Chillin’s a legend of Smash. But he doesn’t want to fade into history just yet.
In the nascent days of Super Smash Bros. Melee, Ken was the man to beat. His dominance over the game as it was starting was such that one of the biggest questions for the scene as a whole was: “Who would be the first to beat Ken?” When that first loss came, it wasn’t from Azen, Ken’s East Coast counterpart, or Isai, his longtime teammate. Instead, it was delivered at the hands of a 14-year-old in a Green Bay Packers jersey and a baseball cap. In the basement of a veterans’ organization depot in Woodbridge, Virginia, Kashan Khan—better known as Chillindude829—became the first player to defeat Ken in a tournament.
Of course, anyone who has watched The Smash Bros documentary knows that story and what followed. Ken went on to win the tournament through losers’, handing Chillin his own defeat before taking down the East Coast’s hero in Azen. Chillin made a challenge to Ken’s throne, but it was—in the end—a small blip in the king’s reign. Ken continued his dominance until 2007 at the final Champ Combo tournament series, Super Champ Combo, where he finished seventh—one place above Chillin, who placed ninth. He then retired.
These days, Chillin and Ken wear the same uniform. Chillin traded in his Packers jersey, and Ken his crown, for the white and blue of Team Liquid. But while Ken, and many other old-school players like him, took extended breaks from the game—some having quit for good—Chillin has been a steadfast presence. Results lists may have moved from Smashboards to Smashpedia and Reddit, but Chillin’s presence remains imprinted throughout.
Where he hasn’t been, even in the old days, is on top of them. When he beat Ken, it wasn’t just the shock of Ken’s defeat that made the victory so notable; it was that Chillin wasn’t even considered the top East Coast player at the time. As Melee moved into the MLG era, Chillin was a contender, but a trophy never came into his grasp.
I first talked to Chillin just about a year ago, just before Pound 2016. It was a tourney that held personal significance for Chillin—a bygone staple of Virginia Smash, his own region, making a hopeful return to prominence. The parallels write themselves. I was somewhat worried that I’ll ask questions too harsh, but Chillin spoke candidly of his own history, unfazed by the subject matter. “I've always felt like I'm just on the cusp of the elite players,” he said. “Back in the day, the highest I was ever ranked when there was a national power ranking in 2005 or 2006 was sixth place. So I was never quite top five, but I was also very close to being top five.”
The ease with which Chillin pulls stats from Melee’s MLG glory days is telling. In some ways, Chillin’s career has been defined by his place in the shadow of the elites. He’s been good—even great—more than almost anyone else, but never the best. These days, even top five has been a struggle. His best placing in the modern era was a 9th place finish at EVO 2014. Following that, his resume has been a string of 17ths, 25ths, 33rds, and even a 97th place at EVO the following year. Genesis 3: 49th place. When I asked him about what he wanted to place at Pound 2016, he said that top eight was his goal. And yet, at that tournament, he had a similar showing. His 25th place came courtesy of close sets to Miguel “Zgetto” Rodriguez and Edgar “n0ne” Sheleby, both players who were ranked below him on the 2016 SSBM Rank.
I’ve always felt like I’m just on the cusp of the elite players. Back in the day the highest I was ever ranked when there was a national power ranking in 2005 or 2006 was sixth place. So I was never quite top 5, but I was also very close to being top 5.
With results like those, it was hard not to think that Chillin’s time in the spotlight might be coming to an end. I asked him about how his results have impacted his pride; he responded without hesitation.
“As much as pride is an important factor for me, I think that it's become slightly less of an important factor. Just because—and I'm being brutally honest here—just because I haven't had the best performances over the past couple of years. I mean, obviously it's still an important factor to me,” he added quickly. “It's just that I haven't been able to take as much pride in my results or in my play because of my results over the past couple of years.”
The way he talks about pride makes it clear that Chillin has long ago come to terms with his own results. When faced with the reality of lower placing, many might throw in the towel. But Chillin is a stubborn breed. Far from deterring him, his status as a perennial challenger to the best has fueled him. “I've always felt like I had a little bit more to prove in terms of my Smash skill,” he said. “I still really have that desire to prove myself in terms of Smash and break through to the elite level that I've never quite been on.” Although he’s never quite achieved that level, he’s still trying. He’s still there at every national.
