Meta Knight didn’t just take top honors at January’s APEX 2012 Super Smash Bros. Brawl tournament – he dominated. A look at the results page for the New Brunswick, New Jersey event reveals that half of the top eight players in the singles tourney used Meta Knight, and 21 of the top 64 singles players used him – exactly three times that of runner-up Captain Olimar. The doubles tournament tells a similar story, with Meta Knight occupying all four character spots in the grand finals match. Clearly, the character is a problem.
Character bans in fighting games are nothing new, but they don’t happen often.
Fortunately, the problem’s already been resolved .On September 30th of last year, a post by MLG Tournament Director Chris Brown (a.k.a. AlphaZealot) on Smashboards (the largest forum for competitive Smash players), stated that Meta Knight would be banned from both singles and doubles tournaments starting January 9th of the following year, making APEX 2012 – which took place the weekend before the ban – the last major tournament to allow Meta Knight. Other tournaments before then had the option to ban Meta Knight, but it was not required by the Unity Ruleset, which are the guidelines most major tournaments in the United States and Canada use.
Character bans in fighting games are nothing new, but they don’t happen often, and considering the impact a ban can have on a game’s competitive scene, they’re never taken lightly. As the Smash community’s first major ban, it had to come down to consensus between both the players and tournament organizers. The official decision was made by the URC, or the Unity Ruleset Committee (a national group of tournament organizers), but to make the ban as agreeable as possible, members of both the Smashboards and AllisBrawl forums were polled on the issue time and again over the years. And while an ordinary forum-goer’s take on banning a character can be knee-jerk, Brown says it took more than that to ban Meta Knight. “The top 100 players on the SWF [Smash World Forums, another name for Smashboards] rankings were also polled and came out roughly 60-40 in favor of banning the character.” The Brawl Back Room, a secret forum for the “‘best and brightest'” players of Smash, also voted in favor of the ban.
So if the ban had most of the Brawl community behind it, why did it take more than three years since Brawl‘s release to ban Meta Knight? “Part of the issue is that top players were using [him] and they wanted to see their money-source stay intact,” Brown says. “People listen to top players, for better or for worse, and some take their opinions as worth more than they probably should be.” And when the prize for first place in the singles tournament at APEX is $3,600, it stands to reason that a few players might not want their golden goose taken. Of course, there’s also the issue of adoption. “Another issue was that it would simply be impossible in Smash to ban any character without a large group of [tournament organizers] unifying together. A [single] tournament is very weak in terms of influencing what others do and even the largest tournaments seldom see their ruleset mimicked.”
The URC also had to contend with Brawl‘s international players, like those in Japan, whose league play is out of their jurisdiction. During the APEX 2012 live stream, commentators mentioned that a few Japanese players were discouraged from making the trip overseas for next year’s event, since Meta Knight is not banned in Japanese tournament play, and having to abandon their main character for one event wasn’t worth it. But the ban was already decided at that point, and Brown does not feel like hindering the potential of a few players merits abstaining from the ban. “The Japanese [Meta Knight] players I’m sure would be discouraged, but the allure of winning a large scale US tournament, [along with] the monetary opportunity that does not exist in Japan would still make attending US nationals an attractive offer,” says Brown. “Personally, I do not think a [tournament organizer] should hold an entire ruleset for their own tournament hostage just to get a few international players to attend, much less hold the ruleset for the entire community hostage for these few international players.”
What is it about Meta Knight that deserves to get him the boot, exactly? For the head honchos making the calls in such matters, it’s not just about looking at videos of the incredible performances, tricks, and glitches the character is responsible for. A wealth of information regarding character performance is available, and looking over charts comparing “Monetary Success” and “Frequency of Successful Players By Character,” you’ll see that one line, one set of figures, always stands out among Brawl‘s 35-character roster. The combination of player complaints and consistent data was likely what made a ban possible, whether Meta Knight was too powerful or not. “It is important to note it is nearly impossible to know where the line is between ‘best character’ and ‘broken character’,” notes Brown. “I would suggest it is simply wherever the majority of the [community’s] tolerance lies for dealing with a dominant character – and arbitrary line, certainly.”
