Author's Note: This article was originally supposed to be posted a while ago (ZeRo was a member of vVv at the time, now he is not), but things happened. Posting it now because I put a lot of work into it. It's original finish date was late January.
Hype at Apex 2012 after OCEAN defeats Mew2King in Brawl
January 6th was the start of something great – another year of competitive gaming. Another twelve months of excruciating disappointments, epic upsets, and undeniable victories began at Rutgers University, New Jersey, where the first of many huge fighting game-oriented events took place. Over a thousand players, and hundreds of spectators, showed up for a three day spectacle that actually happens quite often. Yet, each tournament is magic.
This event was Apex 2012, housing huge events for Super Smash Bros., Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, Mortal Kombat, and Pokemon Black/White. The biggest game was Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii, with over four-hundred entrants in the singles competition, over one-hundred teams in the doubles competition, and even more that came to practice, play friendly matches, and watch some of the most intense matches the community had ever seen. While the Americans obviously made their presence known on their home turf, players from Japan, Europe, and other far reaches of the world did not go down without a fight – Japanese Brawlers Otori and Neitono would take first and second, respectively, in the singles competition, shutting down 15 year-old and New Jersey native Nairo from taking home the gold.
The passion that filled the largest room of the venue on the third day of the event was so overwhelming that you could barely catch your breath between the roars from the audience after a big KO and the sighs of disbelief when a crowd favorite fell. However, very few could actually match the passion filled in one specific player. Not many had heard of him until a few months prior to the tournament; his potential had not been seen in America because this huge international event was also his first ever tournament in the states. He was very known for his skills online, but when it came to event day, many were unsure of how he'd fair against the extremely stacked Apex turn-out. There was a lot of uncertainty with this young Brawl player.
“My name is Gonzalo Barrios, better known as “ZeRo.” I am a 16 years old high school student and competitive Super Smash Brothers. Brawl player from Chile, South America.”
ZeRo (right) stands on the Apex stage next to Apex 2012 host Alex Strife
Gonzalo wasn't a stranger to me, however. Knowing each other through competitive gaming organization vVv Gaming, we talked often over AIM late at night, or whenever Gonzalo could get a hold of a computer. He was always willing to send me a greeting whenever he could in hopes of striking up a conversation, which would usually result in my praising of his skill in Brawl and questioning when he would finally come over to the United States to take out our top players.
But, when he finally told me that he'd be making it out to Apex 2012, I was a bit shocked. He was actually going to show up. A young kid from Chile, would he be able to manage such an experience? Of course, I had my worries, but I continued to support him, because I honestly couldn't wait to meet him.
ZeRo, as most call him, wasn't known by too many people in North America, but those that did know him understood that he was one of the best players in Chile going into Apex 2012, and arguably one of the best players in all of South America. His near-flawless records on online ladders was only further supplemented by his constant first-place finishes in local tournaments in his area. Seeing Gonzalo's tag at the top of a Chilean results post was as commonplace as it could get.
Talking to him after he had decided to make the trip to New Jersey, he expressed to me how his passion for Smash was driving him to attend the event, even if he didn't place well. “I'm a really competitive person. And, well, competing at my favorite game of all time, it's just my perfect activity. I can't imagine something I would enjoy more than what I am doing.”
What always stuck out to me the most was that he probably worked harder than most people to attend such an event. His English was surely sound, thanks to his mother.
“In Chile, video games come in English so the only way that you could play them was by understanding English. All I wanted to do was play Zelda and Super Mario 64, but I didn't understand a single word of what they were saying! So my mom helped me with her infinite patience, and an English dictionary, and translated into Spanish every single word whenever I had a language problem. She even accompanied me and helped me to solve some of the puzzles in both games. I would get straight A's in my English class, and I would be able to play my favorite games, and finally be able to understand what was going on! I also finally understood what the rules were about in Smash 64!”
Learning a second language is difficult, but hard labor is even more so. One of my colleagues and good friends, who goes by the name of Chibosempai, posted a blog about the preparations Gonzalo was making for the event. When he mentioned that Gonzalo had to sell a lot of his personal belongings, like clothes and game consoles, to make the trip, many felt for him. But an entire website was moved when it was explained that he worked for only $1.50 an hour picking fruits outside his city to pay for the trip. I know very few people who would get a paying job that offers salary or pays above minimum wage to go to tournaments, let alone pick fruits for essentially pocket change. I don't even know if I could have brought myself to do that.
In the United States, times are tough, but sometimes we forget how poorly others have it on a daily basis. “It's really hard,” Gonzalo said, “In Chile, the money is awfully divided. There are people who don't do anything and win millions, and people who work all day everyday and barely make $360 USD per month. Too much contamination in some cities, like Santiago. Plus, you can't have a “normal” job until you're 18 years old, and the education has a lot of problems, too.”
However, the trip to Apex was still too worth it for Gonzalo to pass up. Thanks to the generosity of a few Brawl players, ZeRo got free housing just before the event, and was comfortably taken care of before, during, and after the tournament. He was all smiles the entirety of his stay, from the time he woke up to the time he crashed in his hotel bed.
Alongside a large prize purse, Apex winners also took home trophies and fight sticks.
When I finally got to meet Gonzalo in person for the first time, he was shocked with happiness. He couldn't wait to tell me about his trip and how much he had been practicing for the tournament. His game was on point, he'd tell me, though he was still worried about the American and Japanese competition, especially players like Otori who used the same character (Metaknight) as he did. His biggest focus was the singles competition, in which he was hoping to place extremely well. It was almost unreal that he was only 16 and stood so much more of a chance to claim victory.
