In the summer of 2017, a line of fans zig-zagged around the parking lot of the LCS Arena in Santa Monica, California. The North American League of Legends season was soon coming to an end, and the fans, a mixture of staples and new faces, were in attendance to see which domestic teams would soon be traveling overseas in pursuit of the game's richest prize, the Summoner's Cup, at the World Championships in China.
One teenage fan entered through the security metal detectors along with his friends with an inconspicuous white sign under his arm. Fan signs were common at the venue. People would draw anything from cheerful emoticons for their favorite team, to fan art of a League of Legends character, to something as simple as an inside joke in the community the fan hoped would garner a reaction in Twitch chat.
This fan, though, was stopped in his tracks by security before entering the studio. Kindly, the security guard asked for the teenager's sign, and he obliged, apologizing and walking into the arena with his friends to get a seat before the matches began. The guard, looking like this wasn't the first time he had to confiscate a sign from a fan, sauntered over to the trash and threw away the piece of paper before returning to other pressing matters.
What was on the sign that was so bad the security guard had to throw it away?
A swear word? An inappropriate fan drawing?
In the trash, the sign now scrunched up and thrown away along with the discarded food and drinks, said only one thing and one thing only: #FREETYLER1.
"It was smart to do. I was a douchebag."
It's a roughly a year after the sign incident, and in front of me is the man who inspired that crumbled up contraband, Tyler Steinkamp, more popularly known under his gamer ID "Tyler1." We're at the League of Legends North American final in Oakland, a few weeks before the top teams from the region will once again take flight overseas to compete in the world championship. Signs asking for Tyler to be "freed" are no longer banned from the venue, and he's no longer a pariah from the game he loves.
Steinkamp rose to prominence in August 2016, when he was indefinitely banned from playing League of Legends. This was a punishment like no other in the game's history. It wasn't just one of his accounts that were banned, all were removed and if he ever made a new one and was found out to be the one behind it, that would instantly be banned as well. It was like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole for Steinkamp, playing as much as he possibly could on an account in secret before it was discovered and deleted by Riot Games. As fast as he could grind an account to play meaningful games, Riot was just as fast in banning him.
"Because of a well-documented history of account bans for verbal abuse, intentional feeding, as well as account sharing/purchasing, evasion of sportsmanship systems, and player harassment, we will not allow Tyler1 to hold a League of Legends account, indefinitely," wrote Eric "Socrates" Kenna, a lead game designer, on the official League of Legends message board in April 2016. "Any account definitively used by him will be banned immediately upon identification. We know we're not perfect, and this dragged on too long, but we want you to know when the rare player comes along who's a genuine jerk, we've still got your back."
It was a punch in the gut for the up-and-coming Twitch streamer. Steinkamp, a college student at the time, was gaining popularity through his mixture of high-level play on his signature character Draven, his self-deprecating humor and perhaps most of all his temper, which led to his outbursts being clipped and shared across the internet. The anger outside and -- more importantly -- inside the game led to his ban. If things went wrong in a game, he would march down the mid lane and die over and over and over again, ruining the game experience for his teammates.
The bigger he grew, the larger the magnifying glass became, and in the end, he was too high profile of a figure to ignore, a slew of copycats already mimicking his "run it down mid" approach to anger unagreeable teammates.
In most walks of life, when the thing you're best at is taken away from you, it's hard to recoup.
What is a violinist without their violin? A painter without their brush?
For Steinkamp, all he did every day was wake up, work out (which, by the way, he'll never pass up an opportunity to show off his biceps), play League of Legends, eat, play more League of Legends, sleep, and then repeat on loop. He played League of Legends upward of 15 hours a day. This is what he loved to do, and now it was all taken away from him, with no chance of ever streaming the game he poured thousands of hours into again.
"I can't remember because I was streaming, so I wasn't going to be like sad or anything on stream," Steinkamp said when asked what went through his mind when he realized he was indefinitely banned. "I actually can't remember how I felt [in the moment]. After, it kinda was like, OK, what do I do now? Because I just stopped streaming. What do I do? Do I keep on streaming?"
Keep on streaming he did. When life handed him lemons, he somehow turned it into lemonade. Banned from actually playing, Steinkamp began spectating viewers' games and coaching them on how to be a better League of Legends player. From there, he began experimenting with his content, live streaming himself cooking cakes, dressing up as famous artist Bob Ross to paint pictures, and even putting on a haphazard magic show for his audience. Instead of shrinking in viewership because of the ban, Steenkamp's streaming numbers actually began to balloon, a new audience discovering him through the publicity of getting indefinitely banned from Riot Games and staying for the off-the-wall, original content not found anywhere else on Twitch.
"I didn't do creative stuff [in school] but ... I was mouthy," said Steinkamp about his inspiration for his now famous variety streams. "I always had colorful, creative insults."
On his streams, the only word to describe Steinkamp is "showman." It doesn't matter if he is playing a typing game against his friends on a website looking like it was made in the early 2000s or speedrunning through a choose-your-own-adventure horror game, the streamer Tyler1 is always putting on a show, yelling, interacting, and laughing with his audience. He has own website, on which he sells personalized merchandise ranging from tank tops with his popular catchphrases on them to his own dietary supplement, "Blood Rush," which features Steinkamp flexing on the front like a character from one of his favorite shows, "Dragon Ball Z."
Sometimes, it's hard to figure out where Tyler Steinkamp begins and Tyler1 ends. Before the interview, Steinkamp asked if he could have a water bottle so his lips looked good on camera. After realizing most of the interview was to be conducted over a voice recorder, he laughed, asking if that meant he could swear and I would edit out later in post-production. When I told him yes, Steinkamp, at the top of his lungs, began to yell out a string of curse words from the Riot Games media room, each swear louder than the last.
