The Five Gods: Melee's Leading Cast
In the world of esports, the fans' excitement for games, matches, and tournaments, is largely centered around the storylines that surround them. Within these narratives, professional players become characters of their respective games as various arcs of competition unfold. From Starcraft’s Greg “IdrA” Fields, to League of Legends’ Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, these players and personalities transform to be larger than life in the public eye as they fill their storylines with controversy, rivalry, and extreme feats of skill and accomplishment.
Super Smash Brothers Melee, the second oldest major esports title alive today, has this on steroids. Fans and proponents of the incredibly fast-paced platform fighter compare the characters and events involved to the likes of Anime, Professional Wrestling, and other stylized forms of narrative. Comebacks, underdog stories, extra-human performances -- Melee has it all, it’s visceral, and damn entertaining.
At the center of it all are the Five Gods. The gods are much more than just the five best Melee players, they’re major characters in the game's story. The gods account for more than 90% of the major tournament victories within the past half a decade. They have shaped the game of Melee, and paved the road for its future, both in the way the game is played, and the way it is enjoyed by fans. The gods are Melee incarnate.
Image: David Zhou
While the five gods have had a reign of dominance together as a group, they appeared in the smash scene at varied times. For Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, excellence came early. Entering the scene in 2005, M2K quickly proved himself to be one of the most cerebral players the smash world had ever seen, with perfect decision making and a technical knowledge of the game that would earn him the nickname The Robot.
The second god to come to fruition was Joseph “Mango” Marquez. A young kid from Norwalk, California, Mango debuted in 2007 with play that revolved around innovations with his main at the time: Jigglypuff. He quickly garnered a reputation as young and mischievous natural, and at just 15 years old placed third at EVO 2007.
In 2009, several gods would finally converge on the largest stage Melee had ever seen. With 292 entrants, the first iteration of the now famous Genesis series boasted a quality and quantity of competition that was unmatched in its time. This tournament would go down in history as an omen of the god’s and the skill gap they would create. Genesis was the breakout tournament for both Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma and Adam “Armada” Lindgren.
Hungrybox had already been turning heads in the Florida community as his local placements improved. At Genesis, he would take home third place and accelerate his argument for best Puff in the world, threatening Mango’s place on the throne and sparking a rivalry between the two that remains today. For Armada, Genesis was his United States premiere, and after rapidly climbing the ranks of Europe’s smash scene, he had a lot to prove about both himself and his region. He placed second, going undefeated all the way to grand finals where he would lose two sets in a row to Mango. With a top five that included four gods, Genesis showed signs of something incredible, and was a foreshadowing of what Melee would soon become.
The final competitor to ascend mount olympus was the smasher formerly known as Dr. PeePee: Kevin “PPMD” Nanney. PPMD jump started his career at Revival of Melee 2 late in 2009 with a second place performance on Falco, a placement notable for being above Mango’s on the same character.
With all five of the gods in the spotlight, the following years of Melee were guaranteed excitement. The sheer mastery displayed by these five elite for the time following PPMD’s emergence is something that cannot be understated. Among them was a first place finish at every major tournament with at least two gods in attendance from 2008-2014, and their strong performances have continued long through 2015 and to the present day.
Image: Genesis 3 Stream
The five gods are more or less the main characters of competitive melee. Almost every major narrative at the top of the competitive community since their emergence was centered around these five players. They embodied the competition and held a certain mysticism to their play that is only seen when one pushes the envelope beyond average comprehension.
Whether it was the intense rivalry between Mango and Hungrybox, or the five year victory streak of Armada over his frequent teammate Mew2King, these titans of Melee shook the world of Smash at every battle, and every god fell into a unique persona that shined through their gameplay and personality.
Mew2King, already nicknamed The Robot, is seen as a player obsessed with optimization. M2K would look to the game engine with mathematical precision for the right option in various circumstances. His mastery of a wide range of characters can be attributed to this knowledge of Melee’s innerworkings. From a young age, Mew2King spent hundreds of hours making breakthroughs in the understanding of Melee through data collection and analysis. On the down side, M2K’s extreme expectations of himself have brought his mental fortitude under question as he frequently falters in high pressure situations.
Mango is the wildcard among the five gods. His play is contrasted most with M2K as his options and decisions are often what he feels is best rather than what technically is the best. He often becomes this monster of will that is simply going to get into the game, do what only he can do, and destroy his opponents with style. Often considered one of the most clutch players in Smash, Mango is feared for his losers bracket performances, as he famously unlocks an urgency that elevates his game higher and higher as the pressure increases.
In a fashion that suits his character, Mango has also shown patterns of “bustering” out, or failing to perform under seemingly random circumstances. He has more dichotomy than any of the other gods, making him a fan favorite and the most popular god -- either he’s playing like Neo from the Matrix, or he’s flubbing his way under expectations.
Armada is the type that is calm and collected on stage. His play is tight and deliberate and most of all, he will take his opponents; slightest mistakes and turn them into extreme advantages. If Mew2King is a robot, Armada is a well oiled machine, and a definite favorite for the most dominant of the five gods as his play has historically been a cut above the rest.
Hungrybox fills the role of most controversial of the group. With a playstyle that is on and off from impenetrable defense, to ceaseless aggression, Hungrybox is notorious for being one of the most frustrating gods to compete against. He is responsible for a deep hatred of Jigglypuff that runs among his peers (especially Mango and Armada).
