MADRID - The Palacio Vistalegre Arena echoed with cheers for Fnatic. They reverberated through the old bullfighting ring, creating an unintentional call-and-response with a slight sound delay, so loud that they could be heard through the players' supposedly soundproof headphones.
Only one game stood between Fnatic's opponents, League of Legends Pro League champions FunPlus Phoenix, and a League of Legends World Championship semifinal berth. On Summoner's Rift, all five members of Fnatic converged for an early ambush of FunPlus bot laner Lin "Lwx" Wei-Xiang. Fnatic support Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov threw out Pyke's bone skewer and narrowly missed his target.
Lwx escaped, and Fnatic's Level 1 game plan was foiled. The crowd let out a collective sigh at what could have been.
A smaller cheer rose up in the crowd for FunPlus Phoenix. Led by Li "Umi" Youzi, the wife of FunPlus mid laner Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang, it was the traditional cheer heard before every LoL Pro League match: an intentional call and response of "FunPlus!" "加油 [jia you]!" It was quickly drowned out by the European home crowd, but it was there, a small, fiercely loyal island in a sea of Fnatic faithful.
Nearly 36 minutes after the opening cheers, Umi walked up the center aisle, carrying a large FunPlus Phoenix flag behind her like a cape. She led a group of FunPlus fans to the stage, where her husband and his team bowed to the crowd. Fans carried banners with Doinb's face on it.
"How on Earth does anyone stop Doinb?" English-language caster Trevor "Quickshot" Henry asked the analyst desk. Moments later, Doinb was asked by the broadcast how it felt to become a worlds semifinalist.
"It's about proving myself," Doinb said, addressing the FunPlus fans gathered at the edge of the stage. "Before this, I've never been to worlds, and I've always doubted if it was because I wasn't good enough. But this proves that I am actually good enough to make it here at worlds."
A week later, Doinb and FunPlus took out the reigning world champions, Invictus Gaming, in the semifinals. Doinb was now a worlds finalist.
Finally, the path he'd chosen had led him to where he wanted to be.
Choice is a luxury that frequently eludes League of Legends professionals.
The ability to have a definitive say in where one decides to play and with whom is often reserved for legacy players like SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, who have proven their value countless times throughout years of stunning success.
Doinb entered professional competition at a volatile time in the League of Legends scene: the 2014-15 Korean Exodus, a period when many South Korean professional players left the country and its premier league, League Champions Korea, for other regions. China was a popular destination at the time, and that option was also extended to Doinb, a less-seasoned upstart at the time, as well.
The then-18-year-old was known only for his solo queue exploits as a streamer, but he received offers from both South Korean and Chinese teams. Doinb tried out with various South Korean teams for nearly a month, but didn't feel like any of them were a good fit.
"At the same time, my father really supported me to go to China and explore all of my options because all of the Samsung White guys were going over," Doinb said. Samsung Galaxy White had just won the 2014 League of Legends World Championship. All five of the team's players left South Korea for the LPL that offseason.
"At the time I was just a streamer, a high-elo streamer, and there were a lot of LPL teams that told me their conditions for me to join."
Doinb had a wealth of options. In the end, he chose the Qiao Gu Reapers, a Chinese organization that was part of the developmental league.
"I felt like they were the best even though they were only playing in the Challenger league," Doinb said. "I had never played professionally before, so I wanted to do it from the ground up and prove slowly how good I actually was."
Of the choices presented to Doinb at the time, Qiao Gu was one of the more interesting setups. The roster included former Xenics Storm and CJ Entus jungler Baek "Swift" Da-hoon, and the experienced bot lane of Yu "TnT" Rui (also known as Happy) and Zhang "TcT" Hong-Wei (also known as Mor).
Doinb did not speak Mandarin. Up until he joined Qiao Gu, he had only ever lived with his parents. But the culture shock and language barrier didn't stop the mid laner from shining.
Qiao Gu not only were promoted from China's developmental league to the LPL but made it to the LPL finals that summer and were one game away from beating LGD Gaming to claim the LPL summer title. In his first year as a pro, Doinb had vastly exceeded expectations.
He sighed somewhat dramatically as he thought about his first LPL split. It wasn't due to regret but embarrassment, as if he was one moment away from facepalming at his previous naïveté.
"I was really surprised. I thought to myself, 'Am I really that good?'" he said, laughing. "And I felt like my ego was pretty inflated because I was a complete random, and my top laner, jungler, AD carry and support, they had all played professionally before.
