Hours before the third day of play-in group stages at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, Kaos Latin Gamers' founder, CEO and owner, José "Cuballende" Martínez, died unexpectedly of heart issues, the team said.
Messages poured out onto his Facebook and Instagram accounts, fondly calling him "Cubita." His social media shell provided a place for players, staff, and community members to share their stories of how his investment, which was significantly more than money, had inspired people throughout the Latin American League of Legends community. One of the primary trailblazers in the scene, Cuballende was always available for anyone whether they were a fan, player or simply someone interested in the scene.
Before KLG's second round of group stage games at the 2018 World Championship, after the news of Cuballende's passing, Sebastián "Tierwulf" Mateluna tweeted in Spanish, "Rest in peace, KLGCuballende, it leaves me too sad to say goodbye to you with an 0-2, knowing that the only thing you've wanted all these years is for LATAM to emerge."
After two more matches that day against G-Rex and Gambit Gaming, KLG ended the group stage without a single win. Tierwulf had a long list of interviews, due to his trilingual fluency, KLG's circumstances and his generally outgoing and affable personality. With Brazilian media he laughed and teared up a bit as he chatted about Cuballende and KLG against a brightly-lit mural of former world champions, remembering his now former coach.
The story of Cuballende and KLG's first step towards professionalism started in 2014 after the organization was established in Puerto Rico and then moved to Chile.
"It's a funny story," Tierwulf said laughing, seated just outside of the LCK Arena in central Seoul.
"The first gaming house in the region was actually with me. I was a support player at the time and it was with [Cuballende] and now the [CEO] of the company. I said to him, 'We win this tournament, we'll have $2,000. I can put $500. Let's get the gaming house. We'll all take beds from my house. We'll take clothes from here. And we'll make this work.'"
This team was KLG. Cuballende, Tierwulf, and Francisco "Raver" Javier Osorio Vásquez pooled their money and resources together taking what they could from their own homes and savings to be more competitive in League of Legends esports. Tierwulf was only 16 at the time. KLG had no coach, no resources.
"We had nothing," Tierwulf said. "We just said, 'You know what? They're doing gaming houses over there. We need a gaming house if we ever want to be at the same level.' And we had this homemade gaming house where we tried to win."
None of this would have been possible without the passion and personal investment of Cuballende who frequently made personal sacrifices to ensure that the team had as much as he could provide.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a pro gamer. Just meeting a person with the willingness to give up food from his house and maybe instead of eating a steak, he's eating rice every day just so we could have food. The sacrifices that he made at the start really propelled our region into what it is today," Tierwulf said.
Since then, the situation has improved in Latin America South, but the scene still struggles behind even its other minor region competitors, even neighboring region Latin America North, which will merge with LAS for the next competitive year. Long queue times at the challenger level and a lack of commitment from all but a few organizations were also obstacles Tierwulf cited that stand in the way of improvement. Then there's the money factor.
"A lot of teams, especially us, have hit a skill ceiling, he said. "And the only way we can get better is importing a coach that knows a lot about the game. And then you ask how much a coach in NA makes. (pause) I don't want to import a Tier 3 coach because he knows less than my coach. But how do I pay the same price for a Peter Dun or a Reapered? I don't have the money. So we make ourselves better but then we stop."
It's easy for major region teams or even some minor region teams to invest in a bootcamp, but that option is not always available to Latin American teams. Although the team had a few shining moments, KLG looked noticeably behind their minor region competitors in groups. Tierwulf's voice caught a bit in his throat as he echoed the words that he said publicly on Twitter earlier that day.
"I'm really sad that he went out seeing an 0-2," Tierwulf said. I've always wanted to do well internationally and play for him and my region. I feel like I owe it to them. At the same time, realistically, you come in with hope and then you come in waiting for a miracle. But the reality is that you have all the currents against you. It just makes me sad. I just wanted to win one game and get that interview and dedicate the game to him."
The answer, for Tierwulf and his teammates, is to keep moving against that current. Despite the 0-4 sweep in groups, Tierwulf is already looking forward, to keep improving on what Cuballende helped to build.