MADRID -- A shadow followed me as I walked to Palacio Vistalegre Arena on Saturday for the League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals.
Defending champions Invictus Gaming would play Griffin, followed by FunPlus Phoenix going up against Fnatic and the raucous live crowd. There was a strong chance that, at the end of the day, China's League of Legends Pro League would have no teams left contending for a title.
Before a piece of particularly bad news, people will frequently say after the fact that they could feel it coming. Somehow, there was a shadow cast over that day, and they weren't aware of what it meant until that horrible thing appeared or the bad news struck. Once it happened, then the shadow made sense, growing larger in retrospect and the retelling of that day.
Last year, South Korean fans, analysts and media said they felt this in Busan on Oct. 20-21, as the two remaining League of Legends Champions Korea teams were knocked out of the tournament on their home soil. I sat in the BEXCO Auditorium, tearing up at the lingering cheers for KT Rolster between Games 2 and 3. Hours later, I witnessed KT, the only team of which I am a fan, lose to eventual tournament champions Invictus Gaming.
I felt that same shadow today.
The LPL is difficult to follow in the West, especially in North America. The first match in China usually starts at 2 a.m. in my home city of Los Angeles, and if a casual fan is choosing between the LPL and the LCK, they'll pick the more prominent LCK almost every time. The LPL didn't have an official Riot Games broadcast until 2015. A group of intrepid LPL fans -- two of whom were on the English language analyst desk today watching iG and FunPlus Phoenix -- ran the broadcast in 2014.
Dedicating yourself to the LPL is difficult. Games won't always make sense from a macro standpoint, teams will do things on the Rift you never thought were possible or at all advisable, and there are so many games to follow.
Simply put, you cannot follow the LPL without loving it; it's too much work for too little reward. And the LPL won't frequently love you back.
I began watching the Chinese league in 2014, when one of my favorite South Korean players, former KT Rolster Bullets jungler Choi "inSec" In-seok, moved to Star Horn Royal Club. At that point, I had followed OGN's Champions tournament (which would later become the LCK) in South Korea for several years. Star Horn were a messy team, with multiple internal rifts and rumors that inSec and star bot laner Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao refused to talk to each other. They made the worlds final that year and were demolished by Samsung Galaxy White 3-1.
Then the 2014-15 offseason happened.
Most of the South Korean players I admired made their way to China's LPL for exorbitant salaries. I followed them, learning more about the LPL in the process. I didn't love it at first. Nothing made sense, especially coming from the LCK.
I didn't understand why teams were doing what they were doing. They pushed up without vision, contested every minion in lane even when it was disadvantageous to do so and skirmished at odd times.
At the end of 2015, when China was expected to do well internationally after EDward Gaming had won the Mid-Season Invitational, all three Chinese teams were gone by the quarterfinals. Two of them, LGD Gaming and iG, didn't make it past the group stage. Fans of all regions descended on the players, staff and anyone who had dared to follow the LPL that year with a level of vitriol that is still unmatched in my experience.
This, oddly enough, is what finally made me love the LPL: a weird, self-deprecating solidarity. I've followed it not with a passing interest but a genuine love.
Naturally, convincing me to admit this passion for the LPL is difficult because LPL teams will let you down, and they'll let you down in the worst ways. Only one team wins worlds, and while that means that every other team at the tournament loses, LPL teams carry the stigma of losing in the most painful way possible. The sting of Royal Never Give Up failing to make it out of this year's group stage is certainly beaten by the crushing defeat of RNG last year at the hands of G2 Esports. While iG did eventually win the title, it was an inadequate salve for the wound created by RNG.
To make matters worse, the LPL's top teams at this year's tournament suffer from hyper-focused playstyles. When asked to play outside of their comfort zones, they look significantly worse. FunPlus Phoenix are the most visible culprit, but iG are like this as well. Both are now semifinalists and will play each other in the next round, guaranteeing an LPL team in this year's final.
I was wrong about everything today.
FunPlus Phoenix have historically drafted poorly in Game 1s of their best-of-five series. They didn't today. Somehow star mid laner Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang ended up with his best champion, Ryze, in three of the four games. Jungler Gao "Tian" Tian-Liang and support Liu "Crisp" Qing-Song set the team up perfectly for success.
Invictus Gaming, who by their own admission are an emotionally volatile team, have let that affect their gameplay on large stages in the past. They didn't today. Returning 2018 worlds finals MVP Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning looked to have stronger synergy with the team than last week, and iG's solo lane carries performed spectacularly.
Both iG and FunPlus met the media after 3-1 victories over Griffin and Fnatic, respectively, with beaming smiles. The shadow I had felt was seemingly gone.
What people don't tell you when they talk about a shadow of impending doom is that it's not necessarily doom, but anticipation. Had KT managed to beat iG last year, I would have thought of that nervous, nauseous, horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach as something else. The joy I would have had at KT winning would have been rewarding.
The shadow I felt today was fear, but also, beyond my better judgment, hope. What people don't tell you is that hope thrives in the unknown shadows because the games haven't happened yet. No one has won, no one has lost and there's always a sliver of hope that FunPlus weren't actually as shaky as they showed in groups, or that iG will use that emotion as momentum.
On days like today, the LPL loves me back.