UltimateSSBMRank No. 3: Ken

3. Ken

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No. of years ranking in the Top 10 of RetroSSBMRank/SSBMRank: 4 (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007)

No. of years ranking in the Top 5 of RetroSSBMRank/SSBMRank: 4 (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007)
No. of years ranked as RetroSSBMRank/SSBMRank’s No. 1: 3 (2004, 2005, 2006)
No. of titles: 17  (Game Over, FC1, FC3, Gettin’ Schooled 2, MLG Chicago 2004, MLG Los Angeles 2004, MLG New York 2004, MLG DC 2005, MLG San Francisco 2005, MLG Atlanta 2005, MLG Chicago 2005, MLG New York 2005, MLG Dallas 2006, MLG Anaheim 2006, MLG Chicago 2006, OC2, EVO World 2007)

In my last article, I wrote that most players’ careers are based around their struggle to become the best player in the world, citing Mew2King’s journey to return to that position as an exception to the rule. Similarly, Ken has a unique and vastly different story than everyone, but it’s one with not-so humble beginnings.

Starting off as a stubborn Super Smash Bros. player who couldn’t afford to invest in Melee, Ken eventually picked up the sequel, eight months after its release. Playing Marth, Ken quickly developed a reputation as the best Melee player in his town, often attending free-for-all tournaments – including one at a local gaming store named Game Square. Already seen as someone who was far more talented than his peers, Ken would frequently get teamed up on by any three opponents, but still beat them.

Initially uninterested in the competitive Melee scene, Ken discovered the website Smashboards through his brother Manacloud, who found posts advertising for the next installment of a well-known tournament series: Tournament Go. Written by the tournament organizer and Smashboards moderator Mattdeezie, the preview post for Tournament Go 4 was highly read and commented on, with pre-2004 legends like Recipherus, Mattdeezie himself, Justin Junio, JR Castillo and the Sultan of Samitude being named as notable players heading into the tournament.

It might sound inconceivable today, but if you were getting into the scene back then, there was no way of being able to accurately measure your skill. Each region effectively lived in its own bubble, with only a select group of players willing to travel thousands of miles to compete. You could have easily entered a tournament, been better than everyone else, but have no idea of knowing it.

That’s what made tournaments so exciting back then – and it made Ken’s online boasts legendary. After reading the preview for Tournament Go 4, Ken began bragging online about his victory at Game Square. Given the lack of footage that any smasher had at the time, Mattdeezie and everyone else had nothing to measure Ken by other than his cocky online words. Confident in their ability to quiet what they saw was foolish arrogance, Mattdeezie and Recipherus, the Tournament Go 3 champion, challenged Ken to money matches.

To their surprise, Ken swiftly defeated them. Both Mattdeezie and Recipherus were well-versed in Melee’s advanced techniques, but Ken’s natural sense of fundamentals (being the first player to use dash dancing to large success) and being able to adapt to his opponents led him to victory. Already winning quite a bit of money from defeating the two, Ken was then asked to compete at Tournament Go 4 to prove his worth.

Keep in mind that Marth was initially seen as a simplistic and exploitable character. While he was known for having great range, Marth was thought of as predictable and laggy.  Until Ken showed the character’s potential in his dash dance and movement, most people thought Marth’s strategy was fairly straightforward and defensive. With Ken’s aggressive playstyle and rise to the top, Marth soon entered the discussion for being one of the game’s best characters.

Ken wasn’t a household name yet, but those who did know of him were unbelievably hyped about his upcoming presence at TG4. Imagine if Armada challenged some random player in Nebraska, was swiftly defeated by this unknown talent and then invited them to BEAST VII. Legends of Ken’s talent spread across the scene, building a mystique for the Southern California Marth before he even played a noteworthy tournament match.

Ken won the tournament without dropping a single set, only losing one game to Recipherus. He then proved himself later in the year, winning SoCal Inland Empire and gaining himself around a thousand dollars from both tournament wins.

Sidenote: After Tournament Go 4, Ken met his teammate Isai, who was then known as a godlike 64 player. Seeing that Isai had a knack for smash unlike anyone else he met up to that point, Ken quickly took Isai under his wing and eventually started teaming with him at events. The two, named “El Chocolate Diablo,” became the greatest doubles team in competitive Melee history, at one point winning 21 straight tournaments and being considered untouchable. This, however, deserves an entirely separate article on its own, as most of what I’ve written is based around Ken’s singles legacy.

