There must be something in the water lately at Super Smash Bros. Melee tournaments.
A few weeks ago, Melee player Wizzrobe, real name Justin Hallett, won Smash’N’Splash 5, a major Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament with over 800 entrants. His character of choice was Captain Falcon, a mid-tier staple.
The same month, Smash player Axe, real name Jeffrey Williamson, may have one-upped that feat; not only did he coincidentally beat that very same Wizzrobe in the grand finals of the famed, invite-only tournament Smash Summit, but in doing so became the first player to ever win a major tournament with Pikachu, a character who many consider to be mid-tier at best.
For the competitive Smash world, having a new character win a major tournament is a big, big deal. Smash Melee has seen tournaments essentially since its release in 2001, and the same handful of characters have consistently risen to the top of the results, with only a few viable characters emerging ever since.
(If you’re curious about the current Melee tier list, it can be found here. Even a single placement ahead of another character suggests a massive amount of data for a 17-year-old game. All placements on the list are determined on tournament results.)
The aforementioned Captain Falcon has had a stranglehold on the high-mid-tiers since virtually day one. But Pikachu? That character has toiled in low tiers throughout almost the entire existence of competitive Melee. And he would have remained there if not for the emergence of one player: Axe.
We recently sat down with Axe to discuss how he’s been feeling since his historical win, touching on topics regarding the final game, his opinions on Smash Bros. Ultimate, and why he kept trying to win major tournaments with a low-tier character for over ten years.
Nintendo Life: Talk me through your last match at Smash Summit 8, where you won your first major tournament. Take me through the psychology of your last match.
Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson: Okay, there’s a lot going behind it. Do you mean gameplay, or how I was feeling?
This is something I struggle with a lot. Because I’ve come close to winning major tournaments quite a few times now. I’ve gotten second at Genesis, second at Get On My Level, and I’ve won some smaller events, but nothing of this caliber.
My main problem is when I get to that point, when I (think), “Whoa, I can actually win this thing,” I start to think about...winning, and what it’s gonna feel like to win, or what I’ll do after I win.
And whenever that happens, I’ve lost every single time.
It’s a hardcore mental battle... especially since I was up in the last match. It was really hard for me to not think about that. Whenever those thoughts come up in my mind, I have to tell myself, “No! I can lose this!” I have to get my mind set straight. It was a crazy mental battle that was happening, especially during the last match.
What you’re describing, basically, is sports psychology.
It’s different from coaching. It’s about how to evaluate your game plan. That brings me to my next question nicely, actually. You’ve been top 2, top 5, top 10, but you’ve never won a major. I’m curious about the psychology of that. Whenever you have gone against an eminent Smash player, a Hungrybox, a Mango, do you have a different mindset because you’ve lost to them at the end so often? Or do you just try and approach it like it’s just any other match?
I end up doing worse if I have that confidence. Somehow, it’s kind of helped me a lot to say, “Alright, this is like a crazy boss battle that I need to overcome.”
I see myself as an underdog every time, even if it’s someone I’m ranked over or someone that I beat usually. I guess I’ll give [Professional Smash player Zain Naghmi] as an example. I’ve never lost to him, I think my record is 6-0 or something like that. [But] whenever I play against him, I see it as sort of a boss battle, where I need to throw out everything I can... and when I have that sort of mindset, I tend to do better.
So the obvious question is, how much of that is because you play Pikachu?
Honestly, none of it at all. [Laughter] Just because I play Pikachu...I don’t think of it as a character versus character thing. It’s a lot more about the player versus player.
At the top level we all know our strengths and weaknesses. It becomes much less about matchup specific things and instead it becomes about, “How am I going to trick my opponent?” It’s about adapting to player habits…
I focus much less on, “Oh, this Pikachu thing is good against Marth,” because they already know that. At this level, everybody knows what’s good against what.
Do you mind, then, that people think of you exclusively as a mid-to-low tier player, quote unquote?
I don’t mind, no. It’s true, Pikachu is not as good as the other characters that I’m fighting against. But I don’t think it really matters that much at the top level. I think that the character I’m using is fine, and I mesh with him the best. I think I understand Pikachu really well, and when I’m playing him, it just feels right. I think he has what it takes.
Have you ever been approached by The Pokémon Company for your commitment to playing Pikachu?
No! [Laughter] That would be pretty cool, though. I think the closest I’ve gotten, really, was (when) Warner Bros. Canada brought out Detective Pikachu to Get On My Level, so I talked to them for a little while. But no, not the actual Pokémon Company, that would be wild.
You do interact with people like [Senior Product Marketing Manager of Nintendo of America] Bill Trinen on Twitter. I didn’t know if you ever interacted with Nintendo directly, or if you mostly feel periphery to the company whose games you dedicate your life to playing.
Well, I love the Pokémon games. At first I was playing Pikachu because Pokémon is really cool, but then I found that Pikachu is a great character. But I do love Nintendo, in general. Even though I don’t play Super Smash Bros. Ultimate competitively, I still think it’s fun.
I dunno, being in contact with Nintendo would be pretty crazy, I’d love to connect with them.
What’s your streaming career been like ever since Ultimate released?
I like to focus on Melee. I have a really big passion (for it). When I stream, I stream my favourite game. Every now and then I stream other games, normally games on the Nintendo Switch. But I like to focus on Melee.
The reason I ask is because I’m curious if you’ve seen either an uptick in people interested in Smash Bros. in general, or if you’re seeing people moving away from Melee.
