Charles Thoren has reason to be excited. He's excited about growing Smash University — a project he hopes to grow into a strong force for esports education. He's excited for the tournament landscape — one of the most diverse periods of history. And he's excited for more great Smash.
A skilled commentator and astute observer of the scene, Inven Global spoke with Charles to discuss his thoughts on top players, Smash University, and the current culture of Ultimate players.
Charles commentates on the top Ultimate players
Looking at the current landscape of tournaments, what's your perspective of top-level competition as a commentator.
Right now is a very exciting time in Smash because you don't know who's gonna win a tournament. If you were to ask me who was gonna win Genesis coming up, I couldn't give you a solid answer. It's very difficult. And especially without me being able to see a bracket to see which player matchups we're going to get, I have no idea. Which is truly amazing.
We haven't had an era like this in Smash Ultimate for quite some time because Leo has been so dominant, the big question coming into every tournament used to be, "Who can beat MkLeo?" Now the big question coming into tournaments is, "Who can win this tournament?" Because it's so up in the air. And the character diversity is at an all-time high.
Before we saw three top players using Aegis. Now we see Leo and Sparg0 playing the characters that they prefer to play. So almost every top eight doesn't have any duplicates of any character. When you're looking at Ultimate's meta right now, you don't know who's gonna win, and you don't know what character is going to win. So in my opinion, as a spectator, it's a very exciting time for Ultimate.
There’s not a lot of Aegis, Joker, or Pikachu in top eights right now. Why do you think this is?
I think the game is pretty balanced to the point where you don't necessarily have to play the best characters. For Smash, this is the first time in a game's lifespan. Because every other Smash game — if you aren't playing a top tier, you are meming. In Ultimate, you can play high tiers, you can play top tiers. For me personally, the top half of the cast is high tier or top tier. If you can't win a tournament, you can get top eight with them. It feels very balanced.
And another reason why a lot of players are able to get away with playing whatever characters they want to is because the game just doesn't have enough on the line to push players to do all the crazy tech in the game. There's a lot of hidden tech where you can essentially touch-of-death people and all that other stuff. But there's not enough money in the game to justify a person to sit there and lab for ten hours a day to eventually be able to do the touch-of-death tech or anything like that.
There is tech out there where the punish game can get pushed to the point where it's like, "Oh, yeah, I just hit you with Down Gun as Joker, and I loop you to death." But players would have to sit down and practice a lot, and there's not enough money in Smash to justify that. So the only reason why someone would do that is their sheer love of the game. But how far will that take you, without you getting anything back for it? There's just not enough on the line to push players to push the punish game of Ultimate that far. So players are just opting to win with just their fundamentals.
Is that a positive or a negative? Melee players love watching super-optimized Foxes duking it out. Wouldn't Ultimate fans probably prefer the highest level possible?
There's pros and cons for both sides. Pros is that we get to see character diversity. When players are not forced to push the punish game as far as possible, we're going to see a wide variety of characters. But on the downside, for all the "sweaty" viewers like myself, I want to see the game get pushed to the highest level possible.
But I also have to understand the point-of-view of the player... Where it's like, "This isn't League of Legends, there are not millions of dollars on the line. So I'm not going to put that many hours to justify the reward of like practically nothing that's in Smash right now."
Most top players: a lot of them make their money through content. At least consistent money. Summit has big pots, but only one person gets the top prize. But only one person gets that.
As an Ultimate coach and spectator, what sets Sparg0's gameplay apart from other top players?
In terms of his actual gameplay — how fast he plays is very impressive. His anticipation game is on another level. And it's very clear that his strategies are very effective. Especially with Cloud, for example, he prioritizes the corner extremely well. And he plays that situation so well, to the point where he can just centralize his entire game plan around that situation.
So even getting something as simple as pushing the corner situation as far as possible. He's gotten something like that and is able to beat the best in the world with it. You can tell how well-studied every situation is and how much he studies the game in general.
What's been your opinion of Tweek's past few months? After winning Smash Ultimate Summit 3, he had a few rough performances. What do you think caused this?
In my opinion, even for Summit 3, that was everyone's first time challenging Diddy. A lot of players didn't know the Ultimate Diddy matchup. And they were kind of figuring it out. So it's layers of counterplay. And that wasn't the only reason why he won that, but that is a factor. And then going on throughout the rest of the meta, players were able to study Ultimate Diddy. But in that way, Tweek was exposed to the first couple levels of counterplay for Ultimate Diddy.
And he was also kind of in a character crisis too. Even during Summit 3 he was switching around characters. He didn't know if he wanted to solo-main Diddy or not. So now coming into this current era, he's pretty content with just solo-Diddy at the moment. Summit 3 was his first tournament offline with Diddy. So because of that, he still was trying to figure out if he needed pockets with Diddy or not. Now currently, he's finally pretty sold on the fact that he can probably just go with solo-Diddy. And now, he's going to be pretty much refining that one character.
