There’s a reason that the smash community affectionately refers to EVO as “our Super Bowl”
For most players, this is *the* tournament, the one they spend the entire year previous working towards. It’s during the summer, our playoff season, it features the best international talent, the most prestige, and a chance for glory and recognition from players outside the smash scene itself.
This year’s top 8 even took place in Mandalay Bay, a giant stadium used for prime time UFC fights and premier events. This was the grandest Evo of all and Melee’s largest tournament of all time. The storylines that came with it are matched to fit, and we’ll be talking about these for some time to come.
MD/VA is back on the map
The region of Maryland, DC, and Virginia (abbreviated to MD/VA) was one of the original birthplaces of Melee. During its early run in the competitive spotlight, it was home to one of the finest players in the world, and continued to generate many since. Legends like Plank, Azen, Chudat, and Chillindude829 all got their start here...but in recent years, the talent of MD/VA fell off the national radar. Beyond the occasional amazing performance by one of its players, MD/VA was discounted as a second-rate region until very recently. Evo cemented the knowledge that the region still had what it takes to compete at an international level.
After an early loss to Choknater, MD/VA’s Zain went on a tear through loser’s bracket, defeating Mooninite, Vro, Ka-Master, and Medz before running into Smash G0d. Smash G0d had the showing of his life this EVO, coming to a last-stock, last-hit set versus Armada. He was one missed edgeguard away from making Melee history with the largest upset of all time. Speaking of upsets, Chillindude made a huge one by dismantling Wizzrobe 2-0. Wizzrobe was in the conversation for top 15 players coming into this tournament, but he was quoted by commentators later that he “had never felt so lost against a player [as against Chillin]”.
Llod, the region’s premier Peach player, defeated Hugs and Georgia’s Baka4moe to make it to Winner’s Finals of his round 2 pool, and both of the region’s ICs players (Chudat and Nintendude) made it to top 32, the former in Winner’s side and the latter plowing through Azen, Berto, Tafokints, KJH, Smash G0d, and Chillindude on a monstrous loser’s run that began in first round pools. MD/VA’s finest showed up to play this Evo, and their resumes reflect it.
While the best-of-3 format is not preferred for smash tournaments, as there’s too much variance to really get an accurate assessment of which player is superior to the other, EVO’s format allows for upsets to occur in places where they otherwise might not. Already mentioned were Llod and Chillindude’s big upsets over HugS and Wizzrobe, but a host of lesser known players took big names this tournament. North Carolina’s Kaeon sent Nintendude to loser’s bracket in round 1 pools, sparking the huge loser’s run mentioned earlier. Chudat 2-0’d SFAT in round 2 pools, and after losing round 1 of the same pool to Prince Abu, Squid clawed his way back through the entire pool, beating NY Joey and Fly Amanita, in addition to getting revenge on Prince Abu. Gravy had a monstrous run through pools, culminating in a win over Druggedfox, and FatGoku had his own loser’s run including a win over Reno in second round pools.
In addition, there were a few close calls; Already mentioned was Smash G0d’s close set with Armada, but lesser known is that Texas native MT took a game in the Marth ditto on FD against Mew2King, bringing the set to game 3. While it would be difficult to argue that either player was better than their godly opponent, the volatility of the best-of-3 format led to upsets that probably would not have occurred otherwise. It made for an exciting and spectator-friendly experience; now if only there were fantasy brackets...
In top 32, there was one player taking unexpected names and rising to his potential: Julian Zhu. In the days of the first Genesis, Zhu was in the conversation for top ten in the world, with arguably the second or third best Falco at the time. His victory over Mew2King at Genesis I remains the go-to example of textbook Falco, even with all the shifts in the meta since.
But ever since, Zhu has dropped off from that high ranking. His is a name everyone surely knows, but he remained in the “A” tier of players, unable to rise to the potential he is capable of. Some speculated that it was due to a poor mental game, that he let his opponent’s skill affect his perception of how the set would progress. Others thought it was matchup deficiencies or unfamiliarity. In particular, the Ice Climbers had always been a huge thorn in his side. In addition, he has been toying with Sheik in the past year, and even attempted a Fox counterpick against Hungrybox at last year’s Big House. Zhu had kinda fallen off the radar, and his Evo placings in the past two years (49th and 33rd) reflected a player perhaps past his prime.
