Watching William “Leffen” Hjelte’s rise in 2015 was like watching a duck recite the Meditations in perfect Latin. It was an inexplicable ascent that defied all common sense. At that point in Super Smash Bros Melee, it was the era of the Gods, and nearly every other competitor had given up on ever beating them. All of them except Leffen, a player whom controversy followed like cigarette smoke on unwashed fingers.
Through skill and effort, Leffen forced the Melee world to recognize his greatness by right of conquest and was aptly given the title of “God killer.” During the height of his 2015 run he won CEO, FC Smash 15XR and WTFox all in succession. He had incredible aspirations (some would even say cocky): Leffen claimed he would end the reign of the Gods and make it his era. He dropped out of EVO in 5th-6th place but quickly revenged his failure with a victory at Super Smash Con a month later. Everything appeared to be in place for another highlight run — except the problem of his visa. So when his visa issues were resolved last October, it should have been a grand return to prominence. It wasn’t. Leffen wasn’t the same. He still ranked among the best players in the world but was never as consistent, never as dominant as that summer run. And the reason was because of his greatest weakness: himself.
The current era, stretching from now all the way back to when Leffen’s visa troubles first started, can be described as the Two God Era. Adam “Armada” Lindgren and Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma stood above the rest as almost every event boiled down to which one would claim first place. There were other players that can or have won during this time, but their victories were few and erratic. Players like Joseph “Mango” Marquez, Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, Justin “Plup” Mcgrath, Leffen, and even Kevin “PPMD” Nanney (should he ever return to competitive play) were good enough to claim tournaments. But they didn’t possess the consistency to topple the two Gods from their thrones. Both Armada and Hungrybox are heads and shoulders above every other player mentioned. If you don’t believe me, count the number of high level competitions they’ve been to compared to everyone else over the last two years.
Where does that consistency come from? I’d contest that it doesn’t come from skill. When I watch these Melee players at their peaks, the players I named could (and did) beat both Armada and Hungrybox. The difference is the mental game, and that is Leffen’s biggest weakness.
Leffen, as a player and person, is an idealist down to the bone. He demands of himself the highest level of effort and in turn applies the same standards to everyone else. When he goes to tournaments and sees shit that can be improved and more professional, he can’t help but be tilted. From his perspective, it feels like he is giving 100 percent effort to be his absolute best while those running the events seem to be slacking off. That is why he goes on conspicuous Twitter rants so often about tournaments, lack of professionalism, the EVO format, seeding, or whatever is vaguely irritating at the time. It’s not a cynical opportunity to whine or shift blame. Some part of him genuinely can’t understand why others tolerate sloppiness and mediocrity in their work. It’s an admirable trait, even if it rubs people the wrong way.
At the same time, the inability to accept imperfection warps his attitude toward the game. One of the basic tenets any seasoned competitor learns, no matter the game, is that life isn’t fair. Situations pop up that are beyond one’s control. Opponents defy research and expectation; practiced strategies fall apart at the most inconvenient time. You lose despite accounting for every possibility and exploiting every weakness. The only credible response that isn’t neuroticism or narcissism is acceptance.
Meanwhile, Leffen interprets variability as a causal factor for failure. He can always find a reason why things didn’t go well this time. His practice wasn’t optimal; travel threw off his concentration; the tournament settings made it so he wasn’t at his A game. If only I could play my 10/10 game, I could have won. All of those excuses are valid to a degree, but they are all things everyone must endure. Jet lag and dragged out schedules affect Hungrybox and Armada, too, yet they find ways to overcome whatever obstacles life throws in their path.
This isn’t the first time perfectionism has handicapped a player. During the heyday of StarCraft 2, there was a Swedish superstar known as Johan “NaNiwa” Lucchesi. He was, in my opinion, the second greatest foreigner to ever play SC2 and could have surpassed Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri if not for his mental weakness. Naniwa had the skill to beat the best players during his time, but his lack of mental fortitude always held him back. Whenever something went wrong in the tournament or in his life, he used that as an excuse as to why he could not win. The conditions were unfair; the Koreans were sharing scrims; the travel was shit; the other player cheesed. On top of that, he could not summon his absolute best in finals. This hurt his career tremendously as opponents he could match in group stages or playoffs smashed him in finals or high pressure situations.
