LOS ANGELES -- It's the oldest story in esports: Kid showcases natural talent in a video game and wants to become a professional. The child's parents, concerned, want them to focus on their education for a more stable future. The kid proves to worried parents that they can make a lucrative career for themselves with the promise of furthering their studies after a playing career, the parents come to watch their child play under the bright lights of their respective game and everyone rides off into the beautiful virtual sunset.
However, that's not the story of UC Irvine's Lyubomir "BloodWater" Spasov.
Back in 2013, BloodWater had it all in the professional world. He was an acclaimed support on a North American team that qualified for the world championships. In the age of when kids flock to Twitch and hope to one day becoming a well-known streamer or pro player, BloodWater was that. He had highlight plays for his club, Vulcun, and after beginning his career all the way back in the first season in 2011, he'd climbed the proverbial mountain of esports success.
The success, though, didn't last forever.
After falling into a slump in 2014 and being removed from his LCS team's starting roster, BloodWater's parents, who both have masters degrees, wanted their son to think about the future. After he failed to make it back onto a starting lineup, BloodWater turned away from esports in 2015 and enrolled at UC Irvine a year later to try to find himself away from his esports persona.
On Sunday, he was back at the LCS arena hoisting the College League of Legends Championship trophy. It's a far cry from a worlds appearance, but a fulfilling result of a lengthy road back to the stage.
"Back then, I was really shy, timid, and I didn't fully understand the power of the community or how important it was," BloodWater said following his team's 3-0 victory against Columbia College. "I went back to community college [after LCS] and played League of Legends on the side. ... I ultimately wanted to go back to school to make my parents happy because that's what they wanted the most as well."
When fans see pro players on their screens, they don't always see the entire story. While BloodWater appeared to have it all -- fame, success and money -- it wasn't entirely the case.
The franchise model that has helped League of Legends grow into a safer investment for pros and their families was nowhere near the horizon when BloodWater was playing in the NA LCS. Momentary glory didn't breed long-term success. Along with the financial instability, there was a lack of social growth. BloodWater, like pros, lived in a team house where the focus was on winning and chemistry in-game over everything else.
Once BloodWater went to Irvine, he started to come into his own through the college experience and learned more about himself outside of Thresh hooks and Janna tornadoes.
"I definitely value the experience I've gotten in the past five years by going to college, especially UCI," BloodWater said. "I've met a lot of people. I've gotten out of my comfort zone a lot, and I've done things I usually wouldn't do. That alone makes me really proud of myself. Compared to 2013, I wasn't able to really talk to a lot of people back then; I was kind of socially awkward. But now I've developed and grown a lot. I've developed a lot of social skills, and I'm a lot more confident in myself as well."
Returning to the LCS stage Sunday was like walking into an old home for BloodWater. The cameras and lights were configured differently, but they gave off the same familiar sense of calm. When the Anteaters ran through the series to take the championship in a 3-0 victory, the sense of accomplishment was different from when he battled for a domestic crown or rallied on smaller teams while attempting to break into the big leagues.
It took a long time for BloodWater to find a major he found compelling enough to finish -- business economics -- and now he wants to put it good use when he graduates. The allure of going back into the world of professional gaming is still there, but now he has a backup plan if things fall through again. If he can't find a place to play professionally when he graduates from Irvine, BloodWater wants to get into the business side of the esports scene with his years of experience in the space and a degree to help him navigate the field.
And if both of those ideas strike out, the Bulgarian believes a "regular job" would be just fine.
When BloodWater was a professional gamer, the college League scene was filled with players in Platinum ranks and just in it for the love of the game. Now, with the added resources and scholarships at some schools along with the investment from Riot, the college playing field houses former and aspiring pros alike, with the college championship now resembling more of a Scouting Grounds 2.0 than a playful exhibition.
If that system had been around years ago, BloodWater might have been able to take advantage. If he could go back to 2013, he said, he'd tell himself to take more risks and be more outgoing -- a lesson he learned on-campus and with his championship-caliber team.
"I would just say, 'Dude, just talk to people more,'" BloodWater said. "Just talk a lot more to people, and put yourself into situations you're not comfortable in. Talk more, and be a lot more confident."
Despite the ups and downs, BloodWater is content. Out of the thousands of pro players in League of Legends history, he has one of the widest ranges of experiences in the game. He began playing at the start of the professional scene. He played at worlds. He played in Challenger.
BloodWater has reached the top and seen the bottom, and in 2018, with a championship hat on his head and an assured smile on his face, he had little doubt the path he took was the right one.