ZeRo embracing major pressure, challenge at Genesis 4

Smash for Wii U best Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios (right) coaches USA crew battles teammate Eric "Mr. E" Weber at Genesis 4 in San Jose, California. Rob Paul

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It's a rainy day in the capital of Silicon Valley, an area best known for its technological innovations and forward thinking. While it's gloomy and dark outside, the McEnery Convention Center houses thousands for a yearly Super Smash Bros. tournament, Genesis. On Friday, the mood is cheerful, not nearly as serious as the ones to come. In both major Smash games, there are crew battles.

For United States team captain Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios, considered the best Super Smash Bros. player for Wii U in the world, he's focused on the next days to come. Many in the crowd, who are either attendees or longtime fans, expect him to win the tournament after he took first place at the previous installment in Jan. 2016. While the pressure is on, ZeRo says he has been able to overcome the feeling of high expectations from others.

"I think you get used to [the pressure of being the best] at some point," ZeRo says. "Fine, I'm the guy who could win these tournaments. I think it gets to a point where you know you're capable of doing things but you want to be in the right mindset to do so.

"I try not to think about the pressure too much, I used to beat myself up a little bit before because of the [2015] streak, when you've won 56 tournaments in a row, then someone takes a stock off of you, it kind of gets to you pretty hard. Now, it's a lot more lenient. I can lose games, I can lose sets, you know, but I feel like people have a newfound respect for me."

Following the game-wide Panda Global Rankings, he's now the best player in the world for the second year in a row. But his journey to get there in 2016 was significantly harder than the year prior. He did not win his second Evolution Championship Series title, nor did he win his second Community Effort Orlando belt, but after a strong finish to the end of the year, which included first at The Big House 6 and UGC Smash Open, he cemented himself once again as the best.

But his lows in 2016 hit him hard, including some time away due to burnout following Genesis 3.

"It hits you hard mentally because at some point you're winning every event and then you're getting second, second, third, second, and while that's not bad by any means, it kind of tilts you, like damn dog, what happened?" he explains. "It hits you pretty hard mentally. You're doing something incredibly wrong if this is the result. It creates this weird position where you're not doing bad for almost everyone's standards, but for your own standards, you feel awful. ... It hit me pretty hard, it took me forever to get into the right mindset."

Now, back on the horse since October, he recently took first place at 2GG: Genesis Saga, the prequel to this weekend's event. He says his biggest goal in 2017 is to improve how he practices, stating that it's not about the time you put in, but how efficiently you practice.

"It became about how I could improve my practice better, studying brackets, studying players, improvising my characters, coming out with counterpicks, memorizing stages," ZeRo says. "I just had to get a whole new grip on the game. Before I had mastered some of the aspects of the game, but then I had to grab a new book and start writing a whole new book on the game. It was learning a whole ton of new things."

2017 will prove to be difficult for him again; an influx of talent toward the latter half of 2016 has given him new foes -- and old ones have improved. Notably, 16-year-old Mexican player Leonardo "MKLeo" Lopez Perez has had a stellar end of the year, while Japan has breathed life into some top-tier talent -- the likes of Rei "Komorikiri" Furukawa, Takuto "Kameme" Ono and others.

"It's funny because before I was the young kid, from somewhere else, challenging the old dogs like Ally and Mew2King [in Brawl], but now I'm one of the old dogs and I'm being challenged by the new kids, the younger kids," ZeRo says, laughing. "I think it's hilarious how it's turned around, from being in one position and then it flipped from me being so long in the season. The new players are interesting, they all have different qualities."

He says that new talent from across the globe has assisted in the game's image.

"I think it's good that there's competition everywhere," he explains. "I think it makes Smash for Wii U look really good as a sport when there is actually good players in the world; you have Mexicans, Canadians, from all over Europe, a lot of different countries in Europe, and then the entirety of Japan, very relevant. It's interesting to see all this competition around. It makes the game legit, it makes it really interesting when you can go everywhere in the world and there's a tournament to go to."

Looking ahead to a challenging year, ZeRo says he wants to practice and play harder than before, something that's hard to imagine given his previous two years. But he has hired a coach, moved to New Jersey and is practicing more often with the likes of Jason "ANTi" Bates and others in the tri-state area.

"First of all, I want to take this year way more seriously," ZeRo says. "I don't want to say I didn't take the previous year seriously. What I mean by that is that I want to make everything, I want to try my actual best as hard I can. Recently, I hired a coach, I'm currently working with [Daniel "Pierce7d" Seraphin]. He's one of the strongest coaches in the entire Smash scene, he's pretty underrated.

"It's probably going to be the most stacked of all the seasons so far because we have the 2GG [circuit], Genesis, probably EVO's going to be announced -- it would surprise me [if not]. There's CEO, there's Combo Breaker, there's a bunch of unannounced tournaments. There's some rumors about some more interesting stuff. 2017 may be even more stacked than 2016, which was already nuts."