With the industry-wide festival of excitement and exhaustion known as E3 looming in just a few short days, it seems that the entire gaming world is holding its collective breath for what comes next. But of the gaggle of upcoming games that have made an impression on the enthusiasts of the world, almost none remains as anticipated as Nintendo’s new “Smash Bros.” for Switch.

To celebrate the launch of the newest game in one of their most beloved franchises, Nintendo is holding a tournament dubbed the Super Smash Bros. Invitational 2018, and it’s invited some of the biggest names in the competitive scene to face each other in the new Smash” for Switch, including luminaries like Armada, MkLeo, and ZeRo. Variety caught up with two of these Smashers to ask them their thoughts on the new game, the future of the competitive series, and what they hope to get out of the E3 tournament come Monday.

Out of Retirement
When it comes to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U” –– typically abbreviated to “Smash 4″ by enthusiasts — there’s no doubt that the game was a massive competitive success, despite the limited sales of the Wii U console itself.

Few know that better than Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, a lifelong “Smash” enthusiast who has competed at the top level of nearly every “Smash” game in his 12-year career. Though he knows each game he competes in better than almost everyone — “I like to consider myself the all-round ‘Smash’ expert,” he says, laughing — his greatest achievement came in the early days of the professional “Smash 4″ scene, when he amassed an unprecedented streak of 56 consecutive tournament wins from November 2014 to October 2015.

Despite the occasional loss after setting that record, he managed to keep the number one spot from season to season, leading observers to dub him the greatest “Smash 4″ player of all time. But the stress of staying on top eventually took its toll, and Barrios announced his retirement from the scene back in January to focus on streaming and personal pursuits. But now, after getting a much-coveted invite to the tournament from Nintendo, he says that it was an opportunity that he just couldn’t pass up.

After competing as the top “Smash 4” player for the game’s entire competitive lifespan over the past four years, Barrios says that the pressure and anxiety of competing just didn’t quite excite him the way it once did. But his decision wasn’t just based on his passion for the game — it was a business decision, too. He contrasts “Smash” with other high-visibility esports like the “Street Fighter” series, or even MOBAs like “League of Legends.” From his perspective, compared to these other games, “Smash” lacks the competitive infrastructure to truly reward its top players, with only first-place winners taking home the thousand-dollar paydays needed to sustain a pro career. By the end of a stellar 2017, Barrios said he felt like the passion was seeping from him, and he was motivated more by the possibility of a paycheck than a love of the game. “Let’s say you go to a tournament, and you practice 300 hours for it, right? But you get third place, and you get $1,000. That’s not enough to make a living, really. It’s just not realistic. I’m 23, I’m getting older, and my expenses are growing. I did it for 12 years, and that’s more than half my life.”

Though Barrios enjoys the more relaxed pace of his gaming life after the frenetic fun of his competitive career, he takes great pains to emphasize that “Smash” remains his sole focus. He still “practices” against top-flight competition, and he streams the games for hours at a time, trying to augment his base of Twitch subscribers — a reliable source of income after years of competing for cash. He stresses that the Invitational is a one-time-only event — he plans to return to retirement immediately after he defends his crown, as he won the original Invitational back in 2014. “When it comes to the tournament, I’m there to have fun, and I want people to see me having fun. Last time, people had this perception that I wasn’t having fun, but I was. I want to make that clear. It’s not supposed to be a competitive tournament, at least not completely. I’m trying to go and have fun, and play well.”

The Kid
Leonardo “MkLeo” Perez is another competitor in the Invitational, a top “Smash 4″ player currently signed with esports organization EchoFox. Though he’s only 17-years-old now — making him slightly more youthful than the “Smash” franchise itself, which premiered on the Nintendo 64 in 1999 — he managed to snag a win in a major tournament in Las Vegas in late 2016, when he was only 15, making him the youngest player to ever pull off such a feat. Now, past Barrios’ retirement, Perez continues to compete in Smash 4,” belonging to an elite tier of players who push-and-pull for the crown, along with other contenders like Nairo and Mistake. Though Perez says his main goal in the tournament is to simply entertain the public, he also says he wants to beat Barrios if he can, as he considers him a titan. “I want to be the last best player, because I’m sometimes considered the best right now, but that’s always second-best, after ZeRo,” he says. “So I definitely want to beat him, if I can.”

