On May 21, thousands of spectators watched as Joey “Lucky” Aldama defeated Edgard “n0ne” Sheleby in the grand final of a Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament that drew hundreds of players, including big names like Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma, Joseph “Mang0” Marquez and Zain “Zain” Naghmi. What made this tournament special is that everyone watching and in attendance came in support of Palestinian liberation.
Netplay for Palestine was one of the largest single-day online events of the COVID-19 pandemic, the equivalent of a small major tournament in the pre-pandemic era. The tournament also raised more than $21,000 for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), a significant number considering the scope of the event.
The tournament was the brainchild of Julia “Venus” Grey, a Smash player and streamer who had become increasingly involved in the Smash scene during the past year of pandemic-induced lockdown. After she heard about the resurgent conflict between Palestine and Israel, she said she had to do something to help.
“I was angered and had the typical feelings of helplessness in the face of tragedy,” said Venus, who had never organized a tournament prior to Netplay for Palestine. “And I just had the idea: I can do an event for charity and raise money and awareness.”
On May 12, Venus tweeted about the idea and found a wave of support from players, commentators and tournament organizers from across the Smash community.
I want to run a melee tournament to raise money and awareness for the situation in Palestine. I have never run a melee tournament in my life. If anyone with experience wants to help me do this please DM me. Looking for TOs, commentators, and ppl willing to enter.
— Venus (@venus_ssbm) May 13, 2021
A voice for the Middle East
For logistical support — and to help legitimize the event — Venus enlisted the support of more experienced tournament organizers and community figures, such as Joseph “Savestate” El-Khouri, Jayde, OtEs and Petra. But the most obvious decision, Venus said, was to bring on Anees Assaf, a Palestinian American top Smash player who has competed using the gamertag “Free Palestine” since 2019.
“The goal was to not only raise money for MECA, but to raise awareness,” Venus said. “And if I had to name a third goal, it was to uplift Palestinian, Arab and Middle Eastern voices.”
There was no shortage of Arab voices within the Smash scene who were happy to help. Iranian American tournament organizer Arian “The Crimson Blur” Fathieh helped promote and commentate the event, as did Palestinian American commentator Jake “Jakespeare” Saleh. But Assaf is perhaps the most prominent Palestinian voice in the community, a 22-year-old smasher with dual citizenship in Palestine and the United States.
Though he was born in the United States, Assaf spent almost every summer of his childhood in Palestine. He said his family is still living in the same area, a small farming village in the northern West Bank. He was there during a period of heightened tension in the region in 2014, experiencing his fair share of Israeli checkpoints, and most recently visited Palestine in 2018.
Prior to 2019, Assaf had been a top Melee competitor in Ohio using the gamertag “Milhous,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Richard Nixon’s middle name. In February of that year, he changed his tag to “Free Palestine,” explaining the decision in a heartfelt Twitlonger.
“At that time, I realized that I have a sort of platform within Melee, and so I figured that this was a good way for me to use my platform for something that I truly cared about,” said Assaf. “Once I thought about having the tag ‘Free Palestine,’ I haven’t looked back.”
In 2019, Assaf made his debut on the Melee Panda Global Rankings as “Mr. 101” for the 2018 calendar year. A year later, he made the top-100 rankings proper, repping “Free Palestine” in the No. 72 position.
Prominent Melee players voice their support
Though Assaf was not the original organizer of the event, Netplay for Palestine was in many ways the culmination of his work within the Smash scene. It’s a sign of a community informed about the situation in Palestine and ideologically primed to stand in support of Palestinian rights. The event’s success represents a groundswell of support for the Palestinian cause in the Smash scene that has been bolstered by pro-Palestinian tweets from top players such as Zain and Zachary “SFAT” Cordoni.
Join me in supporting the people of Palestine https://t.co/zKXkZ2NVDW
— Zain (@ZainNaghmi) May 14, 2021
I stand in solidarity with Palestine and believe the dehumanization of Palestinians needs to stop. #FreePalestine
— CLG SFAT (@SFAT) May 14, 2021
“The biggest thing, for me, is showing them that it’s okay to stand for these things,” said Assaf, who has discussed his experiences in Palestine with other top players during road trips and at tournaments. “Of course, they have more to lose, being sponsored players for large organizations.”
Indeed, when it comes to players’ willingness to speak out about political or social issues, the world of esports has lagged behind traditional sports. Criticizing the Chinese government is practically taboo, and few players in top-tier esports such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike have opined in either direction when it comes to the Israel–Gaza crisis. That a number of top Melee players were willing to lend their names and clout to an event named Netplay for Gaza sets the Smash scene apart from other esports communities. Assaf said he feels somewhat responsible for this cultural shift.
“I’d like to think that I’ve opened a sort of dialogue about these types of things and made people feel like it’s okay to voice what you think,” Assaf said.
While the Smash scene and the Middle East Children’s Alliance might seem like strange bedfellows, the organization was enthusiastic in its support for Netplay for Palestine, sending Development Director Deborah Agre to explain MECA’s mission in a live-streamed talk before grand finals. Unfortunately, Agre had trouble figuring out Discord and instead pre-recorded a video that was shown after the match. MECA also helped support the event through tweets and retweets on its official Twitter account.
Support for Palestine doesn’t end with one tournament
While $21,000 is nothing to scoff at, Assaf, Venus, and the rest of the Netplay for Palestine team aren’t planning to end their support for the Palestinian cause with this tournament. From his personal experiences in Palestine, Assaf said he knows the situation in Gaza is ongoing — but now, he can move forward with the support of the Smash scene behind him.
“The things that we are protesting and are fighting for aren’t going away,” Assaf said. “People are still waking up and being told to leave their homes so that they can ethnically cleanse the neighborhoods. So even if it falls out of the media sphere, I want people to know that people in Gaza are still under a blockade, and the West Bank is still occupied. And so our struggle has not ended, and I hope that people understand that their support for our struggle can’t end either.”