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.

Why Gamers Should Read Black Authors

by | Sep 24, 2020, 7:30AM PDT

Years from now when people ask “where were you in 2020?” I will respond, “online, and I hated every second of it.”

2020 was a year filled with strife and changes, as many of the country’s issues were placed under the microscope of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were made privy to the fragility of our healthcare system, made to grapple with the mistreatment of our workers, and we saw just how little our government was ready to deal with the unseen threat of a virus. As buildings and campuses became unsafe for congregations, schools and businesses quickly transitioned from physical interaction to remote operations, trading desks for couches, and cubicles for bedrooms. As an academic I soon saw myself writing grants, hosting calls, and meeting with colleagues all through the screen of my computer. Just like that my and many other lives became mediated through digital platforms.

But then came May and the US caught fire as major cities around America erupted in protest after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on the neck of George Perry Floyd Jr. for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, killing him on camera. The act was such a clear show of police misconduct and brutality that not only did protest emerge in Minneapolis but in cities like Los Angeles and New York. People across America took to the streets to protest what was a vile and malicious act of policing and unfortunately (and ironically) were subsequently met with the very force they went out there to speak against. Agitations flared, peaceful protest turned into physical confrontation, and long-ignored anger and sorrow became the fuel for the flames which burned signs, buildings, and coincidentally an NYPD van.

Yet, still, for many, the most heated moments of the protest were not experienced in person but rather were witnessed second hand through their television or through social media online. As the protest raged on, Twitter threads became battlegrounds, YouTube videos spun narratives, and the internet yet again became the hotbed for information and dialogue around the events many were experiencing. With #BlackLivesMatter trending yet again in response to the death of ANOTHER Black person at the hands of the police, the online blurred yet again with the physical. So much so, that social media became the key place where I, a Black man, kept up with the news, contacted friends and family who were near protest areas, and was made to relive the trauma of watching Floyd lose his life again and again as it was shared on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter both as both a form of awareness and as jokes from those craven enough to mock a man posthumously. And, while I donated to BLM initiatives, honked my horn in-vehicle protest, and showed up physically where I could, I—like so many—experienced the brunt of this protest online.

So, it should not come as a surprise when I say that it was not in person or even on Twitter where I got into my harshest debates, but instead, it was within video games like Overwatch and League of Legends where I found the most abuse. In fact, it was gaming spaces like these that became the hardest to occupy during the time of the protest. In an attempt to find some semblance of peace while the world burned, I decided to turn on Overwatch (a hero first-person shooter from the company Blizzard) to try to take the edge off. After some time, I was eventually placed with 11 other players and dropped into a starting zone to wait. However, instead of the typical banter of roles and positions, I was met with a “hello my fellow African Americans, let’s go burn and loot some stores because BLACK LIVES MATTER!” from one of my teammates. Reminded that video games seldom work as escapism for black people, I contemplated whether to let the comment go or to make a scene. I chose the latter.

I responded with “do you think that’s funny?” which prompted him to say “of course! Because they should not be out there at all, because ALL LIVES MATTER!” and quickly an argument ensued. Shouting in a way I am not all too proud of, I went back and forth with the player, I shouted the names of those killed—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin—only to have him respond with conspiracies like the FBI started BLM and comments like “slavery didn’t matter.” It didn’t take long for our remaining teammates to mute us with one going as far as to exclaim, “I don’t play this for politics.” In hindsight I think I would have been better off ignoring the troll—I must admit I was perturbed, livid in fact. Livid that a player used the game as his platform for racism and livid at the apathy of the other players viewing the deaths of Black men and women as simple politics. While the game’s very company (Blizzard) was tweeting in support of Black Lives, its players continued to disparage them. With each engagement I grew colder and angrier, each bout of racism striking deeper than the last until eventually, I arrived at simply telling people to shut the… well you can finish the rest.

Unfortunately, what I experienced is nothing new, as scholars such as Kishonna Gray, Andre Brock, Anna Everett, Samantha Blackmon, TreaAndrea Russworm, and many others have written extensively on the experiences of Black players similar to my own. However, as more and more games become spaces for online interaction, I and many others are yet again forced to acknowledge that games and the many who play them are not always aware of the struggles non-white gamers may go through. But, in writing this piece and sharing my experience I do not want this to come off as an accusation of gamers and gaming practices (there are other avenues for such), but instead as an opportunity to engage with perspectives that have been ignored or overlooked.

As many of us face yet another crisis in our communities, where Black life is threatened for simply existing (under the blanket of COVID no less), it is important to remember that games, as peripheral as they may seem, work as powerful sites of cultural creation and expression. I could not escape my pain through games because the same rhetoric, behavior, and trauma that took place in the physical informed and shaped the virtual. That is why this piece is less of an accusation and simply a call to action.

In a time where Black players face constant racial abuse both inside and outside of games, I propose that gamers engage with the history of this country and the writings of Black scholars, activists, and people. In wanting to see a healthier gaming community, I have curated a list of books, short readings, and articles to read in hopes that gamers and the gaming community at large will pick up the call and accept this challenge. While by no means extensive, the list provided will offer introductory reading to familiarize oneself with Black history in the US and the Black experience in areas such as school, healthcare, and most apropos, online spaces. While seemingly unrelated, there is much to be gained by engaging with past and current writers, and only when we have an informed gaming population can we hope to see change.

Akil Fletcher grew up in New York where he received a B.A in Anthropology from the City College of New York. Currently, he is a Ph.D student in the anthropology department at the University of California Irvine, where he researches the navigation of Black video game players online. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Akil researches how Black players form and manage communities in spaces that are often hostile to Black participants.

If you would like to join in on discussing any of the readings from Akil Fletcher’s list, you are welcome to the UCI Esports Discord server‘s #book-club channel.