After a record-breaking 2015, and a marvelous start to 2016 with G3, the competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee scene is showing no signs of slowing down.
At 15 years and counting, Melee is one of the oldest, active esports communities and is still attracting the attention of outside organizations and sponsorships. Twitch, Beyond the Summit, and recently PAX—all heavy hitters in their respective niches—have invested time and money into Melee. And now, SXSW, the world-famous annual cultural event in Austin, Texas, will host the most important competitive Smash event this season: Battle of the 5 Gods.
This is an unprecedented opportunity for the competitive Smash scene to "cross-pollinate" with an audience that may not follow the game.
In an environment famous for tech start-ups unveiling their latest revolutionary app, or up-and-coming artists playing packed shows in downtown bars, top Melee players will be competing for $25,000 in front of a new demographic that may not even know who they are. For aging quasi-gamers that still fondly remember playing Melee in their college dorms, SXSW Gaming is presenting high-quality, exciting play that is sure to turn heads and get people saying, "Man, that dude using Pikachu is really good!"
It's a bold departure from the standard tournament set-up. The first phase consists of a round robin group stage where players will fight tooth-and-nail for the top two seeds. The five 1st seeds from all the groups will move onto the final top eight bracket. The remaining 2nd seeds from the group stage will duke it out for the final three spots. The last time a high-profile Smash event utilized such a unique format was MLG 2014 with its series of qualifiers and "Pro Pools".
"Battle of the Five Gods" Format, from their site
There are many benefits to hosting an event in this way. The casual stream viewer will not have to sit through hours and hours of early bracket play in order to get the high-quality matches that everyone wants to see. For fans of volatile players such as S2J, Wobbles, or Silentwolf, each of these players is guaranteed to play at least three peak-meta, streamed sets. Also, all of these sets are "high-stakes". They are all significant and will determine who moves onto the next phase. Players will be tested on their skill, endurance, and mental fortitude.
Unfortunately, one of the format's downsides is that we eliminate the potential for lower-seeded players to make exciting and upsetting bracket runs. But this is not an EVO, CEO, or G3. It is not meant to test an entire field of players and see who can make it further in an open bracket. Similar to "Smash Summit" before it, "Battle of the Five Gods" is a newer type of Smash event with an explicit purpose: to generate views and foster audience growth.
For the esports-savvy follower, the trade-off of "big open-bracket" vs "invitational" is the shift in focus from allowing any one person to make a mark to emphasizing popular player narratives. Sometimes these storylines are promised at larger events or are at the root of special exhibition "Salty Suites" but they are not guaranteed thanks to your Alex19s, Santiagos, Frootloops, or general tournament delays or unpredictabilities.
Battle of the Five Gods asks these questions and more: Was Druggedfox in 2015 a fluke, or does he truly have what it takes to hang with the big boys? Is HugS stronger once we take out the possibility of getting bibbity-bracket-bopped? Will Axe or Wobbles finally take a set off Armada and earn the title of 'God-Slayer'? For that matter, will anyone be able to take a set off Armada?
It's no secret that these player narratives are what fans enjoy and crave the most. It was the stories of the 2004-2008 professional Smashers that was at the core of the Smash Bros. documentary and ignited the renaissance of our scene. Part of what made the Smash 4 Invitational so hype-inducing was Nintendo officially recognizing our community and inviting our players to showcase the new game at E3. And who wasn't excited when an outside organization, Team Liquid, picked up Ken and KoreanDJ? Or when Cloud9 signed Mang0? And Beyond the Summit, a DoTA 2-centric new-media company, hosting a pseudo-reality show featuring popular players? There was a social media circus leading up to, and surrounding, the whole event. And now, SXSW Gaming is specifically hosting an event as homage to our "Gods".
Battle of the Five Gods is the most important event of the season because SXSW Gaming is running a high-profile event that helps our community grow while remaining true to the players and stories that help make our community what it is. No other scene has "Gods" quite like the Melee flavor of "Gods" and our "Gods" are featured in the name of the event. The challenge of "who can step up and take down these masters of your game" only serves to build on the rich history of community-created content dedicated to celebrating the passionate and talented of our scene. Between all the Moxie2D artwork, and Redbull featured articles, it's our players that drive the scene, and any project or event that exposes our best to biggest possible audience is a boon to us.
One could argue that our best players are not the only things that make Melee what Melee is, and I would agree. Our players are not responsible for the physics, the characters, the aesthetics, and the game's charm and depth. But for the rabid and the hardcore, the people that have been attending and organizing tournaments since before Smash was esports, we all believed at one point that we were the best on our block, and for the past 15 years we have been trying to answer the following question: "Is there anyone out there that's better?"
Battle of the Five Gods is the next chapter of the story that we all started together.