After a small drought of first place finishes, famed Smash Bros. Melee player Mang0 of Cloud 9 Gaming recently took home the gold medal at Royal Flush 2017. The tournament’s viewership was fairly modest throughout the tournament, but by the time grand finals rolled around the viewer count spiked to an impressive 73,000. While Mang0 is a perennial crowd favorite for his flashy, yet intelligent play and his devil-may-care attitude, I think there was another factor at work drawing eyeballs to his Mother’s Day victory: the appeal of a dominant champion turned underdog.
People love an underdog, as the saying goes, but there’s often an emotional investment to trying to cheer on a player or team with the odds stacked against them. For every Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs breaking their decades-long curses, there are many more across various competitive fields that wither and die in the early stages without achieving anything. Is it really worth cheering on someone who loses in the first round of a tournament every time? If it is, there’s typically some other element to consider: regional loyalty, character loyalty, etc.
But when it’s a known commodity, i.e. a former champion with a record of winning but who’s fallen off more recently, then there’s a different appeal at work. Think of Michael Jordan on the Washington Wizards, an aged George Foreman, or JulyZerg in Starcraft: Brood War. In each case, they arrived to make up for a loss of physical prowess with skill, experience, and ingenuity, but in their pushes for victory one thing was certain: though they fell behind, there is historical evidence of an “it” factor: the will to win, and the potential to snatch victories from the jaws of defeat.
In a certain sense, cheering for former champions become a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. People cheer for underdogs, yes, but they also like to cheer for winners. When you have a former great, you get the best of both worlds. They’re a comforting pick because, even if they lose, a person can simply look back in time and say, “But I know they have what it takes!”
Mang0 is not the same as the examples I gave above. He’s still a top 3 player in his game, and slumps are often exaggerated in the world of eSports because the concept is so young and people think 3 months is a long time. However, if it were a true veteran of the past who enjoys legendary status such as Liquid’Ken, the “King of Smash,” then I believe even more spectators would have flocked to Royal Flush.