It was a busy Sunday, with the opening weekend of the Call of Duty League and League of Legends Championship Series taking place, as well as the Grammys and the Internet’s attention shifting to the death of basketball player Kobe Bryant. But to put it into perspective, last year’s Genesis 6, which took place in February during the Super Bowl, reached a peak of 174k.
There are some pragmatic reasons why Melee might be on the outs. First, there’s a newer, shinier-looking Smash game on the market on an incredibly popular system. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which was released roughly a year ago, has been a massive success for Nintendo. The game is already the best selling fighting game of all time, at over 15.5 million units sold. Melee, by comparison, has 7.4 million copies in the wild, which are only available on the second-hand market. A new Smash game — not to mention the massive success and accessibility of newer, free-to-play games like Fortnite — could make 2020 the start of Melee’s sunset into retirement.
Accessibility is a big problem for Melee. The game was released before high speed internet was widely available, and the game has never seen a re-release on newer hardware. This means that younger audiences can’t experience the game in the same organic way that players did back in the aughts.
It also means that newer gamers interested in Melee will need to buy an older console and hunt down a used copy of the game, or utilize an online workaround, in order to play it. That’s a lot to ask of players nowadays, especially when so many top competitive titles are available for free on PC.
In its 19 years, however, Melee has been surprisingly resilient: This isn’t the first time Melee has had to go head-to-head with another Smash title. Both Super Smash Bros. Brawl, released on the Wii, and Super Smash Bros. 4, released on the Wii U, were met with great fanfare at launch, only to fizzle out — clearing room for Melee to come back and surpass both in popularity.
Melee’s tenacity has always been rooted in its frenetic and exciting gameplay. Even at Genesis 7, matches were incredibly intense, with top-players pushing the competitive meta further on a game that hasn’t seen an update since its release at the start of the millenium. The sets between Team SoloMid’s Leffen and Even Matchup Gaming’s Aziz “Hax” Al-Yami were electric, two players operating at an extremely high level of technical proficiency.
Players from all around the world fly to the long running tournament series in Oakland, Calif., in hopes of witnessing history. The first Genesis, which took place in 2009 in a small town outside of San Francisco, is still remembered fondly: the event cemented the United States as the best Melee region in the world. Even with only 290 players competing, it was one of the largest esports events of its kind at the time.
To this day, story lines that emerged in the early years of Genesis persist: In 2011, for example, Sweden’s Adam “Armada” Lindgren took the title away from Joseph “Mango” Marquez, kickstarting a heated U.S. vs Sweden regional rivalry. After Lindgren’s retirement in 2018, the Swedish torch is still being carried by Team SoloMid’s William “Leffen” Hjelte, currently the second best player in the world.
The Melee community still actively competes in local events and continues to doggedly use CRT televisions, sticking to the analogue nature of the game. That stubborn attachment to tradition has made the community resistant to change, even when newer Smash games have been introduced.
And while some argue that Melee is a “solved” game, as its age has allowed players to flowchart the most optimal options, viewers witnessed a major upset over the weekend when relative newcomer Zain Naghmi took the tournament from Team Liquid’s Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma, the best Melee player in the world.
And yet, the continuing evolution of the competitive meta may not be enough to keep Melee‘s grassroots scene alive. Ultimate is neither Brawl nor Smash 4. Series director Masahiro Sakurai aimed to speed up the game and make it more competitive than its last iteration. The team at Nintendo has also been consistently putting out balance patches to prevent a stagnant metagame — an issue that plagued Smash 4. Coupled with new character drops and the success of the Nintendo Switch, Ultimate is well-positioned to grow.
The data is hard to parse, however. This year, Genesis 7 saw 1,106 entrants for Melee and 1,680 entrants for Ultimate. It’s a little hard to compare viewership for both games as Ultimate’s stream went late into the night, past 1 a.m. on the East Coast. Players like MVG’s Leopoldo “MKLeo” Lopez Perez and eUnited’s Ezra “Samsora” Morris could be seen yawning on-stage. But despite the schedule, Ultimate’s peak viewership hovered at 90,000, just shy of Melee’s peak, which neared 100,000. It’s hard to say which game would have come out on top given the wonky schedule. And at Genesis 6 last year, Ultimate saw far more entrants, but the game had recently released and was still in its honeymoon period.
Because Melee, and competitive Smash in general, lacks the support of the game’s publisher, Nintendo, it’s always been up to the community to bear the burden of cost. Prize money for Smash players is allocated based on tournament entry fees, and the winnings are hardly livable earnings. Only the absolute best players, those sponsored by major esports organizations like Team Liquid and Cloud9, can afford to play Smash full time. And given Ultimate’s overall popularity at the moment, teams have been more willing to back Ultimate competitors over Melee players.
Based on the cold, hard facts alone, Melee should be on its way out. But time and again, Melee has come back from the brink. The Smash Brothers documentary released in 2013 brought a “second wave” of fans to the game. Naghmi, who took Genesis 7 on Sunday, is considered a “post-doc” player.
Melee has also benefited from a stable audience on Twitch and YouTube. In Twitch’s earlier days, Melee got plenty of airtime, as the platform was staffed with veteran Smash players who championed the game from within. Unfortunately, many of those employees have left, and Twitch has become far more personality-driven, with individual streamers sometimes taking in more viewership than entire esports events. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Genesis has been a staple of Twitch for years. The streaming site featured the competition among the final eight players for both Melee and Ultimate on the front page, surely bringing in some curious viewers. But converting those viewers into fans and potential Melee competitors is a more difficult next step.
If Melee content creator Andrew “PracticalTAS” Nestico is to be believed, then the game will endures and this is all a part of Melee’s typical boom-and-bust cycle, one that occurs whenever a new Smash title comes out.
If that’s the case, Melee will have an excellent 2021.
Imad Khan is a freelance reporter based in New York focusing on gaming, technology, and esports. His work has been featured in The New York Times, ESPN, Kotaku, Polygon, Men’s Health Magazine and Tom’s Guide.