Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s Joker’s Evolution Through The Meta

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One of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s major strengths as an esport is its sense of scale. With 84 fighters, 73 of whom are wholly unique, Ultimate’s metagame has been defined around knowing matchups and understanding the tools that both players have access to as a result of this sprawling metagame. Ultimate’s meta evolves through four particular drivers – competitive success, competitive frequency, patches, and the addition of new DLC characters. One character whose competitive status has been intrinsically linked to all four of these components is Persona 5’s Joker, whose status in the meta has shifted heavily since his release. Initially viewed as a mid-tier due to lackluster recovery options and a reliance on “gimmicks” to secure kills, Joker’s status shot up exponentially when top players began using him to great success. However, a drop-off in usage combined with a series of small but impactful nerfs in the shift to online play has left the Shujin Academy student in competitive limbo.

Joker was announced as the first Fighters Pass character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on December 6th, 2018, the day before Ultimate’s release. However, the initial trailer showed no gameplay footage, and it wouldn’t be until April 16th, 2019 where Joker was announced alongside the Version 3.0 update. 

Initial public opinion of Joker was split through two camps — many believed that Joker was one of, if not the best character in the game, but others thought he was simply “pretty good”. This mindset, however, would shift as he began to see top level play in tournament brackets.

Joker’s introduction to the franchise inspired several top players to begin using him, switching off their former mains. In particular, Mexico’s MKLeo switched from his tournament winning combination of Ike and Lucina, but his first major tournament with the character would see him place 33rd at Umebura Japan Major 2019, a career low for Ultimate.This result might have initially led some people to view the character as a midtier, since even a player with the caliber of MKLeo was unsuccessful with him. Several other players would try out Joker intermittently throughout the tournament as well — Japanese smashers Tsu and Zackray both played Joker as a secondary to their “regular” mains of Lucario and Wolf. Both players placed within the Top 8, but Tsu only used Joker to defeat Zackray, and played the rest of the bracket with Lucario, falling to Cosmos. Undeterred, MKLeo returned to America with a vengeance, placing 4th at GOML 2019 before winning Momocon 2019, Smash n’ Splash 5, and CEO 2019 with solo Joker. 

By this time, most top players began recognizing Joker’s strengths as a character, as the competitive community at large believed the character was at the very least top 5 in the game. Leo’s dominance with the character would continue, as he would go on to win EVO 2019 with a legendary reverse 3-0 sweep on Tweek. Leo wasn’t the only Joker present at the tournament, however, with Japanese player Eim placing 33rd. 

By this point, Joker’s weaknesses as a character had been fully understood. He struggled hitting small bodies, such as Pikachu and Pichu, and he struggled against characters who could avoid being hit by Arsène, such as Sonic. Public perception of these characters would increase due to their favorable matchups on Joker’s, due to their genuine gameplans against him. Although not as universally dominating as the best characters from the two prior Super Smash Bros. games, Joker’s results inherently shaped the meta around him to a prominent extent by allowing for characters with favorable matchups (Pikachu and Sonic) to be perceived as more successful than they had been prior due to his presence. This can be seen in Twitter user PerlaSmash’s graph from March 2020, which depicts top player opinions on a character against calculated results for said character. 

Characters here were ranked based on their results (weighted with prestige on their tournament) and their perceived quality via survey from top players. This graph is from March 2020. Credits to Twitter user @PerlaSmash.

MKLeo would continue to dominate with the character throughout 2019 and early 2020, placing no lower than 2nd at every tournament he entered. These results would solidify him as the best player in the world on both the Spring 2019 and Fall 2019 Panda Global Smash Ultimate Rankings. Other top players such as Tweek, Wishes, and VoiD would begin using the character. Joker’s status as the best (or second best) character in the game had been solidified through his results, and the frequency at which he received them from a wide array of players. 

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed all events online, causing a drastic shift in Joker’s viability. The additional input lag made Joker’s technical execution timings significantly less consistent, and MKLeo fully switched off the character to play Byleth. Players such as Sharp would switch onto Joker and find success with him, but eventually, Sharp too would ultimately trend towards playing mostly Wolf and Sephiroth — characters that require less technical executions than his offline mains of Sheik and Joker. Joker would also receive relatively impactful nerfs that would make some of his commonly used tools less dominant. 

Joker as a character evolved from a character with uncertain status to a meta-defining powerhouse. At the top level, Joker would rack up results through MKLeo’s dominance and would help shape the public perception of other characters through favorable matchups. However, the shift to online play has caused a dropoff in Joker’s results. As offline play is projected to return later this year, time will only tell if Joker’s dominance will return or if the meta has evolved past him.

Image Credits: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Nintendo, SmashWiki, Matt Schmucker

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