No. 10 Cinderella Run of All-Time: HugS at EVO World 2007

Just barely old enough to drink, HugS was in grand finals of EVO World 2007, facing the game’s unquestioned greatest player of all-time in Ken. The two couldn’t have been any more different. Ken was a veteran used to the pressure of competing at the top level. HugS was in his first ever grand finals of a major. It was old school vs. new school on the biggest stage Super Smash Bros. Melee had ever seen.

At the time, Ken was coming from losers bracket, ready to put a crown jewel on what would likely be his final year of competitive Melee. HugS had already lost the first set of grand finals, but had a crowd of around a thousand people chanting his name, eager to see the SoCal up-and-comer take the crown from Ken.

A HugS forward smash later, the two were on their last stock, at zero percent each. One of them was about to win Melee’s biggest tournament ever. The man challenging Ken wasn’t Mew2King, PC Chris or anyone who most could have expected. He was a salmon-colored Samus main that often looked like he was playing Street Fighter and not smash. At a tournament that featured traditional fighting games, his success was ironically fitting.

How did he get there?

After finishing top ten in the MLG point system in 2006, HugS continued his solid streak of performances across 2007. Locally, he finished in the top eight of nearly every SoCal tournament he entered, but he could never defeat Ken. On occasion, HugS lost to players beneath him, like Mango, Edrees and EzynJay, but for the most part, he was an unquestioned No. 2 in his region.

It’s important to mention HugS’ rise because he wasn’t part of the old SoCal guard. Players like Ken, Manacloud, Tavo and Arash were unquestionably among the best in his region. To break through those players was an impressive feat – particularly because HugS also played a character who had only one previous top national representative (Wes) in Melee’s short history. HugS was both a representative of the new generation of players and a counterpoint to the commonly held belief that only top tiers could win.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It was also common back then for players to frequently split, sandbag or boast about how little they cared about tournament placings. HugS was remarkably different in his approach to Melee, often talking about how hard he worked or prepared for a tournament instead of making excuses for why he did or didn’t do well. Most of the previous generation of SoCal players were frequently content with their approach to Melee and trash talked newer players for being “tryhards.”

Nationally, HugS was on the cusp of greatness, defeating players like PC Chris, Dope, Chillin and Tink in 2006. Simultaneously, he also lost to players like JBlaze, DSF, Rob$ and Caveman. It was hard to gauge HugS’ potential, outside of him being just outside the the Melee elite. He looked excellent against Fox and Falco, but far more vulnerable against the likes of Marth, Peach and Sheik.

In late July, he finished a strong, but still underwhelming ninth place at Zero Challenge 3, his first major of 2007. Here, he defeated SilentSpectre and Edrees, but lost to Taj and PC Chris, who HugS had defeated a year ago. Just a week later at EVO West, HugS finished fifth, but only beat Mango, while also losing solidly against Mew2King and ChuDat.

No one – outside of maybe HugS himself – could have ever envisioned him getting second place at the biggest Melee tournament of all-time.

It’s also easy to forget another factor working against him: the sheer absurdity of EVO’s ruleset before top eight, in which players selected their character and played one match on a randomly selected stage. Although you could certainly argue that this helped HugS’ placing more than it hurt, keep in mind that he was also playing a mid-tier character in Samus.

When combined with the crazy stagelist used at the time, it’s a miracle that HugS even made it into top eight, let alone grand finals. Think of it this way: he may have been one Green Greens pick away from being sent to a stacked losers bracket. Nevertheless, at an event that featured nearly all of the Melee player elite, HugS managed to make it to top eight.

In winners semis, HugS played PC Chris, someone who had seemingly figured him out at Zero Challenge 3. While HugS seemed to hold an advantage over most Fox and Falco players he faced off against, he tended to lose sets to Peach, who PC Chris started to play against him. Not only was HugS playing a “god” of his era, but he had to overcome a personal weakness of his own.

Their first game was extremely close, lasting over five minutes. In the final closing seconds of the match, HugS whiffed a grab, only for PC Chris to hesitate just long enough for HugS to shield the punish. Seconds later, HugS landed a forward smash to go up 1-0.

