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Q&A: Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios on depression, Smash 4 success and ‘Gods’ of Melee

An athlete’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity often defines the legacy they will leave behind. By all accounts, Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios should never have been the phenomenon that he has become. By refusing to accept defeat and overcoming the inhibitors to his success, Barrios has etched his name in esports history as one of the most dominant players to ever compete in the Super Smash Bros. scene.

Although his notoriety derives mainly from his dominance in the Smash 4 competitive scene, Barrios has also performed in every iteration of competitive Smash Bros. to date. His career in Melee, Brawl, Project M, and Smash 4 has accumulated to over 200 international tournament placings, 140 of which were first place finishes. His storied career began at 10 years old, in Chillan, Chile, when Barrios entered his first Melee tournament.

Slingshot contributor Christian Shepherd caught up with Gonzalo to talk about his life, career, and the obstacles he has overcome during his journey as a professional player.

CS: To start off, I want to ask you about the first time you ever competed in a Smash Bros. tournament. Do you remember it at all?

GB: Yeah I do. My first ever tournament was at a place called Akiba Game Store a few blocks away from my house in Chile. There were over 100 of the best players in the scene coming to compete in it. It was a regional, single-elimination tournament.

I signed up like two weeks before and then went home and Googled competitive Smash Bros. This was my first time doing anything on Smash boards or with competitive Smash. I ended up watching a few videos and taking some notes on some guides.

CS: How did you do in that tournament?

GB: Well, I ended up getting 17th place in a close set against the player who would get second place in the entire tournament, and I did pretty well against him. I would say I had the potential to win the entire tournament, even though it was my first one.

CS: I want to go back to those notes you took though, because I know that you are sort of known for learning English through video games. Can you tell me a bit about that?

GB: Yeah, sure. I remember printing out this 30-page long thing for Falco in Melee. I ended up using a dictionary to kind of learn my way around it, because you know, I was 10. Obviously, I wasn’t going to understand 30 pages of English. Eventually though, I ended up understanding everything.

CS: Was Smash Bros. the only game you would translate for?

GB: No, back during this time, every game in Chile was delivered in English, so I had to learn English one way or another to even play video games.

CS: What other games did you play?

GB: Starfox 64 was a big one. Also other games like The Legends of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Smash Bros., too, of course.

CS: Was it just you sitting there translating on your own? Or did you have help from friends and family as well?

GB: My mom and sister would help out a lot too. My sister was the gamer in the family and the one who introduced me to gaming when I was 3 years old. She was the one who would get games and was big time into gaming before I was even born. She actually passed away, but I would always hang out with her and her friends. She was always someone I looked up too.

CS: I’m sorry to hear that. How long ago did she pass away?

GB: It’s okay. She passed in 2011 when she was 27. It definitely hit me pretty hard. She was always really supportive.

CS: What about the rest of your family? Were they supportive of your choice to be a professional gamer?

GB: Oh yeah, my mother is always very supportive of what I do, no matter what it is. Even when I was younger and traveling to competitions she would support me.

CS: That actually brings me to a pretty big topic that has to do with your mother: ZeRo’s scarf. Can you tell me about that?

GB: (Laughing) Yeah, well my mother gave it to me when I was heading to a tournament one day. It would get cold in Chile and she didn’t want me getting sick. I use it now to represent my mother when I am away from home as a way to show my love for her. I bring it on special occasions.

The scarf comes when I need the extra boost – when I need that extra something. I put it on during the 2014 Smash Invitational at E3. That’s when it got popular, but the scarf will always be there and always has been.

CS: Your mother sounds like an important support pillar to have. Was your father as supportive as your mother was?

GB: My dad isn’t really around much. Back then, my dad was always very dodgy. Not a bad guy, just not very supportive. To say he was would be dishonest. We talk maybe once or twice a year on special occasions, like a birthday or something like that, but he isn’t really part of my life. He has another family now that he spends his time with. I don’t really consider myself part of his family.

CS: Did you have any inspirations or role models in the scene that you looked up to?  

