Normally, when someone mentions offhand that they think they could make it as a League of Legends pro, I’m inclined to think they’re being just a little bit overconfident. But when it comes to Saleem “Salem” Young, who came out of nowhere to become one of the best Smash 4 players in the world, I’m not so sure. His is the kind of quiet confidence backed up by real, tangible feats: revolutionizing the character Bayonetta, winning seven of his last nine tournaments, and becoming the first player ever to double-eliminate Zero outside of grand finals.
Justin: How was your day, sir?
Salem: How was my day? Just fine. Just got back from Michigan, after having three tournaments over the weekend there.
Right, and you placed first at two of them, and second at the other one, so that’s pretty good. How do you feel about that?
Pretty good, pretty good. Bit more I have to learn, since I got second at the last one. (Laughs)
Do you see yourself as a player who can one day dominate the scene the way Zero did for a while?
Possibly? But, maybe … even better. It depends.
What do you think stands in your way?
Not too much except time. Like, next month I should be able to figure everything out about myself, when it comes to this game.
What kinds of things are you talking about when you say “figure everything out?”
Basically I’ve been, like — for some reason, lately, I’ve been able to completely, utterly destroy people at this game. Very good, amazing players. But it only happens sometimes.
The last game versus Kamemushi at Big House … I did not play like that, that entire set, until that game. Things like that are pretty weird. I don’t know how exactly I did it—I just simply did it.
I’m trying to apply that to my entire playstyle, so I can always do that, versus anyone.
So it sounds like there’s a mindset or a state you get into, where you’re playing on a higher level than normal, and you’re trying to figure out how to access that on demand.
Yeah. I should be able to figure that all out next month. Next month I’m going to try to get a long training session.
I think you kind of came out of nowhere for a lot of people. People want to know more about who you are, where you come from, what you do. Are you a student? Do you play Smash full time?
I guess in a way I play Smash full time—for a while I was thinking about not doing that. There are many different games … but Smash, it just keeps getting bigger, more interesting, more people are showing up. It’s fun. Not to mention I just got picked up by a sponsor not so long ago. I was like—I could do something else, but I’m already here.
What other games were you thinking about competing in?
League of Legends, Street Fighter … other fighting games. I was also thinking about doing speed runs, possibly. But I think this is fine. If anything, I might get into League sometime later … maybe next year. Not this year. Well, possibly this year. It depends. It depends on how well I do next month.
Do you have a lot of experience playing League?
Yes, I have quite a bit of experience, I played it for a long, long time. I think I played it during Season 2, or Season 3. That’s when I started. So I know quite a lot about it.
And, uh, what makes you think you could go pro in League?
That, I mean—it’s a very interesting game, and in a way it’s similar to Smash, except you require a team. And very specific strategies. I got all of those down in a small time span playing that game.
Okay, let’s talk about Smash. How did you decide to play Zero Suit Samus, and then Bayonetta?
Well, these characters are intriguing to me. Zero Suit Samus, at least in Brawl, was more of a defensive character. You could be aggressive with her, in a way, but you had to be defensive, space, make sure everything is perfect so you don’t actually get touched. You always had to keep them at a set distance, they could never get to close to you.
In Smash 4 they changed that, and made her more of an aggressive character, which kinda didn’t make sense to me. So I haven’t really been playing her too much. For a while, I was looking for a different character to play … when Bayonetta came out, I was like, okay, this is the character. Immediately. No second thought on that.
And then it got nerfed. Really really hard, so that people gave up on it. Can you talk about how that was for you?
The way she was at that time, really wasn’t balanced. She could really just kill you from anywhere. Her being nerfed actually helped people understand the character better. So it actually helped quite a bit.
But you still think she’s the best character in the game. And I gather that that’s kind of a controversial view? Where’s the difference there?
Her only weakness is landing, and being kind of a sluggish character, but in this game being sluggish doesn’t exactly matter too much.
What’s really interesting to me is that top players will often underrate their characters—for instance, the Smash 4 Mario players are known for saying he’s not that good. Why do you break that trend?
Everyone who says that, I’m pretty sure they’re saying it so Nintendo doesn’t hear, and their characters don’t get nerfed. People actually have been talking a whole lot about Nintendo nerfing characters. And I’m like—okay, but if a character gets nerfed, it probably deserved to get nerfed.
Do you think if Bayonetta got nerfed again, you would still play her?
Of course! She could get nerfed like a billion times and I would probably still play her.
When you play, is it mostly by feel, or is it a cerebral thing?
It’s mostly by feel. I usually try not to think too much when I play the game. Brawl taught me so much, to the point where, like, I can just kinda autopilot through my thoughts.
What’s your proudest win in Smash 4?
Definitely Zero. Definitely Zero.
And you’re talking about the time that you beat him twice. Double-eliminated him.
Yeah. That tournament. I was very surprised, because I didn’t think I’d beat him twice. I thought he’d suddenly learn something—well, he did learn something, but the matches were still basically the same. It was very surprising.
I saw Anti tweet about tournaments being hot. Any comments on the atmosphere of the average Smash tournament?
It will be hot. No matter what, it will be hot. If not, very cold—it’s one or the other. At Big House, when I got on stage, it was so cold … I was like, okay. But as soon as I got off the stage, it was so warm again.
And it’s probably loud, too, right? How do you prevent all these variables from affecting your play?
What I did was, a long time ago, I started playing with no sound. And then I played with music blasting. Basically, what I did was become immune to either—no matter what, I’m fine. That’s why you usually don’t see me with headphones on.
Anything you want to get off your chest before we end this interview?
The only thing—there is an up-and-coming player soon, that will probably show themselves some time this year or maybe next year … they’re called Wounded Dragon.
Wounded Dragon! How do you know about this player?
They are somebody very important that I’m training.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Smash player bringing up an apprentice. Do they play Bayonetta too?
No, they play a different character. I’m not going to say, but the character they play is the most interesting.
Well, that’s awesome! Something to watch out for. Wounded Dragon: soon to be the best player in the world, after Salem.
(Laughs) I hope. They do want to be a top player.
Thanks to r/smashbros users calefelly, bimbo74, schmerpin, MageKraze, Wariosmustache, and others for contributing several of the questions above.