A Smashing Good Time at the Illini Union

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By Kumaran Chanthrakumar, Computer Science '19

One Saturday each month, hundreds of students woke up early and make their way to the Illini Union.  Not only students join this slow migration (though we do make up a bulk of it). People from around the Midwest come together with a shared interest, one that has a history here at the University.

The reason? It’s not for a conference or an open mic, the typical events that happen in the Illini Union.  Instead, it’s the monthly video game event: a Super Smash Brothers tournament.

Yeah, that game.  The one that you played as a kid whenever your friends came over.  The one that you thought you were good at, but not anymore.

For those that don’t know, Super Smash Brothers has taken an enormous leap into the world of competitive gaming, with thousands of competitive gamers throughout the world attending tournaments that each bring in hundreds of players.

The University of Illinois has housed a number of competitive smash players over the years.  With weekly tournaments every Friday at the Union and monthly tournaments that bring in the best in the Midwest, it’s a group of hundreds that goes largely unnoticed here at the University.

A Smashing Good Time

The game is simple: choose from a selection of a few dozen token Nintendo characters (Mario, Donkey Kong, Princess Peach), and battle either one or up to three other people in a small 2D battlefield.  Tournaments are mostly broken down into two categories, singles and doubles, where singles are simple one versus one, and doubles are two teams of two going at it.  Each player starts a match with 4 “stocks” aka lives.

Having just joined the competitive melee scene last month, I’ve undergone a total change in the way I see the game.  I came in thinking I was pretty good, having all that experience playing in middle school.  

I went to my first tournament, and was severely demolished by every player there.

The game, which was released in 2001, has been bringing together gamers at the University of Illinois and all over the world.  Go downstairs in the Union at 6pm on Fridays, and there will be a line of CRT TV’s (like in the pictures) running Super Smash Brothers Melee, and some of the newer Super Smash games too.  It’s pretty crazy how such an old gaming system can still bring together people in such a passionate way.  

Everyone at these tournaments is trying to be the best, and it’s almost poetic how each person you ask can give you a reason for practicing almost every day for these tournaments.

“It’s basically a lifestyle.  I’ve been playing smash for about 5 years now, and getting into the competitive scene is really where I’ve met most of my best friends,” says Andre Changelon, a first-year student here at the University.

Every player that walks into the tournament takes on a new identity – a tag.  

Kelly Smith, a renowned player in the Midwest, goes by Kels.  Binyan Lin, another top player in the world, takes on the tag Darkatma. Here at the University, our top players take on tags like Jawanga and Blendtec (I’m part of the Smash scene and I still don’t know their real names). Some characters choose their tag as a reference to their name, something random, or the character they play in the game.

It’s very common for a player to have a “main”, a character that they specialize in and play in tournaments.

Personally, I play Princess Peach, and at tournaments I go by TurnUp. The name comes from a particular move that Peach has where she pulls a throw-able turnip from the ground. Clever, right?

I only just started playing competitive Super Smash about a month ago, and I’ve been playing almost every day since then. My roommate and I have our own setup, and there’s a Facebook page with over a thousand members, where people coordinate friendly events and tournaments. 

Eric Chai, the treasurer of the groups, says that “the experience for me with the scene is that it is truly welcoming of anyone that wants to play.”

I definitely felt that as I went into my first big tournament last month.  

Miguel Cabrera, one of the very first people who had helped found the community, agrees that the atmosphere is meant to be friendly toward everyone, regardless of skill level.

“The smash community is extremely friendly and welcoming. If you love competition, smash, and meeting new, great people, this community is perfect. As a freshman, I wanted to grow the UIUC smash scene myself, even though I wasn't quite sure how. I eventually decided to run my own tournament in hopes of gathering and networking with the current players on campus. The UIUC smash scene has continued to grow enormously. Since my freshman year, I have run 9 tournaments and have helped with many others as well," he says.

So, find a way to get involved. Come by the Illini Union this Friday starting around 6pm, and join the growth of the community that has been raised by several Illinois students over the last few years.  Or if you really want to test your skills, join the next tournament on 4/30!