A Brief History of Controllers
For a vast majority of Melee’s lifespan as a competitive game, there was never a question of what controller to play on. The answer was simply the GameCube Controller (“GCC”), perhaps with simple modifications like custom buttons, case notches, and snapback capacitors. In 2016, “box”-style controllers were introduced to competitive Melee, and they were unlike anything the community had seen before. The first of its kind, Smash Box, featured digital inputs in a keyboard-esque layout instead of analog sticks and triggers on a handheld controller. These controllers were developed and released at a time when ergonomics and hand/wrist pain were a hot topic in the community. KoreanDJ’s official retirement, memes of “go to a doctor, Mew2King”, and Hax’s wrist surgery debacle only scratch the surface of the kinds of issues affecting notable top players at the time.
Box controllers have arguably fulfilled their sales pitch as a more ergonomic controller for Melee, most notably with the B0XX allowing Hax to return to the game in 2018, but in doing so, we opened Pandora’s box. For the first time in Melee’s history, there were controllers in the market that had significant advantages compared to the standard GCC. Note that this was also at a time when the so-called “controller lottery” was a hot topic. Overall community understanding of topics such as notching, polling-related issues, and “PODE” (potentiometer degradation) were at an all-time high, and people rightfully called the fairness of box controllers into question. Unlike GCCs, box controllers use digital inputs for analog controller functions, which provide significant advantages as they aren’t subject to analog stick travel time, can consistently pinpoint exact pre-programmed values, aren’t subject to the inconsistency of analog stick motions, and do not noticeably diminish in quality over time.
The community consensus at the time was generally that an “anything goes” policy would degrade the competitive integrity of the game and lead to a future where anyone not playing on a box controller would be at a significant disadvantage. Major tournament organizers agreed with this stance, and I co-led an informal effort with The Crimson Blur (@OXY_Crimson) and Dr. Z (@sheridactyls) to establish the first notable controller ruleset for Melee. This work was finished in summer 2018 and was quickly adopted by most major tournaments.
The Controller Arms Race
The controller landscape has continued to evolve since 2018. In the past 3 years, many players besides Hax started adopting the B0XX, and its doppelganger, Frame1. Along with this development came controller firmware updates: 2 specifically for B0XX which changed some input methods and added minor “nerfs”, and a reimplementation of the B0XX firmware for Frame1 that removed B0XX lockout nerfs for SDI and pivot tilts. The introduction of the latter led to another shift in the landscape of digital controllers; Hax is currently selling inferior controllers due to his own beliefs about fairness and players wishing to play on a B0XX see Frame1 as a strictly superior option.
Meanwhile, the analog controller landscape has been changing as well, most notably with the introduction of a custom GCC called the Goomwave DX. The Goomwave is widely seen as a response to both the controller lottery and the rise of digital controllers. “If boxes can have a custom button layout, why can’t I? If boxes can adjust their notch values to whatever they want, why can’t I?” Such questions would end up being answered by the Goomwave, which introduced controller-side button remapping and analog remapping among other novel features.
By mid-2021 the controller arms race was in full swing. With Goomwave and Frame1 seen as the clear superior controller choices available, demand has been far exceeding supply. By so much, in fact, that players have been waiting 6+ months to get their hands on them. How’s that for increasing accessibility? Top player privilege still exists of course, so a large amount of top players currently use Goomwaves despite the short supply. B0XX/Frame1 adoption are also at an all-time high, particularly in Europe where you can expect multiple box players to appear in any top-8. Amidst the high rate of adoption the analog vs. digital controller debate has become as divisive as ever, but unlike most debates, this one is plagued by an obscenely dense, obtuse, and opaque subject matter.
Security by Obscurity
The topic of controllers and its impact on the game is truly one of the most difficult topics to have an informed opinion on. For starters, thorough up-to-date documentation on controllers is inadequate at best. Hax’s 149-page B0XX Manifesto, explaining the design and rationale behind the B0XX, has not been updated since the original release of the product, although having to read a 149-page document to even begin to have educated discussion is obviously ridiculous. Frame1 lacks any easily accessible documentation other than the fact that it’s similar to the B0XX. The Goomwave documentation explains the concepts of “adjustable PODE” via dynamic analog alteration, “notch calibration” via static analog remapping, and other features such as “easier up-tilt toggle”, but lacks specific details on how these features are implemented on a game logic level.
Ok, but even if you managed to find and parse through all the documents, while DMing the manufacturers to fill in the gaps, you still can’t have an informed conversation about controllers without having the most intricate understanding of Melee mechanics. And even that isn’t enough, as there are complicating factors like how these mechanics interface with specific interactions in matchups, methods of player input on both analog and digital controllers, and software-level modifications such as Universal Controller Fix. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that having a fully informed opinion on this topic is close to impossible. This has, in a sense, led to “security by obscurity” for the controller market.
