The clicking and rattling of Nintendo GameCube controllers hit you before you even reach the door to the gymnasium. Upon entering a “Super Smash Bros.” tournament, you will be met with the frantic ticking that comes with the territory of the game, along with the faint but present scent of perspiration.
“Super Smash Bros.” is a series of fighting games made by Nintendo. The games feature characters from popular Nintendo franchises such as “Super Mario Bros.,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “The Legend of Zelda."
Zach Helms, a 21-year-old competitor, sits leaning forward, watching the screen intently. His thumbs appear to be working magic, transferring combos onto the screen, inevitably defeating his opponent. His shoulder-length, blond hair is pulled into a low ponytail, landing on the collar of his flannel shirt. Helms looks and sounds exactly like the person someone would expect to see at a Smash tournament.
Helms was born in Atlanta, Michigan Feb. 26, 1998, but currently resides in Oceanside, California. He has been playing the “Super Smash Bros.” video game series since he was 4 years old when he was introduced to the game by his brothers Shane and Adam. It wasn’t until 2016 that Helms began playing “Project M” and “Melee” professionally.
The official name is “Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U.” According to Helms, the games released thus far have been: “Super Smash Bros.” in 1999 for the Nintendo 64, “Melee” in 2001, “Brawl” for the Wii in 2008, “Project M” in 2011, “Smash 4” in 2014 and “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” for the Nintendo Switch in 2018.
Upon the release of “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” Dec. 7, 2018, the game had a resurgence in the mainstream. A counterculture of professional “Melee” players has always existed, but with the Nintendo Switch, this counterculture simply became the culture.
Though he once specialized in “Project M,” Helms said "Melee" is the primary game he practices and plays. According to Helms, there is a huge culture around “Melee,” especially in San Diego, California.
“At my peak, I ranked No. 9 in the county,” Helms said. He goes by Surgeon – or SRGN for short – at tournaments. “It’s sort of my alter ego.”
Helms is a spiritual person, his room littered with crystals and stones of all shapes and sizes, for all purposes. Helms claims there is a trance that falls upon players and that he says, “is where the magic happens.”
The world of Smash tournaments is largely underground. Hundreds of people attend these events that are held anywhere from high school gymnasiums to real arcades, like Super Arcade in Azusa, California – the location of the recent Busters and Bandits tournament.
Smash tournaments range in atmosphere and intensity. On the lighter side, there are “Smash Fests,” aka “Friendlies.”
“This is where people test out different characters and just have some fun," Helms said. "There are lots of smiles and laughs. In friendlies, it just looks like bros playing video games.”
On the other hand, there are “Tourneys,” which are what you would probably picture when thinking of a video game tournament.
“Tourneys are where people are stone-cold, lean forward and really focus," Helms said. "Gamers will recoil in anguish when they’re hit. People are playing to win."
Jakob Wheeler, a Phoenix native and professional Smash player who goes by the name Worm, is currently ranked in the top 50 in the state of Arizona for “Melee.” Like Helms, Wheeler began playing professionally in late 2016.
“‘Melee’ is my favorite because of the speed and the flowing combo system, and I think ‘Ultimate’ is Nintendo straying away from their anti-competitive mindset and making things feel faster and better,” Wheeler said.
As this counterculture rises in popularity, so does Nintendo’s sales. According to Nintendo's 2018 financial report, "Smash Ultimate” sold upwards of 12 million copies within the first month of its release. However, according to Helms, Melee is still the number one game played at tournaments.