The silhouettes of Fox McCloud and Jigglypuff flashed across the panels of the Mandalay Bay convention center to low applause. It was not until the commentators introduced the name "Armada" that the audience came to life. The floor shook when the player took the stage and stared off into the eyes of his captivated fan base. Here was the consensus No. 1 player in the world in yet another grand finals appearance, to no one's surprise.
That was the scene at the Evolution Fighting Game Championship's Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament finals -- where the player is larger than the game's iconic character roster. Although Super Smash Bros. Melee is an ever-evolving game, the results throughout the competitive schedule largely remain the same -- parity is a rarity. It's a competitive community that is notorious for its rigid hierarchies. There is an elite tier that consists of Adam "Armada" Lindgren, Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, Joseph "Mango" Marquez and William "Leffen" Hjelte. Outside of those five players, there are few who can actually contend for a title.
"What truly separates the top-five is their consistency to place well because of their experience to play in front of large crowds and the pressures that come with it," Zachary "SFAT" Cordoni said.
"They have the most experience with that skill than other players."
SFAT is one of the few players who can claim to be a burgeoning elite player. On a good day, SFAT can play like the seventh-best player in the world, but he knows there's a lot more work to be done. With the aid of his team, Counter Logic Gaming, he can dedicate time to training. He's one of the few players in that advantageous situation and, as a result, can actually be a dark horse in any tournament.
On the other spectrum, his teammate, Kevin "PewPewU" Toy is still working on consistency. PewPewU can easily slide between the rank of top 15 or 25 best player in the world, but is not discouraged by the idea of a lack of parity in the competition.
"Before sponsors, the same players were just as good -- there's no evidence that these are the only players that could be great," Toy said. "Sponsorship is a part of the community, but you do not need that to reach the upper echelon. It's being self-aware while you put in the time; practice smart."
PewPewU believes that it's a matter of practicing good habits instead of just slaving over the game or putting in the hard hours. His Achilles' heel is the nerves that come before a big match -- it's a work in progress as he continues to climb the rankings.
Although self-improvement and experience matter, the technical windows in the game are still punishing. Super Smash Bros. Melee is a physical and mental game. The subtleties in technique differ from skill-to-skill because the best players experience more situations more often than the rest of the player base. In addition, with more time to practice specific options or prepare for uncommon occurrences in-game, the gap widens to an great degree.
"Melee is a very skill-gap heavy game and our top players, in comparison to other games, rarely lose early. They can do things that a lot of players cannot do -- there are a lot of combos or techniques that are signature to them," Hjelte said. "It's easy to be an underdog and win one out of 10 games, but when you get beyond that level, the pressure to win consistently and do well is the difference-maker. Top players will immediately exploit weaknesses."
Leffen was a great case of a player that broke the mold. Despite only six years of experience in the competition of Super Smash Bros. Melee, he's included in the list of the top five players. His meteoric rise was attributed to his self-confidence and ability to incorporate any kind of technique and edge into his own play style.
"You have to be very self-confident. Everyone gets beat badly in Melee, but you need to keep that motivation up, work hard, and try new things within the game," Hjelte said. "I had to perfect the art of working on the game by myself and learning from beating worse players. I made the most out of my travels by practicing techniques that may not work, but I needed to practice it."
Leffen may be the exception today, but he could have company soon. It is true that the best players treat this game as a full-time job, practice smart, and grind out games with the top competition, but new technology may open up a way for a burgeoning player to burst through. Kris "Toph" Aldenderfer is one of the most notable Super Smash Bros. Melee commentator and influencer in the community, and he notes that the game is changing. He said that while the results of the top eight may be static, it's a false dichotomy between the lack of new results and parity in the game. The reality is that the elite continue to evolve, but that should not close the door on motivation.
"In the terms of the technology route, the reality is that people are catching up, but they just need to practice more; years of experience will still win out," Aldenderfer said. "It's possible, but you need to practice so many hours a day to get to the right amount of consistency."
The rigidity of the status quo for Super Smash Bros. Melee will change soon because the hunger for the game continues to spread among its community. Despite the lack of changes in the results, the players want to play the game.
"At the end of the day, Melee is still a game that you can crack out on -- that will never go away," Aldenderfer said. "The fan and player base will never change. There are still a lot of new players that are getting into it. The game play carries the game."
As long as the motivation to usurp the best in the game lives on within those players that can potentially do it, the health of the game's competitive future is strong. Upsets and parity are fundamental for excitement and with the discoveries of new sponsors, technology within the game, and better ways to train and play the game, it's only a matter of time.
"It's unhealthy to only have one winner, but more players are taking sets off the best. If we want a healthier future for Melee, we need a top 20 that could win a tournament," Cordoni said. "We almost have that with the current top six players, but we need a top 10."