Zack "CaptainZack" Lauth is waiting on a plane. His flight's been delayed twice. At 15 years old, he's one of the youngest signed players in Super Smash Bros. For Wii U, and one of the best Bayonetta players in the world -- a character as strong as she is controversial.
Lauth, like his other siblings, is home-schooled, which allows him to travel outside of New Orleans and compete in the rough circuit of the competitive Smash scene with relative ease. People often mention his age relative to his skill level, Lauth says. "Wow, he's 15? He's so good," said Lauth of the praise he's received in the past. "He's so mature, how he's doing this, how he's going to these things."
"Honestly, I appreciate it but I don't prefer or like it," said Lauth. "I'd rather just be known for how I play in general, or how I act in general. I don't want something to be attached because of my age, I want it to be because of me."
Image credit: Phoenix 1
Lauth is known for his Bayonetta, his sole character and main, whom he embodies both in and out of matches. Lauth was a Bayonetta fan before her inclusion in Smash, and when she was revealed, he said he knew he wanted to be the best in the world at her.
His style of play is aggressive and pressuring, using Bayonetta's many conversions and options to strike the opponent hard and fast. Other Bayonetta mains, like Saleem "Salem" Akiel Young, play a more passive playstyle compared to Lauth -- in his own words, Lauth likes to get in, get his damage, get a KO, and then play safe.
But the gun-heeled Bayonetta isn't just an avatar for Lauth, it's a persona. When Lauth pops off, a celebration after a surprise win or tense victory, he dances like Bayonetta. His Twitter avatar is art that a fan drew for him, with Lauth on one side and Bayo on the other. It's not just about the tools in-game, but the character of Bayonetta herself that Lauth wants to perfect.
"It's her confidence, her sassiness, it's what I aspire to be," said Lauth. "I want to have that. I want to walk on-stage and I want people to be scared. I want to be that person that people fear, but I'm confident, that I can go and do this."
Some talk down his taunts on social media, but he continues to do it. Zack's persona is part of his competitive playstyle, and he's unafraid to be the heel, a mindset even top players have come around on and some fans have come to adore him for.
Now that he's sponsored, the grind never stops for Lauth. His tournament schedule keeps getting more and more full. He only has a day's break between Nairo Saga and this weekend's CEO 2017 tournament.
"I actually enjoy travelling," Lauth tells me over Skype, from a hideaway he's found while waiting for his twice-delayed flight. "I don't get burnt out from things, and if I start losing, I just need to work on things, and the only way to work on them is to gain more experience."
After two triumphant finishes this last year, taking fourth at both Genesis 4 and Civil War, he began steadily gaining notoriety as one of the top free agents in Smash. It all culminated in him joining esports organisation Phoenix 1, a team he says is already like a "second family."
"We decided to sign Zack because not only is he an incredibly talented Smash player, but his vibrant personality shines through after every match," said Charlie Lipsie, director of business development for Phoenix 1, in an email. "It's this kind of strength of character that compliments his competitive skills and makes him a perfect fit for the Phoenix 1 family."
I asked him how he felt about his performance at Nairo Saga, his first tournament since the signing, where he finished in 33rd. At one point, during a match against Elegant, he missed a crucial move that could have saved one of his lives. Later on in the loser's bracket, Lauth accidentally killed himself twice during matches.
"Of course, I find it a little disappointing," said Lauth. "I thought I could do a lot better, but it's just simple mistakes that cost me important sets, which is just really upsetting.
"It's frustrating to lose because of those mistakes, but it's good, because it's simple mistakes you can fix," said Lauth. "You know where it happened. Otherwise it's not you lost because you made mistakes, but just because you lost. It's better, but it feels worse at the same time."
"I actually struggle with self-confidence issues pretty often," Lauth says. The spotlight can be glaring for any newcomer, and CaptainZack is no exception. "But when I [do Bayonetta] dances on-stage, it was like, I really do have that confidence, I can do this. It was an inspiration to me, sort of. I can do this. If she does it, I can do it, so I did it."
That confidence translates into on-stage wins, as Zack has risen from humble beginnings to a top spot on many of the Smash rankings. He's currently 13th in the 2GG circuit, and ranked 20th in the Panda Global rankings last December. He's taken games off Anti, Abadango, Mr. R and more.
Throughout his steady rise, Lauth has stuck with Bayonetta even in tough times. At launch, many considered Bayonetta overpowered, and even after Nintendo toned down her skills, the players who used Bayonetta were seen as lesser competitors in the eyes of the public.
"I've gotten death threats before, I've been called derogatory terms, it's been said the wins don't count, they shouldn't count because I'm not that good," said Lauth.
"I was nobody before my character, I wouldn't be good without my character. Just everything you can think of, basically."
"And this is all just because you play one character, in a sea of 50-plus characters that are in Smash?" I asked him.
"Yup, and I'm good with her, so that's another kick in the face. [laughs]"
oh and btw i taunted onstage during the awards because i heard people booing me. had to do something to shut them up~
— P1 | CaptainZack (@CaptainZack_) January 24, 2017
Despite rough tournament showings and the newly added pressure of performing for a sponsor, Lauth seems to have stone skin. Each loss, he tells me, can help you pick away at the wall between a player and their true potential, or build it up higher. "I always try to pick away that wall," he said.
Under Phoenix 1 he can travel more often. He can go to more tournaments, get more experience, play more games against the highest calibre opponents. The Smash scene has seen a growing rise in the number of sponsored players, and as more jerseys flood the main stage, so more players can invest time and energy into elevating the level of competition.
For Lauth, everything can be traced back to Genesis 4, a favourite moment of his where he beat Anti to earn a spot in the top eight. With that win, he not only secured a top showing at one of the largest Smash events yet, but proved himself as a player to watch, the start of greater things to come. It was probably the most influential moment in his career, he tells me, and a relief.
"I just wanted to be done with the set," said Lauth. "I wanted it to be over. It was 2-1, so if he took the game it went to game five, if I won, I won. So it was a relief to take the game and, rightfully so, pop-off."