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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mr. Game & Watch helped this Smash pro soar. The success came with a cost.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock, Nintendo)

By all standard measures, Enrique “Maister” Hernández Solís should be a Smash Ultimate superstar. He’s vaulted from an unranked position on the last season of the Panda Global Rankings to sixth in the world in the current season. He hails from Mexico, an underrepresented region and the origin of Ultimate’s reigning scion, Leonardo “MKLeo” Lopez Perez. He’s only 19 years old. And best of all, he’s the standard-bearer for a character no one else plays at the top level: Mr. Game & Watch.

There’s just one problem: everyone hates that character.

Maister is the premier Mr. Game & Watch player in the world, and is the only Game & Watch main to boast major results primarily with the character. The title comes with its fair share of travails. What Maister has received in return for being the best Game & Watch in the world is derision from his peers, a seemingly endless stream of online hatred, and difficulties securing a sponsor.

At first glance, Mr. Game & Watch may seem a curious target for ire. He resembles a squat stick figure more and is an homage to some of Nintendo’s earliest releases: a series of 59 handheld consoles, each pre-loaded with a single game. Game & Watch sounds like a dial-up modem booting up; his animations move at a low frame rate; his matte black form lays flat against Smash’s lusciously detailed backgrounds. He’s a two-dimensional anomaly in Smash’s colorful roster of precisely rendered characters.

That’s not to say that Game & Watch lacks personality, however. His moves are chiefly exaggerated pantomimes of daily tasks or hard labor: One of his attacks sees him flinging bacon at his adversary; in another, he flips a manhole under the opponent. It’s slapstick. Watching him fight another character is almost like watching an 8-bit “Three Stooges” routine.

It’s exactly that unique persona that drew Maister to the character in the first place. “When I was a kid, I thought, ‘Oh, this character has no face,’” Maister says. “He has no voice, either. It's just beep, boop, and that's it. … I thought that was cool.”

In Smash 4, Maister was commonly seen as a low-tier hero, a staunch warrior whose devotion to his character only made for occasional exciting moments, should the tournament bracket stars align. But in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest addition to the Smash franchise, he’s a legitimate threat at all skill levels — and the community reaction couldn’t be more different.

Check Twitter when Maister makes a top 8, the final bracket of a Smash tournament (it’s a frequent occurrence these days). As soon as he’s on stream, the timeline floods with complaints about Game & Watch and how Maister plays the game. Some claim that he’s “carried” by his character — and those frustrations aren’t only expressed by faceless Internet trolls.

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Beyond the Summit’s invitational tournament is known for incorporating creative skits as part of the entertainment. At the most recent event, Smash Ultimate Summit 2, pro players were hooked up to a lie detector machine and asked whether Maister deserved to be at the tournament. Some, such as eUnited’s Ezra “Samsora” Morris, ranked second in the world, and known for his visceral hatred of Game & Watch, flatly replied “no” to the question. Panda Global’s Eric “ESAM” Lew, a Smash veteran currently ranked 13th in the world, set off the alarm when he responded in the affirmative.

Lie detectors aren’t foolproof. But that such a skit was even considered is a fitting litmus test for how controversial Maister’s play is, even among Ultimate’s cream of the crop. Maister has proven his skill — he placed fourth at Smash Ultimate Summit 2, and recently shut out Samsora completely in a first-to-10 showmatch. So what is it about Game & Watch that sets players on edge?

Every Smash character has a set of more than 30 attacks, usually pulled from their original games. When combined with the characters’ other attributes, such as speed, weight, and size, they define how each character fights and interacts with their opponents.

In general, Game & Watch complaints highlight two areas of his moveset: his Up Special and his quick Smash Attacks. Game & Watch’s Up Special, in which he springs upwards off a trampoline, covers a wide area around him. When used while shielding, it can punish even the most minutely misspaced attacks, frustrating opponents to no end.

