The first time I saw him was in a dimly lit hundred-seater stadium. The Taipei Assassins had just won the World Championship 2012 a month before. My country’s representatives, the Singapore Sentinels (SGS), rose above teams from Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to reach the finals of the first ever Garena Premier League (GPL).

SGS were about to face the reigning World Champions for the first time since they earned that title. If they manage to beat them, it will be huge. “They have a chance. I believe in them!” I told myself.

Like everyone else, SGS were crushed by TPA, but not without taking a game off the titans, ending it 1-3.

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The star of this former Garena-sponsored team is mid laner Wong ‘Chawy’ Xing Lei. Before becoming a Sentinel, he was already making a name for himself at the 2010 World Cyber Games, finishing third just behind Counter-Logic Gaming (CLG) and SK Gaming. Juggling Defense of the Ancients (Dota) as well, Chawy placed third with Scythe Gaming at The International the following year.

In 2012, he finally settled on League of Legends—a decision that defined the rest of his career. “Both games had a huge tournament per year worth US$1 million. I was quite good at both. I chose LoL because it had a lot more tournaments throughout the year,” he explained. “Back then, we didn’t have a salary. The only money we got was through winnings, so I had to go to wherever I could earn more.”

Sitting across me in a black and red AHQ jacket at the Wuhan Sports Gymnasium, Chawy had just bowed out of his second Worlds appearance. He has played a total of three games at Worlds, and won none.

One of those games was against SK Telecom T1’s Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok the week before. “At first, it was quite normal. I didn’t think too much. Then after 20, 30 minutes, my body started shaking because it’s so hard. We felt like we were winning, but we couldn’t end the game,” he recollected.

(Photo credit: LoL Esports Flickr)

And hard it is, competing with the very best. What it took for Chawy to get to this position has been nothing but difficult. Unable to qualify for their own region’s GPL in 2014, the Singapore Sentinels crumbled. Recognised for his talent and hard work, the Taipei Assassins were quick to bring Chawy onboard in 2015. Towards the end of that year however, he was caught for ELO boosting and suspended from pro-play.

Eventually signing with ahq e-Sports Club with the intent of making up for Liu ‘Westdoor’ Shu-Wei’s apparent weaknesses in champion pool, Chawy spent the last two years in his shadow. Though he was up in CS and kills, holding his lane solidly against Faker, Westdoor was the one who brought it home for AHQ, upsetting the giants in week 2 of Groups.

“AHQ doesn’t let me play much so that affects my confidence a lot. It affects my skills a lot,” Chawy admitted, and continued to explain their strategy against the giants. “They have a history. Faker will not pick something that will destroy Westdoor, so today we set up the bait. Nobody picks Fizz first because he’ll get counter-picked, but knowing Faker, he isn’t too serious in the group stage. Last time he played Kassadin against Fizz, he got solo killed. This time around, we knew he would pick Kassadin.”

After causing the first upset of the day, AHQ had to face EDG next. Defeating the number one LPL seed just a week ago with Westdoor, it was Chawy’s turn to prove himself against Lee ‘Scout’ Ye-chan, a former substitute to Faker.

(Photo credit: LoL Esports Flickr)

On Ryze, Chawy focused on farming. Meanwhile, Scout kept the pressure up on Syndra, poking him down. Before anything significant could happen on the map, Ryze perished under turret at level 6 in under six minutes. Chawy got solo-killed.

“For my age, I’m not as mechanically skilled as compared young players like Perkz and Jensen who are very good. My advantage is my experience,” he described matter-of-factly. “I beat Faker, was up 30 CS in 5 minutes, all because of experience. When SKT invaded our red at level 1, I told my jungler not to not fight. Instead, let me push half of the wave so that Faker loses all his minions.”

“I use a lot of my brain during solo queue and training. It’s very, very tiring. Just one game versus SKT used up almost all my energy. I have to plan a lot.”

A familiar theme echoes throughout Chawy’s career. Just three months ago when I asked him to sum up his pro-player experience, he replied, “It’s really tiring.”

This persistent layer of exhaustion seems to have been built upon the foundation of regret. On hindsight, Chawy confessed, “Players who were playing Dota with me and are now in Dota 2, they are still playing. They’re around my age and they’re still rocking! I heard that my ex-team mate Daryl ‘iceiceice’ Koh is earning at least ten times more than me. So I’m like, I get a bit uh… (laughs).” Despite this, he points out that he still would have made the same decision in 2012 due to the nature of tournaments at that time.

While perhaps not as prominent as his fellow Singaporean in the DOTA scene, Chawy gained global support after being featured in Riot Games Wolds feature ‘Legends Rising: Endurance’. Aware of the positive responses he has received from the international community, I asked if he’ll consider joining another team as a starter mid laner.

“I actually thought a lot about stuff. I seriously think that this year might be the last year for me as an esports player. When I reached Worlds [this year] I told myself if I do well and we do get great results, I will continue playing, but if I don’t do so well, I might really consider retiring.”

Stepping down now would be particularly potent. As I understood from Chawy, AHQ’s stakes this year’s World Championship run was higher. “I’m not sure this is the ending I wanted… We had our phones kept from us for at least a month. To us, it’s a very big thing because if we don’t do well this year it’s gonna be like, like we got lost from this world for almost 2 months… all we had is LoL, LoL, LoL, LoL.”

For this veteran mid laner, League of Legends was all he endured the last five years. Finally, he made his Worlds debut last year, and this year might very well be his last.

(Photo credit: LoL Esports Flickr)

While fans from other countries cheer or criticise teams from their region, I spend most of the time wondering if I’ll ever see ‘another Chawy’. Living in the most expensive city in the world, growing up without an education is not just a risk, it’s a matter of survival. If it took Chawy giving up school to reach this level of play, what more will the next Singaporean LoL player have to sacrifice to achieve more? Not to mention, automatically forgo two of those prime years to serve compulsory National Service in the army.

If there’s a place for me back in Singapore, I will go back home,” Chawy concluded. “People tell me not to quit my esports dream because this is the only thing I have right now.”

You’ll never see the price it costs, the scars collected all their lives… they suffer through harm just to touch a dream… Legends never die, they become a part of you… sings this year’s Worlds theme. It’s a befitting tune that characterises his journey, one shaped by hard work, mental fortitude and incredible determination.

At 26 years old, time has caught up, and this might very well be the last we’ll see of Chawy on the Worlds stage—a Singapore Legend, always.