Kayla "Mew2Queen" Mackay was one of five players who won a fan vote to play Super Smash Bros. Melee in Genesis 5, a major tournament in Oakland, and the first to receive full funding. For Mackay, who plays as Marth, it should have been a huge moment. But in response to her nomination, Melee players immediately raised questions about her legitimacy as a competitor.
Mackay has some theories on why, including her trollish tag, her average performance at tournaments, and her unabashed feminist branding. She doesn't want to be the ambassador from all women to Smash, but as she says, "I wish it wasn't me but I did kinda walk into it."
The 24-year-old truly didn't make a name for herself -- she took her tag from Melee champion Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman. But in her few years competing at the game, she's certainly carved out a legacy of her own without the traditional trappings of Melee stardom: savant technical skill and a cult of starry-eyed acolytes. She's just fiercely devoted to a game whose community has a polarised reaction to her brand as a player.
On Christmas in 2001, Mackay received a Nintendo Gamecube, her first console, alongside a copy of Melee. Gathered around the TV with her friends, Mackay tested out a few characters. Marth, Fire Emblem's chivalrous swordsman, appealed to her, but also to a buddy. "I didn't want to 'steal his character,'" Mackay explained. She instead went with the limber bird-man Falco. Around 2009, she retired her GameCube controller in favour of PC games like Starcraft.
In 2014, Mackay returned from a long Melee break and realised that she and Falco were never meant to be. After a particularly brutal beating, she carried on with Marth, her first love, there and at local tournaments in Victoria, British Columbia. Soon, she'd settle on her tag for those tournaments, what many players perceive as a tongue-in-cheek satire of Zimmerman's. "The thought process never evolved beyond 'Mew2King plays Marth and is a guy. I play Marth and I'm a girl,'" she said.
Early on at local tournaments, Mackay would suffer through comments like "She must be lost". Her name was noticeably absent from some local power rankings, even though she competed. "Me being an 'honorable mention' is a meme, basically," Mackay said. Over time, Mackay attended larger and larger tournaments, slowly receiving attention from her impressive showings at British Columbian events and, in the US, at a Smash Sisters side event in 2016 -- a crew battle hosted by a women's Smash collective.
In her hands, Marths' plucky sword attacks were small precursors to risky, off-stage final blows. It's an untraditional playstyle. Mackay easily attracted friends and fans in the game's female following, who admired her dedication to the game and her increasing outspokenness about what it was like to be a woman at Melee tournaments. Several confided in her that they felt they had to work harder for less success. "Nearly everyone has a story about someone acting inappropriately towards them and usually getting away with it," Mackay said.
Early in 2017, Mackay purchased a video capture card, which would enable her to record her gameplay and, in turn, grant her first taste of Smash notoriety: Being a known feminist. "Super Smash the Patriarchy" and "This is what a Feminist Looks like" were the two combo videos Mackay uploaded to her small YouTube channel in 2017. In them, Mackay strings together gameplay highlights -- spiking one player, churning another through an endless series of aerial attacks.
Opponents are flung across the map after swift punishes. Woman-fronted rap blares in the background. They're unabashed testaments to Mackay's love for Melee and, yes, her politics.
In private messages on her YouTube channel, Mackay received encouragement and praise from women Melee players who needed to see some female brawn. On Reddit, she was attacked for tagging a traditional show of talent with a gimmicky, political term like "feminism" to draw views. Before a comments thread under her video on the 244,000-strong Smash subreddit was disabled to prevent further hate, Mackay defended her decision to include the word "feminist" in its title.
"In my heart of hearts I truly believe feminism shouldn't be controversial, so it's not really my fault that people get upset by it," she wrote. "I also believe my beliefs shouldn't be controversial," responded a commenter.
"Shit man, I thought the title was memeing. Kinda killed the joke to see you actually meant to be political :/," responded another.
The Melee community is overwhelmingly male. In September, the game's top player resigned from his position as a consultant for Melee's future tournament ruleset after he learned that the 25 panelists selected were all men. In a 2015 survey conducted by a woman in the Smash community, 20 per cent of female players interviewed said they have quit or have considered quitting due to sexism.
