Mew2King continues his battle with Smash and self

Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman has the momentum coming into Get On My Level 2018. Gail Fisher for ESPN

On June 12, 2002, in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, a bespectacled 13-year-old rocked back and forth in his chair while playing Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Ninety miles away in East Rutherford, the New Jersey Nets were fighting for their NBA playoff lives against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nets came out strong in the first quarter, thanks in part to a flurry of shots from Kenyon Martin. But the Lakers, led by coach Phil Jackson with a starting lineup of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox, came back to win the game and sweep the series 4-0.

More than a decade later, that kid from Cinnaminson and Fox would become synonymous with something all but unknown at the time: esports.

In May of 2016, Echo Fox, the multigame esports organization owned by the three-time NBA champion, signed its first Super Smash Bros. player in Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman. Mew2King is considered one of the best players to ever grace the game. He's one of the "Five Gods" of Smash.

While the moniker is hyperbolic, it's not without some merit. Mew2King is in the "Guinness Book of World Records: Gamers Edition" with the most esports tournament results of any single player. And unlike other players, Mew2King obsessively studied in-game data early in the game's life; he discovered optimal sets of moves and readied himself for any given situation, which made him a dominant force in the Smash community for most of his career. His understanding of Smash made his punish game lethal, and he aimed for absolute precision and perfection.

"I have obsessive compulsive disorder, which I've had since I was a little kid," Mew2King said. "Like if I enjoy something, especially, I won't stop until I complete the task that I want."

While Mew2King was lethal, he did succumb to Daniel "KoreanDJ" Jung and Chris "PC Chris" Szygiel between 2006 and 2009. Even so, Mew2King still earned the nod as the best player in the world.

But when Joseph "Mang0" Marquez emerged in the Smash community in 2007 with his frantic and aggressive style of play, it caught Mew2King off guard. Mang0 started making his play for the best Melee player in the world.

Eventually, the knowledge gap that Mew2King had against the rest of the competition started to narrow. Players started catching up to his level, and his fans saw signs of struggle. But stronger competition was only half the story as Mew2King faced a greater opponent within himself.

Esports are far more mental than physical, meaning a good state of mind going into a match can make all the difference. Mew2King has performed much more consistently in the past year, and he seems to be in a good place competitively and personally. But for the three to five years prior, and even now, he has been in an endurance race against a mental disorder that along with his OCD affects everything from his play to his personal life.

"I will say the depression, for reasons I don't want to talk about, is I think a big source of my inconsistency," said Mew2King shortly after joining Echo Fox in 2016. "You'll see me like lose to someone much worse than me, then I'll 3-0 people better than me all the time."

Jace Hall, the former CEO of Echo Fox, and Mew2King had a long conversation about the source of his depression and how to deal with it. It's an ongoing process, one that began when he joined the organization and continues today.

"He needs tools, mental tools that he can put in his toolbox that help him process how he feels about things," Hall said. "I sort of explained to him just a couple of ideas in terms of how he might process some of this information. We'll see if it sticks."

"Player mindsets are largely affected by how they feel before they even sit down for their first match," added Antonio Javier, fighting games manager for Echo Fox. "For Mew2King specifically, it's making sure he's within vicinity of accessible players to practice with. That's what gets his mind right, and gets him zeroed in on competition."

As long as Mew2King is properly warmed up before competition, "his confidence follows."

Mew2King isn't the only "god" of Melee battling depression. So too is Evil Geniuses' Kevin "PPMD" Nanney. For PPMD, depression manifests itself in different ways; though he can't speak to Mew2King's experience, his fight sheds some light on the stressors being an elite Smash player brings.

"Becoming a top player actually makes it more likely to become depressed by the way," PPMD said. He likens it to celebrities who also become depressed with increased fame. "One big reason for this is satisfaction. If you get where you always wanted to be, you may be happy for a while, but you eventually get used to it.

"To prepare for top-level competition when feeling this way feels much more like feeling forced to do it or like a job instead of playing the game you love and expanding your boundaries as it used to be."

While Mew2King did not go into the specifics on how Javier and Echo Fox have helped him, he did admit that what they've been doing has been working. Echo Fox has not pushed Mew2King to see a therapist or sports psychologist, and Mew2King hasn't asked, either.

"I just try not to think about it," said Mew2King on a follow-up call a little over a year since he joined Echo Fox. "I don't think I need that. I just think I need to do me, and I think I just need to be happy. As long as I stay sponsored forever I can play Smash forever and get a giant following on like YouTube and all my social media, then I think I'll be fine."

