Thirty is definitely not the best age to kick off an esports career. In that world I am aged, with lower-back pain and reflexes about as sharp as a wooden spoon. But nonetheless, earlier this year, I found myself standing in a dimly lit east-London bar, huddled among the city’s greatest players of Super Smash Bros, Nintendo’s beloved fighting game. As the throng of competitors reminisced over previous tournaments and shared high-level techniques, I stared apprehensively at my name on the tournament ladder, hoping that nobody would find out that I only started playing Smash last year.
At the risk of sounding like the narrator of a 90s teen film, let’s rewind. My Smash obsession began during the joyous era of lockdown one. As Covid-19 exploded devastatingly and invisibly, the humble Bow flat I shared slowly morphed from fun-loving party pad into cramped, claustrophobic prison. We did our best to keep things light with bike rides, poorly measured portions of weed brownies and increasingly ridiculous themed nights – but Super Smash Bros Ultimate was what really got me through the mind-numbing ordeal that was 2020.
As one of the few games my long time friend and flatmate Akbar played, this bonkers-looking fighter became our multiplayer meeting point, our big night out. Furloughed, stressed and with few ways to channel my growing frustration, being humiliated by Akbar’s roster of cartoon characters was a welcome escape for me and our other flatmate, Andrew – much to our non-gamer friends’ dismay.
Because Akbar been playing since the series’ genesis on N64 and I struggled to grasp even the basic principles of the game, these living-room showdowns were hardly a fair fight at first. But over 10 gruelling months, we collectively poured 600 hours into the brawler. I found myself reading Smash patch notes, watching pro player videos, and “training” on my own. When lockdown lifted, I moved into my own flat – but my hunger for Smash was far from satiated. So I signed us all up for an this tournament – a move that my third Smash brother Ed called “being dragged into Tom’s public humiliation fetish”.
One of three regular London Smash tournaments, East London Smash (ELS) featured the smallest bracket (20 competitors) and most modest prize pool (£40). The disarmingly nice event organiser, known only as Aggressive Duck, informed us that they host Power Ranked players – recognised as the best in the UK and Europe. No pressure, then.
At the tournament, pints in hand, we perused the competitor list. Up against such formidable fighters as Crispy, DAT: RePtile and GimpBizkit, it was clear that we had our work cut out. To make matters worse, as my ragtag ensemble played some friendlies to warm up, we met someone who had competed in four UK-based tournaments in the last week. Some of our opponents had travelled Cyprus and Italy.
Of my four-strong lockdown Smash squad, one chickened out. But Akbar Jabar and Ed, competing under the professional alias “bumbumbum”, both stuck with me. The friendlies were out of the way, and it was time to get serious. Inexplicably seeded into the second round, I found myself playing the Cypriot champion, a friendly-looking chap with disarmingly good form as The Legend of Zelda’s Link. Despite whittling his pointy-haired avatar down to the last life in the first round, his relentless barrage of projectiles and clever off-stage play proved too much for my rudimentary playstyle. Instantly picking up my movement and attack patterns, over the next two games, he proceeded to completely wipe the floor with me.
Thankfully, my lack of pro techniques eventually proved an asset. Facing a tournament regular who battled as the fearsome Diddy Kong, my erratic moves and random aggression proved baffling to him. Much to my surprise, after an incredibly intense 10-minute showdown, I managed to bait my opponent into a trap, spiking him off the stage to win. My smash crew erupted in cheers. The next two games were close, but my monkey-loving foe ultimately reigned supreme. Still, to me that was beside the point. Against all odds I had done the seemingly impossible and won a tournament game.
My friends played admirably, too. While group favourite Akbar got repeatedly disrespected by a Wii Fit Trainer player named Joe, our young hopeful Ed consistently managed to survive, down to the very last life; he lost every match, but only by a hair’s breadth. But regardless of our less-than-heroic performances, we all came away from feeling euphoric. We’d held our own! After weeks of training with my chosen fighter, Kazuya, it felt like all those hours I’d poured into this strange little game had been worth something. My lockdown obsession had led to a life-affirming night out.
London’s Smash players are a passionate and friendly community, a collection of people from different backgrounds united by a shared love for a niche video game. Thanks to a refreshing lack of elitism, machismo or gatekeeping, it all felt surprisingly wholesome for a competitive environment. As someone who never had the ability, training or fitness to play actual sports, it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. Thanks for tolerating us at your event, Aggressive Duck. You can bet I’ll be back – whether I win, or (inevitably) lose.