In the world of competitive Super Smash Brothers Melee, there is a period of time which is synonymous with the dominance of five different players; the five gods of melee. From around 2010-onwards, almost every major tournament has been won by one of these five players; Adam ‘Armada’ Lindgren, Juan ‘Hungrybox’ DeBiedma, Joseph ‘Mango’ Marquez, Jason ‘Mew2King’ Zimmerman and Kevin ‘PPMD’ Nanney. There was a time when all of these players were near-untouchable, losing only to each other.
The last couple of years has seen a challenger claw their way into the upper echelons of Melee, in a way that no other player has threatened the five gods’ reign before. William ‘Leffen’ Hjelte, from Stockholm – Sweden, has quickly risen to being considered one of the best players in the world.
A highly controversial figure in the Melee community; Leffen’s character can briefly be summed up by saying that he’s the Gary Oak of competitive Melee; someone with insurmountable talent who doesn’t shy away from trash talk. Although he has cleaned up his behaviour immensely since his younger days, Leffen still retains his ‘villain’ persona to a degree since being picked up by esports organisation Team Solo Mid (TSM).
Although Leffen, a solo Fox-main, has been taking names for a few years now with his clinical play, he is perhaps most known outside of the Melee scene for his brutal beatdown of veteran player Chillin in a $1000 moneymatch. The set, which ended 5-0 in Leffen’s favour, spawned the now infamous ‘My B’ meme which can be seen in Twitch chats everywhere.
Moneymatches aside, Leffen became the first player to defeat all five gods in-tournament with his victory over Mew2King at Apex 2015. After a string of tournament victories throughout 2015, many (including himself) considered Leffen the favourite to win EVO 2015, the largest and most prestigious tournament in the fighting game community.
Despite a disappointing 5th place finish at EVO, Leffen quickly bounced back, winning Super Smash Con and one-day event HTC Throwdown in August and September, respectively. Leffen’s troubles began en-route to a major Smash tournament in October 2015, The Big House 5 in Michigan. Upon arriving in the United States, Leffen was denied entry at the border and sent back to Sweden.
[Image from www.esport.me]
Although I, by no means, possess extensive legal knowledge, this is my roundabout understanding of the situation; Leffen did not have the correct visa to earn money in the US, which he was doing by competing in and winning tournaments. Because he is employed by TSM, an American company, those winnings should have been subjected to US tax law.
Did he break the law? Yes. Unknowingly? Who knows.
The problem now is that the process of obtaining a visa to work in the US is arduous and incredibly draining. Gathering suitable evidence alone can prove incredibly difficult. Leffen and his lawyers now have to convince US visa processors that, not only is it worth granting Leffen himself a work visa, but that playing Melee professionally is legitimate career.
The ramifications of Leffen getting a visa to play Melee extends beyond one individual, it’s about entire competitive communities being recognised for what they really are; worthwhile competition. Competition that now concerns a hell of a lot of money. People make a living off of Melee; they have sponsors, they are professionals, their competitions draw crowds, they are salaried. That all sounds very familiar to me…
League of Legends players can be granted work visas and so can DoTA players, so why not Smash? Is it the amount of money involved? Backing of parent companies like Riot and Valve? In the eyes of the US government, what does it take for one game to be considered a sport over others?
Leffen’s visa application being denied means that we all lose; Leffen, his fans, the viewers, US tournament organisers, organisations looking to pick up European players, everyone.
It has been almost seven months since Leffen has competed in the US and as more time passes, more of this incredibly young and talented player’s career is drifting away. It’s hard for me to look at the viewership that competitive Melee has cultivated, the crowds filling the theatre for Genesis 3, the dedication of physical practice these top player put into the game, the huge arena which is set to host EVO 2016 finals in Vegas and think;
“this is not a legitimate sport”
[photo by Robert Paul photography]
Say the US government want to preserve the sanctity of traditional sports; fine. Put them in a different category for all I care; esports, e-athletes, whatever, but don’t deny these competitors the same opportunities because of semantics.
Both TSM and Red Bull, who recently picked up Leffen as a Red Bull Athlete, are working hard on his visa situation, starting the #FreeLeffen campaign to spread awareness of his unfortunate situation.
Although I have no idea what good it can actually do, a petition has been started in an attempt to get the US government to reconsider their position on work visas for esports athletes. Support the petition, spread the word and maybe we can help make a difference that transcends one player.
You can sign the petition even if you do not live in the US. As of writing, the petition has garnered over 29,000 signatures of the needed 100,000 by 29th May.
Leffen is currently in Canada to compete in a string of tournaments, which started with EGLX in Toronto this past weekend. It seems that Red Bull are set to document this journey as part of their #FreeLeffen campaign.
Since his denial of entry in October 2015, every major tournament has been won by either Hungrybox or Armada.
Melee needs its villain back.
[Art by @Moxie2D]
[cover image from www.redbull.com]