When I asked Chillin about the future a year ago, he said he views his performances with cautious optimism; and more importantly, as a sign of improvement. Of Genesis, he said, “It was kind of bittersweet because on the one hand—yeah, I got bracket screwed.” He draws out the “i” in “kind,” making it clear that even though the result hasn’t torn him up, he’s unhappy with having to settle with it. “In that sense, it was a big disappointment. But on the other hand, I did take both players to last game, and both sets were pretty respectable. So I took it as at least a sign of improvement compared to last year's majors wherein I had a lot of under performances, at least by my own standards. I feel like Genesis showed that even if I didn't place where I wanted to, which would have been more along the lines of top 32 or top 16, at least I can still compete with top 20 players like HugS and PewPewU.” When I talked to him after Pound, he revealed that he sees that tournament in a similar light. Even though he’s not placing where he wants to, he sees something in his own play that gives him reason to be hopeful.
But when the topic of concrete goals at his next tournaments came up, he grew more somber than at any other point we’ve talked. It took him a while to respond. “I want to get wins that I'm proud of,” he said. He spoke slowly and laboriously, his words carefully considered. “I haven't gotten a ton of those lately. So I want to get two top 20 wins in the next 6 months. It would show—even if I don't end up top eight at those events or whatever— it would show people that I'm still capable as a player and I'm still improving, especially compared to last year.”
Soon after our conversation, Chillin upset Justin “Wizzrobe” Hallett at EVO 2016, going on to earn a 17th place at the biggest Melee tournament to date. Then, at The Big House 6, he upset Michael “Nintendude” Brancato, drawing on his years of Ice Climbers experience from practicing with his former H2YL member, Daniel “ChuDat” Rodriguez. That gave him a 13th place finish, a highlight of the past few years. Chillin got his top 20 wins. For a while, it looked like Chillin’s imagined resurgence was starting to become reality. The 33rds became 25ths, and the 25ths became 17ths and 13ths. But then Chillin started slumping again. He dropped to 50th place on the 2017 Summer SSBMRank, with his only notable wins coming against recently struggling players like McCain “MacD” LaVelle or at the expense of Ice Climbers, a matchup in which he’s consistently overperformed. So the question is now: will any degree of comeback be enough?
★ ★ ★
It’s just that I haven’t been able to take as much pride in my results or in my play because of my results over the past couple of years.
Chillin’s strategy for his battles is one he’s had a long time to consider, and one that’s been forced to morph as the game does. When he started playing, Chillin was a pioneer of his character. Many of today’s commonplace Fox options, like falling upair and waveshining, were first developed as Chillin looked to develop the character. But as 20XX develops and both the upper limits and base level of technical skill required to play Fox go ever higher, it can be hard for Chillin to keep up.
Technical limitations are something that Chillin has had to overcome since he started playing, however. In his words, he’s ”pretty much never had tech skill that was comparable to whoever the most technical Fox was at the time. I've always been able to make up for that with good move selection, and using what tech skill I did have effectively.” Indeed, even when he was the premiere Fox, it was Zelgadis, a West Coast player, who was pushing the limit of the character on the technical front. At Pound, Chillin—as the godfather of the character—was chosen to lead the cadre of Fox mains in character crew battles. Despite being targeted as the weak link of his crew by many spectators for his lack of technical skill, Chillin managed to hold his own in the crew battles, going close to even overall even with his old-school play, and eventually winning the event.
“Move selection” is what he designates as his biggest strength. It makes a good degree of sense. One would expect that Chillin’s familiarity with the innumerable situations a Melee match can place you in would be especially high. It’s clear when he talks about his playstyle that he’s keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses, but also that he truly believes in his own ability. In fact, when Chillin started competing, he wouldn’t even practice tech skill because of how confident he was in himself. “Before, like, 2007, I don't think I ever practiced tech skill on my own,” he said. ”I had this idea in my head that I was this good and I don't necessarily need to practice to improve; I just need to outplay the players that I'm playing against.”
When he started playing, Chillin was a pioneer of his character. Many of today’s commonplace Fox options, like falling upair and waveshining, were first developed as Chillin looked to develop the character.
