5 Harsh Realities of Life as a Video Game Tournament Winner
Let me get this out of the way: I'm bad at every video game except one. And the only reason I'm good at that one is because for four years in college, before my roommates and I stumbled over to whatever crowded house party that was being thrown within walking distance of campus, I decided that it would be a good idea to pregame with a little "Chug whenever you lose a life"-sponsored bout of Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64. And, luckily enough for me and my liver, my roommates' reactions to this was always, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Bloody brilliant idea, old chap."
My school was in 18th-century London.
Like everything else I learned in college, I never expected to put this particular skill to use in any sort of real world setting. That all changed when, three years after graduating, I heard that a local game store was holding a Super Smash Bros. tournament. Like every other person in the world, I've seen the classic 1989 film The Wizard multiple times, and not once have I come away from the experience with anything less than a burning desire to show off my gaming skills in front of a raucous crowd of adoring and/or jealous tweens.
Or just Jenny Lewis.
If that was a dream I ever hoped to live, this Super Smash Bros. tournament was my best and only hope. So after a few minutes spent imagining I'd just helped Fred Savage get to California by hustling improbably elderly gamers out of their hard-earned money, I decided to take the final step, and entered that tournament.
Surprise! It wasn't shit like the movies make it out to be. Here are a few ways The Wizard lied to me about video game tournaments.
The Demographics Aren't What You Expect
Admittedly, I wasn't expecting the competition to consist solely of privileged white kids under the age of 14 like in the movie, but I did have expectations. Thanks to YouTube videos of teenagers shrieking like they're trying to prove to their god that they should be reincarnated as eagles, the people who participate in video game tournaments are stereotyped as Mountain-Dew-soaked acne banshees who have yet to discover the redemptive blend of hot water and shampoo. While those people certainly make up a tiny percentage, video game tournaments, even ones as relatively small as the one I participated in, contain a bunch of demographics, all brought together by a love of Nintendo brawls and comfy desk chairs.
"So do you guys get high before playing, too?"
For example, one of the groups of people who had put their names in the brackets were four roommates, all in their mid-20's. They weren't outwardly what an episode of The Big Bang Theory would call "nerdy," and at certain intervals in the game, they would retreat to their car in the parking lot to take shots. If you read the introduction to this article, you know my liberal stance on this kind of warm-up.
Unlike lesser athletes, I'm open about (gin and) juicing to enhance performance.
Another group consisted of three Hispanic brothers who all played as Pikachu. In Super Smash Bros., you can choose to have Pikachu wear differently-colored party hats to make the carnage more festive. Pokemon are forced by mankind to fight death battles with each other, so it's reasonable to think that Pikachu would have to struggle for his life even on his birthday.
Each brother would differentiate their particular Pikachu with their own choice of hat. Using Pacific Rim/Step Up logic, that kind of aesthetic coordination means that they would receive little dialogue and a swift exit from the competition. This wasn't the case at all when using "real-world-Pikachu-in-a-red-hat-decimating-the-competition" logic, though. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, "Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see." To that, I fittingly add a third portion, which is, "And that kid intensely playing as Pikachu over there has hit fucking everything."
Being "Good" at the Game Isn't Mandatory
All of the contestants certainly knew the rudimentary basics of controlling the game. No one entered the building, saw the rows of Nintendo 64's, and burst into impotent tears. But there are various levels of being adept at something.
The extent of my technological knowledge goes no further than "If you click the little box on the bottom-right of a video, it makes the screen bigger!" If I was in a '90s movie about computer hacking, I'd play the main character's clueless, sighing father. Or a person from the 1500s who died before electricity was invented. Or one of those dogs who can't ride a skateboard. I'm useless.
Worthless son of a bitch.
For every person who was just deft at clicking buttons until the opposing Mario had internal bleeding, there was a person who knew, and was very vocal about, all the little inner workings of the game. Knowledge doesn't always translate to application, though. I know all the words to Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda," but my ass still remains a vampire-hued technicality at the base of my spine, you know?
Anyway, after I won my first round, a guy approached me to tell me that, while I was good, I didn't know about "points of damage" on the character I was using. "Did you know that, when you're in this position, your opponent can take damage just from touching your back?" As someone who wields Yoshi with a method that can best be described as "all caps and no punctuation," it never occurred to me that there might be more ways to beat an opponent than simply using moves until the game told you that it was all over.
