New challenger approaching: The rise of Zain

Zain "Zain" Naghmi (left) and Adam "Armada" Lindgren play Super Smash Bros Melee at Evolution 2018 in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. Caitlin O'Hara for ESPN

As Zain "Zain" Naghmi ascended to the stage to face Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma in the grand finals of Shine 2018, the notoriously rowdy Boston crowd was hesitant, afraid to feel hope where it had been burned many times before. Could Zain pull off the seemingly impossible and double-eliminate the Super Smash Bros. Melee world No. 1 to win his first major title? To many of the spectators already filing out of the venue following the elimination of Joseph "Mang0" Marquez at Hungrybox's hands, a disappointing outcome was all but assured.

However, it soon became clear that Zain had entered grand finals with a top-level game plan and all the skill necessary to execute it. As he began to pull ahead, mixing perfectly spaced forward aerials with a fearless dash dance just outside of Jigglypuff's range, the buzzing of the crowd grew from a hesitant murmur into a nearly homogenous roar of hype, punctuated by the occasional cheer or screech of surprise.

Five pivot forward smashes and a scattering of up tilts later, Zain stood tall, facing the crowd with his fists raised towards the sky. He'd done it -- he'd defeated his greatest demon to become Melee's newest major champion.

It wasn't too long ago that Zain had never even heard of competitive Melee, though his relationship with the game extends deep into his childhood in the woods of Fairfax, Virginia.

"My sister had a GameCube when I was, like, 5 years old," said Zain. "She actually bought Melee at that time, and I played a little of it when I was a kid pretty casually."

At the time, Melee legend Ken "SephirothKen" Hoang had already begun his rise to prominence, slinging Marth forward smashes and down aerials to overwhelm all challengers within the competitive scene. Despite the contemporaneity of Ken's rise with Zain's first flirtation with Melee, the latter's choice to main Marth had nothing to do with the former's successes.

"Even when I was five, I just thought Marth was the coolest," Zain laughed.

It wasn't until 13 years later, in May 2014, that Zain's competitive journey began in earnest.

"In my senior year of high school, I remember my friend brought Melee to our robotics class," Zain reminisced. "We played some friendlies there, and he told me that there were tournaments in Arlington, Virginia, and that we should check them out."

That tournament was called "Smash @ Clarendon," one of the most popular weeklies of the Maryland/Virginia competitive scene back then. Curious, Zain drove to the event, where he managed to win one set before being eliminated from the tournament.

"From that moment, I was pretty hooked."

On the first day of Shine, Zain escaped momentarily from the clamor inside Boston's Seaport World Trade Center, riding an escalator to the level above the convention center's main floor to recline on a stone ledge in a quiet courtyard.

Asked about his plans for the future, he made it clear that his goal was to become the next member of Melee's elite, if not the best in the world. "I think I'm a threat right now, but I want to be established, solidly top 6, or considered Plup's level."

When I pointed out that many players in the venue already saw him as a major-tournament contender, he chuckled, the excitement in his eyes betraying his humble smile.

After entering a few more locals, Zain moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, to begin his freshman year at Virginia Tech. Once he was on campus, he immediately joined the school's burgeoning Smash club, intent on improving his game.

"Everyone was around the same skill level, and we all got better together."

At a time before the Melee Games brought competitive Melee to college campuses in a structured format, Virginia Tech boasted few skilled competitors. The school's tournaments were dominated by an old-school Jigglypuff player, Sumeet "Mahone" Giyani, a senior at the university.

"Everyone just talked about him like he was a god," said Zain. "He would come to our locals and destroy everybody without even trying... no one was even close to that level."

For Zain, this skill disparity wasn't a source of discouragement -- it was a challenge. Sticking to his trusty Marth, he trained with Mahone relentlessly, slowly eclipsing his rival in skill and mental fortitude.

"He was pretty much one of the main reasons I started to get better," Zain said.

Soon, Zain began to make a name for himself within the local scene, entering as a relative unknown at Maryland local Xanadu only to top players and cut a path deep into the bracket. At Super Smash Con 2015, just over a year after he entered his first local, Zain defeated Cameron "Cyrain" Smucker and Arjun "Junebug" Rao, finishing at an impressive 33rd. A few months later, he won Maryland/Virginia's "arcadian" -- a tournament for players who don't qualify for their local scene's power rankings -- with ease.

"I was pretty good at that point, good enough to be ranked," said Zain. "But it was kind of nice that I got to enter, because now I have an arcadian to my name."

To make his way into winner's side of grand finals at Shine, Zain had to defeat Mang0, the former world champion and the second-place finisher at last year's iteration of the tournament series. But as the emcee shouted his name, Zain didn't appear to be rattled by the high stakes of his upcoming match. When he closed out his victory with a final edgeguard, he nodded curtly, fist-bumping his opponent before turning lackadaisically towards the crowd.

Zain has never lost to Mang0. His winner's finals victory at Shine was his third consecutive win over the Falco main. However, the secret to these victories was not reckless confidence. It was humility.

"At this point I treat all of my opponents pretty equally," said Zain. "Treat them as if they're Armada. Even if they're people in round one pools, you have to respect every opponent."

Zain wasn't particularly excited about any of his wins over locally ranked players. By the time he received his arcadian victory, he had already set his sights on higher targets. In October 2016, he traveled to Detroit, Michigan, for the Big House 6, his second supermajor. It was there, in the second round of pools, that he faced his first top-level opponent: Justin "Plup" McGrath. Though the odds were stacked against him, Zain knew that he had a chance to win.

