Game Changer

The death of Melee weeklies is all but guaranteed

JUN 21, 2018

In April, I entered Apollo XIII, a Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament at the popular New York City tournament venue Nebulous Gaming. Though the event was a 150+ entrant regional, it had all the trappings of a classic Nebulous weekly: tables buckling under the weight of CRTs, friends shouting greetings from a corner setup, dudes getting lit out front. I walked in and immediately felt at home.

But Apollo wasn’t a weekly—it was the final Nebulous event. The day after Ryan “La Luna” Coker-Welch won the tournament from winner’s side, Nebulous Gaming turned off its CRTs for the last time. Threatened by rising rent costs and dwindling attendance numbers, the cash-strapped gaming shop had no choice but to cease operations indefinitely on April 28.

Nebulous’ struggles are not unique; across the country, weeklies have been threatened by shrinking attendance and an apparent lack of interest. While it’s impossible to track down national weekly attendance data, the decline is clear enough if you crunch the numbers—at least in some regions. For example, flagship New England weekly Make Money Off Melee boasted an average of 45 entrants per week in 2017 (and 46 for the first half of that year). At the time of publication, the series has averaged 35 weekly entrants in 2018, discounting an outlier farewell event for its founder and former TO.

Apollo XIII was the final event held at New York City’s storied Nebulous venue. (Photo Credit: Aaron “Battery” Dolgos @BatteryAZID)

“We had seen attendance already start decreasing even as far back as a year ago, and maybe even further back,” said former Nebulous head organizer Emily “Emilywaves” Sun. “...a lot of people said netplay, a lot of people said it’s pricing—there’s just a ton of different excuses people give. But seeing as how we saw locals across the country also start decreasing in attendance, I’m guessing it’s either netplay or some other big culture shift.”

Many members of the community have decried the so-called death of weeklies, claiming that they are the lifeblood of the scene and that Melee would die without them. Some players blame the rise of netplay for this decline, and pleas for the community to rejuvenate weeklies have come in the form of articles and top player tweets.

However, the phasing out of weeklies is not inherently bad. It’s simply one facet of a natural, and perhaps even inevitable, change going on beneath the surface of competitive Melee. In fact, the end of weeklies might actually have beneficial effects for the scene.

To understand why they’re dying—and why that could be good for the community—let’s trace the origins of this radical shift in Melee’s infrastructure.

The genesis of modern netplay came in the form of an Internet Relay Chat channel formed via Smashboards in 2013.

“There was just an attempt to get the game to play without desyncing,” said netplay community leader Brian “TruckJitsu” Osborn. “At this point in the timeline, we’re not even close to playing online yet without lag.”

Though basic netplay functionality was possible through the most up-to-date Dolphin build at the time, it was nowhere near console-quality, and was seen as a novelty by all but its most dedicated users. Beyond the technical challenges of coding a reliable netplay client, the lack of a solid GameCube controller-to-USB adapter was a seemingly insurmountable issue.

At the same time, Melee was booming. Thanks to The Smash Brothers documentary and Melee’s appearance at EVO 2013, a massive influx of new players had burst onto the scene, many cultivating a desire to become the best. And as the most accessible avenue for consistent training at the time, weeklies flourished, appearing in every region and often boasting regular attendance of 80+ players every week.

The release of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U in 2014 resurrected netplayers’ dreams for lagless play.

“Smash 4 actually saved Melee, because without Smash 4, we would’ve never got first party adapters,” said TruckJitsu. “what jump-started it was these adapters.”

Soon, Mayflash released their own reverse-engineered version of the Nintendo four-port adapter. Suddenly, one of the major roadblocks on the path to reliable netplay had fallen.

Before Nintendo released its Wii U GameCube adapter, the most widely available GCC to USB adapters were the Raphnet adapter (left) and the Mayflash two-port (right).

The next big development came about a year later. While on a training binge, the Midwest-based videographer and netplay enthusiast discovered what seemed to be an easy way to reduce lag in Dolphin.

“Basically I was just in one of those grind states, just playing, playing, playing, playing—wake up, play all day, all night… I saw in 20XX there’s an option to adjust the game speed, and for whatever reason it just clicked,” he said.

By halving the game speed and then raising the emulation speed to 200%, TruckJitsu was able to play Melee that felt smoother than anything that had ever graced the screen of his 120 Hz CRT monitor before. “Everything, like my wavelands, it felt just broken…it just felt so buttery.”

On the strength of this discovery, TruckJitsu started to construct his own netplay build. As Melee continued to grow and major series started to pop up all over the country, TruckJitsu had quietly gathered a team of coders and volunteers to support his netplay client and community. The first version of “Faster Melee,” as he called it, was released on May 4, 2016.

Though this early edition of Faster Melee had its fair share of technical issues and was not yet console-quality, it heralded a new era of netplay. As late as 2015, most Melee players would have scoffed at the thought of reliable netplay. Now, Faster Melee boasts over 100,000 individual downloads, allowing smashers worldwide to play against friends miles away almost as if they were sitting in the same room.

