PARIS -- G2's Rasmus "Caps" Winther always seems to have a smile on his face, even during one of the biggest matches of his career.
It was the League of Legends World Championship semifinal in Madrid at a filled Palacio Vistalegre, the Colosseum-like venue housing thousands of fans trying to will their home team, G2 Esports, to the grand final against China's champion, FunPlus Phoenix.
G2's opponent, South Korea's SK Telecom T1, is the winningest organization of all time. Having the three-time Summoner's Cup winners face off against G2, the strongest team of the year, was a dream matchup.
G2 vs. SKT would go on to become the most-watched esports match in history. Per Esports Charts, which tracks viewership across streaming websites, 3.9 million people tuned in at the stream's peak during Game 4 of the series. This didn't even include global TV or viewership numbers in China, which would have added millions more to the overall count. From the frenzy of cheers and chants inside the arena to the record-breaking audience at home, this faceoff felt less like a semifinal and more like the grand final itself.
Still, with the entire world watching, Caps and his G2 teammates were treating it as if it were 3:00 a.m. on a Friday and they were playing casual games with nothing on the line.
"All of you are wearing hoodies, but I'm not that cold anymore," remarked G2's jungler and reigning European MVP Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski as the team waited for the series to begin. "But maybe I'll just wear it after my first death [in-game]."
"So never?" answered support Mihael "Mikyx" Mehle, the rest of the team laughing in the background.
"Exactly, Miky!" Jankos yelled.
Over the course of the series, the light-hearted and relaxed attitude would stand in stark contrast with what was happening on the field, where the two teams were neck and neck throughout. At one point, after a kill on SKT's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, considered the best player to ever play League of Legends, Caps said, "I'm really f---ing [overpowered], by the way," en route to a first-game victory. When they lost Game 2 and SKT tied up the series, he informed his teammates he might have been dying a bit too much and it was time to win now.
Even when they had locked up the match victory in Game 4 after a back-and-forth game ending in a climactic brawl, G2 questioned whether they should wait a few seconds before ending the game so their coaches could celebrate alongside with them before ultimately deciding to finish after Jankos happily interjected with "F--k the coaches" and the rest of the team agreed in turn.
Smiles, trolling and a whole lot of style -- this is G2 Esports.
It's hard to imagine Caps in another uniform than G2's nowadays, after the team's historic 2019, but for the first two years of his professional career, he was actually their archrival. A top prospect from Denmark, Caps was signed to Europe's historically strongest franchise, Fnatic, winners of the inaugural League of Legends world championship in 2011 and perennial domestic league winners.
His immaturity was a topic of discussion in his early days. After his signing, screenshots of the 17-year-old telling an opposing player that he should try to not make his "hate list" unless the amateur player wanted his career to be over before it started popped up on social media.
Caps would apologize for his actions and keep his head down heading into his debut season, but the growing pains of being a professional didn't end with what was happening outside of the game.
Nicknamed "Baby Faker" for his mechanical prowess and towering potential, Caps tried to run before he could crawl. His first year as a pro was a mixed bag, with a slew of highlights showing off his raw, technical skill but also revealing his tunnel vision of always believing he can make a big play work.
Although he would come into his own by the end of the year and Fnatic would make the world championship, the team's run ended in the quarterfinals by the hands of China's Royal Never Give Up. Caps' inexperience would be exposed under the spotlight of worlds knockout stage, with him failing to make any sort of impact in the final two games of the series that sent his team back home.
In these types of situations, usually, young and hungry players with a bright future take the loss, return home and decide to shore up their game by working on the holes in their arsenal. For Caps, this would mean working on his overaggression and becoming a more patient, learned player. He'd find the limits within his own individual skill and develop into that Faker-style player people always hoped he would one day become.
Caps didn't do that.
Instead, he doubled down on the way he played the game, maturing outside of the game as a teammate but keeping his devil-may-care style while playing. Eventually, this would become his calling card, the community at large administering two different names to Caps, both a play on his gamertag.
There's "Claps," which is what he is known as when he's on his A-game. Claps is arguably the best player in the world. He takes big risks and engulfs opponents with his relentless pressure. This was the form Caps showed in May for the Mid-Season Invitational with G2 Esports, burying North American franchise Team Liquid in what was the quickest international final in the game's history. Claps was awarded the MVP, and those prophecies of him becoming the Western version of Faker didn't seem so ridiculous in hindsight.
His alter ego on the other hand, "Craps," is a different story. One series Caps can be in his Claps form and then the very next match he can be Craps -- his bold risks turn into failed gambles and result in a chain of trips into the opposing team's meat grinder. This side of Caps was never more on display than at the 2018 League of Legends world championship, where, after failing in 2017, an improved Caps and Fnatic made it all the way to the grand final. There, Craps reared his ugly head and kept Claps back in the hotel room. Fnatic was steamrolled in a 3-0 sweep by China's Invictus Gaming at the Incheon Munhak Stadium in South Korea.
We're far past the point where these can be brushed aside as growing pains or the missteps of a newcomer. Claps and Craps, in equal parts, are Caps, the ultimate all-or-nothing player. And he embraces it. In the music video for this year's world championship, "Phoenix," the inner struggles of Caps and his two sides are on full display, cartoonish grins in the feature representing the chaotic nature of his playstyle. During the team's introduction in the group stages, he played up to his character, waving his hand in front of his way to demonstrate his two unique faces -- the remarkable and world-class Claps and the frustrating, gung ho Craps.
