Zain ushers in new era, beating Hungrybox to claim Melee title at Genesis 7

Zain "Zain" Naghmi defeated defending Genesis champion Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma in Super Smash Bros. Melee at Genesis 7. Courtesy of Li Hoang

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Zain "Zain" Naghmi leapt out of the black-and-white racing chair and several feet into the air as the crowd roared in excitement. His girlfriend, Arris, rushed the stage and embraced the professional Super Smash Bros. Melee player as he held back tears, which seconds later could no longer be contained. Zain crossed the stage, gave his opponent, Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma, the No. 1 Melee player in the world, a hug and turned toward the thousands sitting in attendance at the Paramount Theatre, letting out seven fist bumps in celebration.

Zain had just become the Genesis 7 Super Smash Bros. Melee champion.

His victory capped the annual Northern California weekend that marks the kickoff of the Super Smash Bros. competitive calendar. With upset wins across the board, in Melee and its sister game, Ultimate, Genesis 7's three-day event showed a community continuing to thrive among a weekend packed with esports competitions, from League of Legends in Los Angeles and Berlin to Dota 2 in Leipzig, Germany, and Call of Duty in Minneapolis.

At the center of it all was Zain, a rising star whose journey from a competitive netplay player to a major offline competitor has captivated the Super Smash Bros. Melee scene the past three years.

"I've been thinking about this day for a long, long time," Zain told ESPN following the victory. "Last year was a lot of heartbreak, a lot of Game 5s lost. But I finally closed it out."

Genesis 7 isn't Zain's first major victory, but it is by far the most prestigious. In August 2018, a bit more than three years after he entered his first major tournament at Community Effort Orlando 2015, Zain defeated Hungrybox to win the Shine 2018 title in Boston. Zain's poor record against Hungrybox before Sunday (4-17) tells the tale of the 23-year-old's battle to claim titles. The two have met in some of the most important moments of Zain's career, but often, the veteran Hungrybox won.

To capture the Genesis 7 title, Zain beat Hungrybox twice, first in a winners semifinals set and again in the grand finals. Hungrybox wasn't the only one in the way, though, as Zain faced another Smash titan, Joseph "Mang0" Marquez, who alongside Hungrybox is considered one of the "Five Gods" of the game. Zain had tough moments, but his brilliance Sunday led to his victory, and his ability to keep his composure proved more important than ever.

"Being very conscious of my mentality and keeping it cool, like adjusting my breathing, focusing on my heart rate," Zain said. "Those were key, key aspects of this grand finals win. I think that this will be a big step forward to many more victories."

Zain is among a young class of Super Smash Bros. Melee players who have ushered in a new era of the 19-year-old game's competitive scene. In a trend started by the likes of William "Leffen" Hjelte and Justin "Plup" McGrath, others such as Zain, Cody "iBDW" Schwab and Justin "Wizzrobe" Hallett have brought new life into the game after Adam "Armada" Lindgren retired in September 2018 and with Kevin "PPMD" Nanney remaining sidelined due to chronic health issues.

"It's very, very healthy for the game," Zain said. "It's very healthy for the game to have this new blood coming in, especially with iBDW. I think he'll be on the rise and in a bunch of top 8s. The longevity of the game looks good right now. 2020, there's so many people that can take tournaments. It's just very, very exciting. Melee's looking good."

For Zain, the performance at Genesis marks the start of a decade in which he hopes to win more titles and become more consistent. Consistency has been his biggest challenge, but Sunday showed that he can do it, at the tournament now considered Melee's largest since the Evolution Championship Series no longer has Smash in its lineup and Community Effort Orlando is likely to make a similar decision in 2020.

"[My hope is to] recapture and remember how I felt in this top 8," Zain said. "It was very flow-state. I wasn't thinking too hard or stressing too hard. Just remembering that feeling and carrying it to every other tournament. I feel like I've always been good with my preparation and practice. Just keep that up. I think I can take a lot more this year."