Around the Map is The Meta‘s weekly, rapid-reaction roundup of the preceding seven days’ best esports events.
Header illustration by Gareth Damian Martin
There’s something about a quashed upset that can be demoralizing to a Super Smash Bros. Melee spectator. At Evo 2016, the high energy that came in the aftermath of Plup’s initial upset over Hungrybox mostly dissipated following his handy defeat at the hands of Armada’s Peach. In his losers bracket rematch with Hbox, Plup faltered in ways he he didn’t in the first matchup—most notably, he threw out a stack of missed grabs that Hbox continued to punish by way of some meaty rests.
Over in the losers bracket, the Captain Falcon player S2J came out with a totally unexpected upset against Westballz, who’d beaten S2J in their last 11 meetings straight. But then, in his matchup against Hungrybox, S2J got stomped 2-0—yet another upset quelled.
The grand final matchup, between Hbox and Armada, wasn’t exactly an unexpected one. Hbox usually ends up in top 8 at EVO (he placed 2nd for the past two years), but Armada clearly had the advantage here; since he was coming from the winners’ bracket, he’d only have to win one set to take the tournament, whereas Hungrybox would need to win two sets in a row.
Smash cut to game 5 of the first set, and it looked like Armada pretty much had the tournament in the bag. Although Hbox had taken the first 2 games, Armada bounced back in such commanding fashion that it made Hbox’s initial victories look like a fluke. But in an absolutely stunning finish from a couple stocks behind (watch the tape here), Hbox forced a second set.
After so many missed underdog opportunities, Hungrybox’s eventual victory in the grand final set brought a special brand of catharsis. Where most of the top 8 players looked completely stone-faced after every game (save for PewPewU, who just looked happy to be there), Hbox is the kind of dude to stand up and pop off after a win. In his victory here at EVO 2016, he stood up and grabbed the back of his head Aaron Paul-style, tears clearly welling up in his eyes. And with such a clutch climb to the top of the bracket, how can you not cheer for someone like that?
I will not lie to you: I did not watch the grand finals of EVO 2015. I didn’t feel like watching Armada (who at the time was winning everything) or Hungrybox (who—just no) win the biggest Melee tournament to date. So I turned it off and was not among the 200,000+ viewers when Armada somewhat inevitably won the championship 3-2.
The thing about Hungrybox is that he’s cheap. No no no, that’s really the only way to describe it, I’m sorry. The man’s number one priority in competition is to be as annoying and frustrating as possible. This is why he’s so good at eliminating Mang0, who’s never the most mentally fortitudinous to begin with. It’s also why he hardly ever beats Armada, because Armada is a machine, and until tonight I had never seen him display emotion on stage (with the obvious exception of his clearly pre-programmed championship pop-off routines). Armada has actually patented a way of playing Fox against Hungrybox that is EVEN MORE ANNOYING than Hungrybox’s Jigglypuff. In every other matchup, Hungrybox hangs back, taunting, baiting the Mang0s and PPMDs of the world into overextensions, then chases them off stage, always finishing with either a humiliating series of aerials or a humiliating instant-kill Rest attack. Against Armada, though, Hungrybox is forced to go on the offensive, because the Swedish Fox is perfectly happy to run around the stage firing off (humiliating) lasers all game, using his superior vertical mobility to stay just a hair out of reach. Result being that Hungrybox/Armada sets tend to take a long time and involve a lot of hopping around in circles, like the mating dance of some energetic species of tropical insect.
So no, I’m not by nature a Hungrybox fan. I much prefer the insanity that is Mang0, the constant surprises, the on-the-fly combos arriving out of nowhere with bullet train speed. That’s what I like: unfiltered energy and mechanical skill unleashed with such hyperactive intensity that there’s no way Mang0’s fingers are guided by anything more than muscle memory and pure bioelectric guts.
Last night, though, I became a Hungrybox fan. First because his hard-read Rest to seal the series against Mang0 (out of a Phantasm, no less!!) was one of the coolest high risk/high reward plays I’ve ever seen in Melee. Second, because the emotions on his face after each increasingly improbable win made it clear that HBOX WANTED IT MORE. More than Mang0, more than Plup, more than Armada, more than anyone.
