Melee returns to Major League Gaming’s pro tour on June 20th – just a few short days from now. This is particularly significant to Melee veterans because June 19th, just a day before the event kicks off, is actually the 10-year anniversary of Melee’s first event at MLG. This week not only marks the triumphant return of the greatest fighting game in the world to the MLG’s big stage, but also the anniversary of the beginning of the “Golden Age” of Smash. So let’s take a quick look back at how Melee first made its mark in the world of professional gaming as we celebrate the brilliant milestones ahead.
The year was 2004 and the Smash scene was still fragmented by region and derided by fighting game purists as a “party game” unworthy of serious tournament play. The lack of YouTube videos, streaming services and large prize pools generally kept players from traveling long distances and new character tech regionally locked. Smashboards was helping local players connect and the community’s DC++ hub provided a means of sharing video, but progress was slow. Three years after the game’s launch, the community still couldn’t even agree on important settings such as number of stocks, team attack or whether items should be used. There was doubt, even within the community, that Melee would last much longer as a viable tournament game.
Major League Gaming was one of a number of eSports start-ups attempting to break it big in the United States and fighting its own battle for recognition and respect. Not only did the first-year tournament series have competitors to contend with, but they also had to fight the perception that pro gaming wasn’t a viable business. Other leagues had popped up in the past with promises of turning talented gamers into stars, but few had delivered anything of substance and many had problems paying out prize money after events. Worse yet, one competitor had picked up Melee for its competitions, convinced players to travel for events and then vanished with no pay-outs at all.
Despite the hurdles for both parties, spring of 2004 brought the fledgling league and the underdog fighting game together. Smashboards’ own AlphaZealot helped launch a forum and email campaign to get Melee on the MLG tour and the community rallied around the cause, earning a “trial run” at MLG Chicago in June. MLG reached out to the community for help with the first event and fate conspired to make me their choice of tournament director. I was wrapping up a degree in journalism and media production just a few hours outside of Chicago. So my experience organizing local smash tournaments and my ability to contribute to the post-event coverage made me a solid choice to take the helm for the first event.
Now I just needed to make sure I didn’t screw the whole thing up and ruin our chances of staying on the pro tour. I immediately went back to the community for help making our first event a success. KishPrime was in preparations for MELEE-FC that July and I went to him for help creating a unified ruleset that merged the disparate regional tournament settings into something stable enough to attract everyone. I also took to the Melee Back Room to ask for help with the tournament structure and to find a few volunteer judges to make the event run smoothly. AlphaZealot made sure I keenly felt the pressure to make event a success. I distinctly remember more than one conversation where he said “Don’t screw this up, M3D. We’re all counting on you.”
With the rules set, volunteers secured and the event announced, I knew my next big task was to get some top talent to attend. Attendance in those days was highly driven by which important players would turn up and at the time, you didn’t get any more important than Ken and Isai. So I reached out to Ken and asked him to fly out for Chicago. He was skeptical at first thanks to being one of the players who had been burned by other failed gaming circuits, but after a few chats about the prize money and opportunity that MLG offered, Ken agreed to come and bring Isai along to team with him for doubles. I was never a top player, a character innovator, or even the best tournament host that our community has ever had, so convincing Ken to come to MLG might actually be my most important contribution to the scene. With his confirmation of attendance, interest skyrocketed and I knew we’d have a solid event.
Of course I have to put “interest skyrocketed” into context for the era. The day of the event we had just over 60 players in attendance. This might not be particularly impressive by today’s standards, but at that time the size of the event was rivaled only by community-hosted nationals such as the TG series or MELEE-FC. Local events did not draw that kind of crowd and with our sixty-plus players, we had virtually the entire Midwest scene at the time in the venue. More important though, was that Melee beat every other game except Halo: CE that weekend for entrants and convinced the MLG staff that our community was for real.
It was the early days of MLG and resources were limited. There were no monitors displaying match times and no twitter feeds for players to keep up with the brackets. I think the highest “tech” support we had outside our GameCubes was some hastily printed signs with station numbers. We were also forced to run both singles and doubles on one day to free up TVs on Sunday for Soul Calibur and Gran Turismo tournaments. So I started registration as early as I could and rapidly built pools into Excel on the tiny Macbook I was using for college assignments.
The rest of the day is a blur in my memory, as I spent most of the day running from station-to-station, rebooting GameCubes with my memory card and attending to any questions or concerns raised by players. I couldn’t even tell you who I actually got to play that day outside of a doubles match against Ken and Isai. I was just so focused on keeping the event moving that I didn’t even stop for a few seconds to take some pictures. I remember a line of players at least a dozen deep waiting to play Ken during warm-ups. I also distinctly remember a Falco player charging up a forward smash during pools, only to have a pill capsule spawn in front of him and explode for a KO when he struck it. MLG Chicago was the last time I would have items on for any tournament I hosted, much to the disappointment of some West Coast players at the time.
So I can’t tell you much about how the matches played out that day apart from the fact that Ken took home both prizes, but I can tell you the impact that day had on the scene. Melee beat the attendance of Soul Calibur and Gran Turismo combined and firmly solidified itself as the #2 game on the tour. The MLG staff also instantly fell in love with “Smash Kids” and our unbounded enthusiasm for our game. Halo might have been the real money-maker, but Smash brought an unrivaled electricity to the early MLG events that made them feel vibrant and exciting. A few months later I found Sundance, one of MLG’s founders, slapping down one dollar bills on Level One Challenge bets and cheering like a madman with a group of Texas smashers. Halo opened the doors, but Smash brought in the fun.
June 19th, 2004 was a big day for Smash – maybe the biggest ever until the famous Melee it On Me “Spirit Bomb” earned Melee its spot at EVO last year. The Golden Age of Smash got kicked off that day. Our spot on the MLG tour was secured. We unified the community around a more standardized rule set. Ken began his internationally-recognized reign as the King of Smash. MLG Chicago set the stage for a run of brilliant matches, incredible tournaments and a period of tremendous growth that put all doubt about our game to rest.
So happy anniversary Smashers. Here’s to the Golden Age and the hope that June 20th ushers in the new Platinum Age of Melee. This community earned every bit of the hype and recognition that landed the game back on the MLG tour. Incredible players like PPMD, Mango and Armada and immensely valuable community leaders such as Prog, D1 and Scar are all poised to launch this new era with more gusto and enthusiasm than ever. Get ready for an incredible weekend.