Boy, if you were sleeping on him this EVO though, you made a huge mistake. After being knocked into loser’s bracket by Shroomed in round 2 pools, Zhu turned up the jets. He defeated Far, Darkrain, and Llod to make top 32, and the following day burned through Laudandus, Chudat, and even Lucky before being knocked out by Mango at 9th place. He showed tight laser and space control, fearlessness at the ledge, and a solid combo game. In particular, his win over Chu demonstrated some hope that his days of losing to the ICs might be in the past, and a win over Lucky (whose best matchup is Falco) showed just how much of a fighter Zhu still was.
This was an amazing performance from him, and one of his best in years. While it remains to be seen if this is the start of a new chapter for him, Zhu reminded the world that he is still a threat to be feared.
2016 has been, without a doubt, the year of Captain Falcon.
At Pound 2016, S2J clawed his way into top 8, nearly defeating Mango along the way. Within three months, Wizzrobe took 4th at Dreamhack Austin, the highest placing by a Falcon at a tournament with three gods in the history of the game, N0ne defeated Mew2King, whose Sheik had not lost a full set to a Falcon player in almost a decade, and Wizzrobe did the impossible by 3-0’ing Hungrybox at WTFox2.
Now, at EVO 2016, S2J made another top 8 finish, clawing his way through loser’s bracket and defeating Westballz in top 8 (Westballz was in the middle of a 13-set winning streak against him at the time). He did it in style too; the first game was won by way of suicide stomp, and the second with a double knee read on an instant side-B recovery. These both being done on a stage of incredible magnitude surely cements Johnny “s2j” Kim as one of the best Falcons to ever do it.
The performance of these three Falcons this year is raising eyebrows and some questions. Matchups that were previously thought to be hideously unfavored for Falcon, such as Sheik and Fox, are being considered close to even now. More importantly, the gods of the game are starting to fall to them, and it is only a matter of time before one of these players is able to take out Mango or Armada to make smash history. These three players are demonstrating Falcon’s ability to be a top-tier contender, and they show this in the versatility of their playstyles. There really isn’t only one way to find success with Falcon; he has a varied moveset and plenty of tools to mix up his gameplay. In the future, we may see these Falcons borrow more from each other as they race to the top. This time next year, who knows? We may get lucky enough to see a Captain Falcon player cemented in the top 10.
The Curse is Broken
The last time Kevin “PewPewU” Toy reached top 8 at a major outside his home region of NorCal, it was at The Big House 3 back in October of 2013. Since then, he has been cursed with a string of 9th place or lower finishes. 13th at Apex 2014 and Summit 2, 9th at MLG Anaheim, EVO 2014, Apex 2015, CEO 2015, EVO 2015, Summit 1, Genesis 3, and CEO 2016, and a smattering of 17th place finishes as well. PewPewU has been very unfortunate up until now...but Evo 2016 broke that streak.
While he unfortunately ran into loser’s mode Mango to end his tournament life, he defeated The Moon, Colbol, and Norcal rival Shroomed to finally make it into top 8 with some of the crispiest Marth play we’ve seen from him in a long time. Once, PewPewU was in the conversation for top 10 in the world. If he can keep this up, we may yet see him return to such heights.
Stubborn and hard-headed, Mango has made incredible strides this year and was one of the favorites to take the whole event. He quit drinking and took practice very seriously in the weeks leading up to Evo, winning his first event with Armada present since The Big House 4 at WTFox 2. Mango was looking unstoppable coming into EVO...which is why his losses at the hands of Plup and Hungrybox were so devastating. They were the same players he fell to last year, and a fit or nerves brought him down again. Against Plup, he choked away a pair of vital edgeguards, and against Hungrybox, he abandoned his new laser-heavy aggressive playstyle and fell back into what seemed like autopilot, only to get goaded into playing too close to the ledge and giving up the set.
His twitter was morose afterwards, quoted as saying he had “never been so depressed after losing”, and you could see it in his eyes. This remains only his second placing this year lower than 2nd place, so there’s still a lot of potential that he could finish the year out on top, but Mango has some soul searching to do, and trying to find that fire inside of him may or not be a difficult task. We look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.
