In October, 16-year-old Smash 4 champion Leonardo Perez ("MK Leo") vowed to claim first prize at Genesis 4, an international Smash tournament in San Jose, California. Perez, whose 16th birthday landed on the tournament's opening day earlier this month, arrived from Naucalpan, Mexico City a few days prior to practise with Smash players who'd been on the international circuit since 2014. He felt nervous, but exhilarated.
Photo by Thomas Tischio
Catapulting through top 32, Perez is the youngest player to break through the top eight at Genesis. And after a tight match against Elliot Carroza-Oyarce ("Ally"), who won 2016's largest Smash 4 tournament, EVO, Perez seized first place. Perez's Marth, a mid-tier pick, boxed Ally's famous Mario off the stage with agility previously untapped from that character. Perez took home a plush $US6000 ($7916). That money, he says, will help support his family back in Mexico. With it, he can afford luxuries for his relatives.
"I really like to see them happy," he told me. Perez also won Smash 4 "Doubles" at Gen 4, teaming up with Carroza-Oyarce against Japanese players Rei Furukawa ("Komorikiri") and Ryuto Hayashi ("Ranai"), an extra $US1000 ($1319).
In every way, Perez is a special case, but at school back Mexico City, Perez says, his classmates have no idea he's an international Smash sensation. "And I don't really want anybody to know," Perez told me. At school, he is a quiet 16-year-old who loves astrophysics and spends a lot of time with his family.
Perez is the youngest person to have ever won a national Smash 4 tournament and is, without question, the best Smash 4 player in Mexico. Over the last year and a half, he's ravaged the Mexican and Canadian Smash circuits, upending his predecessors' claims to first place. If you hadn't heard of him before 2016, there's a reason: Just last October, the US government determined that Perez fit the qualifications for a visa. When Perez first applied, the White House was still debating whether esports players can be "internationally recognised athletes" who qualify for a P1 visa. Twice, Perez's visa application was denied.
Even with a visa, there was some question over whether Perez could even attend Genesis 4. Earlier this month he was prevented from leaving Naucalpan, his home municipality in Mexico City, after riots flooded his neighbourhood following the government inflating gasoline prices by 20 per cent. "There are many protests in my neighbourhood. They closed lots of streets. There was a strike," Perez said. "It was just an awkward moment to get out." He added that he doesn't get very involved in politics.
For Perez, family is his priority. He goes to school, but his family understands that, right now, the Smash community has more to offer. His tag, "MK Leo", stands for "Monster Kingdom" Leonardo. "Monster Kingdom" is his brother's game store in Mexico City.
At age seven, Perez's brother Angel and cousin Serge dragged him to a Brawl tournament in Mexico City. They had each expected to win, but Perez took first place. Even during the Brawl era, Perez, who was 12, clashed with Smash titans like Gonzalo Barrios ("ZeRo"). Driving him forward all the while was his cousin Javier Perez ("Javi"), who is a Cloud and Sheik main. Asked whether he has any rivals, Perez cited "Javi", adding that their loving antagonism pushed him to be better.
After Smash 4 was released in 2014, Perez toiled his way to the top of Mexico's ranks with an unlikely character choice. Perez mains Marth, who wasn't tournament-viable until last year. Prior to early 2016 balance patches, entering another player's range as Marth was risky, since his sword's swing wasn't much of a spatial challenge and left Marth pretty vulnerable. Also, he didn't have the speed to tease players out of their comfort zones and punish them with strong slashes. For months, Marth's meta lingered between active and passive, with competitive players rarely succeeding at either strategy. At tournaments, he was a joke.
— Red Bull eSports (@redbullesports) January 23, 2017
It wasn't the balance patches that drew Perez to Marth, but something more visceral. Perez is adamant that a character's personality matters, even in tournaments when thousands can rest on their tier ranking. "Marth is heroic," he said. "He fights to save his family, which is already dead, and to save his father's reign." As an athlete whose greatest joy is providing for his family, Marth's values match Perez's. Once a few patches made Marth viable, Perez proved his worth at tournament after tournament, inspiring players like Eric Weber ("Mr E") to follow in his stead. "I thought Marth was a bad character," Mr E said in a recent mini-doc. "He showed me what Marth can do."
— Echo Fox lMVGl MkLeo (@Mkleosb) January 23, 2017
Perez always thought Marth had tremendous potential for pro Smash -- he was just difficult to maximise on. Now, Marth is agile enough to control space, zoning enemies out of range until he comes in for the kill. He's reactive, something Perez exploits. In his final match against Carroza-Oyarce, Perez's Marth was grabbed and thrown down, popping him into the air. Carroza-Oyarce followed up with some punishing aerial attacks, but got a little cocky. Perez slashed him after inviting him into his hit box, sending him far off the other side of the stage. Carroza-Oyarce recovered, but in moments, Perez knocked him off the ledge again, and again, guarding the stage from his returns.
"I play a little like a camper," he told me. "I'm there to push people into errors and capitalise on those errors. I'm always ready for those errors." Top 5 Smash 4 player Barrios ("ZeRo") told me Perez is "very mobile" and has a "heavy punish game. He employs a lot of interesting tricks to stay mobile and difficult to hit." Perez actually confessed he'd learned that technique, in part, from playing against ZeRo in the US.
Photo by Thomas Tischio
The same passion that drew Perez to Marth repels him from Bayonetta, a Smash character widely looked down on for being too rewarding of low skill. In the Smash community, Bayonetta's appearance and playstyle will elicit strong opinions from any pro player. Perez momentarily lost his mild tone when I mentioned his recent tweet about her, calling her "disgusting". Quickly and with malice, Perez told me, "I don't like to see the character. I don't like the character. I don't like people who play the character. That's it."
His manager at Echo Fox, Antonio Javier told me that it was Perez's maturity and level-headedness that first struck him. In heated matches, he doesn't waver or succumb to others' mind games. "Leo did say he was going to win Genesis three months in advance," Javier said. "Taking a step back, anyone can make a bold claim like this, but you combine that with Leo's mental fortitude, and you've got yourself a winning combination." Mere weeks ago, Perez was signed by Javier and Most Valuable Gaming. Perez is the only foreign Smash player signed by MVG and one of two Smash players signed by Echo Fox.
Of the nearly big 70 matches he's played since mid-2015, Perez has forfeited first place only about 10 times. "I'm gonna try to win all the majors this year," he told me, a little modestly. And yet, despite this, he's confident that none of his classmates will think to look him up online. Matches aren't every day, so perhaps he can remain innocuous a little longer. Until his next shot at international fame, February 11's Really Feeling It in Austin, he'll be home in Mexico City, helping his mother cook.
Interview translation provided by Victor Jeffreys.