Hundreds are in attendance at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center watching the Super Smash Bros. for Wii U grand finals showdown between Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios and Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada. The crowd has seen this matchup time and time again. Orlando, Tempe and, in the game's former iteration, Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
In Smash for Wii U, however, there was always an asterisk next to the matchup: ZeRo always wins. But not this time. In New Orleans, with his main character, Zero Suit Samus, Nairo flipped the matchup on its head. Two up-airs to juggle ZeRo's Sheik, followed by an up-B, sends ZeRo off the top of Final Destination. Commentators Terrence "TKbreezy" Kershaw and Phil "EE" Visu are shouting just as loudly as the crowd.
Now a year later, Nairo will look to do it again, but on a bigger stage: the Evolution Championship Series. This time, however, Nairo will have to weed his way through more than 2600 entrants.
The rise to the top
This time last year, Nairo took third at his first ever Evo after falling to Ramin "Mr. R" Delshad in the loser's finals. At the time, Nairo had become a staple in the previous version of the Super Smash Bros. series, Brawl, playing the game when he was 13 years old.
He entered the first international Brawl tournament at Apex 2010, where he took 25th place. In Brawl, Nairo played Meta Knight, the game's strongest character, and often faced the likes of ZeRo, who also used the character as his main at multiple tournaments. In 2012, Nairo, after taking top placings at a string of local and regional tournaments, made his first big splash at Apex, taking third place after losing to Japanese player Ishikawa "Otori" Kenta.
Nairo continued to grind in Brawl after meeting top Smash competitors ZeRo, Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, Jason "ANTi" Bates, Samuel "Dabuz" Buzby, and Elliot "Ally" Bastien Carroza-Oyarce. At Apex 2014, Nairo took his first super major singles victory over ZeRo in the grand finals.
Nairo switched to the new release of the game for Wii U alongside many of his other peers, picking up Pit as his character to play. Several months later, he began to switch between two characters: Pit and Zero Suit Samus, the latter he became famous for.
2015 started off strong for Nairo as he took ninth at Apex 2015 in Smash for Wii U, second at Shots Fired, and second at MVG Sandstorm. In mid-2015 in Orlando, he took second again to ZeRo, something that became increasingly common for the remainder of the year. His Evo performance, a third place finish at the hands of Mr. R, became one of the lowest placings Nairo had in 2015 and he quickly became regarded as the second best Smash 4 player in the world.
That followed with a deal with Team Liquid, one of League of Legends, StarCraft II, and Smash's most popular sponsor, on August 12. He was the organization's first and only Super Smash Bros for Wii U player.
"It's pretty amazing [to work with Team Liquid]. I love all of them," he explained. "Whenever I get a bad placing or I just feel like I don't do well, I always feel like I let them down, but they just tell me that I did good -- or good job. They cheer me up, basically, so that's really nice of them. I like working with them a lot."
Following the sponsorship, Nairo took the MLG victory over ZeRo in October, something that many fans expected to happen, but weren't certain about. ZeRo's return at The Big House 5 to take down Nairo showed that both competitors were neck and neck.
The slump and inconsistencies
As 2015 winded down, so did Nairo's play. His string of first- and second-place finishes came to an end. Beginning with 2016's first super major, Genesis 3, Nairo took fifth after a loss to Dabuz, who was widely regarded as the third best player within the game, behind ZeRo and Nairo.
While Nairo regained his footing at Shots Fired 2 and 2GGT: FOW Saga in March, the next super major showed that Nairo's inconsistencies were more than apparent. At Pound 2016, Nairo took 49th place after series losses to Florida Bayonetta main Sajhmori "Saj" Dunn and Japanese Robin player Mr. II
Nairo, determined to get back what was rightfully his, came back strong with a first-place finish over Ally at the Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Again, two weeks later, at Level Up Expo in Las Vegas, he took first over James "VoiD" Makekau-Tyson and Larry "Larry Lurr" Holland.
Most recently, he has proven that the disparities in his results still exist. Taking second at Dallas-Fort Worth's Low Tier City 4 boded well for Nairo, but a 17th-place finish at Community Effort Orlando two weeks ago showed improvements needed to be made.
"It's hard to say [where I fall in with everyone else] because stuff like [17th at CEO happens], results that everyone super judges [for]," he explained. "I got 49th at Pound and everyone's like, 'Nairo's not even top-five anymore.' You look at every result besides these and it's first and second for the past few months, so you can't judge off one tournament because it's not everything. I think, if I'm not ranked second to a lot of people, I'm still definitely top five."
"[Zero Suit Samus] got nerfed too, but because people think that, 'Oh, if she's winning, it doesn't matter,' but it actually does matter. It clearly matters," he said. "I think over time, she's definitely not second -- not anymore. Maybe in results because I still do well and Marss still does well, but matchup wise, not even close. She's already become a punish character."
Nairo would go on to explain the new play style of the character has thrown him off, and he'll need to adapt. But back home in New Jersey, he's been practicing multiple characters, which he hopes to soon play.
Evo, the summer, and getting back to the top
His next challenge, Evo, is this weekend. "Before Evo, I'm definitely gonna be practicing 3-4 characters to basically -- not like counter-pick everybody -- but know that [if] I lost with Zero Suit," he said, "I know X character, if I'm playing well, can beat them."
"I expect to win Evo," Nairo continued. "I want to go home for a bit, recollect myself, and do a lot of studying. I think I can [be the best Smash 4 player in the world by the end of the year]. It's not out of the realm. Now, ZeRo's still the best, but now it's just so close and about consistency. If he gets ninth for all of summer, then people will definitely say he's not the best, but no one would know who the best is, unless someone's winning every single event. It's still possible."