Header illustration by Gareth Damian Martin
When Kelsy “SuperGirlKels” Medeiros lands the forward smash that seals her 2-1 upset victory over Smash Bros. legend Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, the crowd’s wordless roar is at once familiar and refreshing. This is the upper bracket of Smash 4 singles at Apex 2016, but it could be any esports tournament anywhere. Esports fans are notoriously fickle, but their love for an underdog is well-documented and universal.
The post-game camera shows a swift handshake—Mew2King is never one to dally onstage, and in defeat as in victory his first priority is to wrap up his controller cord and scuttle endearingly away—and a warehouse of Smash 4 fans torn between elation and incredulity. Close examination of the footage reveals numerous Mew2King fans with O-shaped mouths somehow suggesting both horror and euphoria. These flabbergasted youths look like they’ve just seen their dog pancaked by a speeding Escalade, only to have LeBron James step out of the gore-streaked vehicle and proffer an apology autograph…
Medeiros stands up from the handshake and takes a deep breath. At this exact instant, if you hit “pause” on the video, you can see the physical manifestation, in her frozen, open-jawed grin, of sweet and unexpected victory.
“She’s the Randy Orton of Smash! She’s a legend-slayer!”
“She’s the Randy Orton of Smash! She’s a legend-slayer!” shouts one commentator. We can’t see him, but something about his voice tells us that he’s on his feet, too.
“I don’t understand the reference,” says the other commentator, “but I’m going to agree with you!”
Nights and weekends, Medeiros is a seasoned esports competitor and YouTube entertainer, but during the week she’s a salesperson at a Globo shoe store in Montreal. If her customers know they’re being helped by the Randy Orton of Smash—a top 50 Smash 4 player on a vertiginous trajectory that might soon scrape the top 10—they show no sign of it. The store is cavernous, with big lights dangling overhead; it smells like leather and boxes and dust.
The job at Globo isn’t a long-term plan. Medeiros teeters between worlds, working full-time to sustain herself while pursuing digital passions on the side. “I’m literally always working,” she tells me, speaking in the rapid-fire tone that I come to realize is not nervousness but sheer effervescent energy, “if I’m not working at work, I’m updating my website, or updating my crew’s website, or hosting a SmashFest to train people, or hosting weekly events, or traveling, or broadcasting, or making music—I’m actually working on a new album right now.” Her YouTube channel has 282 videos, with six uploaded in the past two weeks.
With all the tales of players putting in nine hours of practice a day, seven days a week, it’s hard to believe that someone with Medeiros’s diverse and exhausting workload could find the time to reach the upper levels of competitive esports. And it’s true that her practice routine is on the less-rigorous side: she grinds Smash 4 in four-hour stints every other day, instead of devoting six hours or more per diem, as many of her peers do.
“When I was a kid I’d wake up at seven, go in the basement, and play videogames until 10 pm,” she tells me. “As you get older and start to play more seriously, you have to realize that there’s a world out there.”
At heart, Medeiros is an entertainer, a point she repeats so often during our conversation that I suspect it’s something of a mantra. By ensuring that her life is bigger than Smash 4, she preserves the ability to have a good time, and isn’t devastated by routs that might leave a full-time player broken and discouraged. The result is a player who is gracious in victory and defeat and leaps at the chance to share her knowledge with anyone who asks.
Her persona’s effect on the Smash community is striking. Everyone loves SuperGirlKels. Trying to get the grandiloquent Smash 4 caster and personality Phil “EE” Visu to say something bad about Medeiros is like trying to extract a murder confession from a Tickle-Me Elmo doll.
“She got into an argument with Xaltis once,” EE finally admits, after several less-pointed lines of questioning dead-end in gushing praise too saccharine to reproduce here, “but they patched things up and are friends.”
If EE comes across as Medeiros’s PR guy, his co-caster Terrance “TKBreezy” Kershaw exemplifies an enthusiastic fan. “It’s how I wish Sonic was played,” he writes in an email. “I feel like she’s true to form with Sonic instead of the ‘campy’ style you see out here usually.”
