Years of so-close-but-so-far losses washed away for Eric "ESAM" Lew last month in Laurel, Maryland.
The Panda Global star, a 14-year veteran of the Super Smash Bros. esports scene, had just clinched the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate title at Glitch 7 in September. He jumped up and screamed, his neck undulating from the force, and fell to the ground bringing his hands to his face. He had done it. After nearly a decade and a half of competitive play, the Pikachu main had won a major tournament.
"I've been up there so many times, and I've never been able to close it out," ESAM said in an interview a week after his win at Glitch 7, "and it felt so good to finally do it."
Life relentlessly rejects to the point of farcicality. And we've all been through droughts like ESAM's: the dozens of nerve-inducing job interviews that seem to go great only to come back with a no. Some may view that no as a devastating loss, while others carry it with stride.
Regardless, when that yes finally does come, there's a feeling of elation and relief that's both freeing and electrifying.
ESAM is a veteran of the Smash community, and one of the only multi-game specialists. Because the Super Smash Bros. games have all varied mechanically, players tend to stick to the game of their specific preference rather than jumping on to the latest title. That's why there's still a massive community around 2001's Super Smash Bros. Melee, while newer players have gravitated toward Ultimate.
But ESAM, who started entering tournaments at the age of 12, was there during the early days of competitive Melee, moved on to Brawl in 2008 and picked up Smash 4 in 2014 before jumping to Ultimate this year.
He's played against all the greats. Cloud9's Joseph "Mango" Marquez, Alliance's Adam "Armada" Lindgren and Tempo Storm's Jeffrey "Axe" Williamson gave him some memorable matches in Melee. He said he loved his Smash 4 sets against Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios, Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada and James "VoiD" Makekau-Tyson. And in Ultimate, two other faces come to mind for ESAM: Team SoloMid's Gavin "Tweek" Dempsey and Echo Fox's Leonardo "MKLeo" Lopez Perez.
Back in 2016, ESAM was voted on to the Smash Summit 2 invitational. Melee fans were upset that ESAM, a Smash 4 player at the time, was voted in over a Melee player who many felt would have been more deserving. In a lengthy Reddit post, ESAM argued that he felt his attendance would help him grow as a player, and that frankly, he didn't care what his critics were lobbing at him. While ESAM didn't tear through the tournament, he did have his moment of glory when he beat Adam "Armada" Lindgren, arguably the best Melee player of all time (and recent Esports Hall of Fame inductee) during the team competition.
But that's the thing. ESAM has always had moments. Amazing combos against top players or major wins in quarterfinals. But that first-place trophy was never quite close enough. ESAM is a highly competitive player, but he never took the failures as a demerit of his skill. Rather, he accepts losses as nothing more than being outplayed by his opponent.
In ESAM's opinion, it's fruitless to get mad over it.
"I just have a really healthy mindset. I'm not going to throw my controller," ESAM said. "I prioritize having fun over winning, but also playing against the best people and outsmarting people is so fun, so I want to do it all the time."
While Glitch 7 was a stacked tournament, with players like Rogue's Paris "Light" Ramirez and Team Liquid's Samuel "Dabuz" Buzby in attendance, MKLeo and Panda Global's Tyler "Marss" Martins were notably absent. But this weekend at The Big House 9 in Detroit, Michigan, almost every top player except MKLeo will be in attendance. And given the history this tournament series has on the Smash community, pressure will be high to take a first place finish in the Motor City.
"Sometimes I just mess up because I'm not playing well. Like it's hard to be at peak all the time, which is one of the things that is impressive about Leo," ESAM said. "He basically almost always gets top-two, mostly. It seems that he's always at peak or that his 90% play is just better than everyone else's."
Win or lose, ESAM is a fan of incredible play, even if that play is being thrown against him. It's a personality quirk that distinguishes ESAM from other esports athletes. ESAM often talks to his opponents between games, complimenting their play.
"If I play someone and they do something amazing, and it blows my mind -- like, 'Oh my god, that was so good. that was god-like,'" ESAM said. "I appreciate them doing crazy plays to me, which is why I'm someone that's very OK with losing."
Now, this is not ESAM excusing a 14-year competitive career without a major win. For ESAM, all those losses have been building to that eventual Glitch 7 win. And despite not having much hardware, ESAM is still a major voice in the Smash community, a popular content creator on YouTube and Twitch and seems to have a good relationship as a representative of Panda Global.
His interesting mindset when it comes to winning and recent results make it hard to get a read on ESAM going into The Big House 9. He's not someone trying to pull off a two-tournament streak, but he does firmly believe that if he's playing at the top of his game, he's unstoppable. And beyond all the speculation and nerves leading into The Big House 9, one thing is certain:
"If I'm going to lose," he said, "I'd rather lose in a crazy cool way."