Most people were in agreement that Ken was good, but not everyone thought that he was necessarily the best player. After several California smashers posted on Smashboards about how other regions needed to prove themselves as “California worthy,” players from other regions said they were willing to fly to the West Coast and dethrone Ken in August’s Tournament Go 5. Among the traveling players were Deadly Alliance’s Wes, Britain’s The Doug (who was also in the Netherlands for a bit of his career) and most importantly, a man named Azen, who was called the Master of Diversity. Even the Midwest’s Eddie, a vaunted Ganondorf player, was coming – and he actually defeated Ken in a money match at the tournament.

Nonetheless, Ken ran through everybody else, once again winning another Tournament Go. But in spite of his victory, many from the East Coast weren’t convinced. Bringing up Azen’s insistence on playing only Sheik throughout bracket as a result of the items-allowed rule set, several felt like the Tournament Go 5 ruleset was innately biased against them, since most tournaments on the East Coast had moved away from allowing items.

Ironically, in contrast to many other smashers on the West Coast who saw items as not detracting from the game, Ken was perfectly fine with playing at a tournament without items. In fact, Ken saw items as a distraction, detracting from Melee’s competitive value and getting in the way of his own success. On his stream years later, Ken said that even back then he was a “Final Destination, no items” kind of player.

The scene was set for 2004’s first tournament: Game Over. Held by Chillin at a local gaming center, the tournament featured the best from Virginia, New York, Maryland, California and even the Midwest  – but this time with items off and on the East Coast. At first, Ken was exposed, losing to Chillin, then seen as a talented, but not particularly notable player, in winners quarters. It was the first time Ken had ever lost a recorded tournament set.

But as his losers run quickly showed, an angry Ken was not to be denied. Initially barely getting by Mild, Chillin’s brother and a Sheik player, Ken then beat HellFox, Chillin (after a failed Sheik counterpick in their first game), DA Dave and Isai, before taking down Azen in grand finals. It’s the first great losers run in Melee history and proof that even if Ken could bleed, being able to eliminate him from a tournament was an entirely different beast.

Half a year later, Ken made his way to MLG Chicago 2004, where he beat Eddie, but lost another set: this time to his protege Isai. Defeating Indiana’s KishSquared in losers finals, Ken then beat Isai in two sets, once again winning another tournament. As time went on, it became clear that Ken was the villain that the smash community needed to kick everyone into competitive gear. At FC1, Ken won without dropping a single set, handily defeating Azen two more times and once again looking untouchable. Someone or something needed to humble him.

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Tournament Go 6 proved to be the experience that showed Ken that he still had much to learn. At the first tournament to feature both the best of America and top members of the Japanese smash scene, Ken notoriously lost to Captain Jack’s Bowser and Donkey Kong in public matches before the tournament, after initially starting off their friendly sessions doing well against Sheik, Captain Jack’s main.

As if that wasn’t enough, Ken was upset early in bracket by a Washington Peach player, Sastopher. Clearly taken aback by his loss, Ken later lost to DieSuperFly, finishing what was then thought of as the biggest tournament in a lackluster ninth place. Suddenly, the once undefeated Marth had egg on his face.

Immediately, people from the East Coast and other doubters jumped on him, claiming that Ken was no longer No. 1. Ken still had many supporters (including Azen himself) who said TG6 was just an off tournament, but others like Chillin cited the results as proof that Ken no longer could be the best. At September’s MLG San Francisco 2004, Ken didn’t have anything close to the kind of comeback tourney that he might have expected, finishing third to Captain Jack and Isai. As I wrote previously within a Smash History Article:

“Keep in mind that this was now the second event in a row where Ken had failed to win.  Consider how there was now a wide open spot for who the world’s definitive No. 1 player was. If it wasn’t Ken any more, was it Azen because of his performance at TG6? Or did Captain Jack clearly take the mantle at MLG San Francisco, showing that he held dominance over the West Coast?”

As he did many times in his Melee career, Ken silenced his doubters with a resounding victory at MLG Los Angeles 2004 and an impeccable showing at MLG New York 2004. All his losses considered, Ken still ended 2004 as the American No. 1, if not Melee’s best player.

After initially losing January’s MOAST 3 to Isai,  Ken went on a tear, winning MLG DC 2005, MLG San Francisco 2005 (over his nemesis DSF), Gettin’ Schooled 2 and FC3. Due to school time frequently interfering with players’ ability to travel, winning a title meant more than ever, since they were frequently spread out.

Was Ken untouchable during this period of time? Not exactly. In addition to losing a set of Roy dittos to NEO at MLG DC 2005, Ken also lost to Chillin at GS2 and early in pools to Sastopher at FC3. However, Ken’s consistency in winning tournaments seemed to prove those losses as inconsequential.

