Zain ushers in ‘Golden Age’ with back-to-back Melee major wins - Upcomer
Zain holds up his trophy after winning Pound 2022 Melee Singles in an interview with Junebug and Jorge.
Screengrab provided by YouTube via VGBootCamp

Zain ushers in ‘Golden Age’ with back-to-back Melee major wins

‘This is definitely my year’

If you visited the home of Zain “Zain” Naghmi’s parents in Virginia, you’d find their living room filled with trophies, medals and plaques that he won at Super Smash Bros. Melee tournaments. His parents continue to display the awards he earned even now that he doesn’t live with them anymore.

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Now, they’ll have to make more room. Zain has another pair of prizes to bring over the next time he visits.

Zain won Genesis 8 and Pound 2022 on back-to-back weekends in April, marking his first consecutive victories at offline Melee majors. These wins may mark the beginning of what commentator Eric “Jorge” Lim called “the Golden Age” for Golden Guardians’ star Melee player.

“I want to go undefeated this year,” Zain told Jorge and Arjun “Junebug” Rao in a post-tournament interview at Pound. “This is definitely my year. I’m not going to let it slip.”

The Golden Age gets delayed

Shortly before he joined the esports division of the Golden State Warriors in February of 2020, Zain already said he felt like he was on his way to becoming the best Melee player in the world.

“In 2020, when I won my first Genesis, I really thought, ‘This is going to be my year, I feel it,’” Zain told Zane “epengu” Bhansali in a post-tournament interview for PGstats at Genesis 8.

In a sense, he was right. Although the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary stop to offline events, Zain dominated the online Melee tournament scene throughout 2020 and early 2021. In that time frame, Zain placed in the top two of every event where he played his main, Marth, except for the Ludwig Ahgren Championship Series 3.

However, there was never an official ranking to mark Zain as the best player in 2020. In addition, the narrative began to shift when in-person competition resumed in the summer of 2021.

Zain’s biggest rival, Joseph “Mang0” Marquez, defeated and outplaced him at both Smash Summit 11 and 12. In addition, Zain incurred his first-ever loss to Cody “iBDW” Schwab at Smash Summit 12.

At the end of the year, Zain was ranked behind Mang0. That raised doubts as to whether he could replicate his online success in an offline environment. For his own part, Zain rejected the idea that online Melee competition is significantly different from offline.

“I know a lot of people disagree, but when I play online, I feel like it’s mostly like the better player wins,” Zain said in his interview at Genesis. “I knew I could win any LAN event.”

Although his second and third-place finishes at Smash Summit 11 and 12, respectively, were underperformances by his standards, Zain also said those events teed him up for success going into 2022.

“Going through those experiences [is] a hit to your mental but, when you have a lot of time to deal with that, you come back stronger,” Zain said in his interview at Genesis. “I just felt that those two tournaments were necessary for me to win this big one.”

Letting go of an L

Zain was the favorite to win Pound after winning Genesis over Zaid “Spark” Ali, Masaya “aMSa” Chikamoto, iBDW and Jake “Jmook” DiRado. However, Pound presented him with an obstacle he hadn’t had to overcome in bracket in over two years: Sweden’s William “Leffen” Hjelte.

Their only recent match had been an offline, first-to-five exhibition set in January, where Leffen commandingly beat Zain 5-1 using a secondary Sheik he had cultivated specifically for fighting Zain. Going into Pound, the two were projected to meet during winners semis.

“It’s the one that I was definitely most amped for because I had to hold the L from the time that we did the exhibition,” Zain said about facing Leffen in his interview at Pound.

Although Leffen won Game 1, his television went out toward the beginning of Game 2. After a long break, he switched to playing on the same television as Zain, which he claimed had a different aspect ratio.

“When the TV went off, my mind went blank and I was like, ‘Just don’t have any negative thought right now,’” Zain said in his interview at Pound. “I was like, ‘If I say this is bulls***, it’ll just enter my mind and it’s going to ruin me.’ So, I tried to go empty in that moment.”

With Leffen’s momentum gone, Zain proceeded to win the next three games and send Leffen to the losers bracket.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Zain said in his interview at Pound. “We can play a way higher-level set and it’s going to happen a bunch.”

Zain becomes a back-to-back Melee champion

Zain had a comparatively easy draw in winners finals and grand finals as he faced Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma. He had not dropped a serious set to Hungrybox since Mang0’s Birthday Bash in December of 2019.

To his credit, Hungrybox had made adaptations to his gameplay since their previous sets. He incorporated edge-canceled down-airs and back-airs, crossed up Zain before throwing out side-specials and used better directional influence to escape some of Zain’s throw combos. Even so, Zain solidly beat Hungrybox 6-1 between both of their sets.

“When he’s in the set, he has the best mentality in the world,” Zain said of Hungrybox in his interview at Pound. “But, if you have a lot of momentum against him, he kind of slips a little bit.”

Just as Zain made history with his back-to-back major wins, Mang0 was busy making a different kind of history. Mang0 placed ninth at Genesis and 13th at Pound, marking the first time in his career that he missed top eight at consecutive national-level tournaments.

As a result, Zain’s victories came without him having to go through the player who not long ago was his toughest opponent. Even so, Zain said he was still able to appreciate the magnitude of his accomplishment.

“I’ve thought about this moment a lot,” Zain said in his interview after Pound. “I just feel ‘light,’ is the best way to describe it. I am really, really happy.”

If 2022 really is Zain’s Golden Age, it could mark an unprecedented step in Melee history. Although the era of the dominance of the five gods has long since passed, there still has yet to be a non-god at the No. 1 position on an official Melee ranking.

After competing in stacked tournaments two weekends in a row, Zain will get a couple of weeks off before his next major, Smash Summit 13. If all goes as planned, he’ll leave with another trophy to add to his parents’ collection.

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Dylan Tate
Dylan Tate is an alumnus of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a gaming journalist with a love for Nintendo esports, particularly Super Smash Bros. and Pokémon.