Fnatic's Bwipo embraces sixth-man role at worlds

How Cloud9 lifted an entire region (5:19)

Cloud9 did the unthinkable at the League of Legends World Championship by defeating Korea's Afreeca Freecs 3-0 to advance to the semifinals. Miles Yim sits down with Isaac "Azael" Cummings-Bentley to examine C9's success. (5:19)

BUSAN, South Korea -- As Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau walked down the neon-soaked boulevard on his way to dinner near his team's beachfront hotel, League of Legends World Championship jacket proudly on, everything around him still didn't feel real.

At the age of 19, in his first real season as a professional in a major domestic league, the top laner and Fnatic had made the semifinals of the biggest competition in League of Legends, only two best-of-five victories away from lifting the Summoner's Cup.

All the lanky Belgian rookie could do over Korean BBQ was laugh. If it's not real at this point, hopefully it's a dream that never ends.

"I'm still making mistakes. I'm not playing perfectly. I don't even think I'm near the top right now when it comes to being the best [at my position]," he said. "But I do think I can get there. I can get there. I can have that performance right now. So if I were to play tomorrow, I could deliver a performance that makes me feel worthy of being top four at worlds."

Bwipo is a unique individual in the world of esports. Where some players will shy away from answering questions or give abrupt two-word answers, the Fnatic top laner is happy to share everything and anything with you. Be it his former expulsion from a team ("I have a pretty strong opinion, and I'm not afraid to voice it," he laughed) to his raw assessments of the players he's pitted up against, nothing the rookie says is scripted or tailored to fit a tidy agenda.

What you see is what you get -- 100 percent, all-unadulterated Bwipo.

"I don't mind a mistake. Mistakes happen, but you can't keep f---ing up and expect me to be quiet about it," he said, recalling one of his former teams before being recruited by Fnatic. "I want to win."

Outside of his gift of gab and expressive faces in-game that have inspired fan art renditions, the element that sets Bwipo apart from any other player in the world is the title he proudly wears that others find even somewhat embarrassing to hold.

Bwipo, you see, is the sixth man for Fnatic.

Although he has started several games over the year in the top lane, including the quarterfinal series win over China's EDward Gaming, Bwipo still considers himself the odd man out in the starting lineup of five. And he revels in it. To him, playing behind longtime veteran and inaugural world championship finalist Paul "sOAZ" Boyer is more of a gift than a curse.

While other sixth men sit on the bench and wonder why they aren't starting, Bwipo sees his position in a different light. When he comes into a game, he knows that he brings something to the team that no one else can. He's special. No one else on Fnatic can shake up the squad like he does when he's inserted into the lineup, and regardless if it comes in the first game of a series or the fifth game of a climactic back-and-forth battle, he's ready for the challenge.

Anytime. Anywhere. When Fnatic needs Bwipo, he'll be there, a wide smile on his face, knowing his presence can be the entire difference between a series victory and a series defeat.

"When I signed on as a substitute, I was prepared to do anything I could do to help my team succeed," he said. "To me, when I'm getting subbed in, I have to do a job that the person who got subbed out couldn't."

And when Bwipo says he'll do anything, he means anything.

Earlier in the year when the game's meta shifted to a state where traditional AD carry champions were becoming unviable in the bottom lane, the team's leader, Martin "Rekkles" Larsson, stepped down from his starting position. In his place, Bwipo, who didn't know the ins and outs of the bottom lane but was adept in playing the mage champions gaining prominence at the AD carry position, took his place.

Bwipo's flexibility was put to the test, and he passed with flying colors, his makeshift partnership with starting support Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov holding up well enough to keep Fnatic ahead of the pack in Europe.

When traditional marksman characters regained footing in the bottom lane, Rekkles returned, and Bwipo, fulfilling his duty, slipped right back into the sixth man role.

"It's unique to me," he said. "I'm not sOAZ II. I'm me. I'm the sixth guy. I'm a completely different entity."

Trusting the system

If there is one thing Bwipo trusts more than himself, it's his teammates. Over dinner, the one constant he hammered home throughout the slew of opinions he had on the world championship was that he believed his team (keyword: team) was good enough to win it all.

In fact, the remaining field -- Cloud9, G2 Esports and Invictus Gaming -- was almost disappointing to him. He wanted to get his blood boiling over a match with KT Rolster. Royal Never Give Up, possibly. During the most topsy-turvy and upset-filled League of Legends World Championship in history, Bwipo doesn't believe Fnatic should be considered one of those underdogs rising up from the unknown.