So to me, it felt like at Summit 3 he was still in a character crisis but not a lot of players knew the Ultimate Diddy matchup. And then after that, Ultimate Diddy matchup was starting to get figured out a little bit. And he was still in a character crisis. He even tried Sephiroth. I think a lot of the dip from his Summit 3 is due to the character crisis he had.
Ultimate Summit 3 was the last tournament I coached them. So even after that, I still gave him my opinion on his character roster. But I wasn't his full-time coach anymore. So when I was his full-time coach, I could spend all my time dedicated to studying his VODs and stuff like that. And now I really couldn't do that anymore. I could give him a piece of information here or there. But I couldn't give him as much dedicated information.
And by no means do I think that his results dropped because I stopped being his coach — that would have happened regardless. It's just hard for Tweek because he plays so many characters when he's in a character crisis. It can be really difficult for him.
You think he's in a much better spot now though — somewhere near the level of before?
I can't guarantee that he's going to place really well, right? But I know that he won't be putting a lot of mental energy into picking which character he is going into. And he had a really great performance at Collision, going second. So I think coming into Genesis, he's looking good in terms of results. But Genesis is a different beast. He's going to have to go up against different matchups. I think at Ultimate Summit 4 there was a lot of matchups he didn't want to run into as a solo-Diddy player.
So it's more so since he is picking the route of solo-Diddy, he is going to have to be extremely good at Diddy's bad matchups. Because Diddy is a character that has really good matchups against the top tiers, but there's a handful of top tiers and even some weird high and mid-tier matchups that are difficult. So if Tweek is going to go with the solo-Diddy strategy, he has to be very well prepared for the bad Diddy matchups.
Charles commentates on Smash University
What are your goals with Smash University? Where do you want to see it in the future?
So I love education in esports — that's my biggest passion. I love commentating Smash as well. But I always gravitated towards coaching in Smash. I love both teaching and Smash, so both kinda gave birth to the idea of Smash University along with Bam and Paz.
I want to see it succeed. It's really tough because the best time for any education in a game is going to be within its first year. And we made Smash University a little later on. so it's hard to get the initial boom of the viewership from Ultimate. But it's still doing pretty alright. I want to use Smash University to push into maybe some other platforms or other educational esports stuff.
Essentially, I want to be involved with general esports education. And the best place to start is — since I know and I'm from Smash — was with Smash University and that YouTube channel. But hopefully, Smash University can become something bigger than a YouTube channel. That it works with maybe high schools or colleges or anything like that, to kind of expand on the educational esports landscape.
Obviously, I'm a little older. I'm 31. So when I was in high school, the best thing you got back then was a gaming club. But I want for everyone else's future coming into esports to have a platform that makes coming into esports a lot more realistic. And the best place to start was like I mentioned earlier, Smash University. So hopefully we can grow Smash University as a brand and a platform, and make it something bigger that can give opportunities to younger people that are trying to get into esports.
In the past, you have discussed how there is a somewhat anti-competitive mindset in the Ultimate scene. Players blame everything but themselves when they lose. Why do you think this has become such a prevalent thing in Ultimate?
It is very natural when something doesn't go right to blame the situation on anything but themselves. In Ultimate, there are a lot of characters so it's very hard to know every single matchup. So I think a lot of players will automatically divert to blaming some kind of tool that the other character had because they didn't know the matchup. That's a very common situation.
On top of that, the community is a lot younger — it kind of goes back to the age thing. Because the community is a lot younger, I feel like they're less experienced, and with less experience comes the nature to just complain, rather than holding the L and just trying to get better.
That is the main reason why we see that. It's a very natural thing to go to that. And when you're younger and you have less experience, you're going to do the thing that feels more natural. So I guess it's more so on the older people in the community to lead by example. I think it will take time for the older part of the community to lead by example for the younger people to follow. And there are going to be situations too, where maybe a group of Ultimate players doesn't have someone older or more experienced to see the example of.
And then it just keeps happening, in the sense that everyone just complains, there's no one else that doesn't complain in the group, and then it snowballs from there. I also think social media is a really big part of it. With every Smash game that comes out, the Smash Twitterverse gets bigger. Because of that, everyone sees more complaining. And since there are going to be more younger people in the Smash Twitterverse than maybe experienced players, the younger players will probably see more complaining over the other.
And complaining is a very vocal thing. Whereas if someone that's more experienced loses, and they just hold the L and they tell themselves that they just have to improve — maybe they won't be vocal about that interaction. But when you complain, that's a very vocal interaction, where you'll just say it out loud, or you'll tweet it. So maybe a lot of the Smash Twitterverse you just see a lot of complaining because that's such an easy vocal action to do that diverts the blame away from you being bad at the game. Everyone is seeing that and they think that's the norm. That's a big reason why the majority of the community acts that way.
What’s a personal lesson that you’ve learned recently that you think would be of value to other people?
Just because you achieve a goal does not mean you'll be happy. And the main thing that I want to elaborate on is: keep in mind the sacrifices that you will make to achieve a goal. You have to look at the whole picture and be able to break down if that's worth it or not.
I write. I rap. I run. That’s pretty much it.