Q&A: James “Swedish Delight” Liu on college, recent placings and his esports future.

James “Swedish Delight” Liu is a Sheik player and the top-ranked Melee smasher in New Jersey. He’s earned placings above top professionals such as Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, Aziz “Hax” Al-Yami, Zachary “SFAT” Cordoni and Justin “Plup” McGrath. He did all of this while pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University. Slingshot’s Connor “Conito” Smith had the chance to speak with Liu about his background, recent placings and plans going forward.

Connor Smith: So what stood out, to me personally, was the fact that you were placing at all these top tournaments all over the map while getting your degree. People spend hours a day practicing tech and basic mechanics and aren’t even close to where you’re at. How do you balance it all?

James “Swedish Delight” Liu: I didn’t really play — I still don’t play much Smash compared to someone else — but even just before, the first few years of college, I didn’t either. I wasn’t traveling to anywhere except for EVO during the summer. When I was entering college, I didn’t want people to know I played smash. I’ve been playing since eighth grade, but when I entered college, I didn’t want to be looked at as a nerd. I didn’t hang out with too many smashers. I got comfortable throughout college because people (said), “You should just be who you are. Don’t worry about any sort of image, as long as you care about what you do.”

Even though I don’t play that much, I still care about how I do and how I present myself in the community.

What got me started to travel more, in junior year spring break, I took a road trip to Bad Moon Rising. I felt like it was pretty fun. I went with Qerb, Nintendude, a couple of Rutgers kids and Big Wenz. After that, I decided I wanted to travel more cause I really didn’t get the chance to my other years of college. I started traveling since then. I just tried to go to all the big ones that I could during my last year of college. My grades definitely suffered. I just had an adviser meeting today, and she looked at my senior grades and said, “Oh No!” But it’s OK because I knew I had fun. I felt like it was worth it. There was other things that made my grades drop.

How I got good? It was mainly because I traveled so much. I had a lot of friends already, but since I was such good players that knew a lot about the game — like ZoSo, Cactuar and DruggedFox — I would hear them talk about the game and say what they think. I’m able to implement what they say. I feel like I wasn’t that creative. I would give input here and there, but because I knew them so well, I was able to build a rapport with everyone that was good. I wasn’t too focused on winning at the time, I just wanted to get to know them, like who they were. They were happy to share their thoughts with me. I was able to play better because of that. I didn’t necessarily need the tech skill, I just needed to know the characters better. Character match ups, what’s a good move or not. Really, know to make less bad moves.

CS: So you weren’t too involved in the collegiate scene early on. What made you want to start your own Smash club and help it grow?

JL: The first couple of years, I still played and met everyone. I still played more with my hometown friends. One of those examples is Qerb. I played with him a lot when I was in college, and he didn’t go to Rutgers. At Rutgers, I still was friendly with everyone. They were good people and really supportive of me. When I entered, I was starting to become No. 1 in NJ. Basically I got that solidified after my freshman year, which only really happened because Mew2King left NJ at that point.

The first two years it was just friendly. We were hanging out, or I would see them around and say hi on campus. I really didn’t go out of my way to play too much. Especially since they were on different campuses. I was more friends with the Brawl kids at that time. In the beginning of my sophomore year, I met ADHD. I really liked hanging out with them. Because of that, we started smash club in my junior year. From then on, I was trying to get more involved with the school scene. I think it was a good choice for me because some of my best smash friends at Rutgers, I met through that club. That club has been getting bigger and bigger ever since. As it gets more structured and organized, it’s gonna have a bigger impact on campus.

The college scene at Rutgers isn’t as competitive; there’s a lot more people that don’t want to do tournaments. I know some schools, such as Irvine, host weekly tournaments, but people at Rutgers don’t really want that. We find that it’s better to have a community of people playing and making sure they’re comfortable and engaged in the scene. That also influenced me a little bit. It’s not that important for me to be overly competitive with them, because that’s the attitude I grew up around.

CS: You recently double-eliminated Mew2King at Smash ‘N’ Splash. Was it surprising that you beat a God with his own character?

