The competitive Super Smash Bros. community was abuzz last week with the report that Internet-famous Bill Trinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Nintendo of America (and also Shigeru Miyamoto’s interpreter), would be at Evo 2015 next month competing in the 2,000-player Super Smash Bros. for Wii U tournament.
Trinen will be the most notable quasi-celeb to compete at Evo since American Idol Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks placed 257th in Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo 2013. Speaking of which, although it’s uncertain whether Hicks has any idea who Bill Trinen is, he was nevertheless moved to respond on Twitter at the suggestion that Trinen might perform better than Hicks did two years ago.
Evo 2013’s Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament reportedly drew approximately 700 entrants, so many news outlets that picked up the story saw Hicks’s 257th-place finish as quite respectable. As GameSpot observed at the time, “Hicks finished better than most.”
But did he really?
Many reports seemed to misunderstand Hicks’s placing to mean that he outperformed 443 out of 700 competitors, which would, indeed, be impressive for a non-pro player at the world’s biggest fighting game tournament. But that’s not what the results actually mean.
In an elimination-format tournament, every competitor does not play against every other competitor. Rather, they are paired off, so that, for example, 32 players are distributed into 16 one-on-one matchups occurring simultaneously (maybe not literally at the same time, but in the same round, at any rate). The winners move on to the next round, while the losers are eliminated, effectively halving the field after each round, until the final two are left to compete for the championship. For any fan of professional tennis or anyone who follows team sports playoffs, this should all be very familiar.
The key point here is that all of the players eliminated in the same round finish with the same result. In other words, there will be ties—not for 1st or 2nd place, no, but for the lower ranks, and more and more the further down you go. Most fighting game tournaments utilize a double-elimination format, as opposed to the single-elimination format common among professional sports. The relevant difference is that double-elimination tournaments produce fewer ties, but there are ties even so. Two players will tie for 5th place, four for 9th place, eight for 17th place, sixteen for 33rd, and so on.
Do you begin to see what this means for Taylor Hicks’s 257th-place finish? It means he tied with a crapload of other players. But let’s actually do the math and get more specific. Below are the number of players that tie for each place in a double-elimination tournament:
As you can see above, I also noted the total number of players accounted for, top-to-bottom, at each placing. Thus, with his 257th-place finish (tied with 127 other people), Taylor Hicks finished in the top 384 out of 700, behind 256 players and ahead of 316. So it’s not exactly accurate to say that Hicks finished “better than most.” That would be like someone placing 4,097th in a 6,000-person tournament and pretending that meant they finished ahead of some 2,000 people, when the reality is that they tied with those 2,000 for dead last. But you also can’t say Hicks finished in the bottom half either. He was in a broad middle range, which is unfortunately as precise as we can get with the double-elimination format.
That’s still pretty respectable, right? Well, in the rightmost column above, I also included an “adjusted rank” that I feel more intelligibly conveys each placing’s relative position in the overall order. In a 700-person tournament, there are 19 possible placings. Out of those 19, Hicks’s 257th-place finish was 17th best, or third-to-last. That’s pretty close to the bottom, but, again in fairness, the lower ranks are considerably fuller than the higher, so he was in plentiful company.
Or maybe the most sensible way to put it is to say that, in order to have placed 257th, Hicks needed to have progressed through two rounds. That is, he must have won two matches. And, since this was a double-elimination tournament, he must have lost twice. So his final record would have been 2-2. For a tournament the caliber of Evo, I’d say going 2-2 is definitely respectable for any amateur participant, let alone an easy-to-ridicule middle-aged full-time musician with no documented history as a gamer.
Except that, even after Evo 2013, there exists virtually no record of him ever having played Super Smash Bros. Melee!
You won’t find his name on any list of final tournament results. Partly, that’s because ordinarily nobody would ever bother to report results beyond 49th place (because who the hell cares?!). (I mean, in the real world of professional sports, nobody even cares who finishes 3rd, which is maybe why the "tied for 17th" concept may seem a bit foreign even to avid followers of sports playoffs.)
Hicks’s name is also not listed anywhere in the official tournament bracket. It’s known that the online bracket is not 100 percent complete; the posted bracket initially did not include day-of on-site registrants (which is why we don’t have an exact count for the number of entrants), so maybe some names in the first round were never posted. Some of those “Byes” listed in the brackets were definitely filled in with actual players by the time the tournament began. Maybe Hicks, who was working a residency at Paris Las Vegas at the time, just stumbled into the Evo ballroom at the same venue, and decided, on a lark, to request a last-minute entry into the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament. If it was that spontaneous, that would also explain why there was zero buzz before the event about an American Idol winner registering to compete at Evo.