His age definitely did not stop him the entirety of the event. In the singles competition, Gonzalo blasted through two rounds of round-robin pools, making his opponents look like amateurs. Minus a very small number of slip-ups, he was playing on the same level as any other top player at the event. “I felt I did very good, but I just choked at some points, due to nervousness, or match-up inexperience, which cost me some important games,” he said. He still looked poise to put a dent in the results of the following singles bracket.
Though not a favorite to win the event, a lot of eyes were on Gonzalo to take out some big names. His first challenge came from DRN in Winner's Round 1 of the 64-man bracket that followed the two round-robin pools. DRN, though one of the Deep South's strongest Zero Suit Samus players, could not manage even one win in ZeRo's victory over him. Trevonte would also fall to Gonzalo in the following round. The victories were hard fought, but Gonzalo still kept a smile on his face.
But then he ran into Kakera. Now, Gonzalo told me of the American competition he had been facing, specifically that while he wish he had more experience against the American players, he felt like he still stood a chance because, as it seemed, his South American community had learned a lot from those in North America, so he saw many similarities. Kakera of Japan, however, did not exhibit these similarities. The American and Japanese meta-games have become quite different in both play style and rules. I should know: Kakera absolutely demolished me in my first round pool with Metaknight and Ice Climbers, doing some very stylish and technical maneuvers on a player that wasn't even of his own skill. I was curious to see how he'd fare against not only a player close to his own skill, but one of South America.
Gonzalo was stressed, but ready to give it his all. If he won, he would go on to face either Ocean or Mew2King, the former a Japanese ROB player and the latter one of the most skilled players known to Smash history in both Brawl and Melee. He'd have a tough road ahead of him, but unfortunately that path never opened – Kakera took a solid victory over ZeRo in close matches. A few slip-ups cost Gonzalo position, even some lives, and ultimately it all built up in culmination of Kakera's victory. Needless to say, the two players shook hands and went on their way.
ZeRo (far top right) watches a hype Brawl match between his own matches.
While Kakera would have an impressive run in the rest of the singles bracket, finishing 5th and earning $320 for his placing, ZeRo now had to work his way through the loser's bracket to have any chance at finishing in the money. He hoped that he'd get farther, but in came Rich Brown for his next match. Rich Brown, hot off wins over Holy of Canada and Tyrant of southern California, was ready to take on the South American prodigy. Brown's numerous top placings were a great sign of his skill, but thanks to my trip to E3 2011 last year, I was able to meet him for the first time and get a few rounds of Smash against him, thus I had experience with the SoCal Olimar's talent. It is without a doubt that Rich Brown is one of the strongest Olimar players today, so when ZeRo and Brown finally met, it was hard to say who would win.
With both of their tournament lives on the line, Rich Brown and Gonzalo faced off. A crowd developed around the match, and from the beginning Rich Brown had no problem putting ZeRo into trouble. It was hard to accept it, but it seemed like SoCal would take it over South America in this match-up. ZeRo's inexperience against American players certainly showed, but he put in one hell of a fight. It just wasn't enough for him to advance; Gonzalo would ultimately placed 13th out of ~400 entrants in the singles competition.
Despite the loss, Gonzalo couldn't have been less excited. “The competition was insane. I have never seen so many excellent players gathered in one place. Way too many names, I was so excited. The people that impressed me the most were DEHF, Mew2King, Ally, Kakera, Otori, and Rich Brown. Incredible players. Nothing more to say.”
On the contrary, he had a lot more to say and do, as a matter of fact. Gonzalo continued to play friendly matches and money matches with the rest of the Brawl community as the third day of the event went on. Gonzalo went around and talked to as many players as he could, as well. I was even able to play against him for a little bit. After our matches, I think it'll be a long time before I'll ever get a tournament win on him.
Now, Gonzalo is finally back in his home country, and since his return I was able to get a hold of him and ask him more about the event.
“[Apex 2012] was just the most awesome experience I've had in my life. So many good moments, in and out of the game. The American community...they're amazing. So many cool and awesome people. They really go out of their way to help other Smashers, which is great. I truly felt the word “community” while being there. So many good talks, community meals...awesome stuff!”
Being as young as he is, I also had to ask him what his plans are for his post-Apex 2012 Smash career.
“I'm going to keep practicing, and attend more international tournaments. I need to get better, there is so much room for where I can improve at this game! I can't wait to compete with the best of the best again! Outside of the game, more than anything, I want to keep a good balance between Smash and school. I want to be a lawyer. I'm going to put the same dedication that I have put into Smash into becoming a lawyer. Not the best one, but the best one I can be. Which I'm sure I will be the best one anyway. Ha!”
It will most likely be a while before I see Gonzalo again. However, I know that I'll most likely see the same person, despite the fact that he'll be older and much more skilled at whatever he's still pursuing. I can't see him changing, he's one of the most passionate people I've met in a long time. And I think the trip was good for him, to experience such a tournament was almost like a dream to him. But until we meet again, I'll continue to keep my AIM window open in hopes that he shoots me a message every once in a while. It's not unlike Gonzalo to hit me up to tell me about his day or how his practicing went. And I'll always answer to let him know that what he's doing is great and that I love hearing about it. Because I do, and I hope he knows it. He's got more potential than you'd believe, and I hope he lives up to his expectations at the next big event he goes to. It'll be great to see his biggest dream finally come true.
“I'm a really energetic, crazy and happy person. I usually go out of my way to help or make someone else happy, even if it somehow affects me. However, I usually never know when to stop... in general! I'm a really competitive person, and I don't like to lose. Even in friendlies! I take tournaments really seriously, and I try to practice as much as possible for them. However, I am a good sport. I don't like to john after I lost because it's disrespectful to the other players, and I always give a handshake to my opponent, even if I don't like him/her. That's just how I am.”
Photography by Robert Paul (robertpaul.smugmug.com).