On PC Chris’ counterpick in Final Destination, the two played another grueling match of nearly five minutes. Though HugS managed to bring his opponent to last stock, he was too far behind in percent to make a comeback. Game three was on. This time, HugS built an early lead and never let up.

HugS was now in winners finals, ready to play his nemesis Ken. But instead, he had to play another SoCal player who was having a run of his own: Mango. HugS not only had to beat a fellow SoCal rival, but he had to overcome someone who had already taken out Ken and Mew2King.

Like the older generation of players before him, Mango was far more laid back than someone like HugS, often boasting about not practicing but still having moments of brilliance in tournament. Mango also played Jigglypuff, a matchup that HugS, and many others at the time, hated playing against.

Nonetheless, HugS beat Mango 2-0, even defeating him on Dreamland, a stage in which people at the time claimed was extremely good for Mango. In the second game, HugS overcame a large percent deficit to clutch the set out with a final back air. The result was clear: someone outside of the traditional Melee elite was sitting in grand finals of the biggest Melee tournament ever.

Although HugS ended up losing the last game against Ken, think about his success for a moment. Had HugS outplayed Ken for one final stock, he would have became the first and only ever mid-tier player to win a Melee title. To this day, his EVO World 2007 run is still without question the greatest placing ever done at a significant Melee tournament that wasn’t by a top tier. Ten years later, HugS’ second place still doesn’t lose any of its luster.

Unlike other legends of Melee’s past, HugS has continued to write his own story. Still ranked within Melee’s top 30 in 2017, with a chance to be top 20 by the end of the year, one last major run for HugS isn’t out of the question, though he’s coming off 33rd at EVO 2017. But for my readers, I have but one question for you: do you still have faith that he can get back to the big stage?

No. 11 Cinderella Run of All-Time: Jiano at Pound 2

Pound is one of Super Smash Bros. Melee’s most iconic tournament series. Although it’s not as big today, back in the post-MLG era, it was one of the East Coast’s premier majors, playing a huge role in shaping player legacies.

Held in 2007, about a year after its predecessor, a Maryland tourney won by ChuDat over NEO, Pound 2 had more than three times as many entrants and a $5,000 pot prize. There were also quite a few out-of-region attendees at Pound 2, with notable players from New England, the Midwest, Tri-State and Florida competing.

Among specific players in attendance at Pound 2 were the returning Mew2King, the MLG Las Vegas 2006 champion in PC Chris, Drephen, Cort, Tink, Taj, Forward, DaShizWiz and, save for Azen, all of MD/VA’s heavy hitters. The time was ripe for one of these players to rise above everyone else or at least break out in the next tier of play. Yet contrary to what most people expected, one name rose above everyone else.

Jiano was a solid, but nowhere near nationally notable Captain Falcon from Kentucky. Back then, the Midwest was the land of five rulers: Darkrain, Drephen, Tink, Vidjogamer and Dope. If you weren’t a member of these five, you were either past your prime – or worse, nobody.

In fact, to start 2007, Jiano was actually ranked No. 13 within the entire Midwest. Had Pound 2 used only one large bracket (instead of two waves of round robin pools), you could have easily argued that he wouldn’t have been worthy of being seeded in the top twenty, let alone top ten of the tournament. For reference, Jiano finished 25th at MLG Chicago 2006, the last significant major he entered.

Given that Jiano wasn’t even in the top ten of the Midwest, had no remarkable performances of note and how he was playing at a premier tournament in one of the world’s most stacked Melee regions, placing something like 25th or 33rd would have been impressive enough. Jiano, however, had other ideas.

After making it to top 64, he started the run of his life. Initially defeating the solid Florida Marth QDVS, Jiano then played an even better Marth in Husband: a longtime scene veteran.

Although he wasn’t among the H2YL elite, Husband was no slouch. He finished fifth at Cataclysm 3 and ninth at the similarly stacked MLG Long Island 2007, having the experience and nerves to do well at large tournaments. Even if Jiano outplaced him at the Midwest regional Show Me Your Moves 7, this time, Husband was the one with home region advantage.

