As the saying goes, you never forget your first.
That certainly applies to those who have competed or worked at the League of Legends World Championships.
My first Worlds experience was a great one: 2016. Madison Square Garden. The debut of the ESPN Esports Digital desk. There I am, my first ESPN assignment, also at my first live League of Legends experience, which just happened to be at the World's Most Famous Arena. I had worked at MSG the year before with WWE, but that was doing interviews backstage -- this time, we were in the catwalk, with a perfect view of the action below.
Picture the scene: SKT vs ROX Tigers, perhaps the greatest LoL competitive match. We're going live with a pre show, and between every game. I'm teeing up my analysts, Eugene "Pobelter" Park and Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-seop, the cast is going well. The series is a back and forth symphony of destruction, with both teams showing off a masterclass of League (including probably the greatest Ashe arrow of all time). It goes five games, and the then reigning and two-time World Champions SKT pull it off. The "final before the final" is over. Minutes later, star SKT midlaner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok is secretly whisked from the stage to our desk many floors above, and we conduct an interview. Little did we know that, though nobody told fans of Faker's whereabouts, a crowd began to form outside our little makeshift studio -- and rapidly grew in numbers. Extra security guards had to come by just to allow Faker safe passage after he greeted the audience. I had never seen such fan sleuthing before. I was truly impressed.
Professionally, it was a terrific two days: I interviewed the greatest League player in history as part of my first assignment for ESPN. It was also the very first time I appeared on SportsCenter, which was a bucket list item for me (or really anyone who grows up loving sports and dreaming of being behind the microphone). That was also the weekend that ignited my fascination with esports after a lifelong love of video games.
I will never forget my first Worlds experience and will cherish the memory. For players, executives and casters who are called upon to work or compete at Worlds, some first experiences are great, others not so much.
Here are their tales. --Arda Ocal
Interviews by Arda Ocal, Jacob Wolf, Emily Rand and Tyler Erzberger
Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martinez, former Fnatic top laner, 2011
The problem that I had was the first day of the championship. My flight got delayed and I couldn't actually play the group stage. Lucky for us and for me, the group stage in Season 1 had a format in which you had a relegation game. If you end up third in your group, you could play a game against the other team with a one-game disadvantage. Luckily, my team managed to get one win and get third in the group, so I made it to the second day of worlds, and we ended up doing pretty good that day. I thought we wouldn't be able to win. That's why I thought we had no chance. We had to win a best-of-three where we were already 0-1 to start with.
I was very nervous going into that. I remember especially my first, first game, I remember I went to the bathroom -- I didn't throw up, but I felt a bit nauseous. It never happened to me before. But I think I was so nervous that I had a stomach ache, and I just had to go to the bathroom, put some water on my face and relax a bit.
I did feel the pressure, even though I kept telling myself it's no different from playing at home or anywhere else. I just couldn't stop thinking about it, the fact that this was a world final and how much was on the line for everyone at that time. Everyone playing there was an amateur hoping to make a professional gaming career. Winning that tournament meant you made it.
Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, former Epik Gamer support, 2011
I was a really shy nerd with not a lot of friends, so my lens that I was experiencing it with was so different. It was like I'm finally meeting my online friends, who in my opinion, I had more in common with these people. I wasn't popular in school. I didn't really have friends that I played games with in real life. So I always valued my online friends a lot.
I met them at the airport in Sweden, that's where worlds was, and I was so excited. I was like jumping up and down. I was like, "Oh my God, I'm finally with you guys." I actually remember more about the experience of being there than the actual games.
It was such a formative experience for me to travel internationally by myself for the first time, to participate in a tournament for the first time. I'm sitting down at my computer. I'm playing my favorite game, League of Legends, and there's a crowd. The crowd is like 50 people, but there's a crowd. And it's just, it was so amazing for me to experience that. That was my very first tournament ever, and it shaped my love for competing and my idea that I need to be a pro player.
Carlos "Ocelote" Rodriguez Santiago, former SK Gaming midlaner, 2012
It was good, I remember. The scrims tell a lot about how good our team is, but it doesn't tell us about what the success is going to be like, right? Because game day is different, but I remember that our practice was actually very good against most teams, and then on game day, I remember that some of us lacked the experience or some from our team lacked the experience that is required to play in these types of tournaments.
Back then it was much more scrappy, you know. You needed to have your own CFG [settings configuration file] sent to yourself via email, and then you have to put it in their folder. It was not like today. Everything is much more automated now, thank God, but back then it was like you need to understand what your mouse sensitivity was and all that crap, and we actually didn't have all that much experience.
But honestly, the whole experience was amazing. You know, there I was. There I was, immensely disappointed to lose again to a backdoor in CLG. But you know, I was honestly very happy with the experience. I remember those moments very fondly. I do think that there are a lot of publishers out there who do a great job. But I think that Riot Games is the single greatest publisher when it comes down to what they have done for esports and well for non-publishers. The world championship is the toughest tournament I have ever been in and that I have ever seen from the outside as well, by far.
Whalen Rozelle, Esports manager for Riot Games, 2012
I think within a span of a week and a half, I probably hit my career highs and lows. I'd say maybe even almost life highs and lows at that point in time. The day after we had that big game outage and cancellation, I remember lying on the couch, being depressed and feeling just like so bummed out.
But then also I remember pulling off the Galen Center events in the actual world finals and it just being this incredible series, and Taipei Assassins overperforming expectations, and I remember tearing up during the opening ceremony. We've done much more impressive, much more challenging worlds, but from the personal impact on me, that was the moment where I was like, we really can touch people emotionally and in a meaningful way.
