But the calls for his retirement buried those memories in the past. The perception of him being a weak player crept into the team and chipped at him from behind. Every time he made a mistake in practice or in a game, the little holes grew. He tripped over them again and again until he fell in. And at 22 years old, he retired his dream and wondered what was next.
Let’s rewind to before even that. Before the big stages and the lung collapse. Before California and Azeroth.
We were a Vietnamese immigrant family living in Michigan. Our father worked in a plastics factory and collected left-behind bottles to recycle for 10 cents a piece. Our mother worked at Taco Bell. We lived at relatives’ homes and single-room apartments and small trailer parks before saving enough to settle into a modest ranch house. Computers weren’t even in our vocabulary, let alone our lives.
So when our father bought a Nintendo 64 when it was first released in 1996, none of us knew how to set it up. Plugging in devices seems like child’s play today. You match up the shapes and press a button to turn it on. Except we didn’t know what the “input” channel was — none of us could read English. We didn’t understand the instructions. So we returned the system and thought little of it. Communication is a thing I will never take for granted.
This is one of the few things I remember from that age. Maybe it was the shame. Maybe that initial excitement for a new game and the subsequent letdown left a deep impression. For the longest time, this memory seemed so insignificant. Juxtapose it against watching Hai play a video game for a living — earning a healthy six-figure salary at that — and the experience becomes all the more surreal. Sitting in a crowd and knowing hundreds of thousands of people were tuning in. This was something I never imagined. Not in my wildest fantasies as we roamed through World of Warcraft together. Not once did I envision Hai as a pro-gamer.
We didn’t have much growing up, but we’re not exactly a lottery-like rags-to-riches story. Like many first-generation immigrant families, we benefited from parents who worked hard — our mother, in particular, to the tune of 80 hours a week even to this day. They’d always yell at us to study more, but we didn’t really listen. It was hard for them to enforce those rules when they were gone so much.
These days our mom doesn’t really understand what Hai does for a living. But she’s definitely not yelling at him for playing too much. And I’m not sure anyone actually “gets it” yet. I mean, how often do you watch someone play a video game and wonder what you’re doing with your life?
I suspect the N64 was overly complicated, anyway. Or maybe our TV wasn’t compatible. Or maybe we were just immigrants completely out of our element. About a year later, we moved into a house and acquired an old NES. It came with a two-player side-scrolling shooter called Contra. My brothers and I were horrible.
We’d lose all our lives on the first level and watch our father try to finish the game by himself. From a young age, we were conditioned to watch someone else play if we failed. And that dictated our choice in games for the rest of our youth. The three of us were clumped into one bedroom for years. Our heads always butted. We only played multiplayer games — it was impossible to convince each other to sit and watch the other trudge through the likes of Zelda or Final Fantasy. We always wanted our turn.
Watching people play games generally happened in living rooms — with friends and family. Unlike traditional sports, there weren’t really any structures or institutions in place for professional gamers. There weren’t high school teams where gamers rose to become team captain. No underdog story and no quests for state championships. The bulk of online gaming happened behind a closed door and an anonymous screen name.
Professional gamers are the gems at the tip of a mountain of rocks. Their skills are refined by repetition. There were no mentors. No coaches. For most of the millions of kids who play games, their proudest gaming moment happens alone. They Flash the Malphite ultimate. They 360 no-scope. Their raid comes together and successfully avoids standing in the fire. What we see on stage is born from those little moments of isolated success.
Those moments to gamers are akin to a kid under a basketball hoop counting down from three before taking the game-winning shot. For me, that was often a miss — but I’d recreate it until it wasn’t. I’d recreate it until I could hear the crowd rise from their feet like gravity had been tamed, and when I landed the moment would disappear forever. And so it did. And so do the countless moments of exuberance born from gaming. But that’s okay. We play to create them again.