Nonetheless, Jiano ended up in winners quarters, having already garnered a bit of attention for defeating Husband. His next opponent was one of New England’s best in Cort, a Connecticut Peach who boasted numerous placings and set wins in his career. Among the people he had wins over were DaShizWiz, Wife, Cactuar, ChuDat and PC Chris. Fresh off fourth place at EVO East, Cort would have been reasonably expected as the favorite.

In hindsight, Jiano winning wasn’t necessarily a surprise. He had experience against Peach players in his region, like Vidjogamer. Cort had little Captain Falcon experience, save for perhaps KoreanDJ or PC Chris’ secondary Falcons. Either way beating Cort gave Jiano his best out-of-region victory, along with an entry into Pound 2’s top eight.

Suddenly, Jiano, someone who might have just been known as “the Midwest Falcon that isn’t Darkrain,” was in the top eight of one of the biggest Melee tournaments ever. His next opponent was arguably his hardest one yet: Chillindude829, one of MD/VA’s most vocal players, its biggest leader and one of its elite three.

Although his quality of wins and losses were fairly up and down throughout his career, Chillin had lately been on an upwards trend, having even defeated Isai in the year. If he beat Jiano and played ChuDat in winners finals, as many might have predicted, Chillin could have been in grand finals, ready to win his first ever supermajor. Instead, Jiano played spoiler.

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For someone who was considered “darkrain junior,” Jiano had made it further than any of his Midwest contemporaries. Having defeated Chillin, Cort and Husband, Jiano was now in winners finals, ready to play against ChuDat, MD/VA’s last standing barrier between Jiano and grand finals. To quote an MLG article from back then, “the winners bracket final was so unexpected that when told Chillin had lost to Jiano, ChuDat had to ask whom he played.”

Although ChuDat ended up winning their set, anyone who considers themselves a “smash historian” should absolutely watch the set online. After getting four-stocked in its first game, Jiano took game two, lost game three and made a three stock comeback in game four to tie the set at 2-2. In game five, Jiano once again almost overcame a significant deficit, bringing the set to last stock. Had he not missed an otherwise easy knee after a confirmed stomp on Nana, he could have easily won the set and made it to grand finals.

Though Jiano ended up losing 3-1 to Mew2King in losers finals, he had already vastly exceeded expectations. After quietly finishing the year, “regressing” to his average level of play from before, Jiano began playing more Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Wii games. Today, he’s known for his history of speedrunning Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Looking back at Pound 2,  Jiano probably had the biggest disparity between his actual placing and how he was “expected” to do in bracket. It’s also interesting that in the post-Isai era of Captain Falcon mains, which included players like SilentSpectre and Darkrain, Jiano held the best supermajor placing by a Captain Falcon main. Until 2017’s Smash Rivalries, no Captain Falcon main had a better supermajor placing than Jiano’s third at Pound 2.

It’s easy to attribute much of Jiano’s success here to bracket luck, due to PC Chris, ChuDat and Mew2King being seeded on the same side of Top 64 bracket (due to ChuDat losing in pools, he gained a low seed). But either way,  getting third isn’t bad for a guy known more for speedrunning than smash.

 

No. 12 Cinderella Run of All-Time: KoreanDJ at MLG Orlando 2006

It’s not easy to break into the highest echelon of competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee, let alone its top ten. Even those who make it there don’t always have enough consistency to remain a long-term threat.

Before MLG Orlando 2006, KoreanDJ was the kind of player who resided in the grey area between the elite and everyone else. He simultaneously had a target on his back as a notable player, but he also wasn’t consistent to the point where he could be considered a member of Melee’s vaunted elite.

With wins on the likes of Isai, PC Chris and Mew2King, KoreanDJ also had losses to people such as Wife, Rob$ and Chillindude. These weren’t anywhere close to bad players, but they were surprising lows relative to the kind of talent that many perceived KoreanDJ to have. On sites like GameFAQs and Smashboards, many of his biggest supporters used to half-jokingly claim that he was secretly the best player in the world. Think of him at this time like what Leffen was in late 2014.

Heading into MLG Orlando 2006, there were three big contenders: the longtime Melee king Ken, ChuDat and the MLG New York Opener champion in PC Chris. Lurking on the outside was Mew2King, the returning Azen and KoreanDJ: a wild card heading into the event.

