Aside from winning, what gives you the greatest feeling playing Melee?
“It’s hard to put it in words perfectly. It’s like going through the motions of doing something well within Melee even if it doesn’t work. I used to play tennis and when I would just hit the ball properly, it just feels good — it’s like slicing through butter. It just feels right. Executing tech skill, even on my own, it just feels so good. Playing, even in friendlies, even in matches that don’t matter and just executing something properly — it feels very good.”
* * *
This quote feels core to what ends up being a nearly 80-minute long interview with Avery “Ginger” Wilson.
Like a lot of top players, he’s transfixed with mastery over a set of incredibly niche skills inside a niche game inside a niche genre of entertainment. Ginger has long thrived inside worlds where he can spend hours at the grindstone, actively picking at complex systems.
Math and music: The person behind the Falco
I heard that you majored in musical education in college. I’m curious, what led to that?
“I was sort of a math prodigy when I was a kid. I hate calling myself that because I’m terrible at math now. But I was doing algebra when I was in first grade, in kindergarten I knew my time tables up to 15x15. So my whole trajectory was, ‘Okay, well Avery’s gonna become some kind of engineer or somebody who works in finance or something. He just loves numbers.’
And then, I started getting really bullied in middle school. I’d get beat up every day, called names every day. Even the teachers would pick on me. It was really, really, really bad and kind of destructive and it made me not want to try in school anymore. So I was in a math class that was accelerated three years ahead and I started failing on purpose.
School was not going well at all but what I really loved was music. I was always able to return to, ‘Wow music can really connect with me. Even when people are kind of mean to me I’m able to find some sort of connection with music.’ And I was playing middle school percussion at the time because I needed an arts class and a band seemed fun.”
When I play along with the music I love so much, I feel an even deeper connection. So being the sort of grinder that I am, I would play like 6-8 hours of music every single day. I’d come home from school and I’d play it literally until I went to sleep. By doing so I, became top chair when I was in freshman year of high school.”
* * *
When it comes to the difficult and expressive, few things rival Super Smash Bros. Melee. Its complexity and creativity plumb a space that most esports can’t reach. As Ginger got further into his degree in Music Education, he also fell deeper into Melee.
“Even when I was in college, sort of to my own detriment,” he says under his breath, “I used to skip class and play Melee. Like, I would play way too much. I’ve always been dedicated to the grind.”
The dedication to the grind shows in his gradual rise as a player, reaching a peak in this current Diamond Age of rollback Melee. Virtually every top brass but Mang0 and Zain are on the list of people Ginger’s beaten in 2020.
This grind extends beyond practice and into the realm of tournaments, where Ginger enters East Coast tournaments constantly. It’s all towards a goal of taking those sets off Mang0 and Zain in 2021 and reaching the zeniths that only the very best players know.
“If you don’t implement your practice into tournament play, I think it’s gonna be a lot more difficult for you to improve — or at least me individually. It all just fits into what my process is. I have to enter tournaments otherwise I’m not going to be the best.”
“I love entering tournaments. I’m almost an adrenaline junkie to a degree because I live for those intense game 5's, last stock moments where I come out the victor. Or even losing! Some of the most heartbreaking losses are some of the most motivating things in my career.”
* * *
The sky-high skill ceiling in Melee makes it so that each gap between top 100, top 50, top 20, top 10, and top 5 is exponentially bigger. There are players in the top 50 that have been rinsed consistently by the top 10 for years.
In Ginger’s case, the break from top 30 to top 10-15 comes from several fronts — some deep and some shallow — and one particular lucky break: a Melee modification called Slippi.
In a Dignitas interview in 2018, Ginger said he didn’t favor netplay as a practice tool because back then it was delay-based and many top competitors didn’t use it for serious practice. He tells me as well that he was locked into habits strong on netplay, bad on the CRT.
However, netplay remained a fairly easy grind that Ginger really enjoyed. Fitting to the inner Falco main, Ginger is a notorious WiFi warrior to the point that he brought his Kirby secondary up to the highest rank in online Melee. He got so good, he pretended to be Triple R, one of Kirby’s few dedicated mains.
As both a WiFi warrior and an intensely analytical person, Slippi’s VOD repository function and frame-by-frame rewind helped Ginger immediately.
“One of the reasons why I’m seeing so much growth recently is because nothing has changed in my process but the tools at my disposal have changed,” he explains.
Ginger’s experience with rollback isn’t necessarily unique. Rollback has leveled up the practice routine for a lot of netplay lovers, who are now rising the ranks in force. Ginger points to the prodigious Minnesotan Sheik main “Ben” Strandmark as an example. Since Ben’s region is weak at Melee, the robust rollback netcode gives him much stronger consistent practice. Living in West Michigan — not exactly a Melee Mecca — Ginger faced a similar dilemma, handicapped somewhat in his learning process.
“I was still able to become a top 100 player living at least three hours from the closest top 100 player. This is because playing against worse people, as long as you take it correctly and you work on the right things, you’re actually able to improve big time. Not only are you able to focus on implementing new things a bit easier because you’re not being hit away for messing them up slightly, you can take those moments as teaching opportunities. And when you teach something, it really hammers in the concept for you to grasp.”
