I found my journalistic skills put to the test earlier this week. No one taught me how to interview an 8-year-old.
I start my conversation with Noah Solis, the 8-year-old who surprised everyone by ranking in the top 48 at the Evo Championship Series 2011 this year playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3, on simple footing. How'd you get into fighting games?
"It was fun," he responded. The phone goes silent, as I wait for something more. Nothing. It's quiet.
Okay, maybe we're just getting warmed up. How did you decide you wanted to be competitive?
"I beat everybody!" he said definitively.
This back-and-forth continues for another minute or two.
Were you always playing against your friends and beating them? "Yes!" Is Marvel vs. Capcom 3 your favorite fighting game? "No!" So, what is your favorite fighting game? "Super Street Fighter IV." Who's your favorite character? "Bison." How come you like Bison? "His purple hand." What was it like to go to Evo and play against all these people who were older than you? Was that fun? "Yes!"
The questioning halts when I ask Noah what it was like to finally lose in the tournament. Instead, Noah's father, Moises Solis, speaks up.
"I've seen Noah cry," said Moises, a 38-year-old single parent taking care of Noah and his two older brothers, ages 15 and 18. "When he wins, he kind of cheers up, but I see the passion he has for it as a sport. He would cry just like any pee wee division would cry if they lost the Super Bowl, you know what I mean? That's how I see Noah."
The family's located not far from Los Angeles, where Noah got his start in the competitive gaming circuit. Noah was playing fighting games with his brothers when one of them told Moises that Noah wasn't just good, he was really good.
"My two oldest just keep passing back and forth the controller," said Moises. "Growing up, when you passed the controller, you lost! [laughs] So I asked my oldest son and I'm like 'is he winning?'"
The family started considering the idea of bringing Noah to a local tournament. With three growing mouths to feed, however, deciding to jump in the car and enter a tournament wasn't an easy question to answer. Such trips cost money.
"The way the economy is, I lost my job," he said, "but I had a nice set of rims on the car, so I sold my rims and said 'Let's go, let's see what he's got.'"
Noah made his first appearance at the Level Up SoCal regionals in 2010. He was just 7-years-old.
"He did okay, I think he was more nervous," he said.
Noah kept making appearances on the local circuit, generating buzz. At one point Noah ended up "perfecting" someone (read: he didn't get hit), which caught the eye of the community. He was young, but Noah was no joke.
The successes convinced Moises this was a worthy path, even if he doesn't have a solid grasp how the games his son is playing actually work. In his youth, Moises wasn't much of a gamer, focusing instead on sports.
"If you look out your window," he said, "the things kids are doing nowadays...I have options here in my home. There's reading, there's math, there's gaming. I can either let him go outside, smoke pot, run around with gang members--if this is what he wants to do, this is what I'll support him in."
Noah's biggest splash came at this year's Evo tournament, finishing in the top 48 playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with his combination of Hulk, Wesker and Sentinel. The trio caught some off guard, especially Hulk. Edward "RoyalFlush" Valdez was just one of the players who lost to Noah.
Valdez entered Evo 2011 playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Tekken 6 and Mortal Kombat--a mix of old and new. He described himself as an early adopter, willing to jump into the competitive scene of a new game, even if it hasn't really proven itself yet. Tekken 5 was his original gateway drug into everything, but he eventually received the most attention for playing the Wii-exclusive Tatsunoko vs. Capcom.
He'd heard of Noah before Evo, but he didn't bother to look at this pool of contestants, so squaring up against Noah was a surprise.
The thing you notice watching videos of Noah's Evo matches is the crowd's role. When Noah's winning, the crowd cheers like crazy. If he's losing, they vocally dogpile with boos. It's lose-lose for anyone against Noah. Valdez figured he had part of the crowd on his side thanks to his odd lineup of Viewtiful Joe, M.O.D.O.K. and Thor.
Approaching the stage, Valdez sized up his surprising opponent.
"He was really quiet, actually," he laughed. "All I asked was what was his name and how old he was. That's all I got. Even after the match, I always give a handshake, but actually gave me a fist bump instead!"
The match was going Valdez's way at first, allowing him to secure a first round win.
"I won the first match, so I was feeling good about myself," he said. "Usually, when that comes around, like the second match, I feel like I can take more risks because I'm on that high, that boost of morale. That totally fell apart in seconds."
Valdez described the experience of playing in front of a crowd as much different than messing around with your friends. You're here to show off, take risks and showcase the skills you've been honing. Doing so means that sometimes it won't work out.
Eventually, Noah was able to turn the tables.
Describing Noah's play style as "surprisingly patient," Valdez eventually lost. The crowd went wild.
"I didn't feel bad about it," he said. "There's some people that get really mad after they lose. I was psyched that he won. I don't really know how I would have acted if I'd won the match. It's always a good feeling when you win, but when you lose to someone good or it's not like you got randomed out."
Getting "randomed out" is losing to someone who doesn't have a real strategy--like a button masher. It's similar to poker--if you're playing against someone who's just acting randomly, it's impossible to employ a credible counterstrategy.
Struggling with the feeling of defeat is a lesson Moises is working hard to teach Noah. Try to remember what it was like when you lost something you really cared about as a kid. Those losses are crushing. It's hard to tell your young self to just chin up.
"In a football game, when a crowd boos on you, you try harder," said Moises. "You don't let the crowd [get to you]. That's what I taught Noah because I used to be a pitcher, and I explained to him 'There's gonna be crowds yelling and all that and all you do is tune 'em out and just focus.' You just have to teach your kid what's right, wrong. Noah, when he loses, you know what I say to him? 'This is what it's called, son. You take a licking and keep on ticking.'"
Valdez's real regret is a consequence of Evo's growing popularity. Thousands watched the Evo matches all weekend long, which means his defeat to an 8-year-old has been archived for eternity.
"I have to live with that for the rest of my life," he joked.
His loss is Noah's gain, with his performance at Evo prompting all sorts of random offers and phone calls to his father about Noah's skills. Coming to grips with his son's rising fame has been a struggle for Moises, a task he deals with on a day-by-day basis. Moises promised an "announcement" of some kind was coming for his son in the near future that would shed some light on how he plans to pivot in life after Evo.
"This is a whole other level for myself," said Moises. "It's including my son, something that I care about, something that is a part of myself and something that I don't want to screw up! I can't."
Even though Noah didn't win this tournament, Evo did recognize his talents, sending him a "Rising Star" trophy to celebrate his valiant efforts.
It will probably be the first of many.
Evo Photos by Kara Leung