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EMU Student Project: Report On Washtenaw County's 'Super Smash Bros. Melee' Community

Smash Bros.
Wikipedia Media Commons

Eastern Michigan University students, under the direction of Dr. Sadaf Ali and Patrick Campion, were given the opportunity to create a reporting project as a final project in their CTAT 334 class.  This is the work of Will Bogen, reporting on groups who meet and play the video game "Super Smash Bros. Melee," both socially and competitively.

"Super Smash Brothers Melee"was released in 2001 for the Nintendo Gamecube game console.  The creators, led by Masahiro Sakurai at Nintendo, intended for it to be a fun, friendly party game for groups to play.  Over time, enthusiasts discovered unexpected, hard-to-master actions in the game that allowed them to become better at the game.  And now, in 2018, Washtenaw County and southeast Michigan have become an international hub for this 17-year old game and its fanatical community. 

There are reasons why Washtenaw County has become home to Smash, but they’re not apparent on the surface of the subject.  I spoke to Austin Yarger, a game development professor at the University of Michigan, about why Smash, especially Melee, among the hundreds of fighting games in the world, has such a strong fanbase.  

"In comparison to fighting games, when you consider Super Smash Brothers, not only is it an excellent and well-polished game, but, compared to other fighting games, it really allows for a special level of flexibility and creativity and self-expression. So, in fact, the community playing this game for as long as it has has found new techniques over time with things like wave-dashing--some that might be considered exploits, some that Nintendo, the makers of the game, probably didn't know about or didn't think would get heavy usage. So, what's incredible about Melee is, in a very real sense, is that the developers of the game is not Nintendo--it's the community. When you get that ownership of the game, when you get invested, when you have your own community that is generating these crazy new techniques, or technologies as they're sometimes called, that's the kind of thing that creates stories, it creates legends, it leads to exciting documentaries. And, suddenly, you get this kind of mythos that has built up. You have players who are well-known, players being called gods, people who are so good, that millions will tune in and livestream to watch."

How Washtenaw County became a Smash hub, only a few people know for sure.  One of those people is a major Smash event organizer in the Midwest, Robin Harn.  Robin organizes many tournaments in the Washtenaw County area, but the one that is recognized in the worldwide smash community as the big one is the Big House.  TheBig House 8 tournament was held this year in October in the Detroit Cobo Center, hosted by Harn himself.  The weeks afterwards, as I visited various small Washtenaw County Smash gatherings, it seemed as if everyone I spoke to went to the tournament.  So, one may think, "Oh yeah, things are great for Melee here in Washtenaw County."

"The community's doing fine. Relatively, it's doing OK. There's certain challenges that we still have to solve. I don't have all the answers, but Melee's an old game, so it's hard to sustain. Melee, logistically, is just getting harder and harder, because CRT TVs are required for it, if you don't want to play with lag. You can't get a CRT TV anywhere. You can't get one at a store. You can't even get one at garage sales anymore, because they're just a thing of the past. So, that's kind of like the elephant in the room that I feel like not a lot of people have not wanted to address. They just procrastinate. They're just like, 'You know what? CRT TVs. They're still alive. We'll make due with them for another year.' But it's just tick-tock, tick-tock. When are we going to come up with a solution that is sustainable for the scene."

Computer-savvy Melee fans have created an unofficial way to play Melee online called netplay.  For a game originally designed for local use only, this may sound great, but it also comes with some negatives.

"In the United States, where people are very spread out and you have to drive everywhere and gas costs, it's hard to do those local events all the time. They do happen, and they're really great when they happen, but online play is really, really nice for people who, you know, just don't want to spend all that money and time to constantly be driving to different events."

Alex Raymond, the soon-to-graduate president of the EMU Smash Club, and Harn both see a need to have local tournaments from time to time. 

"Online is nice to connect with people around the world, but I don't think that would keep the community going, if you want to make friendships. For instance, last semester, we lost a lot of people because they were graduating or whatever. And some of them stay in contact with each other because of the club. I remember, at one tournament, there was a really good Ike player, and I play Ike, and he was giving me tips on stuff. And I thought that was really nice, and that kind of stuff, like, it keeps people wanting to get better and wanting to stay in the community, instead of kind of just falling out of it, I guess. So, if you just continue to have local gatherings, you're going to kind of lose that, or, like, lose players who maybe aren't as comfortable."

Here's Harn's thoughts on the subject.

"The best part of going to Smash events is just the camraderie of being around other people who really like playing the same game. I want to be able to socialize with other people, and going to an event brings me that shared community aspect that I think is super-good in every gaming community, especially Melee, because we started off as not online, just grassroots, in-person only. Everyone's lugging in their old CRT TVs into a venue and just having a good time playing games in person."

In 2013, a Smash documentary was released that mainly focused on the professional Melee scene.  All the Melee fans I spoke to revere it, and they call it “the doc.”  Some of them got into Smash because of the doc, after having no interest in the game.  Harn and others then felt a huge surge in the number of Melee fans after its release.  Now, five years later, there is almost no new Melee content other than big tournaments and the streams from them.  Harn thinks that new content is exactly what the community needs most right now.

"Content creation is the stepping stone for someone completely new to learn about the scene and then, from there, it's up to them if they want to get involved. In the city, 99% of people have never heard of Melee before, and that content puts that number down, and then, from there, you funnel people into the scene. It's not your job as a tournament organizer to force people into the scene, but I think it's your job as a community leader to put more eyes on the community and let people decide for themselves. There might be people who have never heard of Melee, but they'd be super-good Melee players or super-interested, then organizers or something to contribute to the community. We need more of that."

The U-M and other southeast Michigan smash groups primarily use Facebook to post news, bring new people into the group, and organize weekly tournaments.  Anyone is invited, to play, watch, socialize, whatever.  EMU’s 3-semester old club does the same.  Though they started with less than 10 people in the club, there are regularly 50-some attendees at each meeting now.  The club has now moved to a large lecture hall on campus due to the size increase, and even plans to have tournaments in the campus Student Center.  Raymond made clear to me that Smash wouldn’t be significant in Washtenaw County if accessible gatherings were non-existent.

"If people are on campus, if they don't have cars, they can't drive to Ann Arbor for anything, so they're just kind of stuck here. This is kind of an easy way to play with people, especially if they don't have a console. They'll have a place away from all the stress and stuff like that."

Harn agrees with Raymond on this one.

"You need events to have anything else going, so that's the foundation. And, for me, I knew that, right away, I'm not going to be as good as these other guys competing. I love competing in Melee, but winning a tournament is not one of my goals. I'd rather create an event, create something. And that, at the end of the day, if you think about it, an event is just like hosting a ton of your friends in the same building, playing the game we all love. It's kind of what I want to do, and I feel like, once the gears got rolling, and other event organizers were able to, like, create their own pads in their own communities around Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, then my job is done."

Even if you do not have a hankering to play Smash, Harn and other members of the community expressed an appreciation of anyone who supports the scene.  By watching professional tournaments, getting your kids involved to teach them camraderie and competitive spirit, these Smash community members hope that their favorite pastime keeps bringing in people to enjoy the game they all love and make lasting friendships.    

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