Toph on the current state of the competitive Melee scene: "The skill floor is so much higher now"


It's been a busy year for Kris "Toph" Aldenderfer. He's casted some of the biggest events of the year, helped build the presence of Golden Guardians in the Melee scene, and been hosting exciting new initiatives like King of the Cube. Inven Global had the opportunity to speak with Toph, to discuss his thoughts on the top of competition, Nintendo's involvement with the community, and how Omicron will impact the offline tournament scene.

The top Super Smash Bros. Melee players

What's your perception of the scene right now after the last two big tournaments? What do you think about the top level of competition?


I do feel like there was a narrative over the last year or two that only Mango and Zain can win a tournament right now. That field has definitely widened quite a bit. I think there are some other people that would have been relatively unsurprising if they won: Leffen, Plup, etc. I definitely think there are a few people and I think it's nice.


It was really cool watching the Mango/Zain top two rivalry for a little while. Every tournament was a collision course between these two titans. I think having two people at the top is a very healthy number for a game because everyone loves watching those two people play. But on the flip side, it does take some of the drama out when one of those two people (or both) can't go to a tournament. And we started to see Mango say, "I don't want to go to this tournament because Zain's not going" or the flipside. And of course, they had even more pressing reasons like COVID, of course. But when some of that drama got lost, that was the lame part, which happened pretty recently. 


So I would say iBDW's win at Smash Summit 12 came at the perfect time, where it feels like a tournament doesn't have to have Mango or Zain to necessarily be dramatic. It once again feels like Mango and Zain have something to prove against more than just each other. I was actually rooting for iBDW to win by the end of the tournament, because I realized how cool it would be for the community as a whole, for that exact reason.



How does this era fit in compared to the Five Gods?


I think that with the Five Gods era, that storyline was very compactly packaged. First, the phrasing itself, I don't think we've come up with terminology for the heaviest hitters of the game right now. But I think part of that is because the lines are a lot blurrier. I think that if you go back and you watch footage from back then it really did feel like only those five, (and maybe a couple more straggling behind) were playing more modern melee than everybody else. 


But fast forward to today, look at Hungrybox's sets versus players like Polish. I might not even call that an upset anymore. You can tell that the field has really caught up. I think people have gotten a lot better at practicing. I think up until a few years ago, even in 2017 and 2018, there was this undercurrent amongst a lot of the labbers in the community that top players were lazy and didn't actually want to incorporate new techniques. They weren't good at deliberate practice. Overall, people in the upper echelons of Melee work didn't actually know that much about the game's inner workings. The Five Gods had much more of a leg up on everybody that it almost felt like your practice didn't matter in a way. 


People have gotten so much better at implementing techniques with Slippi. The skill floor is so much higher now. Three years ago, only Wizzrobe was using crouch-reaction tech chasing. I can open up Slippi right now, and I could play a Sheik player and they'll be able to do it to me. It's night and day. You can find specific examples of techniques and combos that two years ago only named top players could do. Now you go online and find a random player using those techniques. So I really do think it's harder to come up with these monikers for the top players for that reason. 


It might be a little bit harder to follow from the spectator's perspective because it's not always going to be the same exact people at the top of every single tournament. But if you're even a little bit invested in the community, I think it's pretty awesome because I think the main reason for that is because the field really has caught up a lot. And the level of play is just so much higher — so many more matches and tournaments are a treat to watch. I admit the Five Gods was very catchy, maybe there's some way we can think of branding for the current era (I do think the top eight sits ahead of the rest a bit). It's hard because there haven't been as many in-person tournaments. Once we get some more supermajors, though, that will change. 


When you look at aSMa’s performance, if he is to move to Canada, what is the likelihood we see him win a major next year? Obviously, he’ll receive a lot more practice, but people will prob be a lot more practiced for the Yoshi matchup?


It could definitely go both ways with aMSA. And he was actually making a remark on my stream. From his point of view, he doesn't really necessarily need a top player to improve, he just needs somebody who knows the Yoshi matchup. If he's playing someone who's reasonably strong, but really understands Yoshi in and out, that can be very effective practice for him. On my stream, he was actually remarking that he doesn't feel that held back relative to somebody like Leffen, because he as a Fox player has to figure out the threats and defuse the threats, whereas aMSa is the threat. I thought this was very interesting coming from him. I think people have speculated this about him before, but I've never kind of heard him say it himself. So I thought it was humble and cool that he said that. 



I do think, however, that it's unjust to simply portray aMSa as somebody who's going to get figured out if the top players get to play him a lot. Over the years, I thought many times that though he got good results, people were gonna learn the Yoshi matchup, and his results would dissipate. That's never happened. He's only come back stronger. I think this last Smash Summit showed the most promise. I've never gone to an event until Smash Summit 12 and thought he could win a big event. I've always thought he can get top eight. I've always thought he can beat any one or two people. But I never thought he could win the whole event. 