"People used to say that all QG was missing was actually a mid laner. I still think I performed pretty well and I kept asking myself, 'Is being pro really that easy?' So I felt that my ego ended up a bit inflated."
Careers can be made and dismantled from singular plays, crystalizing the perception of a player among fans, analysts and even teams' coaching and scouting staff in an instant.
In China's LPL, players are subject to more scrutiny than any other league. The size of the playerbase and fanbase dwarfs all other regions, translating into more fan support but also ceaseless vitriol at times. Former LPL pros have cited the cons that come with such a bright spotlight as reasons for retiring, among more standard causes such as physical injury and ageing out of the game or the exhausting lifestyle it requires.
Self-doubt creeps around every corner in the League of Legends professional scene. It sinks in more deeply when aided by negative public perception. The ability to continue playing, whether it comes from mechanical ability, mental fortitude or innate ambition, is a privilege.
Doinb understands this well. In September 2018, he became inactive on his team, Rogue Warriors, citing health issues. A month later, he announced his retirement.
"For a professional player, it's always a blessing to be able to play," he said. "A lot of players don't get that chance: Either they're just not good enough, or they start to go downhill, or they get old, and no one wants to pick them up anymore, but it was different for me. There were still a lot of teams that believed in me and that wanted me to play for them, so that makes me feel quite happy."
There was a soft undertone to his words, although they were said with the same cheery tone that he uses onstage. Doinb, it seems, is always on. For years, fans and detractors said that this was an act and that Doinb had created a character for streams, press interviews and the LPL stage.
They called him enigmatic and mysterious and wondered who the real Doinb was.
The Doinb that celebrated numerous victories by jumping up from his seat, arms windmilling uncontrollably and sending his chair careening into FunPlus jungler Gao "Tian" Tian-Liang is real. So is the Doinb who locked in Maokai mid against Team WE on purpose. And the Doinb that proposed to Umi at a FunPlus event? He's real, too.
Doinb plays League of Legends with a nearly unmatched joy and an understanding of what a privilege it is to be on the stage, whether domestically or in Sunday's final. He knows how valuable his second chance after a premature retirement is.
"Originally I was certain that I was going to retire," Doinb said. "In the trading phase, a lot of people came to Rogue Warriors and asked if I was going to be traded, but I actually told my team that I didn't wish to be traded, that I was going to retire because my body wasn't feeling well. That was the main reason why I wanted to step down.
"I also felt like I had been playing for so many years and I didn't have a good result behind me. I started to doubt myself. Maybe I just wasn't able to get a good result. Maybe this was enough, and I should just leave the scene."
But with the impending departure of veteran Chinese mid laner Yu "Cool" Jia-Jun, FunPlus Phoenix desperately wanted to bring on Doinb. The team courted him that fall, even after Doinb had stated his intentions to retire and stream in China. Members of FunPlus management messaged Doinb daily, ensuring him that they would be strict and disciplined in running the team, going as far as to outline exactly what Doinb's daily life would look like should he join FunPlus Phoenix.
On Dec. 14, 2018, the LPL team Rogue Warriors announced that they had agreed to respect Doinb's wishes and part ways. That same day, FunPlus Phoenix announced that Doinb had signed as the team's new mid laner.
Doinb's teams are known for playing a similar style, regardless of the other players on the lineup, due to Doinb's unique laning style. He will forgo minion waves to push as quickly as possible and then roam to the top lane or bottom lane, helping his teammates. Doinb's legacy as an oddball mid began back on Qiao Gu when his team faced off against Team WE in the Demacia Cup and won. In the third game, Doinb played Maokai mid in what became affectionately known by Doinb fans as his "Juggertree" game.
The rumor was that it was due to a miscommunication error, but Doinb asserted that Qiao Gu had practiced it before the tournament.
"When I was a random, I used to play every position," Doinb said. "I felt like you could always take whatever you wanted mid lane. In scrims we tried it out a couple of times, and it was quite effective. Maokai at the time was a very tanky champion. It was 2015, and people were bringing a lot of different champions into the mid lane like Sion or Cho'Gath in that meta, but I felt like Maokai was the one that suited me the most."
Doinb's unpredictable playstyle only grew through the years due to his insistence on taking tanky bruisers to the mid lane or building protective items like Abyssal Mask, Iceborn Gauntlet and Righteous Glory on mages. He brushed off criticism as it came, saying that he will always be a player who likes to initiate and help his side lanes.
On FunPlus, Doinb has found his true home, with an assortment of players that communicate well together and one of the most formidable jungle-support duos in the LPL in Tian and Liu "Crisp" Qing-Song. His teammates were another reason that he chose FunPlus over retirement.