"It's me being 15 out of 10. During a game, when I'm playing League and in the game, that's like a 12 out of 10," said Steinkamp, telling me how much over the top he is on stream compared to his personality when the camera goes dark. "Outside [on variety streams] that's a 15. Just me amped up a lot. I'm still very passionate about everything I do, though. I always want to do the best, no matter what it is."
In the corridor, along with his longtime girlfriend, Macaiyla, Steinkamp stopped to talk to a Riot employee he met the previous day. Everywhere he turns, another person wants to talk to him, and he does, giving time to anyone who wants it, making sure to try to remember the name of each person he encounters. With all of them, he's the same: Boisterous, animated, genuine.
On the first day of the North American LCS Summer Split final, the biggest domestic event of the year, the line of people to get into the venue stretched all the way to the baseball stadium next door, the Oakland Coliseum. Beside the line to get in was another mass of fans waiting for something. Out in the hot California sun, talking to a young kid and his father, was Steinkamp, a smile on his face, taking pictures, chatting, and signing autographs for every person who wanted to meet him before entering the arena to watch the third-place match between the league's most popular club Team SoloMid and 100 Thieves.
"I never want to leave anyone in a line," Steinkamp said. "The [kids] are so happy. 'It's T1! It's T1, dude!' They're so damn happy to see me. And no matter if I've been out there for five hours or however long, it's still awesome. It makes their day so much. Just me saying, 'What's up? Hey, yo, what's your name? How you doing, you live around here?' Those small questions make those kids' day, and I'll never forget that."
The security, trying to keep the crowd contained to one line, tried to stop Steinkamp. He said they yelled at him for making a scene with his own crowd. On the first day, they yelled at him five times. He didn't stop. Not until the last kid got to see him and Steinkamp could ask how his day was going.
For a man who got publicly banned worldwide from the game he loved, it was going to take a lot more to stop him from meeting his fans.
On the second day, security yelled at him only twice.
Steinkamp learned he was allowed to compete again in League of Legends when he was in the bathroom. He was so excited he yelled out to his girlfriend, who was already asleep in their bed. When she awoke, she didn't believe him.
There were days when Steinkamp would play all night to try to reach a certain level in League of Legends in fear that his progress could be all for naught if he fell asleep and Riot banned his account. After almost two years, his ban was finally lifted. He could play League of Legends without the fear of getting punished every time he closed his eyes for a nap.
Tyler1 was finally free.
"It's funny. Everyone who tells me to give up, I think it's funny," Steinkamp said.
Did you ever give up?
"No. So why tell me that? Why waste your time telling to give up? It's never going to happen."
On his first Twitch stream unbanned from playing League of Legends, Steinkamp, dressed as his signature Draven, broke the record for most viewers for any individual streamer with more than 385,000 live viewers. The previous holder of the record, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, is the best player to ever play League of Legends, having amassed three world championships and four worlds finals already in his career. (Fortnite streamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins broke that record twice a few months later.)
And this is how we got to the NA LCS Finals in Oakland. Steinkamp, who almost never leaves his house in Missouri, decided to take a trip to Oakland for his first League of Legends event, to meet his followers and take in the live action without fear of being stopped at the entrance by security like many of his fans in the past.
Unexpectedly, he ended up on the finals stage on the first night of the event in a show match, playing against his on-stream rival and former pro Michael "Imaqtpie" Santana in front of thousands in the home of the NBA champions Golden State Warriors.
While many speculated this was planned from the start and Steinkamp was flown out by Riot Games to participate in hopes of driving up interest, it wasn't. Actually, the call to substitute Steinkamp didn't come until seconds before it was announced on stream.
"Once we found out, Tyler brought himself. We didn't fly him up, we didn't put him up [in a hotel]. And he was on-site and up for [the showmatch], we thought it would be a great opportunity to engage with him and engage with the community," NA LCS commissioner Chris Greely told me. "When they made the announcement on the desk on broadcast, the decision had been made 30 seconds earlier."
Without any preparation or rehearsal, Steinkamp took center stage and captured the crowd almost immediately with his self-deprecating humor and wit. It was something out of the "Twilight Zone." The most wanted man in League of Legends only a year ago was in the middle of the Oracle Arena, and he was the star, riffing on Rioters, casters, players, himself and everything in-between. Nothing was off limits.
"He's very aware of the personality he 'plays' on his stream," said Mark "MarkZ" Zimmerman, who worked with Steinkamp over the weekend on the NA LCS analyst desk. "He asked whether he should be smack-talking the pros or be more relaxed. We said we wanted the Tyler1 experience."
Steinkamp isn't perfect, but no one is. When it comes to toxicity, he'll still swear and rage at his teammates like millions of other players across the world who play video games, and that probably won't ever change. And when it comes to looking at himself in the mirror from two years ago, he realizes what happened was fair.
The real truth behind Tyler1, Steinkamp or whatever you want to call him is that he truly loves League of Legends, maybe more than anyone else on this planet. He gets angry at the state of the game and complains because he likes playing it so much. He wants it to be the best game it can possibly be, albeit expressing it in his own unique Tyler1-fashion.
When he isn't sleeping, eating or hanging out with his girlfriend, he's playing League of Legends. The times when he takes months off streaming and his fans think he's off vacationing somewhere in Hawaii? He's playing League of Legends. He literally takes time off from streaming League of Legends to play more League of Legends on his own.
At his peak this season, Steinkamp reached No. 5 on the North American challenger ladder. Although that account has now plummeted back down into the 2000s following a string of endless nights of trying to make up for losses that lead into even more losses, he has not given up on his goal to reach the top of the server.
To end our lengthy interview, I asked him the one question I had left to ask. The most obvious one of all.
What does League of Legends mean to you?