Like Leffen, he was pointing out circumstances that negatively impacted his play. But as a competitor, problems must be overcome, regardless of how intimidating or insurmountable they appear to be. The best I’ve ever seen do this was also a SC2 legend. His name was Jung “Mvp” Jong-Hyun, the greatest player to ever touch the game. And one of the primary reasons he earned that title was because of his ability to overcome disadvantages. He persisted through incredible pain for the entirety of 2012, dealing with injuries that resulted in spiking pain in his wrists and numbness in his hands. Additionally, he played in the era of BL/infestor and faced several prolific Protoss players — TvP was his worst career matchup — in various semifinals and finals. While players like Leffen and Naniwa believed they needed to play their 10/10 game to win, Mvp had no choice but to settle for 50-70 percent of his potential. Injuries, the meta, the bad matchup, the imbalance, jet lag, financial problems, whatever external factors cropped up, he forced himself to transcend his circumstances. There has never been a SC2 player as adroit as Mvp when it came to playing at such a high level in spite of terrible circumstances.
That is what being the greatest is all about. Regardless of outside circumstances or whatever bullshit threatens to cloud your focus, you perform regardless. We’ve seen this play out in Melee itself. When Armada and Hungrybox attend the same tournaments as Leffen, both are likely dealing with similar issues (albeit the circumstance will slightly differ). The difference is that neither Armada or Hungrybox let it get to them. This is what separates them from every other Melee player in the world. Armada will always give you a top level game. Hungrybox will always clutch it out. Where others fall apart, those two do not.
This is even more remarkable in the case of Hungrybox. He is clearly an emotional player, the type who stereotypically would crumble when things don’t go his way. But he is also one of the more vilified players in the scene. People respect Hungrybox for his mountain of accomplishments, but they do not love him. Every player he plays against always has the entire crowd rooting for him. Despite that, he found a way to get past the hurdle. Hungrybox relies on a coach as his own support network, his second brain and a stabilizing influence when frustrations get to him. People call the coach unfair, but from Hungrybox’s perspective he has been fighting unfair all of his Melee life as he has never had the support of the crowd. This is his way of fighting back.
Going back even further in Melee history, we had a similar situation with Ken, the King of Smash. He was even more disliked than Hungrybox; people outright called him the villain. Despite that, he won time and time and time again. His reign has long past, but he is one of the mentally strongest competitors Melee has ever seen.
If Leffen aspires to end the era of the Gods, to make this era of his own, he must confront his final obstacle. It isn’t enough to win on the days when everything is going right, when his play is 10/10. He needs to win on the days when everything is going to shit. Leffen needs to either find the consistency of Armada to play at a high level regardless of circumstances, or the clutch of Hungrybox that lets him persevere under pressure. He needs to win on the days when he is playing 6/10 or 7/10, on days when he has the unfortunate bracket, when he is playing a Marth or a Samus or whatever bad matchup he has. And he can do it. Among all of the players I’ve listed that are below Armada and Hungrybox, Leffen has the most potential to rise to their level.
He still has the drive and dedication to be the best, unlike Mew2King and Mango. This is not a player who will be satisfied with odd wins every once in awhile as he watches Armada and Hungrybox fight for the throne. He no longer has extenuating circumstances like PPMD. Plup is amazing, but Plup has never won four out of five tournaments in a row like Leffen did at the peak of his career. Among all of the players in Melee, Leffen is the one who can break into the highest level and contest with Armada and Hungrybox. He needs to face his greatest weakness: himself. And once he dies, once he expunges that part of himself holding him back, he can become the God he was always meant to be.