By August 2005, Ken, along with a few other American smashers, was invited by his international rival Captain Jack to attend an invitational called the Jack Garden Tournament. Here, Ken had an opportunity to test himself against the best of Japan: who at the time were still thought of as far above the rest of the international scene in terms of technical skill. I’ve written before about how stacked this tournament was for its time, but in case you want to know:

…there was a tremendous amount of hype from both ends on who was going to actually win the tournament. Would it be the American legend Ken, like he did at almost everything else he entered? Or was he going to lose to Isai? There were concerns from either of the two struggling from jet lag and facing an unfamiliar Japanese style of gameplay. Before the tournament, East Japan’s Mikael, a Peach main, boasted that he wasn’t impressed by Ken.

These three weren’t the only contenders. Take its host, Captain Jack, who had won major events as recently as a year ago, or longtime Japanese legend Masashi, arguably West Japan’s greatest player. You also had Aniki, who in addition to being maybe the best Link player in the world also had a series of public friendlies  with Ken, where the Japanese Link defeated him. Hell, you could have even argued at the time that this was going to be the tournament where Thunders, a Japanese Fox famous for creating the Thunders combo,could finally get over his consistency issues and realize his true potential.

For Ken to win this tournament, even if it didn’t technically qualify as a Smash History title, was so remarkably impressive – especially given his opponent in grand finals. Despite Ken having never played a Falco as aggressive, technical, unrelenting and intimidating as Bombsolider, Ken somehow managed to stay cool, find holes in his approaches and hold on. Winning grand finals with a cool 4-2, it was official: having defeated even Japan’s best, Ken was the unquestioned king of smash.

The documentary has covered this before, but Ken was awed by the difference between Japanese and American culture. In Japan, good play was applauded no matter what, while Ken was often jeered and rooted against within the United States, due to being the favorite heading into every tournament. On one hand, the trip to Japan gave Ken a much needed break from the stress of competing against fellow Americans. But at the same time, Ken was growing disillusioned with Melee.

In October, losing MLG Los Angeles 2005 to Isai didn’t even seem that like big of a loss to Ken, who at this point had stopped actively practicing Melee and was playing far more World of Warcraft in his free time. Even winning MLG Atlanta 2005 (after losing his first set to Azen) didn’t seem to thrill Ken. Tensions between him and Wife, along with other members of the community who felt Ken was unsportsmanlike and aloof, reached a boiling point online. In the post-MLG Atlanta Smashboards thread, Ken wrote that he didn’t even like Melee any more, mentioning that the joys he took from the game were from winning money and silencing his haters.

With many dropped sets throughout 2005, Ken wasn’t quite as dominant as his number of titles would show, but given how vastly different “losers Ken” was from the rest of his competition, his losses were usually ignored. Fighting him in losers was effectively playing an entirely different player form – far more dangerous and less apathetic in gameplay than the externally contentious and apathetic Ken, who seemed to both relish, but also tire of being Melee’s villain.

2006, however, was the first year that proved to be a struggle for Ken. Winning MLG New York 2005 (yes – you read the title name correctly) without dropping a set, Ken then shockingly lost to PC Chris twice. Although the sets weren’t necessarily lopsided, Ken actually abandoned Marth and tried out Fox, given how locked down PC Chris seemed to have his Marth.

It’s speculation as to whether this loss sparked Ken’s previously deteriorating competitive drive, but either way, Ken learned from it. Losing only a set to PC Chris (MLG Anaheim 2006) and another one to Chu Dat (MLG Chicago 2006) within the next half a year, Ken won MLG tournaments in Dallas, Anaheim and Chicago, adding another legendary run at Zero Challenge 2. At this tournament, he defeated Sastopher, Captain Jack, KoreanDJ, Mew2King and Chu Dat – a mix of past legends, breakout players and members of the current elite. Come August, Ken was easily the heavy favorite heading into MLG Orlando 2006.

But after losing KoreanDJ in winners, along with Isai in losers, Ken finished fifth – his worst placing since his disappointing showing at Tournament Go 6. Getting seventh at MLG New York Playoffs 2006 and third at MLG Las Vegas 2006, with losses to Azen, Mew2King and KoreanDJ (twice), it was clear that the competition had caught up to Ken. With an additional local tournament dropped to Taj, who defeated Ken in Marth dittos to close out the year, Ken looked more vulnerable than ever. Even if he still finished the year as 2006’s most successful player, heading into 2007, it was hard to imagine Ken being the best for much longer.

