“Don’t Let Your Fear of Failure Hold You Back.” An Interview with Smasher Max Ketchum

maxketchum

Super Smash Bros. is a beloved video game franchise where players can battle each other using Nintendo’s most famous characters, but it’s the competitive community for Smash that’s been getting more and more attention over the past few years. Waku Waku +NYC recently had the opportunity to interview Max Ketchum—New Jersey and New York Gamer, pro Smasher, tournament organizer, and commentator—to ask him about what it’s like to be in the Smash community.

Follow Max on Twitter @juicedoom

Introduce yourself!

I’m Max Ketchum. I represent Team Smash Hub, IQHQ, and Juice. IQHQ and Juice are like family to me. The Smash Hub is a website I recently started with some other players, DKWill, JTails, False, and Dire, as well as two friends in web design who are getting into Smash now. We made the site to serve a function similar to Melee It On Me: news feeds, community updates, a well-documented archive of highlights videos and matches, and articles.

First and foremost I’d say I’m just a Smasher overall. I don’t have a single, specific role within the community because I love doing everything. I play in tournaments, I commentate, I sometimes stream tournaments and my own gameplay, and I even run my own tournaments. I’ve also represented the community at events such as PAX, speaking at panels on behalf of the Smash community. In general, I like to do as much as I can, and I don’t want to waste any time bringing Smash to the forefront of entertainment.

What tournaments are you involved with?

The primary tournament I run is called Smash Attack at Next Level Arcade in Brooklyn. It’s a joint venture with the fighting game streamer Team Spooky. I also help run tournaments such as KTAR and Apex, as well as other tournaments in my area. I recently started Smash 4 Collegiate, a kind of NCAA for Smashers.

A lot of our attendees might not be familiar with competitive Smash or competitive gaming in general. They might know Mario or Pikachu but not Smash Bros. How would you explain it to a complete newbie?

At the very basic level, Smash Bros. is like Street Fighter with platforms, and the focus is to outsmart your opponent. When either player is knocked away, you try to extend your advantage in order to win. Competitive Smash may seem strange to casual players, but we’re putting ourselves to the test, and seeing how we stack up to our peers. We take it more as a craft or a lifestyle.

So it’s very much about self-improvement then.

Certainly, both inside and outside of the game. It’s an ongoing pursuit for knowledge.

What was it like growing up in the NY/NJ area as a gamer?

When I was a kid, I grew up in a small town called West Milford, NJ. It was a fairly remote location, even though it’s only 45 miles from New York City. I was the best player in town, and I had been aware of the competitive scene. I wanted to take it a step further but couldn’t because of my location.

When I entered high school and my friend had a car, tournaments became a lot more accessible for me. After that, living in the New York/New Jersey region, the world was my oyster. All of the tournaments in my area were immediately accessible. After I came to New York for college, I benefited from public transit.

New York is a top area for Smash and always has been. It’s quite fortunate for me, because playing more top players pushes your own rate of improvement. When it comes to the general trend of the game, the best players for the most part come from the most densely populated regions.

How has the landscape for Smash changed in New York since you first began?

Now you have everything at your fingertips, but that wasn’t nearly as prevalent in the older days. You had to go on Smashboards or GameFAQs, and YouTube didn’t even exist when I first started. I learned how to Wavedash [a special movement technique in Melee] from a sticky post on GameFAQs! Back then you had to really dig for information, go onto online file sharing communities, and even videos were VCR rips because that’s all anyone could afford. Everything was a lot quieter, and there were fewer players, but everyone was very motivated.

I really got started with Brawl, and back then there was the feud between Melee and Brawl. There was no respect between the two communities, but now that Smash 4 [Super Smash Bros. for Wii U] is out everyone is realizing that we’re all in this together. Back then, nobody even thought that there would be 2,000-man tournaments at EVO [the largest fighting game tournament in the world]. Nobody was thinking they could make it their life, but now people are a lot more committed to it and ESPORTS in general. There’s more new blood too, so the growth rate has gone through the roof, as well as actual money, actual sponsors, and real venues.