GB: MLG was a huge inspiration for me; their Halo tournaments were really great to watch. I also looked up to players like Ken Hoang from Super Smash Brothers Melee and Tsquared (Tom Taylor), who played Halo. They were the poster boys for things back in the day. They paved the way for esports. People like them really inspired me to be where I am today.

CS: Do you remember the moment you decided that you wanted to be a professional gamer?

GB: From the age of 11 or 12, I wanted to be a pro gamer, in one way or another. Of course, having no income and coming from poverty, it seemed like an impossible dream. It’s crazy that I am here today. There was never one moment where I decided that I wanted to make this happen. I just kept telling myself from the very beginning that I was going to make this happen no matter what.

CS: And you have been doing that since the very beginning. Brawl was the first game you played competitively. From Jan. 8, 2011 to Sept. 21, 2014, you took 67 total tournament placings, 53 of which were first place finishes. What was the biggest moment in Brawl for you?

GB: It is definitely the time I beat pretty much the entire top five in Brawl, just losing to the person who won the tournament. It was at Apex 2014; I beat Ally, who is a Brawl legend, the best Snake player, and just an incredibly skilled player; then I beat Mew2King, obviously Mew2King, one of the best Brawl players; I beat ADHD, the best Diddy Kong player, legend, top five, and my personal kryptonite in the game; and then I beat ESAM, the best Pikachu, who was also a very difficult opponent for me.

I ended up losing close games to Nairo in the finals. I didn’t win, you know, but that still doesn’t make it a bad tournament. It was probably the best losers bracket run in Brawl, to be honest. I don’t think anyone can say “in losers I beat Mew2King, Ally, ADHD, and ESAM all in row, within the same day.”

CS: You seem to have a skill for playing from behind. In Project-M at Zenith 2014 you had a pretty spectacular run from losers as well. Can you talk a bit about that?

GB: I ended up going to losers Round 1, due to an unfamiliar match up against NinjaLink, who was like a hidden boss in New York. I ended up going through losers bracket and beating pretty much every good name in PM (Project M) out there. I just went out of control and won like 12 rounds in losers all the way from scratch. I think that frankly, in my opinion, that is one of the best accomplishments in Smash, period.

That shit was crazy; it was too much. I had to deal with so many different matchups, so many different characters, and so many different play styles to beat everyone from losers bracket and come back in the Grand Finals and beat a top three player in the world, twice.

CS: It was definitely a historic showing. I know that after SKTAR 3, that was sponsored by MLG, you had what you have called your worst tournament showing and decided to focus solely on Smash 4 after that performance. Can you talk a bit about that situation?

GB: Yeah, you know I was just getting burnt out from running back and forth between sets and games. People don’t understand the kind of toll it takes on you running from game to game between sets without having any time to reset between matches. Each game is different as well, so that definitely affects you as well.

CS: Well the decision paid off, because at EVO 2015 you won a prize check of $11,556, the second largest prize for any Smash tournament and beat players like Ally, Abadango, and Mr. R. without dropping a single set. Tell me a bit about that tournament and how you felt winning that decisively.

GB: That was an insane tournament. You know, I won EVO, almost a 2,000-man tournament with the best players in the entire world, and I ended up winning it without dropping a single game. It can’t get any better than that. Honestly, I don’t think anyone will ever do that again. Even the people who win EVO, or even Mango, who has won two EVOs, you know, he didn’t win without dropping a game. He went to losers, dropped games, and almost lost sets. At EVO 2015, I had close sets, but I didn’t lose a single one. I won the entire bracket undefeated. I even put myself at a disadvantage against Mr.R.

At the time, Diddy Kong was really weak against Sheik, because of two nerfs he got from patches and at that time, people thought that Mr. R was the best Sheik player in the scene. I wanted to go the Sheik ditto. I thought I had more of a chance to win with that match-up, but I ended up going Diddy Kong because not only did I feel more comfortable, but also because I didn’t want people to say I am only winning because of Sheik. I wanted to win with Diddy Kong to prove people wrong.

CS: Well your dominance wasn’t limited to just EVO 2015. Historically,  you have only lost four sets in Smash 4 against Mr. ConCon, Vinnie, Seagull Joe, and Nairo. What happened in those sets that they were able to take a victory?