I watched the grand finals. I rooted for Hungrybox the entire way through. And when he won back-to-back 3-2 sets, sets so close that I think they gave me a temporary heart murmur, and he stood up and made that face that he made, the overwhelming-emotion one, and then he cried, HE LITERALLY CRIED, when he flung himself to the ground and cried and beat the stage with his fists, while behind him Armada blue-screened, froze, and rebooted, I have to admit that I cried too, a little bit, or at least my eyes got really watery, and I had to reach for a tissue.
Also, this happened. S2J YOU FILTHY FALCON.
I was putting the finishing touches on a certain website on Sunday night, and so did not get a chance to watch any of Street Fighter V or Melee at EVO (my favorite Smash player, Shroomed, suffered an ignominious defeat to HBox while on the edge of the mythic Top 8™. My second favorite, PPMD, was not competing this year). But my very bipolar Twitter feed, filled with fan-flip-floppers like Justin, was all I needed to know that, between HBox’s tearful victory and the Long Island Joe saga (seriously, could he have been named anything other than Joe? He’s the EVO everyman, a weird, less objectionable echo of Joe the Plumber, the dog-whistle everyman of the 2008 election), this year’s EVO was on some real life anime shit.
What I did watch, though, was most of The Summit 5, the latest iteration of studio Beyond The Summit’s twice annual house-party-cum-Dota 2-tournament. The proximity to the group stage of The International 6 meant that many high-profile teams turned down invites, whether publicly or privately, to focus on their preparations for Valve’s empyrean championship (how is it less than a month away?). And there is a certain, conventional wisdom to that; with the Biggest Tournament Ever just a month away, wouldn’t you rather be practicing your ass off in some photogenic, sponsor-friendly environment instead of bouncing around the esports equivalent of a frat house for a weekend, advancing the turbulent world of Dota 2 memes?
But maybe it’s telling, then, that a team that’s anything but conventional won The Summit 5 without ever displaying any apparent braggadocio. That’s not to say they’re not distinctive; but what makes them distinctive—metagame melting drafts built around heroes other teams have consigned to the depths of the Dota 2 dumpster—falls firmly in the category of “eccentric.” They’re not doing it to show off; they’re doing it because it’s just who they are. If they lost, we’d call them tryhards; but they didn’t, so we’ll call them innovators.
Is that fair? Probably not. C’est la esports.
And, don’t make too much of this (meaning: Wings’ ability to win handily with unconventional team compositions), but I think that has something to do with the longevity of Wings’ own team composition. I’m certainly not the first to say this, but, in contrast to the revolving door policy in place at Team Secret, Evil Geniuses, Alliance, and Natus Vincere, Wings will head to Seattle with the roster they put together in the weeks after last year’s International. So, for that matter, will the second and third place squads at The Summit 5, OG and Team Liquid. There’s been a lot of bitching and moaning in the Dota 2 world about the constant dissolution and reformation of teams during (and not during) Valve’s roster-lock system, and if there’s one meta-story in Dota 2, it’s that these hyper stable teams have, on average, ended up in the finals of more tournaments than those who tinkered with rosters to find the “right” one. Dota 2 pros are notoriously fickle (which, in my mind, has a lot to do with a lack of regulation from Valve, for better or worse), so I don’t really see teams that struggle sticking it out with a roster that can’t put together a win in its first two or three months of being (team morale is real, folks). But, going into The International 6, that eternally recurring incrementalism/radicalism debate—is it better to work with what you have, or throw it out and build something new?—will be in full effect.
I fell asleep during the SFV finals, not because they were dry or I was tired to seeing the thousands of iterations of Chun-Li or Nash but because it was 1:00 AM on a Sunday night and some of us got work in the morning. (I also missed out on Hungrybox face cause I was eating, which seems oddly fitting, so I’m super glad to see it like a thousand times this morning).
Seriously though, look at that face.
Most of my time watching Evo was either split between wishing that commentator would stop saying “Puff” so seriously and trying to make sense of that incongruous set. I haven’t heard the word “Puff” so much, with such determined sincerity, since I was 17 and surrounded by kids who smoked too much weed.
The set-up for EVO has such a disconnect it’s kinda crazy. From a distance, you have this excited crowd, filling out an arena with the flashing scoreboards and the lights and the stage reflected with the chosen fighters of the players:
And then up close you’ve got 2 bros sitting about a foot apart, hooked up to a GameCube in front of a tiny CRT and sitting in the chairs you get if you go to any sort of conference in a mid-sized city.
If you went to an academic team conference in the midwest, that’s basically the same set-up (minus the CRT). Glad to see high school nerds and one of the splashiest eSports events in the country have the same table skirt budget.