What is your proudest moment when it comes to your work in the NY/NJ Smash community?

If I had to pick just one?

Everyone who knows me is aware that, even though I’m a commentator, I’m also very hungry as a player. Back in the early days of Smash 4, I took a set off of [Top 3 player] Nairo. It was like a combo video, double dunks and all that. Nairo was Apex champion [in Brawl] that year, and was always the best player in our region, so being such an underdog and beating such a legendary player was amazing.

The match was actually featured in the highlight trailer for EVO, and actually my proudest moment might actually be seeing that match in the EVO trailer.

Another moment: At EVO I had a money match with Fatality, who was making videos showing off Falcon combos, and receiving a lot of praise. I challenged him to a $100 money match, and he accepted. We played at EVO off-stream at a quiet time of day, with not a lot of people watching, but a representative from Nintendo was there. It was a best of 9 and I ended up down 4 games to 1. Fatality says to me, “I’m the best Falcon in the world.” Then I won four straight games in a row. I completely downloaded him, calmed myself down, and figured him out. Then I said to him, “You may be the best Captain Falcon but I am Captain Falcon.”

What are your goals for the future?

As far as my goals, I have them in every area, but I want to be the best Captain Falcon, and even one of the best players in the world. I don’t think Fatality is the only Captain Falcon. There are players in Mexico, Japan, and more, and I have a long way to go.

I also want to be one of the main representatives for Smash. I have a positive attitude and I want to push people forward. I see myself as a valuable commentator, and I’d like more opportunities to work to back that up. As a Tournament Organizer, I’m looking to do bigger events, including more high-stakes invitationals for the best players in the region (I believe I’m the first to do it) and the collegiate league. I want to show people what’s possible for the Smash Community; it doesn’t have to always be a Saturday tournament at $10 a pop. I want people to see Smash as a sport because there’s almost no difference between the two, except that one is more of a physical activity, which is a pretty minor thing. There’s competition, and someone puts in a lot of time and wants to see who the best is. On even a non-competitive level, there’s a lot to wanting to just get together and have fun. I want to see it be like the next NBA, or like a real-life Pokémon.

My secret, top goal, however, is to be involved with the design of Smash as a game. I think I really have some great game design ideas for Smash, and I wish I could at least get an ear. That’s actually the one area I’ve never been able to get into. Sakurai, he burned the hell out of me at the last E3. I’m the guy who asked him, if I beat you at Smash Bros. would you let me balance the game, to which he responded, “Have you ever made a game?” I’d like to be a creative force in Smash, just like how companies like Capcom and Namco get pros to work with them.

You’re a Captain Falcon player in Smash 4. What draws you to the character?

I love playing aggressively in every game, and Captain Falcon is both strong and fast. I’m someone who plays based on reads. I’ll try to condition you into doing something predictable, go for that hard read, and finish you with a Rage Forward Smash [a type of powerful attack in Smash 4] or something. He’s my ideal character, except for being so heavy. I usually prefer the pixie characters* (Sheik in Melee, Meta Knight in Brawl, Pikachu in 64), the light, in-your-face characters.

Also, Falcon is iconic. When you see Falcon, you know it’s going to be a hype match, and I love being a crowd pleaser and a hype man. Captain Falcon is the essence of fun in Smash Bros. and even non-Smash fans know him. Everyone knows what a Falcon Punch is. Beyond that, he’s just good.

What inspired you to write the “Call to Arms” for the Smash 4 Community?

I looked at the Melee scene, and they’re getting the crowds and the cheers and the hundreds of thousands of views, and I thought, why don’t we have that? I did some research and found that the Melee scene really has it together. They have Melee It On Me. They have articles on who are the Top 100 players, what the top players think matchup-wise, and how they’ve been doing at recent tournaments. Beyond that, you have guys like Scar and later D1 and Crimson Blur working at Twitch.tv, creating opportunities. It wasn’t sheer luck. They laid the groundwork, and were really passionate about the game, and thought about what they could do for the community.

