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We Are The Champions

30 Dec 2019
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Zefeng Chen/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Zefeng Chen/The Players' Tribune
Doinb
FunPlus Phoenix
30 Dec 2019

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Today is my 23rd birthday, and I have a lot to be grateful for. 

In the past few months, I’ve accomplished so many goals that seemed nearly impossible not so long ago. I became just the 16th player to reach 1,000 kills in LPL. I helped my team not just compete in but actually win the grand final at the League of Legends World Championship. And finally — and this was very special given my journey — I became the first foreign player to gain LPL residency.

I know 23 might not seem very old to some, but in esports things are different. Your time as a competitor is so limited — every moment is precious. If you had told me even three years ago what my life would be like when I turned 23, I never would have believed you. All of this would have seemed impossible. 

I honestly didn’t know a ton about esports when I started playing League of Legends.

This was back around 2013, when I spent as much time as I could inside packed Internet cafés in Seoul playing LoL with my friends. We played because the game was unique. We played because it challenged us as a group. And we played for the same reason I still play to this day: Because it’s the most fun thing to do in the world. 

I’ve always loved gaming. My dad works for a big telecommunications company in Korea, so growing up I always had different high-tech computers and laptops around the house. 

I put them to good use, that’s for sure. Both of my parents worked a lot, so when they weren’t around, I was gaming. And honestly, there really is no better training regimen for becoming a professional gamer than being a young kid with too much free time and too little supervision. I’d go to school in the morning, be home by 2 p.m., and then play games for as long as I could. 

It wasn’t just a hobby. Even before I ever played LoL, when I was just messing around with single-player games, I knew two things: I was pretty good at every game I played, and I loved every second I spent playing them. My parents knew this about me. While I had other friends who dreamed of becoming actors or pop idols, that wasn’t ever what I dreamed about. I just wanted to play video games. Without the support of my parents, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Zefeng Chen/The Players' TribuneWhat I loved in particular about League of Legends was that it was the first game I had played where I was able to team up with my friends. And we really had to discover stuff on our own — we learned from every game and developed our own style and tactics. But beyond that, we also had a lot of fun. And almost immediately, I found that I had a natural instinct for the game. Within my first month of playing, I quickly became one of the top-ranked players in Korea. 

At the time, I wasn’t sure if that was really a big deal. I had no idea that there were other people who loved the game as much as I did. It wasn’t until I streamed myself playing for the first time that I noticed something pretty odd: There were people watching my stream. A lot of people.

Not long after that, professional organizations began reaching out to me. LoL was blowing up in a big way and a lot of people were trying to form teams. And the teams weren’t just based in Korea, but all over. 

Honestly, it was kind of overwhelming — and in a way that was unique. 

A lot of times those who eventually turn professional in football or basketball have been groomed in their sport from a young age. They don’t just develop their skills as players, but they also get experience being part of a team. Making it to the top level usually doesn’t happen all at once. 

But in esports, the amount of time from when you show potential (for what’s basically a fun hobby) to when you become a full-on professional is basically nonexistent. It’s a transition that nobody can really prepare you for. Esports is not an Internet café with your friends. Making it to the top level is an accomplishment, but there’s no real road map for how to get there — and how to stay there.

When I got the opportunity to move to China in 2015 to compete in the LPL, it was actually my parents who encouraged me to go for it. It’s not lost on me how rare and special it was for them to be so understanding. But they saw how passionate I was about these games, and they wanted me to pursue my dream — even if that meant moving to a different country as a teenager. 

It wasn’t until I streamed myself playing for the first time that I noticed something pretty odd: There were people watching my stream. A lot of people.

So, I want to at least take a quick moment to say, Thank you, Mom and Dad. You’re the biggest reason I’m here. 

Still, I don’t think I really had any idea of what I was getting myself into when I moved to China. 

At first, I was pretty intimidated by just about everything. 

Part of it, obviously, was that I was pretty young and living in a foreign country for the first time. From the day I arrived in Shanghai it was obvious that even hailing a taxi was going to be a huge challenge. I’ve always considered myself a pretty outgoing person, but not being able to communicate without the help of a translator made me much more reserved. I kind of went into a shell for the first time in my life.

Then I met a girl.

Actually, I met the girl. 

I was at a coffee shop in a section of Shanghai where a lot of Koreans hang out. I don’t even really drink coffee, I was just there with one of my Korean teammates to see what the place looked like. I spotted her immediately. 

The team had a translator for us mostly for training and tournaments, but he wasn’t with us all the time. And that day he hadn’t come with us to the café. I didn’t care though, I knew I had to talk to this girl, so I walked up to the table she was sitting at and … stood there and stared at her for a while. You know, like a weird person. When I finally found the right words to say, I found out she didn’t speak much Korean, only basic phrases like “hello” and “thank you.” 