But a lot of people, even some of the other top players there, thought he could win. Even the way he got knocked out, those sets showed a lot of promise. So, I actually do think if he's able to go to all the super majors (COVID permitting), I think he's got a good shot. While I don't think him being in Japan is as much of a detriment, if he moves to NA, I do think he's going to continue to see more and more success up until winning a major.

The future of the Melee LAN scene

You were someone that showed a decent amount of optimism regarding Nintendo’s Panda partnership. One of the points you brought up is that the people working at Panda you trust to do well. To play devil’s advocate — when Nintendo was sponsoring events like Apex, we had commentators and community figures saying “trust us, Nintendo’s gonna be playing a bigger role.” How is this time different you think?


Yeah, I guess we don't know for sure. But it does seem (obviously, there's so little information out right now) if you look at the formal announcement, it explicitly says, "with cash prizes." It sounds like they're specifically trying to assuage those concerns. I feel they were very explicit with having Melee included and cash prizes. There's kind of this explicit messaging. Nintendo doesn't really make money off of selling Melee anymore, they had no real reason to include the game. And the cash prizes thing. I feel like that was one of the main criticisms in the past. They were giving legitimacy to these tournaments, but not actually putting any money behind them. They were making the grand prize a controller or something. 


So it at least seems like they're trying to on some practical level address community concerns, which I would say is further than we've ever gotten before. I would say that's why a lot of people feel somewhat optimistic right now. It feels like this is a little more than we've seen in the past. It's being messaged at least from Panda as a formalized circuit. It's very early, but it looks like it could be more than we've gotten in the past. 


And I feel like from Panda's perspective, if they didn't think this was a good thing for the  competitive community, I don't think they would have done it. Just knowing how long Nintendo can take to set up deals like this, this must have been years in the making. And I just feel like if this was a bad deal for the community, Panda would have hit the brakes at some point. That's my gut. 


Over the last few years, we also saw a return to a more casual environment for Smash esports. People stopped wearing suits and there was a generally more casual atmosphere. Do you see commentators going back to a real formal style again?


That's a good question. I don't really know. I would say a lot of the presentation style hasn't necessarily even been that deliberate. It's actually not that common that TOs or broadcast producers have had guidelines — sometimes there'll be a line or two about dress code, but a lot of times it's actually on the commentators themselves. So it's a good question. I actually personally wouldn't mind it, but I have no idea. A lot of the times when you see Vish show up to a tournament dressed to the nines, it's because he wants to. So, it's up to us and the fans. 



But I personally wouldn't mind it. I think it's fun from time to time. I will say this... I will say that Smash Summit being four dudes on a couch for commentary kicking back — that becoming a more and more prevalent tournament series has probably moved that needle in the direction of the casual style. But that doesn't mean that we can't bring back the suits and ties from time to time if that's what people want.


What do you think of stuff like Project +? Do you see TOs walking on eggshells a bit more to maintain a good relationship with Nintendo?


It's very possible. This is kind of the downside from my perspective because I do have a lot of love for that community. Even going far outside the reaches of the Smash franchise, Nintendo hasn't had the most love for fan-derivative works. I don't want to say almost certainly it will have to happen. But, I would say it is one of the most major concerns. From my perspective, I'm sure there are folks in Nintendo who really want to look the other way and allow communities to flourish. 


It's tough. For me, that is one of the chief concerns. And I don't know that there's a good answer. Because it does put TOs in a tough spot. We saw with Riptide and Mainstage, those tournaments had to be moved to other things. But I will say that you PM/P+ people are incredibly plucky. And I don't think it's gonna be so easy to keep them down. 


You were unfortunately one of the people that caught COVID recently. What’s your perspective, with all the COVID announcements at SWT, how do you think it’s going to impact the scene?


I should be kind of careful of what I say here, because I don't want to overstep my medical knowledge. I wasn't boosted. I had a really, really jam-packed November and December, so I never got a chance to get boosted. And I actually saw a graph recently showing that if you don't have your booster — with how much more contagious Omicron is — you're way more likely to contract the Omicron variant. And off the bat, I will say that a lot of my friends who had the booster... Purely anecdotally, everyone I know who went to SWT that was boosted did not get COVID. A lot of the people I know who weren't boosted did. 


And I will say this — it was in Florida. Just anecdotally, once I stepped out of that airport, the only people I saw wearing masks were Smashers. I mean, I'm not gonna sit here and say that wearing masks is gonna be a 100% stop-gap. But I think it's probably a factor to a certain degree.



I trust that the Genesis staff is going to do a better job. I know for a fact they're gonna be more strict about mask mandates. It's gonna be like Riptide. At Riptide, everybody was masked up. And if you weren't, everyone who's on staff would yell at you. I remember I was even taking down my mask for a second to take a sip of water, and someone saw me and they didn't see that I was about to take a sip of water, and were like "Hey, put your mask back up."


