Stephen Abate, ’11, first started playing Super Smash Bros. Melee during his first year at Lehigh. When he wasn’t studying electrical engineering or running track and cross country, he was playing the video game with his friends in Dravo House.
Little did he know that he would one day become one of the top-ranked Super Smash Bros. Melee players in the world.
Although his main focus is studying and researching electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, Abate is also ranked No. 34 in the world by Melee It On Me and first in the Pittsburgh Power Rankings in competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee.
Melee, a Nintendo fighting game developed in 2001 featuring popular Nintendo characters from various titles, grew 12 years after its release into one of gaming’s biggest competitive titles following exposure from Evolution Championship Series 2013 and The Smash Bros. documentary.
Robert Fagan, ’11, played competitively for years before coming to Lehigh, and eventually became a tutor, training partner and close friend to Abate. When Fagan came to Lehigh as a first-year in Dravo, he brought a stereo, a laptop and a television to play Super Smash Bros. Melee.
Fagan’s copy of Melee was played constantly in the lounge of Dravo, and Abate was always second best to Fagan, who far outmatched Abate to start.
Another close friend and more casual player, Alan Freeman, ’11, lived across the hall from Abate freshman year, and the two lived together junior and senior year.
“The end game wasn’t to get good,” Fagan said. “It was to have fun playing the game.”
Luigi from Super Mario Bros. is the character Abate plays with in competitions. Luigi is an unorthodox character that many players didn’t know how to play with when Abate emerged onto the scene.
Fagan said Abate discovered many techniques with Luigi’s character that no one knew about before he was successful. Freeman said he even used a difficult and new way to hold the controller at times so he could access specific buttons that he couldn’t hit fast enough if he held the controller normally.
“We would often play until three or four in the morning, then just look at each other and think, ‘we have a chem lab in 4 hours,'” Abate said.
Freeman said, however, that his group of friends were not the only ones affected by their late-night gaming habits.
“A girl that lived above where we played complained that she couldn’t sleep while she was home on break because she was used to the sounds of buttons always going in the dorm,” Freeman said.
Freeman said they once woke up at 7:30 a.m. for school and found out school was canceled due to bad weather. Instead of going back to sleep, they decided to make waffles and play Melee for about four hours.
He said Abate was so successful because he stayed intensely focused and committed hours of practice to get better.
“Whether it’s Melee, engineering or running, if he puts time and effort into it, he wants to be the best,” Freeman said.
Abate transferred his experiences from competitive track and cross country to competitive gaming.
“In running, you have to get on the line and know that you have done all the work to prepare, and it’s kind of the same in Melee,” Abate said. “Whenever I race, I eat a decent meal and go to bed early, and I treat Melee in the same way. You have to take care of yourself.
“While I was in college, I had running, Melee and studying to support each other,” he said. “I’d be sitting there icing my foot, and what else could I do besides play Melee and distract myself? Smash became a way for me to take a break from studying. I would just practice moving around with Luigi.”
Today, Freeman, Fagan and Abate are still close friends.
“When we’re much older, I’d like to think we turn on the GameCube and play Melee together,” Fagan said.
For Abate, its the friendships he’s made through playing that mean the most.
“I like being able to play these players from around different regions,” Abate said. “I really appreciate the community more than some ranking or something.”