The first time I interviewed Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, he was ill.
It was late January. Various League of Legends Championship Series players milled around the LCS Arena in Santa Monica, California, for media day before the regular season was to begin. In between promotional photos for developer Riot Games, Doublelift was quieter than usual, and when he did speak, his voice was raspy. I would have been surprised that he agreed to the interview, but Doublelift is well-accustomed to working with media members. He's open and agreeable.
As we walked into an abandoned practice room, we realized that this was the first time I was interviewing him, despite knowing of each other's existence in the League of Legends esports space for years. We've crossed paths many times. We have mutual industry friends. But I hadn't actually heard his story in person.
Most League of Legends fans are familiar with Doublelift's tale. He has lived most of his career as the face of North American League of Legends, recognized for his skill when LoL esports was still in its infancy. He has a record-setting seven League Championship Series titles. His world championship story thus far, however, has had a fixed ending of failure.
As the League of Legends World Championship tournament has grown and evolved, so has Doublelift. Fans, detractors and the entirety of the NA LoL community tune in annually to see if this year will be different. They hope for an ending that's really another beginning: Doublelift making it past the worlds group stage and into the playoff bracket. His story here is well-worn, its edges tattered like your favorite book. The narrative takes on a different context every time you open the cover. It has a mix of comforting familiarity and the exciting potential to discover something new within its pages this time around.
We all know the tale of Doublelift's international struggles, but each year we listen, again and again, and hope for a different result.
Doublelift's first remark to me was that his offseason had been too short. His second was that, with the recent arrivals of midlaner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen and support Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in to the team, he might be the least-experienced member of 2019's revamped Team Liquid lineup. The roster had two world champions, a Mid-Season Invitational runner-up in Jake "Xmithie" Puchero and a League of Legends World Championship star in Jensen.
"Even though I might be the face of the team, I might be the least qualified since everyone has gone much further internationally," Doublelift said, "It's a really different team than any team I've been on before.
"I'm just hoping I get carried," he said in his next breath, laughing. "The goal is to do well in NA. That's a short-term goal for sure. You can't do well at MSI unless you make it here. We're not looking to come out of the gate saying, 'We're going to do well at worlds,' when we haven't even made it yet because that's a bit --" he inhaled sharply "-- extremely cocky. And I'm extremely humble."
We both knew that this wasn't really the goal, even with the "short-term" caveat. It was a first step. Seven months and an Mid-Season Invitational finals appearance later, Doublelift and Team Liquid, as expected, qualified for the League of Legends World Championship.
This is the story of Doublelift's 2019 worlds journey. We may think we already know the ending, given his past results, but we do not. That's the beauty of a story that's still being written.
Just over a week ago, in a hotel room during his team's European boot camp preparing for worlds, Doublelift, his teammates and Team Liquid staff members curled up in branded gaming chairs and stared at Team Liquid assistant coach Kang "Dodo" Jun-hyeok's computer monitor. They were attentive in brief flashes whenever their team was mentioned on the words group draw broadcast, and lazily spun side-to-side while scrolling through social media.
Only Doublelift's attention remained unwavering. He stared at the monitor over coach Jang "Cain" Nu-ri. His hands were clasped together tightly, as if he was stopping just short of wringing them, a nervous tic while waiting for his perceived fate. This would be his seventh world championship appearance. None of his teams had made it past the group stage. They were about to find out who their first opponents were in Group D.
Various players called out the name of ahq e-Sports Club before Vitality midlaner Daniele "Jiizuke" di Mauro revealed it. CoreJJ ran his fingers through his hair as Doublelift, 26, turned to the camera. Doublelift then smiled and pumped his fists.
"Holy f---," he shouted. "We made it out of groups already."
Last year, Doublelift and Team Liquid had all but made it out of groups following the initial group draw as well. China's third-seeded EDward Gaming played spoiler, however, eliminating Team Liquid before the bracket stage.
Intermittent screaming filled the practice room. Xmithie covered his face with his phone. Impact spun his chair around, giggling.
