There’s a lot to be curious about now that Eric “ESAM” Lew is back to competing. He’s had both challenging defeats and incredible victories. Inven Global had the chance to speak with ESAM about his current thoughts on the game and his future as a competitor.
Here is the second part of the interview, where ESAM opens up about his career with Panda and the differences between Melee and Ultimate when it comes to the pro scene and their practicing.
You’ve now been with Panda for more than six years. What on your thoughts on that? The organization has exploded over lockdown — did you expect to see such growth from them?
Yes and no, because you can't plan for the future in esports. Twitch and YouTube revenue is inconsistent because some videos and streams hit while others don't. So, there's not a lot of consistency in income. So I was just like, "I'm just gonna do this until I can't, and then I'll just do my college degree or get a normal job."
And then things got bigger and my socials popped off.
But I feel like Panda always tries to make the right decision—obviously, they've missed before. But they're always willing to learn from their mistakes and try not to make them again. I mean, the expansion and the focus on content makes sense, but also the number of personnel in the team went from, like 20 to 100. And so not everyone's gonna always be on the same page. But they try their best. And I feel like they're always willing to listen.
They meme a bit too much for my taste. That's a personal thing. But I think they're always trying to have a rapport with the players, which is good, if you know who it is. I feel like they're always trying to be as positive as possible. And then of course, if things need to be like, handled privately, they are handled privately. More sternly, but they're not gonna blow one of us up on Twitter for no reason.
What memory sticks out most to you with the organization?
I feel like one of the nicest things about it is seeing how different people from different walks of life all come together through gaming. Obviously, most of the time fighting games. But I've interacted with our Hearthstone players when we had them. And also they had Shadowverse players and Pokémon players. And it's always nice to see different people come together for a shared interest from hugely different walks of life.
Like when we had Filipino Champ, his outlook on life and esports was super different than Smash players. Because at the time—maybe still arguably—Street Fighter was bigger. So he was talking about all these things, and we're like learning about actual esports—bigger fighting game esports. Because we're not used to that mindset.
And then like, because Filipino Champ was on the team, he would invite other Street Fighter players, or we would go to dinner together, and I would learn more with them. And I would talk to them and become at the very least acquaintances with a ton of people. Which is cool, I like having different perspectives on something that's very similar.
If I had to pick one memory, though... Apologies to David and Alan, but it's not about them. It's not about the bosses, although they're super great. But I think the most fun I had in terms of Panda was DreamHack Atlanta. At Dreamhack Atlanta, there was a house of people. The thing that Panda always tried to do until it got too big — when there was like eight players — they would try to rent out an Airbnb and all of us would stay together in different rooms or on the couch. And we would just all hang out with each other. CEO was one of the big ones where it was a bunch of us and Panda where we were just able to bond, which was nice.
And especially when Panda was smaller, it definitely felt more like a family than an esports organization. Obviously, things sectioned off a little bit because like there aren't as many crossover events—obviously COVID happened—so it's more about content. But that was really fun. Just being able to talk to people about their lives and getting to know them.
My favorite one was probably at a DreamHack where it was some of the Panda players. And we would just walk around outside and have fun and the Airbnb randomly had a 3D Mortal Kombat chess thing, and we were just playing, talking shit, and having a good time. But it's so fun to interact with those people—some that I technically grew up with (KP and I are both from Florida), so we kind of know of each other—but then Panda brought us closer. I saw with KP that we had a lot of similarities because we're both from Florida and like South Florida. So we bonded. And then just getting to know all those players, and all those people are really fun. All the houses that we had for Airbnb and stuff with us staying together was super fun.
"Some top [Super Smash Bros. Ultimate] players are just lazy."
I wanted your perspective on the debate about Ultimate players not practicing as much as Melee players. Marss pointed to the higher focus on content creation. What do you think?
Marss definitely isn't wrong about that. Because the only people that watch Melee are Melee players for the most part. And Ultimate's the newer one, right? Melee—and I don't mean this in any bad way—is a cult. Basically, it's like "Melee is the best game ever! There's zero flaws in it!" It's very exaggerated in terms of the diehard nature of their game. Melee is an anomaly in esports. Clearly, right? It's the only game that the successors don't immediately blow it out of the water in terms of viewership.