And then, like a lost episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where Michelangelo turned on a helpless, bleating Master Splinter and cracked his skull open, we faced each other in one of the shortest match-ups of the entire day. Everything he taught me seemed to go out the window as he writhed his hands across the controller in a vain effort to do something. It's hard to put into words just how suddenly infected with ghosts his fingers had become, and when he lost, he turned to me and began giving me even more pointers on how to properly handle Yoshi.
"I'd love to continue this discussion about your superiority, but I have to go play, since I'm still actually in this thing."
So that I'm not dividing gamers into people who have Super Smash Bros. street smarts and Super Smash Bros. instruction booklet smarts, let me say that, often, people had both, and facing the people who had the full Venn diagram of proficiency was mildly harrowing. As a child, I would invite older family members to play fighting games on the Super Nintendo with me, and I don't mean to brag, bros, but I'd kick their asses. Now, older family members, I totally understand what the deal was. Please accept my apologies. And my phone calls. I miss Christmas.
There Is No Code of Honor
The primary cause of anger in Super Smash Bros. is the person that you're currently playing against. The second biggest cause, and a more specific one, is something called "edge guarding." If you've never played the game, the way to win is to beat your opponent's damage percentage up. As the percentage grows higher, they can be knocked back harder and faster off of the stage. Most fighting games end with one character in a heap of ninja outfit and failure on the floor of the temple / bridge above lava / bridge above spikes. Smash Bros. matches end with someone being bashed into the stratosphere, or plummeting to the earth below. Naturally, desperate, flailing attempts at making it back to the stage will occur, and so will the opposite reaction, which is edge guarding. Or, to insert one more way for search engines to find this column, it's the "Killing Mufasa" system.
In some circles, it's called "Fuck you guys; this game's stupid anyways."
This, along with backing the opponent into a corner and pounding the "A" button, is a surefire way to raise the ire of those sitting on the basement couch beside you. It's an mostly unspoken code amongst friends that, if you're in the position to edge guard, you take the moral high road and let them float back into a more equal smashing stance. The people participating in the tournament, along with all of my former friends, felt none of this silly, mortal guilt. If you were helpless and pathetically fluttering, your challenger would transform into an anti-aircraft weapon, doing everything in their power to keep the homeland secure.
I'd say this could end friendships, but honestly, if someone does this, you were never actually friends to begin with.
In the subsequent versions of Super Smash Bros., you have the ability to dodge attacks in mid-air, which gives you a few more options besides "fight back and possibly die" and "just die." In the original, you were forced to become an unwilling participant in the saddest game of juggling ever. If you found yourself a little too far from the stage, all of the people within a cord's length of the system would suddenly remember why they hated you so much.
Everyone Is Going to Get Tired
One thing that The Wizard was particularly way off base about was the stamina and enthusiasm displayed by everyone involved. Be it the contestants ...
... that weird-as-shit host ...
... or the aforementioned crowd ...
... from beginning to end, the general enthusiasm level was something approaching full-on pandemonium. Keep in mind, this was 1989, well before energy drinks became the fuel that powers most gamers' internal machines. Unless all the scenes of kids power-slamming Mountain Dew were understandably cut, there's no way things would have stayed that exciting for that long.
Fortunately, an area where video game stores do live up to their sometimes unsavory reputation is in energy drink and soda sales, with the exception of GameStop, where you can only feed on the dripping and tragic souls of the employees. A continuous consumption of energy drinks can keep you artificially working for a little while, until your body starts to realize the horror of it all and just shuts the whole operation down. Drinking just one will mean that, in a few hours, you're going to be crashing hard, and combining that with the jittery feeling that comes with concentrating on not virtually dying for a long time means that you're going to start suffering when you least want to. For me, it took place around the finals.
An old Asian man offered to use his "special technique" so I could continue. I politely declined.
I decided to have two energy drinks, one right after the other, as many of the participants in the tournament did, because when in Rome, I guess. As someone who doesn't drink them that often, I forgot all about the diarrhea that would occur late in the evening, and focused on the momentary buzz I got. For a bit, it was like I was the title character in the movie Lucy, or, if you were born before 2012, Bradley Cooper's character in Limitless. That is, if those two films were sponsored by Monster M-80.
