Everyone is Here for Smash at UCI


by | Feb 4, 2019, 11:00AM PDT

Seven of UCI’s top Ultimate players celebrate their collective victories at Tempest 3. From left to right: Sergio “Lt. Surge” Salas, George “Finebabe” Shan, Rafael “Rafi” Guadron, Justin “Muskrat Catcher” Muscat, Dominic “T3Dome” Carone, Jovanni Rivera, Uyiosa “Uyi” Igbinigie

As UCI’s 2018 fall quarter began, Smash players both on- and off-campus were growing restless. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s street release was slated for December 7th, 2018, and the Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (hereafter Smash 4) player base was hungry for the new title. Entrant numbers for weekly tournaments, such as The Association of Gamers at UCI’s (TAG @ UCI) own Smash 4 weeklies, were dwindling, dropping from fifty or more players crowding around the monitors in the Community Corner of the UCI Esports Arena, to twenty or less.

After much anticipation, Ultimate finally launched in early December, with the UCI campus then subsequently closing for winter break. The weekly events ran by TAG @ UCI went on hiatus — with the UCI Esports Arena having shorter open hours, and students on vacation, it would be nearly a month before the next on-campus tournament. Some spent their break practicing the new game, either experimenting with newly added characters or discovering what changes were made to balance the returning roster. Others, not wanting to miss a single opportunity to improve, traveled to off-campus tournaments ran by grassroots gaming organizations based in Southern California.

Challengers Approaching

When the 2019 Winter Quarter began, the TAG @ UCI weeklies also resumed, and much like the game’s slogan suggested, ‘everyone was here.’ The number of entrants shot up from around twenty players to nearly sixty for the first Ultimate bracket, and not all of them were UCI students, or even UCI Smash 4 players. At the second weekly, on January 10th, I was surprised to encounter Nicholas “Big Nick” Orozco in the first round of the bracket, who had appeared in my article on the OC Melee Arcadian last fall. (Intrepid readers can catch him in the background of one of the photos, diligently operating the Melee stream.) Matt “Elegant” Fitzpatrick – a Luigi player ranked number five on the SoCal Smash 4 Power Rankings, and number 27 in the world on the Smash 4 Panda Global Rankings – was another frequent entrant at the UCI weeklies. Even local high school students got in on the action, carpooling to the events and entering as a group. The competition was diverse and fierce, with players from wildly different parts of the community all converging to settle it in Smash at the UCI Esports Arena.

With the release of a new fighting game, there always comes a brief period where the players and tournament organizers must learn how to run their events effectively. The leadership position of the TAG @ UCI’s Smash Ultimate club (formerly the Smash 4 club) had changed hands from Kia Dargahi to Jason “Muskrat Catcher” Muscat after the former’s graduation. Furthermore, Ultimate’s new features – stages, hazard toggle, an engine allowing for vastly more aggressive and quick gameplay, etcetera – demanded a new tournament-legal ruleset to create a fair and stable gameplay experience. Between late players holding up the bracket, the Doubles bracket cutting into the time and space for Singles, and the need for players to learn an experimental ruleset, the first weekly on January 10th ended in a five-way tie. Since the UCI Esports Arena closes at midnight, the players lost their venue space that night before top 8 could be completed.

Fortunately, Muscat and the rest of the TAG @ UCI Ultimate team recognized what adjustments needed to be made, and the feedback they received was implemented over the next three weeklies. The Doubles bracket – a two-on-two side event commonly run at most events – was excised entirely, allowing the Singles bracket to start at 6pm instead of 7. Furthermore, the ruleset was adjusted after many players argued that the stages present were polarizing or otherwise unfair. In Smash, unlike other fighting games, characters appear on a floating stage with platforms, and the goal is to knock your opponent off the stage, a win-condition akin to a ‘ring-out’ in Virtua Fighter or Soul Calibur. Some stages, however, can have elements that favor certain characters in unfair ways. Others may simply have poor designs that aren’t conducive to a level playing field, even with the in-game stage hazards toggle set to Off. Stages like Castle Siege, with deeply asymmetrical designs, were removed from the second version of the ruleset before the third January tournament.

The game’s winner is…

The onset of Ultimate made for exciting bracket matches both on- and offstream, but UCI’s top reigning Smash 4 players made it clear that they weren’t to be taken lightly in the new title. At the second weekly, Jovanni Rivera, UCI’s top-ranked Smash 4 player, won the tournament over Taternator, a Bowser Jr. player who finished at 35th in the all-time SoCal Smash 4 Power Rankings. Jovanni’s Fox sent Taternator into the loser’s bracket in winner’s finals, and although the latter was able to defeat UCI player Dominic “T3Dome” Carone to make it into grand finals, his effort proved to be all for naught as Jovanni repeated his earlier success. The week after, however, the recurring Luigi invader Elegant was able to defeat Jovanni and win the third tournament- Jovanni still finishing with a respectable second place between Elegant and Taternator.

