Once upon a time, the legendary player thought he was done with 'Smash.' But it turns out 'Smash' wasn't done with him.
Once upon a time, the legendary player thought he was done with 'Smash.' But it turns out 'Smash' wasn't done with him.
Between May 2011 and January 2013, Sweden's Adam "Armada" Lindgren won every major Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament he entered, 13 in all. Seven days after his 13th straight victory, Lindgren logged onto the community forum Smashboards and announced his retirement. He was just 19 years old. Though Melee's competitive scene had grown steadily since the game's 2001 release, 2012 had been discouraging, with total prize money dipping below $30,000 for the first time in four years. How do you tell when an esport is doomed? A pretty reliable sign is when a precipitous drop in prize money is followed by the best player in the world hanging up his gloves at age 19.
"I do not feel any motivation to become a better player," Lindgren wrote in his farewell post. "I don't expect everyone to be happy with me (sic) decision but I hope everyone can at least accept and respect this."
It's hard to overstate the blow that this news dealt to the Melee scene. Imagine Michael Jordan calling it quits after one championship. The initial response from the community was to argue that the post was a prank. "2/10," read the first reply. "Wasn't very believable." Once the post's veracity was confirmed, fans and players alike were heartbroken. Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, another Smash legend and Lindgren's frequent doubles partner, wrote that "with you gone, I honestly feel my fire to become better is pretty much gone too."
Replies continued to trickle in over the days that followed. Southern California's Joseph "Mango" Marquez, Lindgren's chief rival for the title of "all time greatest," weighed in with characteristic impudence, calling the Swedish retiree a "vagina" and later saying "I know for a fact he's not better then (sic) me, so it doesn't bother me much."
His taunts fell on deaf ears. Europe's top player traded "Armada" for a new moniker – Mr. Lindgren – as he started a new career as a substitute teacher.
Lindgren made the pragmatic choice. Most Melee tournaments were located in America, and even taking first place barely offset the cost of transatlantic travel. He was done with high school. He wasn't enrolled at a university, and it was time to start thinking about a long-term way to pay the bills. For a Swede in January 2013, Melee wasn't that.
Besides, to his surprise, the new job was kind of fun. He enjoyed the diverse workload, teaching various subjects to students between grades one and nine. Plus, being in charge of a classroom taught him to stand up for himself. He intended to keep the job for a year or two while he determined a plan for the rest of his life. The Adam Lindgren who turned 20 on March 28, 2013 could only see misty fragments of his future. He thought it might have something to do with psychology, a subject he'd always found interesting. And he was almost positive it would have nothing to do with Smash.
He was wrong, of course. His retirement lasted one year. While he was gone, Melee rebounded, reaching $50,000 in annual prize money for the first time since 2007. When Lindgren returned to the scene in 2014, he went right back to winning tournaments.
The Smash Brothers
You'd be hard-pressed to think of a transcendent sports figure whose story didn't start out unremarkably. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity team. When Michael Phelps started swimming, he was afraid to put his head underwater; he mastered the backstroke first. LeBron James, born to a 16-year-old single mother, spent his first decade hopping from home to home.
Adam Lindgren is no exception. He was born in 1993, the fifth of 11 children. His father would have had a hard enough time supporting 11 kids as a doctor or a lawyer. As a welder, it was almost impossible.
"Money was usually a problem," Lindgren says. "Mom and Dad, they did argue quite a bit, for obviously good reasons... The financial struggle really put a toll on everyone."
Then there was school. "We were not the most fancy-dressed... And I was a gamer, so that was something a lot of people really liked to pick on me for."
Another trope of the sports biography is that childhood adversity often yields a long-term advantage. Those who become world-class at anything must be above all else persistent, maybe even stubborn, traits fostered by early years of hardship. Lindgren, looking back, points out silver linings. "Maybe I found [the bullying] an inspiration to prove them all wrong," he says.
Similarly, just as a surplus of siblings sometimes manifested as a disadvantage – "I am horrible when it comes to doing things on my own," Lindgren says – it was an absolutely critical advantage in other ways. It's impossible to imagine him finding this career without his own personal Smash Brothers. His older sibling Alexander, who played under the tag Aniolas, introduced him to Melee and accompanied him on his earliest trips to America. Lindgren's younger brother Andreas (Android) remains his most crucial practice partner. The two are fearsome doubles partners; in October 2016, Andreas was signed to Lindgren's team, Alliance.
