In esports there are stories of prodigies. Heroes who have triumphed thanks to their undying love of the game. And players that proved their doubters wrong through hard work and skill alone. While all have faced adversity in their quests for greatness, none have earned the title of “the greatest” and willingly chosen to walk away from it.
None, except for ZeRo. But the story of the King of Smash 4 isn’t made of happy memories. ZeRo’s throne is a lonely one, sitting in a kingdom built on a foundation of torment, years of hard work, and a role he never wanted: the villain of someone else’s story. “Even people that I will consider my friends actually want me to lose” ZeRo’s reign was incredible, but the path he took to get to the top was greater still. This is his story. Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios was born on April 17, 1995 in Chillán, Chile.
He started playing Smash in 1999, at the age of four, when the original Super Smash Bros. released on the Nintendo 64. But ZeRo had a difficult childhood. “I pretty much from the very beginning I saw the ugly side of many things.” “A few things happened, you know, very very awful experiences happened where kind of like everything shattered.”
“So then my parents were not together anymore.” “The sense of family was destroyed. I didn’t have a stable home for like the majority of my childhood.” “I was pretty much in poverty for a a long period of time.” After his parents’ divorce, his mother was unable to find steady work.
And while his family’s financial struggles may have taken a toll on him, the bullying he experienced at school was worse still. “In school I was always the fat kid that no one really gave a shit about.” “No one cared. Like whatever I thought about anything, they never cared.” “I was always quiet because people always told me to shut up.” Zero ended up dropping out of school, but he found refuge in a Gamecube his mother bought him.
After spending countless hours in front of a TV playing Super Smash Brothers Melee, ZeRo decided it was time to test his skill against others. ZeRo attended his first Melee tournament in 2006, but didn’t actually play in it. “I just couldn’t. I just couldn’t play. I just turned around and told my mom ‘let’s go home, I’m too nervous.” Eventually, ZeRo would not only overcome his fear of competition, but grow to love the thrill of it.
From there ZeRo was hooked. He started going to more tournaments, and when he wasn’t competing he worked , picking blueberries with his mother so that he could afford to go to even more Smash events. He began dominating the local Chilean scene. First in Melee, then in its sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. He discovered that, in America, people like Melee legend Ken “Ken” Hoang and Halo champion Tom “TSquared” Taylor were making a living as professional video game players. In 2011, ZeRo picked up his first recorded tournament victory: first place in Chile’s second national Brawl tournament.
After repeated successes on home soil, ZeRo realized that it was time to take his talents to America. ZeRo’s first ever international event was Apex 2012, where he placed 17th in singles and ninth in doubles. (Casting) But placing that low wasn’t enough to make living on.
ZeRo returned to Chile, but the promise of being able to live off Smash like others were doing was intoxicating. In 2013, ZeRo asked his mother to let him go to the United States for one year to try and make a career out of Smash. If he couldn’t do it, he’d go back home, maybe go to college, and leave the game behind for good. ZeRo moved to Philadelphia and began to eke out a living. He would practice Brawl, compete in tournaments, and use the money he earned to pay his friend’s family some rent for letting him stay in their basement.
“In fact, they didn’t even charge me anything for the first few months because they wanted to me to get a foot on the ground pretty much, and kind of like start making some money.” “And then they charged me a little bit. They pretty much charged me like $200 a month just to live there.” Which was extremely generous. Everything else was re-invested into Smash so that he could attend more tournaments. He spent hours on buses, going from Philadelphia to New York to New Jersey to California to Maryland, all while studying videos of top Brawl players to find weaknesses in their game.
And his studies paid off. ZeRo turned heads with wins over some of Brawl’s best players. (Casting) In private, Mew2King told him he had what it took to become one of the best. Over the next while, ZeRo competed and placed at a myriad of tournaments, and in time, his wins began outpacing his rent. However, despite being successful enough to no longer worry about making a living, ZeRo never established himself as a dominant force in Brawl on the level that Mew2King and Nairo were.
But then, he got his big break. At E3 2013, Nintendo unveiled Super Smash Brothers for 3DS and Wii U. With series creator Masahiro Sakurai saying that the game would fall somewhere between the pace of Melee and Brawl.
For E3 2014, just a few months ahead of the game’s launch, Nintendo held an invitational tournament with some of Smash’s biggest names, including ZeRo. With the world watching, ZeRo didn’t waste his opportunity. (Casting) “The body high that you get off of a win in those conditions is inexplicable.” “Like it is the kind of body high that I can be 80 years old and I will still remember that, because it was that impactful.” “I will say it was one of the best moments I have ever lived in my existence.”
Sure, the event didn’t exactly play by official tournament rules, but his grand finals win over Hungrybox put ZeRo on the map. ZeRo kept playing Melee and Brawl up to Smash 4’s release, but Smash 4 called to him. At Sky’s Smash 4 Invitational, the first tournament to be played with competitive rules, ZeRo placed third. After that?
