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Rand: Finding the meaning of family through League of Legends

Commemorative posters and memorabilia dedicated to League of Legends jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho hang in his family's restaurant, Yumine, in Chang Dong, South Korea. Photo by Emily Rand

My parents' house is sparse and unsentimental. Everything about its location and existence is efficient. It's on the corner of two busy streets in Boston, within walking distance of the nearby elementary and junior high schools.

Inside, there are photo albums hidden on a shelf below the coffee table but very few visible photographs. Everything is in shades of beige, save the kitchen, which I repainted during my freshman year of university, shocking them with bright peach and red trim.

There are two drawers in my parents' house that always baffled me. They're full of drawings and a variety of random accomplishments and flights of fancy from my time in elementary school through college. Inside are odd stories about Martians, horrid Narnia rip-offs in speckled composition notebooks and typed "books" in which I gave myself spectacular praise from the New York Times and Children's Library Journal. I delighted in reading them to my university friends one night, laughing until beer came out of our noses.

But my parents never seemed interested in nostalgia. I never understood why my parents kept those drawers of memories, given the cold and clinical appearance of the rest of the house, until I visited a small restaurant in Chang Dong, South Korea, the day before last year's League of Legends World Championship.

Yumine is owned by Kim Yoon-mi, the mother of League of Legends jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho, and her family. Its walls are the opposite of the ones inside my parents' house. Photographs of Peanut are framed and mounted near dried bouquets, signed posters, cartoon caricatures and a few smaller banners with cheerful slogans such as "#Operation Wang-ho-ah!" These are a mixture of mementos of Yoon-mi's trips to watch Peanut play and fan-created gifts. This is a mother's love for her son on display where any restaurant patron who shuffled in off of the busy street to grab a bite to eat could see.

On a November day in 2018, the day before the League of Legends World Championship final, I took a train across Seoul to Chang Dong with my friend and interpreter, esports journalist Ashley Kang. A petite woman with dark hair that curled out from underneath a knit cap and bright brown eyes greeted us as soon as we walked through the doors at Yumine.

Her enthusiasm was clear the moment our food came. The server plopped on the table three extra plates that couldn't be passed off as complementary side dishes like the yellow pickled radishes and kimchi that are traditionally served with almost every meal in South Korea. She mentioned that I hadn't been the only visitor among world championship attendees. A few fans from around the world had stopped by during their time in South Korea to experience a bit of Peanut's life, despite the fact that he wasn't on the worlds stage that year.

There are thousands of restaurants in Seoul just like Yumine, including one just across the road from where Yoon-mi works. Under the awning, steam rose from bubbling trays, with the smell of spicy rice cake drawing in customers from the busy streets. It was early November, and the weather was already pleasantly cold and crisp. I puffed out a breath of air and watched as it lingered like the steam rising from Yumine's storefront. It made a foreign country feel more familiar and reminded me of Boston, where I grew up.

Yoon-mi sat down with us -- after offering some more food and soft drinks from a nearby refrigerator, of course. She picked up a rice cake with a flourish and handed it to me, smiling.

"You're so skinny," she said. "Eat, eat!"

In that moment, I was transported from a red wooden chair in the Chang-dong neighborhood to my grandmother's table in East Boston as she and my grandfather yelled, "Mangia! Mangia!" while they piled platefuls of pasta, meatballs, sausages, bread and cheese in front of me.

Throughout our conversation, Peanut's mother intermittently took forkfuls of rice cake and blood sausage, or speared a toothpick through a piece of kimbap, and handed it to me while urging me on. She said she tries to feed Peanut, too, whenever he is home, and sighed with dramatic flair at his continuing thinness. The jungler has a tendency to lose weight throughout the season, especially at international events, so she tries to stock the refrigerator with his favorite foods whenever he has the chance to visit Chang Dong. On one of his more recent visits, she recalled, he took out four days' worth of trash without being asked.

"I realized that my son is all grown up," Yoon-mi said.

When he was 16, before mentioning it to either of his parents, Peanut told his aunt that he wanted to become a professional League of Legends player. Knowing that school was the first priority for his parents, Peanut did well in his studies and supplementary classes outside of school but frequented PC bangs, a gaming version of an internet café, when he could.

Splitting his time wasn't sustainable, and one night he came home to the ire and disapproval of his mother. It was the first time Peanut opposed his parents.

"He came home really late from a PC bang all red-eyed," his mother said. "Immediately we started arguing. I always told him that you have to come first place in class, first place in school."

It was a familiar refrain, one that I could hear in my own mother's voice after being scolded for a subpar test score.

After the argument, Yoon-mi's sister urged them to reconcile, saying that Peanut had a specific request: to become a professional gamer.

"I haven't told you this before, but I'm actually quite good at games,'" Yoon-mi said, paraphrasing her son's request.