GB: Well, I mean, I can explain each one individually if you want me to…

CS: By all means, please do.

GB: Well against Mr. ConCon, this was when Diddy Kong was first nerfed, and also: Luigi hadn’t been nerfed, and Luigi was crazy good back in the day, like one of the best characters in the game for sure. I didn’t have that much practice against Diddy Kong versus Luigi, because Luigi wasn’t that popular back in the day, back in the day it was mostly Diddy Kong and Sheik, so most of my practice was against the best characters. Luigi was under the radar. Obviously, that is my fault, so I won’t say otherwise, but Luigi was definitely a counter for Diddy Kong and I main Diddy Kong. Imagine the first nerf to Diddy Kong and I am fighting the best Luigi player in a counter match-up.

At the time I was practicing Sheik on the side, but I wasn’t that confident in my Sheik and even though she does great against Luigi I wanted to test my main out. So I just played Sheik after that and three-zeroed him without losing a single stock. If I had gone Sheik I would have just won the match without dropping a set, but in the back of my head, I was like whatever, it doesn’t matter.

CS: And what about Vinnie?

GB: Vinnie is actually amazing against Diddy Kong. He is most likely the best Sheik against Diddy, or at least close to it. He is also one of the best Sheik players and learns people really well when he plays against them. Vinnie actually stayed at my house for like a month before going to PAX. So imagine us practicing for like a month. He knows my play style really well, and Diddy Kong against Sheik is a hard matchup for Diddy Kong. So imagine the best Sheik against Diddy with a month to learn my play style, in one of Vinnie’s best match-ups.

Couple all of that together and obviously you are going to have a close set. Vinnie is also amazing at Sheik dittos and I don’t like to play Sheik dittos. I had to adapt to the matchup; I ended up winning the match either way, but it was a very close game.

CS: At The Big House 5 in 2015 Seagull Joe was able to take a set from you. A lot of people said that you were underperforming. What happened in that match?

GB: I mean, you can just watch the set and tell I am playing extremely under my usual level. The reason that happened is because that weekend, I had an extremely personal issue going on that was messing me up in the head leading up to that weekend. I was about to drop out of Big House because of it; I did not want to go to that tournament because it was such a big issue, but I ended up forcing myself to go because after skipping Paragon for the same reason, I didn’t want people to keep accusing me of being a coward or to keep saying that I was dodging tournaments because

I didn’t want to lose. So that pissed me off and I wanted to go to this tournament to prove people wrong. The issue was very annoying to deal with; I felt forced to go even though I didn’t feel prepared to go at all. I didn’t practice that much leading up to the event and my head was just not in the game. I lost to him and that made me extremely upset, so I just went super-saiyan mode and ended up winning the tournament anyway from the losers bracket.

CS: That leaves Nairo, was there anything about this one in particular that lead him to a win?

GB: Nairo is one of the best players in the world. He is most likely the second best player in the entire world. So you know, an extremely skilled player. At the same time, I’ve played him almost ten times and I have beaten him every other time. Obviously, at some point, he had to figure out what was going on. In one set, he had a really good moment where he was on point and was just really used to what I was doing. It’s just like well, damn, it happens.

Imagine if you have to play the second best player in the world like seven times in one year, that’s definitely amazing, but if you lose one time to him, it’s like, well shit, he is still the second best player in the world. If I don’t go to a tournament, it is extremely likely that Nairo will just win easily without issue. You never see champions winning at what they do consistently for an entire year, right? He is second in the world for a reason.

CS: In Melee, there is a group of players referred to as “The Five Gods.” How do you think you would stack up against them if your attention was devoted to Melee?

GB: I have played four of them. Mango, for me, was the hardest because he specializes in Falco against Fox, not just because of the player, but also because of the match-up. I’ve never been too successful against Falco in Melee, so him being obviously one of the best Falco players was very difficult for me. I never really thrived against Mango as a result. When it came to playing Armada, I am very good at fighting Peach and Jigglypuff, so i had an easier time fighting against Armada, as well as Hungrybox, as a result of the match-ups.