However, not all bans are decided through statistical analysis or pure consensus. Tom Cannon, one of the founders of Shoryuken.com and key member of the Evolution Championship Series, the largest tournament for fighting games in the U.S., can pin the reason Akuma was banned in both the Super Turbo and HD Remix editions of Street Fighter II down to the character’s fireball. “In Super Turbo, the shallow flight path of Akuma’s air fireball made the match literally un-winnable for some characters if Akuma was willing to rely solely on that move,” says Cannon. “This wasn’t about options. It was about shutting down the whole game by spamming one move. This move was re-balanced in HD Remix, but it was later discovered that the air fireball set up a new, different-but-overwhelming advantage for Akuma.” While Meta Knight’s dominance had to be evaluated over a series of overpowering tournament performances, watching videos like this gives you a good sense of just how powerful Akuma is (and, keep in mind, that’s HD Remix footage, where Akuma’s fireball was toned down).
If a character was too powerful, tournament organizers could hold out for a potential update instead of banning a character.
Even Street Fighter‘s last iteration, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, had its share of outcry over characters. Yun, Yang, and Fei Long players abounded for the duration of that edition’s lifespan – Arcade Edition has since been patched into the generally agreeable 2012 edition – and any informal poll of Arcade Edition live stream chatters would’ve been heavily in favor of banning these “broken” characters.
For Cannon, however, none of those three characters merited banning. “For the purposes of character banning, ‘broken’ means the game is literally not worth playing with that character in the game. When Akuma can jump up and down throwing air fireballs for the whole match and there is literally nothing I can do to touch him, that is broken.” This sort of impossible match simply did not exist in Arcade Edition. “We would never ban any of the characters in [Arcade Edition].” says Cannon. “In even the most lopsided AE matchups, the underdog character stands a fighting chance.”
Of course, Arcade Edition has the benefit of patches, where problematic characters can be tamed once the development team sees them as a problem. Additionally, in the era of console videogames before patches, updates to game balance and rosters came in subsequent releases – think Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting, or Street Fighter III: Third Strike. If a character was too powerful, tournament organizers could hold out for a potential update instead of banning a character. The lack of updated releases for Brawl, along with Nintendo’s low tolerance for patching their games, means the game is staying as-is, and it’s up to the community to decide what to do with the game they’ve been given.
This was the case for Super Smash Bros. Melee as well, but Brown argues even that game’s best characters weren’t that far ahead of the rest of the cast. “Fox and Falco have won their fair share of local or regional events, [but] nationally speaking they are more bark [than] bite.” Many players regard these two characters as the two to beat in Melee, but statistically, the results simply don’t show that. “Fox and Falco have supposedly been the ‘best’ in Melee since 2005 yet this has never translated to national tournament wins even semi-consistently. Fox’s tournament wins at a national level are nearly nonexistent, [though] at least Falco has a couple.”
So if Meta Knight’s gone, who will pro players replace him with? “I don’t believe [there] is another character with [him] out of the picture that can reach [his level] of dominance,” says Brown. “The game is certainly more balanced, and there has been some research already on what the metagame will look like with Meta Knight banned.” Tier lists are an outsider’s best indicator of the relative strengths of each character within a game’s competitive scene, and looking at Brawl‘s, Snake, Diddy Kong, and Falco all look poised for the top spot.
But Cannon, who as a veteran Street Fighter-player is intimately familiar with tier lists, posits that while tier lists are based on “the relative power of each character when in the hands of equally skilled, world-class players,” it’s ultimately the players who use these characters that determine the outcomes of any tournament. “I think tier lists are vastly overrated. For nearly every player, your own personal style and dedication to the game are bigger factors than the theoretical tiers. Look at what [veteran pro player] Justin Wong is doing with Iron Fist in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. He’s winning tournaments and making excellent players look silly with a character that’s generally agreed to be ‘low-tier.’ Justin identifies with the character and has fun with him, so he’s able to overcome the disadvantages that exist on paper.”
Watching footage of Wong’s Iron Fist in action, it’s hard to argue with Cannon.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer currently living in Omaha, Nebraska. He’s written reviews and features for GamePro, Bitmob, and now, The Escapist. You can contact him at surielvazquez(at)gmail(dot)com.