What happened to East Coast Melee and how it’s building itself back up

Prior to doubles at Apex 2016 in June, Jason “Mew2king” Zimmerman spoke about the lack of big-time tournaments in the tristate area. The tournament, once a premier competition on the Super Smash Bros calendar, was not the powerhouse it once was. Mew2King was the only “god” in attendance, and he didn’t drop a single game in Melee singles.

“What happened?” Mew2King asked a small group gathered around him.

After a brief pause, someone offered their best response:

“You left.”

Was that the truth? With Mew2King’s departure, the Northeast lost an iconic smasher. Although the region is the most active for competitors aged 14 and up, according to a competitive Smash poll, it lost much of its sway with the community. The region was weakened, but not barren. It still had Apex, a premier tournament since 2010, to keep New Jersey on the international map.

Then Apex’s reign as a premier Melee tournament came crashing down after several organizational failures in January 2015. The ramifications of Apex’s fall extend far beyond the brand’s tarnished reputation; the northeast lost its mainstream pull. In the last year since, only Shine, Big Blue eSports’ newest project, stepped up to fill the void.

Stripped of its major, the tristate area needed to rely on grassroots organizers and a dedicated local scene if it wanted to keep up with richer ecosystems, such as SoCal. Wynton “Prog” Smith, a well-respected figure in the Smash scene, said that’s almost ideal.

“It seems like, no matter what, there’s always gonna be people who step up,” Prog told Slingshot. “There was the Justice Series. The ROM Series was huge, of course. Losing APEX did hurt a bit, however, on the other end of the spectrum, these players are getting the chance to play against a lot of talented people regularly.”

Although tristate Melee suffers from a lack of exposure, the region is also home to several top Smash 4 competitors, including Nairoby “Nairo” Quezada, Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby and Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios. Meanwhile, Ryan “The Moon” Coker-Welch and James “Swedish Delight” Liu pulled of strong Melee runs in recent majors.

The Ashes of Apex

Apex 2015 was a culmination of poor planning, bad luck and ethical blunders. A massive snowstorm damaged the Clarion Hotel Empire Meadowlands’ parking garage days prior to the event. Then, the fire department was called due to a damaged sprinkler incident. The fire marshal deemed the building unsafe, resulting in an emergency move to the Garden State Convention Center, over 40 minutes away.

Apex tournaments were known to run poorly, according to a local figurehead who wished to remain anonymous. Still, the Apex brand might’ve had a chance at redemption, if not for the tournament’s organizer, Johnathan “Alex Strife” Lugo, who stepped down amidst several credible accusations of sexual harassment. The Daily Dot reported Lugo attempted to remain with Apex behind the scenes, which depleted the brand’s final ounce of goodwill from the community.

The community owed Apex nothing, and the stark drop in attendance was proof of that. When asked about Apex 2016, the eventual Melee champion, Mew2king, was not very impressed.

“It’s fine, but let’s be honest: it’s a regional,” Mew2King told Slingshot. “I haven’t had any problems, but it’s not hard to run — well not enough setups — otherwise it’s fine.”

Apex ran for three days, despite diminished attendance. The Smash 4 competition snagged the spotlight from Melee, as the event attracted top international talent such as Yuta “Nietono” Uejima, James “VoiD” Makekau-Tyson and Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby. Although Apex was VoiD’s first big tournament with Counter Logic Gaming, it was Dabuz, then a free agent, who brought home the gold.

Despite high-level competition in Smash 4 and Pokken Tournament, Apex was all but forgotten when CEO 2016 began, a week later.

Apex ran smoothly this year, and the only issues were minimal. The organizers announced their intent to keep the series alive in 2017, with the hope that a one-year trial would be enough to win back the community.

Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby shared similar sentiments in an interview with Slingshot.

“Obviously they’re trying to fix its own name because last year was pretty bad for a lot of reasons — some of which were preventable and some which were “WTF, why does snow have to happen?” Dabuz said. “I would like to see some issues fixed next year like scheduling and available setups. For what they had to work with, they did a pretty good job.”

If the community’s faith in Apex cannot be restored, thousands of northeastern competitors would have to look elsewhere.

Rising Talent

Unlike in traditional sports such as baseball, northeastern gamers aren’t disadvantaged by colder conditions. Local tournaments often take place on a weekly basis, giving rising talent ample opportunities to compete and improve.

Although Swedish Delight and The Moon grab the headlines, the northeast is still churning out young talent. Prog credited Nebulous Gaming in New York City.