Although Ultimate right now is way bigger in terms of entry numbers. Which is weird, because I expected Melee to be that because Melee had better netcode. In Melee, in order to stay good, you have to hardcore practice, because it's not just "I have to understand these interactions." You have to understand every interaction. Because if you don't, you will lose a stock immediately. And Ultimate doesn't really have a lot of those situations as much, because it's a less punishing game. And also, the metas are different. In Melee, if you're playing a top nine character you're trying, and if you're not playing them then you're not trying. You're not gonna win with any consistency.
So there's like a clear distinction of, "This is for practice, and this is for fucking around" in Melee. Whereas in Ultimate, because 65 characters are viable, when a top player or content creator expose a character in terms of how fun they are or how good they are, public opinion can shift rapidly against that character. Which means that there's more chance that to want to play mid-tiers. Like Leo had made Byleth (a mid-tier) work well. And because Leo is doing well with them, now there can be content that we can make about, "Is Byleth actually good? Let's have me try to play Byleth."
And there's a lot more of that as opposed to Melee which has a much more set meta. But in Ultimate, because kind of every character is good, except for like five bad characters. You can always have fun, and you can take a character seriously because any character's good. Because Ice Climbers—who I consider a bottom 10 or 15 character—has a PGR player representing them.
You can believe that any character can be good, and so you can kind of one play who you want. It's not like you have to play a specific character and if you don't you're fucked. In terms of percentage and consistency and a top level you should be playing a top tier, but you don't really have to. Ultimate's the most balanced fighting game I've ever seen ever. Except for Divekick.
Ultimate's community is younger. It does better on YouTube overall, for sure. In terms of actual content. Melee content has to be very niche about like the community, a tournament set, or Mang0. Zain, who's a top two player in Melee currently—I don't think he has a YouTube channel above 100,000 subscribers. And that's not insulting him, it's just I don't think so. Whereas Marss in a year got 100,000 subscribers, Fatality just passed it, and I've been over 100 for a couple years. Obviously we have the not-top player content creators like Alpharad and Little Z over, or close to a million subscribers. So I feel like the casual audience likes Ultimate and the casual audience is YouTube and Twitch. So people focus more on that.
And also, some top players are lazy. This is going to be very harsh—in North America, I think there are about 15 players that are really trying. That's it. I think there are a ton of players that are trying to be good because they have a general understanding of the game. Where they were a top player in another game and they're just riding that. But there are a lot of players that I watch and I'm just like "You're blatantly making incorrect decisions that you should know are incorrect decisions, constantly. Why?" And they're in top eight. No particular player comes to mind, but there are very few players that legitimately break the game down and understand it at all levels. If you ask me a question about the game, whatever it is, I will be able to answer it unless it's a very character-specific question of a character I don't play.
I feel like a lot of people are maybe getting good with their character, but not good matchups, or at playing the other player. They're good players, I'm not gonna say they are bad players, but I just don't think they're doing the amount of work that they need to do to stay at the top or high. And as people grind harder and get better they will need to do so in order to stay on top.
That's one of the reasons I respect Tweek so much. Tweek probably took the pandemic the most seriously. In terms of learning. He learned two whole-ass new characters, and won Summit. Because he really broke the game down in a way that made sense to him. And Tweek's always been that player to really understand that. He would be grinding five days a week, "I'm just practicing Ultimate five hours. I'm barely talking to chat."
Whereas if you take the "Haha, I'm silly" content route, which I did for a little bit, you don't learn as much. I feel like not every top player focuses that much on it. As an example, I was 2-0 against Leo's Byleth, and then he switched to Joker at Glitch. And then he didn't go Byleth against me in Grands. And people were like, "ESAM, how do you know the Byleth matchup?" I looked at the frame data, and I paid attention when I played them on Elite Smash. And also Pikachu wins the matchup? Usually, you can learn the matchup from people that aren't the best players in the world.