Riptide — which had more in-person attendees than Smash World Tours Championship —was very tame in terms of public COVID cases. Now, granted, I think we do know that Omicron is more contagious than previous variants. But, I think that with the right precautions, I still have hope that with some degree of due diligence, we can still reasonably have in-person events.


I'm obviously still worried. But I'm not as worried as I would have been in the middle of 2020 before we had vaccines. I was fortunate enough that my symptoms were more light. I have seen a lot of literature indicating that if you're vaccinated, your symptoms are generally going to be lighter. And I do trust the Genesis team to do the best they can. And I do you think the sorts of precautions that they will take — I do think those things do matter.


Of the casters in Melee, who is your favorite up-and-coming one that more people should know about?


There are two that I would want to shout out. I think Junebug is really, really wonderful. He's been around for a long time (top 50 in 2020, and great PM player), and he's also got a really close working relationship with Zain. Obviously, he's really knowledgeable, but he's really funny. He's a great conversationalist. He's really humble. I could listen to him talk forever. So I really do think he's the complete package in that regard. Not to mention, he's got a really infectious laugh, which is always great. So I would love to see him on the broadcast at more events. He was doing the first half of the SWT broadcast — those were awesome. 


I wouldn't call him up-and-coming, but I would love to see Lovage getting more shine at some of the biggest events. I feel like Lovage shows up mostly for Smash Summit. It's harder to get him out of this house, he doesn't travel as much as maybe some of the other commentators. But I think he's always such a pleasure. He's been obviously in the scene forever and ever—he was like top ten in 2010. 


But it's kind of interesting with him: he was really good at talking about Smash. But in recent years, he sounds like a top esports commentator. He always had this really awesome blend of good humor and really deep game knowledge. But recently, when I listen to him talk, he can command the flow of the commentary like any top esports caster should be able to. And I don't know that he ever consciously worked on that, or if it just came naturally to him over time. But I listen to him sometimes now, and I'm just like, "Wow, this is just really, really good." I think he's exactly the sort of person that I would want on the broadcast at any super major top eight. If only he was at all these events, I suppose.


We have a Nintendo Circuit, we have Smash World Tour, we’re gonna soon have a Super Bowl-like event with Ludwig. If you had to guess, what’s the next big thing the Melee scene needs to get to the next level?


I think Golden Guardians — I have to shout out my own team here, but I promise it's not just bias — they've shown with its investment into the Melee community that there's a very sustainable and robust way to invest in Smash players. In a world where if you're a top esports team, and you want to get into a major esport, you've got to really shell out for franchise money. I think Golden Guardians have shown that there are some really cool ways to get a lot from a content perspective out of the incredibly history-rich scene that Melee has. And I would love to see other top esports teams get involved in a similar way. I would love to see more of these gamers be rewarded in the ways that Ginger with Luminosity or KoDoRiN with FlyQuest have been. 


But more so than just from a tournament perspective, I would love to see more top Melee players, personalities, and brands step up from the content perspective as well. I think that there's more of a blueprint than ever before of how to be unique in the space. To create some really fun content for when tournaments aren't happening. For a long, long time, I think Melee especially was a game where tons of eyes are glued when there is a high-stakes event. In the offseason or whatever, people aren't as invested in watching. 


I think that people are starting to break a lot of ground there. I do think that a lot of the people in the Melee community have learned a lot from Ludwig — maybe in a trickle-down way more so than anything else. But I'm actually very interested to see more people break ground there, myself included. So that's actually one of the things I think a lot of video game communities are learning. It's healthy to have entertaining content on the internet, outside of just the tournaments. And I think we're only just starting to really scratch that surface. That's going to take our scene to the next level in terms of the number of people that are interested.


What’s a personal lesson you’ve learned recently that you think would be of value to other people?


Well, get your shots.


Most of my lessons recently have been specific to content creators specifically, so I'll try to extrapolate them. This is something you see a lot of people in the space talk about recently, like Dr. K from Healthy Gamer. You reach a level, and I think it's very hard for people to accept when they reach a level. It is really easy to clear goals, and then become very disappointed if you stagnate at all or if you go back even the slightest amount. I was listening to Dr. K talk about even the biggest streamers on Twitch. xQc would get 100,000 viewers streaming Grand Theft Auto V, and then he gets 50,000 viewers doing something else. All of a sudden you have the biggest streamer on the platform saying, "I'm only getting 50,000 viewers now! What have I done?" 


It feels bad — our human reward centers in our brain have you sitting there with 50,000 viewers and feeling like you've fallen off and you're scum. And you beat yourself up over it. Which is really insane, and I think that people do this in all sorts of ways. I used to do this with my tournament results. And I'm sure a lot of people reading this do this with their League of Legends ranking or something. People beat themselves up about this in all sorts of different ways. And it's very difficult for people to accept the whole improvement model of two steps forward, one step back. When in reality, that's kind of how everything goes. Be it content creation, be it improving at some skill you're working. You need to really take a long view with these things, whatever it is.

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