The Virtues of Melee
This post comes at an awkward time.
Two weeks ago, improvements to the netcode for Super Smash Bros Melee (Melee) dramatically expanded the potential for online play. I’ve started playing again and it’s gotten me thinking about the virtues of competition. From 2014 to 2016, Melee's tournament scene was how I came to appreciate competition: the joy of it and the demand of it.
One week ago, the Smash scene exploded as accusation after accusation of sexual misconduct rolled in concerning top players and accusation after accusation was verified. This has largely affected Ultimate, the latest entry in the series, though there are a few players in Melee who have also been revealed to have done terrible things.
Amidst the brutality of all the revelations, I wanted to write this post to remind myself of what I love about Melee, competition, and tournaments. The community is now having an important and complicated discussion about how to make events safer. I don’t have much to add as I only attend a tournament once every few months. Mostly I hope people go through with steps to improve the scene rather than settle for just catching the current crop of abusers.
What I want to talk about is the virtues that Melee inculcates. We don’t intuitively connect virtue and gaming, but Melee (or any other sport or complex game) requires virtue in order to improve. What happens to those who can’t accept losing? They’re forced to cultivate virtue.
To get in the right mindspace imagine that you play a video game for fun. It’s a good time, you know some tricks, you can beat most of your friends. Then you meet somebody you can’t beat. Imagine that it bugs you. For some reason, you can’t stand losing. For some reason, you really, really want to win. Maybe you know why, maybe you don’t. Whatever it is, you have to win.
This is where it begins. You start by being dissatisfied. You start by not being happy unless you win. The fire is lit. It only gets worse when you find out you’re not only not the best among your friends, there are whole tournaments where everybody is much, much better than you.
There are two things you can do here. You can keep losing and stay salty or you can make the choice to improve. And if you choose the latter, you begin building.
You find communities and you start asking questions. Questions like “why do I lose to Marth?” gradually refine themselves into questions like “what’s the optimal punish when I grab a 0% Marth?” You start analyzing match after match. Why did that work? Why does he make this look easy? Maybe I could try… You save replays of your matches and religiously go over your mistakes. I always hesitate there. Maybe instead of panicking, I should… Maybe you even pay top players to analyze your matches. You memorize the frame data for your character. You learn minutiae that never comes in handy until it does. (Sheik’s needles do 16-18% damage depending on how far she is from an enemy).
At the same time, you’re becoming disciplined. You start practicing situation after situation. Frame-perfect ledge-dash after ledge-dash, losing a stock if you don’t have frame perfection. Waveshining Peach back and forth across FD.
You start entering tournaments. At first you can’t beat anybody, week after week, until you take your first game. Then your first set. You watch as you slowly move out of the flotsam of bottom-seeds. You even start taking tournament days seriously. This used to just be for fun and now you’re making decisions like ‘get good sleep’ and ‘eat a healthy lunch’ to make sure you don’t crash mid-tournament.
Oh shit, my girlfriend is watching and I’m getting wrecked, I have to turn this around.
Oh shit, I’m on stream, me getting bodied is going to be recorded forever, I wonder what the commentators are saying (Bonus: the commentators are feet away and you can actually hear them).
Oh shit, he taunted, he thinks he’s better than me and I have to show him and right after I get a sick combo I’ll taunt him back.
I’m a way better player, I should be winning, what's happening?
If I lose this game I’m out of the tournament and didn’t even make top 8.
If I win this game I know I’ll make my region’s power rankings.
If I lose this game I’m out of the tournament and my sponsor might drop me.
If I win this game I’ll make fifty bucks.
As your tech skill improves the mental game becomes that much more important. As you improve at relinquishing intrusive thoughts like these you gain the edge over everybody who has the skill but no mental self-control. Notice the commonalities between my examples. Many of them have to do with status: how your partner / community / opponent / self perceives you. Many of them involve entering a mode where you feel you must win.
Part of stoicism is making peace with what is beyond your control and focusing on the task at hand. You cannot control what is not on the screen in front of you, and to the extent you are thinking about them, you are not thinking about what’s inside that screen. Consider the expressions “He’s in his own head” and “he’s in his opponent’s head.” These highlight the ways in which your mind can (and will) be hijacked by thoughts and concerns beyond your control that take away from your ability to focus on what is within your control.
Take responsibility for your losses, even to water bottles.
A fake conversation can illustrate this virtue better than an intensional definition.
Q: Why did you lose?
A: He played so lame, he--
Q: No. Why did you lose?
A: It’s a bad matchup for my character actually--
Q: No. Why did you lose?
A: Well, it was my first match of the day and my hands were cold from the harsh Canadian winter, so--
Q: No. Honestly, I don’t think you are hearing my question.
A: I don’t know what you’re looking for! If any of those were different--if he didn’t play like that, if it was a different matchup, if I had time to warm-up--I would have won.
Q: A, do you think you could have won that match? That if things in the match had gone differently, you could have won?
A: Well, yeah. There were some things.
Q: Then I’ll rephrase: What did you do that made you lose? What could you have done differently, to make you win?
A: Well, I guess I could have gotten there earlier to warm up. And if I had edgeguarded him better I would have actually finished off his stocks. And...
Play to win
These are the virtues of Melee. Scholarship, discipline, stoicism, responsibility. But the most fundamental of these is responsibility because it encompasses the others. What happens if you stop cultivating virtue? Then you stop improving. You don’t stop winning--but you plateau.
To sum up, one of the reasons Melee is awesome is that it forces you to become a stronger person if you want to win. I don’t play Melee competitively anymore but I think it left me more disciplined, more ready to take responsibility, and more able to let go of what I can’t control. That doesn’t mean that I recommend that you go out and become a nerd--but if you aren’t interested in physical sports, competitive gaming is one incredibly fun way to cultivate the above virtues. And if you ever want to play, I can be reached on Slippi at KAY#863.