I heard The Big House 5 before I saw it.
It was a cold, blustery Friday night in Dearborn, Mich., and I was running late. The world’s second biggest “Super Smash Bros.” tournament of all time was happening less than an hour from my hometown, and I couldn’t miss it.
I ducked past the Royal Dearborn Hotel’s lobby into the nearby hallway to grab my media pass. There was a low rumble in the hall as I sauntered past groups of guys with badges around their necks and GameCube controllers in their hands. The hall was alive with the sound of a crowd coming from the ballroom: cheers, chants and the occasional hoarse “let’s go” bounced off the walls and into my eardrums.
The second I finally set foot in the ballroom, the place erupted. Underdog Massachusetts player MattDotZeb had just pulled off an insane kill on Westballz, one of the best “Smash” players in the world. It was the SoCal vs. Northeast crew battle, and the hype was off the charts. “The Big House” was immediately living up to its namesake.
Indeed named after Michigan Stadium, The Big House is an annual “Super Smash Bros.” tournament organized by University alum Robin “Juggleguy” Harn. It’s classified as a “national” level tournament, which means the best players from around the world are flying in to duke it out over trophies and cash prizes.
“Juggleguy is the best TO (tournament organizer) ever. He schedules everything on the dot,” said University alum James “Duck” Ma.
Duck is widely regarded as the best “Smash” player in Michigan and one of the top 50 players in the world. A friend of Juggleguy’s, Duck credits him with the The Big House’s reputation of high quality.
“He graduated IOE (Industrial & Operations Engineering), actually, so this is pretty much what he does for work anyway," Duck said. “He’s the perfect combination of being likeable and being really anal, I guess. He’s not afraid to DQ people, which I think is huge, because it adds to sort of, like, the respect that people give him.”
To call The Big House noteworthy in the “Smash” scene would be an understatement. The tournament managed to attract more than 2,000 attendees, including 1,317 entrants for “Melee” singles and 512 for “Smash 4” singles. This was also the first Big House event to be officially sponsored by the notoriously stingy Nintendo, the developer and publisher of the games.
It’s not just the size and the sponsorships of The Big House that attracts so many players, though. The event has a distinct history of hype moments and rowdy crowds, immortalized in fan videos.
Most of the attendees over the weekend were hobby competitors, guys and girls who just love to play “Smash” for fun and wanted in on the action. Some of these guys, though, were career Smashers — professionals paid big bucks by huge e-Sports organizations to play the game full-time.
I ended up tracking down one of these professionals, Kashan “Chillindude” Kahn, for a brief interview. A veteran competitive “Melee” player, Chillin can be seen in some of the earliest tournament videos from the game’s grassroots beginnings. He’s sponsored by Team Liquid and was flown to Michigan on their bill from his home state of Virginia.
“I think it’s amazing because there are so many people that don’t get to do what they love for a living, and I’m literally living the dream right now of doing what I love to do, which happens to be playing games,” Kahn said. “It’s also nice just because I had a lot of people when I was younger telling me I was wasting my time. You know, stop playing those games, stop wasting your time, and I’m like, oh, well now I’m making money off of it, so that’s definitely a cool feeling.”
On our way to the slightly quieter back of the room to talk, Chillin was stopped several times for pictures, autographs and even a “Hey, do you remember me?” from various members of the crowd. It was made clear by the dozens of glances he got on our short walk to the back that almost everyone in the room knew who he was.
An atmosphere of celebrity pervaded The Big House that weekend. If you’re one of the best at the game, within these walls you’re a rock star.
“It’s actually crazy because a couple years ago, it was just like, one or two people might come up to you throughout a whole tournament to either say 'Hi,' take a picture, sign their stuff or whatever. Now it happens almost constantly. It’s just a sign of how much the community has blown up in the past couple years, how quick the growth has happened.”
Indeed, the “Smash” competitive scene has skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years. The top 10 biggest “Super Smash Bros. Melee” tournaments of all time all took place since 2013, even though the game has been around since 2001. The Big House has increased in attendance so much each year that Juggleguy has had to relocate the event to a bigger venue every single year.
So what is it that made “Melee” huge so recently? Chillin says that one of the big contributing factors was “The Smash Brothers,” a 2013 documentary series about the great players of the early scene.
“It was crazy, because I never expected the documentary to actually get that big. I figured it might get maybe 10,000 hits on YouTube or something,” he said.
“The Smash Brothers” series has accrued millions of views, overwhelmingly positive ratings and comments. Being a fan of the documentary already, I recognized the film’s director, Travis “Samox” Beauchamp, recording footage around the event floor. He’s working on a feature-length sequel to his series, and he frequently travels to the major competitive events to film them.
“I really didn’t get into the ‘Smash’ community until I discovered how terrible I was at ‘Melee’ after my younger brother kicked my ass at it,” Beauchamp said. “And yeah, eventually he let me in on the big secret that there’s actually a game within the game. And that there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. After he showed me MOAST 3, this spectacular showdown between Ken and Isai, these two incredible players, I just got hooked. I had to learn everything I possibly could about this game, these players, their stories.”