For some reason, though, she didn’t tell me to go away. Her name was Li Youzi and she was a Chinese esports commentator who went by Umi and happened to travel to Korea quite a bit. We both pulled out our phones and started using a translator app to have a conversation. Pretty quickly, despite the language barrier, it became clear that we had a lot in common. There was a spark — one that never went away.

Thank God for technology.

Courtesy of Doinb

As my relationship with Umi blossomed and offered a stability that was missing in my life, there were still many other challenges to overcome as an import player trying to make it in the LPL.

I want to make one thing clear to aspiring gamers, particularly those who come from Korea: If you’re moving to China because of the money, don’t do it. 

Seriously, if it’s just about the money, don’t do it. It’s not worth it. The odds you’ll find success are minimal.

When I first came to China I was one of probably more than a hundred Korean gamers and coaches who had moved to the country to compete in the LPL. Four years later, there are maybe a dozen of us left. I think there are a few reasons for that. 

Firstly, more than anything else, LoL is a game of communication. So if you’re going to move to a different country, it’s on you to learn that culture. Many players who come over keep to themselves and only speak with other Korean players when they aren’t gaming. I made an effort early on to try to learn Mandarin. So even when I struggled after turning professional, at least I had the ability to communicate with my teammates in game — which was a huge advantage. Having a beautiful girlfriend who spoke the language also didn’t hurt. 

My main reason for wanting to compete in the LPL was simply because, out of all the LoL leagues in the world, it was the one I enjoyed watching matches from the most. The tactics were unique and every single game was a fight. There was just so much potential for growth. I knew that if I wanted to become one of the best in the world, I was going to have to go to China.

In retrospect, I’m really happy that my main motivation was my love of the game, because otherwise I wouldn’t have made it past the first year. Once you’re a professional, this isn’t the Internet café anymore. 

Once you’re a professional, this isn’t the Internet café anymore. You are your results. That’s it.

You are your results. That’s it. 

You can talk, strategize and meme all you want, but if there’s one thing that makes esports both fair and at times crushing, it’s that your performance speaks for itself. You can’t dodge the truth. With that, it’s worth remembering that whatever feedback you get is all dependent on how you last performed. When you’re winning, whatever you choose to do, you are right. When you are losing, whatever you choose to do, you are wrong. 

The only way you can determine how you are perceived is with your performance — every single game.

And even then — even then — some people still might say you were just lucky.

Ultimately, succeeding in this industry is about constantly battling against self-doubt. The truth is that it’s so hard to play LoL at a consistently high level. Even if you do all the right things, if you train constantly, if you put every fiber of yourself into becoming a professional, there’s still a good chance that things are not going to work out.

Success finds people in different ways and at different times, but I think the biggest reason I experienced it this year was because of trust. Trust in my teammates. Trust in the organization. And mostly — trust in myself. 

There was a time when I thought I might never actually make it to worlds. I wanted it more than anything but the idea of making it there — much less winning it all — seemed so distant.

My first four years living in China, I had a sort of tradition that I hated. Every year when world finals happened, I would stay in my apartment (because my team hadn’t made it), order takeout and watch the match online. I hated that meal. I hated watching the match. I hated that I wasn’t at the level I needed to be, and I wasn’t sure how to get there.  

I don’t sleep a ton. I never really have, but especially not since I’ve turned pro. For the past few years, I’ve spent around 15 hours a day training and trying to get better. I love Umi, but I don’t get to spend nearly as much time with her as I’d like. When we’re in season, my life is basically eat, sleep, train and compete. No matter how much you love playing a game, to be a top professional requires great sacrifice.

I made those sacrifices. I pushed personal relationships aside. I gave every moment of my professional time and free time to this one game.

And there was a long period of time when it really didn’t seem like my sacrifices would ever pay off.

Zefeng Chen/The Players' Tribune

My career hit a low point in 2016.

The team I was on was having issues, and I had been demoted to the secondary squad — I wasn’t even playing in matches. Not being able to play really crushed my spirit. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t playing LoL. It’s such a big part of me. I was still adjusting to so much, not just to the LPL, but also to a new country and culture. I still wasn’t able to communicate the way I wanted to, and with all the frustration piling up. I was ready to just retire.

The reason I didn’t — the only reason I didn’t — was because of Umi

No matter how I perform, she’s always been my biggest fan. She’s hard to miss at any of my matches because she’s always there and always cheering. She has a motto she likes to repeat: “Hard work pays off.” She tells me that constantly. And she truly believes it. Even when I wasn’t thought of that highly of in the professional ranks and there were a lot of reasons to believe my career was done, she saw how badly I wanted this and the work I was putting in.