And watching Hai on the LCS stage was that very recreation. The players allowed us to step away from our isolation and into daydreams of grandeur. They played the game at its highest level. Each time the audience roared and the casters’ voices drummed through the screen, a small part of our brains captured it and compartmentalized it away for later use. Instead of shooting imaginary game-winners on the court, there are kids now who land the perfect spell in a video game and imagine a caster screaming their game name. They imagine the same crowd wooed by the buzzer beater now rallied behind their Baron steal.
For Hai, those self-propelling moments were key to his confidence. We did everything together as children, even through the bickering and fighting. But it was healthy banter, for the most part. At least until our parents divorced. After that, the arguments escalated. Instead of cheap banter that was forgotten within minutes or hours, everything carried an extra edge. Insults were sharper. Blaming each other for little mistakes extended beyond the games. Daily life things set me off — like needing to wait for him in the morning before going to school. Maybe I was just trying to figure out where to place the blame for the divorce.
I snapped at a lot of things he said as if he was stupid for saying them. I think he dealt with an inferiority complex for a number of years. If you knew him now, you’d almost laugh at that. He carries himself with a level of confidence that borders on arrogance. Hai says, about me, “[Kien] had a way with words that really made me feel less than human. It ate away at me.” I don’t remember specifics at this point, but I knew then and I know now I wasn’t a good older brother.
Hai was a late bloomer and weighed under a hundred pounds through most of high school. He’s still really thin now, but back then his bones were a house of cards. “I ate once, maybe twice a day and spent the rest of my time on the computer after school,” he says. He basically just kept his head down while he was home. At the time, only a handful of people had made any sort of life as a professional gamer. Games weren’t meant to be his ticket to fame, and they didn’t hold any of his dreams. They were just the one safe outlet. It gave him a chance to make something new of himself.
* * *
It’s now a famous tale in League esports lore, but that doesn’t make it any easier to believe. Cloud9 dropped their first two games against Gravity Gaming in a Best of 5 set during the 2015 NA Regional Qualifier for the World Championship. After a massively disappointing regular season — the likes of which C9 had never faced before — they found themselves in need of three straight wins to survive. Stringing even two wins together wasn’t something they’d done much that season. But it was still apparent they were playing hard. Hai’s voice carried above everyone else’s on stage — that much was clear even in the losses.
Yet he was still relatively new to jungling. He’d been heavily criticized for his mid lane mechanics, so swapping to another role entirely — and playing at a capable level — was a bit miraculous. Maybe his team just covered for his inadequacies, though. I knew it wasn’t his favorite role, and he was still a little bitter about stepping down from mid lane. Despite his injuries, he wanted to continue as a mid laner to take another shot at Worlds before he retired. He wanted to end his career on his own terms, but the calls to step down were too loud. His voice, which had rung so loud and directed his team to so many victories, was drowned out.
One of the critiques against Hai for a large part of his career was that he wasn’t as mechanically proficient as his counterparts. He was always lauded for his ability to lead his team, but once that started to crumble, so too did the original Cloud9 identity. For me, Hai’s inefficiency in those areas derived from his team’s play style — one that asked a lot of him but provided him with little. One meta in particular that stands out is the lane swap meta that featured the early double jungle and a roaming support. It felt like teams were crashing everything into him. Of course, that might have just been my biased perspective, but C9 was never known as a team where mid was prioritized.
Whatever the reason for his performance, those perceptions of inadequacy slowly chipped away at his morale. He always said he didn’t care what the public thought of him, but it’s one thing to say that and another to actually believe it. Try as he might to embody one of the champions he controls, he’s still human. After all, how could someone so widely praised for his communication possibly ignore the chatter? And so he stepped down.
Cloud9 gave him a hero’s farewell, and the community embraced his retirement. The press release stated it was because he’d lost the ability to maintain a pro-gamer’s training regimen because of tendonitis in his wrist. Additionally, he’d suffered a lung collapse the previous year, which I actually learned about on Reddit. I’d been out at a bar and was enjoying my nightcap pizza when I turned on my phone. I didn’t think I’d had that much to drink, but seeing my brother hooked up to tubes and needles on “the front page of the internet” made me question my sanity that night.
