Going to the Doctor: The Risks of High-Level Melee

© Robert Paul/@tempusrob/
Controllers aren’t the only things wearing out in the fast-paced game of Super Smash Brothers Melee.
By Brian FunesPublished on
What started off as an innocuous pastime has progressed into something far more intricate.
Since its inception, Super Smash Brothers Melee has steadily grown and become one of the most technically demanding fighting games out there — but it wasn’t always this way. In the earlier days, it was possible to thrive competitively without tech skill, so long as a player’s game sense kept him moves ahead of his opponent. But now, with a more nuanced understanding of shield mechanics and movement options, the technical bar of entry is at an all-time high — and so is the competition.
As Melee has transitioned into the world of eSports, an expanded event schedule boasting gradually increasing prize pots has encouraged players to spend more time with the game. Along with tuning up and modifying their controllers, players are also amping up their practice routines. Tools such as the Melee 20XX Edition allow players to reliably test out their shield pressure, receive visual cues whenever they miss an L-cancel, and even face off against re-hauled CPU opponents capable of replicating the TAS levels that Melee is approaching.
All of this is great for the viewers as matches become faster and more dynamic, but there is another storyline at play that isn’t as noticeable: the never-ending grind of repeatedly practicing the most strict and demanding techniques in pursuit of perfection can come at the cost of a player’s hands.

The Cost to Be the Boss

As a fan, or prospective mid-to-high-level player, it’s easy to get caught up with moving faster and performing the most intricate Melee maneuvers, especially after watching the pros in action. It’s certainly inspiring, but it’s not the whole picture. Professionals of any discipline have paid a cost to get to that point, and have access to resources that aid them in continuously performing at these super-human levels.
Early Melee players forged their own definition of what it meant to be a top player. It was a sleepless combination of late night Smashfests, attending every event possible, and physically keeping up with the anomaly of a game that continued to grow more complex despite never being patched. As there was no final destination for these trailblazers, it makes sense that the concept of “enough” also did not exist. The game demanded more, and the players gave willingly. Though some of these top players have evolved into the professional players of today, many did not make it unscathed through this unexpectedly intense journey.
Dr. Caitlin McGee made an appearance at Pound
Dr. Caitlin McGee made an appearance at Pound

Ergonomics and Hand Health for the People

Until the last couple of years, many top Melee players did not have the professional support from organizations or sponsors that other eSports titles have received. Health, diet, practice regimen, and even travel were entirely up to the individual. However, times are changing. Now, we are seeing sponsored players like Kevin “PewPewU” Toy tweeting about receiving hand massages from his CLG physical therapist. More importantly, he now has access to information and best practices that a high-performance athlete should have. This is a great step forward, but what about the rest of the Smash community? Enter Dr. Caitlin McGee M.S., PT, DPT.
Through a series of connections made on Twitter, and coincidentally living right next to Melee major Pound 2016, Dr. Caitlin McGee volunteered her services in an effort to improve and inform the Smash community as a whole. Despite this being her first public appearance, it was by no means her first contribution to Smash Brothers. On Twitter, she put together a definitive stretching guide which has averaged nearly 5-stars across more than 40,000 ratings. It’s never advisable to forego visiting a professional by using this guide as a substitute, but it’s a great fundamental base to have.
Hungrybox receives a consultation from Dr. McGee
Hungrybox receives a consultation from Dr. McGee
At Pound 2016, she provided ergonomic consultation, injury prevention tips, stretching instruction, and even therapeutic massages. When asked about the three most common complaints that players communicated at Pound 2016, she offered the following list:
1. Tight forearms, especially in the wrist and finger extensors
2. Tight thumb flexors in the “chunk” of muscle at the base of the thumb on the palm side
3. Bad habits with regards to not taking breaks while playing for prolonged periods
Hand pain itself may be the most talked about issue since our hands are connected directly to the controller, but Dr. McGee additionally points out the importance of posture and ergonomics. “For one thing, poor posture with poor chair support can lead to back pain; for another, it’s much more difficult for the shoulder, elbow, and wrist to be in optimal positioning when not fully supported by the core."
On a recent Tafo Talk, Dr. McGee also presented anecdotal correlations of the types of pains people have depending on the character they use, and the fact that amateur/semi-professional players were the population that had the most severe issues. “Part of the reason why mid-tier players are struggling is because we don’t necessarily talk about what higher tier players have gone through or what they do to manage their symptoms.”

