This set is being called the greatest competitive set since Smash 4’s release. Before this game, no player had taken more than one game off ZeRo at a major, and at his last major, Evo, he didn’t drop a game. ESAM showed cracks in ZeRo’s undefeated armor and showed that he is beatable, even though ESAM lost the set overall. I want to look at two games that I think showed high levels of adaptation and game knowledge: Winners Finals Games 2 and 3. This is part 2 of this 2 part analysis: Game 3
Note: I will be using this video of the match. The time stamps I use are from the game time, and I highly recommend following the match video with the analysis.
PG | ESAM: Pikachu
TSM | ZeRo: Sheik
ESAM has other characters he’s played in the past to great success (notably Samus vs Larry Lurr at CEO), but with winning the last game there isn’t a great reason for him to switch off to a secondary. For ZeRo, he also has no true reason to switch characters here. Sheik is the best in the game, and unlike Evo, ZeRo lost a game. Diddy Kong may be a character ZeRo likes, but at this stage, Diddy is objectively worse than Sheik. As another note, ZeRo had control for most of the last game by staying between Pikachu’s thunder jolt (t-jolt) and short hop threat ranges. He lost the last game mainly off smaller mistakes and a big mistake that lead to an SD. If ZeRo fixes his movement by lowering his roll count and less predictable short hops, he should be able to edge out a win if ESAM doesn’t figure out new strategies to pierce ZeRo’s defensive movement in neutral.
Stage: Final Destination (ZeRo’s counterpick)
It’s rare to see ZeRo counterpick since he rarely drops a game. With battlefield, Town & City and an agreement to go back to Smashville as possible good stages for Sheik, ZeRo’s choice of Final Destination, the stage where Sheik had the worst results on at Evo, is strange. I think this pick is more characteristic of ZeRo over picking a stage that benefits his character. From his comments on the first set he’s lost in tournament vs Mr. Con Con, he didn’t switch characters due to his pride on Diddy Kong, allowing a bracket reset and a switch to Sheik to easily 3-0 the Luigi main. Even then, ZeRo is a smart, reasonable player, even with his pride. It’s Winner’s Finals in a Bo5 set and it’s only game 3. He can spare a stage or two just to prove something to his audience.
Changes to look out for
I would like to see ZeRo roll less and mix up his movement options, mainly his short hop fast falls into X, and dash dance-b-reverse-needle cancels and dash-shields. His needle cancels aren’t perfect at this stage, but they are enough to trip up ESAM. From ESAM, I don’t want to see him use t-jolt while in mid-range of ZeRo, especially off stage. That was his first death last game, and allowed for ZeRo to counter his game. ESAM’s quick attacks were beautiful last game, and ZeRo’s ledge game was unrelenting. These two aspects I expect to see adaptation to avoid from their opposite numbers.
ESAM changes how he approaches compared to last game. He dashes in and shields while ZeRo chooses the same option as before by standing and charging needles. In this case, ESAM takes center stage control, but ZeRo has the offensive threat due to needle coverage and the utility of needle canceling into grounded options. ESAM dash dances waiting for ZeRo to approach. Dash dancing in this game isn’t seen to great effect as of yet, though both of these players are trying to utilize it mix-up their opponents approach and get-up options. Here it works, as ZeRo goes in for a dashing shield grab which slides him slightly forward and standing grabs. If ESAM continued to dash dance, this would grab him, but at the moment ZeRo shields, ESAM short hops into a f-air. Because it was a standing grab, ZeRo is able to recover before ESAM, shield a possible hit-box (ESAM didn’t contact ZeRo’s shield) and short hop fair. ESAM lands and up tilts. The hitbox for up tilt comes out frame 7 behind Pikachu. From behind, Sheik has few options that would beat this speed, especially out of shield. The short hop F-air from ZeRo gets him out of Pikachu’s deadly up-tilt combos, and gives him space to possibly turn around safely. ESAM chases ZeRo across the stage, taking superior position due to being closer to center and because ZeRo’s back is towards ESAM still. Fortunately, Sheik has a faster dash speed, and he’s able to needle cancel>dash dance forward then shield facing center stage. While impressive, this movement isn’t completely necessary. A b-reverse needle cancel>shield or dash shield accomplishes the same task in less time while being easier to do. Doing this he may have been able to power-shield the ESAM’s perfect pivot up-tilt. Instead, what happens is that ZeRo drops shield for a grab while ESAM up-tilts a second time and hits him.
