MADRID -- Luka "Perkz" Perković had what seemed to be the perfect life as a professional video game player. From Croatia, he worked his way up the ladder on European powerhouse G2 Esports to become the team's face and the ace of the franchise, winning multiple domestic titles as the lifeblood of the team.
He was popular, boasting a significant social media following and respected by his peers and rivals, regarded as one of the best players at his position, mid lane, in the world. At the League of Legends World Championship last year, Perkz starred in what has come to be the biggest upset in worlds history, his G2 side taking out the tournament favorite, Royal Never Give Up from China, in a five-game instant classic.
Though G2 would be dispatched in the semifinals by another Chinese team, eventual winners Invictus Gaming, the following week, the quarterfinal upset was considered a massive success for Perkz and G2. Perkz's personal performance was applauded, his heroics cited as one of the only reasons his team reached the heights it did.
The 20-year-old was on the verge of competing to be what he always wanted to be -- the best player in the world.
Yet, following the finest moment of his career, he decided to push the reset button. Perkz changed positions, moving from his natural spot in the mid lane to the AD carry role, shifting from the center of the map to the bottom.
In his place, G2 Esports signed one of Perkz's rivals, Rasmus "Caps" Winther, from fellow European franchise Fnatic, which was also coming off a loss to Invictus Gaming, in the final at the world championship.
"The initial intention has to come from the player," G2 founder and owner Carlos "Ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago told ESPN when asked about the decision for Perkz to change positions. "By spending time with Perkz, I figured out he wouldn't mind swapping roles, but it had to be under the right circumstances. Who can replace Perkz? There are only two people in the world that can replace Perkz in Perkz's eyes. One is Caps; the other one I won't tell you, but I also spoke with him and it just made less sense."
Imagine if Patrick Mahomes, after failing to make the Super Bowl last season, decided to switch positions from quarterback because the Kansas City Chiefs signed Tom Brady, or if Barcelona signed Cristiano Ronaldo with Lionel Messi's understanding that he would take a lesser role in terms of scoring because of the acquisition. This is what Perkz did when moving from mid lane to AD carry, which has throughout the majority of League of Legends' history had a smaller pool of characters to choose from and has relied on the partnership between the AD carry and their support partner in the bottom lane.
To Perkz, though, it was a choice he had to make. He saw how G2 Esports fared against Invictus Gaming, getting blown out in a sweep, and then what happened when Fnatic, led by Caps, faced them in the final, also falling in a similar blowout without picking up a victory. The move to bring Caps in as captain was what felt right to Perkz. Along with moving aside to make way for Caps, Perkz helped choose the team's starting support and his new partner in the bottom lane, Mihael "Mikyx" Mehle, a rising young talent from Slovenia.
"He's really good at giving us confidence," Mikyx told ESPN about Perkz as the team's captain. "There's no bulls---, I guess? He says things how they are."
A self-described introvert, Mikyx spoke about how Perkz's unique charisma is what makes this iteration of G2 Esports so great. They aren't afraid to talk about issues when they arise, but they're also not afraid to laugh when things are going wrong.
With Caps and Mikyx added to the roster, G2's starting five became a fantasy owner's dream, putting together five of Europe's best talents on one team. They were fast and loose, and Perkz, proficient on the champions he made famous while in the mid lane, saw no reason why he couldn't mix up the old and tired shrunken list of characters viable at his new position by continuing playing his signature champions in the bottom lane.
Quickly, their gamble paid off and then some, as the Perkz-Caps combination alongside the rest of the team's flexibility turned League of Legends on its head.
They could play whichever champions they wanted wherever they wanted, even going as far to picking champions they hadn't practiced in months during dire moments. Perkz had instilled a confidence in his teammates that whenever there was a wall blocking the way, they would smash through it.
Perkz's vision of a team was to not only be in rhythm in-game but outside of it as well. Mikyx explained how Perkz would set up days for the team to hang out together and bond, bringing the players closer and developing an environment where the stress of winning never overtook the joy of playing the game. Their first half of the year culminated with a decisive domestic title in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and then the western region's first major international victory since 2011 at the Mid-Season Invitational with a 3-0 victory over North America's Team Liquid in the final in Vietnam.
During the MSI postmatch news conference, G2 joked around, all smiles, emphasizing that their win over Liquid was the quickest best-of-five international final in the history of League of Legends. Caps sat next to his MVP award, speaking about wanting to create a legacy for himself while a part of G2. Perkz didn't win the individual accolade or receive the same amount of praise as a mid laner, but he had acquired something far more priceless.
