CAMBRIDGE — In most settings, Alex Hattori — a soft-spoken engineering student who favors Vans sneakers and likes to zip across the MIT campus on a motorized scooter — does not command a sizable audience.
But drop him into a group of yo-yoers and, well, things tend to get a little wild.
Earlier this summer, as he exited a taxi and made his way into the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in Shanghai — the site of the 2018 World Yo-Yo Contest — the 20-year-old was immediately set upon by a mob of Chinese yo-yoers and yo-yo enthusiasts, who inundated him with requests for autographs, selfies, and — curiously — his mother’s social media handles.
Such is the price of fame, and in the world of competitive yo-yoing, at least, it doesn’t get a whole lot bigger than Hattori, who might very well be the most successful competitive yo-yoer in the United States.
A six-time national yo-yo champion, he has his own signature yo-yo, which is available in five different colors and retails for $74.99. He has an official sponsorship deal with the Arizona-based YoYoFactory, which regularly ships boxes filled with new yo-yos and apparel to his dorm room.
And when those who follow the competitive yo-yo scene discuss his talent, they do so in the same breathless way football analysts describe Tom Brady.
“He just doesn’t make mistakes,” gushes Ben McPhee, brand manager at YoYoFactory.
That competitive yo-yoing exists in the first place will probably come as a surprise to many who view the yo-yo as little more than a quirky toy of yore, good for a quick dose of nostalgia and not much else.
But as social media’s rise made it easier to film and share new tricks, the competitive yo-yo scene has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon in which competitions are held regularly around the world, competitors are attempting an ever-wilder array of tricks, and the world’s top players command everything from sponsorship deals to online notoriety.
Performers develop elaborate three-minute routines set to music — and, like figure skating, are judged on both their technical aptitude and stylistic flair.
“It’s really evolved into its own sport,” says André Boulay, owner of YoYoExpert.com and the Northampton toy store A2Z Science & Learning,
which holds weekly yo-yo classes and organizes various state and regional competitions. “It’s almost at the level of skateboarding. People identify with the culture of yo-yo.”
Hattori’s foray into this world began quite by accident. As a middle-schooler growing up in California, he was waiting for his mom to pick him up from band practice one afternoon when he borrowed a friend’s yo-yo, began experimenting, and quickly took a liking to it.
Within a month, he’d won his first competition, held in Hollywood, and in the ensuing years, he began yo-yoing his way up the national ranks.
Since then, it has become an increasingly sizable part of his life.
He competes in what is generally considered the sport’s most difficult category — known as the 3A division, in which performers do tricks with two long-spinning yo-yos at a time. He chose to attend MIT, in part, because the school offers a course in which the semester’s primary project is — no joke — to design and create a yo-yo.
For that class last year, as a junior at MIT, he designed and manufactured the prototypes for what would become the “Boost” — which McPhee describes as an essentially flawless yo-yo that is now one of the best-selling models among competitive yo-yoers in the 3A division.
“The funniest part is . . . he got a ‘B’ in the class,” says Graeme Steller, 23, of Boston, who serves as emcee for many of the world’s top yo-yo competitions.
Maintaining his level of yo-yo dominance, meanwhile, has required a near-constant devotion to the craft.
Hattori yo-yos in the dining hall and on his way to class, in front of classrooms of students and in the school’s machine shop. His longtime roommate — he and Hattori both said on MIT’s roommate questionnaire that their ideal Friday night would be spent building robots — has grown used to walking into their dorm room to find multiple yo-yos flying.
“Our previous room actually had a much lower ceiling, with a support [beam] going through the middle, and he’d occasionally hit the yo-yo on that,” says Jared DiCarlo, an MIT senior studying computer science and electrical engineering. “So this new room is a huge upgrade as a yo-yo space.”
While the yo-yoing community is generally pretty friendly, Hattori says, it is not immune to bouts of competitiveness and gamesmanship.
He has watched frustrated yo-yoers chuck their yo-yos following poor performances and once observed a highly favored competitor make a mistake mid-performance, sit down on stage, and begin crying.
Not long ago, a pair of elite yo-yoers engaged in an apparently heated social media battle in which they challenged each other to perform certain tricks — though Hattori believes it was not as intense as it appeared, as the two yo-yoers involved are actually longtime friends.
If there is one thing missing from his yo-yo résumé, it’s a world title — which has so far eluded him.
After finishing second at the international competition in Shanghai over the summer, he quickly turned his attention to next year’s event, working with a collection of other elite yo-yoers to deconstruct his current tricks and build a routine aimed at the current judging style.
The results won’t be known for sometime; next year’s event will be held in August in Cleveland.
As for how much longer he’ll continue in a sport whose top competitors are mostly in their teens and early 20s?
“Oh, I don’t think I’ll ever stop,” Hattori says. “I love yo-yoing as much as I did the first day.”