Photo credits: Princess Hyrule Photography
PM Gods only need to out play one person, themselves.
Recently, Thomas “ThunderzReign” Thammavongsa took home another tournament victory with The Bigger Balc. While Thunderz winning a tournament is normal in the current Project M landscape, he did so from losers due to an early loss at the hands of Malachi “Malachi” Covington, New York’s best player. This run saw him beating a couple of players he’s had issues with in the past, including SoCal’s Jonathan “Sosa” Sosa and MDVA’s Alex “HyperFlame” Mireles, and finishing with a 6-1 set against Flipp. All should be chipper, right?
The Project M world is settling in after another year that saw changes and turnover. New players are rising up to the challenge, and old players are finding ways to travel around the country to show their teeth. Where's the issue? What if the top players’ struggles just aren’t the same as everyone else’s? Let’s go back a year ago. Arjun “Junebug” Rao had a run that even with all the success of Thunderz has yet to be matched. June was running a gauntlet around the country making it out to nearly every event, rarely dropping sets. These wins included Low Tier City 3, Blacklisted, ARLO 2, We Tech Those, FinalBOSS, Shots Fired 2 and Frozen Phoenix, all of them occurring within 7 months of each other, all with high level players in attendance and all showcasing a level of mental resilience not yet showcased in Project M.
Project M is a mental game like any other fighting game regardless if it's a 2D fighter, or if you are battling with pokemon in an arena, Your tech skill takes you to point A and your mental resiliency takes you home. Junebug was one of the first players to take Project M and develop a play and meta style around his comfort zone. He made many players believe that the only way to win was out playing the neutral game and capitalizing on those exchanges. He was the first player to mentally push the game to a new level. What Junebug did was arguably one of the better runs a smasher has had and if there wasn't someone named Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios who completely owned an entire community's competitive scene for nearly a year on every level it may even have gotten more attention, not to mention Project M is looked at as the redheaded stepchild of Smash (a cute one, but still. Red hair in the summer is a tough sell). June, who was so good that despite the fact that he had found ways to SD in major sets nearly on a game basis, he could still win with this patient aggression that wasn't seen before. The man was spotting points in a first to 11 pick up hoops game and would still beat you by 5.
Junebug also kept Maryland/Virginia in the spotlight long after other players shifted their attention to other games. Former MDVA greats like Marcus “Pink Fresh” Wilson, Rishi “SmashG0D” Malhotra & Arjun “Llod” Malhotra found themselves improving and growing in Smash 4 and Melee. June stayed the course and carried his region, being the lone rep in top 8 across multiple nationals with (at the time) up and coming star Hyperflame (who has now become MDVAs most consistent player.) Late in 2016 at Olympus, the player representation in top 8 was 1 Texas, 1 MD/VA, 3 NY/NJ and 3 SoCal/Norcal. Junebug was that Lone MD/VA player holding up the carpool by continuing his great play.
However, challenges arrived for June. In mid 2016, Supernova came and went and junebug found himself outside the top 8 for the first time ever at a major event. All of a sudden, the questions weren't even about the winner, People still forget Flipp won that event against a stellar run by SoCal’s Jake “Venom” Hefner. Instead, people remember Junebug managing to not make top 8 along with Sosa. All of a sudden, June is faced with new questions; “How has the Circuit affected your play?”, and “How do you explain certain finishes?” Just like that, Junebug had inherited the pressure of being a top flight player, where winning becomes a relief more than a joice occasion. You don’t realize how good a player is until he loses. Junebug was a thing taken for granted. He was an expectation more than he was a player, Junebug was expected to win, Junebug was the person you chalked in as your 1 seed 6 months in advance of a tournament. He would win on the east coast and on the west and clean up the middle along the way, but the moment he would slip even if for one tournament people would begin to ask if he was “Figured out” and that narrative would take the lead on what was one of the most dominating years a player has ever had. Players and spectators would put aside all of the accomplishments and focus on the slip ups. The 1st place finishes to a back seat to the few and far inbetween lackluster tournaments. This isn't all to knock on June who, if he decides to approach PM on a consistent basis again, will immediately become a top 8 threat wherever he goes. This is because Thunderz is on the exact same path.
I recently had a conversation with Anthony “Gallo” Gallo who said “You don’t really realize the pressure of winning until you get good, you have all of these kids just coming up that are just hungry to beat you and all you can think of is “I can’t lose this set””. He also went on to mention how he realizes that after his run at Olympus, any loss just becomes amplified and all the momentum you’ve gained as a player just seems lost. Gallo admits that, since Olympus, he just doesn't feel like the game has been as fun in some aspects, putting added pressure on him. He also went on to say “I can’t even imagine how it was for June, because he was the #1 guy for almost a year and a half. It must have felt 10 times worse.”
Thunderz has reached a point where he may have had the greatest losers run in Project M history, at one of the largest and most competitive tournaments of all time. At the end of the day, Thunderz was expected to win. Every day those expectations for Thunderz grow and grow until he runs into the scene’s newest buzzsaw of a player, or perhaps finishing under what the scene deems “acceptable” for a player of his caliber. Junebug was the Yankees from the 90’s, a team that won the World series 4 out of 5 years and became the expectation and the benchmark for professionalism. They won with every tool possible, they could out last you with great starting pitching or just hammer you down with timely runs and relentless hitting. He became this when his only expectation was 1st place, and he met this expectation day in and day out. Although every player would love to claim thats everyone’s goal and they always strive for 1st, few can live up to those expectations, and the closer you get to meeting your goal the more difficult it becomes. You end up becoming the player that got so close, or the team that was one play away. Thunderz is now chasing ghosts that aren't even gone, as Junebug still looms and no matter how long a break he takes, he will always be a threat when he steps into a room, adding to a legacy. June has the hardware to back up anything he does, if he attends two events and wins them both he can always say it was something he is known for.
This is all being presented for a very simple summary, as Thunderz’s biggest opponent won't be anyone holding a controller: It will be himself. Thunderz seems to have the perfect attitude towards the game, he has a smile when something amazing happens for either player and he rarely seems flustered, more often than not he feels worse for the opponent that has given up an opportunity than he would himself if he drops a combo. In a recent mini documentary about him, he exclaimed how he really doesn't like playing against anyone that would be considered good, regardless of set count history. He laughs about how great the players are and how stressed out he gets playing them, but in an odd way Thunderz is showing how he always goes into a set with nothing but respect for his opponent. He knows a false move or a bad input is a stock against any of them, and giving any of them an edge leads to an all but certain loss of a game. He handles his victories with a sense of humbleness, crediting his adversaries and modestly just claiming to do nothing but playing the game and having fun. On social media, he thanks everyone and never takes credit for how he plays.
The thing is, he hasn't had the moment yet- The moment where we might wonder “What’s going on with Thunderz?” Players are going to be judged for what they do after that moment, and Thunderz seemed to be more than ready to answer that question when he was placed in losers and answer with punch after punch and win after win. But what happens when those timings aren't there, What happens when the player might not be able to translate brain to hand? Project M’s greatest player’s biggest adversary isn't any other player, it’s himself, and it may not be today or tomorrow, but Thunderz is going to be challenged sooner rather than later, and his response will let us know where he stands with the rest of the Yankees.
Thanks to Messi for writing this article! You can follow him here.
If you'd like to know more about ThunderzRegin, check "Who is ThundeRzReiGN?" by Duct Tape Productions here.
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When Winning isn't Enough: The Gods of PM - Presented by Messi