I have taken games off of both them during tournaments Mew2King is someone I used to practice with. I am pretty good against Marth and Sheik too, so I do pretty good against Mew2King. I remember one tournament where I had to play him, Zenith, the first game was down to the last hit on the last stock and the second game was dead ass to the last hit, last stock too. He (swept) me, so I am thinking to myself, “If I had done two different plays I would have (swept) him instead.” You know, people don’t even consider me that good at Melee, so it was like okay, clearly I know something if I was beating players like them.

I definitely think that if I put myself completely into Melee and I play a full year of Melee, I could have definitely been a contender for the a top five Melee player.

CS: Have you considered going back to Melee in the future?

GB: Melee is like my best friend from school. We have had that one friend who was such a huge part of our lives, but eventually things changed and you both had to move on from one another. I wasn’t as passionate about it as I was discovering a new game and the possibility of helping develop something new.

CS: If you had to pick five players to become the “Five Gods” of Smash 4, who would they be?

GB: If I had to pick five, it would be me, Nairo, Dabuz, Ranai, and I would be bold and put Anti is there as well. Even though a lot of people would probably disagree with me.

CS: I actually wanted to talk to you about being a pro gamer and the stress that comes along with those responsibilities. You have been somewhat open about dealing with stress and depression on Twitter, would you mind talking a bit about that topic? Is it an important topic for you to cover?

GB: Yeah of course, depression is an important topic for me because the fan base that watches my videos, keeps up with my content, and cares about me as a person, are young people who are very susceptible to depression. If you are young and you are trying to accomplish your dreams, you are setting yourself up for disappointment in many different ways. Depression is something that happens to people in professional gaming because it is an area that you can easily fail at. Games are usually meant to be an escape for people, so that escape becomes a place that attracts people who might be having problems.

This is the reason I play video games. For me, it was an escape out of reality. I could control another character in another reality where things are more interesting and more fun. Maybe in real life I was this little nerdy kid that didn’t have that many friends, but in the game I was an amazing guy who was going on adventures and doing all of these amazing things.”

CS: Does it become more difficult when that escape becomes your job and a source of stress?

GB: Yes, exactly. It ended up making things difficult because my job ended up being a source of stress. Even though I enjoy it so nearly and dearly, I can’t deny that it is a source of stress just based on the nature of the job and how competitive it can get.

Sometimes you just feel very down and it’s just hard to get out of bed, hard to do things, hard to talk to people. It’s hard to tell yourself you are going to talk about your problems because usually when you tell people, people with depression think that they are perceived as problematic or an annoyance or bothersome. That’s why people with depression usually shut down.

CS: What do you do to find that solace now? Or have you overcome your battle with depression?

GB: I wouldn’t say I overcame it; I would say that I learned to live with it and I kind of just know myself better as a result. It still happens, nowadays even. I try to find the things that make me happy. Certain games like Phoenix Right or Professor Layton, maybe I will read a book, or obviously, since I am engaged, I will talk to the person that I love.

One thing that I can recommend is just to find something that makes you happy and continue doing it. Don’t worry about anything else and just recognize that you need breaks from time to time and don’t be ashamed of feeling that way.

CS: I am sure plenty of your fans and community members will appreciate that advice. I also wanted to talk about was your sponsorship with Team Solomid. Can you tell me a bit about how that unfolded?

GB: Well after EVO 2015 I had a lot of offers on the table, but Leena and Max actually came right after the matches and were basically just like “let’s talk.” I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I am thankful that such a great and professional organization noticed Smash Brothers and are helping to support the scene.

I have followed them from the League of Legends scene and I am also thankful that I get to represent them. We are actually doing “TSM ZeRo: Genesis” pretty soon. That was just announced.

CS: The last thing I wanted to ask you was how you feel about the future of esports and whether or not you thought it would grow this big and where you see it in the future?

GB: It is such a great time to be involved in esports. I never thought it would get this big today. Can you imagine esports in 10 years? It is going to be crazy.

Cover Photo: Screenshot