For 13 minutes, Gonzalo “Zero” Barrios’ face barely moved. It was the Grand Finals match of a Super Smash Bros. Wii U tournament, and Barrios, the best Smash player in the world, was squaring off against a formidable opponent. A few feet away, Barrios’ bodyguard kept a lookout for a man who’d threatened to be there, in wait, with a gun aimed at the champion gamer.
Santa Ana’s Esports Arena glowed blue everywhere except for where Barrios and his opponent, Larry “Lurr” Holland, sat opposed on the stage. With just one life remaining, Lurr miscalculated his range on an attack, giving Barrios an opportunity to kick him into high heaven. Barrios stood up, pumped his fist and exhaled. He’d earned himself a plush $2,720 (£2,068) for a day’s work. He had also not been shot. The bodyguard followed him as he left the stage.
A few days prior to the September 2016 tournament, Barrios had read an Instagram comment that shook him. The anonymous commenter threatened to go to the Santa Ana esports arena with a gun and put a bullet through Barrios, who was recently crowned the top Smash Wii U player. Barrios didn’t take the comment lightly. Tournaments for Smash 4, as the game is familiarly known, generally offer little security. Even after hiring a private bodyguard whose son was a fan, he was worried.
“Imagine how easy this is,” Barrios told me over the phone. “Somebody walks in between all the hype and cheering while I’m playing. I’m sitting there. I’m not moving. I’m not even looking. I can’t dodge it. And then they run away,” he said.
Earlier that day, a hostile Smash 4 player followed him around the hours-long event, demanding that Barrios play against him in an impromptu money match. Barrios declined. The young man rebutted, loudly, calling him a fraud until the pro conceded. Throughout the tournament, on top of worrying about the Instagram death threat, Barrios suffered through the player’s persistent heckling. It’s something he’s gotten quite used to over the years.
Gonzalo Barrios at Genesis 4 by Robert Paul
Barrios’ achievements in the world of Smash 4 are unimpeachable: He won 56 consecutive Smash tournaments in 2014 and 2015, including EVO’s. Now, he’s still considered the top player, still grabbing first place in chunks of five or so tournaments. Other players are measured by how many sets they’ve taken off the pro. On the heels of each successive victory, haters bite. Barrios’ four years climbing rungs in the Smash 4 rankings has amounted to a life clouded by harassment. Week after week, Barrios, originally from Chile but now based in Chicago, makes a living competing at a game whose American fans, a lot of the time, hope he loses—loudly and with malice. And in between each public appearance, his social media is an open channel for strangers’ insults.
“A lot of people hate me because I’m the best player,” Barrios said. “Nobody wants to be the bad guy every single weekend. Maybe I can be that guy for a year or two, but when you’ve been doing it for four years, it takes a toll on you.”
“Is it worth it to go through these negative emotions for three days [of a tournament], win the money, come back home and see more of it? Is it really worth it for your soul? Does it make you feel complete? Is this something you want to do for the rest of your life? People go to these things to have fun, to relax. But they’re not out there with their necks [out] like I am.”
Gonzalo Barrios can barely remember a life without bullying. Back in Chile, schoolmates would attack him when teachers weren’t looking, breaking his glasses and hurling insults. The anxiety of it, combined with his family’s financial problems, led him to drop out of the school system for three years. He connected with the world outside Chile through a Nintendo GameCube that his mum picked up at a mall as an “early Christmas gift” in the month of May.
He’d hole up in his bedroom, speedrunning Super Mario Sunshine and restarting the game whenever he erred, early signs of a perfectionist. He’d sharpen his budding Super Smash Bros. skills against his older sister in Super Smash Bros. Melee, the 2001 incarnation of the game. When Barrios finally returned to school, he was forced to go through a programme for students with problems— “what people nicely in the country call ‘the dumbass path,’” he said. Outside of games, his future looked bleak.
“Say you die if you lose rock, paper, scissors. Is it a game anymore?”
Barrios’ mother accompanied him to his first local tournament when he was a young teenager. After arriving at the venue, he was too ashamed to enter the tournament with his mum there, which he said he looks back on with regret—“Now I’m like, I was missing out!” But he soon became active in the Chilean scene, amounting some level of proficiency in, and soon mastery at, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and later, 2008's Super Smash Bros. Brawl. It became his life.
People think being the best means all these things, when in reality it won't give you what you are looking for. Food for thought.
