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 will be a two-part analysis. This is part 1, Game 2.
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.
Sheik vs Pikachu is close to a 50-50 matchup. Where Sheik can normally control horizontal space with needles and short hop mix ups, Pikachu tends to full hop thunder jolt or quick attack from neutral positioning which both avoid Sheik’s needle control. Thunder-jolts (T-jolts) don’t disappear with needles and they fall at an angle that covers Sheik’s normal neutral short hops while also keeping Pikachu safe. Pikachu also isn’t gimped by Sheik by conventional methods, so Sheik’s fair chains become less effective as a kill threat at low-mid percents and only give damage and positional advantages. Thunder disrupts Sheik’s high recovery, combos,and momentum while also working as a kill threat off throws and controls vertical space. Sheik has less tools in neutral, but is still difficult to punish without reading movement. Her combos are threatened by thunder, but they are still effective if Sheik is frame perfect or moves away from thunder. Sheik has many tools to disrupt quick attack’s extended hurt boxes. Even though needle camping Pikachu isn’t as effective as usual, Sheik can still play a mid-range game by short hopping just out of range of Pikachu, forcing Pikachu to choose poorer options to punish Sheik. If there is any advantage out of this match-up, it’s likely in Sheik’s favor, but thinking about the tools each character has, I’d say this is a 50-50 matchup.
Stage: Final Destination (ESAM’s Counterpick)
Pikachu likes flat, open spaces much more than Sheik does. Duck Hunt and Final Destination are both key counter-picks for Pikachu that we’ve seen used to great effect at Evo with Battlefield and Lylat as neutral counterpicks. FD makes it so that Sheik doesn’t have as many options for recovery. The flat surface makes it so there are zero possible interruptions to thunder and T-jolts, allowing Pikachu to control space diagonally below and above Pikachu without platforms to interrupt. As mentioned in the matchup, Sheik can’t needle camp Pikachu as effectively as other characters and must act in mid range-melee zones in the neutral.
Opening five seconds
The opening is fairly typical as both players have projectiles. ZeRo decides to charge needles instead of toss one, while ESAM full hops and T-jolts, moving towards center stage. Because ZeRo uses a less aggressive approach, ESAM immediately takes center stage with a T-jolt moving towards a currently immobile ZeRo. Knowing that a T-jolt was on its way, ZeRo dashes in, shields, then attempts to jump out of shield forward-air(f-air), only to be grabbed during the initial frames of the jump. At this point, the only conditioning and reads comes from the previous match, so ZeRo jumping out of shield to use f-air would normally stop more patient approach options typical of the beginning of a game. ZeRo air dodges likely in an attempt to tech; however, ZeRo isn’t in tumble stun due to his percent and/or holding down, so he air dodges instead allowing ESAM to dash attack followed by a double jump read. If ZeRo realized he was not in tumble stun and neutral aired (n-air), he would auto-cancel and possible be able to respond to the dash attack.
ZeRo may expect a trump, so he recovers above the ledge rather than risk inputting down then returning the control stick to neutral at the ledge for a delayed ledge grab. ESAM’s dash attack that knocks ZeRo out of Vanish would not have worked if ZeRo went for the ledge and would likely lead to him being punished. Following this, ZeRo tried going for the ledge conservatively, saving his renewed double jump. ESAM, with little risk to worry about, keeps pushing his positioning advantage and uses his n-air on ZeRo’s safest option considering the previous double jump read. ESAM’s Thunder follow-up is the right idea, but ZeRo acts fast enough to bouncing fish and avoid it while conserving his double jump. On recovery, ZeRo makes his second technical mistake, double jumping while using Vanish, forcing Sheik on stage. He notices in time to reappear closer to the center.
Due to the low lag of Vanish, ESAM down-tilts ZeRo’s shield. This allows ZeRo to forward tilt twice. ESAM is still too low of a percent to pop up for f-air chains, so to extend the combo, ZeRo dashes. He goes for a grab, but the frame before ESAM is grabbed, he thunders, which hits ZeRo after ESAM is thrown. Both of them are in the with hit-stun.
While falling, ESAM shoots a T-jolt to disrupt ZeRo’s landing. It covers the shield ESAM goes for directly after. Without it, ZeRo could fast fall>grab the shield. Essentially, the T-jolt forces a reset to neutral rather than ZeRo being able to capitalize on ESAM’s landing. Even with the jolt hitting, ZeRo continues to hold center stage. ZeRo starts building his wall of short hop threats while ESAM tries to read his movement and break down the wall with quick attack, and then correctly reads a tomahawk at 5:41 with a n-air.