Hai "Hai" Du Lam, former Cloud9 mid-laner, 2013
That worlds, I remember that we went in being pretty confident. We wanted to be able to perform while people weren't expecting much out of NA. We felt like we were a strong team. Unfortunately, that was the season where it was like a single-elim, just one best-of-three, and after that best-of-three, we were just out of it. So it was pretty disappointing.
I remember going to the Staples Center to watch the finals with my ex-girlfriend at that time and friends and it was weird because I kept getting stopped, like I got stopped forever to do photos and signings and stuff like that. That was the first time I had an experience that, having someone that knew me before I was quote-unquote famous with me is definitely a weird experience because neither of us were used to that.
Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, former TSM mid-laner, 2014
I think it might have been our first game of the world championship, we were going into the game, and I drank way too much caffeine. It felt like I was shaking, and I was missing like every minion. It didn't really feel like it was due to nerves, it was just that I drank so much caffeine that my heart was pumping out of my chest. I think I got my footing when I managed to settle down a little bit. I don't remember how nervous I was for the other matches. I think I was a little bit too cocky compared to what I should have been, so I felt pretty confident going into any opponent. I don't think anyone in our group -- at least the mid laners -- were a huge challenge for me.
Erberk "Gilius" Demir, former Unicorns of Love jungler, 2014
I was playing for Unicorns of Love. It's kind of a funny story. SK needed a sub. Back then, you were forced to get a sub for worlds, and none of their Academy players wanted to go, so they just asked me if I wanted to come, and yeah, that's how it happened.
So I was kind of just chilling in the hotel -- it was a really nice hotel. I was just eating food all day, going to the swimming pool and stuff. They didn't even give me a computer there to play because I was just there to chill. And then that thing happened. Basically, all of the stuff went down with Svenskeren [being suspended]. They told me I have to play. They were super tilted. No one wanted to play with me, and then we just lost every game.
Erik "DoA" Lonnquist, caster, 2015
Right away the thing that stands out the most about casting matches was just being in those crowds. Because in Korea, you'd get pretty big crowds, you know, for the finals and things like that, but I don't know if I've ever really seen a crowd that was like, as energetic as the French fans were in Paris.
Those fans were insane in a great way. It was really great to get to meet fans from different parts of the world, as well. ... Hearing the fans react to the big plays as you're calling the games, you can feel your body shaking and the thing you're standing on shaking, you know, with the crowd going crazy. I always love that feeling, and it was extremely intense with the French crowd.
London had a really interesting memory to me. I don't know if I've ever felt as famous as I did in London when we did the matches at Wembley [Stadium]. Like the idea of me being famous still sounds ludicrous to me. But apparently, that's part of it, I guess. We had so many fans trying to get to us and meet us, and I love meeting fans, but this was a bit too much, it was like the press was a bit too big. So it was the only time that we've ever actually had to have a full sort of like contingent of security guards escort us back to our hotel. Just the experience of walking from the venue to the hotel, which was more or less across the street and having like five towering huge security dudes on each side of you to keep the fans at bay was just was just a really, really weird experience. It was fun, but it was also kind of not fun at the same time.
They had a pretty good setup at that hotel, they had barriers and stuff, so after I got upstairs and cooled down and changed into something that wasn't all sweaty from casting, I was able to go downstairs and walk along the barricade and meet fans for an hour or so. And that was really fun, just getting to chat with all of them and you know, do a lot of photos and stuff like that. I've never really cared about feeling like a celebrity. But it was really fun to feel like a legit celebrity, you know, for that event. I kind of allowed myself to enjoy it.
Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski, former H2k Gaming jungler, 2016
I was excited to eat burgers. I had heard a lot of good, positive things about North American fast food. I was really excited to go to NA and try all the good food. I had deep dish pizza -- Chicago is pretty famous for it. The city itself was pretty windy, but it was really nice. I actually liked Chicago. I didn't see much of San Francisco. I didn't see the famous bridge, for example, or the famous prison, Alcatraz. I didn't get to see that either. Just from the coast, not from the island itself.
I really liked Chicago. We went to a place on not really the coast, but it's kind of the coast. It was Halloween time as well, which we don't really do in Poland, so I saw a lot of Halloween costumes. I think the city itself was pretty nice. That was probably the first city I could experience from that angle. Chicago compared to New York felt way less tight. The food of course was good. There was a lot of underground stuff going on as well. A lot of bridges. The river was really nice, the rivers and the lake. It was pretty fun.
I remember playing at Madison Square Garden, too. It was really fun. The crowd was kind of from both sides. It was everywhere. When we were losing, they'd kind of give us the flashlights like at a concert or something. That looked really, really insane as well, even though it was kind of a goodbye because we were kind of being made fun [of]. The venue itself was pretty loud as well, because of course the games themselves were super one-sided. We had a lot of kills, and we were winning fights, so the fans were very supportive toward us.
It was probably the best venue I've ever played in.
Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong, former Samsung Galaxy jungler, 2016
I remember having hard times back then and thinking that the teams who come to the world championships have to bear a rough schedule. My mind was out there, moving from the West Coast to the East Coast, but it was fun to see different sceneries of each city. In particular, I really liked the ambiance of Chicago. I still remember the Tad's Steak we ate in San Francisco. Our team went there together once, but I visited again because the taste was just amazing for me.