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Published August 16, 2021

On Saturday, Ginger took home the gold at the Chicago regional, Hold That L #6. It was the most stacked in-person Midwest tournament in a year and a half. Here, he beat Ben, Polish, and Morsecode762. The win at Hold That L came parallel to Ginger’s similarly dominant victory the day before at Tripoint Smash, which he also won.

Unfortunately, there were other events which had nothing to do with tournament results and everything to do with dumb drama. I’ll summarize what happened: Hax released a follow-up to his “Evidence.Zip” series which covers much of the same ground as his older videos, adds a couple of new elements, and triple downs his previous claims about Leffen.

Yes; I could not care less. No; I don’t have anything significant to add other than what my dear friend tafokints has already said.

Follow the Melee Stats Twitter account for daily coverage of all the results you need to know.


Zain’s All-Time Legacy: Introduction

With rising United States cases of COVID-19 and additional strains of the virus creating headaches for countries across the globe, it’s unclear whether or not LAN tournaments will continue. However, whether or not we retreat back to quarantine norms, I figured now would be as good of a time as ever to reflect upon the biggest star of the last year and a half.

Three years ago, it was too soon to talk about Zain’s all-time standing. Today, it’s pretty clear that Zain is no longer the new kid-on-the-block, but one of the greatest players in Melee history. The question is, where do his accomplishments place him on all-time list? Let’s find out.

Who is clearly above him?

Talk to anyone remotely knowledgeable about who they think are the five best players in Melee history. If they say the five gods – surprise! They’re wrong! The correct answers are Armada, Mango, Hungrybox, Ken, and Mew2King in some order. What these five share in common with Zain is that each player was once the best in the world for a whole year.

I’ve gone into detail about Armada, Mango, and Hungrybox before, so I won’t repeat what I’ve already written. It’s obvious that these three far surpass Zain in terms of metagame impact, time at the top, and cumulative accomplishments. Putting Zain above either of these three would be flagrantly disrespectful.

Similarly, it’s not reasonable to give Zain the nod over the other two. From 2004 to 2007, Ken won 15 majors and was overwhelmingly considered the best player for most of this time. Meanwhile, Mew2King’s decade of major wins – 10 of them – instantly keeps him safe from someone who – at best – might have a slightly better or equal prime.

Barring some standard in which you arbitrarily decide that Melee before 2020 effectively doesn’t matter, Zain isn’t Top 5 of all-time. However, while writing this column, I remembered that I had previously done an in-depth dive into Leffen, PPMD, and Azen – the three players just outside. What does Zain have in common with these three?

Similarities

Leffen, PPMD, and Azen are all-time greats, but they also have “what-ifs” that follow their legacies. PPMD’s struggles with academia, depression, and fatigue don’t need any rehashing. Azen had to temporarily quit Melee to focus on school during a time when professional gaming wasn’t as established. We’re all familiar with how the universe seemingly conspires to stop Leffen from ever ascending to the throne – or at least how if it’s not the U.S. government blocking his ability to travel, it’s his interests in other fighting games too.

Zain has a very different problem. The otherwise horrifying circumstances of a pandemic undeniably created a more favorable competitive landscape for him. Not only did it apparently nerf one of his toughest opponents, but it restricted another one from participating at majors, and it weakened one of Zain’s hardest roadblocks. It feels unfair to Zain, who by all means worked so hard over the last two years to cement his place as the unofficial No. 1 in the world, but sometimes reality is harsh. This situation places a huge asterisk on his rollback reign, and it will sadly follow him unless he dominates offline just as much as he did online.

Deeper Breakdown

Zain has two LAN major victories in Shine 2018 and Genesis 7. Alongside them, he has four notable rollback double-elimination event wins, LACS 2, Smash Summit 10 Online, Four Loko Fight Night, and Summit Champions League Season 2 Week 4. I’m not sure how four of his other single-elimination victories in weeks of SCL should factor into this. For the purpose of this column, we’re not going to count them as majors because the format is too different.

It’s going to take a lot of convincing – bordering on mind-control – for me to seriously consider Zain a greater all-time player than Leffen. The Swede boasts more major victories (eight) and also has seven years of being ranked right under No. 1 or just outside the top five. As much as I’d love to gas up a Marth main over a Fox main, the more I think about it, the worse the argument seems.

I’d add that this feels especially wrong in the context of a pandemic. Leffen has – by far – been the player whose competitive ambitions were most screwed over. Would Zain be as dominant on rollback if Leffen were around? Who knows? To his credit, Zain did beat Leffen’s Sheik in their singular online exhibition, so it’s not like we haven’t seen anything. Nonetheless, the stakes of an out-of-tournament three-frame buffer set seem significantly different from how they’d play each other in the same continent, let alone on LAN.

How about PPMD? The North Carolinian’s time at the top level lasted about five and a half years, while Zain’s been there for about four. Surprisingly, the two aren’t that far off in terms of total offline major top eights (23 for PPMD and 20 for Zain), so accounting for rollback, Zain would have the advantage. Additionally, they’re both tied at six majors apiece. With that said, you probably know what I’m going to say next.