But if Hicks really did go 2-2, that should have been enough progress to have been reflected in the brackets somewhere. Yet there is no unnamed player anywhere in the bracket who ended up going 2-2. The only “Byes” who made progress through the tournament were in pools B60 and E62, but those unidentified players both went 3-2. Every other entrant with two wins or more was named and accounted for. If Hicks was somewhere in there, it would have had to have been under an alias, which admittedly is not outside the realm of believability.
But then there’s also the matter of there not being any footage anywhere of Hicks competing, no photos, no anecdotes whatsoever from anybody who played against him or even just saw him play. It is possible that Hicks’s demographic is simply too far removed from the sorts of people who would go to Evo to play Super Smash Bros. Melee, so maybe nobody there had any idea that he was anybody famous. Still, in this day and age of everybody having a smartphone to take pictures or live-tweet their experiences, this total lack of any record is just strange. The only proof anywhere that Hicks was there is this tweet by Seth Killian, which every other report on the topic can be sourced back to:
Sure enough, that’s Taylor Hicks with an Evo badge around his neck. So why didn’t anybody else spot him during the tournament?
Keep in mind, Seth Killian is someone with ties to the production side of the video game industry (he was a lead designer at Sony Santa Monica at the time, and had worked on Street Fighter IV before that) and even deeper ties to Evo (on his LinkedIn page, he lists himself as a founder, and, to this day, he still does commentary for the Street Fighter tournaments). My only point is that publicity would actually be a consideration for Killian; this wasn’t just a "Soul Patrol" member randomly running into Taylor Hicks at Evo (although Killian might have been that too). Maybe Killian caught Hicks after a show and was able to convince him to wear the Evo badge and pose for a picture, then afterward made up (maybe as a joke) the story that Hicks entered the tournament.
Finally, even supposing Taylor Hicks really did enter the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament, we have no idea the quality of the players he beat. Remember that Evo is an open-entry tournament. It attracts the strongest players from around the world, yes, but also any rando can put up the entry fee and register. I don’t follow the Super Smash Bros. competitive scene that closely, and I didn’t watch any of the tournament in 2013, but I’ll just guess that the top 128 players were probably all very strong. At Evo 2013, the round of 128 was when the quarterfinals began; everything before that was qualifying pools (and, at least in Street Fighter, which I’m more familiar with, there aren’t ever more than two pro-level players in the same Evo pool). I’ll go ahead and guess also that players 129-256 were good journeymen Smashers—non-pros who nevertheless understand high-level mechanics and would dominate the vast majority of people casually playing Super Smash Bros. at home. Below that, though, I’d guess that the skill levels vary widely. When I watch the Evo pools for Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, I always see at least a few people who clearly had no idea what they signed up for. Maybe Taylor Hicks got lucky and was matched up against toddlers, and that’s where his two wins came from. Of course, it’s also possible that he beat two really good players, and is himself really good, and he only lost because his pool was stacked. There’s no way to know for sure, so, while the luck of the draw is a factor, I'll maintain that, on average, going 2-2 at Evo is pretty good.
It’s also possible that, even if he was technically entered into the tournament, he never actually had to play anyone. Doubtless, some registrants failed to show up to their early-round matches and became byes for their scheduled opponents. Maybe Taylor Hicks’s two wins were actually two byes. Of course, it’s also possible that Taylor Hicks, a grown-ass man who was in Vegas for work, never actually lost to anyone, but rather himself became a bye when he had to leave the tournament early. Hick’s calendar for that weekend indicates he was performing during the first two days of Evo 2013, and was free on the last day (but, going by his placing, he would already have been knocked out of the tournament by that third day). (Bill Trinen, by the way, is scheduled to get a first-round bye, according to the not-yet-finalized Evo 2015 bracket, so he'd only have to beat one other player to match Hicks's alleged 2-2 record.)
If Taylor Hicks really did compete in Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo 2013, he went 2-2 for 257th place. That’s a mere two rungs up from last place (out of 19 places). Still, I’d say two wins is pretty respectable. Unfortunately, other than the one photo, there’s no evidence that Taylor Hicks really competed at Evo 2013. To my knowledge, even Hicks himself hasn’t ever acknowledged these reports… until this recent tweet at Bill Trinen, which is the only reason I’m inclined to believe that he really did enter Evo 2013! If nothing else, it suggests that Hicks at least knows what Super Smash Bros. is, knows what Evo is, and cares enough to respond to a random tweet that did not specifically name either of those things and gave hardly any context besides (and, no, Taylor Hicks does not just respond to every tweet that mentions him).
I've dug and conjectured as far as I can, and I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions based on the evidence or lack thereof. Me, I'm going to believe that Taylor Hicks beat two people in Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo 2013, finishing 2-2 and ahead of 316 other competitors. Again, for an amateur player, that's very respectable.
Still, he'll never be my Season 5 American Idol! Nor my preferred American Idol contestant-turned-Smash star! #McPheever