The sun was just beginning to set over Houston when the Legends Sports Complex erupted with deafening cheers at Clutch City Clash last August. The crowd had just witnessed something it never would've expected to see: Some 14-year-old had just beaten legendary Smash veteran Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman in Super Smash Bros. Wii U.
Zack Lauth is his real name, and that day, Aug. 7, 2016, would mark the start of his transition from obscurity to stardom. The teenager from Louisiana shocked the Smash community by not only defeating one of the game's most gifted players, but by doing it in the winners' quarterfinals of a national tournament. That's talent.
Lauth placed fifth overall at that tournament after dropping a set against Elliot "Ally" Carroza-Oyarce, but he nevertheless procured himself national attention with his win against Zimmerman. There was, however, much more work to be done if he wished to remain relevant. The whole "no-name beats a top player out of nowhere" routine is a song sung far too many times in esports. Could Lauth do it again, though? Or would the world slowly forget his name like so many others before him?
The world of Super Smash Bros. Wii U is weird. It's a dynamic place without absolutes and with an ever-changing pool of challengers. Those at the top aren't guaranteed to stay there, as up-and-comers are constantly seeking to topple the gatekeepers. Lauth is in the hunt to do the same, and his impressive talent along with his colorful personality have commandeered respect and admiration from his peers and the Smash community alike.
When Lauth first played Melee around 10 years ago, he quickly developed a penchant for the series. It wasn't until 2013, however, that he discovered competitive Smash. His playful interest transformed into a fiery drive to become proficient.
"I started wanting to play seriously after watching [Adam "Armada" Lindgren] play Peach in Melee," he said. "It looked so fluid and I wanted to create that with my play in any game."
Lindgren is the No. 1 Melee player overall and is frequently cited as being one of the best to ever touch the game. It's no surprise, then, that Lauth wished to take after him and study his highly disciplined, optimized play style. Together with Lindgren's influence and his own individualized techniques, Lauth began to hone his skills to best fit his competitive endeavors.
"I tried replicating his play style when I started out, but I found it was much better to do my own thing while taking parts of his stellar game play to work it into my own play," Lauth said.
When choosing a character to play in a Smash Bros. game, two thoughts will inevitably cross the player's mind: Should I pick somebody I will have fun playing, or do I just want a character that will make it easier to win? And, after telling your friends the former when you have actually fooled yourself into justifying the latter, you finally have a main.
The logic and rationale that goes into choosing a main is different for everybody. For Lauth, Peach was his go-to character in Smash Wii U because he "never really liked any other character in the game." While some would consider other characters stronger than Peach in Smash 4, Lauth nonetheless quickly became a top-tier Peach player in his home state of Louisiana.
He was considered only slightly inferior to the state's other Peach main, Jamaal "Samsora" Morris, and for a while had yet to attain national fame. That is, however, until a new DLC character was released on Feb. 3, 2016: Bayonetta.
"If I had to choose a career-changing moment, it would probably be after Bayonetta came out," Lauth reflected. "I was very determined to be the best in the world after I saw the trailer for the character. I felt Peach did hold my skill back a little bit. Bayonetta is my favorite video game character, so I truly wanted to play her and be the best."
After Lauth picked up Bayonetta, his placings improved. Slowly but surely he was making a name for himself. He attended and solidly placed at tournaments such as Clutch City Clash, Abadango Saga, and The Big House 6, all stacked with top players from around the world. As he made his ascent to the top, however, there was much controversy surrounding his character of choice for being too powerful. What exactly made Bayonetta so good, anyway?
First, she's ranked No. 1 on the tier list. Her combo-geared play style contains moves that can consistently connect and roll into each other. This commonly scores her a "Zero-to-death," which is essentially a lengthy combo that kills the opponent when they start at 0 percent damage taken. She also possesses a strong counterattack that slows down the opponent if it connects, usually allowing enough time for her to strike a foe with a powerful move that can easily net her a KO. Basically, Bayonetta fit very cozily inside competitive play, so much so that many began to believe she was too easy a character to play. Smashers that mained her were accordingly ridiculed, including Lauth.
"At first [the hate] hurt me pretty bad," he said. "I always wanted to be recognized for my skill, but for some reason my character choice meant I had no skill to some. After a while it just got stale to me. Everyone saying the same false info doesn't really matter if you yourself know what's true."
Maybe Bayonetta is a bit ridiculous, and maybe Lauth owes some tribute to her for his success, but he continued playing regardless of the hate and gained more and more attention with his consistent top-16 placings going into 2017. Eventually, his hard work and persistence led him to place fourth at the most stacked Smash 4 tournament of the new year: Genesis 4.
Placing only behind Leonardo "MKLeo" Lopez Perez, Ally, and Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios, CaptainZack's incredulous performance at Genesis 4 meant that there was a new challenger in the midst. He defeated Jason "ANTi" Bates, Rei "Komorikiri" Furukawa and Yuta "Abadango" Kawamura, all three titans in their own right, before losing to Barrios in the losers' semis. From then on, his career skyrocketed.
At Frame Perfect Series 2 a few months later, he placed an impressive fifth among the ranks of Barrios, Samuel "Dabuz" Buzby, Perez, Furukawa and Noriyuki Kirihara. But perhaps his most significant tournament placing came a week after his stellar performance at Frame Perfect -- 2GG: Civil War.
Civil War was huge. It was filled to the brim with talent from around the world. In fact, 47 out of the 50 players on the PGR v2 entered the tournament. In the history of Smash 4, there has never been an event more difficult, and to top it all off, a fat $22,000 pot bonus was at stake.
Lauth blazed his way through the bracket, taking down big names such as Ramin "Mr.R" Delshad and Tyler "Marss" Martins. He was also the closest to taking off a set against Dabuz, who would later win it all. When all was said and done, Lauth's Bayonetta placed fourth at the most important tournament of Smash 4's lifespan. He was no longer that kid who beat Mew2King once; he was now CaptainZack, a contender with undeniable skill.
When it comes to Smash 4, new competitors will buzz like flies to challenge the reigning champs, just as CaptainZack -- whose humble beginnings in New Orleans led to his outstanding placing at Civil War -- has done. He has defied doubts about his age and has overcome adversity surrounding his character, and he will continue to do so as he progresses further down his career.
"I mostly just want to be seen as the best player in the world," he said. "Of course it's my dream and I want to accomplish it the most, but as of now I'm aiming for consistency."