JL: That was super surprising to me, even in winners. Usually, he figures me out by the third or fourth game. I’ve taken games off of him before, but it didn’t feel like he was trying the best he could. There were probably so many other things going on in his mind. We see that now with M2K. Even on Twitter, when he talks about Smash 4 and stuff.

This was the first time he ever complained to me about chain-grabbing — or complained to the audience about it. That was, of course, after he lost. That was the first time he lost to me. The last time we played was a year ago, in New Jersey at a SKATAR and he’s like: “I’m completely fine with chain-grabbing. Just do whatever you want.” He prefers no chain-grabs. Of course this was a discussion with Melee all the time. “People should chain-grab M2K.” or “People should not chain-grab M2K”. That time I played him, I was pretty close set one. It was winners finals and a 3-1 but everything was last-stock. Set 2, he completely destroyed me Game 4 and I was like “Man, I will never chain-grab M2K again.” That was impossible.

He told me how he learned about that matchup. He said: “I don’t have to go for grabs all the time.” And he didn’t go for grabs that many times. I guess he either forgot about that, because I think he got more chain-grabs on me at Smash ‘N’ Splash. I don’t know what people are complaining about. I thought it wasn’t because of that. I thought that I was out-playing him, at times, which shouldn’t really happen. Again, he mind was in a different place. He played Fox on FD against me, yet he’s never lost as Sheik on FD. He was probably thinking about playing Hungrybox in Grand Finals. Instead, because he wasn’t focused in the match, he wasn’t prepared enough.

CS: Mew2King recently signed with Rick Fox’s Echo Fox team. Can you picture yourself wearing a professional esports jersey sometime soon?

JL: His jersey was really nice. I got a weird messages from one guy asking about an esports thing he was trying to start, but that never pulled through. I’d only started thinking about it after graduation when I had nothing to do. I was applying to medical school, and then that didn’t work out so well. I’ll apply again next year. I didn’t really know what to do. I was looking around for a little bit — esports jobs like Smash.gg or Twitch — but I don’t really have the background for that. I wouldn’t mind a sponsorship (laughs). No one has really asked me and I haven’t asked really. I talked to Nintendude about what’s a good contract. I know what I should be looking for.

My BERT thing, that’s just a hometown sponsorship. He’s the best though. He manages everything for EVO and gives us pizza. I love representing BERT. I just represented my hometown crews and stuff. Whenever I wore a tag, it was something related to school or home. Prince Abu told me today to put “Free agent” in my Twitter. Beforehand someone told me to put my email in my Twitter profile. I removed BERT from my Smash.gg cause that’s what Abu told me. He’s sponsored, so I’ll trust him. I’ll be open to anything. I’ll be around for another year, at least.

CS: You had another second place finish behind Hungrybox. What’s it like to play against him when he’s playing well?

JL: The first time I played against Hungrybox was in 2014 in February. That was at the time when he was solidly fifth place. I said to myself, “This is the one person I can beat, so I gotta do my best!” But no, I got 3-0d back then, too. Even then, I showed glimpses of being able to outplay him at times. Now in 2016 I feel like I’m so close and then he completely outplays me at the end. It feels awful because he just knows what I’m gonna do in the end and outplays me. I thought that he was just not trying, but now I know he’s trying all the time. He just figures me out.

Other players usually just dominated me, but I don’t see that happening anymore. Hungrybox is the only player that really beats me at every point, after a while. He figures something out. Armada, too, but he’s more flowcharty. He does the same thing until it stops working. Hungrybox does something, even if it’s not working, and he makes it work. It’s so weird. I feel outplayed by him all the time. That’s why I went Luigi for Grand Finals. “I’m not gonna be able to do this as Sheik anyway.” My Luigi does pretty well. Everything I want to do against him as Sheik, my Luigi does it better. It wasn’t a joke. I see people on Reddit saying I just didn’t care. No, I tried really hard. Even though I’m laughing and smiling, that’s because I’m able to take myself out of the game to realize what’s going on. I think that helps me a lot. In doubles, I talk a lot, too. That helps me see what’s going on.