"Jesus Christ," Team Liquid manager Michael Artress said from behind the camera. He pointed his finger at Doublelift. "Fast-forward three weeks from now when we don't make it out."
Doublelift smiled. Months before he had joked about his inability to make it past a worlds group stage.
"It can't be that hard," he said. "We just need to be better than two teams in our group. I just can't believe I haven't been able to do this. I mean, it happened at MSI. I just need it to happen at worlds."
This is the story of a young man who was kicked out of his house when League of Legends esports was in its infancy.
You already know it if you've been around the scene long enough -- repeated with a range of embellishments over the years, whispered from fan-to-fan, typed out in a variety of articles, including this one.
It's a story that begins with his burgeoning League of Legends career in Season 1, where he made a name for himself as a Blitzcrank one-trick on the North American solo queue ladder. That season ended at the first-ever world championship at Dreamhack in Sweden in 2011, where Doublelift competed on a team called Epik Gamer. They finished respectably, in fourth place. Doublelift was set to attend the University of California, Irvine a few months later.
"It was crazy. It was my first real-world experience that was really vivid and really impactful," Doublelift said. "We would go into the event, and there's fans sitting there, and they're there to watch me play. I was like, 'Oh my god, this is so crazy.' Everything was this mind-boggling experience for me. It was the perfect first LAN experience.
"We didn't win, but we got pretty far. I met my teammates in real life, and they didn't hate me. We took a picture together. It was a really iconic picture because I had a bowl cut."
He vividly recalled wandering around Sweden, wide-eyed and in awe at everything he saw. A month later, he was kicked out of his house. It was a week after his 18th birthday. On July 26, 2011, Doublelift wrote a thread on the League of Legends subreddit. It was titled "Hi, I'm Doublelift, formerly of Team EG and today I became homeless."
"I saw this day coming for a while, and I was especially afraid of it happening to me on my birthday, which was about a week ago," he said in the post. "I turned 18 on the 19th of this month, and my parents have always threatened to kick me out of the house when I turn 18."
Doublelift had his DreamHack winnings, which amounted to approximately $1,400 after taxes. He had his computer with an estimated value of $600. He also had a bicycle, $50 on his person and $50 in his PayPal account.
A few responses into the thread, a young man named Travis Gafford responded with a comment asking Doublelift to email him directly. Within the thread itself, there are responses to Gafford's comment from years later that read, "So this is where it all began."
Gafford, now an independent esports content creator, offered Doublelift a place to stay. The choice kicked off their friendship.
"I remember one of the first things we did was we went to the bank to get him a bank account," Gafford said. "He had a PayPal account that fans had sent money to support him, but he couldn't access that."
When either Gafford or Doublelift speak about this time in their lives, they use words like "fated" or "natural." Gafford's roommate had just moved out, and he was looking for a short-term solution himself. Initially, the plan was that Doublelift would still attend UCI that fall.
"It happened all so naturally that I didn't have time to be surprised," Doublelift said. "It was like, 'You can stay on my couch for free.' And was like, 'Oh, thanks, I really appreciate it.' Then I got enough money from writing guides online for Curse, and then he was like, OK, you can pay full rent. You can just be the tenant.' It was just so natural. At no point was I thinking, 'This is so unreal.' It was just everything lining up in a natural way."
"It just felt like fate in a sense," Gafford added. "There were a lot of little things that lined up that made it seem like it was the right situation. That's just why I reached out. I thought in my mind, 'He's a pro player on this team that went to the world championship; he can't be that crazy.'"
A week after Doublelift moved in, he and Gafford went to Major League Gaming: Anaheim as spectators. MLG did not have a League event at Anaheim, but Riot Games executives were in talks at the time to partner with MLG in some way.
"I remember going there with him and being like, 'Oh, funny you could end up playing at the next MLG if they end up doing this,'" Gafford said. " It just felt kind of cool that I might know this guy who could compete there."