That said, he acknowledges that eventually, he has to give in to the cresting wave of the future. “The more the metagame continues to advance, the less I'll be able to keep up with just smarts and good move selection and applying what tech skill I do have effectively,” he stated, his tone matter-of-fact. “All of that will become less and less effective as the overall speed of the game continues to increase.”
It’s not that he doesn’t want to play at that speed. These days, it’s hard for him to practice even when he wants to. Although he doesn’t tend to play at the same breakneck pace that’s devastated other players’ hands, such as Aziz “Hax$” Al-Yami’s, Chillin’s been playing for 14 years, and that takes its toll on more things than just ego. He recognizes the necessity of raising his speed if he wants to play Fox, but given his hand issues, it might not be a possibility. And so he’s arrived at an unfortunate conclusion: that Fox himself may no longer be a possibility.
To that end, Chillin has at times considered a switch. When I talked to him, he didn’t mention which character, but seemed torn up about the idea in general. “It definitely sucks,” he said, taking a moment to sigh before continuing. “I am not happy about it. It's very much a bittersweet moment for me because I do feel like tech skill limitations aren't there to the same level with other characters, and I think that because of that I might actually be able to excel more with another character than with Fox.” Despite the idea that he might succeed more with a different character, the thought of abandoning Fox is a tough pill for Chillin to swallow. We haven’t seen that switch materialize yet, perhaps because of how hard it would be on Chillin. When I asked him recently if it was still a possibility, he replied that in the long-term, he’s still keeping it in mind, and is going to start pulling out his secondaries more frequently in tournament to prepare for it if necessary. Again, we haven’t seen that yet - perhaps indicative of just how jarring a transition that would be for someone who’s been playing the same character for over a decade.
It’s at this point when he seemed the most upset, rather than talking about his past results. “If it were up to me I would keep playing Fox forever, because I do love the character, and I do feel like I innovated a good amount of stuff that is still used today with the character,” he said. “That's a very bittersweet feeling because I basically was, like you said, the godfather of this character. I was the first relevant Fox main and I invented a lot of stuff that Foxes still use today. So it would definitely suck to have to switch off of Fox, but it's seeming more and more inevitable at this point.”
The theme of holding onto the past is a recurring one. It’s hard to blame him for his attachment to the character he’s been playing for so long, the playstyle he’s succeeded with, or even the players he still looks up to in Chu and Azen. At this point, Smash has been the focus of over half of his life. But change is necessary, and not only in the realm of the game itself. Switching mains is a reality Chillin has to face, but it’s one forced onto him by his strained hands. The deeper issue he’s identified is more intangible, and thus, far harder to fix.
The more the metagame continues to advance, the less I’ll be able to keep up with just smarts and good move selection and applying what tech skill I do have effectively…
“I think the biggest issue for me—and this has probably been my biggest issue from day one really—is the mental game,” he said. Chillin’s realized that his mental game has never been at quite the level it needed to be for him to compete with other top players.
“I think it's [an issue] that I've always had, pretty much,” he continued. “It wasn't necessarily there at the first couple of tournaments I went to, and that's simply because those tournaments were so small.”
It’s no coincidence to Chillin that even though he thinks his mental game has always been his biggest problem, it’s only now that it’s coming to the fore. The issue of the mental game is one that is more important now than ever. In some ways, it’s just as much a new-school adaptation as the advent of more technical players. According to Chillin, it’s a hurdle that’s becoming more and more important. “I think that way back in the day, sometimes the skill gaps were large enough that even if you weren't playing as good as you feel like you could, you'd still beat players,” he said. As the overall skill level of players rises, the mental game becomes even more important in differentiating the great from the just okay. Peak performance is so competitive that how someone is feeling on any given day can make all the difference.
It certainly explains why so many of his losses seem to come as nailbiters. An inability to steady himself when he most needs it has led Chillin to lose his composure in clutch situations. It doesn’t pair well with his own tech skill and practice issues. In pivotal moments, Chillin can fall apart.
