logistically.

“I had two monitors up and on one monitor I was moderating chats. On the other, I had a spreadsheet that tracked every competitor’s Twitch streams,” 2Unit said. “I would check in on other streams to see what the others were doing and going through.”

Putting the plan into motion

2Unit pointed out that other streamers seemed nervous or depressed throughout the ordeal. Smash Summit campaigns are typically nerve-racking and can take a toll on a person. At the end of the day, while 2unit said he hated to see others feel bad, Smash Summit campaigning was serious business and Aaron’s campaign was well thought out.

“We wanted to avoid feeling like there was no way we were getting in, and some of the other streamers just showed that based on the way they were acting during their streams,” 2unit said. “It gave us more confidence.”

The reason the team was so confident in their ability was their plan of attack. On top of having a dedicated research department keeping track of the current competition, Aaron also researched what previous Summit vote-ins did.

“I took a lot of inspiration from Hungrybox; he did a four-day-long subathon,” Aaron said. “So I looked at that and said ‘ok let’s do a seven-day long Summithon where 100% of the funds go to Summit.’”

Along with the Summithon stream, where Aaron live-streamed for nearly 150 hours straight, Aaron’s team came up with merch, graphics, incentives and much more. Aaron also stated that it was vital to be the first team to do so.

“I was 100% adamant getting in on the first day,” Aaron said. “That’s why I wanted to be the first one with merch and announcements. I needed all eyes on me from the very beginning.”

This was imperative to Aaron in order to prevent a bidding war with the other competitors — especially the ones backed by esports organizations with big pockets. Out of the candidates that made it past the nomination phase, three were signed by top-tier esports organizations. However, it was the most recent signing that scared Aaron the most.

At the beginning of the campaign phase, popular YouTube and Twitch personality Charles “MoistCr1TiKaL” White Jr. announced that he was starting an esports team called Moist Esports. He shared that his first signing would be Kolawole “Kola” Aideyan.

“Up until the end of the campaign, we were pretty nervous. We thought he was just going to get a blank check from MoistCr1TiKaL,” 2unit said.

Aaron saw Kola as a threat, along with Counter Logic Gaming’s James “Void” Makekau-Tyson and Team Liquid’s Juan Manuel “Hungrybox” DeBiedma, so he decided to make some moves.

“The only people I was worried about were Hungrybox, Void and Kola,” Aaron said. “I thought Kola would be the top dog and we stepped our shit up in the first phase because of it.”

With Aaron gaining the attention early on, as the first phase vote-in cut-off approached, he had one more ace up his sleeve. But nobody could have guessed the ace was a literal one.

Bases loaded

On Aug. 7, Aaron tweeted out that he had a “huge announcement” to go live within the hour. At the end of the tweet were two emojis: a baseball cap and a baseball.

His next tweet was a video of a man wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers Cap.

“What is going on my fellow smashers? This is Joe Kelly from the LA Dodgers.”

2Unit knew the tweet was coming but was still in shock that it was happening.

“So I thought it was a joke,” 2unit said. “People on Twitter were like, ‘nah that’s got to be one of those Cameo things right?’”

But it was all real. Major League Baseball pitcher Joe Kelly did helped campaign Aaron for Summit. He even mentioned that he would be giving away a signed baseball to whoever donated the most amount of money.

“I Couldn’t believe Stahly pulled this off,” 2unit said.

Brandon “Stahly” Brenenstahl is one of the best Knockout City players in the world. When the game came out in April, Aaron decided to give it his classic 100% to see how far he could go. After climbing the ranks, Aaron stumbled upon a top-tier crew in the game called Instinct. After Stahly won the first big $10,000 tournament for the game, his team split up. Looking for a new team, Stahly also joined Instinct where he met the like-minded Aaron.

“He started talking to top players because he wanted to be good and hit me up because I was looking for a new team,” Stahly said. “Aaron was like, ‘let’s go,’ and we played for like a month or two and became good friends.”

As fate would have it, Kelly is a pretty big gamer himself and a fan of the recently released dodgeball brawler, Knockout City. Stahly said he was streaming one day and Kelly randomly appeared in his chat.

“His name on Twitch was Tw0tym3 and I had no idea who it was,” Stahly said. “He asked to play some games and I was thinking ‘this dude has numbers in his name. Who is this random?’ But then we started playing.”

After playing together, Tw0tym3 revealed himself as Kelly. Stahly needed a little bit of time to process that not only was he playing with Kelly, but that Kelly was also pretty good at the game. A couple of weeks later, Stahly got Aaron to play with Kelly and even Kelly’s son. The squad became buddies and, while Aaron transitioned back into Smash, Stahly understood and wanted to support him.

