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1. “I experienced [the candlelight vigil] before in Madison Square Garden I believe when I was playing my first Worlds,” says Jankos. “But back then it was because I was losing 0-2 [laugh]. The people there did it to maybe say goodbye or something, but here they did it after the third game, and I knew we would win against Damwon.”
One thing that dawned on me this week is that Jankos is about to play in his third Semifinals match in four years, which is a mark matched only by Faker. If you’d asked me this question even a couple weeks ago, it would have taken me a long time to get it right.
I happened to be there in-person both in 2016 and last weekend, when the Madrid crowd lit their phones to send off Damwon. A candlelight vigil is, of course, generally a somber moment. It is also done with actual candles There is literal heat and compassion.
These two vigils that Jankos has experienced are very much different from that. They are lit to be disrespectful to the losing team (and, well, it is funny), and the lights are sourced from cell phones. But standing there in the crowd, it’s still a beautiful sight to behold. It’s impossible for my brain to truly process that there are thousands of people sitting in the stadium, but looking at those lights is a lot like looking at a depiction of the night sky in a picture book. You see it for not what it is but for what it could be.
Which is exactly how I imagine European fans perceive their region. Almost every year they have shown promise at Worlds, and almost every year they have failed to deliver. In G2, they have a team that has delivered once before this year. In G2 they have a team full of players that could each light up a stadium on their own. They could be the candles that put Europe’s history of almosts to rest for good.
2. At the 21:30 mark against G2 in last year’s Worlds Semifinals match, TheShy’s Aatrox breaks out from a Lissandra ultimate just as the rest of his team peels away from the river. He is left alone with all five members of G2, who gather around him like wolves. He lunges at them and gives them something to bite at.
The ensuing 1v5 display of dominance defined IG’s run so perfectly well. In a meta that allowed solo laners to flex their individual skill, none were better than TheShy and Rookie, who at times made it feel like they weren’t constrained by the same rules of the game as we were. It was truly jaw-dropping to watch.
League of Legends isn’t like traditional sports where an ice skater, for example, might wow you with a quad lutz — where you might wonder how their bodies are able to distort in such a manner. Maybe in a moment of inspiration you stretch a leg out only to realize the limits that gravity has placed on you. There is a kind of awe that fills you when someone who is vaguely shaped like you can appear to fly.
League of Legends will never be able to match that kind of visual because of the added layer of separation that is a player controlling an avatar. We are always two degrees removed from the actual human behind the screen when we watch them pull off inhuman feats. What we can feel, though, is a similar type of appreciation for how difficult it is to pull off. In this case, it is the 1v5. Because TheShy stepped into that fight by himself, for a moment, we are allowed to imagine even ourselves as the hero. Video games have always appealed to escapist fantasies, and esports is the pinnacle of what that can look like. It says, here is someone who has been given power. It says, here is someone who knows how to use it.
3. In the middle of winter on a long 2018 January day, Teddy leads his then-team, Jin Air GreenWings to an almost 95 minute win against SK telecom T1. It is a now infamous game in which he set the all-time CS record with nearly 1,500 minions slayed. In the aftermath, he immediately extends his arms to both teammates sitting next to him looking for high fives. His coach mobs him and ruffles his hair. He takes off his glasses and kind of shakes his head, as if to confirm what had just happened, before leaning back into his seat where you can see him visibly try to catch his breath. It was, until this year, arguably his most significant win ever.
I ask Teddy about the juxtaposition from his time on Jin Air, where he often shouldered the bulk of the carry duties, and he laughed, saying, “Yeah, I had a pretty hard time. I could have imagined [things would get better] but I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Actually, [when we won] I was happy, but I was also kind of sad and moved by the situation. It’s a stage I’ve always dreamed of and [suddenly] I was standing there.”
Here in Madrid, the Spanish crowd has been fervent for every single match so far, and have been gracious enough to extend the hospitality to the player introductions for every team. Teddy says he couldn’t help but feel extra motivated and happy when he heard his name called by Ibai and then the crowd erupted.
SKT is, to the vast majority of fans, the ultimate winner. It seems, at times, like they are predestined to do so. And they’ve cycled through enough rosters at this point that Faker — always the focal point — has an even bigger light shined on him now. The applause will continue to be thunderous. And with each win, Teddy will move a little further away from that January night, even if he chooses to always carry a little bit of it with him.
4. There is the 2015 LPL Summer Split when Doinb made the Finals in his first split ever, having been recruited by the Qiao Gu Reapers straight from the Korean Solo Queue ladder. The camera never pans to him. There is no handshake. I don’t know if he cries in that moment or if he is too young to understand the opportunity that has just slipped by.
There is also, much more recently, the 2019 LPL Summer Split final where FPX and Doinb slayed a full-build Uzi in a long game to secure his first championship ever. This time the camera pans to him before the game even ends, and he is seen pumping his arms in celebration before the Nexus officially drops. He basically tackles his teammates as he beams with joy, and then as they walk some 10 feet over to shake hands, you can see him start to break down. It happens during the handshakes and the hugs with the RNG players, and then it continues as he lines up to greet the fans. Despite his best efforts to contain himself, it continues even after he screams “We are the champions!” into the microphone.
He is very much a player that wears his emotions on his sleeves. This is evident whenever we get a post-game interview with him, and it was evident when he asked his wife, Umi, to marry him on stage in front of tons of FPX fans. Of Worlds, he tells me, “I can’t say it’s [lived up to my dreams and expectations] so far because my goal is to proceed further one. I wouldn’t be happy just reaching this stage and bowing out.”
What do you think of when you think of Doinb? For most people outside of China it is probably an image from this Worlds. Maybe you think of his wife cheering for him before you think even of him, or maybe you think of the torrent of conversation that asks how good he actually is. There hasn’t really been a defining moment at this Worlds yet, which is usually true for everybody besides the winner. I wonder, though, what does Doinb think of when he thinks of his own career? This time he understands the gravity of the moment and how far and few between these chances actually are. This time he might not have another four years to chase his dream.
5. “To be honest, somehow I just can’t remember last year,” says TheShy. “But I think I definitely have a different mindset. I’m less comfortable and thinking more [because] of the tension and expectations around us for winning Worlds last year. “
I like narratives because they help me place structure on a thing that might otherwise be structureless. Players are often surprised when we tell them patterns (Khan didn’t realize SKT had never missed a Finals) or unamused (Faker doesn’t think 100 international wins is very many). Here is TheShy who doesn’t even really remember last year’s Worlds, and if I am going to be completely honest, I remember its beats more than its specifics and that’s probably because I personally documented a lot of those beats.
By now, surely, you know the beat going into this Semifinals. It has been ringed into us daily like a church bell — it is gospel that says this is the highest and most diverse set of competitors we have ever had for this stage. There are three regional champions, each with enough narrative beats through this year and even past years to build up whole albums of win moments.
G2 has not lost at all. SKT only lost to G2 at MSI. IG hasn’t won since the MSI Group Stage, and FPX only finally won in the LPL Summer. But all four have been dominant — if not always, then for long stretches through the year — and are, again, dominant now in Europe. All four Quarterfinals sets ended 3-1, and any stumbles they may have faced in the Group Stage seem so distant from us now.
Narratives are seeds we plant into the sport so that we might have protagonists and antagonists. We might imagine ourselves as Aatrox leading a mighty army into war, or we might imagine ourselves as TheShy, unable to hide his smile as the crowd erupts upon hearing his name. Narrative helps us understand why we are sad or why we are happy when a set concludes. It helps us tie these feelings to more specific images, so that when we finally look away we might never forget.