Since nobody actually fully understands what these controllers do or the impacts they have on the game, it’s difficult for anyone to confidently say how the community should handle them. Tournament organizers, most notably, have been sitting idly scratching their heads at where to even start with all this except to try and enforce the outdated 2018 ruleset. Meanwhile, the controller market keeps on moving forwards in this ever-changing landscape, and players are fumbling along behind it. A very concerning recent phenomenon is Goomwaves tarnishing the competitive integrity of several tournaments, most notably Smash Summit 12. In the approximate timeframe of this tournament there was a fork of the Goomwave firmware that attempted to fix “bugs” in the PODE simulation algorithm. Many players at the event had their controllers tested and re-flashed by a community member in attendance, only to have the changes reverted when one of the controller’s vendors showed up the next day to tell folks the new code wasn’t adequately tested. The reality was now that players had to have blind faith in a little-tested controller that dynamically alters their analog inputs based on a blackbox algorithm, and, to little surprise, some players have blamed their losses in-part due to this. To make matters worse, the lead developer of the project has been radio silent for a month. If this isn’t damaging to competitive integrity, then I don’t know what is.
In parallel with the Goomwave fiasco, players are finally putting a microscope to boxes, perhaps since they have become more widely adopted and more apparent than ever with LAN tournaments returning. The discourse surrounding this has also been a nightmare. The full range of implications of digital inputs is poorly understood, as highlighted by box-defenders jumping to “Wizzrobe’s SDI” as justification for box SDI being balanced. The opposite is true too, with non-box players generally having a poor understanding of how specific techniques work with box and its implications on gameplay. After surveying nearly every current top player at Mainstage, Summit, and SWT Championships, it’s clear that the prevailing opinion among them is that box controllers need to be further nerfed or banned entirely, but they are afraid to speak publicly on this due to the inevitable social media backlash and not having a detailed enough understanding of the situation. The fact that the best players in the world don’t think they know enough to have fully educated discussion further illustrates the problem we’re dealing with. Under these conditions, progress in coming to a community consensus is exceedingly difficult.
So what are the possible solutions here? We could always hit the big red button and ban everything that isn’t a standard GCC, but then we’d literally be shutting down entire businesses dedicated to the controller market, let alone crippling the hundreds (if not thousands) of players who‘ve put a massive amount of time into playing on these controllers, many of whom physically cannot play on GCCs due to hand/wrist injuries. Other than the nuclear option we can look for a balance of box nerfs and GCC buffs that miraculously lands on a happy equilibrium, but I’m skeptical that such a possibility exists. How do you even nerf to account for having no travel time and exact coordinate precision, both inherent characteristics of box controllers? Arte recently had a thoughtful suggestion, but do we really want to deliberately add RNG to controllers? Are we really okay with Goomwaves introducing a software layer to manipulate controller inputs between the player and the game? Written on paper it sounds as ridiculous as ever, yet it might be the only viable alternative at this point.
If there’s one course of action I’m confident in though, it’s that open source firmwares for both box controllers and GCCs is a must. Otherwise what’s to stop people from making their own proprietary homebrew controllers with features and input methods they don’t want to share with anyone else? Is electrical engineering really a skill we think should be tested in Melee tournaments? Not to mention numerous times that folks looking into controllers have been misled by documentation or word-of-mouth that obscures what’s actually going on under the hood with controller software.
The Melee competitive scene is at a crossroads. Competitive integrity, the backbone of the entire competitive ecosystem, is in serious jeopardy. As soon as it gets called into question, players may consider retirement, tournaments may become a farce, results risk losing all legitimacy, and outside investment may evaporate. To put it bluntly, we actually risk permanently damaging the entire competitive scene over this. It may sound like hyperbole, but there have been examples of this in esports. FPS communities have been dealing with the controller vs. keyboard & mouse debate for years, especially since the introduction of crossplay. You literally can’t watch a match with Aim Assist without someone commenting on if the player is cheating or not. Sound familiar? Box players don’t like being labeled as cheaters either, yet how can you blame them for technically playing by the rules?
A future where players are compelled to play on boxes and other alternative controllers to viably compete at the top level is at our doorstep. Such a future could completely destroy the scene by encouraging pros to quit, bottlenecking access with limited supply, diminishing the legacy of historical tournaments, and derailing tournament discourse to controllers rather than the actual gameplay and results. This may also seem hyperbolic, but we are already seeing shades of this happen right before our eyes. iBDW and Leffen have talked about switching to Frame1, players are still complaining about not being able to get a rectangle or a Goomwave, and it’s hard to find conversation about Swift’s Pikachu without mentioning the B0XX.
But perhaps the most alarming realization of all is that, as far back as 2016, Blur was right all along.