Some rounds later, the dullness in senses that comes with your brain telling you "Haha, you made a mistake, dummy," set in. I began to get irritable and cranky, and the comedown from the energy drink now granted me an infant's emotional stability. Maybe that's the real cause of all those videos of people screeching into their monitors and at their TV screens over a video game. They just need a nap.
Villains are Chosen Arbitrarily
In movies, especially those like the one I was trying to act out in real life, we know right away who the good guys and bad guys are, and we know exactly why we're supposed to hate them. For example, is some rich assface with a fancy Power Glove running game on Fred Savage's potential girlfriend?
Sadly, he didn't listen to Fred when he told him to keep his glove to himself.
If so, that's your demon right there. You know it and you embrace it and it makes you happy, because sometimes you just need someone to hate in life. Of course, that's hard to do when everyone in the room is a relative stranger. "Hard to do" never meant "impossible," though, and as I'd soon find out, if a villain doesn't emerge by natural causes, the video game tournament audience is more than happy to pick one at random.
"He gets to play in a chair, while the other contestants have to stand? Fuck this guy."
The tournament eventually came down to the finals (as many of them do, I suppose). I was set to take on one of the Hispanic brothers, the one who used a Pikachu in a red party hat -- the color of blood and vengeance. By this time, the audience of people who came to watch, combined with former players who were previously eliminated, had begun to pick sides. Maybe it's because Pikachu is cute and yellow, and Yoshi is given a set of moves that can best be described as "frustrating and alienating to the people you care about," but the crowd started to turn on me. As the ratio of lives that I had compared to my adversary became more lopsided, their response slowly dampened. The outcome became painfully, and therefore boringly, inevitable.
No one was booing me, because we don't actually live in the universe where the plot of The Wizard takes place, but the crowd had decided, circumstantially, that Daniel was the antagonist of this whole event. I was the boss battle, which is something that really compliments my expertise. But no one congratulates the boss for beating the player. At best, they might (and did) say "You were too good," but in this case, "You were too good," always translated into "I dislike you for how all of this went down."
"Congrats to you for winning, and to me for resisting the urge to Falcon Punch you in the taint right now."
The Ending Was the Opposite of Dramatic
It might've improved things if I had won in a way that was a dramatic cap to the event. Thanks to many famous works of fiction, even those that don't involve PTSD-riddled kids dominating a video game tournament, audiences expect the finish of something to be infinitely more badass than the events that preceded it. They want a "Hasta la vista, baby!" moment, or a Busta Rhymes saying "Trick or treat, motherfuckah!" moment. The outcomes of video games are hard to predict, as the leading way to win most of them is to sit in a place where no one can see you for the entire round, and shoot only when the opposite terrorist walks by.
When spectators are involved, they crave some kind of crescendo. Jurassic Park's ending defeats every bit of science that's ever been and ever will be created, but it's far more pleasing that a T-Rex wiggled in through the air ducts and ate the Velociraptors, rather than Alan Grant dropping some dead bones on them or something. Fate heard what the onlookers lusted for, took it all into account, and gave them a banana peel slip.
I headbutted the other player character as he stood, momentarily unaware of the laws of matter in the Super Smash Bros. world, on the low platform above me, which was the video game equivalent of winning the WBA Heavyweight Championship with nothing but a single fist to the ass cheek. You can replicate this unsatisfying finish by starting to sing "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep" just before your partner achieves orgasm.
Basically this, but even less thrilling.
The long tournament ended with the mood of the crowd dying. There were claps, but it was the exhausting kind of clapping that comes when something goes on for a long time, and is then over. A clap signifying the public's recognition of thankfully moving onto the next portion of their lives.
The tournament didn't have an entrance fee, so there was no cash prize. I did win a copy of Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64, which was cool. My eight-year-old self is reported to be very pleased, and my college self is practically shitting right now.
To discuss the pros and cons of having Yoshi as your main, check out Daniel's Twitter.
For more from Daniel, check out 6 Movie Special Effects That Have Gotten Worse Over Time and 5 Famous Actors Who Play the Same Role in Every Commercial.