Inside the Mind of a Hyper-Adapter

Originally Published on April 1, 2015

Genesis 1 was, and forever will be, the greatest Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament of all time.

Genesis 1 Super Smash Bros. Melee Crowd

Genesis 1 Hype

I remember the excitement. It was the first West Coast national tournament in what felt like years and the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry was at fever pitch after a newly revived Melee scene reignited the conversation. I remember the legendary second-rate hotel. The hotel was ground zero for a 3-story, all-weekend Smashfest. At any given moment you could hear the soft hum of CRTs playing Dreamland's theme out of open suites with ample sprinkles of slurred trash-talk scattered in-between. And I remember the unassuming, long-haired foreign boy with the all-black baseball cap. Before he arrived on US shores with his tiny grasp of utility English, he earned the underestimated title of "Best Player in Europe". During that time, many players in the scene felt that the United States was the only country that mattered when it came to following competitive Smash. But with a Gamecube Controller in his hands, and Princess Peach as his avatar he made his statement loud and clear: I am Armada, the Beast from Sweden, and you will not count me out.

The Beast from Sweden

Melee Teams at Genesis 1, 2009

Hungrybox and Hax (Left) against Armada and Aniolas (Right)

Armada's debut at Genesis added to that tournament's legend because hardly anyone at that time in competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee adapted like him. Coming to the States, he was at a disadvantage. To perform well at his first US tournament Armada would have had to learn US-exclusive play styles and struggle with his muscle-memory to account for the nuances of the US version of the game. As HomeMadeWaffles so eloquently described it: "He [had to adapt] like a mother-******."

What does someone think when faced with overwhelming odds in such a hostile environment? How does someone maintain composure when facing their challenges head on? What is it like inside the mind of a hyper-adapter?

***

Here's where it starts—My questions for Alliance's star Smash Bros player, Adam "Armada" Lindgren, started with Genesis. I described the unusual pattern of his tournament sets—look back at his opponents. He would lose the first match, and then win the second with a counter-pick, and then on the final match of the set, he would win again on his opponent's counter-pick. It was extraordinary because it happened not one, not twice, but thrice against very strong opponents.

First Lucky. Then DaShizWiz. Then Mew2King? I remember picking up my jaw off the floor.—How the hell is this guy doing this?—Years later when I asked Armada what he told himself after he lost the first game to stay focused in his second games he responded with unflappable positivity.

Everyone can get one, I will win the rest!

He continued with a rationalization and a quote to go along with his inner confidence: "If you are already down by a game you can not afford to start having a bad mentality too. A pretty fitting quote would be 'The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead of you, prepare for it. The present is here, live it.' I tried to learn as much as possible from my past to get ready for the future, but I had to live in the present to create the results I wanted!"

The Rest Heard Round the World

But what about those moments when a loss rocks you to your core? How do you adapt and recover from that? During the Genesis Grand Finals, on game 4 of the first set the entire crowd experienced the "Rest Heard Round the World."

The Single, Most Important Rest in the History of Smash

In plain English he summarized the immediate aftermath:

Everything went black for a while, it was scary.

His words revealed an eerie similarity to first-hand accounts of near-death experiences, the description came from a voice that had confronted its deepest fears and had a valuable lesson to share.

"In that match I committed one of my worst mistakes as a competitor. One I repeated at Pound 5 actually. Being in the lead for the entire match and straight up outplaying Mango for the entire set, more or less, I felt like it was just 'one more stock.' I could feel the taste of victory, the moment of history in the making. Looking back at Genesis even today I feel like I did throw away a victory that should have been mine."

With a better understanding of his mentality at that time, Armada's reflections reveal just how young and green he actually was.

"Inexperience and the excitement of winning got too big. After the rest it was like all my work was gone. I started to get afraid of losing rather than trying to win. It felt like I already had my hands on the trophy and when that trophy was gone I could not play anymore. Hearing the crowd being on Mangos side was not really something I had experience with either, I had only experienced it once in my life and the crowd was like 40 people maybe so I guess that made a small impact too."

The Comeback

If you look back at the match immediately following Mango's miracle rest you can see just how defeated Armada was playing—and Phil's psychological commentary was ON POINT. 'The crowd brought Mango back to life!'

Genesis Grand Finals, Game 5

And then Mango got another earth-shattering rest for Armada to later comment on.

Before Mango rested me the game felt so hopeless...

"[Mango] gained all the momentum [he] could ever ask for, and in this [Peach vs Jigglypuff match-up] comebacks from Peach´s side are more or less hopeless. You gotta hope your opponent starts to play pretty bad and then you make it the game of your life."

