I’m gripping my overpriced original GameCube controller tight. I remember owning four of these when I first got my console, but now I’m rebuying them because a friend claims they’re “more responsive” than the new controllers Nintendo puts out.
The room is dimly lit, and I’m surrounded by unfamiliar faces and the smell of sweat. When I was in high school I took a lot of boxing classes and sparring sessions always gave me an involuntary feeling of butterflies. When I got to college, I played guitar in a band and the feeling followed me there.
Now, I’m standing in a room full of strangers playing a decades old video game, and the feeling is coming back in full force.
I’m not afraid to lose. I’m afraid to choke.
I give my name to the coordinator at the door, and he adds me to the night’s roster. I’m nervous my hands won’t work when I finally get to sit down to play my first opponent, and I’m too scared to ask anyone in the room to add me to their practice rotation. I’m not very good at meeting new people. Instead, I find an empty setup, and practice pressing buttons, over-and-over-and-over again. L-cancelling and wavedashing are all easy, but waiting is, by far, the hardest part.
Not surprisingly, he's maining a space animal
There’s a lot of talking and even more yelling as everyone fights to be heard.
To my left is a single coordinator on the speakers calling out player names and setups. One of the PR players begins shouting to a friend playing Zelda on stream, it gets more than a few of the regular members to laugh. Suddenly static foreshadows the inevitable roar as new names are called out. It takes me a second to realize one of them is mine. Hearing your name being called brings a strange mix of emotions. The simultaneous wave of relief and tension that thrusts through your body is almost overwhelming. Adrenaline is one hell of a drug.
My first match is with a player I don’t know, but one that the venue seems pretty familiar with. Uh oh...there’s a fairly good chance I’m being set up as an easy round one for someone respected enough to succeed, but not proven enough to be seeded. Not surprisingly, he’s maining a space animal.
We start on battlefield with neutral starts. I wave dash back off the platform with thousands of options in my head, and a dedicated muscle memory pushing me forward. I am waiting for a misstep: a missed grab, an accidental air dodge, an unsafe aerial, anything. I’m not playing perfectly, but as the punishes add up and the knockback grows larger, I’m feeling more confident. The mountain of thoughts and decisions turn into a simple bait and punish approach.
I see the opening, and my hands start filling in the blanks. I have no delusions of being a star player. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever been the best in a room, even when it was just me and my friends. But when the first game ends and you still have two stocks, well, there are few words that describe the feeling as accurately as accomplished. I end my first set of the night with an unrivaled 2-0. Fuck yeah, I'm practically a pro already.
If my hands were shaking dachshunds before my first match, they’re stern pitbulls now.
I wait for my next round to start, knowing full well I’m going to win, while a match is being streamed on the projector in front of me. The room is still pounding with noise, but when I hear my name for the second time, I don’t feel fear. I feel confidence. Unfortunately, my confidence is shaken the moment I sit meet my opponent. Unlike the first round, my second round is against a seeded opponent, a known opponent. After a quick game of rock-paper-scissors, we are headed to battlefield. I’m comfortable with battlefield, and I’m comfortable fighting most Falcos. I’ve practiced the matchup thousands of times, and I’m more than ready to deal with the gauntlet of down air’s associated with it.
I’m not surprised when I lose neutral to lasers, but when my first stock disappears to a quick shine-down air, I’m not just surprised. I’m shaken. The dachshunds are back. The first game ends with me barely taking his second stock, and the second game starts with my opponent laughing and switching to Captain Falcon. He’s having fun. He’s not worried at all. The dogs are whining as I miss an L-cancel and eat a knee. And when the set finally ends with a suicide dair, I feel a weight in my stomach.
This isn’t going to go nearly as well as I had hoped. It’s a run through loser’s bracket now and my heart’s still racing in the throbbing, empty wake of a loss...