They expected to be here, practicing in Busan for the upcoming semifinals in Gwangju before taking a bullet train to Incheon for the world final. It was the other two Western teams, G2 of Europe and C9, Fnatic's semifinal opponent, that surprised him.

"I think [C9] is a good team," he said. "They've already proven more than what people expected. But I also think that with some luck and good preparation, we'll be able to expose a few weaknesses of theirs. ...To me, right now, it's hard to imagine we don't [make the final]."

Bwipo's ironclad confidence comes from his teammates. He gave a majority of the credit to for the pair's success in the bottom lane in the summer split to his support, Hylissang, who taught Bwipo the ropes on the bottom side of the map. Bwipo was just along for the ride, learning as he went and playing to the best of his capabilities.

And then there's the rest of Fnatic. His fellow top laner, sOAZ, is a legend. Rasmus "Caps" Winther might be the best mid laner in the world. And jungler in the world is playing better right now than Fnatic's own Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen? No one, that's who.

But the main reason Bwipo believes Fnatic will be walking into the Incheon Munhak Stadium the first week of November is because of the person who stepped away earlier in the year. When everything is even and all the chips are down on the table, Bwipo will bet on the same man every time: Rekkles.

"I feel like the game is going to be 35 minutes, and there is going to be a late-game teamfight," he said. "I can see Sneaky making mistakes and dying. I just don't see Rekkles doing that. That's kinda why I feel so safe because, in this type of game, where he has the confidence and knows he's better, he doesn't make mistakes."

Garnering respect from Bwipo can be a difficult task. When asked about his possible laning opponent in the semifinal, fellow rookie Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, he smirked. He thought he was good. He respected the fact that like himself, Licorice wasn't afraid to play intriguing champions that weren't necessarily considered "overpowered" or pushed upon him.

But when it came down to really comparing the two, Bwipo couldn't hold back from giving a chuckle and pointing out the leaderboard between the two in terms of championships.

In his first two seasons, Bwipo has two domestic trophies, back-to-back European League Championship Series wins with Fnatic.

Licorice? None.

"It's the easy way of saying, 'Beat me first,'" Bwipo said. "Then I'll respect you."

One player who did earn Bwipo's respect in the top lane during his time in South Korea isn't even in the world championship. Newly promoted into the top-flight domestic league in South Korea, DAMWON Gaming's Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon might be the top prospect going into the 2019 season. According to Bwipo, the hype isn't just smoke and mirrors.

"Nuguri is great; I love that guy," he said. "I love playing against this guy. I [own] him. He [owns] me. That's the type of player I want in my competition: a guy I know that if he [destroys] me, I'm going to come back stronger and give him something back later."

What might seem on the surface as simple boasting or cookie-cutter trash talking has a lot more underneath the longer you talk with Bwipo. The players he truly admires, the ones he's excited to lane against or practice harder to have the opportunity to face, are special. During dinner, he pulled out a KT Rolster keychain, displaying the ID of "SMEB" for the now-eliminated top lane carry who many consider the greatest player at the position in the game's history.

It's not that G2 or C9 are bad teams. It's that when Bwipo grew up watching worlds from home, dreaming of being a pro player, he imagined standing against Smeb on the grand stage, not Licorice or a player like Martin "Wunder" Hansen, whom he sees every weekend at the EU LCS studio in Berlin.

Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok, Invictus Gaming's star top laner, is someone else Bwipo has watched throughout the years. Only 18, he blossomed in his first year as a pro in 2017, similarly to Licorice and Bwipo, and TheShy has kept up the mechanical outplays that made him famous through his streams and solo queue performances in the past.

"I have the most respect for Smeb," he said, showing off his keychain. "And TheShy. Those are the ones I have the most respect for. These are players I look forward to playing. I want to play them more anything. [With Licorice and Wunder] I don't feel like it's an opportunity to prove myself."

It hasn't gone as he would have thought, but Fnatic is now six map wins away from all-time enshrinement. Every heated argument, sleepless night working and every single game he's ever loaded into has led up to this.

It's the final four, and all the South Korean teams are gone. They'll be back next year, likely stronger than ever. China's franchising model is untouched, and the country's fascination with the game is only growing each day. Bwipo knows this is the best chance he probably will ever have at winning a world title.

As long as he can see Rekkles and the rest of his teammates finally achieve their lifelong dream they've been grinding for year after year, the sixth man is ready for any curveball thrown at him.

"If I got to be the substitute that pushed the veterans to their dreams, it's not even a successful year at that point," he said. "It's the best year you're going to have in your career."