There was also a more fundamental human interest. In defeat and victory alike, players’ families and how they influenced their careers took center stage — especially for mid-laners Rasmus “Caps” Winther of G2 and FunPlus’s Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang. Caps’ father, who has long supported the 19-year-old’s gaming career, and Doinb’s wife, who convinced him to play one more season, were compelling supporting players in this year’s drama.
Shortly before the finals began, ESPN reported that Doinb had considered retiring before this season, adding further tension to his team’s unexpected win. Turns out, the 22-year-old’s wife, Tang Xiaoyo, encouraged him to keep playing. “She was very worried at the beginning for my physical condition,” he said after the game. “I wasn’t feeling so well, so she was on the fence. But she felt that if I was to retire it would be a bit of a pity.”
During the broadcast, cameras cut away to show Tang watching the match and, ultimately, watching her husband raise the Summoner’s Cup. Asked if he had a message for her, Doinb answered, “I want to say, I’m sorry. Even when we’re taking breaks, I really don’t go home often. I’m so sorry to you. I’ll be with you [soon].”
For the defeated G2, family was also a factor. Video of Caps’s father, Michael Winther, awkwardly crashing a postgame interview earlier this year to declare pride in his son’s performance had been making the rounds among fans and commentators before the finals. The two will also be part of a new Mastercard promotional video for the company’s “Together Start Something Priceless” series. During the event, clips of that moment were shown on the arena’s massive screens. After the game, the downtrodden player took solace in this support. “I have my family around [me],” he said. “I’m probably going to go straight to the hotel with them to — well, not to celebrate — but to look over the year I’ve had.”
G2 had been on the cusp of becoming the first team in League of Legends history to complete a calendar Grand Slam by winning both major international tournaments and both domestic finals. It would not be so. “I just need some time to get ready for the next season. I just need some time to be with them,” Caps added, referring to his family.
Certainly, players’ personalities have been a fundamental component of esports fandom since the beginning. Many of the earliest professional esports players built fanbases for themselves based on performances delivered via video game streaming services like YouTube and Twitch. [Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.] But this year, players’ families were more deliberately incorporated into Riot’s broadcast.
That is, to a certain extent, part of the plan, according to Marc Merrill, Riot Games’s co-founder. “Worlds has evolved over the years to come back to the roots that made it successful in the first place, which was more about players than production value,” he said in an interview. Merrill added that as the annual event, which fans refer to as Worlds for short, has grown, Riot has on occasion erred. “In Berlin, for example, at Worlds 2015 I think it was too focused on the sport. That felt like it was missing something. We’re going back to a balance.”
It is also a sign of a maturing sport that has largely spent the last decade pursuing technical polish and cultural legitimacy. Some early League tournaments were plagued by connectivity issues. As the sport grew, Riot executives say they had to develop major league staples such as live commentary that works for the particularities of competitive video games. Eight years after the first Worlds took place in a converted airplane hangar in a small town in southern Sweden, the result is a glitzy, high-production affair that draws in millions of viewers. Merrill said the challenge now was continuing to “honor our players’ expectations for this game.”
How much that will consist of human interest at Worlds 2020 is an outstanding question. Many had viewed this year’s contest as the last, best chance for a Western team to close the so-called “gap,” fan shorthand to describe the skills deficit between European and North American players on one side and those from Korea and China on the other. No Western team has won the finals since the first year of the contest, before it was a truly global event. Sunday was, according to G2 owner Carlos Rodriguez, “the first time in history that a Western team [had] a chance — an actual chance — of winning Worlds.”
That alone gave Caps’s and Doinb’s story lines extra valence they might not have next year, should Caps’s team not qualify or Doinb retire, as he said he might during a postgame news conference. After the ceremonies wrapped up, Riot announced it had chosen Shanghai as next year’s host city. The event will take place in the 55,000-seat stadium there, which has been used during the run up to the Beijing Olympics. Worlds 2020 will most certainly be a bigger event in nearly every respect. Question is, will it be more human too?