After Mew2King signed with Echo Fox, seemingly overnight, his mid-to-late 2000s dominance returned. Since May 2016, Mew2King has placed first in 16 tournaments and finished second or third in another 18. And going into Smash Summit 5, Mew2King will be following his first-place finish at Canada Cup, beating both Alliance's Adam "Armada" Lindgren and Team SoloMid's William "Leffen" Hjelte.

Despite the high stakes associated with sponsorship, Echo Fox managed to take pressure off its landmark signee. Hall sent Mew2King a message in his first meeting with the player, one that confused the Smash star but also opened his eyes.

"Whether you get first, second, fifth -- dude, I'm not even worried about it," Hall said. "Just play."

Hall remembers seeing Mew2King's eyes widen.

"I don't want to treat players as they're only as good as their last win," Hall said. "That's not how you invest and build the player up."

Either way, it was a revelatory moment for Mew2King. He is naturally competitive, but for the first time he didn't have to worry about the pressures of performing.

"Usually I do better when I don't care," he said.

This phenomenon is called, as sports psychologist Michael Gervais puts it, "being present." Gervais is best known for working with the Seattle Seahawks and for helping Felix Baumgartner get over his claustrophobia before the Red Bull Stratos jump in 2012.

"The natural state of our mind is like a drunk monkey. Easily distracted, curious, emotionally erratic, sometimes a bit sloppy with focus," Gervais said. A disciplined mind, one that is able to focus absolutely at the present moment, is far rarer. The best athletes are those that can tap into that focus during game time.

"It sounds like Jason has created a strategy -- 'I don't care about the outcome' -- to let go of being consumed about the outcome."

Not caring is Mew2King's strategy, albeit, as Gervais puts it, "not a great one for sustained and progressive growth."

And despite his growth in focus, Mew2King still faces some obstacles.

Mew2King is now 28 years old, and for most esports athletes that's nearing retirement age. As Melee has evolved, it requires players to hit buttons as quickly as six inputs per second. That kind of demand puts a strain on muscles and joints, and Mew2King has not been immune to hand pain.

It was a running gag in the Melee community to berate Mew2King for not seeing a doctor whenever he would complain about his hand pain. He was continuously putting it off, to the frustration of commentators and his fans. But upon joining Echo Fox, Hall didn't push Mew2King to see a doctor.

"Guess what the doctor's going to say? He's going to say don't hold the controller for long periods," Hall said. "That's pretty much it. A doctor isn't going to address the issue in a way that I think he'll find satisfactory."

Hall took a slightly different approach that he outlined in his first meeting with Mew2King.

"How is your diet? What are you eating?" Hall said at the time. "I'm looking at your hands. They're incredibly thin; there's not a lot of water in them. ... When you press bone and tendon up against plastic for eight hours, I don't care who you are, that's going to hurt after a while."

The solution was to get Mew2King off his diet of milk and other less nutritionally balanced foods. Hall now has Mew2King drinking a lot more water and eating various fruits and vegetables to round out his diet.

With general pain, "improving the quality of diet will definitely play a role in recovery," said Caitlin McGee, a physical therapist with a focus on esports.

"If you're breaking muscle down and not supplying a way to build it back up, your body can't self-repair," said McGee. "Even if you're taking in the right foods but not enough water, your body won't be able to absorb all the nutrients in that food."

Mew2King has been following through on Hall's advice, he said. As for his hand pain, he attributes it to playing Fox, a character that requires very fast and precise movements.

Diet alone can't solve the strain caused by long hours of grinding Melee, McGee said. The action of holding a GameCube controller is not conducive to healthy movement. Ultimately, diet and exercise can only subvert and act as a stopgap.

But Mew2King can't change his habits within the game. He believes Fox is necessary to take down Team Liquid's Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, so he must always have Fox warmed up and ready to take out in competition.

"If it wasn't for Hbox, I would go all Marth/Sheik, and I'd be fine," Mew2King said.

Smash has been an integral part of Mew2King's life. It has brought him both adulation and anguish. At this point, a life without Smash seems unimaginable for Mew2King.

He would continue to stream on Twitch and YouTube, he said, or invest time into his esports company, MVG, if one day he could no longer play at the top level. But even that seems unfathomable to this member of the Five Gods. Mew2King said he can go further and play better, even when it hurts. "Knowing my potential that I never fully showed yet is one thing that drives me," he said.

Perhaps being happy, genuinely happy, will help him reach those heights. Mew2King frequently streams with Panda Global's Justin "Plup" McGrath and Justin "Wizzrobe" Hallett and seems jovial and upbeat throughout. For the first time in Mew2King's professional life, he has found a good balance between competition and fun.

And like Rick Fox in 2002, holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the Continental Airlines Arena, Mew2King knows that he too can raise a trophy above his head at Evolution, Genesis, Big House or any event because he has the potential to do so.

"I still want to be the best," he said, "because I know I can."