— 『 ZeRo 』 (@TSMZeRo) October 14, 2017
In 2013, when he was 18, Barrios presented his mother with a proposition: “Let me go to the US for a year,” he suggested. “If I can make something happen with Smash, I’ll continue to do it. If nothing happens, I’ll quit and come back, maybe go to college.” Barrios left Chile to live with a Smash buddy in Philadelphia, carving out a home in the family’s basement in exchange for $50 (£38) a month. One or two tournaments’ worth of winnings would supply him with some semblance of a life in the States on a shoestring budget.
“I didn’t have the money to fly,” Barrios said. “If I had to take a Megabus to go to New York for a local tournament, to Boston, I’d do that; to Utah, I’d do that, too. 12 hours to go somewhere, wait another few hours there, take a 12-hour bus to somewhere else.” Without phone or internet, Barrios would print out maps at local libraries or siphon wi-fi at a local McDonald’s, making last-minute plans with strangers who, hopefully, would pick him up on time. During downtime, he’d study recordings of top players, printing out what he calls “fight sheets” listing their skills and weaknesses.
“I beat everybody at every game there. That’s when I was like, ‘You know, I’m pretty good at this.’”
The effort paid off. His studied, methodical, and “robotic” playstyle, as it’s often called, tightened so much that opponents struggled to take advantage of what few openings he gave them. He strove for an approach he calls “optimal.” In 2014, Barrios attended a one-day tournament in Denver, Colorado. On the roster was almost the whole series: the first Super Smash Bros.for the Nintendo 64, Melee, Brawl, and even the fan-made Smash Bros. mod Project M, with events in singles and doubles. It was 24 hours of competing, and by the end, he felt close to dead. He walked out with $2,000 (£1,521).
“I beat everybody at every game there,” Barrios said. “That’s when I was like, ‘You know, I’m pretty good at this.’”
What helped him improve, he said, was that he was playing Smash just to survive. To his fellow players, losing a tournament might have been a downer, but to him, it meant not being able to make rent, or skipping meals, or not even having bus fare back to Philadelphia. That level of serious gave him a competitive edge, but also made him unlikeable and uncharismatic, as he tells it.
And when people told him, Chill out, it’s just a game? He’d respond: “Say you die if you lose rock, paper, scissors. Is it a game anymore?”
Barrios says he never attracted a fandom, despite his rampage across US tournaments. He figures that locals were pretty peeved to see some international player parachute into their scene, defeat their heroes and make off with the loot. Worse, Barrios’ studied playstyle and top-tier fighter pick—Diddy Kong—came off as sterile and stiff compared to others’ more risk-taking techniques. Scepticism and contempt devolved into straight-up vilification late in 2014 at the tournament that made Barrios, simultaneously, a villain and the earliest god of Smash 4. At 2014’s E3, games personality Geoff Keighley hosted an invitational tournament to commemorate the release of Smash 4. Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime would award the winner with a trophy. 3,000 fans watched in-person. Later, Barrios would say that, if the tournament didn’t go his way, he would have pursued another career entirely.
Nintendo dressed the event up in far more glitz and glamour than the usual scrappy, fan-run Smash tournament. Super Smash Bros. Melee champion Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma and Barrios paraded through the crowd in shiny, blue robes as Smash 4’s theme music resounded. Barrios made his way down his aisle while Debiedma took his time hugging fans, taking pictures and shaking hands. “You’re ready to get into it,” Keighley commented to Barrios, and gesturing toward Debiedma, said, “He’s really milking it.” When asked who the crowd thought would take home the trophy, the name “Zero” elicited small applause and louder boos.
When the finals match began, Barrios’ Zero Suit Samus and Debiedma’s Kirby were kinetic opponents, aggressively pursuing each other and shifting across the stage. As the match went on, the action wound down: Barrios would dawdle in one place, waiting for Kirby to approach before attacking, a strategy derisively referred to as “camping.” With each player having only one life left, Barrios played hyper-defensively, dodging and skipping around the stage. At 30 seconds left, Barrios was still hopping. He intentionally ran out the clock to put the players into the Sudden Death mode, in which the first hit wins it all. Zero Suit Samus’ superior range won Barrios the victory. It was widely considered outrageous.
“Disgraceful win, man,” read one tweet. “Running out the clock was really cheesy.”
“Way to camp, buddy,” read another. And, another: “Had to run to win, huh? Tsk tsk.” And these were the milder ones. “Fuck you camping bitch,” “Fuck you ham planet what a cheap way to win,” and “Was excited to watch the tourney, but then some fat fuck in a gay ass scarf walks up and gives me cancer,” were a few other other responses to Barrios’ victory.
Most of the negative feedback was in English; proud tweets in Spanish flooded Barrios’ feed: “Wow, I was impressed by your performance as Zero Suit Samus,” read one. “Your mobility was amazing.” “Congratulations on your victory, Chilean pride!” read another.