The UCI top 10 players as Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure characters. Image from the Smash Ultimate at UCI Facebook page. Image designed by Destin Trang.

Other notable placements from the top ten UCI Smash 4 players at the second and third weeklies include: King Dedede main Muskrat Catcher placing 4th, Rafael “Rafi” Guadron placing 5th using multiple Mario characters, and Ridley player George “Finebabe” Shan placing 7th at the January 17th weekly; Finebabe placing 4th, and Richter player T3Dome tying for 5th with Uyiosa “Uyi” Igbinigie, who used a combination of Wolf, Isabelle, and Pokémon Trainer, at the January 24th weekly. Even with top threats from off-campus exerting their presence at the UCI locals, our finest players still took the opportunity to remind everyone of their skill.

Plant Gang and the Road to Genesis 6

On Tuesday, January 29th, Ultimate received a major balance patch that also added a downloadable content character. The iconic Mario Bros. trap enemy, Piranha Plant, was made playable (for the first time in history, in Smash or even other Mario spinoff titles!) and the 2.0.0 patch was declared legal for use at the next UCI weekly, which would take place on January 31st. Furthermore, with the Smash supermajor tournament Genesis 6 on the horizon, certain players (namely Elegant and Taternator) would be making the Groundhog Day weekend road trip to Oakland to prove their mettle. For UCI players, this meant that they would be free to demonstrate their skill against each other more effectively than they ever could against outside forces. Some players even conducted the Piranha Plant mirror match for the amusement of the stream audience, spending at least one round of their bracket set using the new anthropomorphic Venus fly trap in amusing situations. The January 31st tournament also marked the transition from the online bracket maker Challonge to the more intuitive smash.gg, which tracks players’ tags across all tournaments (provided they also use smash.gg.) The switch to smash.gg also meant that the UCI weeklies would now be sanctioned, and depending on how well players performed, they would earn points towards the SoCal Ultimate rankings.

Rafi (pink, left) and Finebabe (blue, right) commit to the Piranha Plant ditto. Image from VODs at twitch.tv/smashuci.

The fourth January tournament was an intense display of the skill level present in UCI’s community of players. It seemed at first like Jovanni would once again win the tournament, sending players like Rafi, Muskrat Catcher, and even your author into the loser’s bracket on his journey to winner’s finals, where he encountered T3Dome once again. Jovanni sent the Richter main to the loser’s bracket, where he had to compete against Rafi for a chance to rematch Jovanni in grand finals. Not only did T3Dome overcome Rafi in loser’s finals, he earned the bracket reset against Jovanni in grands. (Fighting game tournaments run their brackets in a double elimination format. After one loss, players are sent to a lower ‘loser’s bracket,’ and after their second, they’re out. The player entering grand finals from the loser’s bracket essentially has to win two sets of five games, while the player on winner’s side only has to win one. The “reset” occurs when the loser’s side player wins the first set against the winner’s side player, which is represented as the winner’s side player being knocked into the loser’s bracket.) Finally, in a last-hit nail-biting situation, T3Dome was able to secure a close victory over Jovanni in the grand finals reset. Other notable standings from the former top ten include Uyi placing 4th, Finebabe and Zero Suit Samus main Robert “PL” Martinez tying for 5th, and Muskrat Catcher placing 7th. (Your author finished his own run with Ridley at 13th place.)

Muskrat Catcher and the Future

After the fourth and final January tournament ended, Muscat spoke in a brief interview about his history with the Smash community, his part in TAG @ UCI, and the relationship between student gaming organizations and UCI Esports. “I played [Super Smash Bros.] Brawl [for Wii] really casually. I didn’t even know there was a competitive scene, and I didn’t really have any interest in one. But then, in the time leading up to Smash 4, I found out about the competitive scene. A few months after the release, I was getting better than all my friends, just because I was playing the game so much, and then I started entering tournaments.” Muscat is a third-year aerospace engineering major, and was an officer of the Smash 4 TAG club prior to being promoted to the position of president after Dargahi’s graduation. “Once I went to UCI […] I was just so excited to get involved with TAG. It was the first year they opened their Esports Arena, and I had never seen any kind of school organized [gaming] group before.” Muscat credited the presence of UCI Esports and TAG @ UCI with making his university experience a positive one. “I really value all these things, these clubs and programs… Because of [UCI Esports and TAG] I just felt such a sense of belonging to the campus.” Muscat also had some light-hearted insight on the presence of Piranha Plant as a DLC fighter. “He doesn’t seem like he’s gonna be breaking the meta, but oh boy, does he deliver on the fun factor. He embraces the fact that he’s kind of like a joke character, like, ‘why the heck is a Piranha Plant in Smash?’”