There was no stopping him. First at UGC Biweekly, Triumph or Die 2014, Super Smash Weekend, Super Smash Saturdays, UGC Biweekly, Double Vegas Down Attack , SkillCon, USC Smash, Warriors Path, CLASH Online Invitational, Double Vegas Down Attack, Final Battle, Smash 4 Worldwide, COTU 6, Apex 2015, Showdown 6, Cyberzone, The Gaming Zone, Shockwave, Aftershock, Double Vegas Down Attack, Come on and Ban, NorCal Regionals 2015, MVG Sandstorm, Chokaigi 2015, Fire and Dice, Smash 4 Oomba , Oblivion Tournaments Bi-weekly , Smash 4 Oomba, Fire and Dice, Double Vegas Down Attack, Fire and Dice, Fire and Dice, BESST 2015, Combo Breaker 2015, Double Vegas Down Attack 10, La Paradiso, CEO 2015, FC Smash 15XR, EVO 2015, MSS 1, Top Cut Comics and Poplar. 43 tournaments into the longest win streak in esports history, ZeRo was signed by Team SoloMid. And he wasn’t done yet. Between November 2014 and October 2015, ZeRo won an unprecedented 53 tournaments in a row. 53 tournaments in 11 months.
ZeRo wasn’t just winning a few big tournaments and ignoring the rest, he was grinding out more than a tournament a week all over the United States. If you had a local, ZeRo was willing to make the trip and take your money too. And he wasn’t just winning. He was dominating.
(Casting) He wasn’t just the best. He was unbelievable. (Casting) Perhaps his most impressive individual feat came at EVO 2015, when ZeRo became the first Smash player to ever win the tournament without dropping a single game. (Casting) Back in his glory days, Ken, the man ZeRo looked up to at the beginning of his career, was known as the King of Smash – ZeRo became the first person to ever truly inherit that title. But when you’re the king, you will always face a challenge to your crown, and at MLG New Orleans, Nairo would bring ZeRo’s incredible streak to a dramatic end. (Casting) Despite losing his air of invincibility, ZeRo bounced back, proving why he had reigned for so for so long.
(Casting) But after 64 recorded first place finishes in just over a year, an injury forced him onto the sidelines. “So every time I shield or tech it really hurts. So imagine every time you’re playing the game, some actions will pain you.” “It’s not the type of pain where you get pinched or something, it’s the type of pain where like someone hits you.” “It pains really bad.”
Even during his hiatus, ZeRo was ranked as the greatest Smash 4 player in the world. But two months was a long time to go without real practice and it started to look like his opposition was beginning to catch-up. ZeRo finally returned to competition in Canada at Get On My Level 2016, where he managed to place second. It was an incredible showing for someone who hadn’t played seriously in two months. But ZeRo’s results were going to remain inconsistent.
Second at 2GGT: Mexico Saga, second at Smash ‘N’ Splash 2, Ninth at CEO, his first time missing Top 8 in two years. (Casting) Third at WTFox 2, third at EVO 2016, and ZeRo hit his lowest point yet with 13th at Super Smash Con 2016. (Casting) ZeRo was beating solid players, but losing to lower ranked, or at the time unknowns. People were ready to write him off. But he triumphed at Endgame in Illinois, beating EVO champion Ally and crushing Mew2King with a perfect JV3 stock in the Grand Finals. (Casting) ZeRo won Shine 2016 the next week without dropping a single set, a performance reminiscent of his dominant era.
But again, his form dipped. ZeRo took a fall in March 2017, finishing 49th at 2GGC: Civil War, his lowest placing ever. (Casting) After that, he only missed Top 8 twice, and brought home 31 first place trophies. Including wins at CEO Dreamland, 2GGC: Nairo Saga, CEO and Shine 2017. (Casting) ZeRo achieved everything he wanted to do when he left Chile.
He was the absolute best player Smash 4 had ever seen. There was no one left to beat, nothing left to conquer. “I wanted to beat everybody, I wanted to beat every single character, every single player.” “I wanted to beat the best players from Japan, the best players from every state. I just wanted to build something that I felt was unshakeable.”
“That I felt I would be so satisfied with that I could just, turn the page on it and look back on it and say I did all that work for that. I built something that I’m proud of.” The same day he announced his retirement, ZeRo was ranked first again. Even at the very end, he was still the best player in the world. From the height of his dominant streak to inconsistent days of placing outside of Top 8, ZeRo earned every win, every triumph, and every bit of praise he received. ZeRo started from nothing, but by dedicating himself to Smash, through making it his life.
He found success. “You know, even if I have the worst loss of all time, even if I feel like the game sucks – whatever reason I feel at the moment – “I still always come back to it, I still always enjoy it. It still always makes me feel the most out of anything.” ZeRo went from no one to one of esports’ best. From a poor kid in Chile to the King of Smash 4.
He scrounged by on tournament winnings, never underestimated his opponents and always studied, always practiced for the next fight. “My goal was never to like make money with this, or be popular.” “I just hope that other people that may be in my position just look at it, and says ‘hey, if this person so few resources could manage to do all this, get this far, maybe I can do it too with anything.'” Regardless of whether ZeRo returns one day to dominate as he did over the last few years, nothing can take away from his legacy and the obstacles he overcame along the way to attain it.