As someone who went into musical education, Ginger takes a lot of interest in the learning process in general. Touting a phenomenal band teacher as an early positive influence, he’s looked to take a similar teaching role in Melee and to study it in a similar way to teaching music.
He references a learning theory from Ryan Holiday’s book “Ego is the Enemy” — in turn taken from MMA coach Frank Shamrock. Called “plus, minus, equal”, the idea is that you should be training against opponents better, worse, and equal to you since each level reinforces and hones different areas. Ginger gets plus and equal experience from the top 8’s and minus experience from subscribers and students.
Control, pressure, and mix-ups: The playstyle
Recently, a great Melee essayist Ambisinister wrote a piece dissecting three public lessons from three major Foxes who offer coaching: iBDW, Fiction, and Druggedfox. These tremendous players each have a different theory of the game that informs their coaching and playstyle. Ambisinister breaks things down into two theoretical camps:
“Win games” (iBDW/Fiction) vs “make good decisions” (Druggedfox).
Druggedfox also theorizes a Melee where, if you can look for the right things, you can react to most things in the right way. I ask Ginger which school he leans into. He calls his style “formulaic” and touts his love for the gritty analysis built into Melee. He runs through several specific scenarios on how he calculates risk and reward and creates a situation in neutral where he has good low risk, high reward options.
Ginger’s theory of the game resembles Druggedfox’s…
...Because Druggedfox coached Ginger, straight out of a plateau around that top 30 area that many players never manage to climb past.
And yet, it’s an oversimplification to put Ginger as a kind of Mencius to Druggedfox’s Confucius. Ginger does have his own warring thoughts on how Melee should be played.
“So I have these two wolves inside me,” Ginger chuckles, “and one of them is like, ‘Wow, Melee truly is this limitless, crazy thing where people have so many options.” Then the other wolf is like ‘Wow, I do so much analysis so that I hope to not ever be surprised by some sort of — oh, there’s this third option I didn’t consider.’
A lot of people are sort of mystified and play this ‘what they perceive to be freeform’ style within the game but I take it a little bit more formulaically. But at the same time, I’m not just doing standard things. I’m not just doing predictable things. I’m concealing what I might do by altering a laser timing or making it look like I might do one thing by short hopping at them but then double jump wavelanding to the side platform. But I still have a specific mixup in mind that I’m going to be doing.”
In essence, Ginger plays not just to a flowchart that ought to create a perfect Falco, but to push his opponents off their flowcharts and into the hiccups. He plays a tight control and pressure-oriented style which he builds to gather data, set up a mix-up with a solid risk-reward skew, then use the data to select an option in the mix-up. This is why he uses so many lasers, back airs, and space-controlling moves and why he’ll simply hold the center more than many other Falcos will.
Let’s take an example from his win against Hax$ in the Galint Melee Open. In the clip below, Ginger full-hops out of the corner. Putting Hax$ in shield, he retreats to center, shoots a laser to force an action, watches what Hax$ will do, reacts to a missed wavedash and grabs, reacts to a tech roll, and holds the corner all the way until he gets an uptilt that gets him a chance at to mix Hax$ up.
It’s a forward-throw tech chase, where he clearly has a specific mix-up. He runs forward, crouch cancels the get-up attack, forward smashes, then destroys a neutral get-up with another forward smash. It’s a strong mix-up because you wouldn’t necessarily expect two f-smashes in a row and the f-smash should be able to cover other options with other timings too. (Possibly on reaction, though I’m not 100% on that).
Another great example of Ginger’s style comes against Gahtzu during the Florida Falcon’s recent insane streak of wins. Ginger gets a tech chase with a down air, crouches to cancel get-up attack, and tries to read a roll away with an f-smash.
Failing that, he holds his ground using lasers and claws some space back. He actually gets hit by a power-shielded laser but it weirdly works out, pushing him out of Gahtzu’s grab range. In Melee, the jank flows all ways.
The mix-up follows the jank opening. Ginger covers Gahtzu’s roll-away with a laser. Gahtzu sees he’ll need to take the laser and tries to armor out of it with a raptor boost, but Gahtzu did this earlier in the set. Ginger remembers and reacts with a spot dodge-bair.
Here, Ginger does something really cool by holding the ledge, empty-hopping twice to see what Gahtzu will do. Gahtzu tries to counter-hit twice, so Ginger puts out a safe lair, then shields the counterattack and gets a shine that converts to a kill. Across this play, Ginger prioritizes a pressure that reveals what Gahtzu will do. Then he uses that data to win out on mix-up and rock-paper-scissor scenarios.
To the Melee layman, these plays don’t seem as dynamic as the pillar combos or firebird kills (bombsoldiers) that Falco lands. In reality, these plays are more dynamic and more core to Ginger as a player. His corner pressure, stage control, and ledgetrapping are some of the best in the entire game and these clips show why.
They’re also great examples of why Ginger not only mains Falco but feels that the character fits this control style better than any other.