Even though he was struck, ZeRo lands with a f-air, and avoids any grounded follow ups at the sacrifice of stage positioning. Even with a worse position, Sheik’s jump, fast fall, and dash speeds allow ZeRo to juke out ESAM’s movement. ZeRo is able to get a landing f-air during ESAM’s initial dash animations then short hop fast falls. This is letting ESAM escape, but allows ZeRo to play safely in his percent deficit. ZeRo generally plays safely over going for aggressive options outside of reads. Since ESAM used his double jump to escape, most characters have limited options to land besides attacking and shielding, so ZeRo shield grabs. Pikachu is one of the exceptions with escape options as quick attack’s multiple angles and low landing lag lets Pikachu have superb aerial escapes. ESAM reads ZeRo’s shield grab and quick attacks away then back to ZeRo during the whiffed grab animation. ZeRo shields an attack threat and is double pivot grabbed for it. At this point, ZeRo is at too high of a percent for dashing to give ESAM follow ups, so ESAM quick attacks towards ZeRo to extend his threat range. ZeRo f-airs, an option that beats about any possible aggressive option ESAM had, hitting ESAM and resetting to neutral.
Sheik, as a character, has the tools to break out of opponent advantages, reset the neutral, then gain advantages from neutral easily at the sacrifice of a hard punish and kill threat on whiffs. Constant resets to neutral followed by short hop fast falling is a common pattern in Sheik play. Sheik’s movement and difficulty to punish in neutral tricks out ESAM as ZeRo is able to short hop behind him and get a f-air chain to bouncing fish. Control is in ZeRo’s hands while ESAM is forced to recover.
In his previous recoveries, ESAM has quick attacked back to the stage. ZeRo attempts the read this with a n-air covering jump get up and quick attack, but ESAM normal get ups. I’m unsure of whether ESAM’s immediate down smash was meant to read a dash grab, a roll behind or another option, but it’s generally a poor decision to down smash while half the hitbox as surely hitting nothing behind him while ZeRo stands in front. If he mis-read ZeRo, it’s still better to go for an f-smash or up-smash punish since they can punish harder and cover similar options from that position. ZeRo punishes with a well-timed grab and forward throw, reads the air dodge (due to f-air pressure that Sheik constantly has on aerial targets) and gets a bouncing fish. Sheik’s off stage and ledge pressure is amazing and ZeRo plays this ledge game immaculately with his reads and pressure.
On recovery, ZeRo covers the immediate quick attack above and to center stage, while ESAM waits to see what ZeRo will do then goes to the ledge. ZeRo runs up and pressures the ledge with shield, but is slightly to slow to punish the normal get up this time, though he had the read. As another possible technical mistake, ZeRo standing grabs the ledge again after ESAM has rolled. Funnily enough, the animation from the grab moves ZeRo’s hurtbox slightly closer to the ledge, so ESAM’s n-air punish doesn’t hit Sheik and ZeRo’s able to shield and back-air (b-air). ZeRo’s n-air as ESAM falls covers every option but double jumping and catches ESAM’s air dodge into the ground. Due to where Sheik’s body hits Pikachu, ESAM is hit behind Sheik while ZeRo’s already buffered a dash grab in front of him. This was a small micro spacing error, but it’s incredibly difficult to notice exactly what hit-box will knock a character a certain direction at this speed.
Because of how far apart they are, they reset to neutral, but because Pikachu still has to get up, ZeRo gets a free full charge needle on ESAM, allowing him to take center stage while pushing ESAM to the ledge. From this positioning, ESAM full hop T-jolts much too close to where ZeRo is and is punished by Sheik simply running under the jolt and grabbing. Pikachu is now in kill range of Sheik if a Vanish or off-stage bouncing fish lands. ESAM must respect ZeRo’s kill options while still attempting to find a way past ZeRo’s neutral wall. ZeRo has full control. ZeRo’s forward throw>bouncing fish is a frame trap on air dodge, but ESAM is at least able to trade the forward air with his own neutral air. ESAM is still in a terrible position but has his double jump. Unfortunately, he double jumps far away from the ledge and traps himself in the T-jolt animation. ZeRo avoids the T-jolt and gets a free bouncing fish for the first stock.
