Five prominent Super Smash Brothers: Melee tournament organisers and players have formed a competition committee and released a recommended ruleset for tournament play, including a lengthy section imposing a "tentative ban" on the use of non-Gamecube controllers. The ruleset writers explained that the 16-year-old classic Gamecube controller is "somewhat intrinsic to what we consider 'playing Melee' and the skills involved in doing so", despite the growing concerns in the Melee community about the controller's poor ergonomic design.
Image via Rodrigo Tejeda/Flickr
At the same time, there aren't any alternative controllers on the market right now that these five Melee influencers felt comfortable endorsing. "Box-style controllers additionally may solve some ergonomic issues, but create new ones themselves," the ruleset went on, adding that "it would be irresponsible" to "endorse box-style controllers as ergonomic solutions".
Sheridan Zalewski, one of the five board members and Smash tournament organiser, recently allowed the use of non-Gamecube controllers at the Genesis 4 tournament this past January. This included the SmashBox, an independently developed Melee controller that relies entirely on digital button inputs, even for movement. Its boxy shape is designed to provide better wrist support, but the SmashBox's total lack of analogue directional sticks has led to plenty of debates about whether it's easier to use, harder to use, or about the same.
The joystick-free SmashBox controller
After Zalewski decided to allow players to use alternate controllers like the SmashBox at Genesis 4 in January, he told Kotaku that the event could serve as a "test period" to determine "whether you can break the game somehow by allowing the kinds of mods that the SmashBox requires".
Yet on 13 July 2017, Zalewski and three other board members voted "no" when deciding whether to allow the SmashBox into tournament play. What happened at Genesis 4?
Nothing, according to Zalewski. "SmashBox operation at G4 went without incident," he told us via email. However, he clarified, Genesis 4 wasn't originally intended as a "test period" for the SmashBox: "A large reason to allow SmashBox at G4 was that people had already registered for the event based on their expectation of our ruleset, and it felt unfair to change rules mid-stream on them."
At this point, however, Zalewski and several other tournament organisers have made it clear that they don't yet trust the SmashBox in high-level play. Fighting game tournament organiser Alex Jebailey tweeted his support of the committee's controller ban and stated that he would implement it at all of DreamHack's 2017 lineup of Melee events, such as Dreamhack Denver this October.
Jebailey elaborated on his choice to us by expressing his concern that the SmashBox controller could "make playing the game easier for certain individuals than the way default GameCube controllers intended". If that's the case, Jebailey went on, these controllers "should rightfully be scrutinised and tested at a local level before being allowed to used in a major scale event".
But how much more testing is necessary? It could be a while yet, according to Zalewski. "The discussion on alternative controllers as well as their construction has evolved considerably since last December," the Genesis 4 organiser told us. "We've discovered more concerns about them and about Gamecube controllers that has entangled it with issues like hardware/software mods to address inconsistencies in Gamecube controller manufacture/function."
These concerns raise the all-important question about whether the SmashBox makes it "easier" to play, and to win, at Melee. But for some players, it has to get "easier", at least when it comes to the hand strain from using Gamecube controllers. Persistent hand strain, ever after multiple surgeries, led Aziz "Hax" Al-Yami to retire permanently from Melee in 2016. He has since stated that alternative controllers such as the SmashBox could allow him to return. Other top Melee players, like Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, have also complained about hand pain.
Dr Caitlin McGee, a physical therapist who has worked with several esports pros, told us that she saw the new Melee ruleset and has been helping the Smash community with an amendment addressing the controller rules.
"I understand why the tentative ban exists, even as I fully support a path to removing the ban," she said. "I think it's in the best interest of the competitive and casual scenes -- in the best interest of players, ones who are managing injury, ones who want to prevent them, and ones who can only play on adaptive controllers like the Smashbox -- to find a way to make box controllers meet tournament standards. I'm optimistic that a proposed amendment to the ruleset (which I've helped with) will help move that along."
Both Zalewski and Jebailey expressed support in eventually allowing alternative controllers for the sake of making Melee tournaments accessible to players with injuries or disabilities, but neither organiser had faith in the alternative controllers available. "I'm all for accessibility to play fighting games, but not if it changes the integrity of tournament play with any possible advantages," said Jebailey.
Zalewski emphasised that other, smaller tournaments should feel free to include non-Gamecube controllers: "We still encourage local and regional events to experiment with rules responsibly." He also noted that Genesis had not yet decided on a controller rule for next year's event. The subject is still open to debate, and as Dr McGee pointed out, at least one amendment about this controller ban will be heading into the committee's hands soon.
McGee admitted to being "a little disappointed at the majority 'no' response", but noted that she does "understand where it's coming from and fully expect we as a community can find a way to make adaptations to the controller and to the rules in a way that's both fair and healthy".