ST. LOUIS -- As Peter "Doublelift" Peng walked onstage at the Chaifetz Arena during the League Championship Series spring finals last month, he looked out at a dimly lit crowd of nearly 10,000. Doublelift smiled and laughed as an opponent positioned adjacent to him made a joking gesture. Doublelift wasn't startled -- he was prepared, locked in and ready to win a League of Legends championship.
For the 25-year-old, this was routine: Dominate during the regular season, make a playoff run and fly out to a different city somewhere in the United States to take home a trophy. Coming into St. Louis, Doublelift had won five LCS trophies in four years, from his first at New York's Madison Square Garden in August 2015 to his fifth at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, last year.
In the first two hours of play in St. Louis, Doublelift's Team Liquid took a beating, losing first in a 40-minute game and then again in 35 minutes. His back against the wall, down 0-2 in a best-of-five series, Doublelift needed to keep his cool. At a younger age, Doublelift would've been upset, deflated, tilted -- becoming frustrated during the game -- and that third game, the one that mattered most, would've ended in frustration and anger. But now, it was time for him to home in, trust his teammates and remain calm.
The next three hours were much different. Team Liquid won the third game in 40 minutes in a back-and-forth that mirrored the first two games. In Game 4, Doublelift & Co. dominated, stomping his former team, Team SoloMid, in just 25 minutes. And Game 5 was a 45-minute nail-biter that Team Liquid won to take the title and net Doublelift his sixth trophy.
Since he began competing in 2011, at 17, Doublelift has been one of the most famous North American professional players in League of Legends. In those eight years, he has encountered the struggle of losing, high levels of anger and rage at his teammates, the killing of his mother and immense criticism while focusing on his greatest goal: winning a major international title that has long eluded him.
On Monday, he'll begin competing at the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The first round should be easy, but as he travels the next three weeks throughout Southeast Asia, Doublelift will be forced to face not only his opponents but also his critics. The ones who say that his six domestic titles don't matter -- just his international failures. Doublelift doesn't want that to be his legacy.
"There's nothing in my life that's more important than accomplishing my goal, which may sound stupid or far-fetched, but it's to win worlds," Doublelift said. "I really believe I can do it. If I didn't believe I can do it, I wouldn't continue to be a pro because there's no point. I obviously really want to shut people up, but more than that, I want to make the fans who have followed and supported me all this time, I want to make them happy. I want there to be a happy ending, not a sad ending."
The win in St. Louis is a start -- the first step in what Doublelift hopes will be a successful 2019, culminating with the League of Legends World Championship in October and November in Europe.
A star on Counter Logic Gaming for several years early in his career, Doublelift stood out as incredibly gifted, but Counter Logic Gaming often struggled to close out in moments that mattered. Frustrated, Doublelift would often criticize his teammates, and he quickly earned a bad rap for being difficult to work with.
He said that stemmed from the pressure of being the team's main carry. But now, years later, Doublelift spoke of regret for his behavior.
"When I joined Team Liquid, I thought that a lot of the things I was doing on TSM and CLG was putting a lot of pressure on my teammates," he said. "[It drove] a wedge between me and the rest that unnaturally made my team feel as if I was above my teammates, but really everyone is equal and all of our input is valuable."
In late 2015, that behavior came to a head. Despite winning a championship that September and going on to compete at the League of Legends World Championship in Europe, then-Counter Logic Gaming support Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black told team management it had to choose between him and Doublelift. One of the most revered duos in the Western competitive scene was at a crossroads. Counter Logic Gaming chose Aphromoo, and Doublelift soon found himself without a team.
He'd then join TSM, Counter Logic Gaming's longest rival, and embark on a new journey with a new star teammate, TSM mid laner Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and new support Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim. On Counter Logic Gaming, Doublelift thought he was better than his teammates -- that they didn't share his desire to win, or his work ethic and dedication to the game -- but not so on TSM. Bjergsen and YellOwStaR had already become legends, and TSM was one of the best teams in the league. He thought it was his time to win.
They won the North American League of Legends Championship Series title in August 2016 in Toronto, but Doublelift felt burned out, drained and wanted to take six months off.
An opportunity to come back appeared when Team Liquid found themselves in danger of being relegated from the league in 2017. They needed a star, and Doublelift, despite enjoying his time livestreaming on Twitch nearly every day, was itching to get back to competing. He saved Team Liquid, which avoided being kicked out of the LCS, but less than a month later, TSM came calling.
Doublelift and TSM would win another title in 2017. Doublelift hoisted another trophy above his head before competing a few months later in China at the League of Legends World Championship, where TSM would underperform and fail to make it past group stages, earning Doublelift more criticism. At home, he was one of the best AD carries in the league. But abroad, he couldn't remain consistent.
"I used to be in denial that it didn't affect me and that I didn't care who I played against," he said. "But that's what I wanted it to be. What I was telling myself is what I wish it was, but the reality is, when I'm playing against [Park "Teddy" Jin-seong] and [Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong], it's different than playing against [Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi] and [Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam]."
Doublelift would go back to Liquid when TSM replaced him after worlds, something he found out not from management but rather from a reporter. It was time for revenge, to beat TSM handily and prove they made a mistake.
For the first part of the season, Doublelift and Team Liquid performed admirably. Then on April 1, 2018, Doublelift received bad news: His older brother had attacked their parents, killing their mother and severely injuring their father. Doublelift took only a week off as Team Liquid was in the hunt for their first championship.
"To me, something really s---ty happened," Doublelift said. "I just try to move on. I don't want to try to vindicate or martyr my moment for the rest of my life. Bad s--- happens to people all the time, but to be successful you can't make your life about that thing. I want to make my life about competing and being the best version of myself that I can be. I don't want to dwell on anything else."
Doublelift and Liquid did win a championship in spring 2018, and a year later, Doublelift has won three championships with Liquid: the first in Miami, the second in Oakland and more recently, their third in St. Louis.
But that hasn't quieted the critics. They see Doublelift as a bad teammate who has driven away Aphromoo and more recently former Liquid support Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung and as someone who can't translate his success to the international stage.
"It's more about how you're remembered, and trophies are a part of it, but they're not the most important part of it to me. Because I feel like in 20 years, people will look back and if you're a Sneaky fan, you can look back and be proud of what he was able to accomplish, like making top-four at worlds or his memorable moments. For me, there are a lot of memorable moments, but what people who support me really want and are missing all this time is international success."