Which brings us back to the death of weeklies. It’s hard to chalk up the simultaneity of the decline of weekly tournaments and the development of Faster Melee as just a coincidence, but it’s also hard to blame smashers for preferring the latter over the former.

Netplay is free, rather than a weekly $20 expenditure; it can be done in the comfort of one’s home, instead of requiring travel; and the quality of play is nearly as good, if not equivalent. The only remaining benefits of weeklies are the opportunity for social interaction with one’s community and the thrill of serious competition, both of which can also be found at monthlies or majors.

Increasingly, serious competition can be found online as well. This winter, the Nebulous team organized two “Nebulous Online” events—for-money online tournaments that pitted top players from multiple regions, including tri-state, Georgia, and MD/VA, against each other. This was the first serious and paid netplay tournament ever hosted by a well-known organization.

Nebulous Online featured many of the trappings of in-person locals, including a stream with live commentary.

I think the genesis of its existence was mostly that,” said Nebulous head organizer Gabe “Jib” Karon. “If people are going to pay for a netplay tournament, it has to come from a trustworthy source.”

Emilywaves is confident about the future of netplay tournaments. “When you’re talking about scaling up, that’s when you move away from the antiquated [weekly] model.”

Despite their very different backgrounds within the Smash community, Emilywaves and TruckJitsu share a vision of what the scene will look like in the near future: both believe that weeklies will soon be replaced almost entirely by low-cost netplay tournaments. In these online brackets, which would be significantly cheaper due to the lack of a venue fee, beginners and mid-level players would be able to polish their skills in a serious environment before proving themselves at in-person monthlies, which remain popular despite the decline of weeklies.

“If we’re looking at it in terms of your average revenue per user, in a smaller local community, you’ll have a higher dollar-per user amount, where everyone is going to pay ten, twenty dollars per whatever, but you’ll have less people,” said Emilywaves. “But once we scale up and have online tournaments, we have tons of people on netplay who’ve never been to their local—all of a sudden you’re increasing the number of users you have. You might be decreasing their average revenue per user, so now they’re only paying like 2-5 dollars, but now you have like ten times more people.”

The opportunity to involve an untapped pool of players is far from the only benefit that comes with the replacement of in-person weeklies with online tournaments. To understand the primary advantage, all you have to do is follow the money.

There’s a lot of capital in the hands of the Smash community; that was made clear by the Smash Summit 5 compendium, which raised over $280,000 in fall 2017. Unfortunately, instead of putting that money into the wallets of tournament organizers, content creators, and other community contributors, weeklies divert a huge amount of it into the bank accounts of landlords.

“When any attendee comes, 100% of their venue fee goes to literally paying rent,” said Emilywaves.

Indeed, Nebulous paid over one hundred thousand dollars per year to keep its doors open, most of which came either from the coffers of local players or directly from the tournament organizers themselves. With the help of that money, tri-state could have held its own major, flown in out-of-country players for monthlies, or sponsored carpools from neighboring regions. Instead, the community essentially burned its cash in order to achieve what could have been done for free via netplay.

There’s a third benefit to the Melee community embracing netplay: sponsorships. Competitive Melee is relatively unattractive to sponsors because of the lack of products that can be sold to a scene that primarily relies on decades-old tech such as CRTs and GameCubes. If netplay were to become a more legitimate platform for competition, it would open up a whole new world of potentially marketable goods, such as gaming computers, gaming furniture, headsets, and other products traditionally marketed to other esports communities. As a result, sponsors and companies that may have written Melee off as a profitable esport could very well give it another look.

Through netplay, gaming headsets and similar products have become increasingly marketable to the Melee community.

Let the record be clear—I love weeklies, and I understand that they’re important to the grassroots, two-dudes-sitting-in-front-of-a-CRT ethos that many members of the Smash community hold near and dear. Back when weeklies in populous cities regularly drew large crowds, I was very much in favor of them, and some of my best Smash memories are of catching rides to weeklies with my homies back when we were all on the grind. But it just isn’t good math to continue to sink thousands of dollars into weeklies that operate at a heavy loss, especially when both high-quality training and serious competition are now possible on netplay.

The post-documentary boom is decidedly over, and once again, the Melee scene has to adapt or be left behind. We need new blood, increased capital, and more sponsors, or else even our majors, which often run at a loss, will be forced to fold. All of these things can be obtained by shifting from an in-person weekly-monthly-major structure to one that uses regionally-organized netplay weeklies as the main avenue for players to develop skills that they can then put to the test at more profitable in-person monthlies. Most importantly, I don’t think that this kind of structure is something that needs to be argued for—it’s an inevitability that will almost surely come about in less than two years. Instead of grasping at a halcyon past that’s simply no longer possible, we should be prepared for this brave new world when it comes.

Thanks to Emily Sun, Gabe Karon, and Brian Osborn for their knowledge and expertise, to Aaron Dolgos and Jeffrey Li for lending their photographs to this article, and to Anokh Palakurthi for his editorial support.