The three brothers lived in the same house and dedicated themselves to the same game. By the time he entered his first year of high school, Lindgren was already the best (or perhaps second-best) player in the world. Though his brothers have never come close to that level, they don't hold grudges. In fact, they remain his biggest supporters.
"There might be times when everyone is cheering against him," says Andreas, "but I will always cheer for him."
It's Lonely at the Top
To understand what it's like to be Armada, you have to understand what it's like to attend a Melee event. They are held at conference halls and convention centers, most often in the US, rented out and packed to capacity with (predominantly male) 16 to 30-year-olds. The venues are loud and humid and hot. They often don't smell particularly good. There's also the ever-lurking microbiological threat: during our interview, Lindgren is still recovering from the "Big House Plague," an ailment that afflicted many of the players who attended the October 2016 tournament "The Big House 6" at the Edward Hotel and Conference Center in Dearborn, Michigan.
Unlike tournaments for other competitive games like Dota 2 or League of Legends, which maintain a firm buffer between players and fans, Melee competitions follow an aggressively egalitarian structure. A professional player starts out at the same place in the bracket as any other entrant. Since everyone competes in the same huge room, interacting with a world champion is as simple as locating them and walking up to grasp their hand. As competitive Melee grows, this arrangement makes less and less sense. Lindgren says that fans sometimes even come up to him in the restroom to ask for autographs and pictures.
"It feels pretty awkward. I would rather that they go out, wait there, and then ask for a picture. But even then it's kind of weird."
The last time Lindgren lost a set to anyone ranked lower than sixth in the world was 2010, before he'd reached his prime.
And yet none of these barriers – the odors, the illnesses, the overcrowding, the claustrophobic fan pressure – stop Lindgren from doing his thing, which is to win, over and over. In an environment that approaches total chaos, he makes it to the podium with clockwork reliability. He's placed lower than third only twice in his past 30 tournaments, securing 20 first place finishes over the same period – a staggering 67 percent win-rate.
"In my book, I feel like I'm the number one of all time," Lindgren says, "But I do want to prove it without a shadow of a doubt. When it comes to the biggest tournaments, I have by far the best average performances."
Modern Melee is dominated by a cadre of top players known to the fan community as the Five Gods. Their respective deity-analogues are rarely specified, though the Norse pantheon analogy fits nicely. If Lindgren is Odin – the firm-jawed, dependable god of knowledge and battle – then his American archrival, Joseph "Mango" Marquez, is Thor – headstrong and mercurial. At his best, Marquez taps reserves of power beyond what Lindgren can muster, playing with such speed, precision, and unpredictability that opponents are simply swept away. In those matches, Marquez is less a player than a hurricane, vast and infinitely violent. But if Marquez's peaks match or exceed Lindgren's, his valleys are miles deeper. Southern California's God of Thunder has dropped sets to many who have never bested Lindgren. The last time Lindgren lost a set to anyone ranked lower than sixth in the world was 2010, before he'd reached his prime. Excluding an illness-related forfeit, he hasn't placed lower than fifth in a noteworthy tournament since 2007.
But if Lindgren has a statistical edge, Marquez's fan base is both larger and more vocal. At big events, it's Marquez who receives the loudest cheers. Part of this is homefield advantage. It's Marquez, after all, who plays the role of Last American Hope once international players like Lindgren have eliminated many of his comrades. But there's also a sentiment, expressed by fans and players alike, that Marquez is simply more fun to watch.
"When I four-stocked Mango at Summit 1," Lindgren says, "everyone was like 'nooooo!' If I was the one getting four-stocked, I'm not sure the house would still stand."
To win a game of Melee, you have to knock your opponent off the edge of the screen four times, depleting their lives, or "stocks." To "four-stock" someone is to pummel them into oblivion without receiving so much as a flesh wound in return. It's a spectacular feat, and it's extremely rare in the upper echelons of competitive play.
During the four-stock in question, the commentators do in fact release a collective "Nooooo" when Marquez stumbles to a particularly embarrassing death. There's no excitement in anyone's voice as Lindgren grinds towards victory. These are the two best players in Melee history, and one of them is about to win a flawless game, and the response is essentially "meh."
Great players always attract haters. In Melee, Lindgren tends to be described as cautious, reserved, emotionless, even robotic. "Optimal," says Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman when asked to describe the Swede in a group interview. Kevin "PPMD" Nanney, another of the "Gods," emphasizes Lindgren's calculated, cerebral play. Marquez describes him as a brick wall.