They are definitely in the forefront, especially in New York City, of training the next level of next generation smashers,” Prog said. “I go there and I’m still impressed by the talent of players that are pretty new.”

Nebulous hosts bi-weekly events for Melee and Smash 4, creating ample time for top talent to filter in. “Because of these weeklies, you never know who’s in town,” Prog said. “Hax will come through, once in awhile. The Moon. These guys are still playing against high-level competition. It may not be the best in the world, every weekend, but it still is great to be able to be guided by players of that caliber.”

In New Jersey, Jersey Japes, Hitbox Arena and NJ’s Quarterly Rapport are on the forefront of weekly and regional competitions. New England has Matthew “MattDotZeb” Zaborowski to organize events. MattDotZeb is also the mind behind “The Melee Games”, a collegiate circuit Prog attributes to Melee’s booming popularity among college age students.

Given the nearby infrastructure, it might come as a shock that the Northeast is considered a weaker region. It all comes down to exposure. The lack of top tournaments like Apex doesn’t afford these talents many opportunities to attract lucrative sponsorships. Although travel is easier than ever, it’s still a massive time commitment that’s not feasible for everyone.

“I would say that the Northeast isn’t focused as heavily as most regions,” Prog told Slingshot. “It might be a bit harder for these guys to secure sponsors. For example, there’s so many players in SoCal — they definitely deserved — they get to focus on Smash now. They can continue to improve and erupt. These are players at the tipping point. These are the elite.”

This optimism comes at a time when both collegiate and New England smashers might finally have that opportunity.

A beacon of hope

While the new Apex labored for diminished returns, Big Blue eSports noticed an opportunity. On March 16, 2016, it announced Shine 2016.

“Shine 2016 will be Boston Smash’s biggest and most ambitious undertaking yet, with Melee, Crew Battles, Smash 4, and Smash 64 all taking center stage,” the announcement read. “Top talent such as Hungrybox, Axe, Hax$, Shroomed, SFAT, Lucky, Silent Wolf, PewPewU, S2J, MacD, ESAM, Hyuga, Koolaid, and many more will be in attendance.”

Shine was an opportunity to foster growth and engagement in Massachusetts. It ran from August 26-28 and served as Boston’s first mainstream event since MLG Boston in 2004 when Christopher “Azen” McMullen defeated Antoine “Wes” Lewis-Hall in the final MLG event before the 2004 New York Championships.

MattDotZeb was in charge of Melee brackets, while top organizers such as Bassem “Bear” Dahdouh ensured that Shine was as well-rounded as it’s list of 1687 attendees. Meanwhile, retired Melee superstar, Daniel “KDJ” Jung made an appearance, in spite of the hand injuries that plague most dedicated smashers.

The Seaport World Trade Center — although an expensive venue — was sprawling with setups and merchants. Personalities and competitors alike tweeted their support for Shine, including a glowing endorsement from Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma.

Launching a premier tournament was massive undertaking, so the positive buzz around Shine is a good sign for New Englanders.

For tristate competitors, time will tell if Shine’s success will have a lasting impact on the rest of the northeast region. But with the support of the spectators, players and sponsors, Shine might be the tournament the Northeast needs going forward.

The Future

With tournaments testing the waters in the Northeast, the region’s growth rests with its players and organizers. With Mew2King a visitor in his home state, new talent must persevere and decide the competitive fate of their region.

Swedish, with a degree in chemistry under his belt, found results at Pound and Smash ‘N’ Splash. Double-eliminating Mew2King is quite a feat. At Shine, Swedish showed versatility with his Peach when he sent Michael “Nintendude” Brancato to losers with tight 3-2 victory. He finished fifth at the tournament, above top-ranked competitors such as Justin “Plup” McGrath and Weston “Westballz” Dennis.

The Moon bounced back from a recent slump at WTFox 2 and cracked the top five. He performed well against Westballz and even took a game off of Mew2King. Both players have opportunities to improve their stock.

Meanwhile, James “Mafia” Lauerman is quietly stringing together impressive victories, including a win over The Moon at Apex and an upset against Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson at Super Smash Con. Mafia was forced out of Shine top 48 due to illness, but he’s certainly trending upwards.

The people are there, and their passion is proven. Time robbed them of their riches; the time has come for newcomers to represent the best the Northeast has to offer. To Prog, that’s all that matters.

“I still think tristate has many players who aren’t as highly regarded, but continue to grow,” Prog said. “They might not get those chances, but they’ve got the heart and desire. That’s what has driven this scene for so long. That’s why the scene exists in the Northeast.”

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