"I didn't put that much pressure on myself going into it, so I was able to play with a clear head," said Zain. "My punish game was at the point where, if he made one antsy approach, I could zero-to-death him."

At first, only a small group of friends stood behind the television to watch Zain face off against Plup. As the Marth main began to pull ahead, the set-up pulled in a crowd, yelling with excitement as Zain took the first game.

"My friend who filmed it was actually popping off while recording it," Zain recalled.

In the next game, Plup was unable to adapt, falling victim to an onslaught of forward smashes. The final result: 2-0, Zain's favor.

"It was one of the most amazing feelings I've had in Melee," he recalled.

After winning one more set, Zain finished his run at the Big House 6 at 17th, all but ensuring himself a spot in the year-end top 100 rankings and becoming a household name within the Melee scene nearly overnight. At his next major, Northern California's Genesis 4, Zain felt eyes on him for the first time as he entered the venue.

"There was a sense of new expectations, of having to perform," Zain said. "I hadn't really had time or any experience of dealing with that at that point."

At Genesis, Zain failed to follow up on his run at the Big House, losing to Zachary "SFAT" Cordoni and Ryan "Ryan Ford" Ford to finish at 33rd. The experience taught Zain a valuable lesson about the stress that comes with a strong reputation -- and though he didn't know it at the time, it would be his final finish outside the top-32 bracket at any major event.

Grand finals of the Collegiate Starleague Melee circuit were streamed, as always, at Shine, months after the end of the academic year. Though Zain graduated in May, he competed alongside his alma mater one last time in order to secure victory for the Virginia Tech Hokies.

As his squad's anchor, Zain entered the crew battle with a ten-stock deficit. He put together a valiant effort, taking six stocks from his enemies at the University of Central Florida, but his run came to a close in the form of a knee finisher by Jason "Gahtzu" Diehl, Central Florida's closer.

Though he wasn't able to take his team all the way to victory, Virginia Tech's run to the finals is a success story for Zain, who carried a relatively unstacked team to a stellar second-place finish. Zain may not have entered Shine's doubles bracket, but it seems obvious that he's a team player all the way through.

Zain's increased notoriety following his run at the Big House 6 put a target on his back, but it also came with its fair share of benefits. After defeating Plup, he found himself at the center of attention when it came to sponsors.

"[Panda Global founder] Alan Bunney was in the crowd when I beat Plup. A couple months after that, he contacted me."

At first, Panda Global asked Zain to join its "up-and-comers program," a stable of developing talent who played under the Panda Global banner with the goal of eventually gaining a full sponsorship. The deal eventually fell through, but Zain's relationship with Panda Global persisted over the course of the next year.

Starting his 2017 season with a debut at 66th on SSBMRank 2016, Zain began to put together an impressive resume, placing no lower than 17th at every major he attended after Genesis 4. Perhaps his most impressive win of the year came at Smash 'N' Splash 3, where he pulled off a reverse 3-0 over William "Leffen" Hjelte, clutching out a close final game. For Zain, it was a lesson about the importance of a strong nerve and a good mentality during high-pressure situations.

"He started bringing it back the last game on Dreamland, and he shine spiked me, and I remember thinking to myself in that moment -- if I lose this, I'm actually going to throw up on the stage."

Of course, he didn't lose the set, and his win over Leffen became one of the signature victories that boosted Zain up to the 22nd spot on SSBMRank 2017, alongside a major Top 8 finish at Super Smash Con 2017 and a strong second-place finish at Pat's House 3.

"There was a sense of new expectations, of having to perform." Zain "Zain" Naghmi

"When you start getting better, you start getting more opportunities, and these opportunities include playing the top level," said Zain. "Just getting to play top players constantly, that's how I get better. I feel like I play up to someone's level."

After the Big House 7, Zain was approached once more by Panda Global, this time with a full sponsorship offer. He happily accepted.

"The thing that really stuck out to me about Panda Global was how invested they were in the Smash community," said Zain. "Part of their bloodline is Smash, and I think that's really cool."

With a loyal sponsor and reduced academic responsibilities as his college career came to an end, Zain leveled up even further in 2018, posting solid results in the first half of the year and earning a third-place finish at Smash Summit 6. Since then, he's assumed his rightful spot as one of the "demigods" of Melee, claiming the No. 9 position on the Melee Panda Global Summer 2018 rankings.

At Shine, Zain showed that his rise is unlikely to end where other "demigods" plateaued, double eliminating Hungrybox to take his first major tournament over three members of Melee's vaunted "Big Six."

"The new god has emerged," howled commentator Vish "Vish" Rajkumar.

When asked how he felt the morning after Shine's stunning conclusion, Zain said, "Give me a bit. I'm still processing."

Zain is but one of many Melee players struggling to wrap their minds around the implications of his victory. At the top level, Melee is a relatively monolithic esport; most matchups have seemingly been solved, and most elite competitors have played the game for over 10 years.

Zain is an outlier, a self-styled "documentary kid" who started playing Melee deep into its "platinum era." But over the last two years, he's taken Marth further than many thought was possible, overcoming players and characters that once seemed insurmountable.

"Whenever I pick something up, my intention is to become the best," Zain said. "So from the moment I started playing, I had the intention of becoming number one, and that hasn't really changed since."

If Shine 2018 wasn't a fluke -- and few would dare say it was -- Zain's once lofty goal of topping the rankings is starting to look like an inevitability. And whether or not the Marth main is successful in attaining the No. 1 spot that he so desires, he's already written his name in the annals of Melee history.