For the best part of four years now, MkLeo has been accepted as the greatest player in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The Mexican superstar had a run of something like 38 tournaments in a row where he finished in first or second place. MkLeo seemed to level up even more when he went behind, or into losers, making him some horrific, terrifying combination of Mango and Armada in Melee — consistent as hell and unstoppable after a loss.
Now, though, we have seen him get third in back-to-back events while sticking to his signature Byleth, a character that splits opinions like no other. Leo has won multiple majors with the character as his solo main, from Mainstage to Riptide and others. But recent results have led to the community once again asking if he can do it with Byleth, or needs to pick up a more capable character to match the level Spargo is producing at the moment.
Has MkLeo's Byleth been found out?
Now, one of the usual arguments made in defense of Byleth as a solo main is that Leo has won events with them in the past, which is true — and even against the same players in Tweek and Sparg0. The problem with using this going forward is simple to work out for anyone with experience in other esports though — players adapt and learn over time.
It’s fair to say that Leo is the best Byleth in the world, in the same way that Hungrybox is the best Puff in Melee, or Axe the best Pikachu. You can practice against other Byleth players to learn the matchup in terms of combo weight and follow-ups, but getting to practice against a Byleth like Leo’s basically requires you to play against Leo himself, something that Sparg0 does more than most.
Players on the level of Sparg0 or Tweek don’t tend to lose to the same thing twice, so it is very possible they have learned from losing to Leo in the past and worked out how to prevent it from happening in future. There were certain points in the Tweek match at Collision when Byleth looked too slow to be able to keep up with TSM’s legendary Diddy. So it is possible players have simply adapted and learned how to exploit Byleth’s weaknesses.
If this is the case, there is still room for Leo to adapt too. But it could be the end of the solo Byleth. In a game as diverse as Ultimate there will always be matchup knowledge deficits for some players. But when you’re the best in the biz people will study you and try to work out how to invalidate your character, and Leo might have run up against that wall.
Is MkLeo's motivation slipping?
On the other hand, the issue may have as much to do with Leo’s motivation as anything else. He has dominated the game for so long now that it is undoubtedly going to be harder to motivate himself than it once was, especially given his relative financial success. As John McEnroe said in his autobiography, getting to the top is hard, but staying at number one is even harder, as you are the player everyone wants to beat, alone with a target on your back.
Leo himself has stated he believes Sparg0 is the next name we’ll see atop the rankings. It’s fair to say that, while Tweek did defeat T1’s titan over the weekend, it has been Sparg0 that has caused Leo the most problems. The reverse 3-0 the young Cloud main pulled off in Winners Finals was a moment for the ages — and it would not be the first time a Smash legend has lost his fire after dominating for years, with Armada’s career essentially ended by his inability to care as much as he did at his peak.
If the issue is motivation, Leo is in more trouble in some ways, as it’s hard to pull that back once it has begun to wane. Talents like Sparg0, Kola, and others are hungrier than you can imagine — and for Leo to remain on top of an evolving, diverse game like Ultimate for as long as he has is already a miracle, meaning his eventual decline is inevitable at some stage, as he will already be aware.
It may also just be that Leo is burned out, having competed in Summit, G4’s invitational (where he clearly sandbagged), and other events of late. Maybe he needs a break from Smash to reset his mental. Legends like Mango have stayed fresh by limiting the amount of time they play over the course of the year, and Leo might find that a couple of weeks on a beach, or just disconnecting from Ult in another way, brings back his passion for the game.
A new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate era is here
Whatever the reason for Leo’s recent results, it’s fair to say we are entering a new era of Ultimate, and perhaps the most interesting one to date. With an established king, the scene used to operate on a sort of "MkLeo and the rest" level, where events without T1’s main man were not quite as "major" as ones he attended since everyone knew the winner only won because Leo wasn’t there.
Now though, we have a reinvigorated Tweek back to his best and Sparg0 looking as though he can be the best in the world when he really wants to turn it on, and that’s a great thing for Smash overall. The game has been in Leo’s pocket for so long it was almost like people forgot what it was like to have genuine tension in a Grand Finals.
But 2022 looks as though any one of two, or even three players could end the year at number one.