Since then, Doublelift has competed in League events at Madison Square Garden in New York and Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. He's been to South Korea, China, Vietnam and numerous venues in North America and Europe, all for League of Legends. With support, his goal shifted to the emerging path of becoming a professional player.
This is the story of a professional player who became the protagonist and antagonist of a region all at once.
Doublelift has been playing League of Legends since its inception, well before North America had a League of Legends Championship Series. He modeled himself around World of Warcraft's Byron "Reckful" Bernstein and Starcraft's Greg "IdrA" Fields. He watched their YouTube videos and appreciated their talent and outspoken natures.
"It was just like these personalities are super cool, but they're also really good at the game, and that's what I want to be," Doublelift said. "I want to be really, really good but also have some sort of outspokenness to back it up. It just so happened that I was on a really toxic team, CLG, so I ended up having a really toxic personality."
He paused, shaking his head and laughing. At this part of Doublelift's arc, the bot-centric style of his teams, inevitably comes up in conversation, buoyed by rumors of his strong voice on every team he's been a part of, but particularly CLG.
"That wasn't actually me," he said. "I wasn't a toxic little kid actually. I think the thing that really stuck out to me is that if you're toxic but you're bad at the game, you're a pretty big clown. Everyone is just going to clown on you all the time."
Doublelift's personality has always been divisive, especially from his earlier years in the scene. In an infamous, bridge-burning written departure, Austin "Link" Shin, one of Doublelift's former CLG teammates, called him "The most outgoing and charismatic person I've really ever met. Good friend, yet a horrible teammate."
Former CLG support Steve "Chauster" Chau said in a response, "Doublelift is someone who can click accurately very fast. That is pretty much the most accurate summary of Doublelift that I can give you."
After describing their time together in a brief paragraph, Chauster summed up his time with Doublelift thusly: "Tl;dr I taught Doublelift how to lane; could not teach him how to play the game."
Part of that public perception and his teammates' opinions might have stemmed from Doublelift's youth, he said, although his attitude didn't differ all that much from other burgeoning pros at the time.
"I super-grinded solo queue because I loved streaming and I loved playing the game," Doublelift said. "I was a little kid, and that was my life. Other people, they're going to college, they have jobs, they have girlfriends and stuff and I'm just like, 'I'm 18 years old, and I've got nothing else to do, so I'm just going to play League. And if my teammates suck, I'm going to yell at them.' That was the way to do it."
He laughed. The majority of Doublelift's time on CLG was in an era where the game itself was coming into its own. Most teams didn't have coaches, and the ones that did frequently struggled to earn respect from their own players.
"We kind of coached each other," Doublelift said. "If you were the guy who was playing the most solo queue, you'd be like, 'Well, why aren't you playing more solo queue?' You'd get into this argument, and then you'd find a middle ground. That was where motivation came from: bickering with your teammates. You don't want to be the s---tiest player on the team or else you'll get kicked."
There's a distinct line drawn between CLG Doublelift and his time on both Team SoloMid and Team Liquid. It's accompanied by the sense that he's matured significantly in that time frame. His career with TSM and Team Liquid from 2016 to today has now dwarfed the narrative of his time on CLG.
Winning has a lot to do with that.
At one point, "Doublelift's trophy case" was a memetic subreddit, crafted so that visitors could see the automatically generated Reddit tagline "There doesn't seem to be anything here." For the past four years, though, Doublelift has represented North America at the world championship. He has won seven total LCS titles: one with CLG, two with TSM and four with Team Liquid.
This spring, he jokingly used the "Doublelift's trophy case" meme for teammate Jensen, saying to watch r/Jensenstrophycase. Team Liquid and Doublelift were out to win Jensen his first LCS title.
The midlaner now has two LCS championships with Team Liquid; the team has won four in a row. And Doublelift, the best bot laner in North America, has been such a difference-maker that many wonder how any other LCS player can stop him.
"I saw in some threads, 'Oh, he'll just retire eventually,'" Doublelift said. "And it's like damn, you're that not-confident that another team, another AD carry, will be good? That you're just waiting for me to retire? That's pretty sad. That's pretty pathetic.
