Finding Mastery and Community Through Competitive Gaming

I was born with an upper body brachial plexus injury. While lucky enough to be affected in ways that didn’t prevent me from living a largely functional, average lifestyle, my injury meant I’d always lag behind in sports, my body contorting and compensating to do things — like dribble basketballs, jump rope or catch baseballs — that other kids found easy. I didn’t get many chances to compete growing up. Sometimes my cousin tried to wrestle with me, and I’d throw my body onto the ground flailing the moment he touched me.

I worked well with my hands though. Sure, plenty of video games were impenetrable to learn, but in Pokémon Gold I could sweep through the AI opponents with something I never had in real life: brute power. In Super Smash Bros. Melee I could use my own expertise to destroy a less experienced opponent. Looking back, I was hungry for ways to compete — whether that was in perfecting my Pokémon Trading Card Game deck or dominating the 5th grade chess club.

Still, brushes with real competition pushed me back into the defeatist mindset I felt on the baseball field. At my first Yu-Gi-Oh tournament, I got destroyed by a man twice my age. In one moment, I knocked my deck over by mistake and placed a particularly powerful card that had spilled out on the top of my deck. Even after cheating, I lost handily.

Early Experiences

My first Super Smash Bros. Brawl tournament was also my last. A public library event, it was poorly run, ending with a three-player grand final free-for-all. When I tried to play competitive Pokémon, I didn’t even bother to get my team up to Level 100. The competitive gaming world had come to seem as untouchable as the world of athletics, with time and money replacing the barrier of athletic skill.

Still, games gave me plenty of other ways to engage in semi-competitive play. As a teen, I loved going online in games like Team Fortress 2, where I could work around my shortcomings in dexterity by playing support classes like the Medic, or by playing mind games and hiding as a Spy. Dedicated servers meant I could return to the same place daily after school with the same players, some of whom actually played at a competitive level in their clans. I was never very interested in competitive TF2 however, with its strict team compositions and strategies. The way I thrived in these game was on the margins, by doing things just well enough, by making choices the average player wouldn’t and taking advantage of them more so than pure skill or intellect. I seldom won the games, but I was useful.

When I did return to Super Smash Bros. as a college student, it was this idea that pulled me through. Eschewing the quasi-athletics of technical play, I downright ignored advice and avoided learning too much about what I was doing. I felt it would taint my enjoyment knowing how things actually worked. And this way, losses didn’t sting so hard — after all, I didn’t know what I was doing. I happily played low-tier characters while my friends researched and consumed footage of top players duking it out. The people who I’d initially shown the games to learned to trounce me.  

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Really Feeling It

It started with another friend in my hometown. He was a fan of fighting games, and he’d always enjoyed Melee but never taken it too seriously. We just so happened to be at about the same level, and we both realized there that we wanted to get better.

I decided I was going to take every opportunity I could. I watched “The Smash Brothers”, a 2013 documentary that helped popularize competitive Melee, and went to every tournament I could, for nearly every game in the series. Before long, I was placing in my alma mater’s power rankings.

With the release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I’ve found myself entranced by the series’ competitive scenes in ways I haven’t before.

Part of that has been mentality: I’m more interested now in learning things, and I’m better able to believe in my ability to improve. Some things about my body are set in stone, will never get any easier, but in Smash I can build new vernaculars with my hand movements. I can break habits, and I can grow. I can acknowledge that everyone else playing is just human, too.

And as much as tournament settings seem focused around weeding out the weak and lifting up the best, the fighting game community is one mostly built on shared knowledge and love of the game. Fans dissect high level matches and top players make tutorials on their characters, gameplay and tiers. Like in speedrunning, the competitive elements of fighting games sit atop a foundation of cooperation and shared knowledge, with the metagame essentially being something of an ongoing collaborative research project. This is something people miss about competitive gaming in general — it’s not all trash talk and hostility.

That isn’t to say there aren’t good reasons that people hesitate to get involved in competitive communities. Some people would rather just play with friends or in party settings, and that’s absolutely valid. Others would rather use alternative playstyles or lower tier characters. And even the best Melee players get bored of “Fox Only, Final Destination” sometimes.

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Barriers to Entry

Of course, competitive spaces can also be toxic. The Super Smash Bros. Melee community, for example, has had a history of using ableist, sexist and homophobic language. As discussed in the Smash Documentary, calling another player’s style “gay” was common even in the early 2010s, as was using the term “rape” to refer to domination of another player. This kind of sophomoric behavior have helped bolster the scene’s domination by straight men. One top player’s #MeToo accusations have gone fundamentally unexplored. Another top player had to apologize after he mocked a fellow competitor’s hearing disability.

It’s also scary to start. At my first Melee tournament, I misread the ruleset and got absolutely swatted. It can take weeks — if not months — of hardcore practice for someone to start succeeding in a competitive setting. Losing can be fun though, and is almost always educational.

At weekly tournaments I can see improvement, nurture relationships, and learn in a competitive environment. I love that I can join in the joy and struggle of competition as someone who hasn’t always been able to play team sports. Inevitably, I finish a round of Smash red in the face, heart beating, adrenaline pumping. Maybe that’s the reason Smash players are known for smelling bad: the game’s intensity can produce a full-body reaction. We should still probably shower more.

Fighting games are a way to access a sense of improvement. It’s not a feeling unique to the genre of course — it’s similar to the feeling of mastery developed by people learning an instrument or working out. All of these activities, despite their apparent differences, are intrinsically constructive in that they provide a sense of competence and growth.

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Come On In

The range of people who can participate in this culture is expanding, too. As a result of the damage years of high level play on a standard controller can wreak on the hands, more accessible control options for fighting games are becoming commonplace, like the Smash Box. The newer Smash games also make things easier by heavily encouraging customized controls and in general a decreased focus on complex technical play. It’s not perfect for everyone, but it is a sign that the fighting game community is only becoming more inclusive.

Players on the spectrum like the legendary Jason “Mew2king” Zimmerman have become stars. Black, gay, furry Dragon Ball FighterZ superstar Sonicfox is, in his own words, “everything Republicans hate,” and transgender Melee player Magi defeated Smash “God” Mang0 at the recent Genesis 6 tournament. While local Melee tournaments skew more white and male, there’s a lot of diversity in my town’s Ultimate scene, and the weekly events generally feature setups meant for friendly play as well.

For marginalized people in a world that often denies us the opportunities to do things that for others are normal and expected, competitive games offer us something we don’t always see in our day-to-day lives: an equal ground. I know that I can always improve my game, and that by doing so I can compete with others and contribute to the cooperative project of a competitive scene. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the best in my town, let alone a top player in my region, but it’s exciting just to exist in this space, to see my tag up on my town’s power rankings, and to have people know me by that nickname.

I traveled for a tournament for the first time this year, bringing my town’s organizer with me to a showcase of some of the region’s top players. In pools, I was beaten by every player I faced. There remained hope, however, in the amateur bracket. Exclusively reserved for players who didn’t make the top 24, this bracket was up to my speed. I made it to Winner’s Finals and placed third. There was no prize, but it felt good being one of the best amateurs there, joining the rest of the competitors for a group photo, and becoming my own kind of athlete.

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