People are always like, "Oh my god, I don't know what to do versus Pyra and Mythra!" They were so common on Elite Smash, how do you not know what you're doing against that character? How do you not know that nair is punishable? How do you not know how to edge guard them? We know they were going to be good. People were already saying they're super good online. Why are you not paying attention? And I feel like that just happened. And it's what led to people overrating Pyra and Myrtha at Summit in my opinion. I think they're a really good character obviously, but I don't think they're undeniably the best character in the game like every person at Summit was saying. I just think people need to study more.
"I'm not just Eric. I'm number one at something."
How much longer do you see yourself competing?
I don't have an estimate. Competing is fun as fuck. It's literally one of the most fun things I can do. I love competing. I love Smash. It's hard to know, right? Because I wasn't even planning on being the person I am in terms of only doing Smash. I graduated college, and I applied to pharmacy schools but didn't get in. So I was like, "I guess I'll try the esports thing as I do other things". And then esports made enough money that I was able to stream and do YouTube and focus on it. And that was in 2015.
The experiences I've had because of Smash are wonderful. But it's hard to know. Because people always say, "Your reaction time gets worse when you're older, slower." And then sako's fucking 42 and a top-five Street Fighter player. I think the people saying that are not doing the research, because there's no way to have the research of "Oh, there's video games now." So are people that are constantly playing video games also getting worse at reaction time? Because I don't think so. My reaction time I tested it on an actual good computer is 10 frames. Which is above average. And I'm 28. I'm one of the oldest players that is ranked. Me, MVD, and Ken are the three oldest players on the PGR (all late 20s).
I don't know. Because my hands are fine, and it makes money. There's not really a plan because how can I plan for something when I don't know what's going to happen? I should save money and have a buffer in case things do happen, but if Panda keeps growing—I see no reason why I wouldn't want to be on Panda. But it's hard to know. Because what is the future? Is there going to be a new Smash game? Is Ultimate gonna be the last one? If Ultimate's gonna be the last one, is it gonna stay alive? I think it could.
Granted again, entry numbers (especially post-lockdown) are insane. We're capping every event in 30 minutes. Obviously, I want there to be more sponsors and stuff—Smash World Tour is great if that continues to be a thing. I don't see why it would stop existing especially when it can be offline qualifiers and not online qualifiers. But it's hard to say, "I'm gonna play for six more years." Because it could be more than that. It could be less than that. I don't want to stop is the thing. I would love to be able to play as long as possible. Or then, if it got bigger, I could just coach and do analysis at events. I'm down to do that. I'm down to commentate. But playing is so unbelievably fun
When I went to Glitch—because I hadn't interacted with many people during the pandemic, other than my family in a long time. So I wondered if I was gonna play well. And then I was playing, and I was like, "This is so fun. Oh my god. It's so fun." And I played people like Dark Wizzy and Ned and some people that aren't super top players. And I was just like, and it was so fun. I love playing this game, it makes me so happy and so fulfilled.
Which is kind of silly—I'm not trying to downplay what esports is. But it's silly to me that I get so much fulfillment from playing a video game. Obviously, it's true, but it's it's weird to think about. Like I basically have my family and Smash Bros. And it's especially fulfilling to win. It's so fun to play well because I'm basically fulfilling my standards for myself. And obviously, in most situations, I'm just kind of a person. But Smash made me something more than that.
Because I'm not just Eric, I'm not just a guy with a genetics degree. I'm the number one of something. The number one Pikachu in the world, a top five player, someone that's won majors. How many people can say that for Smash? Maybe a couple dozen? Way less than 100. Especially because Melee has the gods. But it's ridiculous that I can be elite at something, because that's not something most people can experience. If you think about it, there are more people on like, five baseball teams out of the 32 baseball teams than there are people that won a major.
And to think of the support, the fans, and the followers, there's so much love. And, signing and doing pictures, and you know, people being excited to see me even though to me, I'm just a guy. Even if you're watching my streams, you don't really know me as a person. But people literally are literally like, "I went to this tournament to play you. I did something in my life because you existed."
That's fucking insane. And like not just one person, like multiple people every event. It's so gratifying.
I write. I rap. I run. That’s pretty much it.