Meet ESAM, the best Smash 4 Pikachu player in the world
There was a single moment at Community Effort Orlando (CEO) on June 27 that demonstrated why everyone is scared of Eric "ESAM" Lew. In the final match of the Smash 4 player's quarterfinal series against Samuel "Dabuz" Buzby, Lew was at a distinct disadvantage. His health was critical. He had one chance to turn things around. With a swift forward air into up smash on his signature character, Pikachu, he unexpectedly knocked out Buzby’s Rosalina and Luma.
Lew, a 22-year-old from Southern Florida, is at the forefront of a meteoric resurgence in the power of Pikachu. The cute, lightning-slinging Pokémon staple is now one of the game’s best, making him stand out from most of the other long-standing characters in the series.
“I have zero doubt in my mind I am going to top eight at EVO.”
Lew has mained the character since the Wii version of the game, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and continued to play him in the popular fan-made modification of the game, Project M. His Pikachu love has continued in the latest iteration of the series on the Wii U. His professional career, however, began on the Gamecube with Super Smash Bros. Melee, where his favorite character was Super Metroid’s Samus, who he still plays today.
"She is my favorite video game character ever," Lew told the Daily Dot. "My first exposure to video games was sitting on my dad’s back as he played Super Metroid for the SNES." That's where he said his nickname came from, after all: E for Eric, and SAM for Samus. But in the Wii U Smash, Samus Aran just doesn't cut it. "Samus is pretty bad. She just has a really good keep-away game which excels against Luigi," he said.
His Pikachu is what he’s best known for, however. A rule change coming to EVO this year—legalizing custom movesets—gives Lew and his Pikachu what some would consider an unfair advantage.
Smash 4, the popular name for the Wii U installment of the Smash series, is the first to have this new feature. For each in-game character, there are four different options for each of its special abilities. This opens up a large diversity of attacks and combos. EVO allows 10 different legal move combinations for each character in the game. Lew’s most-used set is the 2311, which modifies the neutral special and the side special.
The second neutral special, known as Thunder Wave, is often criticized as one of the most overpowered moves in the game. The projectile shot by Pikachu stuns his opponent in accordance to their percentage (the game’s health point equivalent.) By comboing it with a sequence of short hops, a player can permanently stun his opponent, something known as "infinite" in the game.
Pikachu players depend highly on their feel of the game.
"I mean, any infinite is pretty damn good, especially in games where you typically don’t touch-of-death people like Ultimate Marvel versus Capcom 3," Lew explained. "Thunder Wave is pretty slow but it is definitely a threat and in my opinion, you should never have to be that scared of a single projectile."
Lew's second move change to Pikachu is the side special Heavy Skull Bash. This allows him to kill his opponents at lower percentage. Lew says that although the character plays similar without custom movesets, the significant advantage from this move is a big deal to the game.
"[Pikachu’s] conversions are significantly larger out of grabs due to Heavy Skull Bash," he said. "I now kill my opponents at 40 percent from a grab instead of killing my opponent at 100 percent if they DI (Directional Influence) incorrectly."
Essentially, if his opponent influences his character in the wrong direction after taking a hit, he can punish them even more than normal.
Pikachu players depend highly on their feel of the game; momentum is a key part of most victories. Pikachu "snowballs way harder in customs due to his ridiculous killing potential and the ability to YOLO Heavy Skull Bash and potentially ruin someone’s stock [life], game, and set," Lew said.
For Lew, the biggest difference between the current Smash and its predecessors is that he's now a relative veteran of the game. With more high level play opportunities and years more experience than when he started, he's got a big advantage over most Smash players. But this isn’t enough to beat the best of opponents like Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios, widely regarded as the best Super Smash Bros. 4 player in the world.
"To be fair, I experiment a lot in casual matches to determine what works and doesn’t work," he explains. "This is probably why I am worse than a player like [Barrios] who plays all the time and continually improves his craft. I am significantly sloppier than he is and the reason is practice."
Lew says he's "considerably more determined to win" at the upcoming Evolution Championship Series (EVO), the biggest fighting tournament in the world. "I'll be practicing a lot more to make sure I am 100 percent ready to beat anyone that crosses paths with me."
At EVO, Lew has a chance to shine on the fighting game world's biggest stage. And to get some revenge. Waiting for him in the semifinals at CEO last weekend was Barrios himself.
He's taken home first place at Apex 2015 and CEO 2015. And that's made him the target for every high-level Smash for Wii U player. And he proved his superiority at CEO, dropping Lew with three wins in four matches.
But Barrios’ main champions have taken quite the hit recently. Diddy Kong, who he excelled with countless times at Apex and other events, has been nerfed over the last few patch cycles. At CEO last weekend, Barrios mainly used another one of his signatures, Sheik. But thanks to custom movesets, Pikachu has the advantage over Sheik, which Lew believes could be "an important factor" in a rematch.
At EVO, Lew has a chance to shine on the fighting game world's biggest stage.
Popular Smash commentator D’Ron "D1" Maingrette sees Lew and his Pikachu as a major threat to Barrios "with custom moves being legal," and especially thanks to that faster kill potential. "One of Pikachu's main issues is trying to land a kill at higher percents," Maingrette said, echoing Lew's sentiments. "With customs on it's another story, as opportunities to KO at 40 percent present themselves.”
The two may face off again at EVO, which begins July 17 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Lew is confident he has a shot thanks to the custom movesets.
"I have zero doubt in my mind I am going to top eight at EVO," he says, "I know I am one of the best players in the world and I will prove it—especially now that I have the completely unfair customs at my disposal."
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