Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.
This weekend I had the pleasure of watching two of the largest Smash Bros tournaments of all time at EVO 2015. Both Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U had more entrants than any tournament for these games in the past, which is especially impressive, considering that Melee is almost fourteen years old. The Top 8, or the final leg, of both of these tournaments was exciting, filled with upsets, character diversity, continued rivalries, and great players. A Smash fan couldn't have asked for much more.
Despite this, the problem of “camping” plagued the tournament almost the entire weekend. In competitive video games, camping is generally when one player or team gets a lead, then plays extremely conservatively, avoiding combat and action unless it is a perfect circumstance for them to fight. Basically, they want to force their opponent into an unfavorable position, then take advantage of their weakness.
In Smash, this can cause an interesting conundrum because if a player has more stocks or less percentage health (which is effectively “more health” in the world of Smash). They win if the game has timed out. A game generally lasts between two to four minutes, but a timeout lasts seven full minutes. For the spectator, this kind of play can be boring or even infuriating, feeling unfair. This is evidenced by the amount of vitriol shown to the players who adopted this strategy this weekend.
It can be easy to sympathize with the player who has to fight a camper. Most people who have played a competitive video game even casually have probably experienced camping or other seemingly “cheap” strategies. This problem is exacerbated in Smash because unlike more traditional fighting games, it is very easy to run away from your opponent. Smash fans, like fans of any sport, also have feelings of how the game should be played. Anything that violates those loose rules can cause anger in the community. Yet, just like in most competition, these strategies over time become common place unless rules are adjusted, even if it is harmful to spectating the sport. In fact, in many sports from Basketball to Soccer to American Football, if a team does not play extremely conservatively when they have a lead, fans will complain and rail against coaches for not “playing to win.”
Camping is not just a mindless strategy, but it can be incredibly varied in the way that different players and characters go about doing it. The three main “camp” characters this weekend, Wii U's Villager and Sonic and Melee's Jigglypuff all play vastly differently, which helps show the diversity of camping strategies.
In Smash Bros for the Wii U, the allowance of customized move sets where the player can slightly change the effects of their special moves can create more dynamic competition, as in the case of Pikachu, who becomes a much more viable character with a few adjustments. But it also enables camp-oriented characters like Villager and Sonic. Villager tries to control the space of the stage. He can plant a seed which trips up opponents, shoot various projectiles to keep his opponent at bay, and his recovery of “exploding balloons” can punish opponents who try to push him off a stage. If he gains a lead it is very easy for him to keep his traps and projectiles in between himself and his opponent, making it very hard to engage him in direct combat. This play style is so frustrating that pro player Mew2King has said on Twitter, ”All customs should not be allowed imo. Villager's custom trip seed combined with custom exploding balloons guarantees timeouts.” Despite this, no Villager player placed Top 8 at Evo. Despite complaints, players figured out how to deal with his camp-oriented gameplay and beat it.
Sonic plays completely different than Villager. Instead of placing traps for his opponents, he uses his incredible speed to avoid opponents and run past them, trying to slowly chip away at their health. If he gains a lead, the player can timeout a match simply by running away for the remainder of the match. Despite players who play him being insulted over and over this weekend by the online community, no Sonic player placed in the Top 8 of the tournament. Once again, the truly top tier players were able to find ways to deal with these strategies.
In Melee, the majority of camping this weekend was done by one player, Liquid HungryBox. HungryBox is a veteran player, having played and placed well in many tournaments over the past five years. He is even considered one of the five “gods” of Melee, one of whom is generally guaranteed to win any tournament that they enter. Hungrybox is not a one trick pony, though he does only play Jigglypuff, but rather a calculated player, who, despite lacking supreme technical skills like his peers, generally plays strategically and with intent, not losing his cool under pressure.
A few weeks ago at a separate tournament, he unveiled his camping strategy, and while it did not win him the tournament, it did allow him to beat players that he would normally have had trouble beating, like Armada. Despite this, in only a few weeks Armada had already formulated a strategy to beat HungryBox and beat him in a best of three in the winner's bracket and a best of five in the grand finals. Many commentators at that point called the strategy dead. HungryBox did finish in second place in the tournament, but rarely did he rely solely on the camping strategy, but rather had to come back from deficits multiple times in the “Loser's Bracket” to win. In fact, he only used the strategy in his matchup against Fox, who is considered the “best” character in Melee and a traditionally terrible match up for Jigglypuff. Of course, Fox wins the majority of time on nearly every stage, regardless of who is playing.
While camping is a viable strategy, it is often more effective in the way that it mentally affects the opponent. By frustrating a less calm and collected player by playing keep away, a player can abuse their opponent’s emotions. A level headed professional does not fall for the trick though, which Armada, a typically level headed player, showed this weekend when he came back from a 2-1 deficit in the grand finals to beat HungryBox.
Spectators will probably always feel frustrated when they see what they consider to be “cheap strategies” in the sport that they love, and I think that the vast majority of reactions to the Pacquiao vs. Mayweather fight showed this. But when competitors are playing for real money, for their livelihood, for their legacy, they should not be condemned for doing everything that they can do to win within the rules that govern a tournament. Or, perhaps, the simplest way to put it is: “Don't hate the player. Hate the game.”