I asked Melee leaders like Prog and Tafokints (big shout-outs to those guys for being such inspirations and mentors), and they told me why Brawl suffered for non-gameplay-related reasons. It could have been the best game in the world, but no one was reaching out trying to get larger venues or larger sponsors. I thought Brawl was a great game, but it didn’t have that community pressure to get it to the next level. The passion wasn’t there.

Smash 4 came out and I saw the same things happening, even though I think Smash 4 improved on a lot of things from Brawl. I looked back, and thought about ways to bring the scene up, and determined that we need to have something like Melee It On Me. We need to have a Collegiate League.

Even before I wrote the Call to Arms, people were really motivated competitively, but I felt that they were squandering their potential by going on Facebook and complaining. Put yourself out there! Post some videos, make a Twitter account. Even if there are trolls, if you make the game look so fun and amazing, then they’re not going to have much to stand on.

A lot of the Smash 4 community came from Brawl, and I feel like we were kicked around back then. In the last year of Brawl’s life, people were afraid to be passionate about it, and I never wanted the Smash Community to be a place where you felt like you were lesser for playing a certain game. I think we need to show everyone what a great product and what a great community we have.

Are you a fan of anime, manga, or any other part of Japanese pop culture? What are your favorite titles?

I’m very under-exposed to Japanese pop culture, but it’s more that I don’t watch much television in general. I’ve been very behind the curve, and I just watched my first anime ever a couple of months ago, Death Note, and I loved it. I’d give it a 13 out of 10, and I hear it’s not even the best anime out there! I just saw Ping Pong, and thought it was really good too. Japanese culture is really awesome and I’d love to go to Japan.

I also see that you’re a fan of Pokémon and its own competitive scene. What’s your favorite generation of all time, and what’s your favorite Pokémon for battling others?

I used to play a lot online, and I will money match anyone in Pokémon.

As for favorite generation, it’s tough. I like different generations for different reasons. In terms of actually playing on the cart, Gold/Silver/Crystal. 16 badges! They broke the mold! I love the Pokémon added in Generations V [Black/White] and VI [X/Y]. A lot of older fans of the first generation complain about the new Pokémon designs, but good and bad designs have always been around. I also actually love the battle dynamics they added in Generation IV [Diamond/Pearl/Platinum] when they split physical and special [Pokémon’s way of determining the damage an attack does to an opponent]. In terms of competing, Generation VI is the best.

As for favorite Pokémon, I really like Vaporeon, Exeggutor, Cacturne, Magneton (more than Magnezone), and Lampent. I tend to like middle-evolutions more than final forms.

Do you have any words for others aspiring to contribute to their own communities, Smash, or otherwise, as well as any shout-outs?

Apply yourself! Don’t just be a wallflower. You can be the coolest kid in your high school or the least cool one, but everybody at tournaments can get together. Just do it, full Shia LaBeouf. Most people I’ll see at a tournament for the first time, I’ll see them again for years on end. There’s no reason not to go. Foster yourself and your community, make some friends. Most of my friends I’ve made through video games, and you can improve your skills, find yourself, self-improve, there’s a lot to Smash.

Even if you’re the worst player, go anyway. Otherwise you’ll never improve. Even if you don’t end up being the best, it’ll be a hell of a journey and you’ll have great times and great memories. Don’t let your fear of failure or falling short of expectations hold you back.

I’d like to shout out everybody who pushed me in the Smash community. I was a random back in the day, reading GameFAQs and Smashboards, slipping things I learned into conversation with better players so I could appear educated. People have helped me along the way, and I’m not wholly responsible for where I am. Almost every person I’ve met in the Smash community has helped me to learn that I can always get better.

As for specific shout-outs, I’d like to shout out the OG bros: Toronto Joe, Rapture, False, D1, and all my Canada and New York homies. You helped me through the thick and thin and pushing the Smash community. Nobody does it alone.

I thought I’d go to college and get an office job, but this is my true calling. Shout outs to the Smash community. This is my dream.

Waku Waku +NYC is a brand-new Japanese pop culture festival in Brooklyn, NY this August 29th to 30th that celebrates video games, anime, manga, music, food, art, and more. Tickets are on sale now!

 

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