“It’s how I wish Sonic was played”
The “campy style” TKBreezy refers to is the tendency of top Smash 4 Sonic players to sit back and wait for their opponents to overextend, then punish. Medeiros, in contrast, is always on the attack, probing her opponent’s defenses and lunging for the carotid the moment she detects an opening.
Medeiros’s Smash inspiration is Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson, a Super Smash Bros. Melee player and Arizona native known for revolutionizing the Pikachu metagame with a hyperkinetic, in-your-face style that emphasized relentless pressure and acrobatic edge-guarding. Before Axe, Pikachu was a bottom-tier character; now, Axe’s Pikachu routinely places in the top eight at national tournaments. Asked whether he thinks Medeiros is on track to do with Sonic in Smash 4 what he did with Pikachu in Melee, Axe replies “yes, definitely.”
“She seems to be more aggressive, and way more entertaining to watch, than other Sonics,” he explains. “I like her style.”
The thing that’s really shocking about Medeiros is just how good she is. Plenty of players share her mindset about limiting practice time to maintain enjoyment of the game, but those players aren’t typically the ones placing in the top eight at major tournaments. Upper-echelon Smash 4 gods like Zero, Nairo, Dabuz, and Ally play just about full time. They go to tournaments every weekend and pull in, if not millions, at least enough to survive on. And these virtuosos are the ones whose heels Medeiros is currently nipping. When Medeiros plays Dabuz at Apex 2016, it’s her first match ever against a world-class Rosalina. But instead of getting eviscerated, she keeps the games close. During the set, you can see her trying things out, experimenting with ways of penetrating Dabuz’s legendary defenses. You get the impression that if she were given more time, a best-of-thirteen instead of a best-of-five, she’d start taking games off Dabuz left and right.
“No, I don’t think I’m the best Sonic,” she tells me when I ask. “I think I’m the most different Sonic. I need more experience.”
I pose a scenario to Medeiros: imagine a world where somebody would pay you a hefty salary to compete in Smash 4 full-time. Would you do it?
She pauses longer than at any other time during our conversation. Then she exhales loudly, pushing a stream of frustrated air through pursed lips.
“That is still a question I ask myself every day, like—would I play this forever, you know? And honestly, the answer is… no.”
“I think I’m the most different Sonic.”
The “no” sounds more like a question than a statement.
“Just because, like I said, if I’m going to play this all the time—you have to take your passion as a passion. That’s your getaway. You’re escaping from the world to go into another world to get away from everything for a few minutes, or a few days, you know? But doing it all the time, you lose track of everything around you, and forget the other things that are important.”
It’s an unexpected answer in an esports world bursting with up-and-comers trying to transmute their hobbies into careers. But Medeiros is keeping her options open. She could see herself working in radio, television, or game development. The importance of videogames as her personal escape is deep-rooted, dating back to rough days in primary and secondary school:
“My greatest accomplishment would be surviving high school,” she tells me. “I was bullied a lot as a kid, for being a ‘game freak.’ And being a girl ‘game freak’ made it ten times worse… I was not, like, a tomboy, but I was not a girl who wore makeup and pink every day, you know?”
It’s hard to reconcile the timid image she paints with the modern-day SuperGirlKels, the one who shrugs off trash talk and thrives on the boisterous crowds at international Smash events. Through videogames, Medeiros found an audience, and with it, affection for the spotlight.
The day after beating Mew2King 2-1, SuperGirlKels retakes the stage for Apex 2016 Top Eight. She loses to Dabuz in a series that is as close as it is possible for a 0-3 series to be. In the loser’s bracket she meets Mew2King for a rematch. It’s not clear what happens to make this last match go so poorly—maybe she suffers from a spot of nerves, or maybe the King’s supercomputer of a brain has adapted overnight—but one way or the other, SuperGirlKels loses 0-3 and is eliminated from contention.
At her first Apex, in 2012, SuperGirlKels went out in the first round of the Brawl bracket and cried.
In 2016, there are no tears. Even ending her tournament run with six lost games in a row, SuperGirlKels—esports challenger, shoe salesperson, and world’s most-different Sonic—still finishes in fifth place. She springs out of her seat, shakes hands with a grudgingly respectful Mew2King, and turns a phosphorescent smile on the crowd.