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.”
learning competitive gaming in the Cook Islands, his brother encouraged him to
spend more time on gaming.
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,”
“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.
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
“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.”
practicing can take hours, Kelly advises prospective competitive gamers not to
overdo it on the energy drinks and crisps.
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.
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
“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
prospective gamers should avoid “tunnel vision” and try to develop new
“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.
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,”
“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
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.