The advent of Ultimate has reinvigorated the competitive Smash scene at large, and the call to be the best has certainly lit a fire underneath the players at UCI. By developing their abilities and playing against a wide variety of powerful opponents, the students of UCI are proving to be threats that the rest of the Smash community needs to watch out for. On a more general scale, the regular weekly tournaments develop a sense of belonging to the school that these students wouldn’t have developed without the presence of UCI Esports and organizations like TAG. As long as students want to prove that they’re the strongest Smash player on campus, these weeklies will continue to bring exciting displays of skill to the UCI campus.

Ultimate weeklies at UCI are hosted every Thursday at the UCI Esports Arena, starting at 6pm. The stream and VODs can be found at twitch.tv/smashuci.

Esports Lab Spotlight: Craig G. Anderson


by | May 1, 2019, 11:00AM PDT

This is part 2 of a mini-series on the UCI Esports Lab and their research topics.

This article features Craig G. Anderson, a doctoral candidate at the Esports Lab. His research topics focus on the cognitive influences of games, including the roles of failure and persistence in gaming. More information, including contact information, can be found at https://www.uciesportslab.org/.

What led you to become involved in esports research? What is your educational background?

I’ve been working with Profs. Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire for about five years;  we started in Madison, Wisconsin where we were initially researching educational games. It wasn’t until we moved to Irvine when our research started to change gears toward esports. I still study single player commercial games, but I can now start looking at the area of multiplayer competitive environments as well.

What questions are you looking to answer through your research?

My masters work was on “what makes video games engaging.” To that end, I made a low-fidelity version of Peggle and had people play it to find out if they still enjoyed playing and if they learned the core skills about the game (they only played half as much, and reported less engagement). There’s something about having success just out of reach that keeps players coming.  I then started to think about how failure is so common in games, and how games construct failure as something expected. I’m interested in looking at games like Dark Souls and Cuphead, notoriously difficult games that have a huge fanbase. Do playing these types change the way we think about failure, both in and outside of the game as well?

Today, my research focuses on how players react to failure in games. I come from a psychology background, so I’m interested in how video games make people think, and especially how they frame failure in comparison to other environments. One reason why esports is so interesting is because there are teammates that are relying on you to succeed with them as well — any failure can affect the whole team. Another interesting aspect as well is the spectators; do players react to failure differently when people are watching? If so, how?  

I am currently looking to watch testers play Cuphead and try to map the places where players are most likely to fail. I’m particularly interested in seeing if they persist, and also the reorientation strategies they use. What’s difficult about this is that the methodology hasn’t been done before. Researchers usually just survey their testers about their experiences, but I plan to actually observe the testers play the game. How long do players persist through failure? How many times do they fail, and how do they react to those failures? How many times do they try before they give up?

Who do you work with on a regular basis at the lab?

The lab was designed on purpose to encourage open, constant collaboration. Everyone talks across the table and gets the chance to collaborate with others on topics they find interesting. There are all kinds of people that work in the lab, from professors to graduate students, and even undergraduate and high school interns.

Outside the lab, our biggest project is NASEF, the high school esports league that also facilitates academic research. We work with the high school players to get gameplay footage that we might be able to refer to in our research, such as League of Legends mid lane players.

What is one of the most important things you’ve done in your time researching esports?

I am the co-chair for UCI’s Esports Conference (ESC). It was a huge amount of work, especially since ESC 2018 was the first-ever instance of it. The team spent a whole year planning the whole event, but it paid off! I’m happy that many people enjoyed it and want to go again next year, so even now we’re working on ESC 2019.

Where do you see esports (and/or research in the area) in five years?

As esports becomes more mainstream, I see it growing in popularity until it is on par with regular, traditional sports. Similarly, esports research will continue to grow, especially at UCI where the Informatics department and games studies is growing. I want to see UCI become the premier game studies university. Before Profs. Steinkuehler and Squire came, there were only three or four professors in the department studying anything games-related. Now that there are a lot of big names doing research here, the school is now attracting more and more games scholars.