From Armada's memory I noticed that hyper-adapters rarely sit back and succumb to waves of self-defeat. They recognize hope and draw as deep as they can from what they've seen, learned, or admired:

"The one thing that came to mind was Amsah vs EK, the best comeback of all time. I was there to see that one in person. What happend in that match was that EK was about to 4-stock Amsah in Game 7 of Winner's Finals, and Amsah came back. And even though [Amsah] played amazing you could see that EK had so much momentum and he was so confident, that everything that gave him such a huge lead was gone."

The Smash Brothers: The Comeback

Armada's words spared no egos. "[EK] started to play stupid, he wanted to have fun and do weird stuff, but step by step Amsah brought it back. And when EK realized that he was afraid and could not play [as well because of his fear, he lost]. [In my Grand Finals match with Mango, his] momentum was too strong, so I decided to roll into the [second] rest and hope that he would get the feeling of 'I won already' and start to play arrogant against me."

Seriously, Armada? Rolled into the second rest on purpose? Who thinks of that?—But I ate it up and I let him continue:

"Just as I hoped he very soon started to play much worse, he started to do roll outs, his spacing was far worse, I was reminded of Amsah vs EK more and more. I could see what was about to happen. [...] And when we were both down to 1 stock, he was afraid of losing. In the end my plan did not work out, but I gotta say it was probably one of my more weird decisions as a professional but I can't say I regret it."

The Self-Compassion and Honesty Meta

Despite his historical run at Genesis, it was not Armada's tournament to win. In the years that followed, he had few words to share on his mentality, post-tournament.

I was heartbroken, I felt like I threw away the chance to make my dream come true.

But even with a broken heart he approached his American debut with a healthy dose of self-compassion and realism. "I realized that I could not be upset with myself for too long, it was my first tournament in America and I honestly had a lot of factors to my disadvantage and I still did so well."

Armada's mature words dovetail nicely with popular practices and ideas for bouncing back from failure. In 2006, there was a university study on how self-compassion can help with adaptive psychological functioning. Conducted at the University of Texas at Austin, the study proposed that self-compassion protects against self-evaluative anxiety. The study placed participants in highly competitive and stressful scenarios such as job interviews, and then asked them to list their "greatest weaknesses"—Armada listed the Peach vs Jigglypuff match-up. Participant responses were gauged to see how self-critical they were depending on their levels of perceived self-compassion. One conclusion was that participants protected themselves against self-criticism because they approached their own shortcomings in a balanced manner, recogninzing inherent imperfections in the environment and themselves. And from Armada's thought-processes, we can see that he does utilize healthy doses of self-compassion when tackling competitive Melee.

One of the biggest pieces of evidence that we have for Armada's tenacity and very respectful approach to the game is his transition to Young Link for the Jigglypuff match-up. When I asked him what factors lead to that decision, he made sure to vent on Mango, Hungrybox, and their fluffy character.

I came to the conclusion very early that Peach vs Puff is a nightmare match-up. And after losing to both Mango and Hungrybox in the very same match-up I always hated, I figured that this match-up is not part of the future for me.

Like a gaming version of Jeet Kune Do philosophy, Armada was always honest about his personal demons and he understood that he could re-purpose that energy back towards his opponents.

"I wanted to give [Hungrybox] something he could not really practice against, the same way I could not prepare for Jigglypuff. This meant a char played by close to nobody but still a char with a good chance vs Jigglypuff. Another reason I wanted a weird character was because most people have a mentality that 'results means everything' and even though they don't admit it word for word I can see the mentality. Instead of learning WHY something is good or bad they just say what outcome happend in a tournament. I'm not saying I have all the right opinions, I clearly don't, but I know my method to find answers is clearly better than just looking at results and claim I know how match-ups work."

The King is Dead, Long Live the Princess

While most history-savvy Smashers are well-aware of Armada's in-tournament performance in the period following Genesis 1, very few are aware of the toll that travelling for Smash took on him.

He placed 2nd at Pound 5, but because of the controversy surrounding the event, he felt "robbed [by] the TO more or less."

"I had all along planned on going to Genesis 2 and not Pound 5, when the community partly would cover my costs I decided going to both. Confident I would do well at Pound 5. Some people [may question my decision to go], some people might question my decision to borrow money from a friend 'for a few days' until my Pound 5 money did reach my account but those were the two decisions I took."—chalk it up to youthful immaturity? What's done is done.

I live across the Atlantic, traveling is very expensive and my only money came from tournaments, I had to do well to keep my dream alive, I had no other choice.

