In a few months, Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Melee will turn 20 years old. When the Gamecube game originally came out, no one would have guessed the game would still be relevant, much less a complex esport with a skill ceiling that continues to climb two decades later. Even crazier, Nintendo didn’t intend for the game to become an esport and, over the last two decades, has put up roadblocks to Melee’s grassroots esports scene.
Over the last two years, Melee has been in a tough spot. It was removed from the list of official tournaments at EVO in 2019 in favor of Smash Bros. Ultimate. The Big House, one of the largest annual Smash tournaments, was sent a cease-and-desist letter from Nintendo surrounding the use of a mod to play online. The Melee scene was in need of a new major tournament, so Golden Guardians stepped in.
“With the lack of developer support, or, should we say, the extreme openness from the developer side, [Melee] is a natural fit for orgs that want to do more, to spend a bit more time and money,” said Hunter Leigh, Golden Guardians’ Head of Esports.
Golden Guardians are the esports affiliate of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. The team was a founding member of the newly franchised League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) in 2018. Golden Guardians have invested heavily in League of Legends, NBA 2K and World of Warcraft. Recently, Melee was also added to that list.
“We started in the more traditionally sports-structured esports that felt like a safe investment and had a more digestible format for the Warriors to get into,” Leigh said. “We were looking to expand after getting our feet wet in League of Legends and NBA 2K, and we were looking for scenes that felt a bit more open, that had a runway for us to do our own projects, to experiment and be creative. Smash was on the shortlist at that point.”
Golden Guardians started by signing Zain “Zain” Naghmi. The winner of Genesis 7, the last major Melee event held on LAN in January 2020, Zain has become one of the best -- if not the best -- Melee player in the world. Soon after that Genesis win, Golden Guardians picked up Zain. In April, Golden Guardians doubled down and signed three more major Melee names in Edgard “n0ne” Sheleby, Kevin “PPMD” Nanney and Kris “Toph” Aldenderfer.
In addition to signing big names, Golden Guardians also created a new event series called The Octagon. The first edition of The Octagon featured Joseph “Mango” Marquez, one of Melee’s so-called “Five Gods” and Zain in a best-of-five grudge match. Octagon 2, the rematch, takes place Saturday at 5 p.m. ET.
“Zain and Mango have always had this budding rivalry that has just continued to grow as they’ve been two of the best players performing in these online tournaments [during Covid],” Leigh said.
At The Octagon 2, the match between Zain and Mango is the title fight. Much like a boxing or UFC pay-per-view, one fight is the headliner and then there’s an undercard filled with other matches between up-and-coming fighters. Octagon 2 will have its own undercard with one match even featuring Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma, arguably the greatest Melee player of all time.
Image credit: Golden Guardians
“The grudge match history in fighting games was something we wanted to lean on for The Octagon,” Leigh said. “Fighting games are prize fighting. All the intensity and passion of going against someone that you know is there. Whether it’s the young upstart taking down the old god or the old god standing strong and casting someone back down to earth, these are stories as old as time. This is just the Smash version of them.”
Listen to the full interview with Hunter Leigh on Nerd Street Gamer’s podcast Loosely Scripted where he talks more about the relationship with Nintendo, the influence of boxing on The Octagon and more.
Melee, thanks to the game’s long history, has created a pantheon of great players. The five gods -- Mango, PPMD, Hungrybox, Adam “Armada” Lindgren and Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman make up that pantheon. Over time, other people have reached that status including William “Leffen” Hjelte, at one point known as the “Godslayer” and, more recently, Justin “Plup” McGrath and Zain.
At their height, the Five Gods were nearly unbeatable with Leffen posing the only consistent challenge. Over time, a few retired and others lost a bit of their edge. The ones who still compete are certainly among the best of the best, but the matches at Octagon 2 could go either way.
There will be four fights at Octagon 2: HungryBox vs. Avery "Ginger" Wilson, n0ne vs. Kurtis "moky" Pratt, Johnny "S2J" Kim vs. Cody "iBDW" Schwab and the main event of Zain vs. Mango. The Octagon 2 will provide a format, much like boxing, to establish a true champion and give other players a chance to climb the ranks.
One of Melee esports' most unique characteristics is the in-depth ranking list. From rivalries between Northern California and Southern California to East Coast and West Coast to the mini rivalries at the top of regional rankings around the world, Smash Melee has had no shortage of grassroots events. So when Golden Guardians decided to invest in the scene, it couldn’t just be from the top down.
“What makes the Smash scene so strong is the floor, the grassroots scene is strong,” Leigh said. “It’s been built by word of mouth, at these tiny in-person events, and it grew from there. In the fighting game scene in general, the bulk of attendees at an event are people who play the game passionately themselves and often are competing in the giant open bracket at the event itself.”
That’s why Golden Guardians created the Golden Guardians Smash Grassroots Fund, with $50,000 going into the fund with the goal of supporting all those small regional tournaments that provide that floor for Smash esports.
“We committed $50,000 to the fund and we’re not looking to drop that in five $10,000 chunks,” Leigh explained. “We plan to put it out in $500, $1,000 increments helping people in marketing efforts, in prize pools, logistics like getting space, getting equipment, setting up Twitch, whatever they need. We are going to trust those people at the local level to know how that money is going to best serve them.”
A couple hundred dollars is oftentimes the only thing separating a regional tournament from getting off the ground. By creating a grassroots fund, Golden Guardians is hoping to alleviate that concern and allow the floor of Melee esports to stay covered in a mess of GameCubes and CRT cables -- as it was meant to be.
Lead image credit: Golden Guardians