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Melee players carve out 100-person foothold at Evo

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Jacob Wolf and Arda Ocal recap Evo 2019 (1:26)

ESPN's Jacob Wolf and Arda Ocal relive their favorite moments from Evo 2019. (1:26)

LAS VEGAS -- Despite the best efforts of Nintendo and being left off the main event list this year, Super Smash Bros. Melee remained a part of the Evolution Championship Series proceedings this year thanks in part to a 16-year-old who wasn't even born when the game debuted.

If Evo is about community, then Melee is its roots, and that was on full display in the bring-your-own-console area at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on Saturday. Just like in the early days of Evo, the Super Smash Bros. Melee side tournament was purely a volunteer effort with competitors hauling CRT TVs and managing an event that wasn't even listed in the main directory.

It's a far cry from where Super Smash Bros. Melee stood even a year ago, when William "Leffen" Hjelte cemented his legacy with a championship that had long eluded him, in front of a packed house on the main stage. Now, a year later, Melee has been relegated to long, plastic tables tucked away from the likes of the other major games at Evo.

The rift between Melee and Evo wasn't because of turnout -- Super Smash Bros. Melee drew 1,351 attendees in 2018, fifth out of nine games that year -- but rather because of a frayed relationship between its organizers, the game and its developer, Nintendo, who have never monetarily supported Super Smash Bros. Melee.

But that didn't stop Melee from making an appearance. Sixteen-year-old Eli "Squid" Gray, a Super Smash Bros. player and local event organizer out of Southern California, decided to launch a volunteer-run side event and got approval to use a portion of the BYOC area and the side tournament stage.

When the Evo game lineup was announced in February, it drew the ire of much of the Super Smash Bros. Melee community. New games, like Samurai Shodown and Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st], would make their debut, but Melee was left out.

Squid didn't put up big money. The first-place prize for the side event was $600, not even enough for the eventual winner, Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma, to recoup his flight and hotel cost to travel to Las Vegas. Squid said love of a game that has been a staple of major fighting game competitions for decades was the main motivator for everyone in attendance.

"There's no real benefit for doing this," Squid said. "Maybe if you win, you get some money. There's nothing here you're getting besides the experience and the feeling that you're helping the Melee community as well. It's really just for the passion of the game."

What started out with eight attendees turned into 60 after veteran pro Daniel "ChuDat" Rodriguez announced his registration for the event. Then, Hungrybox, the No. 1 ranked Melee player in the world, decided he would come too. That kicked the registration number up above 100.

The result on Saturday felt like a blast from the past, Hungrybox and ChuDat said, from a time where Evo was held in small hotel ballrooms, where attendees bumped elbows and every tournament looked like the side events that exist today.

"It's pretty cool that we got to get an onstage performance for the finals match," ChuDat told ESPN. "Kind of felt like the old days of being on stage, but it's not the same because we don't have 10,000 people watching us. I don't know how many people were watching on the stream, maybe 1,000, but we had a pretty good crowd. We had 100 people. It was pretty nice. Felt like old times, but obviously it's not the same."

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Super Smash Bros. Melee released in 2001, two years before the side tournament organizer, Squid, was born. His first Smash game was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the Wii version released in 2008, which was often criticized and later modded by community members to play more like Melee. That mod, Project M, once too had notable Evo side tournaments before its modders shut down the project in December 2015.

Several years later, Squid was fighting to keep his favorite game's community together at Evo. His love for Melee drove the decision to travel to Las Vegas and seek out volunteers, GameCubes, Wiis and CRTs on Twitter and put the event together.

"It feels like it's a new chapter because we've proven we're a sustainable game no matter what happens," Hungrybox said. "It really was timeless; the amount of viewership we get for Melee was almost unmatched unless it was an A or S-tier title. It has a huge cult following. I feel like, no matter what, it always deserves a spot at Evo. It was a side event this year, but it really should be a main event."

Three years ago, Hungrybox won his first Evo title in the convention center in one of the greatest moments in both Evo and Melee history. On Friday, he and ChuDat found themselves on the side stage, tucked in the southwestern corner of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, with just roughly 100 people in the crowd.

"It's like you mattered at one, now it feels like you don't really matter anymore," Hungybox said. "We still put in as much effort, if not more, than every other person who plays in these fighting game tournaments. I get that there are hundreds of fighting games, there's only so many that can be high-ranked ones.

"I don't know. I wish I was better at other fighting games, I wish we could be back on the same stage still. It's good that we got a spot here, but there's definitely obviously a lot less prestige. It just feels like a fart in the wind. We're always going to be more than that. There's nothing quite like the Melee competitive scene. We always deserve more."