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20XX, or, the limits of esports

Super Smash Bros. Melee players are scared. Not because Nintendo is trying to shut down their next tournament, or because the new Smash Bros. for Wii U is threatening to steal their competitive spotlight, but because of an imaginary year in the future they call 20XX. Inspired by the dystopian robo-future science fiction of Mega Man, 20XX is a thought experiment that takes us to the fringes of eSports, to a time when all players have reached machine-like levels of technical skill.  

Here’s the setup: For the past few years, it’s been widely agreed upon that Fox (of the Nintendo series Star Fox) is the best character in Melee, to the point where no other character in the game is actually favored to beat him. Fox is too fast, and his moves are just too good.

The only reason why everyone doesn’t just play Fox is that he’s extremely tough to master: If your speed and reaction times aren’t constantly at peak levels, you’re actually at a disadvantage against other players, who can destroy you after every slight mistake. This is Fox’s main flaw: While he’s the most capable character in the game, it takes precision and a shit-ton of button inputs to see any level of success with him. Lots of players simply don’t mesh with this style, and would rather use characters who more closely fit their skill sets. Because Fox is only as precise as the person controlling him, his biggest problem is that nobody’s that precise or that consistent.

In October of 2013, a few Melee broadcasters jokingly tossed around the idea of 20XX, a hypothetical year in the future where players are all precise and consistent enough to take full advantage of Fox’s capabilities. In this world, there can be no logical character choice but Fox, so in 20XX, Melee essentially becomes a one-character game.

One of the big debates in Melee is whether or not 20XX is a legitimate concern. Realistically, the game will never reach a point of complete Fox saturation. With the unpredictability of any human-versus-human matchup, the idea of a “skill cap” will always be more of a hypothetical bogeyman than a tangible threat, and even the best professional players are nowhere close to hitting frame-perfect reaction times.

Still, as the game has continued to evolve and the overall quality of play has drastically improved, the arc seems to be headed in that direction. At this year’s Apex 2015 tournament—the biggest Smash competition of the year—longtime Peach specialist Adam “Armada” Lindgren turned in the pink dress for red lasers, and started playing as Fox. While the conversion of one pro player seems like a drop in the bucket, Armada is one of the top three Melee players in the world, and the quintessential Peach player. For the Melee community, watching Armada switch to Fox was like watching Michael Jordan put on a Wizards uniform or watching Steve Carell leave The Office: It was a clear, almost forceful signifier of an era now gone. With 20XX almost assuredly at the back of his mind, Armada’s official “Taking my talents to Fox” Twitter post read like more than just an announcement—it was an apology:

Peach mains, sorry, I think this [character] wont make it in this meta. The [character] is simply to slow, I will always keep having her for certain [match-ups]!

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One of the most notable features of Super Smash Bros. Melee has been its longevity. The Melee metagame—that is, the strategizing that goes on outside the game’s prescribed ruleset—is famously deep, and has provided enough quirks and hidden techniques to fuel its growth over a fourteen-year period. Although Nintendo hasn’t pushed out a single Melee update, one could take a look at Melee five years ago and see a completely different game from the one they’d be watching today.

This is one of the main reasons why Melee has stuck around: Despite its fixed system, players have prodded at its innards, some destined to chisel their own styles into the way the game is played. The annals of Melee history are most clearly visible in the form of tier lists, which rank characters based on their current competitive viability, and serve as an ongoing “State of the Game” report. Viewed in their entirety, these tier lists show the dramatic shifts in the Melee psyche, hinting at some of the seismic discoveries that drove them.

(Via forestthewoods.com)

Take the gradual rise of the Ice Climber characters, who bottomed out in 2003 and grew into top 10 placement just 3 years later. While the character itself hadn’t changed in the three-year window, a few dedicated players discovered a special technique they dubbed “Wobbling,” which ended up being so powerful that it made Ice Climbers viable in the competitive scene.

Most shifts in the Melee metagame, though, haven’t been this clear-cut. While Yoshi has always been considered a bottom-tier character, Masaya “aMSa” Chikimoto has managed to use the character’s skills to such dazzling effect that he actually placed fifth at this year’s Apex tournament. aMSa hasn’t discovered the Yoshi equivalent of the Wobble, but he’s applied pre-existing methods in ways that have allowed him to squeeze victory out of an otherwise laughable character. No gimmicks, no revelations, just one Japanese guy who’s learned almost everything there is to know about Yoshi.

In reality it doesn’t always pan out that way. 

Players like aMSa and Armada give credence to the idea that “just being good” at Melee can be enough to grant results: Screw the tier lists, if you practice enough and the character fits your playstyle, you can get to the Apex top 5. It’s just romantic enough to sound true, but in reality it doesn’t always pan out that way.

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Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios is, first and foremost, a realist. Look at his character preferences in Smash, and all the way down the line he’s opted for the “best” on the list. He played Fox in Melee, the unbeatable Meta Knight in Brawl, and won first place at Apex 2015 with his dominant Smash 4 Diddy Kong. It’s not that ZeRo can’t play other characters—his skill level is top-notch no matter who he’s using—but he’s the kind of person who always plays to win, so if there’s a top-tier character he’s going to use it.

This mindset leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths, and we can find a parallel in a recent strategic shift in the NBA. Because the mid-range two-pointer is now seen as a low-percentage, low-value goal, teams are starting to prioritize three-pointers and aggressive drives to the basket. This has changed the face of basketball from agile mid-range shooters like Kobe Bryant, to three-point and layup specialists epitomized by James Harden. This is a completely different sport from the ballet-like finesse game epitomized by players like Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady. Indeed, pundits have been quick to argue that the long-range style is inherently more boring to watch. Still, whether you like their strategies or not, James Harden’s Rockets are one of the best teams in the NBA this season, and just another example of the ongoing battle between aesthetics and the desire to win at all costs.

After winning first place at Apex this year, ZeRo was awarded with no victory lap or moment of celebration. Instead, he accepted his trophy to a rushed fanfare and the clear echoing of boos from the audience. He and the Smash 4 tourney had delayed the night’s Melee matches, and to top it off, ZeRo had used a boring top-tier character to do it.

Without any updates from an external entity, any static multiplayer game like Super Smash Bros. or, for that matter, basketball, will eventually face this issue: If there is one “best” option, players will always exploit it. The difference between Smash and basketball, though, is that basketball players come and go. Even Kobe’s dominance couldn’t last forever, and James Harden will someday fall out of vogue as the poster child for basketball’s new era. Fox, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere.

Fox isn’t going anywhere. 

This is a spectre that looms heavy over the Melee community, which has spent the better part of fourteen years building from a grassroots pastime to a full-blown scene. Hundreds of thousands of people are watching Smash tournaments, with those numbers continuing to rise with every big competition. After all these years, the absolute worst thing that could happen to Smash is 20XX, and that’s why people are still talking about the idea more than a year after its inception.

Here’s the honest truth: 20XX will never materialize, and there will never be a day when the community’s skills become so balanced that the only competitive character will be Fox. But the principle itself—that the desire to win will pare the character pool down to eventual monotony—that’s a very real, very tangible issue.

When word got out that Armada was dropping his signature Peach character to play as Fox, the greatest Melee player of all time, Joseph “Mang0” Marquez, Tweeted at him:

The Melee community sounded off in excitement over this transmission, hopeful about the shakeup it would cause if Mang0 ditched his Fox for the sake of the game. Realistically, Mang0’s proposed departure from Fox was highly unlikely, but the idea behind it was irresistible: If the community had managed to bring Melee this far, maybe they won’t have to let it end with Fox.