Photo Credit: Jeff Mahieu (@Delta52_)
By: Justin “Popi” Banusing (Editor, Author),William “Wncozens” Cozens (Author), Josh "1PC" Olalde (Interviewer)
Behind every competitor's success there is an untold story. With celebrities, we’re used to hearing stories of great accomplishment and achievement, yet we are none the wiser about the cost at which these things are obtained.
Behind the smokescreen of fame there is always bitter tale left to be told. Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios’ climb to greatness is a story rife with struggles, disappointments and downfalls; It is a story about overcoming seemingly impossible odds.
Many of us are familiar with ZeRo in his prime, the ZeRo that won 56 Smash Wii U tournaments consecutively from 2014 to late 2015. His streak was not only record-breaking in the world of Smash, but in eSports as a whole. Nobody in the community doubted his dominance, and his unique story line and decisive success piqued the interests of many outside the Smash Wii U scene.
However, what many don’t know is how, and at what cost, ZeRo’s success came about.
“From the beginning I knew he had one goal, to win. He meticulously maintained a close to perfect record of not only not dropping any sets but not dropping games in a set.”
That’s Bassem “Bear” Dahdouh describing Zero during his uncontested streak. I doubt that anybody disagrees with him; at a certain point, even taking a game off ZeRo was cause for conversation. But of course, it wasn’t always like this.
There was a time when the ZeRo we know never existed and there was only Gonzalo, the impoverished Chilean kid who happened to have a penchant for Smash. And to get to where he is, he would have to overcome countless tribulations from childhood all the way through to adulthood.
In the center of the nation of Chile there lies a city named Chillán with a population of around 175,000. It was here that Gonzalo Barrios was born in 1995 and where his love for Smash would flourish.
Gonzalo was first introduced to the series by his mother in 1999 when she told him that there “was a game where you could fight against all your favorite Nintendo characters”. He enjoyed playing Smash 64 casually but it wasn’t until 2006 at age 11 that he would make his foray into competitive Smash after discovering a Melee tournament at a local video game store.
Naturally, Gonzalo made the same mistake every casual makes prior to playing against competitive Smashers: he assumed that he would do well, having played for so long as a child. Of course, he, in his own words, “got rekt”. A competitive person by nature, he decided he wanted to get good at the game. Soon enough, he entered his local scene.
Gonzalo’s family could not afford internet at the time. So when he printed out a forty-page Falco guide off Smashboards to try and get better, he did it from aunt's house. If that doesn’t already strike you as somebody who's committed, Barrios actually had a Spanish-English dictionary on hand translating the sections he didn’t understand into his native Spanish. He even came up with a moniker for himself, the name we all know today: ZeRo.
The newly christened ZeRo entered his first competitive tournament soon after, a single-elimination, best-of-three tournament with many of Chile’s best in attendance. He got 13th, which is definitely not bad at all considering his age at the time. He was unsatisfied.
ZeRo believed that “if he actually put time into this” he could “maybe beat everybody.” And so he practiced hard for his next tournament where he placed second to the then-best Chilean player. Barrios was still not content though, he needed to jump this hurdle next tournament and get first next time, especially since the player treated him poorly.
“He didn’t like that I was good [...] He gave me a really hard time,” ZeRo told Philip “EE” Visu in an interview last year. “Whenever he had people over his house he would never invite me or anything”
It seems like ZeRo had the last laugh though, because the next time they faced off he eventually beat him to place first. He continued to do well, obtaining second at his first national. It was there that he faced new challenges such as ‘Wobbling’, the Ice Climbers-exclusive infinite combo, and more personal matters.
Although he was already beginning to solidify himself as a sort of prodigy, his fellow Chileans showed him no respect. They cheered against him, and put him down frequently.
“Nobody really knows about this, but in Chile, Chileans don’t really support each other. People were annoyed with what was happening and they made sure to give me a hard time.”
Despite all of this animosity towards his success, Barrios persisted, and having experienced such hardships at a young age would help him to remain resilient down the road. But for now, a new game was creeping up on the horizon, one ZeRo would be thankful for launching his career: Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
BRAWL AND BREAK
Initially, ZeRo hated Brawl. Like most Melee players at the time, he found it far too slow for it to be played competitively.
“It was just so different,” he said. “But there was just so much in the game that I wanted to learn and get better at later on”. Eventually, he took a strong liking towards the game. Also, around this time in Chile, Melee was dying out. Locals formerly known for Melee now hosted Brawl instead.
ZeRo’s financial situation at the time became a bit of a road block; neither he nor his friends could afford to buy a Wii, so they had to resort to only playing Brawl at tournaments. Can you imagine trying to get good at a competitive game by only practicing at the tournaments themselves?