"I don't want to lose, but if I do lose, I want to lose fair and square I got outplayed and I played my best and I wasn't good enough. I don't want the streak to end but I think four in a row is pretty greedy already."
This is the story of a player in the spotlight who dealt with trial and adversity as the world watched.
On March 31, 2018, Doublelift's older brother, Yihong Peng, was arrested on murder charges after their mother and father were found stabbed. Their mother, Wei Ping Shen, died. Their father, Guojon Peng, was seriously wounded. It was the day before Team Liquid faced Echo Fox in the LCS semifinals. Coincidentally, this was also a day chosen by the Netflix documentary "7 Days Out" to follow the team behind the scenes en route to a possible LCS final appearance.
The news broke during the semifinal match. Twitch chat questions and spam turned into a wave of chatter that swept through various online channels and the live audience in the LCS Arena. In the press room, a miked-up Gafford, who was also in the documentary, tried to stem the tide of rumors so Doublelift could hear the news from a direct source and process accordingly.
Doublelift made it through the postmatch high-fives with the crowd and fading chants of "Let's go Liquid!" He received the call minutes later, in the maze of hallways behind the LCS Arena leading to team practice rooms and various storage areas. This moment is now immortalized on camera.
Doublelift compartmentalized. He released a statement on Twitlonger.
"I'm still processing this news and joining up with my dad and little brother to make sure they're ok and the proper arrangements are being made," he wrote. "I'll likely be quiet on social media while I work through this. I hope you all understand and support me as you always have in the past."
The outpouring of support from the League of Legends community surprised Doublelift. In many ways, it was a callback to his fledgling start in 2011 when he left home to become a professional gamer and others were there to prop him up, digitally and otherwise.
"My whole career, I've had this really polarizing effect: People love me or they hate me. And when people hate me, they're really mean," Doublelift said. "I was expecting a lot more people to be mean. Obviously there are some idiots out there who were mean, but overall everyone was super supportive. I didn't expect such a positivity wave to hit me. I had this really surreal moment where I thought about that, and I thought about how my career started and everyone was really supportive of this homeless kid who played at DreamHack World Championship, gave me money through PayPal, gave me a place to stay. It was really reminiscent of that."
LCS finals loomed less than a week away. Doublelift chose to play. On the stage of the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami, he was introduced by David "Phreak" Turley as "Three-time NA LCS champion and the only reigning champion onstage today, Doublelift!"
The crowd roared.
"The fans all knew in the audience as they were watching, what the story was, but everyone just let him have his stage time," Gafford said. "That was the thing that I was really impressed by. That was the greatest gift they were able to give Peter because I think at that time, all he wanted to do was focus on the game and not have to have a ton of people bringing this up constantly and it becoming a spectacle for that event."
Doublelift and Team Liquid swept 100 Thieves 3-0 in the finals. It was the first title for Team Liquid in the organization's history, and it was the third team that Doublelift had helped win an LCS championship. The only allusion to what had happened a week prior came from then-Team Liquid support Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung in their postmatch interview.
"I want to say thank you to Peter [Doublelift]," Olleh said. "After we won against Echo Fox, Peter was not there, so even though we won, I was really sad. But today I'm really happy Peter was here with us."
He choked up, shaking his head.
"I don't know how to say it," Olleh said. "I really respect him, and he's a really great man. Thank you."
This is the story of Doublelift at the League of Legends world championship.
It's still being written. In all previous appearances, the ending has been the same.
"Every other year, I've gotten people's hopes up, and I've said a lot of confident stuff," Doublelift said. "It hasn't worked out. I'm not the most superstitious person, but I'm just going to say it's going to be really hard, and I just want to focus on being the best. I don't want to say the best AD carry, but the best fit for my team. Whatever they need, whatever it is, I just want to be a rock for my team and try not to have any sort of mental blocks."
