Road to Evo: The rise of Zero

In 2015, Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios was the player to beat. Robert Paul

Rewind to one year ago. A down-air sends Sheik bouncing off the stage. Her opponent, Diddy Kong, grabs her into an up-throw, sends her flying, and to finish it off, up-airs her off the top of the stage. The man behind the controller has taken over the world's biggest fighting game tournament: the Evolution Championship Series in Las Vegas.

He may have captured his first Evo gold in 2015, but the Diddy Kong player is no stranger to the Super Smash Bros. community. At the time, Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios was the best Super Smash Bros. for Wii U player in the world. He was the man to beat, something that didn't occur until three months later at the Major League Gaming World Finals in New Orleans.

A year later and ZeRo is prepping vigorously for a chance to win an Evo title once again. Following nerfs to Diddy Kong, ZeRo used his secondary character, Sheik. Now, with Sheik suffering from patch changes and nerfs, he's back to where he started: playing Diddy Kong.

Although top players within the community still consider him the best, after a string of second-place finishes at the likes of Get On My Level, 2GGT: Mexico Saga, Wednesday Night Fights 2.5 and Smash 'n' Splash, and a recent ninth-place finish at Community Effort Orlando 2016, ZeRo has some proverbial climbing to do to regain his title.

Humble beginnings

Originally from a small town in Chile called Chillán, ZeRo, 21, has worked hard for the majority of his teenage years and adult life to get to where he is. ZeRo says that almost no one in his hometown played video games. So how did he become interested?

"There was a random local tournament there," he explained. "I just decided to go there with my mom and practice a little bit before I found out about Smash. I got 17th out of 100 people. It was a big tournament. I just kept going and going, and now I'm here."

He improved locally, and at some point, realized that he had a shot at making something of his hobby. He says gaming and Smash "grew on him," something that's hard to believe for someone who's one of the most decorated Smash professionals of all time.

"I realized, 'Hold on, I'm kind of making something out of this, so I should probably, maybe try my best at it,'" he said. "Then I ended up getting this far. It was a combination of a lot of effort, persistence, and begging my mom to let me continue doing it."

From there, the road to being the best continued, as ZeRo began to compete internationally in 2011 in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the Wii version of Nintendo's beloved fighter series. It wasn't long before ZeRo became one of the best, playing Meta Knight, the game's strongest character. Additionally, he competed in the previous version of the game, Melee.

But his love and his focus was Brawl and its fan-made mod, Project M, which sought to make Brawl similar to Melee. At Apex 2014, ZeRo took second to now-rival Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada. Months later at CEO 2014, he took first in Project M. From there, he remained on top of the Project M scene until the game stopped being supported by most major tournament organizers.

"I was considered the best in the world in Brawl at one point," he said. "Funny enough, in Brawl, it was me and Nairo for the majors and fighting for the No. 1 spot. I was the best in PM for a year too."

I ask him what's kept him motivated through all the years of competing.

"What keeps me motivated to keep going is the fact that I think I can do things," he said. "I think I can do things and I will try and I will do my best and see where it goes. It's always been the same mindset. It's been like that since day one. That's literally it."

In November 2014, ZeRo made his biggest change to date: he moved to the United States, specifically to the home of YouTuber Sky Williams, who is a well-known member of the Smash community. Around the same time frame, Smash for Wii U (Smash 4) was released.

ZeRo, unlike many of his fellow Brawl players, had been awarded the opportunity to play the game before its official release, competing in California at the Super Smash Bros. Invitational at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2014. There, he played Zero Suit Samus and managed to take down a number of Melee professionals who were also invited, such as Kevin "PPMD" Nanney, Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma and Masaya "aMSa" Chikamoto.

Once the game released, ZeRo first played Fox and experimented with other characters before settling on Diddy Kong. With Diddy Kong and Sheik, ZeRo became the world's best Smash for Wii U player. He took his first super major at Apex 2015, beating Samuel "Dabuz" Buzby in the finals and taking first out of 837 entrants in New Jersey. From there, it was a laundry list of top-10s in smaller tournaments.

He pioneered the game, bringing both Diddy and Sheik to the forefront alongside names like Ramin "Mr. R" Delshad, Dabuz, Nairo and a handful of others who also pushed the characters forward. During Evo 2015, ZeRo met with Andy "Reginald" Dinh and Leena Xu, founder and general manager of North America's most popular esports organization, Team SoloMid. And on July 28, 2015, Team SoloMid announced that it had signed ZeRo to the team.

"TSM has never pressured me or anything. They've always been super chill. They're great and I have no complaints at all," he said. "They've done everything they told me they would. They always keep promises. Very trustworthy team. It's really nice to work with a company that actually cares about you."

With the big sponsorship and all the wins, ZeRo had a target painted on his back. That target wasn't of hostility, but friendly rivalry, as many wanted to be the first to dethrone him.

ZeRo continued to win it all until October 2015, when Nairo managed to take him down at the Major League Gaming World Finals in New Orleans. Nairo's win ended something that no other esports athlete has ever been able to accomplish: a 56-game winning streak. That streak remains one of the most unforgettable accomplishments in esports history, something that ZeRo will always be remembered for. The win for Nairo was monumental, but it made ZeRo want to work harder.

ZeRo didn't sulk for long; he was quickly back on his feet. He continued taking first-place finishes at tournaments like Tipped Off 11, and then Smash for Wii U's most-viewed tournament to date, Genesis 3.

Following a few more wins at PAX Arena, Mashfest 2 and 2GGT: EE Saga, ZeRo took a competitive hiatus from Smash to rest, recoup and take care of his health.

The return and the hard climb

ZeRo returned to much fanfare in Toronto at Get On My Level. A lot had changed in the three months he had been away, including the rise and fall of downloadable character Bayonetta and nerfs to his beloved Sheik. ZeRo made the decision to stick to Diddy Kong.

"I barely play Sheik at all. Maybe a little bit, but I'd rather play Cloud [as my secondary]," he said. "The thing is about Sheik is that she became too inconsistent because I play Sheik in friendlies. I play against anyone in the world and I do really well with Sheik as always, but sometimes I do really bad too."

At Get On My Level, he fell to Elliot "Ally" Bastien Carroza-Oyarce, a Canadian Mario player. It was the first sense of complete vulnerability for ZeRo, something most fans were unaccustomed to. But dents in the armor didn't end there, as ZeRo took second to Larry "Larry Lurr" Holland at 2GGT: Mexico Saga in Santa Ana, California, in early June. Then at Smash 'n' Splash, ZeRo took second to Ally again. And most recently at CEO and WTFox 2, ZeRo took ninth and third. The once undisputed best has now shown that he's no longer unbeatable.

But in less than a week, he'll give it his all to take home a second Evo title at the Las Vegas Convention Center. With every top player in attendance and thousands of entrants, ZeRo will have his biggest challenge to date in front of him.

"I hope to win Evo," he said. "I would be lying to you if I was like, 'I hope to try my best. I just hope.' Nah, nah, nah, f--- that. I am trying to win. I'm trying to win like everyone else. Evo is such a difficult win. To be honest, if I win Evo, I'm just going to cry in my chair -- probably going to jump anyway -- but I will cry while jumping. It'd be so nice. It's just hard. Let's see how it goes."