BERLIN -- Walking through the halls backstage at the League of Legends European Championship Series studio, jungler Nam "Lira" Tae-yoo smiled. Fresh off of a 3-0 victory over Royal Youth on Monday, Lira and his team, Clutch Gaming, had just qualified for the world championship group stage. His team made it through to the main event.
Lira and Clutch looked shaky at the start of the play-in stage. Their opening-game draft in Berlin against the Unicorns of Love -- the first match of the entire world championship -- reads like a laundry list of what teams learned not to do with a first-pick Renekton and an Ekko jungle. Yet, much like Clutch's path through the League of Legends Championship Series playoffs back in the U.S. and subsequent regional gauntlet, the team adapted. By the time they faced Royal Youth in the play-in bracket stage, Clutch were significantly more confident and comfortable.
"We know how to enjoy our wins," Lira said of his teammates. "We remember what it feels like to win, so we can repeat it. Although we've lost a lot in the past, once we know how to win, we continue to win more and no one can doubt our team's potential."
Like his quiet outward demeanor, Lira's story also has been modest in comparison to those of his teammates. Many of the narratives surrounding Clutch have revolved around top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon making it back to the worlds stage, bot laner Cody "Cody Sun making it to worlds on three different teams, and Tanner "Damonte" Damonte hopefully furthering organizations' faith in NA mid laners.
At 24, Lira is the oldest member of his team. He has been playing League of Legends in some professional capacity since 2013. This is his first worlds appearance.
When Clutch qualified for worlds, Lira was the last player to leave the postmatch celebratory scrum, wiping tears from his eyes as support Philippe "Vulcan" Laflamme hugged him. In a postmatch interview with Huni, he was asked to give his favorite moment of the split.
"I think this moment," Lira told interviewer Ovilee May. "Because I played for this moment for like six years. I'd never been to worlds, but finally I got the chance to play on the worlds stage."
Later that night, Lira reflected on his journey.
"After we won against TSM, we were having a meal together and it felt kind of empty," Lira said. "I was thinking to myself, 'I made it too late.' I'm a bit of a depressive person, and all this time I was thinking that I have all of these skills but I wasn't making it. When I actually made it, there was a lot of thankfulness but also some emptiness."
Other players, most notably former Samsung Galaxy and current OpTic Gaming mid laner Lee "Crown" Min-ho, have spoken of a similar feeling. The feeling of reaching a goal, looking back, and wondering what it was all for.
When Lira first began playing League of Legends, his goal was to become a professional. After stints on KT Rolster and CJ Entus, he landed on Oh My God's secondary team in China before returning to South Korea after sweeping roster changes. In 2015, Lira formed a team with friends called Anarchy.
"I came out of [OMG] and I was like, 'Oh, my life until now has been a bit of a failure. I'm going to be a streamer,'" Lira said. "But there were other friends that eventually became the Anarchy team and they were like, 'Hey, let's not just play games because it's a bit boring if you just play games. Let's have a fun time, get together, enter some competitions.' And that's how Anarchy came to be."
Those friends included another player who had recently returned from China, mid laner Son "Mickey" Young-min, top laner Jeon "Ikssu" Ik-soo, and bot lane streaming duo Gwon "Sangyoon" Sang-yun and No "SnowFlower" Hoi-jong. None of them expected to be promoted into the recently revamped LoL Champions Korea.
"We were like, 'Hey, we want to just have one match on the broadcast,'" Lira said. "But that was also the time where they increased the spots from eight to 10 and we were one of the best amateur teams out there so we got promoted. We thought, 'Oh, we don't want to make fools of ourselves now that we're actually in the LCK.' So I went around talking to coaches, saying, 'Hey, can I bother you for scrim time? We promise to behave and play well even though we're an amateur team.'"
With expectations low, Anarchy faced Najin in their first match. To the shock of Najin, the audience, and the members of Anarchy themselves, they won. One of the more striking images of Anarchy to date is a near-empty OGN stadium with a front row full of the Anarchy members, cheering on Mickey in his MVP interview.
"There was a big gap between the pro teams and amateur teams, but we actually won with Mickey playing Zed," Lira said. "That was a huge confidence boost, and we thought, 'Oh, maybe we can actually do it.' We became a confident team. We didn't have a trophy in sight, but it was more like we were a bunch of young kids, having fun, giving a hard time to the other established teams like, 'Oh, if you piss us off too much, we're going to take a game off of you.' That was our mindset."
Thinking back to his early professional days, Lira was soft-spoken and pleasant. He tilted his head to the side and laughed.
"Ahhhhh. It's such an old story," he said over and over. "It was such a long time ago."
Lira described going from the rag-tag, amateur Anarchy to having a larger sponsor and becoming the Afreeca Freecs, and later, moving to North America as a series of steps.
There's a sense that he felt like he was following a strict path with various checkpoints en route to his first world championship appearance. He'll check off another box when he takes the stage on Saturday.