ZeRo can. Because he placed 2nd at a release tournament using Ness, losing to a chain grabbing Dedede.
Even though ZeRo couldn’t practice in-between tournaments, he went on to consistently place 5th and 6th at tournaments, maining Meta Knight and Ice Climbers. He did this while also dominating what remained of the Chilean Melee scene.
However, Zero’s big moment came in 2009 at a Melee/Brawl tournament. In Melee, he four-stocked a legendary Chilean Marth player, Roche, and went on to Grand Finals to face another legend, Ghost, who he unfortunately lost to last stock of Game 5.
Brawl was a different story. Paving his way through the bracket with Ice Climbers, he eventually crossed paths with the best Brawl player in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Like I said earlier, ZeRo had many dissenters, this time in the form of the organizers -- also from Santiago -- who banned the Ice Climbers infinite grab mid-set. Almost bordering on parody, he took ninth as a result.
Misfortune struck ZeRo again during Grand Finals of a tournament for Brawl+, a fan-made balance mod. Even though the Ice Climbers infinite was again banned mid-set, he was able to score a 2-0 lead against his opponent. Just one more win away from taking the tournament, the organizers coincidentally decided to relocate the venue 2 hours away to finish. Zero, 12 at the time and unable to obtain any means of transport from other Smashers, was ultimately forced to forfeit and give the first place title to his opponent.
“They gave me no merit whatsoever,” Gonzalo said. “They literally just stole my win from me.” to which EE responded with: “That’s a robbery if I’ve ever seen one, and I’m from Baltimore so I know about some robberies.”
Understandably, a frustrated ZeRo decided to remove himself from the Smash scene after these experiences. He started picking up other games such as Halo and League of Legends and over the course of a year all things Smash had been purged from his life.
As they say though, no one ever truly leaves Smash. ZeRo still had good friends that were Smashers, and they would prove crucial in getting him to pick up Smash once again.
It was around 2009, and the second EVO that included Brawl had just concluded. ZeRo’s best friend Andres had placed within the top 30 and upon returning, gave him some very impactful words of wisdom.
“He told me, ‘I think you’re meant to play Smash. I understand you have bad memories and everything but we need to get you back in the game.”
2009 was a very depressing year for Gonzalo. He mostly stayed inside and played PC games or did homework, and his old friends from the Smash scene were beginning to dearly miss him. Through their support, he was able to slowly but surely claw his way back into the scene again.
When he came back, he was hungry; he was hungry to strike vengeance on the Brawl scene that had wronged him so. But before he made any sort of lasting impression on them, he was going to need to practice. There was an upcoming national for Brawl and he had not touched a controller in a year.
He still needed a Wii if he wanted to make that happen. Again, the Barrios’ were poor, and at one point, ZeRo was picking fruits in the city for 2 dollars an hour just to buy food and save up for a Wii, which at the time went for upwards of $250. Fortunately, after Andres got a job and subsequently bought a Wii, he could go over for all the practice he needed.
This was in December. Since the upcoming tournament was in January, ZeRo had to make up for a year of lost practice in the span of a month. He was going to have to be the most determined he ever had been.
“I worked from 6AM to 7PM, went to Andres’s house from 8PM until 11PM, then went home at midnight and slept. I did that everyday for a month.”
So, what character was he going to use? In fear of the organizers banning the Ice Climbers infinite once again, he decided to stick to his secondary, Meta Knight. It was when Zero was searching up Meta Knight tips is when he discovered his biggest influence, and arguably Smash’s biggest influence, Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman. By methodically studying Mew2King, who was considered the best Meta Knight at the time, and by maintaining his intense practice regimen, he went on to destroy his competition come tournament day.
ZeRo placed 1st after sweeping the runner-up 6-0. Having proved to Chile that he was the best in Brawl, Zero thought about quitting Smash for good. That is until he heard about APEX 2012, a stateside tournament in which all of the world's best would be competing.
Given the competitive spirit he possessed, ZeRo couldn’t resist wanting to go to the tournament. Yet, he was only 16 at the time; how was he going to procure the funds needed to fly to the United States?
“For a long part of teenage years, my mom and I could sometimes not afford food. So I’ve seen the real struggle, like not being able to pay rent or water,” ZeRo said. “..But my mom has never said no to a dream. She’s the kind of person that focuses on how to make things work rather than what you don’t have”
“So when I told my mom I wanted to go [to APEX]... she looked at me and said ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and I said ‘Yeah’, then she said ‘Okay, we don’t have the money to do this, but we’ll make it work.”