Chillin’s resigned to the fact that fixing his mental game will be no easy task. “Because it has been a problem for so long, it's something that I think is going to take pretty much a fundamental lifestyle change from me,” he said. Among those changes include a better diet, more exercise, a healthier sleep schedule, and more regimented practice. Above all, though, Chillin wants to start meditating. He cites PPMD as one inspiration for himself in terms of the mental game, and Armada as the other. For Chillin, this is the missing piece of the ladder he needs to ascend to the next level. He’s satisfied with his own gameplay, but the ability to stay focused when he most needed it could have meant a win against HugS, PewPewU, Zgetto, or n0ne—all of which would have been hugely significant. “I'm still feeling the steady improvement,” he stated when I talked to him after Pound. “If I can find a way to start closing out some of these really clutch sets, I think I can get a lot higher up in the rankings.”
★ ★ ★
I think the biggest issue for me, and this has probably been my biggest issue from day one really, is the mental game…
The realization of just how big Chillin’s problems were came at Apex 2015, in his now legendary $100 money match with Team SoloMid’s William “Leffen” Hjelte. What started as run-of-the-mill Twitter beef (at least where Leffen is involved) quickly escalated into a high-stakes battle with both money and pride on the line. Twitter trash talk escalated until the stakes reached past $100 dollars to the honor of being able to continue playing neutral Fox. At some point, Chillin started actively boosting the hype. “Basically, I really... was kind of surprised by how hype everyone in the community seemed to get over the money match when it was first announced,” he said. “When we were first going back and forth on Twitter I was kind of shocked that people were getting so into it and that they were so excited by it, and that in turn excited me and made me want to play it up more, made me want to hype it up more.” For Chillin, fighting Leffen wasn’t just an opportunity to defend his cred; it was also a chance to play to the fans.
And boy, did he do it. The money match was announced as an official part of the Salty Suite at Apex. Hype videos were made. Chillin released a diss track, played live at the venue.
Then he got 5-0’d.
“I actually was probably the most in-practice at Apex of any tournament in my entire life, but the biggest thing during the match itself was that my mental game was just not there,” he stated. He talked about his own humbling without any drama or pretension. It’s clear that he’s come to terms with what happened, even if he’s not happy about it. “My composure—my ability to keep composure—was next to nothing. I just completely crumbled. The mental game issue that I had just came to the forefront right there.”
In some ways, Leffen is Chillin’s demons personified. You don’t need the quote from Chillin to see that his mentality was completely shattered. Watching the video again is somewhat painful. Leffen laughs hysterically as he takes game after game while Chillin progressively looks like he wishes he were anywhere else. The difference in composure is startling. At one point, Leffen pats Chillin on the shoulder after he self-destructs. At that moment, from the expressions on the two players’ faces alone, it’s clear that the match was over.
Past that, Leffen represents all of Chillin’s shortcomings as a player. He’s young, fast, and precise. He plays Fox in a way that focuses on perfection in execution—execution Chillin has trouble keeping up with. When Leffen beat Chillin, it wasn’t just $100 that he took or his Fox color; it was the new generation of Smash, and of Foxes, wresting control from the old as brutally as possible. That Chillin’s diss track was called “Respect Your Elders” was perfectly appropriate, because Leffen demonstrated that there was absolutely no reason for him to do so.
My composure, my ability to keep composure, was next to nothing. I just completely crumbled. The mental game issue that I had just came to the forefront right there.
All that said, Chillin’s feelings on the event are decidedly mixed. At one point, while talking about the money match, he suddenly laughed. “I've actually had people come up to me at tournaments, and it's not necessarily the best way of hearing this,” he said. “But people will come up to me and be like, ‘Hey Chillin, you got me into Smash!’ and I'm like, ‘Oh really, that's awesome, man!’ and then they're like, ‘Yeah, your match versus Leffen was one of the first matches I saw!’ I just go, ‘Oh, sweet... I guess.’”
He laughed again as he finished. It’s clear that he doesn’t regret the money match. When asked if he should have treated it differently, Chillin responds,“Obviously, maybe now, in hindsight, I should have played it up a little less.” There was a wry humor to the way he talked about his loss. “Tried to come off a little bit more humble about it. But in retrospect I don't think I would have done anything differently. Despite the fact that I was the overwhelming underdog, I still chose to approach it like that, just because that's the kind of person I am and I wanted to have fun with it like that.”