Fast Fallers don’t mix well with Pikachu’s up tilt. This up tilt is especially strong because it’s hitbox knocks opponents towards the center of Pikachu. This extends how many up tilts can hit. In this case, ESAM knows exactly how many up tilts it he can do, 6, before he has to use another move to extend the combo. The following u-air>n-air is a true combo that is then strung into a falling f-air. Because ZeRo fell into the ground while still being hit, there was no place for him to tech out of the combo, so ESAM’s turn around grab is guaranteed and the double u-air is a true combo. After this, the extended string is done, but ZeRo doesn’t react to ESAM falling and getting another u-air off. This may actually be ZeRo’s safest option. Air dodging can be hard read, so ESAM could get even more of a punish or extend the string further. Double jumping is always a semi-risky affair as double jumps are massively important for recovering and repositioning. Bouncing fish would still be hit most likely and ESAM definitely gains ground control. Being hit by the up air at this percent only moves ZeRo away while still above stage. It gives him time to think and react to another option without showing any of his own thought process or panic by doing a gut reaction. Being hit in this case shows that ZeRo’s in game mentality and nerves are strong, even in high pressure situations and after dropping a game. Even if ZeRo doesn’t know that it’s not a true combo, he recognize the risk of being hit by a patient ESAM waiting to punish any reaction ZeRo does harder than if ZeRo decides not to react.
After being hit, ESAM lands and full hops another up air, but ZeRo decides to act and double jumps to avoid the juggle. Attempting to land, ZeRo does make a general gameplay error and tries to land near ESAM. Even worse, he lands with a f-air over a move like n-air which will cover more area around him and have similar low landing lag. ESAM quick attacks behind ZeRo and hits Sheik with the second quick attack. Finally, ZeRo is able to avoid being hit further, and lands with a f-air and shields. ZeRo begins short hop fast falling (shff), creating a wall. ESAM tries to penetrate it, but is f-aired out of quick attack due to Pikachu’s extended hurt-box. Due to ESAM being at 0 percent and possible strong downards direction influence (DI), ESAM only slides across the ground and ZeRo can’t follow up. ZeRo continues his shff wall in neutral. ESAM’s f-smash looks like a roll or dash grab read. Considering after low percent f-airs last game, ZeRo often dash grabbed, and that he began rolling more last game, this is a reasonable move, and because ZeRo is playing much safer this game, it’s not punished.
ESAM tries to break through the shff wall again with quick attack. This time he strikes before the f-air hit-box reaches its mid to low point. His second quick attack doesn’t hit, but it forces ZeRo to respect any follow-up and shield. Immediately after shielding, ZeRo shff f-airs, but ESAM runs and pivots away then short hop n-airs, avoiding ZeRo’s grab while throwing out a hit-box. ZeRo then shff back airs, hitting ESAM. This neutral exchange shows good options by ESAM to break Sheik’s wall, but also ZeRo recognizing his win condition is to play out the neutral, keep his play safe, and only go for commitment if one of his strong neutral options is pressuring ESAM enough. ZeRo’s grab after the back air was used as ESAM shielded, likely afraid of another f-air, pivot needle or f-tilt. The f-throw bouncing fish is free percent, and ZeRo pushes ESAM offstage, where most of his gameplay shined last game.