Privately, though, he maintained the wrist didn’t bother him. He maintained that he was still, at the very least, the second best mid laner in North America. Maybe that was nothing more than pride. It was difficult for me to accept, too — I’d watched every single one of his games since he was on a middling team in the amateur scene. In 2012, I watched him play on my old toaster of a laptop after he drove to my apartment during a pause to finish a match because his internet crashed. He claimed his internet had been DDOSed, so I imagined some sort of Matrix situation. Maybe my laptop was one of the phone booths from the movie.
I then watched him lose a heartbreaker that eliminated him from participating in the first split of the LCS in 2013. And I remember lying in bed awake all that night trying to talk to him — like I could possibly console him despite us not having a close relationship. I think, though, I was trying to console myself more. In many ways, I lived vicariously through Hai’s experience. And watching him play felt like a medium that brought us closer. I felt gutted when he lost. He felt even worse.
A few weeks after that failed Qualifier, he messaged me and said he was thinking about dropping out of school (Michigan State University). An organization named Quantic Gaming offered to put him up in a gaming house. He wanted my opinion. I can’t recall a single time before that (or many after, to be honest) where he asked for my opinion on something. I told him to go, though I think he’d already made up his mind at that point.
I’m not sure what compelled him to ask for my opinion that night. Maybe he wanted to talk to someone who’d always been in his life, if only marginally at times. Maybe it was because I was pursuing a graduate degree and thus might be a proponent of school. Maybe it meant something to him to hear me be supportive for once. And there weren’t really many experts when it came to pursuing a professional gaming career. Especially not in America. He didn’t have many options when it came to advice.
I knew he always hated school. He lived in the living room of a shared one-bedroom apartment for the last chunk of it, miles away from campus. He had his bed, his computer, and his collection of empty instant noodle cups. All the glamour and glitz he has now is a product of the time he put in to League of Legends — so much of which came at a time when nothing was guaranteed. Well, he probably still eats instant noodles.
This is why I feel for people who’ve been fringe LCS players for a long time. I wonder what kinds of things they’ve given up to just chase the dream. What are they eating? What’s their living situation? And in the long run, maybe it’s worth it. Maybe the “what if” of not chasing would be harder to deal with than the “what if” of missing out on school — you have a much better understanding of what a traditional collegiate path looks like. And that option is always open, if also a little uncertain.
After moving to California, Hai’s team managed to blast their way into the LCS before rebranding as Cloud9. I remember being nervous for their Qualifier matches, but it was basically three 25 minute thumpings. I became super hyped for C9.
And Hai became their face. And so when he stepped down, I briefly stopped following C9 and the LCS as much. I’d always thought I was a fan of esports, but I started to realize I was a much bigger fan of my brother. This felt easier than actually being close to him. The league felt completely different without him in it.
I used to search Hai’s name on Reddit to see what people were saying about him after games. And towards the end of his tenure as the mid laner, I found myself in arguments with complete strangers about his play. I’ve seen him make many posts about how the community treats its players — I think a lot of the criticism is exacerbated by the proximity between players and fans.
Pros grew up with social media. They even share part of their practice grounds — solo queue — with amateurs. There’s a hyper-lens of attention placed on them. And most of the players are still teenagers — some haven’t even finished the awkward years of high school. They barely know who they are and yet they’re tasked with branding themselves properly. Sometimes, what seems to matter more than playing well is to be perceived as playing well — at least in terms of career longevity. Without that, it’s easy for a player to lose faith and become demoralized.
