LAS VEGAS -- Leonardo "MKLeo" Lopez Perez took a breath and stared intently at the screen in front of him. He hoped for the best as he sat in front of thousands on the blue Evolution Championship Series stage at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
He was one loss away from returning home without a trophy Super Smash Bros. Ultimate trophy, and more importantly, without the one title that has eluded him for the past three years. In 2017, MKLeo finished 65th in the Super Smash Bros. for Wii U portion of the world's largest fighting tournament. In 2018, he wasn't able to attend after contracting chicken pox. Now the 2019 Evolution Championship Series was his to lose.
"I just lost the tournament," he thought. "It's fine. I got to the grand finals in losers, he's really good. We're first, second [in the rankings], it doesn't really matter."
And then game three happened. MKLeo started to find answers to Gavin "Tweek" Dempsey's Pokemon Trainer, and he squeezed out a victory. MKLeo was still in the game.
"I still have a chance," he thought.
This moment, this tournament, it was his. Since the release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in December, MKLeo has quickly become the game's most successful player, continuing a dominance that he first exuded in the previous version of the game. At the end of Smash for Wii U's life cycle, he finished as the game's top-ranked player.
When he first started this journey, he was 15 and he gained hype online after dominating local tournaments in Mexico. That notoriety was delivered on, because quickly after arriving to compete in the United States, he had defeated Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios at 2GG: Zero Saga in a ballroom at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas.
Now 18 years old, MKLeo found himself back in Sin City facing elimination against Tweek, with even bigger stakes on the line and a legacy capstone in sight.
The next 20 minutes of play showed why MKLeo is considered the best Super Smash Bros. Ultimate player in the world, a title he confidently believes in but questioned after a difficult run throughout Evo 2019. It took six straight wins and a handful of flashy plays, but MKLeo ended the grand finals. He was the Evo champion.
"It just feels like a dream," he told ESPN after the match.
"I just really want to show the people that I'm indeed the best player, so winning Evo is not just showing people that I'm the best player. It's just showing myself that I'm indeed the best and that I can still do better."
In a game full of players from America and Japan, MKLeo, originally from Mexico City, leads the competition a step above the rest. He's the second Latin American player to earn the title of best in the generation of players who have competed in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Smash for Wii U and now Ultimate.
Before him, there was Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios, a Chilean pro who used his dominant success to move permanently to the United States and make a regular living off of Super Smash Bros. In some ways, MKLeo has followed in his footsteps. Prior to being successful in Smash, MKLeo was poor, living mostly off of bread and fruit. Back then, even buying a bottle of Coca-Cola was a special treat, he said.
"[ZeRo] is from Chile, I'm from Mexico, we're Latin Americans, so I feel like it's a cute story," MKLeo said. "He was in the same position as me, he didn't have money, he couldn't eat anything. His family was poor. And coming to the United States to do what he loved, to win money, to be the best player, it's the same thing I did. We are the same person but in a different game."
Throughout Evo, in interviews both Saturday and Sunday, he spoke as if he was a totally different person from a few years back; he was confident, almost cocky, knowing he was the best and that Evo was his to take.
"I've also been going to tournaments; my problems, my family problems; I had a girlfriend, it wasn't fun, it was a super big problem; I started losing tournaments super bad," he said. "I think I'm super mature right now. I'm not a kid anymore. That's what I feel like right now. I've been the best player Smash 4 and Ultimate. I'm just a way different
As Super Smash Bros. has matured, so has MKLeo. "When I was in Mexico, playing and winning tournaments, I just felt like I was 14 years old or something," he said. "I had already had so much money in Mexico, I could just do whatever I wanted. Smash just kills you. I'm 18 and I don't look like I'm 18, I look like 25 or something like that. Whenever I'm streaming, they're like, 'Oh, you're 40.'
"Do I really look that bad? It's just because of Smash."
Getting here hasn't been easy, but it has been rewarding. MKLeo now lives in Florida in the Most Valuable Gaming house, and he purchased his family a house for 2 million Mexican pesos ($101,907) using his winnings from Smash.
"They really wanted a house, because the house we used to live in was really bad," MKLeo said. "It was not safe. I was like, 'Okay, we really need to buy a new house.' Cause even if I go to the U.S.A., my family is still in Mexico and I don't want them to be in this part. It's better to just buy a new house, we live the same way. We actually eat the same things, we play the same things. It feels like a better house."
His family has been supportive of the career path, he said, stating that they watched the tournament and sent him messages of love and congratulations after he walked off stage at the Events Center. They didn't think he'd be the best in the world, but recognized early in his life an affinity for games and skill that would eventually develop into what it is now.
With the money and the fame, MKLeo, like many young celebrities, has had to stave off the sense of materialism. This year alone, he's purchased three cell phones: a Samsung Galaxy Note 8, a Galaxy S10 and now the latest iPhone.
"I already have so much money, that I don't even know what to spend it on," he said. "I don't want to buy something bad, so I just use it to buy a new cell phone. Probably buy a cell phone for my family, probably buy a house, a car. When you have the money, you need to spend the money."
After Super Smash Con in Chantilly, Virginia, this weekend, MKLeo will return to Mexico for an interview to renew his visa. He misses the food, he said explaining that in America, none of the best food is actually American, but that in Mexico, the authentic cuisine is something he looks forward to each time.
"When I go to Mexico, I'm going to buy five tacos for $1," he said. "That's really good."
With the Evo win, MKLeo cemented his position and started a legacy -- one that one day may rival ZeRo, who won 53 consecutive tournaments after the release of Smash for Wii U.
"I see ZeRo as my idol," MKLeo said. "He's the person that I wanted to be like and now that I'm like him, I just don't want to stop. It just feels like my dream came true."