ZeRo goes for safe coverage options on stage, making sure to charge needles, then n-air a possible high quick attack. ESAM recovers to the ledge, but ZeRo just holds shield. No matter what option ESAM picks, it will either reset to neutral or give ZeRo an advantage. ZeRo punishes ESAM’S f-air and then punishes ESAM again by dashing in, shielding, grabbing and gaining more free percentage. Just from a few neutral exchanges and an offstage situation, ZeRo evens the game out after the terrifying 67% combo string by ESAM. ESAM lands, returning to neutral and ZeRo begins his shff wall once more. ESAM reads ZeRo’s timing, takes advantage of how ZeRo isn’t immediately using f-air as he jumps, and goes for his own shff f-air. They trade hits. ZeRo lands first, charges needles, and ESAM quick attacks in. For all useful purposes, charging needle options are 1-2 frames slower than standing if a Sheik knows their needle fidgeting tech. ZeRo is able to shield the quick attack and f-tilt, setting up for a f-air. ZeRo dashes forward and shields, an option he is taking much more liberally this game. He blocks the falling f-air and continues blocking the f-tilt since his back is turned. Trying to punish a Sheik for standing and throwing out a move will not work. After ZeRo’s f-tilt, he power shields ESAM’s d-air due to having low lag on nearly every move, and n-airs to punish.
Following up, ZeRo dash>shields twice at different distances. This results in both players having their backs towards each other when ESAM lands. From behind, Pikachu will typically win due to Sheik having poor options to cover short characters like Pikachu. Out of shield, Sheik’s best options would be an f-tilt, but she suffers both shield drop lag and turning. ZeRo tries to jump away, but ESAM up tilts because it’s hitbox comes out behind Pikachu first. To follow-up, ESAM jumps and tries to bait out an air dodge. Seeing ZeRo refuses to dodge this stock, he tries a f-air, but ZeRo trades with a back air. ZeRo tries to needle ESAM’s landing, but ESAM quick attacks over and into ZeRo, popping Sheik up for a free u-air. ZeRo tries to bouncing fish out of the situation, but misses the attack and giving him worse positioning relative to ESAM. Pikachu u-airs again and double jumps n-air sending Sheik off-stage.
ESAM begins charging an f-smash at the ledge. This only gives ZeRo less pressure about which option he can take as Sheik’s hurtbox on grabbing the ledge is diagonally out and below the ledge. Unless ZeRo misses an easy ledge grab, he won’t be hit. ZeRo may have been able to punish ESAM for the f-smash, but decides to jump and bouncing fish out, resetting to neutral. ZeRo dashes in and shields out of neutral. Expecting this, ESAM spot dodges then grabs. by the time the grab comes out, ZeRo short hop f-airs, expecting a jump>aerial option after the spot dodge. Both attempts are adaptations to how each player has been playing the neutral this stock. ESAM then turns and f-smashes out of neutral. I’m not sure what he was reading, or maybe if it was a mis-input for a forward tilt, but it nets him nothing. ZeRo full hopped, which lets ESAM recover from the f-smash. Upon landing, ZeRo perfectly spaces a f-air on ESAM’s shield. He avoids being grabbed, then uses his first roll of the game and shield’s ESAM’s n-air in time to punish with his own n-air. ZeRo reads the double jump, but not the fade back and misses his u-air. ESAM lands for free and f-smashes again while ZeRo needle charges.
From this distance, ESAM is free to full hop t-jolt. ZeRo runs in and makes his shield eat it before ESAM lands then backs away with shffs. ZeRo tries for a needle fidget, but is too slow after the shield input and is up thrown. ESAM misses the thunder sweet-spot DI punish, but ZeRo misses teching the ground and air dodges and can’t punish. ZeRo holds shield while ESAM goes for a roll read up-smash. ZeRo uses a second roll just to reposition himself away from ESAM, then dashes forward to grab ESAM during the up smash charge. It’s not the most optimal punish, dash>vanish would likely be the best punish in this situation, especially since it may kill due to charging increased knock-back, but the grab allows him to control ESAM’s positioning. ZeRo reads the immediate air dodge after his throw, but ESAM waits and air dodges the double jump u-air. The u-air still frame traps Pikachu into a f-air and ESAM is forced off-stage.
