Why Melee's Loss of the Golden Guardians Feels Particularly Defeating

It's been a tough 2023 for one of esports' oldest titles. I'm worried, but hopeful it'll get better.

There are very few communities in esports that hold the cultural relevance that Super Smash Bros. does. And for good reason: everyone, at some point in their lives, has played Smash.

A near-25-year-old franchise, Smash is an integral part of gaming’s long and rich history, alongside the likes of Quake, FIFA, Mario Kart and so many other series. It’s the perfect blend of what makes a great competitive multiplayer game special — easy and fun to dive into for casuals, but deeply competitive and hard to master for diehards.

Today’s teens and college students are likely booting up Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on the Nintendo Switch, but its older brother, Super Smash Bros. Melee is still widely played and relevant even 22 years after its release. Its relevance to esports is similarly important as notable figures across all game titles and genres — from League of Legends to Overwatch and Counter-Strike — all have a special place in their hearts from Melee.

That’s why the past year’s been hard, as the Super Smash Bros. community’s seen a handful of industry-leading companies functionally shut their doors.

The latest is Golden Guardians, the esports subsidiary of the Golden State Warriors, who released its Super Smash Bros. lineup of players and commentators and folded the brand on Nov. 30. Once a beacon of light for the Smash community, the Guardians’ shutdown is another knife to the heart in a very difficult year that presents a seemingly uncertain future.

Before the end of 2022, Smash seemed like it was having a resurgence with additional investment, new circuits and new organizations diving deeper into the esport. This time last year, two circuits — one ran by esports team Panda Global and another created by indie organizer VGBC — were set to host two finale events. But after the cancellation by one of those events, due to alleged threats by Smash creator Nintendo, and allegations of foul play against the other event, Smash went from two circuit finales to none.

2023’s brought a similarly dark cloud over the Smash community’s head. Panda, facing backlash for its alleged role in the cancellation of the VGBC’s Smash World Tour, shut down in December, leaving dozens of players and support staff suddenly unemployed. Another event organizer, Beyond the Summit, followed suit in March. Then, esports team Counter Logic Gaming, previously owned by New York Knicks owner Madison Square Garden Company, sold and shut down its brand, putting even more Smash-specific players and staff out of work.

I’d be remiss not to mention that none of these closures are exclusive to the Smash community. They aren’t.

Esports as a whole’s had a bad year of drastic market corrections with entire leagues shutting down, layoffs affecting thousands of employees, and a seemingly endless set of clues that we’re beyond stability and sustainability. It’s been painful to experience, but I don’t doubt that at the end of it that somehow, someway, esports can come out stronger with a better understanding of how to build in a way that isn’t prone to these sudden, massive collapses.

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But with Smash: I can’t begin to explain the frustration and fear the Smash community feels with this constant deluge of bad news. For so many, this feels like an existential crisis. We’ve lost some of our best advocates and supporters and have found ourselves relying entirely on the good will of our most notable community members to try to keep the lights on. Titans of our community have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars back into the scene to fill these gaps. But to me, the loss of Golden Guardians in Melee feels different.

In many ways, Golden Guardians Melee felt like the final true bastion of grassroots community building in Melee. The organization strived to support the scene from players to organizers and their events. It wasn’t just money — it was culture and a willingness to acknowledge and respect what the community had built. Not just some hamfisted group wanting to run things its way.

Golden Guardians worked on ways to create storylines and fun events and content for Melee. The organization and the people in it clearly loved the game and were happy to invest in the scene. Its loss feels like a blow to the chest because it never needed to be involved in Smash, but it did because those inside the organization loved this community. Every other company that I mentioned earlier had other investments in other fighting games, so Smash seemed like the next logical step. Not Golden Guardians though.

The loss of Golden Guardians has made me reflect on the unending grit of the Melee community. I can’t deny that for all intents and purposes, I’m a relatively new fan who only got involved in 2018. But I’ve spoken to so many players and community members to learn the stories and the history straight from the sources. Melee always stood in the face of adversity. Whether it's cease and desist letters from Nintendo forcing shutdowns to creating solutions during a global pandemic that should’ve prohibited online play from a two-decade-old game without native online functionality, The Melee community found a way to persevere.

But even the grittiest sandpaper has its limits, and more than ever before, I feel like we’re running out of options.

As a community, we can only rely on creators like Ludwig and Hungrybox to prop us up for so long. Eventually, like all the orgs before them, the cost of supporting the scene will outweigh the potential good it could do. And while Nintendo’s offered something akin to an olive branch with its new event approval system, it still limits our ability to find resources in the way we have in the past.

So what happens now? To be entirely honest, I’m not sure.

While Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will likely still be able to find its footing relatively easily, Melee feels doomed. And as esports undergoes its significant market correction, it will be smaller communities without major developer support that will be hit the hardest. With Nintendo feeling like a mob boss looming in the shadows, Melee won’t just be neglected, it stands to suffer even harder than its peers.

Yet you’d have a hard time finding a more resilient, creative and passionate community and like they have done for the last 10 years, I’m hopeful they’ll continue to rise to the challenge.

As I write this, I find myself asking, “Why am I writing this?”

The answer is quite simple: I wouldn’t be here if not for the Smash community and the Melee community in particular.

I’ve made lifelong friends in this community. My career only exists because I’ve been constantly passionate about this community. I’ve experienced the full gamut of emotions with this community, but at the end of the day, the joy and the love outweigh them all. When I attend Genesis X in February, the entire esports ecosystem could be collapsing around me and yet, I’ll still have these friends and these communities to lift me, and each other, up.

Until they rip the CRTs and controllers out of our hands, we will keep playing Melee.

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