"I think the fact that Caps has two identities among the fans is what makes him so special," Andy "Vedius" Day, a commentator at the world championship, told ESPN. "Craps and Claps both embody him as a player; sometimes you get to see both within a single game. His ability to constantly play on the edge of the game's limits without hesitation is something I think few players dare to even try."
By being unabashedly himself, Caps has done something no other Western region player has even come close to during the nine years of pro League of Legends. Starting with his final with Fnatic last year, he has now reached three straight major international finals, something only the team Caps defeated in the semifinals, SKT, has done.
At every turn, there's been a sign in front of Caps telling him to stop, and he has always ignored the warnings and pressed forward. The logical step in the wake of making a grand final on a Western team in an esport dominated by teams from Asia would be to run it back with the same team members. Caps, never afraid to push all his chips into the center of the table, left the franchise that turned him into a superstar talent and signed with their archrival, G2 Esports, joining forces with his own antagonist in Luka "Perkz" Perković, the mid laner of G2.
Perkz, the captain of G2, made the choice to switch positions to allow Caps to take over the starting mid lane duties for the team. The decision at the time was radical. The two best mid laners, both of whom had just made the top four at the most recent world championship, were banding together with the captain of the team bowing out from his natural role to allow his rival to take his spot.
What could have been a move that damaged both of their legacies did just the opposite. Perkz, at his new spot in the bottom lane as AD carry, has taken his technical touch from the mid lane and is now considered one of the best marksman players in the world. Though Caps sometimes reverts to his less-successful alter ego, he has taken another step toward his goal of being not only the best player to ever play in the Western Hemisphere but one of the best players to ever play anywhere in the world.
"A lot of teams win one tournament, and then we don't hear about them anymore," Caps said after his first international victory at MSI earlier this year. "That's not who we want to be."
One more match victory in Paris and his wish will be granted.
"We don't just believe in it anymore, we expect it ourselves. We want to be the champions, we want to create a legacy for ourselves," he said in a news conference Friday.
Michael Winther, Caps' father, is often seen in the crowd during his son's games. Always in a G2 jersey (or Fnatic in previous years), Winther has become a sort of an unofficial mascot for Europe's champions, he himself being asked for photos from fans between games.
When talking about his son, Winther relayed that the almost permanent grin across his son's face has been there since he was a child. "Caps was very clever [in school]," Winther said. [He had] grades near the top, especially in math, physics and nature/geographic science."
The teasing and joking about that he does nowadays with his teammates is how he was brought up with his family. His older brother, who was a professional in Dota 2, paved the groundwork for Caps to begin his career, making it easier for his family to understand when he began traveling to tournaments across Europe.
The word that comes to the elder Winther's mind when asked how it feels to see his son one step from his ultimate goal, the world championship, is "pride". As his biggest cheerleader who sat in the stands last year in Incheon when Caps and Fnatic were run over by Invictus Gaming, this is the moment when he wants to see his son conquer his demons once and for all.
"I'm feeling happy, proud and nervous knowing Caps and G2 could become No. 1," Winther said.
From the outside looking in, this year's worlds grand final seems to be a continuation of the last. Caps has made it all the way to the ultimate match as part of the European champions and has to defeat China's best-performing team in the tournament to win the Summoner's Cup.
The circumstances, though, are vastly changed. For one, the two Chinese teams, iG and FPX, couldn't be more different, with FPX having upended iG in the other semifinal. Where iG is all about lane dominance and beating you through pure power, FPX functions more as a five-man unit working as one, relying on its mid laner, shot caller, captain and face, Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang to be the maestro who binds them all together.
"I still have more than 100 champions that I haven't shown you guys," Doinb said at his post-semifinal news conference, setting the stage for his match with Caps. Doinb wanted to see G2 and Caps in the final, as both teams are known for thinking outside of the box with their strategies and how they use their players, giving us a final with tricks and surprises almost assured.
This is the final roadblock standing in the way of Caps. Although he's still flippant and not afraid to make a joke in the heat of the moment, he has matured as a teammate and player, moving past the early bumps in the road that caused him strife early in his career. When critics pointed out that his reckless style would never get him far against the more refined styles of the better teams in the world, especially South Korea, he adopted his disordered play as a badge of honor.
League of Legends is everything to Caps. Back at Rift Rivals, the annual event pitting regional adversaries against each other, Caps was questioned about what he liked to do outside of playing League of Legends. Hang out with friends? Play sports? Go to the movies? His answer was that he played a lot of League of Legends. G2, as friends, hang out together and socialize, but at the end of the day, when Caps thinks about what is fun to him, it's League of Legends.
He has played over 1,300 games on his main account this year as "TheShackledOne" on Europe West's servers. His rank after all those games?
Caps doesn't want to be just a player who makes three straight international finals. He wants to be the player, playing his own way, who wins three straight international finals.
"This is the year I know we've been closest," G2's founder and owner Carlos "Ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago said before the tournament started for his team. "This is a good moment to win it. We have a good chance. Let's f--ing do it."
AccorHotels Arena in Paris will be the setting for Sunday's final between G2 and FPX. Tickets sold out almost instantly for the event, with the lowest tickets on some third-party websites going for over $200 and some of the priciest tickets, near the stage, currently set for over $3,000. It also has a chance to become the most watched esports event of all time, in the West and overall, with China looking to win back-to-back world championships.
As Caps steps out into the blare of noise and the blur of a sold-out crowd around him, his family leading the chants down on the floor, he'll know he got there following his own path and no one else's.
You can call him Claps.
You can even call him Craps.
But on Sunday, with millions watching his every move, he hopes to add another moniker to his laundry list of nicknames -- Champ.