He played through the different scenarios in his head and I couldn't help but cringe at the awful situation he found himself in after Pound 5.

"We were about 10 Swedes that would make a roadtrip to the west coast in America [following Pound 5]. I had for a long time stated I would join, [...] and everyone wanted to book the tickets. I wanted to wait for the Pound 5 money but I was convinced to just pay back [the ticket cost] once [I received the money]. Maybe 10 hours later I get the news that I wont get any money at all. I was now in a huge debt (for my age and income) and no idea what to do. The smash community helped me out partly so for that I'm super thankful"—he immediately expressed a <3.

But even with community support, Armada still faced the same real-life pressures every pro Smasher encounters at some point: earning the support of their loved ones.

My grandparents were not even that supportive anymore of me traveling to America and my parents were also more skeptical since it seemed like too much of a risk for them.

In the months leading up to Genesis 2, the tournament morphed into something different for him.

"Going to Genesis 2, I really felt it was 'all or nothing'. A while after Genesis 1 I actually did joke with a friend and said I would need to return to Genesis, the same place to take my 1st place back. When this tournament got announced, when it would be in the same venue I knew that this tournament would be mine. When I the night before the final day had a dream of holding the belt, the sign of the world champion in Melee it felt just like it should be, I went into that tournament ready to finally win the tournament and make damn sure that my dream of being the best was not only a dream but also my reality.

Armada with his Genesis 2 Championship Belt

Photo Courtesy of Melee it On Me

His victory marked a major shift in competitive Melee and launched one of the great reigns of a single, dominant player.

I had not lost a single tournament for 2 years. I had been the world champion for one and a half years. [I won] 3 Majors in America in a row, combined with one in Europe with American attendance (PPMD).

And then he announced his retirement. The community was shocked and he seemed to keep his reasons relatively private, but he acquiesced in his decision to answer my prodding. Like many of his thoughts, it started with family.

"I had no one to play with except for Android. Traveling to play with my friends did take a long time and in 2012 the community was not much alive at all in Gothenburg. So I could basically not play with anyone."

And then he let me in on a little secret: "Many people might wonder how I could hold one of the most dominant eras in all of Smash with those conditions, honestly, by far, the worst [conditions] of any world class player ever. I had to play with CPUs close to daily to keep [Mango, PPMD, Mew2King, Hungrybox, and everyone else] behind me. This started to get very boring, doing the same stuff over and over again, against a CPU, not even a human being. Smash started to get less and less fun for me, I could not deal with the fact of playing because I felt like I had to do it all the time, not because I wanted to. Reaching my goal was a challenge, one I'm very proud of, but to keep the title just for the sake of it was not fun anymore, I did not have enough people to play with."

And honestly, he could not have picked a worse time to retire. Soon after he made the decision, the Smash Community propelled Melee to the main stage at EVO2K13. In response to Melee's appearance at EVO2K13, there was a small community effort to bring him out of retirement for one last tournament, and he agreed, citing his brother's first American tourney as the main reason why. Placing top 4, Armada performed marvelously at the event. And as much as he claimed it would be his last tournament, he, and a whole legion of new fans, would join the scene once the documentary dropped.

"I decided to return when I finally realized what was about to happen for this game: it would finally grow into something bigger. The documentary and EVO made such an impact for us, even in my city Gothenburg (I moved there in October 2013). I saw that the weeklies started to get way more people, Melee had momentum. I did understand that my passion for the game was there, I finally started to get better conditions, I wanted to play again. I have a long time ago accepted that my passion for Melee most likely never will reach the point it had many years ago, but I still really like the game even if it's not the same, and I can live with that for sure."

In the (Mind's) Eye of Storm 20XX

It has been 2 years and some change since Armada's retirement. The level of competition in Super Smash Bros. Melee has reached a boiling point thanks to a surge of new players and the wealth of resources available. YouTube videos, in-demand Twitch vods, and a hack pack dedicated to elevating a player's knowledge of the game to post-apocalyptic, 20XX levels are just some of the things a player can use to get better. Never has it been so easy to get good at the game; never has it been so harder to beat your opponents.

And yet, some things can't be taught so easily. At Beast 5, Armada suffered a horrowing loss in a game against his fellow Swedish player, Leffen.

I lost in Winner's Semi-finals and now I was also down 2-1 in Grand Finals, I had to win twice in a row. I knew the stakes were high, winning was the only option from here on.

And before the following match somethi...—I'll let the moment speak for itself. Watch it. All of it.