Smash Summit Aaron
Joe Kelly and Stahly have become close. Kelly even flew Stahly out to LA to hang out. | Provided by Stahly

“He went back to Smash because Smash is his love, but then I saw Aaron is going for Summit,” Stahly said. “I’m like ‘Joe, we need to do something. Something that will break the internet.’”

After pitching the idea to the Dodgers pitcher, Kelly got on board. Kelly then hopped into Aaron’s chat.

“He stopped by during Summit and I started to explain what Summit was all about,” Aaron said. “That kind of led to his offer of the signed baseball.”

After the tweet went live, Stahly, Kelly and Aaron were pumped and having fun with it.

“It was funny because it’s like ‘why are people in the scene thinking something crazy isn’t possible?’” Stahly said. “But yeah, Joe likes the Smash scene. He likes Aaron, so I loved it. All the positive reactions were like, ‘we are Dodgers fans for life now.’”

Dawn of the final day

With the tweet, Aaron extended his vote lead. Many thought that, with the move, Aaron was locked in. However, heading into the final day, wild things tend to happen. No lead has ever been truly safe. So, despite Aaron’s big lead heading into the final day, he never took his foot off the gas.

“The day before, we had a total accumulation of roughly 90,000 votes and I’m like ‘dude this is going to be fine’ to get him to calm down,” 2unit said. “But to Aaron, that just did not seem to be enough and he kept wanting to get more votes.”

Aaron wasn’t the only person feeling tense during the last day. 2unit recalled what the campaign team was feeling during the final hours.

“I think Aaron felt the pressure most out of everyone, but we all felt pretty pressured,” 2unit said. “Our art guy, Rardi b, didn’t sleep well the night before and slept through the results because of the stress and anxiety.”

The pressure was settling in on the idea of a potential “what if” scenario, of failing to get through. 2unit said that Aaron didn’t want to raise all of this money to not get in. On top of getting in for himself, the pressure of an entire grassroots movement and community weighed on his shoulders. But, thanks to the campaign team and Aaron giving it his all, as the clock hit noon on Aug. 17, the votes were finalized. Emotions overcame Aaron as he streamed the countdown live. He’d made it into Summit.

“120,000!” Aaron screamed. “You thought I couldn’t do it, you thought I couldn’t do it!”

What lies ahead

Smash Summit Aaron
The official artwork done for Smash Ultimate Summit 3. Aaron is seen on the right side depicted as his main, Diddy Kong. | Provided by Syndey Jones

The grassroots campaign won thanks to the gigantic effort of a small but enthusiastic community. 2unit emphasized how special that is because Aaron’s supporters come from all walks of life.

“A lot of them play Smash, but also a lot of people will be like ‘well, I came here from the just chatting 12-hour, stick bug stream’ or, ‘wow I saw the Xenoblade Chronicles playthrough on Youtube,’” 2unit said. “I think what keeps people around is how everyone feels like a family member.”

2Unit said he has personally helped people in Aaron’s discord server through tough times and has made real efforts to talk to people there. 2unit thinks a big reason that Aaron’s campaign was so successful was due to those family members giving back.

“One thing we always say is that everyone here is a family and everyone helps each other. That’s sort of reciprocated during Summit,” 2unit said. “Everyone came together to help Aaron.”

Stahly echoed that statement.

“It was cool to see the different stages of Aaron’s life coming back to help support him,” Stahly said. “He had his Knockout City friends, he had his Smash friends, his Twitch community and his other friends and family. And they all came together to get our boy into Summit.”

Aaron said that the day he got into Summit was the best day of his life so far. However, he also said he is ready to show the world who he is, both as a person and as a player.

“Summit, for me, is going to be 70% branding and 30% gameplay,” Aaron stated. “I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not going to try my hardest, because I am. But, first and foremost, I’m going to Summit to promote myself and to promote everyone that’s helped me get into the event.”

People might not think that Aaron is a threat to win the event, but some people forgot that at the last big Smash event before the pandemic began, CEO Dreamland, Aaron finished fifth. He said to expect the unexpected.

“If you talk to any of the top players, they will tell you that I have a lot of potential,” Aaron said. “I’m a grinder. I’m going to spend all the time I need to get good. I think I can get dead last but, also, I think I can win the event.”

Everyone close to Aaron can attest that when he puts his mind to something, he can accomplish it. With a huge underdog Smash Summit campaign ending in success, Aaron will once again look to make his community proud at Summit, both in-game and out.