ZeRo makes his most aggressive option this game and goes for the off-stage bouncing fish. ESAM double jumps to avoid it, t-jolts the air, and is hit by a needle. ESAM quick attack above the ledge, making ZeRo respectfully shield. Then ESAM goes for another roll read up-smash, only to be grabbed again. ZeRo misses his up air and ESAM lands. ESAM is desperate for the up-smash read and does it again while Shiek stands, shields and dashes back. ZeRo is patiently waiting for his grab opportunities while ESAM is going for guesses on ZeRo’s movement instead of hard reads. ZeRo is no longer short hopping. He shields, but ESAM quick attacks into the shield anyway. Pikachu lands behind Sheik in the brightness, and ZeRo goes for a turn f-tilt while ESAM jumps over the slow backwards OoS option and n-airs ZeRo off-stage. ZeRo double jumps to avoid the t-jolt going over the ledge. ESAM hits ZeRo’s recovery with an up-air and quick attacks to the ground to take advantage of Sheik far above him. ESAM dash grabs too early and misses, letting ZeRo jump and back-air ESAM off-stage. ESAM’s play for the last few seconds has been sloppy at best while ZeRo isn’t taking the most optimal options in situations, but is playing patiently enough to punish ESAM’s mistakes.
ZeRo lets ESAM grab the ledge for free and just shields at the edge of get-up attack range. He then shff f-airs hoping to cover standard get-up, get-up attack, and frame trap a roll get-up. ESAM jump get ups, but cancels the momentum with a quick attack. ZeRo perfect shields then short hops over the quick attacks then backs away towards center stage. As ESAM approaches, ZeRo rolls away which is dangerous considering the amount of roll read attempts ESAM has been attempting. ESAM plays it safe; however, and dashes into shield like ZeRo has been doing this game. For the second time, he has the correct read on ZeRo’s defensive shield, but miss-spaces his dash grab. This leads to the first stock of the game. Even though ESAM avoided the first down-throw up air with a double jump, ZeRo dashes and jumps again to hit ESAM with a second up-air.
This stock, ZeRo has played incredibly patiently. He rolled conservatively, toned down his needle fidgeting movement in favor of simpler dash shields, and gone for less risky ground options in general. ESAM, while he’s had some good reads on ZeRo’s shff movement, hasn’t done well to adapt to dash shields and has been more inclined to go for hard reads on rolls, which ZeRo has only done rarely this game. Keep in mind that last game, the first stock was lost at 5:05 on the game clock. ZeRo’s slower play is shown in the game and on the clock.
Like last game, ZeRo uses his rolls to help juke and time out ESAM’s invincibility until he can start shff f-airing again. For the first six seconds, both players use their movement and no to little risk attacks without getting a hit on each other until ZeRo gets a shield grab on ESAM’s dash shield at 4:14. ZeRo double jumps, missing the double f-air follow-up. Upon landing, ESAM shows he’s still going for options that are greedy. ZeRo has dash>shield> so much this game that grabbing dash approaches is becoming a better and better option. ZeRo has gone unpunished for dash>shield nearly every time. Options such as standing grab, dash dance grab, quick attack, or full hop falling aerial can make it so that ESAM can at least control the pace of the game instead of ZeRo. ESAM’s up smash is blocked and ZeRo gets a f-air to punish and goes back to neutral, throwing needles. He hasn’t thrown needles the entire game, so the extra 7% comes in as a nice surprise against ESAM.
Accepting that it’s neutral again and ZeRo is finally using needles as an attack, ESAM does a full hop jolt to hopefully create some space or a potential follow-up. ZeRo runs up and power shields it again, immediately followed by shff as ESAM is pushed back to the ledge by ZeRo’s movement and positioning. Mixing up his neutral, ZeRo f-tilts after his shff instead of go for a second one. It hits ESAM as he likely expected the second shff and wanted to interrupt that. ZeRo gets two more f-airs and positions ESAM off stage. Prioritizing safety with his coverage, ZeRo just n-airs above stage to cover roll-get up and quick attack while having no landing lag. ESAM instead grabs the ledge then quick attacks before ZeRo can react. Both hits connect, popping ZeRo up for a possible follow-up. To escape, ZeRo double jumps>bouncing fish, exhausting both of his aerial momentum options outside of a wave-bounce needle charge. ZeRo is tricked out by ESAM’s dash to center stage and tries to direct Sheik away from ESAM’s current direction; however, ESAM pivots out of dash and f-smashes. The f-smash reduces Pikachu’s hurt-box so that ZeRo’s falling f-air misses. When the f-smash hitbox comes out, it extends past Pikachu and hits Sheik, taking ZeRo’s stock. Accidental or not, this spacing is incredible.
