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Playing for the rush

Saturday 14 January 2023 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Entertainment, Features


Playing for the rush
Te Tuhi “Spud” Kelly shows intense focus at a gaming tournament in Texas last year. Photos: Supplied/23011109

It’s an industry that’s bigger than music and movies combined, and yet gaming continues to fly under the radar when it comes to mainstream media coverage.

Cook Islands News journalist Matthew Littlewood talks to Te Tuhi ‘Spud’ Kelly about what it takes to be a competitive gamer.

It’s not all fun and games, but it can be lucrative if you’re good enough. For Kelly, callsign “Spud” it’s close to being a living.

The 24-year-old gamer, who went to Avarua Primary and then Tereora College in Rarotonga, has travelled all over the world showing off his skills at Super Smash Bros. Melee.

He’s based in Perth these days, but is back in Rarotonga for a brief holiday. He has had a lot of time to think about what makes a good gamer.

“The age you start at is important. I liken it to learning a language; most European children can speak fluently in several languages, but that’s because they start at a young age, learning a language as an adult is much harder,” Kelly says.

“It’s the same with gaming. If you start gaming at a young age, then your brain adapts to it. If you look at the E-sports (Electronic Sports) scene, most of the top players began as teenagers or younger, none of them ever started as adults.”

Kelly says he would train for up to eight hours a day as a teenager.

“Because the game is very technical, you get better only by playing it a lot. When you’re a teenager, eight hours is one part of the day, you have time to do other things,” he says.

“You’re not playing just to get a dopamine hit, you’re playing to improve.”

Kelly started learning competitive gaming in the Cook Islands, his brother encouraged him to spend more time on gaming.

“There’s nothing else to do, you can’t go anywhere to buy new games, you have to play what you brought over,” he says.

“So, it started with me playing against my friends and wanting to win, and wanting to learn ways to become better.”

Kelly, who began competitive gaming in 2015, describes his early tournaments in New Zealand and Australia as “nerve wracking”.

“When you’re up on the stage, playing a tournament, and you hear thousands of people screaming when you do a cool combo or beat a fancied opponent, you just get a real rush,” he said.

“That feeling is pretty hard to replicate anywhere else.”

Kelly peaked at number 33 in the top 100 of competitive gamers playing Super Smash Bros. Melee, but Covid-19 put a brake on his competitive gaming.

“By that point, I had already established myself as the top player in Oceania, but because travel to the United States was off the table, I just tried to keep myself busy with normal jobs and did anything that could keep me entertained,” Kelly says.

“During Covid, only the Americans could really play each other due to the latency issues. After Covid, there has been more safety measures in place for the big tournaments.

“I got back into competitive gaming last October; I went to Texas for The Off-Season Tournament. I got ninth, I was pretty pleased with that. I enjoyed Texas, everything is big there, especially the food.”

Although practicing can take hours, Kelly advises prospective competitive gamers not to overdo it on the energy drinks and crisps.

“Ideally, you should eat and drink something healthy, because if you smash energy drinks at a tournament, all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to start to shake, and your reflexes aren’t going to be sturdy enough,” Kelly says.

“When you’re playing such a technically-minded game, any slight micro movement could be the difference between winning and losing.”

At a competitive level, each game of Super Smash Bros. Melee has a time limit of about eight minutes.

“It’s a really fastpaced game,” Kelly says.

Super Smash Bros. Melee was released on the Nintendo GameCube in 2001. Kelly has considered trying competitive gaming in other games, but eventually decided against it, as to get to a good level “takes years of practice”.

“You would start off the bottom, and it takes ages to catch up,” Kelly says.

Kelly says his favourite gaming experience was winning the Bridgetown Hyperblitz Tournament in Portland, Oregon in 2018.

“I beat four highly-ranked American gamers, I never expected to go that far, as I was seeded ninth,” he says.

Kelly says prospective gamers should avoid “tunnel vision” and try to develop new strategies.

“You have to find constructive ways to practice. You have to figure out why things are working or not working,” he says.

“It’s like being at a talent show, you might get nervous before the big performance, but ultimately you have to perform.”

Kelly, who has received sponsorship deals “in the five figures”, admits it can sometimes be difficult playing games for fun.

“The dopamine hit from playing games competitively can ruin single player experiences. You have to wean yourself off, that competitive drive can stay with you for a long time,” he says.

There were American gamers that inspired him to go further, such as Joseph Manuel Marquez, known by his gamertag Mango (stylised MaNg0 or Mang0).

“If you think about other sports, he is like the Kobe Bryant of Super Smash Bros. Melee,” Kelly says.

“Because the scene is so small, there is no maliciousness among the players. But once the tournament starts, everyone wants to win.”

Gaming can be an expensive business. Kelly says the cost of “add ons” mean you can spend hundreds of dollars optimising the experience, whereas “with a movie, you see it and that’s it”.

The gaming world is filled with social outcasts, especially in the United States, Kelly says.

“When you watch an American coming of age movie, you see how teenagers are put into groups. The gaming scene is so inclusive, they understand what it’s like not to be picked as a friend in school,” he says.

“Because the scene is small, the gaming tournaments tend to happen in less-than-ideal cities, such as Detroit, which has a terrible crime rate, and less than ideal venues, which are ballrooms or small auditoriums. Basically, the important thing for venues for Super Smash players is to have food nearby and accommodation nearby.”

When Kelly goes back to Australia, he is looking forward to mentor other up and coming gamers.

“If you raise the skill level of the entire scene, it makes it easier for players to get better deals in tournaments. Oceania doesn’t have the population to churn out great players in the same way the United States does, so it’s important to support the scene,” he says.

“It’s still really male dominated, but there are definitely more females on the scene. It’s easier to get women to encourage women to get into gaming. Some male gamers don’t always have the best social skills when it comes to engaging with women.”

But Kelly is looking forward to his next trip to the United States to participate in some tournaments from July to October.

“The rush never goes,” he says.