Retirements, Preventative Measures, and Comebacks

One name that people are familiar with when thinking about the repercussions of hand pain is Melee legend, Daniel “KDJ” Jung. KDJ was the first Melee player to formally retire after a bout of tendonitis in his left hand progressed to his arm. Instead of taking breaks when experiencing discomfort, he trucked through the pain which lead to his eventual downfall. Even people who aren’t necessarily Melee diehards are familiar with his story simply because of his notable sponsor, Team Liquid, but players who are flying a bit lower on the Melee radar have been affected as well. One such example is Washington Melee player, Vish “Vish” Rajkumar.
Vish is a skilled player and a budding commentator
Vish is a skilled player and a budding commentator
Hovering just outside of the SSBM top 100 rankings in 2015, Vish has been a formidable Captain Falcon player in Melee for quite some time now. Previously ranked 84th in 2013, he never felt pain in his hands until late 2015, during his push towards becoming ranked again.
“The hand pain started during PAX Prime of last year. During that whole year, I had been practicing more than usual. Daily drills, playing a few times a week. . . . The pain started pretty randomly and suddenly, with nerve pain through my right hand. I continued to play, but with caution. After a couple more nationals, I decided to stop for a while and started physical therapy."
After talking it over with his peers, he decided to approach this as a sports injury and went to a physical therapist. He was diagnosed with cubital tunnel syndrome — a similar condition to carpal tunnel, except the pain is on the other side of the hand, targeting the ring and pinky finger. Per the suggestion of his therapist, he now places foam grips on his controller for comfort, using them both in tournament and in practice, though currently he is on tournament hiatus to prevent further stress on his hands. His last major tournament was Genesis 3 in January.
Because of his due diligence, he caught the condition in its earliest stages with no signs of permanent damage. In the meantime, Vish has found a silver lining in this situation and has taken up the art of commentary — but can’t wait to fully recover and get right back in the mix.
Despite difficulties, Hax finished 3rd at Pound
Despite difficulties, Hax finished 3rd at Pound
A higher profile Melee athlete also battling hand pains is none other than Aziz “Hax” Al-Yami. In 2014, Hax was ranked 8th on the SSBM Top 100 rankings, but has gradually slipped down the rankings ever since the FCU tendon in his left wrist started to bother him. He saw limited action in 2015, with EVO in July being his last tournament of that year. Past the point of prevention, Hax has undergone two surgeries on his wrist, with a third approaching in the next month.
While he’s not back in full capacity, Hax attended Pound 2016 and put on an incredible technical performance, most notably against Michael “Nintendude” Brancato. After Game 1, Nintendude was left smiling and shaking his head, wondering whether he’d just played against a robot.
“That set in particular didn't affect me at all. I was feeling some hand pain when I woke up the Monday after Pound, but luckily it wasn't too bad. I was able to play again just a day later. Physical therapy has really been helping me last longer. Insomnia is definitely the main battle."
When asked about his modified practice schedule post surgery, and the technical strain of playing Fox, he answered, “At the moment I have to ‘preserve’ my hand for more important events. If I play several days in a row, it can give out. I also do physical therapy every day to strengthen the wrist so that it lasts longer. Any character in Melee puts me on a timer when it comes to my hands. Fox may be the most intense on the left wrist, but Melee in general is pretty intense."
Hax's hands may be suffering, but that hasn't changed his stance on characters. “I would never main another character. I really only like playing Fox at this point; he's the only one who doesn't feel like a gimmick to me. I say this because when I play Fox I always feel like I shouldn't be getting hit."
It has been a long road to recovery, but Hax is slowly coming back to form on his own terms, 20XX style.
A player’s career can be determined by hand health
A player’s career can be determined by hand health

Human After All

Melee may be a video game, but muscles are constantly at work during every session, no matter how small or inconspicuous. The resulting injuries from overuse are real and need to be addressed by a professional as soon as possible. It can mean the difference between a temporary break, and looking back regretfully on a career cut short. After all, behind the unbelievably quick play of the world’s fastest Melee players are but a pair of human hands.
Thanks to Dr. McGee, and the players themselves talking about these issues, the scene as a whole will become more aware of injury prevention, extending the lifeblood of Melee for years to come.
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