I then brought up to him an anecdote or two about how his documentary had impacted “Smash” players I knew. I asked him how he felt about being able to make such an impact on peoples’ lives.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I actually get a lot of e-mails all the time from people saying that, essentially, the documentary helped them emotionally as well as get into the game just for fun. Just to have that kind of impact is a great feeling but that was never my intention. I just wanted to show the world that this great game was worth playing more and get more people back into it.”
I spoke with multiple players over the weekend that said that they started playing “Melee” specifically because of Samox’s documentary series. One of them, recent Michigan State graduate Josh “FendrickLamar” Fendrick, had just made it out of pools. This meant that out of the 1,317 players who entered the tournament, he made the top 256.
“I want to be the best. As cliché as that is, I want to come into a national and make waves. I want to get wins. I wanna do the best that I can,” Fendrick said.
I tracked him down because I had previously seen him playing at Ann Arbor “Smash” events. A tall, boisterous guy, Fendrick currently works as a staff assistant for Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in D.C. But when he’s not working, he’s Smashing.
“While I’m sort of growing nationally in prominence through my commentary, I do consider myself a competitor first, so I really do want to be really, really good at this game,” Fendrick said. “So I’m putting in the time, going to as many tournaments as I possibly can, like, there was a stretch of time from The Big House 4, which was early October to March where I went to at least one tournament a week. I put in the work. I was like, ‘I want to get good at this game.’ ”
Fendrick was certainly loud and clear with his intent to win, but he wasn’t the only one with this caliber of intense sportsmanship. Duck also made clear his own personal drive to succeed.
“I want to be good. I want to be the best, that’s the goal,” Duck said.
I asked Duck about his history with “Smash” and about what keeps him coming back to the community.
“The ‘Smash’ community is awesome because everybody feels like family,” he said. “Nothing about you matters except for how you play the game, how good are you, do you really like playing the game … You can walk up to anybody at this venue and talk to them about ‘Smash’ for hours. It’s just something really cool. It’s just like, I separate it into ‘Smash’ life and real life.”
For him, this separation is key to his enjoyment of “Smash.”
“For ‘Smash’ life at least, when you go to a national or you travel, you can basically just do whatever you want. You have this other persona that you can sort of just walk into. And you get to just play the game, you don’t really have to worry about anything else. Nobody’s going to judge you for you know, anything other than did you win? Did you lose? Did you know about the game? It’s just cool to hang out with a big group of people that share your interests,” Duck said.
It became clear to me while watching Chillin, Duck, Fendrick and others compete throughout the weekend that the biggest moments of hype didn’t appear simply from gameplay. They came from moments of personality and celebrity. Just like in the best sports rivalries, at The Big House there were heroes, villains, underdogs and dynasties. The best moments were when these larger-than-life characters clashed and made noise.
One of my favorite moments happened during the “Smash 4” Loser’s Semifinals, when New York player Anti came so damn close to ending the Chilean champion ZeRo’s (the undisputed best “Smash 4” player in the world) more than 50-tournament winning streak. The tension in the crowd was palpable as Anti took two games out of the five-game set, only faltering in the end as ZeRo squeezed by to take the win in the final round. A young, fan-favorite challenger almost took out the dynasty, and it was awesome.
Another incredible moment was the entirety of the “Melee” grand finals Sunday night. At this point, the ballroom’s atmosphere changed from that of a gaming convention with people milling about, to that of a sports arena. Everyone at the event was crammed into the room, and all eyes were on the enormous screens at the front, making the two competitors literally larger than life.
Sweden’s Adam “Armada” Lindgren was facing off against Florida’s Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma. Armada hadn’t lost a single match the entire weekend. Hungrybox had only lost one match — to Armada, earlier that night. In that match, Armada had shown significant dominance, winning 3-0.
Hungrybox wasn’t going to let that happen again. Through grit and determination, he went for broke and tied up the match, 2-2.
The final game was a true clash of the titans. The crowd was on fire, reacting violently to every twist and turn happening onscreen. When Armada pulled out the stops and took the final victory, the place went wild again, like I had seen the moment I walked in, but amplified tenfold. A chant emanated through the hotel:
“AR MAH DAH! AR MAH DAH! AR MAH DAH!”
The Big House 5 was my favorite live gaming event that I have ever been to, and I’ve been to cultural gaming events and conventions across the country. Once you get past the initial “otherness” of a packed room of guys competing in a 14-year-old video game, competitive Smash becomes a maelstrom of competition and celebrity, delivering great moment after great moment of sports drama. It may not be athletic, but the competition is real.
Next year, I won’t be covering The Big House 6. You’ll have to find someone else to write the story and do the interviews because I’m going to be on the ballroom floor, badge around my neck, GameCube controller in my hand.
Armada, I’m coming for you.
For the final results of each of the tournaments, check out ssbwiki.com’s entry on The Big House 5.
To learn more about the event’s champion, Adam “Armada” Lindgren, as well as tournament organizer Juggleguy and other competitors at The Big House 5, check out The Michigan Daily’s video coverage of the event, which will be out later this week.