Sports Spectating

I follow two sports: NBA basketball and pro Super Smash Bros Melee.

Growing up, I was blindly anti-sports. How people could get so invested in their region’s sports team, enough to spend hundreds of dollars for seats and enough riot when they lose and parade when they win? It’s just a sport! You idolize men who spend their livelihoods throwing a bouncy spherical thing through an elevated hoop!

My dismissive attitude persisted for a decade until recently, when I realized that I’ve actually been a sports fan since 2005. That’s when I started playing Smash Bros Melee and watching it on YouTube and reading forum posts on techniques. Nowadays, Melee is a bona fide sport with professionals backed by sponsors and televised tournaments followed by tens of thousands of dedicated fans like me. Like any sport, Melee has its superstars in the form of the Five Gods of Melee: Mango, Armada, Hungrybox, PPMD, Mew2King. Each has their respective personalities (the talented wild one, the precise Swedish sniper, the methodically patient one, the cerebral hermetic scientist, the robot), and following their ongoing rivalries and watching their hype matches is like witnessing a drama unfold, and it’s so engaging! The game is 15 years old and getting even bigger, thanks to being more easily enjoyable with dedicated producers, pro Smash commentators, and web streaming. What a change from old cameras pointed at CRT screens with spectators screaming profanities!

And… you probably don’t care at all about any of that. I can sympathize. Pro Melee is a fringe community comprised of mostly adolescent boys with bad body odor who idolize men playing video games. However, this is the main reason: if you watched Melee with me, you’d just be confused. It’s literally a Nintendo character beating up another Nintendo character. I tell you that Melee is a beautiful game, that watching Westballz’ Falco multishine pressure into Scar jump dumpster combo is like witnessing an exhilarating work of digital art unfold in front of a cheering crowd. And you’re just like… WTF.

The difference is that I’ve spent thousands of hours playing Melee, learning the nuances of all 26 characters, their myriad of attacks, and all their matchups. I’ve practiced my wavedashes and ledgehops and SHFFL aerials, and I got reasonably good (getting 3rd, 1st, then 1st at the Harvard tournaments), but man, Melee is hard. I’d probably lose to the pros without landing even a single hit, and that’s why I enjoy watching pro Melee. I marvel at their magnificent displays of skill. Pro Melee players write poetry in a language of dash dances and moonwalks and invincible bairs, and it’s a language you can understand only if you’ve tried your hands at Melee.

And then there’s pro basketball.

Basketball is a much more universally accepted, understood, and respected sport. Tonight’s a big night for the NBA, as the Golden State Warriors might conclude their record-smashing season by beating the biggest record of them all and Kobe Bryant places the capstone on his illustrious 20-year NBA legacy. Earlier this week, LBJ and the Cavs cinched 1st seed in the East, and Westbrook tied Magic Johnson for the record of 18 triple doubles in a season.

That paragraph would’ve flown over my head two years ago (as basketballs are apt to do). I readily admit that I only recently jumped on the Warriors bandwagon. Yeah, my friends back in California have been die-hard Warriors fans since we were little kids and some might frown on me being an inauthentic Warriors fan. However, just like you peering into my world of Melee, I simply couldn’t appreciate the nuances of basketball before. How can I appreciate Chris Paul’s court vision when I’ve never run on a court? How can Kyrie Irving’s weaving dashes impress me if I’ve never tried guarding a fast point guard? How can I enjoy Steph Curry’s fast-release jump shot without ever studying my own?

So I started learning from the sidelines. During my downtime, instead of watching TV shows, I watch clips from the NBA and learn about the history of the league and old icons. I begin making sense of the ebb and flow of the players, the rationale behind their intricate plays, and the sheer skill and talent it takes at their level. Now I enjoy basketball as a pure spectator.

Unfortunately, pro sports are dangerous in the sense of lost productivity, squandered man-hours, and unattainable dreams. So many people frown upon little kids on the basketball courts who aspire to play in the NBA. I agree. It’s always a long shot. Not to diminish the importance of practice and work ethic, don’t discount the importance innate talent. The NBA is basically the world’s most celebrated genetic freak show. The NBA is a world where Steph Curry, at 6’3”, is puny. Height is a quantifiable and indisputable, and something like 20% of 7-foot-tall American men are in the NBA. If you’re not 7 feet tall, you’d better be like Steph Curry and have one of the league’s top shooters be your dad and train you. Or if you’re as prodigiously talented as someone like the 6’ tall Allen Iverson, the national spotlight will find you. NBA point guards are so often so ridiculously good because it takes so much more to stand out without height. Talented diligent goliaths become legends (ahem, Jordan, Bryant, James).

Melee’s Gods are like this too. At the highest levels, past the limits of technical skill and dexterity, there are mysterious and indescribable qualities that enable them to play in a way no one can describe. That is talent, and that’s what makes following sports so fascinating. We are mere mortals whose brains are hard-wired to admire talent, and these men are so unfathomably good at their chosen art. Even if that art is using a Nintendo character to beat up another Nintendo character or throwing a bouncy spherical thing through an elevated hoop.


PS. Sports also tend to be taxing on the bodies. NBA Basketball is a game where Kobe Bryant, at 37, is retiring from old age and injuries, and 39-year-old Tim Duncan is basically ancient. The Pro Melee community is rife with hand problems and injuries. Melee is one of the fastest games ever, with reports up to 290 APM, executed almost purely with two thumbs. Hax$ literally ground away all his cartilage and required surgery (20XX, dude).