Which game is more hype between Smash Bros Melee and Ultimate is a conversation that has happened a thousand times in a thousand different settings, and will normally come down to personal preference. Some prefer the variety and polish of Ultimate, while others think Melee’s technicality and speed are the most exciting part of the game. But there is one area where there is no competition at all, and the newer games wins hands down.
What we are talking about here is international competition, an area that Melee has never thrived in and struggles in a lot today. Those who watched the Smash World Tour will already know this, of course, but the problem persisted long before Ultimate was even a twinkle in Sakurai’s eyes. In 2021, it’s still a reason Melee remains an esport dominated by NA talent.
The graphic above shows the scale of the issue, with only three of the top eight at SWT hailing from outside the US, and that number itself being seriously bolstered by NA's top three all dropping out of the event. You might argue that Leffen's absence deprived us of a potential EU top-eight finish, although the Swede is rusty as hell at present (due to there being no real competition in his region).
But if Mango, Zain, and IBDW had attended the tournament then the likes of Pipsqueak and Trif would likely have also not finished as high as they did, based on current form and historical results.
The rare international legends of Melee
Now, before the chorus of dissent, we are aware that arguably the greatest player of all time is a Swede, and there can be no question as to Armada’s legacy. The man is so legendary he inspired the likes of Leffen and Mango to reach new peaks just to compete with him, and his retirement left a void in the European game that is yet to be filled.
Sadly though, if you remove Armada and Leffen from the equation, there has never been a European major winner, and the modern era of Melee also lacks any significant Asian champions. AMSa is an astonishing talent, akin to an Axe or Ultimate’s Glutonny for his dedication to a character, but he and CaptainJack are the only two Japanese players to travel abroad and make an impact, with no Asian player having won a modern major.
By comparison, Ultimate is a league of nations, with genuine threats from multiple regions. The Smash World Tour Finals saw Mexico’s MKLeo defeat an American in the shape of Cosmos, but there are also credible threats in that game from Japan, with players like Shuton, Tea, ProtoBanham, and Zackray just some of the notable pros from that part of the world, as well as the likes of Glutonny in Europe.
The problem is worse even than it seems on paper, as the lack of elite EU players in Melee has limited the ability of Leffen and those looking to follow in his footsteps to maintain their level or improve. The likes of Amsah, Professor Pro, Ice, Android, Mahie, Tekk, and many more have all got to a certain level in EU, only to fall short when competing in the states. And things aren’t improving for Melee stars outside the North American continent.
Is it too late for Melee?
Breaking down the reasons for this disparity isn’t the most challenging job, as some of them are extremely obvious.
While Nintendo has done their best to support Ultimate (and to be clear Nintendo’s best is a long way from the best in the industry), the company has gone out of its way to hurt the Melee scene historically. It continued to do so even during the COVID era, shutting down events because of community developments designed to help the game survive.
There are also historical issues that have dogged Melee outside of the world’s worst developers, with a lack of top player travel meaning the US was the only place to get good practice or play in Majors, and the fact netplay only came about long after the game was released. Now, with COVID, Nintendo, and other factors conspiring, it almost looks like the window for significant growth has been missed, and the battle for players outside of the states to make it to the top is even tougher than it was when Leffen was grinding his way up.
One thing is for sure though — Melee is poorer for not having any international narratives outside of those two torchbearers. Other esports thrive on "NA sucks" narratives and banter around which region is the best, while Melee relies on a single Japanese man and a Swede with a bum visa to have any semblance of international threat at a Major.
Going into 2022, this is an extremely worrying sign for one of the world’s longest-running esports, and addressing it might be impossible at this point, as sad as that is to admit.