Even in invincibility, ZeRo dash in and shields twice. ESAM goes to the ledge, using invincibility to wait out invincibility. ZeRo respects it, backs off and charges needles. ZeRo waits to see what ESAM will do, then throws needles. ZeRo dashes, rolls and needle cancels away from ESAM, waiting for his opening. ZeRo eventually goes for his dash>shield, but ESAM stops his dash and can’t perform his grab before ZeRo rolls away. He tries for another dash grab towards ZeRo but misses due to Sheik’s ground speed. ZeRo short hops over Pikachu, but is intercepted by another up-tilt at 0%. ESAM gets only five up tilts partially due to rage and the height ZeRo was first hit. ESAM gets the free up air, but ZeRo f-airs ESAM’s follow-up f-air since and the situation resets. Both players use their shff f-air options, spacing each other out. ESAM breaks the stalemate with quick attack. The first hit connects. The second whiffs, but repositions ESAM away to avoid follow-ups. The player’s return to posturing over center stage. Because the distance is increased, ESAM can t-jolt safely. Notice how, in comparison to last game, ESAM hasn’t done one t-jolt if ZeRo is close to him. At 3:40, ESAM’s t-jolts have successfully netted him center stage, begins playing neutral from closer to center.
During ESAM’s f-air at 3:37, ZeRo rolls behind, but both players don’t turn around for their punishes. ZeRo’s f-tilt and ESAM’s grab do nothing. Both players are positioned with their backs to each other, so generally, ESAM has an advantage due to his up tilt. ZeRo shields, and ESAM spot dodges, perhaps worried about the turn grab. Then, ZeRol rolls to the left, and ESAM full hop up airs in an attempt to catch out a jump from ZeRo. ESAM retains center stage, but now ZeRo is on the left side instead of the right. They return to neutral. This is the frustrating part of Sheik. She can choose to return to neutral instead of pushing advantages or attempting to gain positional advantages. She is strong enough in neutral that returning to neutral when the Sheik has an advantage is the safer way to win a game over pushing advantages. Add to this that ZeRo doesn’t need to approach, even with worse stage positioning due to his percent lead. All ZeRo needs to do is wait, mix up his neutral so that ESAM doesn’t read his options, then punish the few openings ESAM is leaving. ESAM needs to take more aggressive stage positioning due to the percent and to give ZeRo less space to run. Unfortunately, Pikachu can’t poke through a shield easily. Pikachu has to hope to get a grab or hit Sheik’s movement options out of shield. Considering how ZeRo is playing incredibly safe, this must be frustrating and mentally exhausting for ESAM.
ESAM takes his aggressive position further by dashing in and shielding, but spot dodges. ZeRo takes advantage and grabs during the vulnerable end frames. The free bouncing fish after f-throw balloon ZeRo’s lead and resets to neutral once more. Through needles and dash>shield, ZeRo contests ESAM’s control of center. ZeRo is able to catch ESAM t-jolting too close after he dashed in and shielded, getting a back air, pushing ESAM towards the ledge. ESAM covers his landing with a t-jolt, hitting ZeRo’s shield, and quick attacks, catching ZeRo, but not leading to any follow ups. ZeRo is still in control of center and begins his shff tactics. ESAM dashes in, and ZeRo concedes center to keep and keeps his rhythm going. He has no need to challenge ESAM at this point due to the 51% lead. ZeRo does go aggressive with one shff f-air and is punished by ESAM. ZeRo must have expected a short hop aggressive option since he did an immediate f-air off his short hop. Notice how ESAM crouched the f-air either way. Crouching can mess with a Sheik’s normal spacing by forcing them to miss-space f-air for a standing target to hit a crouching target. Shielding from crouch immediately interrupts the crouch and will powershield an attack that was spaced for the crouching position. Even if ZeRo spaced well for ESAM’s position, ESAM could power shield the f-air and get a punish normally not available to a spaced f-air on shield.
