Header art by Gareth Damian Martin.
Eight-year-old Jeffrey Williamson plays Super Smash Bros. 64 for the first time in 1999. He likes Pokémon, so he picks Pikachu. Soon, he’s beating his friends handily; he thinks he’s pretty good. Two years pass. Super Smash Bros. Melee comes out. Jeffrey plays that too. Eventually he hears about a tournament in his area and decides to sign up. He chooses the gamertag “Axe,” his favorite brand of deodorant.
Then he gets bopped. His opponents at that first tournament aren’t just better than him—they’re playing a completely different game. It isn’t even close.
This is where paths diverge. 60 or 70 percent of young players in this position will get upset, maybe even wing a controller across the room, and relinquish all competitive drive. Others will keep trying. Most of those will never devote their full attention, though, and the ones who are still playing regularly a few years from now will be far more interested in casual entertainment than competition.
Axe falls into a rare third category. The first taste of competitive Melee has sent something extraordinary in his brain whirring into complex motion. The fact that he just got annihilated only intensifies his hunger. So he plays. He plays and plays, hundreds of hours, thousands of hours, and never stops, even as the years fly by, even as he struggles to win even one major tournament. Why stop? It’s as natural as breathing. It’s what he’s supposed to do.
In many ways, the Super Smash Bros. Melee players who dominate today’s competitive scene couldn’t be more diverse. Consider Melee’s El Classico, Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma vs. Joseph “Mango” Marquez. If Mango embodies impulse, Hungrybox exemplifies caution. This distinction manifests itself in their play—Mango the cyclone of stochastic aggression, Hungrybox the methodical surgeon with blue jaw and relentless patience—but also in their life trajectories. For Mango, Melee is everything; there is no Plan B. He barely survived high school (“I always say, my quote for school is ‘I’ll take the D’”), and never considered college. While Mango soldiered through hardscrabble post-high school years complicated by factors like the birth of his son in 2013, Hungrybox quietly pursued an engineering degree at the University of Florida.
Imagine a showmatch where the loser is forced to quit Melee forever. If Mango beats Hungrybox, the Florida native goes back to his promising career, his desk at WestRock, the future he’s built for himself—all things considered, a fairly comfortable life. If Hungrybox wins, Mango goes back to … what?
And yet, despite disparate backgrounds, personalities, and economic circumstances, top Melee players like Mango and Hungrybox—and, yes, Axe too—have more commonalities than differences. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that their commonalities outweigh their differences, that they’re alike in the ways that really count. E.g. I don’t think Hungrybox’s robust backup plan is any comfort to him in the “expelled from Melee forever” scenario outlined above. His future without Melee might be more financially lucrative than that of Mango or Axe, but I don’t think he’d find it any less depressing.
“I went to Disneyland, and everything was just great.”
Looking at the scene today, with its ballooning viewer counts, prize pools, and player salaries, it’s easy to forget that for most of Melee’s fifteen years, making a career out of it was impossible. When I speak to Axe about his proudest achievements, his victory over Hungrybox at MLG Anaheim 2014 looms large. He placed fifth at that tournament, earning $1,000.
“That was the most I’d ever won,” he tells me. “I was super excited. I went to Disneyland, and everything was just great.”
By this point he’d been training several hours a day for eight years. Only in 2014 did he break four figures of prize money; until April 2015, his main source of income was a full-time job at Walgreens. One month after Anaheim, at EVO 2014, Axe defeated SilentWolf in one of the greatest sets in Melee history, coming back from a game two thwacking to eliminate the American Fox in under a minute. His reward for this legendary performance, and the fifth place he ultimately snagged? $194.
But that’s Melee. Today’s best players didn’t commit themselves to the game because they thought it would make them rich. It goes without saying that the vast majority of hardcore Melee players never make a dime. And even the players who are making money these days display far more passion than their level of compensation would seem to warrant. When Hungrybox wins EVO 2016, he rolls on the floor, face split open, sobbing. His first-place haul, at $14,232, vastly eclipses EVO prize pools of the past, but for someone whose day job will be netting six-digit sums within a decade, it’s hardly a life-changing amount. Why the tears? Why the overflowing emotion, when the money means nothing?
It’s not about the money. It’s not about the money. It’s not about the money.
…so what is it about?
Over the phone, Axe comes across as supremely earnest and easy-going. Inexperienced interview subjects tend to either talk too much, spewing paragraphs that take forever to transcribe, or too little, parsing their words so carefully that all color is expunged. Axe speaks at exactly the pace I imagine him employing in real life. He has the kind of expressive voice where you can tell when he’s smiling, which by my estimation he’s doing about 65% of the time.
“It’s already gotten a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be,” he tells me when I ask about Melee’s future. “I thought Melee was going to be dead a handful of years ago, and now it’s in arenas. EVO, we had that, and Genesis—in crazy theaters—there’s more and more people coming.”