For a full year, ZeRo had to work at random jobs to scrape money, and work on sponsorships so he could network with people in America. In order to make a name for himself so that international players wouldn’t think less of him, he constantly played top players via Wi-Fi. It wasn’t until 3 days before his flight that he got his visa, and although there were consistent fears of not getting the money on time, his mom always assured him that “everything was going to work out”.
He didn’t win APEX 2012, but he got valuable experience by playing top-players there such as Ally, Larry Lurr, and AnTi. He felt behind in Chile and was grateful that he had the opportunity to learn what other players had to teach him. Eventually and much to his chagrin, he had to return home for school but upon his arrival, he was already thinking about the next APEX.
For most of the year he didn’t practice much. It wasn’t until 2 months before APEX 2013, around November of 2012, that he began to hone his skills to the reach heights they’d never reached before.
“I remember I would go to class with my laptop and download all of Otori and Mew2King's videos and just watch them during my breaks,” he said. “I would have a notepad and write down things like ‘oh he did a down-tilt at 20%, that sets up a dash attack, and then you can up-air, back-air, up-air, up-air, and up-b (if you’re frame perfect).’”
Once he arrived in the United States for the second time, he entered in a local prior to APEX where he beat Brawl titans Nairo, Vinnie, and twice Mew2King, his then idol. These wins emphasized his dominance, but he let his confidence get to his head. Having never really accomplished something like that before, he began to act very arrogantly, and fell into a depression over the person he was becoming.
ZeRo placed 9th APEX soon after, a placing he felt didn’t do his skill justice, saying; “I felt I had the skill to win that tournament, but my mindset was just trash.” He again entertained the idea of quitting Smash.
Once he got home, he was positive that he had resigned from the playing the series competitively. That is, until he watched one scene of the series all Smashers hold dear to their hearts: The Smash Brothers Documentary.
“I remember watching a part of the Smash Documentary that made me cry [...] When KoreanDJ placed second despite all the work he had put in and Wife says KoreanDJ represents the spirit of Smash, y’know he’s learning as he goes. That got to me so hard.”
“No, I’m not done,” ZeRo said to himself at that moment. More humorously, he then exited his room and told his mom: “We’re going to America, I’m coming back to Smash”. After explaining how he wanted to make this his career and how he thought it was meant for him, his mother agreed.
Zero was going back to America in time for Brawl’s last big tournament: APEX 2014.
ZeRo placed 2nd at APEX, but felt that everything he wanted to do with the game was done. He was finished with Brawl, and it was time to move on.
THE NEXT STEP
It was only after Brawl that Zero started to gain notoriety as a prominent Smash figure. Shortly after APEX, he began to pick up Melee and Project M. Initially facing resistance from players of both games, deeming him illegitimate due to his former Brawl days, Zero nevertheless soon established himself as one of the best in Project M and a top 40 contender in Melee.
“I felt like that’s when I started getting more popular in the scene”, he said.
It was around this time that Zero started to evolve as a player. Balancing between 3 games, Melee, Brawl, and Project M, he had to learn how to quickly adapt to different situations and implement harder practice regimens.
As successful as ZeRo was those respective games, his career changing moment came when he was invited by Nintendo to compete in the Smash Bros. Invitational in June, 2014. The game being played? His future ticket to stardom: Smash Wii U.
ZeRo won the tournament, and his name rose through the ranks quickly, being featuring on Chilean TV and newspaper. His next Smash Wii U tournament would be Sky’s Invitational where he placed 3rd, but after that he never looked back. He would go on to win every tournament from 2014 - 2015, taking major titles such as APEX 2015, CEO 2015, and EVO 2015.
But even with all of ZeRo’s successes, his life wasn’t all glitz and glamour. Being #1, and the pressure from being expected to stay that way, was beginning to take a toll on ZeRo.
Let’s take a look at things from his perspective. Suddenly, you've solidified yourself as a world-renowned player with an unprecedented winning streak and all eyes are on you.
As spectators we see Zero constantly winning over and over with relative ease, but he was in fact extremely stressed - even burdened - by his undefeated reign.
Photo Credit: Jeff Mahieu (@Delta52_)
ZeRo’s streak, as proud as he was of it, came at the expense of towering anxiety and stress. There was always a lingering fear that it all may end at any moment. But could it really go on forever? Or would it just be better to call it a good run and stop trying as hard to maintain such results? Maybe taking a short break would have spared him the trouble, but he nonetheless decided to continue to practice hard and stay committed to his streak. He was able to push through, he said, thanks to the lessons he learned from his mother during childhood.
“The only way I was able to maintain such discipline was from what I learned while growing up at home. My mom valued effort, commitment, and discipline above everything else, and she didn't let me half ass anything.”