Although MLG Orlando 2006 was a prestigious event, keep in mind that by modern standards, the golden age of Melee was still relatively small. Seeding was mostly determined by previous placings at MLG-ran events. For example, Azen was seeded below the top ten for this tourney, due to his lack of serious attendance at other tournaments. Melee also wasn’t at the point where its scene could have four-digit attendee majors.

As a result, keep in mind that going into bracket from pools, KoreanDJ had to quickly play at his A game. In the first round, KoreanDJ had to play RockCrock: one of America’s best Ganondorfs at the time. Nonetheless, he won in a dominant 3-0.

Next, KoreanDJ played Rob$, a longtime Falco who placed top eight at FC6 and even defeated him at the same tournament. If KoreanDJ lost the runback, he would have had to play The King for 13th place and then likely the loser of Isai vs. ChuDat for ninth. With another 3-0, KoreanDJ advanced, ready to play his East Coast nemesis: Mew2King, in winners quarters.

To cue back to Wife’s not-entirely-accurate, but famous description of KoreanDJ as a “ball of hot fire,” KoreanDJ was heavy on overshooting moves and unrelenting aggression. Meanwhile, Mew2King played far more passively and around ledge, preferring to bait his opponents into committing first and then punishing them afterward. The two were different players, but also similar for improving around the same time.

KoreanDJ had been struggling against Mew2King. Though he beat him to start the year at MLG New York Opener 2006, he lost to him in losers bracket. Afterward, he lost three more sets against him at MLG Dallas 2006 and MLG Anaheim 2006. It would have been reasonable to expect Mew2King to win yet another set against KoreanDJ. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the New England underdog broke the streak and beat his Tri-State rival, 3-1.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In hindsight, it’s a pity that KoreanDJ’s Melee career wasn’t longer. Despite their different approaches to Melee, the two became relevant players around the same time and were known for their tremendous work ethic and deep edgeguards. Can you imagine how amazing a KoreanDJ appearance at Pound 3 could have been?

This is just my opinion, but had he kept playing along with Mew2King and the rest of the post-Brawl greats, KoreanDJ’s all-time legacy could have been even higher. Seriously – watch the video below, recorded in 2014, and tell me that KoreanDJ couldn’t have won that set in an alternate universe where he fully dedicated himself to Melee. Ignore the awful commentary.

Now in winners semifinals of MLG Orlando 2006, KoreanDJ had to play the ultimate test for any prospective smasher: Ken. Outside of New York Opener 2006, in which Ken lost to PC Chris, Ken hadn’t dropped a single tournament he entered in the year. In fact, PC Chris and ChuDat were the only players who managed to take sets against him in the entire year. Ken was like Armada, if he won even more and lost even less.

There are no videos I can find online of the set, but judging by everyone I’ve talked to, it’s one of the most important sets in Melee history. KoreanDJ’s 3-1 over Ken was the biggest accomplishment of his career. It elevated his status from a player on the cusp of greatness to now a threat to beat anyone in tournament. Sitting across from him in winners finals was Azen, who had never played KoreanDJ at that point in tournament.

This was a remarkable change from what most expected entering MLG Orlando (another Ken vs. ChuDat or PC Chris finals). In fact, had I not been restricted by my methodology for making this list, Azen’s performance at this tournament would have been near the top.

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Though KoreanDJ lost to Azen and ChuDat in the following winners and losers finals sets, his performance at MLG Orlando 2006 gave New England its best showing at a national ever. It also cemented his ascent to being a member of the Melee elite. Beating Mew2King and Ken at the same tournament at the time would have been a daunting task for anyone in the world.

KoreanDJ didn’t win MLG Orlando 2006, but it set the rest of his career in motion. He quickly became one of the three best players in the world, as he finished second at MLG Las Vegas 2006 and won MLG Long Island 2007 months later. Though KoreanDJ’s legacy certainly transcends just one tournament – and is still one of Melee’s greatest “what ifs” – his performance at MLG Orlando 2006 remains one of the scene’s most memorable moments.