"On FPX, it feels like we're old friends," Doinb said. "Everyone has known each other for a long time, and we don't have any communication issues. We know each other's personalities well, so if you listen to our mic checks, we don't actually say a lot during teamfights because everyone knows what to do. I think that's really great."
Other players on FunPlus have echoed these sentiments of team camaraderie and cohesion.
"My teammates are good," FunPlus top laner Kim "GimGoon" Han-saem told Chinese media outlet PentaQ as the reason why FunPlus qualified for worlds. "Top lane is rather dependent on your teammates. Sometimes, no matter how well you play, it just doesn't matter. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to lead my team to victory; if I couldn't carry, then the game was pretty much lost. Now it's changed. I no longer have to lead the team. Instead, they carry me, and I calmly focus on playing my best."
At this world championship, Doinb's mid lane skills, or perceived lack thereof, have become one of the larger tournament debates in the League of Legends community. The argument has been boiled down to its essence as a clash of mechanical skill, intelligence and game sense.
Former teammates, like SK Telecom T1 jungler Kim "Clid" Tae-min, say the mental side of the game makes those arguments about Doinb irrelevant.
"I didn't show my own skills that well at Worlds, I was pretty nervous," Clid said after his team's semifinal loss to G2 Esports. "But Doinb's a very outstanding player. He isn't nervous at all, even in this kind of major world tournament. I believe he'll definitely show a good appearance in finals."
His opponents also acknowledge that the willingness to just go for it, meta be damned, is what makes Doinb so dangerous.
"Doinb is a really strong mid laner," G2 Esports mid laner Rasmus "Caps" Winther, and Doinb's upcoming finals lane opponent, said. "I feel like me and Doinb are maybe just more crazy? We are not as solid in a way, but we are just more crazy and think more out of the box and doing crazy things to bring us back in the game or to get a lead. That's why I'm pretty excited to play against FPX."
Doinb, in typical fashion, is simply happy to be part of the mid lane discussion after all these years. This is the playstyle that he chose for himself and genuinely believes it gives his teams the best chance to win.
"I think it really depends on the player, but I would say I'm an above-average mid laner," Doinb said. "A lot of mid laners, they don't get to roam because they can't leave the lane. You need to be at least 50-50 in the lane in order to have a chance to roam. I think roaming is great.
"Before worlds, I read all of the evaluations, and I think they're alright. I'm actually quite happy. I think I've kept a pretty good condition throughout multiple years, so people have grown to know me, and I'm proud about it."
Many people will say that FunPlus Phoenix and Doinb's appearance in the final was predictable -- that they were China's first-seeded team, so naturally they would have a good chance to make it to Paris. But the world championship isn't always kind to its first seeds, especially those from China. The LPL faithful will say that of the three Chinese teams, FunPlus was actually the most predictable in playstyle and possibly the least likely to make it.
On Sunday, despite those perceptions, Doinb and FunPlus will face off against G2 Esports in the worlds final.
"He said he'd take me to Paris," Umi's wrote on Twitter after Doinb and FunPlus beat iG and qualified.
She also shared a conversation that the two had on Weibo about traveling to Europe.
"How about you bring me to Paris this year?" Umi had written.
"Haha, okay," Doinb wrote back. "My form has been really good recently. 'ㅅ' This time I'll take you to Europe, my darling."
The spotlight that has followed Doinb throughout this world championship has, by extension, followed Umi, who is a former Dungeon Fighter Online caster. Doinb has always had an effervescent quality that bubbles up as he speaks. He giggled as he shared the story of their first meeting. It was like something out of a romantic comedy set in a Shanghai café. His grin was wider than ever.
"The first time I saw her, I thought she was incredibly beautiful, but I didn't speak any Chinese," Doinb said. "I felt pretty awkward, so I showed her my phone. By chance she was also into esports. She was a caster for DnF, and she was in the scene as well, so it just kind of happened after that."
Sharing their relationship so openly on the world's largest League of Legends stage has allowed Doinb to showcase his personality side-by-side with his unconventional playstyle. On Sunday, he'll get one more chance to do so.
A series of promotional photographs for the upcoming finals were taken after the second semifinal: G2's 3-1 victory over SK Telecom T1. There were the usual stare downs, but both teams couldn't help but laugh, especially during the individual position matchups. Doinb and Caps shared knowing smiles as they positioned themselves back-to-back has become the go-to shot for Sunday's match.
As always, Doinb's charisma leapt off the screen. It could have been a forced, awkward moment, but Doinb chose to smile.