At the beginning of the year, people were concerned about the Melee community because Ultimate just came out and Ultimate is a great game. But Melee has always been that kind of game, especially in esports, that people just keep coming back to it because of the mechanics - it’s just so good.
There’s [actually] kind of an upsurge right now for Melee. A lot of people are wanting to compete and watch [it]. This has happened quite a few times [laughter]. I think Melee is always going to be around and always have a big following.
What was your Smash career like before and after signing to a professional team?
Before I signed with a team, back in 2014, I was working at Walgreens, and I was a photo tech. I’d print out photos and I’d be a cashier sometimes. I was going to college for a little while doing video game programming. I made a few games, nothing really good. [Laughter]
So I kept competing in Melee, because that was my favourite. I was just a Walgreens worker who liked to go to Melee tournaments.
It came to a point where Melee started to become big in esports. Eventually, a sponsor looked at me and I was lucky enough to get on a team. 2015 is when I signed to Tempo Storm, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
What’s that experience been like for you?
Amazing. Tempo Storm takes really good care of me, they send me to all sorts of events. I’m really happy being on the team.
Is it a full-time job?
Melee is what I do full-time. Tempo Storm helps me a lot with being able to do this full time, and I’m also streaming on Twitch and that helps me financially as well. If you type in “axe.pizza” into a web browser, it’ll bring up my Twitch [laughter].
Did you get a bonus for winning the major?
Not that we’ve talked about, no... I hope so. [Laughter] We’ll see! It’s not that I want or even need the bonus, I’m just happy with what I have already.
Not trying to be your agent or anything, but most sports contracts... I mean, if you win the Super Bowl... you get something.
Very true. Okay, I’ll talk to them. [Laughter]
Would you recommend to a newcomer that they play as Pikachu?
Honestly [long pause] ...yeah! Pikachu is very fun. He’s quick, a little fragile... his defence isn’t the best, but he’s fun to fly across the stage with, and he kills people at very low percents. He has the strongest up-smash in the game, tail spikes which can kill people off the sides very early.
Yeah, I’d say a newcomer can use Pikachu! I always recommend to try out every character in the game one time. But from my experience of playing and watching other people play Pikachu, he’s one of the most fun characters.
Who will be the next low-tier character to win a major?
aMSa is the closest (with Yoshi). There’s a few low-tiers that do have potential to win majors though, which hasn’t been done yet, but I can see it happening.
A character that people probably disagree with me with is Dr. Mario. I think he has a lot of potential for doing well in a lot of match ups. I have the thought that if I can do it with Pikachu, people can do it with Dr. Mario. It’s just that people aren’t really playing Dr. Mario... he’s a good character that nobody uses.
I think Samus is another pick. She’s very solid. A Samus main could win an entire event. It would be very difficult, but I guess any character you use, it’s going to be very difficult to win a major.
What I’m hearing is that you think that player is more important than character to a reasonable degree?
In a previous life, I used to play Smash Bros. Melee semi-professionally, and Dr. Mario was a little bit of my kryptonite. I played as Pikachu too. My gamer tag was “Zig-Zag!”, this was probably 2005, and-
Waaaaaait, a minute, you’re Zig-Zag? What on Earth! Whoa! Hold on a minute, you’re Zig-Zag from Smashboards?
I am. That was my previous life. Then grad school, and five E3s later…
What the heck! This is crazy, I had no idea you were Zig-Zag. That’s awesome, wow. I remember you from Smashboards. That’s pretty cool! Yeah, Dr. Mario has always been a tough matchup for Pikachu.
I don’t know if I’m going to leave this in the interview, that’s very flattering you remember me.
If you were to ask me, and my opinion isn’t as important anymore, I think strongly of all the Mario Bros. characters, Mario, Dr. Mario and Luigi.
I agree with you, I think both Mario and Doc (are next).
I grew up playing against an incredible Luigi player named Vudijin...
...I know Vudijin…
...And he just kicked my butt over and over again. [Laughter]
I think it’s even-ish. People (always) disagree on matchups. But I do agree with you on the other Marios.
Can I say something?
I just want to talk about the journey I’ve been through to get to this point.
Pikachu is this kind of character that a lot of people just thought wasn’t good. I’ve been told so many times Pikachu can’t do it, that Pikachu can’t win a major and I have to switch mains. And I won. After this long I finally won a tournament, a major tournament. This was about 13 years that I’ve been training to get to where I am now.
There was a lot of mental struggles and character crisis stuff. But after winning, it’s just mind-blowing. I still can’t believe that it happened. I’m still in shock right now. It makes me think that if I’m able to win with Pikachu of all characters, it just says a lot about what you can do as long as you just put your mind to it.
A lot of it is about believing in yourself if you see a path to victory, not worrying about what other people say is possible. You’re the one who makes it possible.
All of this is mind-blowing, I don’t know what other word there is to use. I’m incredibly happy.
What’s been the best response since you won?
My family, in general, they don’t really watch me that much. But my sister’s boyfriend sent me a video of her watching me play in the finals of Summit. And she was freaking out, even though she doesn’t watch Melee that much. My mom was also watching, my dad was watching, and they picked the right tournament to watch…
...it was really cool, because they’ve watched me grow up my entire life playing. It was really wholesome to see them freaking out so much.
It’s very infectious to hear you talk about this, because I know how demanding Melee is (and) how it’s a game virtually impossible to master. I can’t imagine what you’re feeling after bringing a character out of low-tier, almost single-handedly, and then winning a major tournament.
I gotta say, it doesn’t even feel like anything happened. I haven’t even accepted it yet. It’s such a crazy feeling.
Thanks to Williamson for his time. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.