I’m glad he was also enjoying it. At first he thought it was a joke and said he was gonna go Ness for Game 3, but once I took a game off of him, he tried so much harder.

He always talks good of people on the come up. When I played him at Shuffle and didn’t do too terribly, he started talking about me. We never really talked, conversation-wise. If anything, I’ve talked to him the least out of all the other top players. But every conversation we’ve had was pretty cordial. It’s definitely a good relationship, but it’s not much. He definitely respected me and I respected him. I felt like I could understand where he’s coming from, cause he also did a lot of college stuff and working for a job. Because of that, if Hungrybox can do it then I can do it too.

At the Summit interview, I talked about how I really respected Hungrybox. I don’t know if he’s my most admired player, but I definitely respect him a great deal — and people weren’t respecting him back in November, even though he got second at EVO, so I wanted to talk about that.

CS: What did you learn from your set with Mango at Pound?

JL: Pound was really weird for me. I was with Waffles at Super Nebs the week before, and I got second place to Hungrybox. He said, “If you just played the way you play, you’ll do really well at Pound.”

The Friday night before Pound, I stayed at Dance Marathon — an event at school from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. I left for Pound that morning. I almost lost round two to an Ice Climbers player. It was really close until I threw away my Sheik and went Peach. I didn’t think much about Pound. I wanted to hang out with everyone and see all the people that were coming back again. It was a nice hotel and there was a mall nearby. I wanted to go shopping and I couldn’t do that because I was getting Top 4 at Pound.

I think I’ve been doing better recently because I feel like people are taking me easy. They played me before and think they need to do the same thing as before. I definitely changed, sometimes. When Mango was on his last stock on Game 2, I realized I was gonna lose the set because he played completely differently. Game 4 and Game 5, I tried to do the same thing he did before, but he wrecked me. People said I choked it away, but no, he completely changed his play style. I tried again to change mine Game five, but after I got power-shielded three times in a row, I knew there was no way to beat someone playing this well.

I thought that if people play well against me, they’ll win. After Smash ‘N’ Splash, I can’t tell anymore.

Pound was a weird feeling because people were doing a Mango chant against me. I was like. “Wait. I’m ranked 31 in MIOM and he’s ranked No. 4. I don’t know. He was 3 and 1 before, and people are chanting for him.” It felt kinda bad, but because I was thinking about other things, I wasn’t nervous because of pressure. It was just he played better. It was rough.

CS: I know you touched on it before, but how far do you think you can take your professional Smash career?

JL: I’ve was thinking about this while I was traveling. Like, what if I did this full time, but I feel like I enjoy other things like school too much. I can’t quantify how much I like Smash and how much I like school. I enjoy other things, too. I realized I do care about this game. After hanging out with Armada, I got to learn how much he put into this game. I realized I’ll never be like that. He does this full time. He sacrifices so much. I talk on Twitter as if I don’t really play this game or I don’t really practice that much, but I do put in as much as I can. I really just mean that I’m comparing myself to someone like Armada. I really don’t know where I’ll take this game. I definitely will keep playing it because I enjoy playing it. I definitely like entering tournaments.

After hanging out with Armada and seeing the way he treated the game, I realized I’m gonna do the best I can with what I had. I’m not gonna make excuses anymore because I don’t need to. Other people work harder than me and put in more effort. I definitely care about it as much, but I can’t put in as much time. I’ll definitely be playing this game, still. Even by myself. The last year was the first time I really practiced by myself for 10 or 15 minutes a day, and that’s been doing wonders for me. I still enjoy doing that and just seeing what I’m doing in the game.

Traveling is really fun. I’ve never really traveled to California before last year. I would never have went to Michigan or Indiana. Now I’m going to Orlando for CEO. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Smash. I have a lot of fun just traveling and meeting people. Going to see my friends again. Because of that, not just the game, too.

I’m not gonna go to med school yet. I’m taking a job for a year, so I’ll be able to travel. That’s pretty cool. I put “Free agent” in my Twitter bio. I’m an unsponsored guy. I always played this game for fun. I’m just a guy that enters tournaments.

Cover image: Screenshot