Barrios has a saying: It’s hard to win once, but staying the champion is backbreaking. At one point during that 56-tournament winning streak, a tournament organiser even put a $250 (£190) bounty on his head, which was pursued by hungry challengers. It didn’t take long before his infamy was met with widespread ridicule: his weight, his clothes and his playstyle were on the chopping block every day on Smash forums, groups and Twitter. His consistency infuriated fans who wanted to see more variety in the Winner’s bracket, or, at least, a player they considered more fun than the guy who won the Invitational by camping. They argued, why root for this guy if fans will just see more of the same after he wins? Twitter accounts dedicated to harassing Barrios cropped up.
Zero at The Big House 5, 2015
At a tournament in 2015, the year he was signed onto Team SoloMid, Barrios met an anime-loving Smash 4 player who goes by Banessa. After frequent conversing over Facebook, and later, on the phone, they decided to date. Banessa, who was 17, was not prepared for Barrios’ haters’ feedback on their newly-minted relationship. “They would say I’m a whore, a gold-digger,” Banessa told me. Every day, she remembered receiving random spurts of hate online. At tournaments, she’d watch on as viewers screeched at Barrios throughout important matches, intending to muck up his bulletproof focus. “It put me in a deep depression for two years,” Banessa said.
All told, Barrios estimates he’s received ten death threats. Many times a week, insults cropped up on the Smash Facebook group Melee Hell. At tournaments, the hate was less pronounced. What affected Barrios the most often, though, was not expressions of hate but the absence of love. At 2015’s APEX, the crowd booed after Barrios won—in part, Kotaku editor Patricia Hernandez reported, because they wanted the tournament to move on to Melee. 2016’s ZeRo Saga, a tournament named after Barrios, was straight-up depressing for the Smash pro. At one of the tournament’s side events, Barrios challenged five players who had defeated him over the years to rematches—an event that, in wrestling, for example, would buzz with hype. He’d spent a month training extra hard because, if he lost to even one challenger he flew out, he knew he’d be ridiculed. As Barrios tells it, he defeated all of them. But nobody clapped. The audience just murmured.
Marss defeating Zero at Big House 7, by VG
Barrios admits he’s said some harsh things, had some strong opinions, that might cause people to bristle at him. He’s criticised the Smash fighters like Lucario for being stupid. He’s had beef with other pros, some of which fizzled out and some of which still burns softly. After Barrios urged Captain Falcon players to step up their game at tournaments, one of them called Barrios “exceedingly lame” and “the kind of guy you would be embarrassed to be caught in public with.” The two made up. Earlier, after another pro called Barrios a “fraudulent best player,” Barrios had some cutting words for him: “You’re the most annoying person I know in this community. Stop piggybacking off of my name & videos to stay relevant. Done with you.” They, it seems, have not made up. There are accounts of Barrios being rude to fans, some of which he denies. Barrios says he’s said a handful of “really dumb” things on Twitter and, often, his haters will retweet them at random.
Last week, Barrios got knocked out of a tournament by two unsigned players who beat him 3-0. While he, as a rule, refuses to speculate on whether his mood affected his gameplay, Barrios admitted that he was depressed throughout the tournament. While he was in the toilets, someone came in and turned the lights off, leaving him in the darkness. It seemed like the audience was just full of haters, even those he had once considered friends. Overall, he didn’t feel welcome. He says he felt more like a punching bag than a person.
He followed up with some pretty dreary tweets. “Everybody wants to take my spot as the #1 player, but they don’t know what it feels like to sit on an empty throne,” he wrote. “Kids smile at the world and are curious to learn and live, and when they grow up, they sometimes become bitter adults who can’t enjoy the things they once did,” he said. The next week, Barrios skipped the tournament FE Saga. He was tired.
Today, Barrios is looking to find balance. He’s not happy. “I have a outlook that life is unfair. You could be the most well-meaning person and walk outside your house and get run over by a car. Nobody deserves anything. You can work to earn many beautiful things and never achieve then. I’ve had people in my life who were amazing, better human beings than me, die of illnesses, of accidents,” Barrios said—referring to his sister, who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2011, at the age of 27. “And there are awful people who nothing happens to. . . things don’t have to make sense.”
In a recent video with the Smash players Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman and Elliot “Ally” Bastien Carroza-Oyarce, Barrios is seen giggling, chasing the two down a hotel corridor while Zimmerman hits him with a pillow. At the end of the video, Barrios, who is holding the camera, aims the device at a mirror and, looking at himself, smiles. It was a smile that felt totally opposed to the concerted frown he’s known for on stage.
“Things like this make me hate you less,” read one reply on Twitter.