North American teams, save Cloud9, have a reputation for not making it out of groups. This reputation is applied emphatically to Doublelift's teams, which, despite significant amounts of pre-tournament hype and qualifying as North America's top seed for most of his worlds appearances, have never made it past a worlds group stage.
North American teams also have a history of failing to adapt past the first week of groups. Often, they show potential in Week 1 before finding themselves outpaced by teams that were quicker to adjust their strategies.
"Every year it's slightly different. The most consistent thing, the biggest hurdle I can say, is keeping your team aggressive and proactive and clear on what you want to do to win," Doublelift said. "Oftentimes LCS teams just devolve, especially in Week 2, into doing nothing. Just doing absolutely nothing and just sitting there. I don't know why. If there was an easy answer, I think it would have been solved already."
It's been said before, but the winds of change may be upon Doublelift at this year's world championship. Team Liquid have already made it to an international final at the Mid-Season Invitational with a shocking upset over Invictus Gaming. Although Team Liquid lost embarrassingly quickly to G2 Esports in the final, making it past iG was a breakthrough for Doublelift.
"MSI gave me a lot of confidence. I feel like MSI, I learned a lot of hard lessons," Doublelift said. "I played some games and I was just hard dead weight. Especially against SKT, I was totally useless. And then some games, I think I played really well. Some games I think I was a pretty big contributor to our win. That experience, the positive experience of having good games and feeling like I was playing at an acceptable level internationally, that's a really big deal for me coming into worlds."
He compared it to overcoming prior hurdles in his professional career. Winning his first LCS title in 2015 gave him a taste of what it was like to win a domestic championship, and he hasn't wanted to relinquish that feeling since. The same emotions and motivation apply to international victories.
"I have a taste of international success and it's like, 'Whoa, this feels way better than losing out in groups,'" he said.
Coincidentally, iG were also drawn into Group D with Team Liquid at worlds. On paper, this appears to be Doublelift's strongest chance to make it out of groups thus far. Yet we've said that in seasons past.
The story of Doublelift goes beyond League of Legends. It evolves into a question of identity. Who is Doublelift? Who is Yiliang "Peter" Peng? That "who" has many answers, most of which we'll never know, despite Doublelift's open and honest dialogue with the League of Legends community.
I asked Doublelift directly if he was the best player in North American history. His answer was anything but direct.
"I want to be. I'm working on it," he said. "If I say yes, that means I'm already there and I don't have to work as hard so I want to be there. I want people, maybe when they're like 40 years old or something, to be like, 'Yeah, I watched LCS and the best player ever, yeah, you know it was Doublelift.' That would be really cool. So I want to be there."
He was hesitant to crown himself, but not out of forced humility or because he didn't think he was the best North American player thus far. Instead, he was hesitant to claim that title because it would mean an end to the narrative of being nearly homeless before his freshman year of college to becoming the brightest star in North America.
"Every now and then he gets frustrated with the game, but he really loves League of Legends," Gafford said. "I think it's also, in a sense, all he knows. He grew up in his family situation. He doesn't think fondly of his life growing up. He played video games. He became an adult to keep playing video games. He left his house because he wanted to keep playing, and then that forced him to become an adult. Most of us become adults because we're thrust out into the world and have to. For him, it was a means to an end to keep playing."
Doublelift's journey answers the question of why we turn to stories at all.
The value is in repetition and in the tenacity, reaching new eyes and ears every year, who eagerly join an existing community, bright-eyed with hopes of further heights and greater successes.
This is the chapter where Doublelift left home and pursued an esports career. These are the parts where he failed to win a domestic or international title. Here are the chapters where he won domestic titles back-to-back, and this is the part where he won his fourth, a week after a serious personal tragedy. Now, we are poised, finger hovering over turning to the next page: the 2019 League of Legends World Championship.
There's a reason he refused to crown himself the best North American player, and it has everything to do with a definitive ending. Currently, and for the foreseeable future, we have chapters that bookend and restart with every season and every improvement.
That is the story of Doublelift.