SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- An hour before the League of Legends College Championship final was set to begin, they were already there, parked in the first row, right in the front of the stage, clad in the colors of Maryville University with the words "CHODY WALRUS FAN CLUB" in bold lettering on the back. When the opening introductions were made for the two universities about to face off -- Maryville University and the University of Toronto -- the mob of a fan club rose and cheered for Maryville's star sophomore jungler, Cody "Walrus" Altman.
Cody's father and biggest fan, Jeff, stood as proudly as any dad could be of his son when Cody's name was called.
While many college students might shy away from the attention of a family member or be embarrassed to reciprocate, Cody didn't feel the need to hide his emotions. He nodded and even pointed to his raucous fan club made up of his family members and fiancée, Katherine, with a matching smile scrawled across his face.
"We don't look at it as just Cody. This is a family thing, and that's the difference," Jeff said while sitting next to Cody and the rest of his crew in the LCS Arena press box overlooking the stadium where Cody had just finished the biggest series of his life. "We look it as Katherine, his grandparents, his aunts, all of his cousins back in St. Louis watching him on Twitch. It's a big family thing, all the way to the shirts that are specifically made by my sister's company."
The Anaheim, California, native didn't let the pressure of such a big game overtake him. Even with his family in the crowd, oohing and awing at every swing -- "I don't know the game that much. I just go off their reactions," Jeff said -- Cody didn't flinch. After losing the first game of the best-of-five series in a sloppy defeat, Maryville turned it around for the next three sets, and the man nicknamed "Chody Walrus" clinched the championship with a Pentakill and closed out the series 3-1. His family, as was the case all weekend at the College Championship, were right there to support Cody, hugging, slapping hands and treating the victory like their son had just thrown a Hail Mary pass to win the NCAA championship with no time remaining on the clock.
"We treat it just like it's a [NCAA football] title game or the Stanley Cup," Jeff said. "We look at [League of Legends] like that -- we really do. It's huge for him."
Maryville is one of the schools across the country at which esports is treated like any other collegiate sport, with scholarships for players. Robert Morris, which lost to Maryville in the semis, was the first college in the country to offer esports scholarships. Phoenix1's current starting support, Jordan "Shady" Robison, was on Robert Morris' team before he decided to go pro in the North American LCS. The opportunity of a scholarship allows Cody and others to make a better choice between getting a degree and going professional.
Cody, a criminal justice major, has aspirations of joining Shady in the major leagues but knows that there are more important things in life.
"Well, No. 1 in life for me is always family," Cody said when asked if going pro was his top priority. "But it's definitely a life goal to get there so I could say, 'Hey, I played at the pro level when the game was huge.' You get to a certain age where you're done gaming and have to start an adult life."
"As long as he goes back for his education," Jeff said, backing up his son's desire to play on the LCS stage once more -- this time as a professional League of Legends player.
Cody's mother, Kim, though not as boisterous as her husband, was just as supportive.
"To see him come this far and be this good, it's wonderful," Kim said. "We're just thrilled. And he's worked hard for it."
Kim went on to detail how after Maryville's victory over Robert Morris in the semifinals, the two parents stayed up all night watching the broadcast replay of the event, even though they had the best seats in the house for the match hours earlier.
From his grandparents to his cousins to his friends, Cody's confidence comes from the people around him. When he first started dating his fiancée, Katherine, she attempted to learn about the game that her new boyfriend was seemingly so good at. Although she eventually quit playing because of how confusing the game can be for a newcomer, she started to pick it up from watching him play.
Cody's older brother Shane, as his father pointed out, was the reason Cody got to this point. Shane played League of Legends and introduced Cody to the game, and the rest was history. Today, Shane is one of Cody's biggest supporters and confidants, being the family member who knows the game the best. Shane watches all of Maryville's games along with keeping up with the professional scene.
This is not the dream of one young man. It's the dream of an entire family, unwaveringly behind him, pushing forward instead of trying to hold him back.
"I'll tell you the [secret about this] right here," Cody said. "Skype is your best friend. I Skype [my family] almost every night, usually, just talking to them for at least five minutes. Just a little time out of your day can make their day even better."
Often in sports, when you have rowdy parents, standing up for their kid, wearing tees and hats that express their devotion, there can be conflict. Helicopter parents. Yelling at staff. Fighting with coaches. Not getting along with other members of the crowd. Being a disturbance in the audience.
The Altman clan is none of that. They laughed and joked their way around the stadium, talking to anyone who wanted to say hi, high-fiving any Maryville fan who walked past. They thanked Riot Games, the host of the tournament and creator of the game, for their cooperation throughout the week to give them the best experience possible. Their cheers, gestures and howls were never to disrupt or affect an opponent -- they were for Cody, to them the best League of Legends player there could ever be. That was all he needed to see and hear to fuel him.
When asked to sum up the week and watching his son hoist a college title into the air as the USC Trojans marching band played behind them and confetti of red and white swirled all around to create the perfect scene, Cody's father, usually a man of many words, could only say: "Wonderful Walrus."
Cody, observing the room, staring at the faces that stood behind him, smiled in an attempt to find something to say to the best fan club in the world.
"To be honest with you, words can't describe what I have for them," he said. "It's true love. I hold nothing but the highest for my family, and I'm so grateful for what they've given me: the opportunity to go to school and play at a high level. For them to support me through all that ... it's just amazing."
As everyone nodded and smiled, Jeff, reverting back to his old self, teased his wife, "You didn't cry!?" He stomped his foot, astounded that she didn't get choked up from her son's words.
More laughter followed. More jabs back and forth came after. But they were always together, as a team, formed not by fame or glory but by -- as Cody put it -- true love.
You didn't need to see their "CHODY WALRUS FAN CLUB" T-shirts to know that.