In an alternate universe, the one Axe expected to come to pass, Melee died. Maybe the community wasn’t quite able to convince Nintendo to let EVO broadcast the game in 2013. Maybe the core of irrationally dedicated players and organizers who kept it alive through a decade of obscurity instead grew tired and quit. In that universe, Axe probably still works at Walgreens. I don’t think alternate-universe Axe is particularly happy. A few months after his series against SilentWolf, he tweeted the following:
“Wow work sucks. All I want to worry about is creating content for you guys and improving in Melee. Walgreens takes up way too much time.”
He’s living the dream now, of course. A sponsorship with Tempo Storm, combined with blossoming prize pools, allowed him to quit his job last April and begin playing full time. Speaking with him, you hear his gratitude, his genuine wonder at the way things worked out. He had no idea any of this was going to happen.
The best way to get Axe to explain his love for Melee is to ask him about other versions of Smash. This is someone who experiences life most profoundly via his fingertips—a player so immersed in Melee that the slightest mechanical oddities in other games unnerve him the way you or I might be thrown off by a sudden change in gravity.
On Smash 4: “I tried it out for a while, and it’s just not for me, competitively. I get this feeling where, like, I can’t really do what I want to do … I really like Melee for its mobility, how you can move around stages.”
On Project M: “It’s basically like Melee, except it’s missing the smoothness that Melee has … It doesn’t feel quite as good to move around the stage, or to do the combos. Some things just feel very—not as rewarding and hard-hitting as Melee is. Melee has these powerful sounds when you hit people, and certain animations that happen whenever you move certain ways that just feel right, like super good, and PM almost does it, but not quite.”
“I do think I’m faster than a lot of the Gods.”
When Axe talks about smooth movement, he’s referencing glitches in Melee’s engine that allow players to slide and dash and jet around the stage much quicker than the developers ever intended. Melee is a stunning example of emergent gameplay, of players taking the rules and bending them to shape something entirely new. Masahiro Sakurai, father of the Smash series, didn’t like the way his creation rebelled. “[Melee] basically ended up becoming a Smash Bros. game for hardcore fighting fans,” he mourned in an infamous 2014 interview. “I personally regret that, because I originally intended the Smash Bros. series to be for players who couldn’t handle such highly skilled games.”
Like most in the Melee community, Axe is simultaneously saddened and amused by Sakurai’s stance. “It makes me really sad that he went away from the competitive scene,” he tells me. “He made Melee very competitive, and very balanced, and extremely advanced, all on accident. And then he’s like, ‘dang it,’ I don’t want people to be playing this game like this! He messed up, big time, this is the biggest mistake of his life, and it’s amazing.”
All of which means that the landscape of 2016, for Arizona’s Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson, is one of astounding serendipity, of mind-boggling good fortune. Melee, beautiful accident, is fifteen years old and growing stronger by the day. Axe, whose greatest skill is playing it, managed against all odds to turn that skill into a career. You’d expect him to be ecstatic, and he almost is, but there’s still something bothering him, an obstacle that will always stymie total satisfaction until he finds his way around it:
Ten years in, Axe still hasn’t won a tournament that matters.
That statement sounds harsher than it is. Axe has won many tournaments, including a few against extremely skillful players. What he’s never done is won a tournament against the best players. There are six giants of the Melee scene, dubbed Gods by the community for their near-immortality when facing those outside their pantheon. Mango and Hungrybox are part of that group; so are Mew2King, Armada, and PPMD. The sixth member, William “Leffen” Hjelte, is more controversial. While not included in the original Five Gods, Leffen is the only ‘mortal’ player to consistently defeat them, a feat he accomplished within two short years of arriving on the scene.
If not for these six players, Axe would win more than his fair share of major tournaments. If not for these six players, it’s likely that Axe himself would be a God, because he rarely loses to those beneath him. But that’s not the world we live in. Crossing the gap between the Demigods and the Gods, as Axe has been trying to do for years, is the difference between mere greatness and immortality.
As you can imagine, Axe finds this final challenge a source of not-inconsiderable frustration. “The gap has gotten smaller and smaller, and I’m getting closer,” he tells me, “but it’s been this way for a long time. Too long. Years.”
When I press him, he struggles to define the precise nature of the barrier.
“I don’t know what it is! I can’t even tell you, because I do think I’m faster than a lot of the Gods,” he says, “but it’s not about speed. Like, even if you look at, say, Hungrybox, or PPMD—they have slower playstyles, they don’t play anywhere near as fast. Instead they’re very smart, and they have their own way of winning … I can’t even tell you what it is, but it’s not speed.”