Hardest choke of my life— Joseph Marquez (@C9Mang0) July 17, 2016
So close to being the next godslayer alongside Leffen, Plup has set wins over PPMD, Mango, Mew2King, and Hungrybox...but Evo showed us just how far he has to go to beat them all. He managed to defeat Mango and Hungrybox this tournament, but when confronted with Armada in a best-of-5 set, he was quickly dismantled 3-0. He was three-stocked twice, once with Sheik and once with Fox, and though the first game was close, a crucial SD put the win out of reach.
What Plup is attempting to do is no small task; Armada has not been defeated by a Sheik since Amsah, back at Pound 4 in 2010 (the last time he was defeated by a non-god other than Leffen). He has established himself as the closest contender to break into that S tier of players in years, but unless he comes up with an answer to Armada’s nearly-unstoppable dominance in that matchup, he will struggle to take home the gold. One thing is for sure: Plup can do it, but he’ll need to go back to the drawing board and figure out his best answer for how.
Battle for Number 1
No question about it, the battle that took place in Grand Finals this year was the most high-stakes match in recent memory. Armada, sitting in winner’s side of the bracket, had been lamenting in recent weeks that no matter the accomplishments that keep piling up at his feet, without the two Evo wins under his belt there would always be those who claimed he was not the greatest player of all time. This is a man who has not lost to a player outside of the top 6 in almost six years. This is a man who has won two Genesis titles, a Big House, an Evo, two smash Summits, and dozens of other tournaments besides. This is a man who literally reinvented Peach and brought Fox into a new age. But if he could not take home the gold, then he didn’t want to take home anything. Armada is a champion, with a champion’s mindset and the champion’s obsession with winning.
By contrast, Hungrybox has been a seismic force this year. He has an astonishing 9-5 record versus Mango, a 40-2 record over players ranked 6-25, and 1st place wins at Battle of the Five Gods, CEO 2016, and Pound 2016. He is the only person who can currently contest Armada’s title of best in the world...and he has gotten second place the last two years in a row. For Hungrybox too, there was no second place at this tournament. He was getting the gold, or going home.
When these two met last year, the play was defined by slow battles of attrition as both of them tried to figure out how the other one wanted to approach the other. By contrast, the 10-game grand finals sets we were given at Evo this year were unquestionably the best Fox-Puff sets ever played. Both players performed brutal 0 to death punishes off of single mistakes, and the fact that they happened with unflinching ruthlessness and regularity added a strong tension to the matches. Those watching could tell: a single mistake from either player spelled death. Even still, both players had incredible moments. Armada paired off two three-stocks on Hungrybox in the ten games played, and even JV-3’d his opponent on Dreamland in the first set, a traditional Puff counterpick. He played, as one would expect of a player in contention for best in the world, at peak form. He was an unflinching wall, and he made Hungrybox regret every small error he could.
But the real story of EVO 2016 was Hungrybox. This man, in the middle of Mandalay Bay stadium, surrounded by ten thousand people clapping the rhythm of the game’s music (off beat, of course), watched by 219 thousand people online, playing from loser’s side of the bracket, didn’t even wear headphones during the set to drown out the noise. Time after time again, he landed the critical rests, combos, edgeguards, and escapes that let him clutch out the important games and sets. Most people would struggle to talk in front of that kind of crowd, let alone play a game which requires that much focus and precision, but Hungrybox emerged victorious and made history in the process. He is now the tentative number 1 in the world, a dream he’s had since his childhood, and one he had worked for his entire life. He earned his victory, and as he broke down into tears in the throes of his victory, it was difficult to not feel some sort of happiness for him, ten years after he started his journey.
The best part about Evo is that it compiles all of our best storylines into one place. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, with the insane scrambles to be first place, that all over our scene individuals are making their own stories out. The vast majority of smash players will never stand in Hungrybox’s shoes, and never know what it means to be considered the greatest Melee player of all time. But each player goes through their own journey through this game, and each of their achievements mean the world to them. EVO is our Super Bowl, not only because it allows the stories of those top 5 or 6 players to enter a new chapter of their career, but because 2300 other people enter and try to grow as players and people by playing this game. Sometimes, their stories are of struggles and obstacles. Other times, they’re of overcoming demons and finding success where none existed. Melee is just as much about their storylines as the gods’. Next year, I encourage you to carve your own story out, and slowly work your way up to standing victorious on that center stage. Until then, keep on smashing.