PPMD’s were earned offline, and that has to account for something in this discussion. Even if we counted Zain’s rollback victories as 1:1 to something like Shine 2018, remember that Zain’s only supermajor win was Genesis 7. PPMD has three of those: Pound V, Apex 2014, and Apex 2015. These were some of the biggest, if not the most important, tournaments of their time. That’s not to say that you couldn’t poke holes in them – Pound V had sandbagging Mango and Apex 2014 came before Armada’s return – but I would argue that the prestige of those events made them some of the most important tournaments of their time. It’s not totally unreasonable to have Zain above PPMD, but I’m going to hold off for now.

Azen is a little trickier to compare with Zain. Heading into this column, I was actually tempted to put Zain over him. Zain technically has more majors (six to five) and has actually been better relative to his field of competition for longer. I examined Azen’s resume a little closer though, and I feel like I underrated him. One of the most impressive things you’ll notice about him is that he consistently showed up at the hardest supermajors of his era.

Tournament Go 6, MLG Orlando 2006, MLG New York Playoffs, and Viva La Smashtaclysm – these four tournaments were some of the most stacked events of the era, and Azen won all of them. I know this sounds like cherry picking, but I’d go as far as to say that they’re a more impressive collection of four supermajor victories than any four you could find from a player outside of Mango, Armada, Hungrybox, and Ken. Weighing their biggest wins properly, it’s much tougher to confidently give Zain the edge. It seems like a tossup.

Who Else Is Close?

Not spoiling where I’ll place Zain, tight under these three are Plup, ChuDat, PC Chris, and Axe in some order. Maybe you could replace or complement Axe in this tier with Isai or Wizzrobe. For now, I’ll use the first four as a brief point of comparison with Zain.

  • Plup has as many supermajor victories as Zain (Genesis 5 and Genesis 7), less overall major wins (two to six), but five years of being Top 5 on LAN and likely a more colossal metagame impact on both Samus and Sheik in a decade of play vs. just Marth for less time.
  • ChuDat has way more years of being Top 5 (three and two, respectively), Top 10 (six and four), twice as many top LAN eights (40 and 20), but has never won a supermajor like Zain and only won Pound 2 for majors.
  • PC Chris has more supermajor victories (New York Opener 2006 and MLG Las Vegas 2006), but was only notably active in the Top 10 from 2006-2009, giving him as many years as Zain at this level, while Zain has more major wins (six to four).
  • Axe blows away Zain in longevity (six years of being Top 10 vs. four and far more 34 LAN top eights made vs. 20) and arguably metagame impact for mid-tiers, similarly has only one supermajor win (Smash Summit 8), but far less major victories overall.

Conclusion

If LAN was the only thing that counted, Zain would have have the 16th most top eights, two official years of being ranked Top 10 in the world, but two major victories that, more or less, are so extraordinary that they leap him into the Top 20 all-time. In previous ranking lists, I’ve used this rationale to place CaptainJack above players like SFAT and Shroomed – and while I know this ruffles a few feathers here and there, I haven’t my changed my mind on this yet. For a similar reason, I feel like winning Genesis 7 on its own was enough for me to place Zain above the likes of ChuDat.

I want to also add something else that may seemingly contradict what I wrote above, but that I think is important for this discussion. While rollback adds a level of caution toward evaluating Zain’s dominant results within it, it seems unfair to treat it like it was worth nothing. Online might not be analogous enough to cement him above the Leffen, PPMD, and Azen tier of players, but it’s not like Plup, Axe, and Wizzrobe lacked opportunities to remain at the top level. It was the only format of the game we had to keep our scene alive.

Last week, I said that Hungrybox’s decline on rollback would hurt him in a comparison with Mango. It only feels fair to do something similar for Zain vs. Plup and Axe. Even if those two hold a huge advantage for longevity, Zain was the one who actually reached the top of the scene for a whole year with what he had, he’s reached their heights in less time, and he’s still around. The only tragedy is that he happened to lose a heart-breaker in what may be remembered as the greatest grand finals ever, and he lost it to someone who may be the GOAT.

I’ll put it this way: the most uncharitable interpretation of the last two years is that Zain was a contender for No. 1 of 2020, and a contender for that same spot so far in 2021 – basically Top 5 years (this is a tremendous understatement; just stick with it). The best view is that Zain was once cleanly the best player in the world, continued his reign for most of the last year and now, for the first time in over a year, looks vulnerable. Regardless of the limited circumstances behind his reign, it is still an accomplishment worth fully contextualizing.

Though the unprecedented circumstances behind the pandemic place a question mark over some of Zain’s accomplishments, I respect them enough to see him as the No. 9 player ever. Keeping this in mind, I want you to know that I’m grateful Zain is a part of our community. His efforts as a competitor and his role model stature as a public figure remain a large part of what’s given me and many others a lot of joy.

I can’t wait to see what he does next, and I eagerly await writing a follow-up to this column in two years.

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