Female players have been outspoken about the competitive community's gender imbalance for years, and several have written extensively explaining why it exists. Above an old picture she'd shared in Discord chat of a top Melee player spelling out "AHH RAPE" with tournament earnings, Mackay explained:
"There were huge periods of time when people used the word rape to describe beating someone, being gay as being lame or bad without really considering how a newcomer would feel about that. These are issues that the Melee community eventually recognised and moved away from, but . . . I hear about communities everywhere that still have really toxic attitudes towards the participation of women and/or LGBT people. This leads people to stop participating or stay away from the community in the first place because they don't feel safe or welcome. . .
I don't personally want to believe that anyone acts deliberately exclusionary towards women except on a personal level. I think the problem is more systemic. People don't realise what their actions or the actions of their friends says about their communities."
Mackay wants to break the cycle: women don't want to join the Melee community because these issues aren't addressed, and these issues aren't addressed because the Melee community's loudest voices are men's.
It came as no surprise to Mackay that her videos drew ire and talks openly about these Redditors getting "baited." It's not that she wanted negative attention, she says; she sincerely does not think that "feminist" should be a controversial term. To her, it means that women and men should have equal opportunities to succeed.
That said, she told me, "I find it funny that people see these videos, their vision goes red, and -- " here, she makes furious clicking sounds with her keyboard, before finishing, "raging everywhere." In comments, allies in the Melee community gleefully refer to them as "incel-baiting" or troll with quips like, "feminism?? i am upset!!" Several tonelessly complimented her "unique and unpredictable" playstyle.
One father wrote that, Mackay's "love of games despite the cruel backlash and harassment" is encouraging him to share his passion for Melee with his three-year-old daughter.
Among much of the Melee community, "feminism" is a lightning rod. It gets people talking. Mackay's intentions as a community member were questioned. What's she after? Why make a splash? One Reddit comment in particular said it all:
"The only reason this combo video has as many upvotes and comments as it does is because the title. The combos are really nothing special, but you've successfully used your gender as a way of getting more attention than if a male had posted this same thing."
Two months after her second combo video dropped, Mackay asked for a slim $US400 ($510) in funding to attend Genesis 5, compared to peers' $US1,000 ($1,274) and $US1,300 ($1,656). Support was overwhelming, earning Mackay over a hundred bucks more than she'd asked for.
On December 3, Mackay was informed that she'd be travelling to Oakland to compete at Genesis 5 on January 19. It was an honour, and one she hasn't taken lightly. "To say I was shocked by the support would be an understatement," Mackay told me. She felt vindicated and was eager to compete against and learn from the best. But after the initial rush of excitement, anxiety cut through her enthusiasm. Haters hating on her combo videos' titles was one thing. Now that she's received funding, more eyes will be on her.
"I am worried about underperforming at Genesis and having people point to me as an example of why women are bad or something," she said.
One player accused Mackay of hiring her friends to set up her combo videos. An entire fake Twitter account, Mew2Queen Unplugged, cropped up in response to her funding. Every day or two, it tweets out some metacommentary on her feminism and picks apart her more inflammatory tweets. "Women have to constantly justify their place in the community through ridiculous standards and this is just another example of it," Mackay said. "If a famous man in the community released a video like this there wouldn't be a single person looking to deconstruct it for perceived fakeness."
Mackay openly admits she's the least skilled player to get into the compendium. "Every other player is either ranked top-100 worldwide, or at least ranked in their region, while I am neither. I'd say I might be a bit better than the average player," she said, "but I'm nothing special."
With the duel job of speaking out on behalf of women in Melee and being funded to compete, apparently on their behalf, pressure is piling up on Mackay. At Genesis 5, Mackay worries that if she's knocked out of the tournament early on, she'll be considered undeserving of funding. But then she reminds herself that's not the point: "A lot of people think I'm supported solely on the basis of being a woman, without looking at why people would look to support women in the community even if they aren't top players."