She was hesitant, but Peanut was determined, and his conviction won over his father, who said that he believed in Peanut; as a caveat, he told his son not to blame his parents if things didn't work out the way he hoped.

The next day, they ordered a brand-new computer for their house.

Peanut began practicing at home. His mother remembers long hours in which she left food for him on the side of the computer desk so he could continue uninterrupted; unlike many parents, she quickly understood that he couldn't pause the game. Peanut soon caught the attention of the Najin organization but was too young to be on the starting roster over veteran jungler Cho "Watch" Jae-geol. Fans in South Korea and in Western countries eagerly awaited his debut due to his solo queue prowess and rumored success in scrims.

"I didn't know that he was famous all the way in the West," Yoon-mi said. "I knew he was doing well in solo queue."

After Peanut moved to the Najin team house, his mom dropped by with food whenever she could. She grew to know his coaches and snuck into his fan meets to take photos and then leave before he realized she was there. She made every effort to understand the path her son had chosen to support him in any way possible, from Najin in 2015 to the Rox Tigers in 2016 to SK Telecom T1 in 2017 to Longzhu Gaming/Kingzone DragonX in 2018.

Peanut was first known for his aggressive jungling style and competitive nature. His mother thinks that stems from the fact that, from an early age, she drilled into him over and over that he had to be the best.

"Looking back on it now," Yoon-mi said, "I wonder how that's impacted him."

SKT's loss to Samsung Galaxy in the 2017 world final was the match she recalled vividly. Immortalized in photographs, Peanut's then-teammate Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok cried as the members of SKT looked out of their booth and watched Samsung accept the Summoner's Cup on the Bird's Nest stage in Beijing.

"It's so hard watching all of these matches," she said. "It's so hard seeing those kids cry. It's one thing to see it on the screen, but it's another to be there and watch them have such a hard time."

The League of Legends World Championship is, above all else, a test of staying power and patience.

It's a test of endurance. Of stamina. Of will. Of resolve. Everyone who goes to worlds faces those trials: the players shuffling sleepily through airports, the staff members dragging trunks of computer towers onto several stages, the press and managers pulling 12-hour days for weeks and working out of tents inside or near the arenas.

The tournament often takes place from hundreds to thousands of miles away from home for the players and staff. This year, worlds will take place in Berlin, Madrid, and Paris. Last year, worlds took place in Seoul, Busan, Gwangju and Incheon.

Not everyone makes it to the worlds stage. Last year and this year, Peanut was one of the players who didn't make it.

"I somewhat regret telling him, 'You have to be first place, you have to be first place,' because, you know, he didn't win worlds, but second place in the world turns out to be a really amazing thing," she said. "You don't have to be first place all the time, but this is still in him, that competitiveness. He can't really live with himself when he's not first place in everything."

"We're really proud of Peanut. He wasn't high-maintenance. He didn't bother us for anything extra. He just decided to become a pro gamer one day. Even if I had 10 kids like Peanut, I would be fine because he's done everything by himself."

I teared up.

I was a tougher case than Peanut. I didn't always put in my maximum amount of effort and refused help at all turns. I didn't realize that my parents could be a source of comfort, and I certainly didn't make the most of their clumsy but well-meaning guidance. I saw everything as a competition and was rarely satisfied, which is a problem I still have today. Despite that attitude, I didn't often win.

My mother repeats a phrase often in our conversations: "I am smarter than you think, you know." It wasn't until after my conversation with Yoon-mi that I parsed the true meaning behind it. I messaged/called my mom later that day. She hadn't heard from me at all while I was in South Korea.

"I know I've made mistakes," I said, "and I hope you forgive me."

I can't know how Peanut feels, but his mother's words, unheard by her son, were a salve at the end of my long worlds journey last year.

Worlds is a slog, a lengthy tournament that simultaneously drags on for months and is gone in the blink of an eye, leaving you older and wondering where the time went. The losses hurt, and only one team can finish on top.

That night, I recalled the wall dedicated to Peanut's accomplishments. I remembered the drawers in my parents' attic. Their house is sparse and unsentimental, the opposite of Yumine, but they still had that secluded drawer full of far less notable mementos than those of a world-class League of Legends jungler.

To this day I can hear my mother's voice telling me that I should always strive to be the best at whatever I do -- sparse, unsentimental words that have changed over the years to questions of my well-being. Despite her stoic nature, she has been a rock for me in uncertain times, just as Yoon-mi has been for her son. When I quit my job to become a freelance esports writer in 2015, my mom was understandably nervous. Over time, she accepted and supported the odd path I'd picked for myself.

When I received the offer for my current job, a few months after visiting Yumine, my mother was the first person I called.

This year at worlds, I'll likely call her more frequently.