Ken stayed quiet for the first half of 2007, amid rumors that he was going to retire. With a growing SoCal scene that featured up and players like HugS, Edrees, DSF and even a very young Jigglypuff player in Mango, Ken still dominated his local scene, never dropping a set at a local throughout the year. In July’s Zero Challenge 3, Ken showed up to his first national in months, losing to PC Chris and Mew2King, but still finishing a respectable fourth. Even if he wasn’t the world No. 1 any more, Ken still had the skill to compete at a top level.

After losing in winners to Mango at EVO World 2007, it would have been easy to say that the Ken was past his prime, but once again, Ken proved skeptics wrong. Making his way through Chu Dat, PC Chris, Mango and HugS (twice), Ken effectively finished off his prime with the ultimate swansong by winning Melee’s biggest tournament ever (at the time).

His EVO World 2007 win was so legendary that even after he was retired from the game, people used to frequently wonder how much better Ken was than anyone else. That didn’t change after his final tournament of the year at Super Champ Combo, where he lost to Wobbles and Chu Dat for seventh. Either way, Ken had nothing left to prove.

When Ken returned to his first tournament at Kings of Cali in 2012, there was incredible hype for the event. Placing a modest 33rd, Ken still showed a good amount of promise for someone who hadn’t practiced in years, taking a game from PewPewU in pools and also finishing third in teams with Dr. PeePee. While the former world No. 1 wasn’t quite an elite player any more, he still had the talent to compete and awe others. After an epic exhibition match with Scar, who successfully beat Ken, it was official – Ken was finally back in the Melee scene.

In the modern meta, Ken has seen ebbs and flows in his gameplay. Though he’s currently only ranked No. 18 on SoCal’s power rankings, this is partially due to his recent inactivity from competing. With set wins over almost all of SoCal’s best players over the last three years, along with modest, but impressive placings like his recent 33rd and 49th at GENESIS 3 and EVO 2016, Ken can still contend with almost anyone in the world. If you don’t believe me, ask Armada and Hungrybox, who have both dropped games to Ken in bracket.

Ken’s most impressive achievement in the modern era was arguably his run at EVO 2015, where he finished 13th, including a dominant six-stock 2-0 over Westballz. Before that, Ken exceeded expectations at MLG Anaheim 2014, when he placed 21st, just losing to Lucky in the finals match of the tournament’s open bracket. Had Ken won that set, it would have marked his return to the final stage of MLG: one almost a decade after his prime.

Of course, Ken’s accomplishments in the modern era (including being one of the first two Melee players, along with KoreanDJ, to be a part of a team) don’t prove that he has the potential to return to being the world No. 1. Ken has certainly suffered his share of losses and disappointing placings, but given what he’s already done throughout his career, they definitely add to his legacy.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Ken’s prime is the most impressive long-term stretch of play in Super Smash Bros. Melee history. No one else in the scene has been No. 1 in RetroSSBMRank or SSBMRank for three consecutive years. If you were daring enough to count Ken’s dominance in the pre-Game Over era, you could argue that he was the world’s best for four years. Add in 2007 and that’s arguably 5 years of Ken being a top two player. For reference, only Armada has been top two for longer (2011 to presumably now).

When it came to titles, no one won quite like Ken. Despite playing in an era where tournaments were not as widespread as today, Ken still is tied for the number two spot in titles of all-time. Think about that for a moment: Ken has won more than almost everyone else in Melee history – and his prime was only for five years in an era.

To put his ridiculous amount of success in perspective, Ken’s 17 titles don’t even account for Tournament Go 4, Tournament Go 5 and Jack Garden Tournament. If you included those, Ken has 20 significant major victories: the most in Melee history and four times the amount that Azen, his closest rival up until 2007, had. This is not to disrespect Azen, who has his own incredible legacy, but it shows that even their rivalry was significantly in Ken’s favor.

As Melee’s first ever true champion, the  Ken is unquestionably a member of Melee’s “holy trinity.” Starting off as the game’s best and winning Melee’s biggest tournament near the end of his prime, Ken didn’t finish No. 1 on my all-time list, but there’s no question that he is a trailblazing legend – one who will always be remembered as the king of smash.

5 thoughts on “UltimateSSBMRank No. 3: Ken

  1. Great article and fun read in general. Quite a few minor quips and historical inaccuracies unfortunately though. I suggest talking to people who were a part of the scene in 2002-2004 to get the full story and more side notes that are a fascinating part of Melee history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Doug! Can I privately talk to you on Twitter/FB/social media? Would love to clear up anything and make corrections. I based my information on written records, old posts, talking with older players, etc, but I’d love to always learn and adjust more!

      Like

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