It’s a little (or very) petty, but I felt a little vindicated when Cloud9 started to struggle without Hai. They finished no worse than second with him at the helm, but with him gone they struggled to stay out of last place. When I did watch the team, it looked like the players were each trying their hardest to not be the one most at fault for the loss. It didn’t seem like there was a cohesive plan towards winning. Nobody seemed to want to put their neck on the line. Maybe a part of that was watching Hai’s head fly — if it could happen to him, then why not them?
During this time, Hai moved down to Los Angeles. He cried in the Yaris as he drove down the Pacific coast like he was in some ’80s rom-com. Some dumb love song blaring. The adjustments to his new life had begun. Gone were the daily grinds. Gone were the expectations and rigors of pro life. There was supposed to be relief in retirement. And yet he cried.
I don’t think he ever really acclimated himself to retirement. They say it takes half the time of your relationship to get over a breakup. He was retired for only a couple months. I don’t want to say the return wasn’t without concern or hesitation, but it’s not like he hated Cloud9. So when they asked for help, he provided it. Initially, C9 just wanted to change the atmosphere, but Meteos — upon seeing the difference in communication — thought it’d be better for everybody if it became permanent. Meteos was the other true star and face of the franchise and at his height enjoyed, perhaps, the single most dominant season in NA LCS history. His jungle play was one of the key markers for the team identity. Stepping down, surely, wasn’t an easy decision.
In his new role, Hai’s return wasn’t without stumbles — C9 lost every game out of the gate with him back in, but there was renewed faith and energy. Team morale improved. The lofty expectations placed on them at the beginning of the season had been lifted — nobody expected them to do much more than show some bite.
The jungle experiment didn’t seem to be working out. Morale and communication didn’t mean much if Cloud9 couldn’t return to the top of the perch. Such was the expectation they’d placed on themselves from the onset. They made strides in that they weren’t keeling over in losses, but losing with style was still losing.
But they started to piece together key wins. Just enough, in fact, to force a tiebreaker at the end of the season against Team 8. A win would give them a shot at the Regional Qualifiers to determine who’d be the North American region’s final seed at the 2015 World Championship. What Hai had left behind in the driveway in Northern California was back within his reach. He’d have one more shot to fight for League’s most coveted title. And, of course, C9 defeated Team 8. It was their first “last” chance.
But when they found themselves down two games in the series against Gravity to start the Qualifier, I realized I was possibly witnessing Hai’s last game as a League of Legends professional. Something about it felt special. I was wrong about why it was special, though. I was glad I finally got to watch him play — this wasn’t Contra anymore. I wouldn’t get a turn. But I was disappointed they weren’t winning. In some ways, I wondered if I was a bad luck charm. I wondered if he really was a washed-up player.
In Game 3 of the series against Gravity, Hai proceeded to do very little to affect the outcome, but C9 seemed to flip a switch. In contrast to earlier in the season, they weren’t ready to roll over and go home. Thanks to a few advantages accrued in the early game, they managed to claim a sloppy victory. They were expected to lose, and then they were pushed into the proverbial corner. What crawled out from there wasn’t the same old beast — the powerhouse they’d been. Instead it was meek and looked like it might topple over with the right gust of wind. But it wavered and wavered without falling.
The victory made it clear the crowd was decidedly in Cloud9’s corner. Gravity, despite their successes, hadn’t yet had the time to cultivate an image that attracted many fans. They were a young team with a ton of upside and potential, but they crumbled and splintered after just one split. That’s what I mean when I say it matters more to be perceived as successful. The criticism is easier to deflect.
It meant a lot to see Hai win a game, but I wanted more. That’s always been the case. That’s what happens when you grow up in a competitive environment where the loser has to sit and observe. And that’s what he wanted, too. This time, he wanted to end his career on his terms. He wasn’t going to let someone else end it.
