Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios has been more than just a competitor in Smash 4 for the last year. He has been Smash 4.
With a dominating win streak spanning more than 50 tournaments, ZeRo established himself as the best. Now, that is becoming a distant memory.
Jason “ANTi” Bates secured his first major title last week at CEO. In the Top 64, playing on a stage modeled after a boxing ring, Anti tore through the likes of James “VoiD” Makekau-Tyson, Cory “False” Shin, and Ramin “Mr. R” Delshad without losing a game to any of them. His real test began in winners final against Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby. In a back-and-forth-set where both players utilized character swaps, ANTi cinched it with his Metaknight and Mario.
Following that, ANTi waited patiently for Julian “Zinoto” Carrington to rise from losers bracket. In a hot streak, Zinoto managed to defeat Yuta “Abadango” Kawamura and decisively avenged himself by beating the man who sent him to losers, Dabuz, in the losers final.
In the first stage of the grand final, Zinoto looked unstoppable. ANTi’s Mario couldn’t match Zinoto’s Diddy Kong, and he swiftly reset the bracket. After losing the first match of the second set, ANTi changed to Cloud, making it his fourth character used in CEO. ANTi’s adaptation was enough to get inside Zinoto’s head, reverse the momentum, and secure victory.
ZeRo, meanwhile, watched outside the ring’s tethers. Eliminated before the top eight for the first time in his Smash 4 career, ZeRo could do little more than offer Zinoto coaching as a fellow Diddy Kong main.
This could realistically be the year where the overarching storyline of Smash 4 fundamentally changes. Nintendo’s addition of DLC characters like Cloud and sweeping adjustments to the game shook Smash 4 to the core. Several top tiers, like Zero Suit Samus and Sheik, were nerfed in quick succession, making it difficult for a player to simply jump from top character to the next. Perhaps the metagame of Smash 4 was ready to advance. At the same time, ZeRo recovered from an injury that limited his ability to practice. For months, he was absent from tournaments, and anarchy took his place.
After observing tournaments like CEO, Smash N’ Splash 2, APEX, Low Tier City 4, and others, it is clear that ZeRo’s empire has collapsed. In the chaos, it is every man for himself.
That’s not meant to discredit ZeRo, nor say it is impossible for him to return to his overwhelming level of success. Although he probably feels discouraged, it will be interesting to see if he finds the discipline to train and keep up with the changing times.
Fueling this change is the metagame itself. Smash 4 has reached its maximum level of diversity. No character — with an arguable exception of Mario — has been as dominant as others since the glory days of Sheik and Diddy Kong. At CEO, 13 characters were used in the top eight alone. Players like Dabuz and ANTi are finding success with secondaries, using them as counter picks in a matchup. Whether or not this becomes the standard in Smash 4 depends on possible future patches, the exploration of a character, and an individual’s improvement. It’s still possible for some players, like Zinoto, to compete at a high level with a single character, but perhaps that is something we will see less if more individuals expand their character pools.
As an esport, Smash has always been a series that has belonged to the community. With little assistance — or recognition — from the IP owner, the task of funding, broadcasting, storytelling, and competing fell on the most impassioned fans, which are growing in number. Entrants to Smash 4 tournaments have been consistently growing– CEO 2016 had 394 more participants than 2015, and EVO announced it has the most entrants participants in Smash 4and Melee with more than 2,000 each.
Some of the new blood entering the scene shows promise. At Smash N’ Splash 2, Nicholas “Ned” Dovel made an impression by defeating Elliot “Ally” Bastien Carroza-Oyarce and Zinoto in his run in the top eight. He fell swiftly to ZeRo in winner’s finals, and had to rematch Ally in loser’s finals. Losing that, he was just shy of advancing to the grand finals against some of the best Smash 4 talent. Ned was only seventeen years old.
This growth coincides with ZeRo’s decline, interweaving the narratives together. This relationship is not one of cause-and-effect; not every new player is defeating ZeRo. He is mostly losing to other competitors that have been professionals in Smash titles for a comparable amount of time. But the juxtaposition of the two trends underlines the reality of the scene.
Smash 4 no longer belongs to one man. It belongs to the people.