ZeRo’s work ethic allowed him to continue his streak to as far as October 2015, where long time rival Nairoby Quezada beat him in Grands; the first person to ever take a set off Zero in Smash Wii U since 2014. As upsetting as seeing the end of the streak was, Zero says it relieved a lot of pressure.
“A big part of me was extremely relieved such big weight was off my shoulders, and I was also happy for him, because I knew he worked for it. It was a mix of a lot of emotions at once, but it wasn't hard to deal with it. I think I was ready to move on mentally at that point, I think it happened at the right time."
ZeRo continued to place 1st right after, well into the year of 2016. He took Genesis 3, and then PAX Area, and all seem quiet and back to normal on the Smash Wii U front. He resumed his dominance over the scene and it looked like it would stay that way. But then something happened. Suddenly he began to place lower and nobody knew why.
GROWING PAINS, GROWING GAINS
“Knowing his back story, as the young boy from Chile, who is now one of the world's most talked about professional gamers in the Smash space, it pained me to see him take loss after loss.”
That’s D’Ron “D1” Maingrette describing ZeRo, his good friend and roommate, during the biggest lull of his career.
It all began when ZeRo took a hiatus from February to May of 2016 for medical reasons, most notably an injury to his middle finger. He described his reasons for not competing in a Reddit post addressed by former Smashboards writer SmashCapps:
I recently found out after a lot of tests (Been going to the doctor repeatedly for everything) that the illness that I had is still in my system, and so for that, I had to change my diet, along with reinforcing my immune system and doing my best to be careful since it's an issue that could escalate, so I'm trying to take care of that.
I also have my middle finger with a big injury. Essentially, I had something in my skin that was dangerous in the long run to have so they had to remove for my safety, so I had to go through a painful process to remove the dangerous area. For that, I'm in a process where I can't use my finger at all until it heals completely, it's wrapped in bandages and what not as of now. It's been basically impossible to practice ever since I've had this issue (I've had it since last wednesday) and it's very difficult to type or edit since I use that finger for so many things, but I try my best to still do everything without it.
After his health cleared up, ZeRo was able to compete in GOML, a Canadian national, in May. There he finished second by losing to Ally, his sixth ever set loss in his history of playing the game. Sure, he lost the tournament, but take this into perspective: he finished second at his first post-injury event. How many stars in any popular sport or eSport can say that they’ve come back from injuries and performed nearly none the worse for wear?
For a short period of time following GOML however, ZeRo was vulnerable. He was still adapting to a metagame that had evolved without him during his time away from Smash. More and more players soon joined the list of ‘ZeRo slayers’, among these being Eric “Mr. E” Weber and Daniel “Day” Facey, both considered to be well below his calibre. He placed 9th at CEO and 3rd at EVO, failing to defend the two titles that were landmarks of his streak.
“ZeRo’s reign is over,” his detractors-at-the-time said. The thing with being on the top for so long is that many want to see you fall; it’s just human nature. And as more tournaments with him not finishing first passed by, this opinion slowly started turning into fact.
ZeRo didn’t allow this to deter him. In September of 2016, he went on a tear, taking first at Abadango Saga, The Big House 6, KTAR XIX and Smash City LA. And while he did finish 4th at ZeRo Saga in December, continuing the long-running 2GG curse, he more than made up for it by winning Genesis Saga a month after.
All of this goes to show how strong of a competitor ZeRo is. By the end of 2016, he was still the best in the business by far. He had competitors who could take tournaments off of him on a good day, but his consistency was unmatched. Even taking his losses into account, he still finished 1st on the year-end Panda Global Rankings.
ZeRo is a fierce competitor. From his origins in Chile he has been knocked down over and over, but yet he still gets back up and fights. Not even things like poverty, depression, anxiety or pressure seem to be able to overtake him. From an unheard of kid in Chile to one of the world's most talked about eSports players, ZeRo’s story is one that needs to be heard and understood.
“At the end of the day, you're going to rely on yourself only and it will be up to you to work to a point you want to be at. Nobody else will do that for you.”
Zero’s personality can tell us a lot about how having natural skill for the game is only one half of the equation when it comes to being great. To get to where he is, ZeRo had to have much more than innate talent. He needed the passion, the will, and the mental fortitude to become successful. These are traits that define top players. They constantly shoot for higher and higher goals.
Although he may not be as dominant as he was before, ZeRo should be an inspiration to us all.
Author’s Note: Going into Genesis 4 this weekend, I hope you look at Gonzalo Barrios with a new perspective. I’d like to end this article with a quote from D1 that I found to be touching.
Photo Credit: Justin Lee (@JLEE702)
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