In Game 4, Hai selected Kha’Zix, which was his favorite champion as a mid laner and also the one he saw the most consistent success on. The game started off poorly for Cloud9. They were losing the tightly contested match for most of the game until a snap call flipped the momentum. The key moment came when they slayed Baron — a signature staple for Hai. It’s admittedly the family motto, too — when in doubt, do Baron. And while the team makeup was a little different, what we saw come alive again was the old C9 spirit that lived and died by Hai’s moxie. And so they lived. When they smashed the Nexus to tie up the series, the whole crowd knew how Game 5, and the series, would end. It was written clearly on the Gravity players’ faces. They were just fodder for the plot. As they say, we were all witnesses.
There are times in life where you hold your breath without realizing it. Not until the moment passes. Then the breath catches up to you as if your body was a sail struggling to open in a storm. This was the entire gauntlet for me. I used to hate giving Hai his turn — at heart I was and am a competitor. Watching just means it isn’t your turn. Or your stage. But this became the key difference. After a certain age, I was no longer Hai’s competitor. He was that much better.
With the progression of high speed internet, us brothers slowly gravitated away from the console and carved our own niches online. It began with a simple browser based role-playing game called Runescape. I guess most games can be boiled down to clicking, but Runescape mastered the art of repetitive clicking. You literally clicked on a rock for hours just to level up your mining skill.
I’ve seen people both knock and laud Hai for his name — how it’s either uncreative or perfectly simple. But his first online moniker? Iamannoyed. Because he didn’t want to think up a name, that’s what he went with. When I think back on that game, I imagine his little avatar — boots and trousers and a bronze helmet — slamming a pickaxe into a rock. Above that the name “Iamannoyed.”
Hai and I leapt from one MMORPG to another and eventually landed on World of Warcraft. We used to PVP and arena together. Every time something went wrong, we screamed at each other. Well, probably it was me screaming at him and him defending himself. We demanded to know every cooldown and movement. Every slight change of temperature. We didn’t sit and play games quietly — that’s a stereotype we blasted through.
So it always made sense to me that Hai became a shot-caller. He just needed to find people who actually listened to him, unlike me. To me, shotcalling never seems to be an issue of knowing what to do so much as committing to one thing. You don’t have time to reflect on the flaws of a strategy while in the game. And Cloud9 was more decisive than anybody. Maybe it’s ironic that those reflections caught up with them at all.
The gauntlet run was my first time watching him play live, though. I didn’t really know what to expect. I drove by the studio twice before figuring out where to go for parking. I felt kind of awkward when I explained to the Riot employees fronting the entrance that I was “on a list.” But sure enough, they slapped a bracelet on me and explained I had back stage access to the players’ lounge. I went in and either the players were too nervous to eat or had already eaten, but the catered food was basically untouched. I still feel a little guilty over how much I ate (it was very good!), but none of them were even looking that way.
Eventually, I made my way to the front of the crowd and sat next to Hai’s managers and Cloud9’s owner, Jack. I wish I could tell you I learned one of Jack’s dark secrets or even that he smells bad, but he was very accommodating to me. Even still, I realized despite my familial connection that I was a fringe player in the spectacle. They were all deeply invested in the team on a day-to-day, in-the-flesh basis. Hai managed to create an entirely new family, complete with its own dynamics and trials and traditions.
My family is not particularly close, though we seem to be improving with age and maturity — whatever that is. But I’ve known them longer than anybody else in my life. There was a summer as a kid when I couldn’t sleep in my bed, so I crawled into one of my brothers’ every night. I’m not sure what compelled it or what made that better — maybe I was still afraid of the dark or of monsters. Maybe it helped to know someone would be within arm’s length to pull me back to the world if I drifted too far away. We’d seen many things slip from us, like the ties to our heritage — our understanding of the Vietnamese language. We saw our father leave the house. We stopped playing games together. Even now, there are nights where my bed feels empty. I blame it on my failed relationships, but I think I’ve dealt with that isolation for a lot longer. The games let me escape, but they didn’t come with me to bed. Not outside of Tetris blocks falling down the back of eyelids, anyway. It helped as a kid to wake up and hear someone else breathing.