ZeRo skillfully rolls to avoid ESAM’s invincibility. All things considered, ZeRo has only rolled once this game, and that one roll was into the ledge; so double rolling in center stage is an unexpected move and a good juke by ZeRo. To catch up, ESAM quick attacks to ZeRo, but he avoids it with a short hop into f-air. ESAM isn’t a high enough percent to f-air chain and ESAM is close to the edge anyway, so ZeRo resets, taking his favorable stage position, and throws needles. Again, ESAM full hop T-jolts too close to ZeRo, and is punished for it again. This has happened twice now. F-throw>bouncing fish is just free percent and puts ESAM on the ledge. ESAM hasn’t rolled from the ledge at all this game, so ZeRo likely predicted he would finally do it because he was threatening the normal get up for his past edge guards. The dash pivot grab would have grabbed a roll get-up. ESAM chooses a different option that would have punished ZeRo if he went for a grab on the standing get-up by doing a drop down f-air. This shows that both players are actively aware of their opponents options, what has been punished before and what will punish the actions they have each taken earlier.
ZeRo dash dances into needle charge (maybe looking for a cancel) so ESAM is able to quick attack and pop ZeRo up for the free up air. The second up air, however, is mis-spaced, so ESAM should have reset back to the ground or thundered in this situation. Even so, ZeRo bouncing fishes out, conserving his second jump. ESAM decides to walk away and take getting hit by a f-air. Around 20%, ZeRo can start f-air chaining and he does, but he has rage. ZeRo adapts to his own rage by going for a back air for the increased range instead of a second f-air. It’s unlikely a second f-air would hit and ZeRo already has a stock lead, so more damage is better even if he could get a second f-air. The b-air sends ESAM off stage and forces his recovery. Considering that ZeRo has pressured ESAM so well off stage and on the ledge, this is a desperate situation, even if ESAM is at lower percents.
ESAM’s recovery is the sign of a great Pikachu. He tests ZeRo with the first quick attack, just seeing if it would hit him or not. It didn’t hit, so he goes back to ledge cancel, jump, and quick attack again. This time, ZeRo sees it coming and n-airs out of shield between the first and second quick attack to take advantage of Pikachu’s stretched hurt-box on quick attacks. Even though ZeRo needle cancels into dash dance, he still is caught by ESAM’s get-up attack. ESAM takes center stage with a full hop T-jolt, then whiffs an up smash, shields, and up smashes ZeRo’s nair which covers both jump and spot dodge options Unfortunately, ESAM misses his thunder and is fair>bouncing fished as punishment. Oddly, ZeRo miss-spaces his grab that would have punished ESAM’s shield and is grabbed in return. Then ESAM misses another thunder. ZeRo misses his down air in response is and up smashed for it. The last few plays were technical mistakes followed by technical mistakes and are uncharacteristic of both players, but especially of ZeRo as he is known for more perfect spacing and safe play. Not once has ZeRo down aired against ESAM in previous games.
In one minute ESAM wins the game. ZeRo spawns with center stage positioning. To escape ZeRo’s invincibility, ESAM short hops, constantly feinting a quick attack to escape, but never committing to a single option. ZeRo decides to keep his position over trying to guess on ESAM’s movement and charges needles. Key to note is that ZeRo has a percent lead, so he doesn’t necessarily need to approach, but considering that the first half of stocks took only a minute and thirty seconds, it’s unlikely the game will go to time. ZeRo constantly retreats with dash needle cancels and rolls as ESAM tries to approach. Each player rolls, goes for grabs, and whiffs for eight seconds until ZeRo tries to needle the horizontal space they were occupying. ESAM jumps before the needles come out and is able to get the grab punish. ESAM is behind, so going for a back air punish, which can stage spike, is a strong option over higher damaging, but less kill potential moves like a d-air, f-air or n-air off stage. ZeRo then is hit by Thunder in his initial Vanish animation and luckily avoids being spiked into the strong hit-box. Both players recovery to the ledge at about the same time and both go for anti-trump options, but because ZeRo jumped over instead of get-up attacked, he has a better stage position.
Back in the neutral, the players posture for position and a hit with rolls. By now, both players have begun rolling . ZeRo especially, has been rolling significantly more as he only rolled once on ESAM’s first stock and hasn’t let up on his rolls. ZeRo is unable to convert a f-air into a chain of aerials, but is able to f-air, use his lowered hitbox on landing to get a perfect shield into n-air to punish ESAM’s short hop f-air. To avoid the follow-up, ESAM buffered a fast fall>spot dodge. ZeRo resets by rolling out, wanting to keep his generally favorable neutral. When in the lead, it’s on the opponent to break the neutral and on the leading player to punish any oversteps to breaking that neutral. ZeRo does just that on ESAM’s initial dash frames with a short hop f-air>roll>b-air. ZeRo then tries to push his positioning by dashing in and trying for a defensive read on ESAM if he were to roll in towards the stage. ESAM doesn’t fall for that bait, but does fall for ZeRo’s needle cancel>dash dance>grab. ZeRo forward throws then tries to read that ESAM won’t air dodge a bouncing fish, and is punished by n-air for it. Even if ESAM air dodged and was read, the movement would place ESAM close to under the stage. This would make landing the bouncing fish very difficult. After recovering, ESAM does a normal get-up. Most of this game’s ledge mix-ups have been about whether a player will normal get-up or not. ZeRo gets this read, but mis-times his initial grab then gets the second grab. Since spawning and being off-stage, ZeRo has been in control by using his movement to get grabs and well-timed and well-placed needles.