It’s not just the fun of the sparring that made Chillin accept the money match, however. Playing Leffen was a test for himself, specifically for his mental game. The money match presented an opportunity to play again on the big stage—with all the pressure that came with it—something Chillin hadn’t been able to do for a while. “To be fair, because I haven't made top eight at a major in a couple years, I've had a shortage of really really hype matches like that,” he said. He went into the money match with a good idea of what was in store for him. “I definitely never expected to get 5-0'd,” he continued. “But I knew that there was a strong chance that I could lose. I wanted to put myself in that situation where I was the underdog and see if I could come out on top.” In that way, the money match was a learning experience, even if it was a harsh lesson. If playing Leffen was a test for his mental game, it’s one that Chillin unfortunately failed. That’s something he’s well aware of, and it’s the catalyst that inspired him to make some change. “It's something that showed me that, okay, even if I wanted to start playing on the big stage more often, I don't know if I'm necessarily ready to do it,” he stated. “It was just kind of a realization for me that if I was going to ever be on that elite level I would have to address and improve my mental game outside of the game.”
Certainly, things didn’t turn out all bad for Chillin. The wide draw of the money match means he has more fans than ever, even if he’s often known for the memes he’s spawned in the wake of the event. His stream blew up, especially in the days just preceding Apex. That said, he can’t help but wish that the end result had been a little better. “It's bittersweet,” he repeated. It’s a word he used multiple times throughout our conversations. It seemed apt. “Obviously I would have liked to have performed better in that match, since it was one of the most high-profile matches of my career. I really wish it would have gone differently, but... despite that, I can appreciate what it did for the community.”
★ ★ ★
But in retrospect I don’t think I would have done anything differently knowing – despite the fact that I was the overwhelming underdog, I still chose to approach it like that, just because that’s the kind of person I am and I wanted to have fun with it like that.
Chillin has been helping the community, intentionally and otherwise, for a long time. Chillin got his start as one of the first MDVA tournament organizers. He’s dedicated more than half of his life to Melee. Even the legends of our scene today, those whose lives are consumed entirely by the game, can’t quite rival the pure amount of time that Chillin has spent on Melee. It’s not something he ever foresaw. “It's a little weird, man, I gotta be honest,” he said with a chuckle. He gave a long exhale. “I never expected it to be the biggest thing in my life. I never expected that it would keep going on that long. But I think that that's kind of the beauty of it. I don't think that any of us necessarily expected this. We just loved the game that much that we were willing to keep putting in the time and the effort to make things happen around the game and keep it going. It's something special. At this point, I kind of take it for granted, but there's really no denying that there's something special about Melee that's causing us to not only still play it, but still grow the scene after this many years. We just decided that this is the one we like best and this is the one we're going to keep playing. So it's honestly something remarkable, and it's hard to really appreciate it while we're still living it.”
Perhaps it’s the fact that Chillin’s been “living it” for longer than anyone else that makes it so hard to give up his dream. In multiple ways, he now finds himself at a crossroad. He’s making progress, but it’s a question of whether that progression is moving at the speed necessary to sustain a career. “It's a very interesting kind of like—I guess—transitional phase in my career,” he said when I spoke to him. It’s a topic that’s recurred in our conversations since we started talking a year ago, Chillin always candid about the possibility of moving on but never taking the plunge. “I'm either going to have to transition to like, a different character, or maybe like a different role in the community or something like that. I'm not really sure, but... it's just a very strange kind of limbo that I'm in as far as my Smash career right now.” He’s made forays away from that limbo, but he’s still by and large there as a competitor.
There would be no shame in his shift to a community figure role after thirteen years in the scene. Recently, his laidback personality and memories of the dawn of Melee make him an easy pick for any tournament looking for a commentator. Many newer members of the community were already introduced to the history of competitive Melee in part thanks to Chillin’s presence in Samox’s documentary. During our interview, he demonstrated an uncanny ability to recall sets and events from more than ten years ago with clarity and verve. That crystallization of the early scene’s history is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. Chillin’s well aware of that fact. “Just being there from the get go, I think, gives me a unique perspective that not a lot of people have,” he said. “We really had to put everything on our backs to make everything happen—to make the tournaments happen, to make the Smashfests happen. Especially major tournaments, like when we had Ken and Isai fly across the country because we had a teams pot bonus that we raised through biweeklies. Stuff like that kind of gave you a deeper appreciation for the community and what Smashers are really capable of when we put our minds together and work together.”