In a lot of ways, I think we all went through similar things on our own as adults. Hai dealt with his first breakup at the end of high school — the relationship was one of his first confidence builders. He was so upset he punched a hole in our living room wall. Maybe that’s where the wrist troubles began (I kid but what if).
He says, “I felt betrayed by someone other than family — it was a lonely feeling like no one was there for me. I hated my brothers, didn’t get along with my parents, and rarely talked to my little sister. I sat in a corner in the dark and cried over how powerless I was to shape my life.”
Maybe it seems a little dramatic now. Like it’s nothing more than regular teen angst, but I wonder if that brief moment in the car after leaving the house made him feel the same way. If there were little traces of the old him under all that composure and swagger he fronted on the camera. What we as an esports audience see unfold in the spotlight, for the first time, are the stories of the so-called nerds of the world. Gaming doesn’t carry the same basement dwelling stigma it once did. Or at least not as much. But there’s still a perception of it being a waste of time — despite its ability to bring people from all over the world together and allowing people to stretch beyond their geographical sandboxes.
Back in 2010, when he first started League of Legends, he told me to try it. He said it was basically Defense of the Ancients (DotA), which was a game we poured hours into as teenagers. At the time, we played private matches with some of the top players in the country. We were also yelled at constantly by our parents to not waste so much time on games, but that’s all we did when we were home. And once they divorced, they lost any semblance of control over what we did with our time. A Travis Gafford interview with our father made a lot of people credit Hai’s success to growing up in a stable and supportive environment. I think that’s definitely true now, but that wasn’t the case growing up. The stability comes from his teams. Hai climbed up largely on his own mental fortitude and ambition.
I initially thought League of Legends was childish. I couldn’t deny minions. I couldn’t make the experience miserable for someone else. The biggest reason for me not picking the game up sooner, though, probably had to deal with pride. Hai was already one of the top players in North America in 2012. I had trouble admitting he was better than me. Even now, I hate saying it (he sux!). But Hai is, without a doubt, a better gamer than me. And games are a language we’ve always understood. The losses stay with you. The wins are fleeting — always trying to slip away from your grip. Reaching for them, though, is the thing we understand very well.
For Hai, “Video games are my world. They are my path and my escape. I will never leave them.”
If, initially, League of Legends was anything like what I experienced at the Staples Center in 2013, where the World Championship Final was being hosted, then maybe I’d have picked the game up sooner. I expected people to know who he was as we walked around. I expected them to ask for autographs and for him to have certain privileges.
What I didn’t expect was mobs of people stopping him every ten feet. I didn’t expect to enter the Staples Center from the same entrance Kobe Bryant took. I didn’t expect people to move for him so we could sit closer on the floor. I never expected those hours we toiled away with a controller in hand or in front of a computer monitor to evolve into anything more than nostalgia.
But Cloud9 smashing Gravity’s Nexus in Game 5 of the gauntlet? That’s something I did come to expect. And when they reverse swept Team Impulse the following day after starting off 0-2 again, I started to believe a little in fate. Hollywood has a thing for hackneyed comeback stories, and there we were — a couple of kids from a poor family with poor family dynamics. Just a few yards away from each other. Winning against Team Liquid on the final day of the gauntlet was a foregone conclusion for me at that point. They stood on the brink of elimination — and with it, probably, Hai’s retirement — for eight games, and they refused to hand the controller over. It seemed I’d lost for good with video games — all those years being top dog in the family became blurs. It was Hai who held the controller, and I watched him.
Here was this scrawny-ass kid who grew up eating ants because I told him they tasted like chocolate. Here was this kid who couldn’t be bothered to come up with a screen name to know him by. The same kid who spilled cup ramen on his crotch and received a second degree burn before cleaning it because he had to finish his game. Here he was at the helm of one of the largest gaming brands in the world, and above all the crowd noise and game sounds was his voice. And it came from just one good lung that made me want to breathe for him and with him and I wanted it to never stop.