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Melee community navigates a world without Evo

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Leffen on facing Hungrybox at Super Smash Con (1:07)

William "Leffen" Hjelte breaks down what it's like playing against the No. 1 ranked player in the world Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma. (1:07)

CHANTILLY, Virginia -- Excitement swelled as Super Smash Bros. Melee fans began to gather around the three-corner stage in the middle of the Dulles Expo Center's South Hall.

It was championship Sunday at Super Smash Con, the annual tournament that sees every Super Smash Bros. game get its own fair shake, regardless of game age or relevancy. And shortly after 3 p.m., the top eight for Super Smash Bros. Melee was about to begin.

The finals for 11-year-old Super Smash Bros. Brawl and five-year-old Super Smash Bros. for Wii U took place Saturday afternoon, with the original Super Smash Bros. title for Nintendo 64, which turned 20 in January, capping off that evening. But Sunday would feature the recently released Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as well as Melee, which will celebrate its 18th release anniversary this year.

Sundays like these in quaint, nondescript exhibit halls, convention centers or hotel ballrooms all across the world, have become tradition for the Smash scene. Melee, which has seen its competitive player base continue to grow year-over-year throughout its long-tenured lifespan, is always a staple of these types of events.

Or at least it was.

In February, the Evolution Championship Series, the largest fighting game tournament in the world, announced it would not host an official Super Smash Bros. Melee event for the first time in six years. Throughout those six years, Melee has been one of Evo's biggest participant-driven games, but that wasn't enough to warrant it another spot as newer games, like Ultimate, Samurai Shodown and Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st], took the spotlight.

The decision devastated the Melee community.

"I actually livestreamed the announcement when it happened, and a lot of the video is a reaction," Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, the No. 1-ranked Melee player in the world, told ESPN. "The thumbnail for that video is me slumped over next to my bed, just completely heartbroken. That's what it was: It was heartbreaking because I felt like Melee had become a staple of Evo.

"If it's a fighting game premier event, Melee deserves to be there until we don't bring the people. The day we don't bring the viewership or the numbers, so be it. Blacklist us because we deserve it. But that's not the case. We love the game. The game was eternal for us. It was definitely surprising."

Evo has served as Melee's unofficial world championship for years, just as it does for many other titles. Nintendo, the publisher of the massively popular GameCube Smash iteration, has never thrown an official tournament for Melee. So, for the past 18 years, the community has built a calendar of its own -- one where Evo, since Melee returned to the event in 2013, served as the pinnacle of summer competition among a slew of other major events.

Now, in a world without Evo, the Super Smash Bros. Melee is working to figure out where the world championship title and the prestige of Evo might best fit.

Super Smash Con is a contender, and last weekend's competition showed why. From Aug. 8-11, 853 people entered the Melee singles tournament at Smash Con -- far fewer than Evo in 2018, which featured 1,351 competitors, but more than many other Smash tournaments around the world.

Another tournament, Genesis, which occurs in the San Francisco Bay Area every January or February, is also a world championship option. A prestigious tournament series that began in 2009 and later discontinued before returning in 2017, Genesis has had high attendance numbers and become one of the de facto Melee spectacles of the year.

But replacing Evo isn't easy.

"Reaching the prestige of Evo is quite a tall task, so on the global scale, I'm not sure that Genesis or Smash Con will reach that level of prestige," Melee pro and Smash Con organizer Michael "Nintendude" Brancato said. "But we hope to get there. Definitely from the perspective of a Smash player, Genesis and Smash Con are as high as it gets in prestige."

Throwing a Melee event comes with a few hurdles. First, the game runs on GameCubes or Wiis with GameCube backward compatibility and requires cathode-ray tube TVs, both of which have been discontinued. Secondly, Nintendo's lack of monetary support for the game makes prize pools more difficult to put together than other fighting games, and the developer has long drawn the Melee community's ire for its unwillingness to support the scene.

Calls for a re-release of Melee have been loud for years. On the Nintendo Switch, a Nintendo Entertainment System virtual console exists that allows players to play older games for that system without cartridges. Melee players, by most accounts, want this feature but for their game. However, Nintendo has shown no inclination to bring Melee to the latest generation of consoles, and its support of Ultimate has stretched only about as far as running its own events -- competitions that don't draw many high-level competitive players and feature rulesets that don't match the general pro scene standards.

Several companies and influencers have taken to making Melee more accessible in Nintendo's stead. Several startup hardware companies, like the gaming-centric EON, have taken on projects to make a GameCube or Wii run without lag on a high-definition TV or monitors. Additionally, emulation on other systems, like computers, is constantly being worked on and improved.

The goal? Lag-free performance that mirrors the GameCube and CRT experience on modern screens.

Some events, like Low Tier City 7 in July in Arlington, Texas, had success using the new tech, and both Hungrybox and Nintendude say it feels like technological improvements are the next step necessary in continuing to grow the Melee scene.

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1:31

MKLeo breaks down his win at Super Smash Con 2019

Leonardo "MKLeo" Lopez Perez explains his thought process going into grand finals at Super Smash Con 2019.

This year, Melee attendance at multiple tournaments has decreased, but online viewership has continued to grow, probably in part because of Ultimate but also because of the personalities within the Melee community. From being center stage last year at Evo in the Mandalay Bay Events Center to being a hanger-on with a side tournament on plastic folding tables at this year's Evo hit hard.

But the community isn't giving up or giving in. It will keep going until the final GameCube is dead or the last CRT can no longer turn on.

As it has for 18 years, Melee will find a way.

"The Melee community will keep pushing forward, no matter what obstacles are in the path, whether that be not being at Evo or whatever," Nintendude said. "The community is so passionate about the game; the players who play the game genuinely love it and derive so much enjoyment from it and want to keep playing."