“Cody, I’m really sorry.”
That’s what my dad said to me when he dropped me off at school one day in the ninth grade. Then he just drove away.
When I got home, my mom told me, “Your dad is missing.”
No one really knew why. There were some rumours that he owed money to people and just fled. I guess the reasons don’t really matter – he left, and short after, my mom left too.
To be honest, the writing was on the wall.
Even before my dad drove off, my life was extremely uncertain, even if only in subsections. My mom had been in and out of rehab for her entire life, and there was even a period when my dad was married to another woman. My dad’s decision to run away was the logical conclusion of a parenthood defined by neglect.
I was able to make it through this ordeal for two main reasons.
Firstly, the incredible generosity of my grandparents and my friend, Jake. After my parents bailed, Jake let me move in with his family for two months so that I could finish the school year.
Later, when Hurricane Sandy took out my electricity for four months, he let me stay with him again so that I could finish my college applications. He had been my best friend for years, but those two acts of kindness made me realize that we’d be homies for life.
My grandparents took me in after those two months with Jake. They made sure I had a home throughout high school. My grandfather was a remarkable person and one of my greatest inspirations to this day. And while things haven’t always been easy between me and my grandmother, I know she means well.
Even now, my primary residence is still my grandmother’s house in Rockaway Park, New York.
The second reason I was able to make it through was my love of gaming.
During the confusion of my high school years, it was games—particularly Halo and Call of Duty—that kept me sane. My friendship with Jake was built on our mutual love for GunZ: The Duel and Soldier Front—he’d come over literally every single day after school and we’d play for three or four hours.
These shooter titles helped me escape from the drama of my family life, but it wasn’t until 2015 that I discovered the game that would eventually become my career: Super Smash Bros. Melee.
I always had faith that I would get really good at Melee. But when you have to focus on your own surivival, it’s hard to make the game a priority.
But I always perform best when my back is to the wall. In life, and in Smash, if I’m in a losing position, something clicks inside me and I’m often able to turn it around.
It was like that even in high school. I was a good student. I got As’s in most of my papers. But a teacher once told me that the difference in my in-class papers and take-home papers was night-and-day.
The slight increase in pressure of being in that controlled environment made me better. It freaks me out a little, but there’s no denying that this “fight-or-flight” kind of response helps me.
At Smash Summit 8 in June, I went 0 and 3 in pools.
I was despondent, feeling like I’d failed not only myself, but all the people from my region that voted me in.
But I drank a beer, pulled myself together, and took down both Mango and Hungrybox.
At CEO, when I lost in winner’s round one, I nearly dropped out – but instead, I got my shit together and climbed the loser’s bracket all the way to fourth place.
Reaching the top level in Melee is really something that I had to do if I wanted to survive. Dropping out of law school was one of the lowest points in my life, and it started feeling like I was running out of options.
There’s a misconception that I dropped out of law school to focus on Smash, but that was never the case.
At the time, my grandfather was dying, and everyone knew it. My home life was disintegrating as my grandmother struggled to deal with it. Sometimes, she would bang on my door in the early hours of the morning, just to tell me that I was worthless.
Then, when I contracted walking pneumonia – sometimes struggling to get even a one or two hours of sleep a night – my professors advised me to take a break to recover.
It got to a point where I had nothing to lose, so going all-out on the Melee grind made sense. That’s when my ability to perform under pressure carried me forward.
Don’t worry, guys—my life has improved a lot over the last few months.
Jumping up the rankings has given me access to a slew of opportunities that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I started playing Smash. And I’m fortunate enough to have an incredible support system that gives me the confidence I need to move forward.
There’s my girlfriend, Jisu, who’s in my corner at almost every tournament. She’s probably the reason I didn’t end up dropping out at CEO.
She always keeps me in check, whether it’s with tourney nerves or issues with my home life, and I would probably have gone crazy this summer if I wasn’t able to split time between my place in New York and her apartment in California.
Then there’s 2saint, one of my main practice partners and homies in the scene. We started playing around the same time, and even though we suck as a doubles team, I consider him one of my best friends—almost like a little brother.
There’s all my friends and supporters from my home region, most notably Darktooth and DarkGenex, who were a huge help during my Summit campaign.
I’m also proud to count Armada as a good friend. When I was starting out, I copied a lot of his techniques point-blank. I love his efficient and clean style, though I’ve always tried to have my own unique outlook on the game.
I want to ride Melee out as long as I can, and perhaps expand into other games. But I 100% plan to go back to law school at some point. It’d be cool to go into entertainment law and eventually esports law—it would be an interesting way for me to combine my interests with my future goals.
A few years ago, my primary concern was making sure I had food to eat and a place to sleep every night. Nowadays, I’m finally starting to save up some money, I’ve traveled across the country to compete against the world’s finest, and I’ve made friends who feel like family.
The kid who had to sleep on his friend’s couch to finish ninth grade—who once ate cookie dough for dinner for an entire year because there was nothing else in his house—is now an elite competitor who is driven, confident, and in control of his own destiny.
And it’s all thanks to esports.
Image Credit: Todd Gutierrez/Beyond the Summit & GamersHQ
Alexander Lee assisted with the creation of this article.