She told me to just stay with it a little longer, and I would find my way. And that’s why I did. It’s pretty simple.

In so many ways, she’s the reason for everything great in my life.

Even after being my team got relegated to the LSPL, I stuck with it. Within a year, after thinking that my career was over, I helped us not only be promoted back to the LPL, I was named the league’s regular season MVP. That was when I started developing somewhat of a following, when other people began seeing in me the same things that Umi did. 

But even when I started finding success, there were other setbacks. Before I signed with FPX in at the end of 2018, I had come really close to retiring once again because of issues with my neck and back. At first I was dismissive of the pain I was feeling because I assumed it was the same for everyone. Professional gamers spend so many hours sitting that it’s very common to have a stiff neck. Then one day, the pain just became excruciating.

I ended up going to the hospital and receiving an MRI, at which point a doctor told me how serious my spine issues were. It terrified me. He said if I took a break from my training regimen, I could probably recover. But I knew that if stopped playing for an extended period of time it would mean the end of my career. There’s no margin for error in this game. There are just too many great players — as well as young up-and-comers who are working hard to take your spot. There’s no such thing as a break when you’re a professional. It’s go, go, go until you can’t.

Ultimately, it was FPX that stopped me from retiring. What they offered was not only a chance to be part of a great team, but also to receive physical therapy when I wasn’t training.

They offered to do whatever it took to help get me back in the game. But it wasn’t just their willingness to help me with recovery that made joining FPX appealing. They also brought together a great group of guys to be my teammates.

A really great group of guys.

Courtesy of DoinbThe first thing I told my teammates when I joined FPX was that if we didn’t do well, I would take the blame.

That’s a role I’m used to. I’ve heard a lot of mean comments throughout my career because of my style of play. I’m glad that “Players View” exists so people understand a little better why I play the way I do. But in general the way I play is reflected in the scoreboard, especially compared to other mid-laners. I’ve always been O.K. with that because I view my role differently. I take joy in letting my teammates operate and execute at the highest level. 

From the start, I just asked my teammates to understand my style and to really trust me. I even told them directly If you guys don’t trust me, then I don’t need to be here. All of us had taken pretty different paths to FPX.

I had known Lxw and Crisp since 2017, when we were all practice partners for teams that were making their journey to worlds that year. That experience — both competing with them, and seeing firsthand the level you needed to be at to win LPL and compete at Worlds — was just invaluable to our development. 

Tian was young but his talent level was unbelievable. I knew very quickly that he was a Jungler who could help us take down any team — not just in the LPL but in the entire world. And GimGoon was an experienced professional who I knew I could trust in any situation. He had been with FPX for a year when I joined and was also a Korean player who had found his way in the LPL. We shared a mutual respect for one another right away.

When we all came together, what I really loved about the team was that we all played the game our own way — and it meshed naturally together. We also evolved and grew together, so that by the time Worlds came around, we were all playing as well as we ever had. And no matter what obstacle we faced, there was trust between each of us that we could overcome it. 

For me, just making it to Worlds for the first time this year — not having to watch it from my apartment while eating takeout — was an amazing feeling. That alone, after how close I had come to retiring, really felt like validation that I had made the right choice to continue my career. 

I won’t lie, we didn’t have the start we wanted. It took a couple of games to relax our nerves. But once we calmed down and forced other teams into playing our style, we were unstoppable. 

So much of that day when we won Worlds feels like a blur now. The one thing I remember most after finals was coming back to my hotel. I’d left my phone there earlier in the day. When I looked at it there were so many messages. Hundreds, maybe thousands, and there were more coming in every second. People from all around, but especially China, congratulating me. 

It kind of hit me then how special this all was. I’d come to China as a fairly unknown kid just chasing a dream. And now I’d created a life here, with a woman I love, a great team and so many amazing fans.

Honestly, everything is so perfect that my only fear is complacency. Even after winning worlds, I told my teammates not to get overly confident. After all, this is only the first time. Our goal should never be getting one big win and then retiring. 

The goal should be winning Worlds twice, three times, four times … and being able to truly leave our mark on the game, to help inspire the younger generation of players. 

If you’re good enough to win Worlds once, that’s where your ambition should start.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be playing this game, but for as long as I physically and mentally have the ability to compete at this level, I cannot stop. I won’t stop training. I won’t stop dreaming of LoL.

It’s simply too fun.

But when I do stop playing, I’ll be able to smile knowing I’ve given everything to this game — and it’s given me back more than I possibly could have imagined. 

Umi, congratulations. We are the champions!

Doinb
FunPlus Phoenix