In addition, Game & Watch has unusually low ending lag on his Smash attacks, powerful moves that require a recovery period or cooldown as a trade off. With a shorter cooldown period, Maister is free to use some of his most powerful attacks at little to no risk with immense payoff — a tactic that rankles many onlookers and can seem “spammy.”

For Maister’s part, the complaints about Game & Watch don’t bother him.

“I don’t really care too much about Game & Watch hate itself,” he says. A scroll through his old tweets reveals a healthy sense of humor on the matter, something he attributes to life lessons from his parents. And for all the hatred towards his character, even Maister admits Game & Watch is annoying.

“I started using him because he’s a troll character,” Maister says. “I can understand why they feel annoyed, or they feel bad when losing against him. Because I know he’s annoying, and I know he’s got a lot of stuff that p---es people off.”

What does upset Maister is when the hatred is directed toward him as a person. “I feel like people do not know how to separate hating a character from hating a player,” he says. Plenty of the vitriol online targets Maister directly — and when he sees it, he has a hard time not responding.

“I feel like for me, it’s harder to not pay attention to them because I’m new to all this,” he says. “I’m just not used yet to all of this hate.”

Every pro faces the swarm of online detractors. But for Maister, the hate is more than an annoyance — he’s worried it may be hurting his chances to play Smash full-time.

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While Maister was previously signed to two organizations, Nevermore Esports and Anáhuac Esports, they’re a far cry from the tier-one sponsors of his competitors (Anáhuac was just his university’s esports division). Right now, Maister remains the only free agent in Ultimate’s top 10, a fact that frustrates him to no end.

“I want to be sponsored by a big organization and represent them out there on the big stage, to wear their jersey — it’s always been my big dream,” he says. “And now that I'm so close to getting it, I go like, ‘Why? Why? I don't get it.’”

The answer may be hard to come to terms with, but it seems evident. Game & Watch has propelled Maister to the top. He boasts the greatest leap in ranking ever recorded in Smash, has a healthy stream with 350 subscribers, and over 20,000 Twitter followers. Last weekend, he placed fifth at Genesis 7, one of the most prestigious tournaments. But Game & Watch may also be what’s keeping him from his biggest aspiration.

“I hate to say it. ... I do feel like maybe sponsors look at it and see me as a bad image for the Smash scene,” Maister says of his continuing search for a team. “They go like, ‘Oh yeah, well… he’s good and all, but he seems to get a lot of hate, so we don’t want hate to be part of our organization.’"

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Without a sponsor to help him financially, the pressure that Maister already feels to perform well at tournaments, and capture prize money, is only amplified.

“It hasn’t been good at all,” he says, his usually jovial tone darkening. “Every tournament I play from now on is pretty stressful. The money that I get from streams is really what’s keeping me alive right now.”

There is cause for hope, however. Even those pros who originally criticized Maister have since grown to respect him. Maister has even befriended Samsora, who recently affirmed that though he hates Game & Watch, he thinks Maister is “chill and funny.” Their recent streams together make a joke of Samsora’s distaste for Game & Watch. Maister’s skill is being recognized as well; following Maister’s Genesis run, Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, widely recognized as the greatest Smash 4 player of all time, tweeted his admiration of the Game & Watch main, tweeting, “when analyzed, his playstyle is actually very smart.”

Going forward, Maister is committed to focusing on the good. “Of course, I do know there are more supporters than haters,” Maister says. “I’m proud about that actually. … I’m actually going to start not paying attention to haters unless it’s something too personal. It’s just toxic, and it’s not good for me.”

Maister’s shown he’s a force to be reckoned with, even without Game & Watch: At a Smash Ultimate Summit side-event, viewers and commentators alike were surprised at the strength of his play with other characters, such as Pichu and Joker. So, why not stop playing Game & Watch?

“Oh, because I love him,” says Maister. “I love everything about him.”

Zane Bhansali is an esports professional and commentator who has previously worked with ESPN Esports, HTC Gaming, and Cheddar Esports. You can find his other writing and interviews on Twitter at @epengu.

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