ESAM air dodged immediately before on the last forward throw, so ZeRo goes for the read with Vanish after the forward throw. ESAM must have expected this or scouted how ZeRo conditions his throw follow-ups because the vanish, up air, bouncing fish, and wait-double jump up air, are all viable positioning or kill threats that require different reactions. He avoids the vanish then ESAM punishes with his quickest punish, quick attack, but fails to get the follow-up and is grabbed once more for a 50-50 kill threat situation. ZeRo goes for the guaranteed f-air instead of the 50-50 as a kill mix-up. Like how ESAM’s first stock ended, ZeRo goes for a bouncing fish on ESAM’s T-jolt, but ESAM mixes him up with a quick attack to center stage that was covered by his initial T-jolt.
ZeRo abandons his patience here and chases after ESAM with a n-air. By now, ZeRo has been rolling often. His back towards ESAM, ZeRo stays in shield during his n-air. ZeRo then short hops, but he doesn’t have the same coverage from behind as he does from in front. ESAM quick attacks into ZeRo, barely missing the execution on ZeRo’s roll afterwards. ZeRo then grabs empty space. I believe this to be due to buffering over a missed dash or reading ESAM. ESAM punishes with a dash grab, forward throw.
Here, ZeRo makes a crucial recognition error. At 3:43, he tech rolls into the stage to eat a sweet spotted forward smash. This is a large mistake due to the possible punishes ESAM could get with other tech options. If he tech’d in place or backwards, and ESAM read it, he (in an even game) would likely be grabbed and placed off stage. This isn’t a terrible situation for Sheik. Because ESAM is behind, he would likely go for an up-smash>thunder instead. This would also place him offstage, but with more percent, but is harder to be hit by. So there are two main options ESAM can go for on tech in place and tech away. Though this is the case, ESAM has all of these options, and the f-smash option available for a roll in. None of these options will directly kill, but ESAM is free to do more and commits significantly less for them if ZeRo doesn’t tec in place. Pikachu doesn’t have the kill threat of Zero Suit Samus, Meta Knight, or Mii Brawler, so he doesn’t need to worry about the capitalization threat of Pikachu as much at his current percent. ESAM is also safer punishing the roll in over the tech in place. Sheik would not be able to punish ESAM directly for reading a roll in, so for ESAM, this is a fairly safe option while for ZeRo, it’s a less obvious option to roll in, but it is significantly worse (assuming a true 50-50 with no conditioning) than teching in place.
Next, ZeRo makes another mistake. He bouncing fishes before ESAM does an attack to gain some horizontal space. Keep in mind, this is the bouncing fish that kills him. He is intercepted by ESAM’s follow up thunder coverage. ZeRo needles to clear up some space but then doubles jumps even though he could fall to the ledge for free. ESAM intercepts the double jump with a f-air. Though with Sheik’s forward momentum, it’s possible that ZeRo could have drifted toward the stage and Vanished to the ledge, but instead, he goes for a bouncing fish. Sheik cannot use bouncing fish twice in the air without landing, so instead of his input, Sheik pulls out a grenade and goes into free-fall animation, giving the second game to ESAM by 3:33.
I feel that ESAM had the better movement reads over ZeRo all game long. ESAM made it look like ZeRo couldn’t freely short hop fast fall. Even knowing this, ZeRo looked like he had a handle on Sheik’s movement options and uses them in optimal situations. While still not as crisp as False’s or Mr. R’s movement, ZeRo is the best in the world for optimizing his movement, using his non-dodge movement when he needs to. This game was roll heavy by both players, especially by ZeRo.
As a character matchup, this game showed the fatal flaw of Sheik. Even though her neutral can control the entire pace of a game, her lack of severe punishes unless there is some form of stage manipulation (Battlefield up-smash heights, Town & City low ceiling, Smashville extended platform f-airs). Characters like Pikachu with above average punishes can take stride going for stronger options, even if there is a risk of a Sheik punish.
Going into game 3 (the second part of this analysis) I expect ZeRo to clean up his technical errors and have an emphasis on jump and needle movement mix-ups to mess with ESAM’s strong reads on ZeRo’s roll movement mix-ups.