Speed is the Holy Grail of competitive Melee, because the game has a superhuman skill ceiling. Faster almost always means better. “Perfect” Melee requires inputting rapidfire commands with frame-by-frame precision (the game runs at 60 FPS and accepts inputs each frame); even the best players come nowhere close. Take Smash Directional Influence (SDI), a technique that allows a player to reduce the effect of a powerful blow by inputting a direction on the control stick at the moment of impact. When executed perfectly, SDI makes you practically invincible. No matter how hard your opponent strikes, you will always be able to negate the blow. The problem is, windows to input the SDI command are typically 2 or 3 frames—0.03 to 0.05 seconds. Average human reaction time is 0.25 seconds. Essentially this means you have to anticipate the attack before it occurs to cancel it with SDI, and even then you have to react preternaturally fast. But the payoff, if executed properly, is huge.
Nor is SDI the only advanced technique requiring agile thinking and quick fingers. The competitive Melee player must juggle a voluminous arsenal of tricks and techniques (in Melee vernacular, “techs”), entering hundreds of commands a minute and testing the limits of human reaction time just to perform the basics. What’s clear, then, is that the very best Melee players are set apart not just by practice but by biology. Mango and Armada and the rest of the Gods are freaks of nature in the tradition of Michael Phelps, whose above-average wingspan, disproportionately long torso, and abnormally low lactic acid production give his oft-decorated swimmer’s body an advantage right off the blocks. Axe, whose playspeed is right up there with the best of them, is genetically predisposed to be good at Melee. That includes obvious factors like reaction time and handspeed, but also a knack for something David Foster Wallace, in his famous profile on tennis god Roger Federer, dubs the kinesthetic sense: “the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks.” Wallace suggests that Federer experiences tennis in slow motion, that the greatest of the Swiss player’s feats strike the man himself as unimpressive, since from his perspective the ball is ponderous and huge. There are flashes of that effortlessness in Axe’s play. His control of Pikachu’s Quick Attack, a swift and demanding recovery move, is pixel-perfect, inhumanly precise. Axe and other top players experience Melee as a state of hyperfocused flow, of knowing intuitively what they have to do at the very instant that they do it. This level of digital kinesthetics transcends conscious thought; Axe and those like him are quite literally playing the game by feel.
The walls of Olympus do seem to be cracking.
None of which is to say that there isn’t a tremendous conscious component to the game. As fast as Axe plays, he’s probably close to the zenith of his technical skill. Past a certain point, you begin to run into physical restraints: the biological limits of muscles and nerves and neurons. The next battlefield, and the one where the Gods still maintain a sizable advantage, might as well be telepathic.
“There is a certain aura that [the Gods] have,” Axe admits after I’ve pestered him for a while. “They understand how to get in somebody’s head, and how to condition them. A lot of conditioning going on, in Melee, to make people react certain ways to certain things you do. That happens a lot, and they’re extremely good at it.”
It’s mind control, essentially. If you can predict what your opponent is going to do, that’s fantastic; what’s even better is if you can make them do what you want them to do. This explains why lesser players often take the first game of a series against a God only to lose the ones that follow. There’s a complex two-way information flow: the God is learning your tendencies, but he’s also training new ones into you, conditioning you to jump in certain circumstances and duck in others. Even if you aren’t a predictable player, a God makes you into one.
None of this seems to discourage Axe. The more we talk about the barrier that separates him from the Gods, the more excited he gets, and the more convinced he is that he can break through. The walls of Olympus do seem to be cracking a bit: at Shine 2016, Zac “SFAT” Cordoni, a player of Axe’s approximate caliber, eliminated both Mango and Hungrybox en route to a second place finish. And it’s not like Axe is starting from scratch when it comes to the mental game. He’s got mind control powers of his own. Remember that one-minute four-stock against SilentWolf? Axe made a video breaking down every single decision he made during those sixty seconds, and it took him sixteen minutes to get through all of it. The complexity and speed of on-the-fly calculation, prediction, and decision-making we’re talking about here is just staggering. It’s stupendous, and it implies a degree of fast-twitch cerebral firepower I can only dream about.
The longer I talk to Axe—and we go on for a long time, an hour and a half, which speaks both to his friendliness and the ease of holding a conversation with him—the more an impression coalesces of a man who has found deep personal fulfillment in adversity itself. I ask if it bothers him that Arizona lacks top-tier practice partners; he says he relishes the challenge. Then there’s the fact that he plays Pikachu. Melee never received the loving buff-and-nerf attention given to ‘intentional’ esports like Dota 2 or League of Legends; whatever the game was when it shipped, that’s what it is today. Against all odds (again with the serendipity!), Melee shipped with a wide variety of competitively viable characters. Fox, Falco, Peach, Jigglypuff, Marth, Sheik, even Captain Falcon and the Ice Climbers—these characters are all played at a high level by multitudinous competitors. The list of top-tier Pikachu players, however, is exactly one syllable long.
For Axe, Melee is both replaceable and not. It’s the vessel for competition he happened to latch onto, the first impossible challenge to seize his attention, but it’s also a world for which he is uniquely suited. An esport that has come to define him as much as he has come to define it. In another universe, he might be a tennis player, an author, or the world’s most quick-fingered botanist. But I can’t help feeling that, out of all the infinite Jeffrey Williamsons, this one is the only Axe.