Among all of the tournaments in the world, EVO has been William ‘Leffen’ Hjelte’s white whale. It has been the hardest tournament for him to perform in in the Melee Circuit. Part of it is because of the format as EVO runs bo3s rather than the standardized bo5s. The other reason is because of what EVO represents. It is a tournament that has a unique feeling to it as it has built up it’s legacy over the years as the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. Finally there was a personal stake for Leffen as he was never able to fully play to his potential at the event. At EVO 2018, Leffen overcame all of his problems, slayed his white whale, and became the EVO Champion.
To understand Leffen and his struggles, we have to first understand Leffen as a player. He follows the archetype of a brilliant talent that couldn’t quite connect with his peers. This has gotten him in trouble with various communities both inside and outside of Smash. In 2013 he was banned from the Swedish community for his behavior. Outside of the melee community, he has gotten into arguments with multiple tournament organizers as he seeks to improve the conditions of tournaments.
If I had to make an analogy, he reminds me most of players like Johan ‘NaNiwa’ Lucchesi from Starcraft 2. Another brilliant Swedish player who came to be just as famous for his out of game rage as he was for his ascendant in game skill. Both Leffen and NaNiwa were too young and raw. Emotional players that couldn’t help but lash out at what were perceived wrongs.
Players like this often get criticized for their outbursts or controversy that surrounds them. However what people don’t realize is that the competitive emotions that fuels their brilliance. It makes them go the extra mile when other plays quit. It forces them to try to reach for goals others think are impossible. In NaNiwa’s case he didn’t want to be a foreigner player, he wanted to become the best Starcraft 2 player in the world. In Leffen’s case he wanted to slay the Gods of Melee.
Leffen made good on that promise. By mid 2015, he was the best player in the world. He had killed all four of the Gods: Adam ‘Armada’ Lindgren, Juan ‘Hungrybox’ Debiedma, Joseph ‘Mango’ Marquez, and Jason ‘Mew2King’ Zimmerman. Going into EVO 2015, he was on a three tournament run as he won CEO 2015, FC Smash 15XR, and WTFox.
Going into EVO 2015, he was the favorite and unlike the previous years at EVO, he was a far better player. At EVO 2013 he had a respectable showing as he got 9-13th losing to Hungrybox in the winner’s side and DaJuan ‘Shroomed’ McDaniel in the elimination match. At EVO 2014, he was good enough to get a top placing as he had won B.E.A.S.T.4 and Republic of Fighters, but was eliminated early by Otto ‘Silent Wolf’ Bisno.
EVO 2015 was supposed to be his crowning moment. The time when Leffen was no longer just a God Slayer, but the only God remaining. Then he ran into Justin ‘Plup’ McGrath’s Samus and was eliminated in 5-6th place. While it was the best result he had ever had in EVO, it was a disappointment considering he was good enough to win the entire thing.
Unfortunately, the saga of Leffen was cut short as he struggled with Visa issues. During the time when he was exiled from playing in America, he made this statement,
“I will win Evo.”
It was a promise to himself. Something to keep him accountable that after fighting through the visa issue, he was going to come back and win the biggest tournament of the year. When the Visa issues were lifted though, Leffen wasn’t quite the same player that he once was. He was still one of the best Melee players, but he was no longer dominant. At the same time he had matured and chilled out at least relative to his earlier days in Melee.
Then we come to EVO 2018. Among all of the years, this felt like the most unlikely of the EVOs to win purely for the fact that Leffen was going to also be playing DragonBall FighterZ. He liked the new challenge of playing a completely different game against a completely different set of players and decided to balance his time between DBFZ and Melee. He was fairly good in DragonBall FighterZ and looks to be verging into the top tier of players in that game. His set against Kishida ‘GO1’ Goichi is lauded as one of the best sets ever played in the game and GO1 tweeted after about his appraisal of Leffen’s skills.
‘Leffen is that strong despite him only having online environment for DBFZ practice (what is more 4 bar or higher). Imagining how he can be when he gets offline environment makes me scared lol. I’ve heard he said he was gonna focus on Melee, but I want him to play DBFZ more…”
That was incredibly high praise from someone who was acknowledged to be the second best player in DBFZ. More than anything though, the ability to play both Melee and DBFZ at such high levels showed that 2018 Leffen was a different man. That he could now balance his life. It was a shift in mentality and mentality has arguably been Leffen’s biggest stumbling block when it came to playing top level Melee.
In the past few years, the two best players in the world have been Armada and Hungrybox. Both are renowned for being the mentally toughest players that Melee has ever seen. They almost never lose their cool regardless of what is happening in their personal lives, in the game, or at the tournament. Leffen on the other hand is more like Mew2King. A brilliant player who has ups and downs. Mew2King even reflects on this similarity during the Leffen’s EVO 2018 run,
“As different as we [Mew2King and Leffen] are, I feel I relate a lot in terms of wanting to show what you can -really- do, but rarely being able to prove it when you really want to the most.”
That was exactly what happened. As the EVO 2018 playoffs started, Leffen drew the favorite for the tournament in Hungrybox. Hungrybox was on form in the first set and smashed Leffen in the first game. However unlike previous years, Leffen was able to compose himself. He let go of any kind of rage or resentment he had towards Hungrybox or Jigglypuff. As he says in his interview with ESPN,
“All I had to worry about was what he was going to do, and what was I going to do.”
That was the triggering point. After losing the first set, Leffen completely locked in and smashed his way through the entire bracket. He beat Hungrybox 2-1, Plup 3-0, and Armada 3-0. It was a dominant performance and at the very end, Leffen got the trophy he swore he’d get two years later. Upon winning he tweeted,
“I told you so.”
It was an important victory for Leffen. EVO is one of the most prestigious tournaments any player can win. For Leffen, however it wasn’t about the prestige, it was about his own personal growth. In his own words,
“This win means so much for me personally. Not because of “prestige” or money, but because I had to overcome so many personal struggles to win. Evo has always been my worst tournament performance wise, but I finally managed to focus just doing my best for the task at hand”
It has been a long road for Leffen. He is nearly unrecognizable as that made headlines in 2013 for being banned from the Swedish community. He has grown up, matured, become a God Slayer, survived Visa hell, become a DBFZ player, become happy, and won EVO. He is now the fifth player of the top six in Melee to win a Major this year. For Leffen it is the end of a chapter in his life. As he describes it in a tweet,
“Melee was always an outlet for everything negative in my life, and when I was no longer depressed or without a visa, I also lost a lot of fire. The fact that I can be the best without being miserable means so god damn much to me. I really didn’t think I could until recently.”
This victory was proof to himself that he could win the largest tournament in the world while living a balanced life and without sacrificing his own personal happiness. It is a heartwarming moment when you look back on all of the struggles, dramas, and tournaments it took Leffen to get here. While the past was long and arduous, it only made this victory and his growth all the more meaningful. From tomorrow on, he walks towards a new path as a new player. An EVO Champion looking to be the best player in the world, a better DBFZ player (assuming of course that ArcSystem don’t nerf Android 21, if that happens all bets are off), and finally a person who has learned to live a balanced life without having his competitive drive consume him.