“I think Falco is the perfect character for the style that I try to achieve. Marth can be really limiting using his dash-dance and his zoning tools but I feel like Falco is really good at using this formulaic style but forcing these mix-ups to happen and taking charge of the game. So the way I view the game happens to line up perfectly with the character I play, which isn’t exactly by chance."
"I wanna limit my opponent to the best of my ability so that I have a higher likelihood of my mix-up working,” Ginger continues. “So I use whatever I can to limit them, whether it be lasers or my movement or zoning them out so that they can’t approach me so that they give up stage control — for example. Let’s say they give up stage position. Now my risk-reward is much better. There’s a higher likelihood my mix-up is going to work because they can’t retreat backwards anymore and if I hit them my reward is higher because they’re closer to the blast zone.”
Ginger’s approach to Melee is why he’s one of the biggest Falco evangelists in the game, arguing that the character stands over Fox, Puff, and Marth.
“There’s always this subsection of the community that says, ‘Oh Falco spawn at death percent. He’s this glass cannon character, he’s so wild and crazy, oh look at the mix-ups.’ Well, let’s talk about control and the poking he has.”
The way Ginger wins with Falco is part of why he’s becoming one of the new enemies to the setplay-illiterate Twitch chatters that groan whenever they have to see more than five seconds of uninterrupted neutral. Smash’s oddly hostile peanut gallery struggles to understand how a hail of lasers sets up for a big play down the line, even if the lasers slow the game down at that moment.
“When you do a laser as Falco, you’re essentially locked into a commitment of around 20 frames — which is a while! That’s a third of a second in a game that’s happening quickly. When you do something that takes a long period of time in Melee, it has to be a read. As I’m shooting the laser I’m just hoping I‘m able to get the laser out. Since I’m so committed to doing the laser, there’s nothing I can be doing those 20 frames that would affect anything. So I’m just watching my opponent. That’s a very important part of Melee.”
The laser works double-time for Ginger’s style, both limiting his opponent’s options while helping him select the option to go for when he forces the mix-up. This is a part of why Ginger can get a lot of strong reads on his opponent when they’re in a disadvantage. It’s also part of why he sees Falco not as the glass cannon, mix-up stand-in to Fox but the best overall character in the game.
Ginger and Mang0: Two paths to the future of falco
Ginger’s view of Falco can’t be written off, either, not coming from the second-best Falco in the world. In this case, the silver medal speaks volumes because the gold belongs to Joseph “Mang0” Marquez, one of two standing gods and one of the most successful players ever. Not to mention just how many Falcos follow in the wake of the Kid only to never come close.
When a lot of people see Mang0 and Ginger, they draw them up as opposites as well. Mang0 is the embodiment of the freeform. Armada spoke out the definition of “The Mang0” as doing what you want and winning, realizing the way you’re feeling onto the results screen. Ginger, the sober setplayer and Mang0, the drunken master.
But drunken mastery is an illusion. It always has been. Hemingway never said to write drunk and edit sober, Jackie Chan is just an action star, and Mang0 doesn’t win tournaments while hammered. The real drunken boxing derives entirely from well-considered deceptions in movement — no alcohol involved.
Distill deep down and you find that Mang0 and Ginger are as similar as they are different. You find that Mang0 beat Zain twice on FD by zoning him out with a nerdy-as-shit micro-optimization to his laser pattern. Nowadays, Mang0 wins on the control game too, because he has to. Drunken boxing alone doesn't cut it against the waves of Bens and Pipsqueaks.
“Mang0 probably would still have to be my number one inspiration currently, but man, I draw so much from so many Falco’s all the time,” Ginger tells me. “PPMD and actually Druggedfox’s Falco have been giving me a lot of ideas that sort of are a little bit more complicated than what Mang0 deals with. Mang0’s very consistent and he’s very aware and he chooses very very good options all the time. [...] He’s just valuing risk-reward all the time.
I still take so many things from Mang0 because he’s always doing slightly different things than he was last month.”
More than maybe any Falco main, Ginger recognizes Mang0’s genius as a player, even if many fans can’t see it because Mang0 doesn’t always voice it.
“I 100% agree that Mang0 gets this kind of weird portrayal. I think it happens because he has a hard time vocalizing the game to the general audience — cause the game’s so complicated. [...] But yes, Mang0’s chok-full of really genius-level thinking of the game.”
When I watch Mang0 or Ginger, my mind goes to something iBDW said in a rant about the world of Falco:
“Ginger is playing Falco how Falco will work best in five years. Mang0 will get there in a different way and he’s already starting in a way higher area.”
I truly believe we’ll see iBDW’s words become reality. As time goes on, Ginger and Mang0 both will be the air under the bird’s wings and the players to elevate the meta of one of the game’s most popular characters. These two will come to clash more often. For anyone seriously looking at Falco for what the bird can be, these will be the sets to watch, whether they’re 3-0’s or game 5’s.
Whether Ginger walks away with a loss to learn or a win to validate it all, I can’t say. In this last year, it’s undoubtedly been in Mang0’s favor, but for the Melee community, it doesn’t matter too much. The result either way is two players reaching for the same summit through two different paths — something core to the spirit of this game and to why it’s survived all these years.