FlyQuest jungler Lucas "Santorin" Larsen shook his head as if to stave off oncoming tears.
"I'm so happy right now. Um ..."
A smile stretched across his face. That smile remained throughout his broadcast interview with Ovilee May, peeking through even while overcome with emotion, a permanent fixture of all subsequent interviews.
"There's no words that can describe how happy I am right now," he said.
His voice cracked as tears threatened to fall.
"Because, I've made it this far for so long, and it just means the world to me," Santorin said.
"I just really love this team."
It's a sentiment expressed by many esports athletes. Yet in this moment, none of those proclamations seemed as genuine as Santorin's. His pauses to collect himself were punctuated by cheers from the remaining League of Legends Championship Series audience.
Weeks before FlyQuest's 3-2 victory over the Golden Guardians in LCS quarterfinals, Santorin's grandfather died. Faced with the choice of whether to fly home to Demark or stay and continue to try to make LCS playoffs with FlyQuest, Santorin chose to stay with his team.
Despite his best efforts, FlyQuest lost two games that week.
My grandpa died last week, his funeral was today & I decided not to go home since this week is very important for standings/playoff chances. I promised I would make him proud through our gameplay, and even though I failed today, I'm going to try my hardest to make it up tmrw😢— Lucas Larsen (@Santorin) March 3, 2019
Walking down the staircase from the LCS press room last week, Santorin admitted their 0-2 week was emotionally devastating. His presence was still important, but without something tangible to show for his efforts, it ultimately felt worse.
Santorin and FlyQuest's playoff victory gave him that much-needed catharsis. Weeks later, Santorin could dedicate these wins to his late grandfather.
A few times a year, we see the glamour of an esports athlete peeled back to reveal the sacrifices involved in their success, and Santorin's story is a reminder of offerings made to the capricious esports gods.
"The games were for him for sure, and that's why it felt even more important to me," Santorin said.
"I love this team" never seemed more genuine. After a rocky road following his departure from Team SoloMid in late 2015, Santorin already knew that he had found a new home on FlyQuest when he joined the team last year and helped them unexpectedly qualify for the 2018 summer playoffs.
He did so again this spring in a five-game series against another team on the rise. That same close victory against Golden Guardians gave fans a look at the rise of rookie top laner Omran "V1per" Shoura. V1per's progression from nerves seemingly besting him a few times in Game 1 to an impressive Game 5 Irelia performance, where he had wholly found his stride and place on the team beside mid laner Eugene "Pobelter" Park's strong Zoe performance, was a delight to witness.
Sometimes there's nothing better than watching a young player who is, as they say, really feeling it. There's a special kind of magic when everything suddenly clicks for a player onstage, and on Saturday, V1per showcased that genuine joy.
"I loved it," Santorin said of his teammate's Game 5 performance. "He kind of reminds me of myself back when I just joined TSM. I was really confident even though I had a lot of issues I had to work on.
"He's a lot better than I was back on TSM. He's a lot more mature, and he's really easy to work with. He just adapts really well and is understanding of the situations, which is a thing that is one of his strongest points for sure. As a player he wants to win as much as the rest of us want to win."
Talk to any player on FlyQuest, and they'll likely say that their greatest strength isn't individual performances or even communication, but ultimately their trust in each other. This was a tough lesson for Santorin to learn before he first returned to North America in 2017 as part of Gold Coin United before eventually landing on FlyQuest.
"I felt that I was really, really bad," Santorin said during playoffs last year when talking about his competitive ups and downs before FlyQuest. "I was good individually, but I couldn't do anything as a team. I couldn't bring people up if they were down. If someone was making mistakes, I couldn't make sure of what I was missing."
Now he's part of the veteran FlyQuest core that has helped push the team into LCS semifinals. Together with Pobelter and former TSM teammate Jason "WildTurtle" Tran, Santorin has helped make up the backbone of this FlyQuest team, allowing V1per and support Juan "JayJ" Guibert to thrive.
"We want to prove that we are a good team, so when we were down 1-2 and things looked a little dicey, we just really had to trust in each other," Santorin said.
He admitted that Karthus wasn't a champion on which he and the team had performed well in scrims. It was only through the trust that Santorin had in his teammates and them trusting him in return that the pick worked out against Golden Guardians.
"They just trusted that I could play that champion," the jungler said. "Us trusting each other is the main reason why we won."
FlyQuest will need strong communication and trust in each other if they're going to upset their next opponent, the top-seeded Team Liquid, but Santorin is optimistic about their chances.
"I am confident that we have a stronger early game, and yes, they are a stronger macro team and have better individual players potentially, but every time we've played TL in scrims and onstage, I don't feel threatened," Santorin said. "I played awful the second time around and we still managed to win, so I just feel really great."