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Though Perez’s competitive resume speaks for itself, he was surprised when he got the invite from Nintendo — he expected Nintendo to give another player, Nairo, the privilege, not him. Though he isn’t exactly sure what clinched it, he points to his win at Evo Japan back in January as a possible explanation. “It’s not like winning Evo in Las Vegas, of course,” he says. “But the name Evo carries a lot of weight. It definitely made a lot of people notice me. But more people will notice me if I beat ZeRo and win this tournament. It could make me famous.”

While both these competitors are arguably best-known for their feats in “Smash 4,” they agree that the tsunami of interest that Smash” for Switch is set to trigger across competitive gaming will likely break the community for Smash 4″ into flotsam, just like that game snapped the scene for its Wii predecessor, Brawl.” Perez says that he expects the game that made his name to last perhaps two months past Smash 5’s” release. For his part, though, he thinks that the community is ready for a change, especially after months and months of the current meta, which largely focuses on guest characters Cloud and Bayonetta, who are widely perceived as two of the strongest foes in the game. Perez lost twice to his perennial rival Salem at a tournament in Wisconsin in early May, but he says it doesn’t bother him too much — he’s too worried about the new “Smash” to focus on the current competitive scene. “I prefer to lose to Salem, because he’s so good. But by points, I’m still number one, I think. No matter what, I want to be the best at ‘Smash 5,’ that’s for sure.”

As far as their expectations for the new Smash,” the two competitors remain in the dark about specific mechanics or new characters. Still, they certainly have their preferences, and they’re unanimous on one point: from a competitive perspective, both peg the controversial “Rage” system found in “Smash 4” as one of the major changes they’d like to see in the new game. Characters gain this “rage” as they take damage; it allows them to knock back opponents more forcefully than they otherwise would, which can have an outsized impact in tense matches. While the mechanic facilitates the pulse-pounding comebacks that bring fighting fans out of their seats, it can sometimes produce some counterproductive outcomes, especially when compared to another unpopular feature, the random “tripping” from Brawl,” which gave characters a remote chance to fall on their face while running.

“There have literally been times where I let the opponent hit me so I can chain-grab them out,” says Barrios. “Compared to tripping, it has way more of an impact on competitive matches. It’s just a weird mechanic, and I don’t think it needs to be in the new game.”

While Barrios and Perez are excited for next week’s tournament, they’re even more excited for what it represents: a coming out party for a new “Smash” game, and all the competitive potential that comes along with it.

Though Barrios says he plans to stay retired for the foreseeable future, he wants to play as much Smash 5″ as possible, both with his friends — who happen to be all of the best players in the world — and over Twitch. And as Nintendo’s take on esports turns the page onto a new chapter, Perez has one wish: for Nintendo to bring back Solid Snake, a guest character from “Brawl,” and one of his favorites. “I know it won’t happen,” he says. “But I can still dream.”

As for Barrios, he’d like to see “Kingdom Hearts’” Sora grace Final Destination sooner or later, and he has a strategy to get it done.

“I just say ‘Sora in “Smash,” Sora in “Smash”‘ all the time,” he says, laughing. “I know that ‘Kingdom Hearts 3′ is coming out, so if I just say it enough, it’ll get stuck in people’s minds, and some popular YouTuber will make a video about it. If I keep saying it, it makes it 1% more likely that it might happen, so why not, you know? I’m planting the seeds, and they’re already trees to me. But with the tournament, I’m going to come from the shadows, beat all of these sponsored players, snag a W, and maybe humblebrag a little on Twitter. That’s all it’s about.”

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