It has to be said that without Chillin, the scene wouldn’t be where it is today. He’s played his role as a competitor, spokesperson, organizer—any way he can be involved, he has been. Chillin is a living part of Smash history. For some, that means that his story has been written, and that it’s ended. But Chillin scoffs at the notion of being a has-been. “It's just inaccurate to me,” he retorted. He mentions Korean DJ, who didn’t achieve much during his comeback. “And, you know, Ken has done a couple great performances since his comeback, so that would be like calling Ken a has-been even though he got top sixteen at EVO.”
I never expected it to be the biggest thing in my life. I never expected that it would keep going on that long. But I think that that’s kind of the beauty of it. I don’t think that any of us necessarily expected this. We just loved the game that much that we were willing to keep putting in the time and the effort to make things happen around the game and keep it going. It’s something special.
These days, it seems like he’s found a happy medium—streamer, commentator, historian. He even speedruns Super Mario Sunshine. But he is still, above all, a competitor. To some degree, it’s Chillin’s attachment to the past that won’t let him quit. If he ever showed what he had to prove, he could stop, but he never quite has. Chillin attributes that drive to a combination of optimism and stubbornness. “It's optimism in the sense that I know my potential,” he said with conviction. “I know for a fact that I can be placing higher than what my results have indicated lately. The stubbornness aspect is that no matter how long I've been underperforming according to what I feel I should be placing, I'm still gonna come back for it and do it because I still know that I have that potential. I always feel like this next tournament could be the one where I break out and have the performance that I've been looking for, play to my potential, and show everyone what I'm capable of.”
It’s a powerful combination. It’s not one that’s unique to Chillin; anyone who’s participated in Melee can probably recognize it among their friends or even in themselves. But the extent to which it’s kept him going might be special. That drive to be recognized was born in the early days of the scene, surrounded by his crew H2YL—specifically Azen and Chu Dat. While Chillin will forever be the boy who first beat Ken, he can’t stake a claim to the same successes as his friends. When he speaks about them, it’s clear that he still views them as legends, and perhaps even mentors, despite the time that’s passed. “They're both just natural prodigies when it comes to video games. So when I played with them, it was always kind of, ‘Alright, I know for a fact I can catch up to these guys if I put in enough time,’ or at least that's what I was telling myself. I think that motivation is something that's stuck with me since day one and something that still helps motivate me today.”
When I asked Chillin what moment he’s proudest of, his answer belied his attachment to those first years when the scene was still in its formative stage. “I think the moment I'm most proud of is actually beating Ken and Isai at MLG Chicago in teams. That was the first time they'd ever lost a doubles tournament, so it was kind of just symbolic of—not only was it that me and Azen ended up winning over Ken and Isai and knocking them out for the first time, but it also showed me that I was competing at the same level as the basically top three players in the world: Ken, Azen, and Isai. For me to be competing on the same level as them, even if it was in doubles, was a really big moment for me.” He goes on to describe the rest of the tournament in detail: Being thrown in a pool, his phone dying, and spending time with the rest of his friends. He smiled as he told the story.
For his whole career, Chillin has been striving to stand on the same stage as his peers. Until he finally does, he can’t stop. He’s never been a natural talent. He hopes to reach that goal through hard work and dedication. An unrivaled love of the game and his unique personality have enabled him to forge on past irrelevance at the top level, the near death of the scene, and his own mental battles. In all honesty, it may have been smarter to stop long ago—he would have avoided a large deal of the derision tossed his way in recent years. But the need to finally have a legacy that he can look back on with pride has kept Chillin going this long. And the improvement is there, slow and stutter-step though it may be. For all his talk about his time possibly being up, it’s hard for me to imagine him quitting now.
“I think what defines the Smash scene is resilience,” he said. “The ability to get knocked down and come back. You can see it on sort of a smaller level with individual players at tournaments who have bad performances. You might think they're on the downswing, and then they come back and have a great event the next time. Or you can see it on the grander scale, with how our whole scene was dying after Brawl came out and we managed to—through the efforts of no one but ourselves—bring it back from the dead and turn it into something that none of us ever could have expected. It's that ability to bounce back—that ability to be down three stocks to one and just have that spark.” He snaps his fingers, caught up in his own words.
“You know what, I can still win this.”