Hbox is also unique in the way that he practices the game. He isn’t known for playing friendlies, he doesn’t share his knowledge with the scene, and he is the first smasher to utilize a dedicated coach in Luis “Captain Crunch” Rosias. All of this and more allows Hungrybox to hold a sole possession of Jigglypuff that is unmatched by any other smasher-character combination.
PPMD shares some similarities with Hbox in that he is known for finding large improvement through solo practice and simply watching and studying the game. Unlike Hbox however, PPMD is seen as one of the most beloved and wholesome of the five gods. As someone who studied psychology, he focuses very much on the mental game of smash and competition. His Marth and Falco are both smooth and methodical as his play revolves around evaluating his opponent and reaching peak performance. PP is the kind of player that is especially entertaining to watch as his movement and spacing, particularly on Marth, is so fluid and graceful that his matches often becomes more of a dance than a fight.
With the five gods being so dominant for so long, a skill gap began to form between them and the rest of the pack. Much like the rifts between Korea and the rest of the world in games such as Starcraft 2 and League of Legends, or the separation between European Counter Strike teams and their other international opponents, fans and players alike wondered and speculated on when and how the gap would close.
One of the best parts of having such a high level of competition is the prospect of the top spot changing hands. For many many years this obviously boiled down to which god was at the top. Changing hands maybe from Mango to Armada, or Armada to Hbox, but never moving outside of the five gods. This extreme mountain to climb was such a defining characteristic of professional Melee that every game a god loss was a huge deal.
Occasionally, there were strong players outside of the gods that would create buzz through the community. Aziz “Hax” Al-Yami, DaJuan “Shroomed” McDaniels, Robert “Wobbles” Wright, and more were players seen as being at the precipice of the skill gap at some point during the reign of the gods.
As non-god competitors improved gradually, the talk would follow. Will they defeat the gods, can they win a major tournament over the gods? For years, the answer was no, hope for a true challenger began to diminish, and the gods themselves were getting better at a faster rate than the remainder of the playerbase.
It wasn’t until 2014 that the total reign of the five gods would come to an end. As with any good story, there must be a champion who reaches new heights. In Melee, however, this champion was more on an anti-hero. William “Leffen” Hjelte is the god slayer and one of the greatest Melee players of all time. He has a unique past that is tainted by toxicity and tournament bans documented by Armada himself (a close friend of Leffen’s at the time) in a collection simply titled evidence.zip.
As with Armada, Leffen had climbed the ranks of Europe before his debut in the states in 2011. He showed strong potential in his United States premiere with a 17th place finish at Genesis 2. From here he would continue to place highly in Europe and find mixed success across the pond at various tournaments in 2012 and 2013. In the end, it was at Apex 2014 that Leffen’s prophecy was set in motion. At Apex, he defeated Hbox 2-0, and had close sets against two more gods, Mango and Mew2King. Once again, the community had another player to talk about.
At B.E.A.S.T 4 in Sweden, after a three round losers run, Leffen found himself in Grand Finals losers side against his hometown rival Armada. Leffen would claim his second god after a 3-0 to reset the bracket followed by a 3-1 to take home first place. He had bested a second god, but more than anything wanted to prove himself in the United States. Leffen had moved on from his poor behavior in tournaments, but retained an extreme level of self confidence. He knew he would be the one to defeat all five of the gods.
At MLG Anaheim 2014, Leffen took a set off of PPMD in pools 3-2, then back home at B.E.A.S.T 5 he defeated Mango in Winners Finals before taking the tournament 3-2 against Armada in Grand Finals (his first win with with at least 2 gods competing), and finally, at Apex 2015, Leffen became the first and only player to take a tournament set off of all five gods with a 2-1 victory over Mew2King in quarter finals.
Leffen not only beat all five gods, he was arguably better than them, and a strong candidate for the best player in the world. He was a harbinger of a new era of competitive Melee. The game was changing, and the gods' reign over the competition was coming to a close.
Today, the gods have grown thin in many ways and are no longer the sole peak of Melee. For PPMD, health issues have plagued him within the past year, putting a hold on his competitive career, for Mew2King, consistency issues have brought him up and down in 2016 with several placings below expectation, and even Mango, Hbox, and Armada have shown more weakness than in their incredible history.
While the gods are obviously still among the best Melee players in the world, their stranglehold on the competition has loosened. Leffen’s career has unfortunately been stunted by visa issues for the majority of 2016, but even without him the gap between the gods and the remaining top players grows smaller and smaller at every tournament.
Recently, both Zachary “SFAT” Cordoni, and Justin “Plup” McGrath have broken into the very top level of Melee, with several set victories over the gods (and Leffen) between them. Even so, both Plup and SFAT have yet to claim victory against Armada, leaving Leffen himself as the one and only god slayer.
The era of the five gods may be coming to a close, but their legacy is Melee itself. The gods are responsible for a large portion of the game’s incredible growth within the past five years both on a level of play, and competition. Tournaments have peaked at over 2,000 entrants, online viewership rivals even the newer esports titles, and professional teams and sponsors have begun to take notice -- from Redbull, to EG, to even Nintendo themselves at a small capacity, the game is climbing to new heights.
The five gods' influence and history is immortal. Players around the world will continue to talk of their achievements, wear their colors, and strive to imitate their play. They have made modern Melee what it is, and paved the road for its future by setting the bar for the up and comers. The gods will continue to push the envelope and take tournaments by storm until the day they fade away entirely, and with the skill that they display even after five years of complete dominance, I wouldn’t bet on that day coming anytime soon.
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