"I always wanted to be the best mid laner in the world and the best player in the world, but now I get an international title," Perkz said at the news conference. "Which I probably wouldn't have won if Caps hadn't joined. So yeah, it's meant to be."
Since winning at MSI, everything has been pointed toward Paris, the location of the upcoming 2019 League of Legends World Championship grand final. G2 Esports won the summer season of the European domestic league, putting them in a position to do something no other franchise has ever done -- win both domestic seasons, MSI and the Summoner's Cup all in one year, completing the elusive grand slam. Even SK Telecom T1, which has raised three world titles along with its eight domestic victories in South Korea, has never accomplished the feat.
Rodriguez thinks this is the year they can do it, led by their captain. When Perkz first joined G2, then named Gamers2, he was a 16-year-old amateur who had watched Rodriguez become one of the first European legends in the scene. During Rodriguez's time as a mid laner with Germany's SK Gaming, like Perkz of today, he was fiery, sometimes approaching the line between confidence and arrogance, his wide selection of scarves becoming his trademark.
Although a pioneer in Europe's early days, Rodriguez never got as far as Perkz as an in-game leader. In his only appearance at the League of Legends World Championship, back in 2012, the future G2 head didn't pick up a single victory, with SK losing all three of its group-stage games and having to take the long flight home from Los Angeles. Throughout his career, Rodriguez's losses were more memorable than his wins, with rival Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez of Fnatic fame often the thorn in his side. The most-watched video of Rodriguez online is of him losing in the worst possible way -- with more than 10 million people witnessing Xpeke outmaneuver Rodriguez and SK Gaming in a defeat at Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice, Poland.
Xpeke and Fnatic jumped with joy, and Rodriguez, hands on his face, crumpled to the ground.
Rodriguez believes Perkz has already far surpassed his peak of what he was a pro gamer.
"[Perkz] is a god damn legend," Rodriguez said. "Honestly, you tell me right now, Who [would] you choose, Faker or Perkz? I don't even like remotely consider that question. Perkz is the greatest player that has ever played this game from a multilayered stats standpoint. Not just the way he plays, but the captain role he plays, how much of a leader he is, the way he speaks, his marketability, his relentlessness, his character, his ambition when looking at things.
"His selflessness has shown this year. He's given up the most marketable role to somebody that many people thought was better than him, many [other] people thought [Perkz] was better than him. He still gave [mid lane to Caps], even though inside of him, [Perkz] still believes he's better than Caps as a mid laner. That takes big guts."
Winning worlds isn't going to be so easy, however. G2 Esports entered the 2019 League of Legends World Championship as one of the favorites, and held serve through the first week of the group stage until shaky back-to-back losses to South Korea's Griffin ousted them from the No. 1 seed in their group and handed them the gambit if they want to make it to Paris.
They don't only have to dispatch of another South Korean team, Damwon Gaming, to make it to the grand final, but Faker and SK Telecom T1 will likely be waiting for Perkz and G2 Esports in the semifinals.
"We got easily cocky," Perkz said in an interview with journalist Ashley Kang following G2's group-stage matches. "We played more disrespectful than we should. We just have to go back to fundamentals."
Legacies in sports are determined by decisions, big and small. What team should I sign with? Should I pass or should I shoot? If there's an opening to be had, does a player risk it all or do they play it safe? Perkz's decision to move to AD carry and revolutionize the position while winning three championships (and a possible fourth) in a single year was one of those moments. What he does next to prepare his team before Damwon Gaming in what could be his best ever chance of ever lifting the Summoner's Cup will be another one of those moments that could change his and his team's lives forever.
Rodriguez got G2 to where they are today.
It's up to Perkz now to lead them to the promised land.
"[It'll be] Game 5 [of the grand final]," Rodriguez said, going over what will happen in Paris. "Perkz brings in his pocket pick, something completely f---ed up. No one expects it, not even himself. [Head coach] GrabbZ is struggling to breathe, he thinks everything is lost. Then [Perkz] will make a big play at some point in [bottom] lane. Then we'll push in mid to win the game, win the championship. I'm going to make a three-meter jump to the stage. ... I'm going to hug them and I'm going to raise the trophy with them while wearing the G2 [samurai] mask [and] tell the [G2] army that, as the samurai warlord, this trophy is theirs."