There's truth to all of this. Lindgren's superhuman control over his nerves can make him seem emotionless on stage – an esports version of Novak Djokovic. His calculated playstyle is designed to eliminate the opponent as efficiently as possible. But there are other words that people don't use to describe Lindgren, saving them for players like Marquez: aggressive, flashy, fast. And the truth is that Lindgren is an aggressive, flashy, and fast player. He couldn't be the best in the world if he wasn't.
When asked to describe his playstyle, Lindgren slips into the convoluted jargon of competitive Melee. Like science or medicine, Melee has an expansive and precise vocabulary that can be impenetrable to outsiders.
"I think my playstyle, at times, is way more aggressive than people think," Lindgren says. "When you're doing dash attacks with Peach, it's actually a huge risk. When a Spacie jumps in with a Nair on shield, people will be like, 'that's so aggressive.' But let's be real: Spacie pressure on shield is entirely safe."
Put simply, Lindgren thinks people underestimate his aggression because they don't understand the risks he takes when he plays. Explaining the point further, he uses a lot more words, gets very specific, and responds at length to various hypothetical counter-arguments. There are only five or six people in the world who understand Melee as well as Lindgren does, and it shows; he breathes this stuff.
The Lindgren who enthusiastically defends his playstyle is not the emotionless Melee robot many make him out to be. When he wins EVO 2015, Lindgren leaps out of his seat and across the stage, screaming with the crowd, pumping both fists, a man unquestionably alive. One year later, when he loses in the grand finals of EVO 2016, he remains rooted to his chair, crushed beyond all belief.
"Please don't talk to me about EVO tonight, I don't wanna hear how proud I should be or how good I played," he tweets afterward. "Dreams can be crushed in the most brutal of ways... Not felt this bad after a loss in a long time."
Lindgren is, in some ways, a victim of his own greatness. Part of the fun in rooting for Marquez is that you never know how he's going to perform. He can lose to a third-string player one day and win the whole tournament the next. No matter who he's playing, Marquez is always, in a way, the underdog. But Lindgren has been so consistent over the past six years that he's always expected to win. The head sides with Armada; the heart sides with Mango.
In the fall of 2013, Lindgren was still working as a substitute teacher. On the community site GameFAQs, posters eagerly discussed rumors of the Swedish God's return. "In class and can't really say much but Empire Arcadia, which has M2K on their roster, picked up Armada, seems like M2K was involved in the process," wrote one user on November 6.
"Hopefully he doesn't come out of retirement, get spanked and retire again," replied another.They needn't have worried. Lindgren won nine tournaments in 2014 and finished second in five more, earning roughly $15,000. That November, he was picked up by Alliance, a Swedish esports organization. In 2015 he made around $72,000 in winnings in addition to a salary. His placings were slightly better – he won 13 events in 2015 – but the real reason for the increase was the exponential growth of the Melee scene. In 2016, he only won 10 events, but his winnings, at over $82,000, were his highest yet.
People ask me sometimes, 'how can you do mix-ups if you're not thinking about it?' But I feel like, if you've played enough, you can do it in your sleep, practically.
Today, the scene is healthy and growing; by all appearances, there are years of fruitful competition ahead. This is an Adam Lindgren unburdened by financial insecurity. The career he loves is the most lucrative option available, and the results are thrilling.
One question that gives Lindgren pause is whether professional Melee feels as fast it looks.
"I would say... no," he says. "I remember my feeling driving a car for the first time. The more I learned, the slower the same speed limit felt."
Melee is a hard game. Maybe one of the hardest ever created. It's played competitively on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis, with hundreds of inputs per minute and near-infinite potential for creativity, prediction, and skill. But one of the things we love about Jordan or Phelps, LeBron or Federer, is the way they make impossible tasks seem easy. And that's what Lindgren does: makes Melee seem easy. Because, for him, it kind of is. He says outright that he doesn't think when he plays, just slips into a state of pure flow, doing nothing more than what feels exactly natural.
"People ask me sometimes, 'how can you do mix-ups if you're not thinking about it?' But I feel like, if you've played enough, you can do it in your sleep, practically."
Well, maybe he can.
Just as Melee enabled Adam Lindgren to become Armada, he and players like him proved that Melee was worth watching in the first place. It's a self-justifying loop. Armada depends on Melee, but Melee also depends on Armada. Each time he crushes his way to another grand final, he takes advantage of a game he is uniquely suited to win – but he also proves, by his very consistency, that the game is worth playing.