League of Dreams

William Wu for The Players' Tribune


My name is Tianliang.

I am a League of Legends world champion.

That is why some people know me.

But before we go to the rift, I want to tell you about my name.

Tian, in Chinese, means sky. Liang means brightness. Together they somewhat loosely translate to the English word dawn. But in Chinese they are more often used to refer to light coming into a dark sky, both literally and metaphorically. I think my parents named me hoping for a bright future for my family.

That is nice.

But also I think my name is sort of ironic. Because I am a gamer … I never see the dawn. I am always asleep. I haven’t woken up to watch the sun rise once in my life. Most of the time, my sleep schedule is all messed up. I wake up in the afternoon, play until way after midnight, and then go to sleep. And then I wake up and do it all again. Until I am the best.

Because I sleep at odd times, and because the last thing I do before I pass out is play League, I have these — well, you could call them weird dreams.

I think of one particular dream all the time. Actually, this dream I want to tell you about is the reason I am here at this point in my life — and the reason you are reading this. Big-time important dream this one. (It was a great sleep, too.)


It was spring of 2015. I was living in Weihai, a city on the Yellow Sea in the north of the Shandong province. It’s a beautiful place. Right on the water. Mountains just to the north. A wonderful city to never go outside and see! ?

Anyway, I was 15 and living there with my family. We had moved there from Yanbian when I was two years old. I was playing League all the time but I wasn’t really thinking of going pro. I was good. I did well in ranked. I was starting to make a name for myself — but to make a career out of gaming? That seemed a bit crazy to me and my family.

In May of that year the Mid-Season Invitational was held in Tallahassee, Florida. The MSI is one of the top LoL tournaments in the world, hosting the best LoL teams from each region. EDG was representing LPL that year in MSI. They were a strong team, with legit players. But for me, one of them stood out: Clearlove.

This was my guy.

Like me, he was a jungler. I loved his style — the way he played the game. He could be a carry when he needed to be, but he was also an elite team player with great communication. I watched almost every one of Clearlove’s match at MSI that year.

EDG got off to a great start in the MSI, losing only to SK Telecom T1 in the group stage. This was when SKT was at the peak of its powers.

Clearlove and his team made it to the finals to face SKT again. Even though I had a weird sleep schedule already, it was even harder to sleep that night than usual. But it eventually happened. And then I had the dream.

The finalists had gone to a final Game 5. It was the draft, when each player selects the champion that he’s going to play the game as. Clearlove was picking. He chose Evelynn, and in the end his team won the final.

Wu for The Players' Tribune

I woke up not thinking that much of the dream. I’d dreamed about LoL many times before. This was nothing new.

A few hours later, I watched the stream of the final. It went five games. And as the teams started drafting their champions … I already knew what was going to happen.

Clearlove picked Evelynn. His team won.

I had the strangest sensation go through my body during Game 5. Like I suddenly knew that I was going to be a professional LoL player one day. I knew it. It had to be. I was so drawn to the stage, to the venue. I wanted that for myself. I’d begun the day thinking that a career as a gamer was something silly.

Now it had become my life goal.

Later that year I got hurt in gym class. I was pretty thin, pretty unathletic. It was just a matter of time until I got hurt, really. I banged my knee quite badly and I wasn’t able to walk well for a few days. I had to take a few days off from school. I spent that time playing League. Though I enjoyed my time away from school — like most kids in ninth grade, especially in China, where the curriculum is very intense — I did understand the importance of my education. It’s something I took very seriously. And I knew that if I told my parents about wanting to go pro, I had to make clear that I wasn’t giving up on my schooling.

At first, my mom and her parents weren’t having any of it. But my dad — he didn’t say no. It took him around a month to get on board with the idea of me trying to become a professional League player, and then he had to convince my mom. I don’t know how he did it … but he did.

My family has a long legacy of having successful doctors in Chinese medicine. Dad told me that if I couldn’t get anywhere with LoL, I would have to go to college and become a doctor. My interest in medicine was less than zero, so it was play League or get disowned by family, essentially. (I’m kidding.)

I am grateful to my father because he helped start me on my journey, not only by convincing my mom, but also because he used to play Age of Empires on his computer when I was six years old. I used to watch him, and eventually he let me take over and play myself. That’s where my joy of gaming came from. When I was in ninth grade and I told him my goal, I think he remembered those days and knew that my passion was not foolish. He believed in me.

Three years later, in 2018, I needed my family again.

My career had started well. I’d bounced around to a few teams, having some decent success. At the end of 2017, I joined Suning Gaming. They were a good team and a positive step in my career. I was rotating with another jungler early in the 2018 season, and it was going O.K. I got a chance to play a few games, but after we lost three in a row I was rotated back out of the team. Then issues started popping up internally in our group and it became very hard for me to focus on the game. I stopped getting picked to play games and the other jungler was playing quite a bit.

My good friend and teammate at the time, Knight, was doing really well. I was happy for him, but I was also jealous. I knew I was a good player, too, and I just wanted people to see that. I became depressed. My anxiety took over and I couldn’t sleep well at all. Before I even realized, I had hit rock bottom.

I believed in myself … but I just couldn’t see a future in League anymore.

I went home for the holidays. My parents asked if I thought I could continue. I said I could, even if I wasn’t completely sure that that was true. They told me they had full belief in me, and that I shouldn’t give up.

I saw out the end of the season with Suning. I didn’t play in any events. Rock bottom.

And then, in the spring of 2019, I received an offer to do a trial with FunPlus Phoenix.

It was the transfer-window period, so I was able to leave Suning and take the opportunity. FPX weren’t a great team, but it was a chance to play more. I knew all I needed was a chance. The trial was between myself and another player. FPX eventually ended up picking me.

I would have played for FPX without a salary. I would have done whatever it took. All I’ve ever wanted to do is to show the world the player I know I can be.

At FPX, we set goals. For the spring season, we wanted to make it to the semis of the LPL spring playoffs, and we did that, getting third place. And then for the summer season our goal was to qualify for worlds. We did that, too.

The whole year, I remember just slowly realizing like, Man, we are actually good. Like, really, really good.

At worlds last month our goal was to make the final.

Man, we are not that good.

I thought it was a … big goal. The LPL region wasn’t considered by many to be a favorites coming into this year’s worlds. But our team is made up of many players who have stories similar to mine. We don’t talk about it often with each other, but we all have experiences of being given up on, being cast aside, and being forced to find someplace that would give us a chance.

That’s what’s great about worlds, though. It’s a chance. It doesn’t matter how you did during the season, if you get to the big tournament you’ve got a chance to win the whole thing — and become immortal.

I guess I sort of spoiled the ending for you by saying I was a League of Legends world champion at the start.

So, yes. We won the whole darn thing.

As Game 3 was coming to an end against G2 Esports, and we knew we were going to be champions … it was just the most incredible feeling. I can’t really explain it. I don’t even know if it’s sunk in yet.

I thought of my parents. I thought of Age of Empires. I thought of  those few months I had spent just desperate for a chance.

William Wu for The Players' Tribune

When I was lifting the Summoner’s Cup, I knew that a year before that moment — when I was riding the bench for Suning and questioning my ability — I never would have imagined I’d be in Paris, champion of the world.

It’s something out of a dream. But something I knew I could do. I just needed the chance, right?

That’s what FPX is to me.

A place for the dreamers.