At this percent, the best ESAM can get from a down thrown combo is an u-air or n-air due to rage. ZeRo bouncing fishes to get out of the corner and ESAM chases, wanting to keep control. ZeRo shields the first set of quick attacks, but his shff after is interrupted by a second set of quick attacks. ESAM tries to go for an up-tilt, but ZeRo shields in time and f-tilts into f-air. Like how ESAM’s first stock is taken last game, ESAM tries to cover himself from high with a t-jolt. ZeRo reads into this and lands, double jumps and uses bouncing fish. He throws a grenade to cover high recovery options and forces ESAM to go towards the ledge.
ESAM does a normal get-up and ZeRo gets the punish grab. ESAM is not quite in kill percent to down throw>up air 50-50 setup, so he goes for a forward throw and tries for a bouncing fish read. He misses, but at worst, ESAM is allowed back on stage while the situation resets with ZeRo having center stage. ESAM approaches with a t-jolt, which ZeRo is uncharacteristically hit by. ESAM doesn’t get the n-air follow-up, and ZeRo rolls away and throws needles for easy percent. ZeRo then dashes in, takes center stage, and shields. Both players roll the same direction out of shield, leading to ESAM having his back towards Sheik’s front. ESAM short hop u-airs since it’s hitbox starts behind him. ZeRo whiffs the grab because ESAM jumped. ESAM avoids another grab with quick attack, landing behind ZeRo’s shield. He n-airs it just in case ZeRo drops it and drifts backwards. ZeRo counters by dash grabbing. ESAM is now in up air kill percentage after the throw and pummels.
Again, ESAM is very good at avoiding ZeRo’s up throw setups. He correctly guesses when to air dodge, and is able punish ZeRo with n-air. Both players drift to the left, giving ESAM better stage control. On landing, ZeRo dashes back, then shields ESAM’s f-air, holding it for all 5 hits, but mis-inputting his turn around grab for a turn dash grab. ZeRo dodges out of ESAM’s dash grab, and ZeRo begins short hopping only to have ESAM continue the chase with quick attack. With all of his rage and ZeRo’s careful play, ESAM needs to go in on ZeRo and try to force something while being safe on ZeRo shield. ZeRo’s main win condition is getting the down throw into a 50-50 kill set-up, so while ESAM is being aggressive, he needs to avoid being grabbed at all costs. ESAM lands near ZeRo, but ZeRo messes up his grab spacing this time. They both end up in shield while ESAM’s back is towards ZeRo’s front. Both jump out of shield at the same time, but Sheik’s n-air comes out faster than Pikachu’s backwards n-air hitbox.
ZeRo plays the ledge conservatively again, waiting for ESAM to choose his option over forcing an option. ESAM jumps, covers his landing with t-jolt and ZeRo shff’s back and resets the situation. ESAM goes for a down tilt as a possible dash read, but ZeRo avoids it by dashing away, needle canceling, turns and dash grabs. Instead of down throw, ZeRo mixes it up with a forward throw, forcing ESAM to DI differently and jump to escape the up air. Similar to the first stock, though not exactly the same, ZeRo double jumps a second up air, hitting the jumpless ESAM and taking the game. This was a smart change by ZeRo to Sheik’s normal kill set-up of down throw>up air since the forward throw has lower vertical knockback. ZeRo didn’t need to use his double jump to reach Pikachu in the air and had it to catch ESAM’s landing after the first up air.
ZeRo cleaned up his movement and approach to the game. His dash shields were put to great effect, often netting grabs or aerials in reaction to ESAM’s responses. While ESAM still had good reads on ZeRo’s short hop movement tricks, he wasn’t able to effectively punish ZeRo’s dash shields and the pressure Sheik’s forward out of shield options had. Though he couldn’t take advantage of dash shields, whenever ZeRo had his back to ESAM, ESAM capitalized greatly.
This game showcased why ZeRo is the best player in the world while playing the best character in the game. ZeRo committed to nothing, resetting to neutral constantly, purposefully giving up stage positioning in favor of safety knowing that Sheik’s moveset will either allow him to out manuever, out range, out speed, or at the worst, trade with most of ESAM’s options. Compared to last game, ZeRo began respecting ESAM’s ability to read movement, and used his safest options to run away, approach and attack when the opportunity presented itself. ZeRo’s play is adaptive and safe, and I wonder if any player will find a hole in ZeRo’s wall of safety before 2015 is over.