The Sleeping Beast Awakens

Did you lose your mind? I. lost. my. mind.—Armada never stops surprising.—is he some kind of Smash Buddha? Did he honestly meditate before his next match and then utterly annihilate Leffen?—When I sat down to think of the things I wanted to ask him, this was at the top of my list and he gave me exactly what I was hoping to see.

"At first I wanted to just calm down, I had been a [tournament organizer] for such a huge tournament and it really takes away so much energy when you have to work for like 15-16 hours without a single break. So at first it was about taking it easy, deep breaths and closing my eyes. After that I tried to focus on what went wrong, remember the mistakes and what I could do against it. The last step was to picture myself winning the tournament, see myself being able to do it."

Back in 2009, Psychology Today published a little article on the benefits of visualizing your success. It mentioned that the technique was one used by champions of all kinds, including boxers such as Muhammad Ali. In the article, it is stated that "brain studies now reveal that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. So the brain is getting trained for actual performance during visualization." While many believe that the visualization process may be lumped together with hokey pseudo-science, there are merits to it and early thinkers such as Aristotle were known to utilize and believe in it.

And Armada always struck me as the type of person to build on the successes of others to reach his goals. At Paragon he utilized more than a decade's worth of tournament performance results to turn heads with the use of a new secondary—or primary?—character. His main character up until that point was Princess Peach, and he would use Young Link for fighting Jigglypuff. Fox is almost unianimously recognized as a better character than both Peach and Young Link, so it was a pragmatic choice to make the move. While many saw it as a "sell-out" move, I see it as in line with who he is: a man that adapts to survive.

And adapt he did. In his set against Leffen, he was on the losing end again for two matches. His Peach was not cutting it.

"My Peach did not have a good day at all because of [me being sick after Beast 5] and Leffen wrecked me in game 1. I knew I had to make the switch and even if I lost game 2 with Fox I knew my chances were with this character. Peach is a slow char, you can easily run away from her and I thought I would need more momentum and clean matches to really win the set, combined with the fact that [fighting Fox against Leffen's Fox] is even compared to a very rough match-up for Peach."

A Fantastic Set with Fantastic Adjustment

The Armada in Game 3 did not look like the same Armada playing in Game 2. He, more than any other Smasher except for maybe Mango—and soon Leffen if he keeps coming back from getting 4-stocked—has a strong history of wicked adjustment and adaptation. What does his embrace of 20XX mean for his Smash career?

"It means that I don't have limitations because of my character any longer, I will do my best for the summer and find that true motivation I once had many years ago when I enjoyed sitting alone and practicing tech skill and finding new things. If I find that motivation for this area, I really do believe I will be the best by the end of this summer."

Legacy

Last year, during the 2014 Summer of Smash, I had a rare opportunity to spend the evening with Armada, Mango, and a few other prominent players. I remember the 2AM car ride, and the long serious talk we all shared about EVO2K14 as we navigated the labrynthine maze that is the Los Angeles highway system. I remember a 4AM dance party on a lowly patch of grass in the corner of a Santa Monica backyard. And I remember talking to that once foreign boy about life outside of Smash, and his goals, and his dreams, and his methods and motivations.

He is younger than me by a couple of years, but I still felt like a kid in the pressence of a pragmatic older brother when he described just how he would achieve the things he wanted to achieve. "Marco, I want to be the best in Smash, but I also want to work at a stable future. I'm planning on streaming, and reaching out to my subscribers, gettting sponsored and I will do it by..." My memory gets a little hazy—blame the tequila—after that but I remember how controlled and focused he was, even in the face of Mango goading him into taking one, two, three more shots. He obliged and did every one with a respect-laden smile for his assuredly life-long friend and rival. Armada never loses sight of the important things.

Jenga

Jenga at a Los Angeles bar

Now that months have passed since that once-in-a-lifetime—for me—night, I'm fortunate enough to ask Adam what advice could he give to anyone that wanted to practice and achieve the mental fortitude he so effortlessly exhibits—what habits should we adopt?

I think many of those things, when it comes to learning [or mentality] is way too individual so it would be wrong for me to say anything is better. We are different, we learn differently so I would recommend that everyone tries out on their own

Damnit. Okay.

Then I asked Armada what he wanted his legacy to be and I imagined him chuckling internally as he formulated his response. "The BOAT - the Best of All Time." I couldn't help but laugh. Was he aware of just how appropriate that title may be considering armadas were historically made up of naval fleets? For a young man on the upswing of a long retirement come-back, I have no doubt in my mind that victory awaits this hyper-adapter. He's capable of overcoming deficits and with a new character at his disposal, he's already proven that he can win on his counter-pick.


- The title image uses a photo by Robert Paul (@tempusrob)