Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng doesn’t know what a profile is, the 30-year-old admits to me on a rare break from the constant grind of esports competition and Twitch live streaming. He once shot a video with VICE where he went to the park, does that count? If not, then this is his first profile interview, which he agreed to because his girlfriend and frequent advisor Leena Xu said it would be "pretty cool."
It’s this kind of decision that has shaped the more recent years of Doublelift’s career, where he’s emerged head and shoulders above the competition that struggles to differentiate themselves to an audience with waning interest. Doublelift has a personality and a streaming career with nearly two million Twitch followers. He’s fun to watch, he’s engaging on social media, and he’s successfully transferred a career as a League of Legends pro gamer into one with possibly more longevity in the internet world. Sometimes Xu pops up behind him as he’s chatting with fans, and she adds commentary to his stories.
Within the League of Legends esports scene that’s struggling to stay relevant and appeal to lapsed fans that were sad to see their favorite pros retire, Doublelift is a unique case. He retired from competition in 2020, and un-retired earlier this year. It’s an intriguing move that has bigger esports industry implications, demonstrating that player retirements don’t have to be permanent and that older players could indeed catch a second wind within an industry facing many hurdles such as a low return on revenue, declining viewership and advertiser spending, and being inscrutable to outsiders. Many players retire in their mid-twenties, but Doublelift swims against the tide.
“After a two year break, coming back, I’m like a little kid, I’m freaking out inside and trying to keep my composure,” Peng says. “Because what even is the point of coming back? I was asking myself this, like ‘What am I trying to get out of it?’ There’s a lot to lose, my reputation is one of them. My career is that I win a lot. I need to keep winning. No one wants to come back and then just suck.”
Peng got his player name “Doublelift” from the sleight-of-hand magic trick he learned to impress girls, and it has stuck ever since, he said. He has been playing League professionally for a very long time.
This year, he returned from retirement, signing with esports and lifestyle brand 100 Thieves. When he returned to competing in the North American championship series in late January, even some viewers in his Twitch chat were surprised to see his comeback, leaving him messages such as, “I thought you were retired???”
In North America, the League of Legends scene is shrinking. Gamers focus on Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, and to some extent Fortnite and Roblox. Dozens of former employees of Riot Games, the company behind League, have even attempted to carve out their own start-ups to fill what the market wants: more casual games to play with friends and less of the hardcore competition.
Things escalated so much that Riot threatened to cancel the North American esports season this year as pro players demanded better pay by walking out. The groups reached an agreement in June. During a live stream that month, Peng voiced his support for the walkout.
“I was shocked too. I didn’t want to retire.”
Before this interview, the last time I spoke to Peng was just before the League of Legends World Championship finals in 2020, just before he retired. I asked him about his future plans and he gave no indication he was thinking of retirement. Back then, he and his partner for duo matches, Vincent “Biofrost” Wang, expressed optimism they could win. There, they unfortunately lost and did not make it into the finals, despite being the number one team in North America.
Peng says, “You’re surprised, you’re shocked that I retired. I was shocked too. I didn’t want to retire. I wanted to keep playing. But the way that that offseason panned out put me in the worst spot ever.” Peng says that his options in 2020 were to play for a “bottom tier team” or retire and he chose retirement and to focus on streaming, which he believes to be the future of professional gaming.
A few years ago, esports was the hottest, next-biggest thing. Sixteen-year-olds were making millions off of Fortnite, and parents were thinking about encouraging their children to pursue video games as full-time careers. But a combination of esports being unable to significantly grow its audience, demonstrate profitability to investors, and convert expensive marketing campaigns to direct game sales means that the hype has trailed off and been replaced with pessimism. Esports companies from a few years ago have turned their attention to social media promotion and selling merchandise, rather than counting on tournament winnings to stay afloat.
As esports faces an advertising winter, declining viewership, and layoffs, Peng has turned his attention to streaming. From his Los Angeles home, he’s frank and always says immediately what comes to mind with no filter. Even in this interview, he answered every question, no matter how uncomfortable.
In its heyday, League esports commanded millions of viewers. Newbies to the game were advised to watch the pros to improve their skills. Doublelift stood out among the rest for having a spicy personality and being willing to trash talk his opponents in a blunt way.
“One of the things that happened after I retired is like I’m going out in social settings with Leena and what I think is socially acceptable to say is completely off base and completely rude to others,” Peng said. “Being a pro player, you’re so used to being direct and almost exaggerative in what you say. So you can truly get across how bad you think someone weighed that situation or how bad you think this person’s thought processes on something are.”
Doublelift’s tagline is that “everyone else is trash,” but he insists he doesn’t actually think that, and that if that were true, he wouldn’t have been able to learn from playing against his competition. “I don’t actually think that way. It was just a funny tagline for a few years and it just stuck. I don’t know why, but it just stuck with me for ten years afterward.”
Growing up in California, raised by Chinese immigrant parents, Peng recalls being bullied for being one of the only Asian kids in high school, and for being nerdy and acne-prone.
“I was really unhappy as a kid. I was really bitter. I was really unhappy. I never had a good relationship with my parents,” he said. “Then I started playing pro, and it’s like, every day, I’m just jumping up and down. Can’t wait to play, can’t wait to play.”
When he was in high school, Peng worked as a bag boy for the grocery store Albertson’s and recalls bitterly handing his paychecks over to his parents.
“Being a bag boy, man. That’s why I always feel whenever I go to grocery stores, I actually really enjoy it. One of my favorite things to do is just to go wander around the grocery store because I worked there and I just like it. It’s organized. It’s aesthetically pleasing.”
Peng remembers that his parents were extremely frugal to the point where it felt like they had no money, despite his mom’s job at Quest Diagnostics, a clinical laboratory company. “I don’t actually understand how we were so poor either. It’s like I grew up like we had absolutely nothing, but as it turns out, they were just saving money so that they can buy a house. And I never had really registered it to be like why we live the way we live.”
Peng’s parents wanted him to go into medicine. “I had absolutely zero interest in it and they never asked me what I wanted to do. I’m just like trudging through life.”
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do," he said. "My real passion is playing games. And that’s not a viable career option. So it was crazy lucky that I became a pro player because it’s literally the only thing that I like to do. So I was able to make a career out of it. In an alternate universe, I’m probably completely miserable and I’m counting your pills at the pharmacy.”
Instead, in 2011, he was kicked out of the house by his parents at 18 and was temporarily homeless. He grabbed the $500 computer he built from scratch and his bike, headed to a nearby gas station, called a friend, and made a Reddit post to ask for donations.
In the same year, his team picked up fourth place in the first-ever League of Legends World Championship, and back then the $7,000 prize divided among five teammates came out to a $1,400 paycheck per person.
The paychecks kept coming and growing. By the age of 24, Peng estimates he became a millionaire, though he jokes that he’s not as rich as Disguised Toast, a Facebook Gaming streamer who has purchased his own Valorant and League esports teams.
A storied career in esports burns bright, and quickly. Peng says he knows that pro players don’t have much longevity, but he’s just grateful to be here, being able to earn unlikely money playing video games.
“Being a pro player doesn’t have the same longevity as studying computer science, studying math or whatever. It’s not going to give you a stable job until you’re 60 years old, right? But I got this crazy opportunity. And I wouldn’t give it up for anything else,” Peng said. “I’m so lucky. I’m so, so lucky to be who I am. I’m so lucky to have been able to experience basically the start of an industry, the start of esports.”
Kang "Dodo" Jun-hyeok, Peng’s former coach on Team Liquid, says that before he got to work with Doublelift, he played against him and heard rumors about his bad attitude. He says that his impression of Peng completely changed when they joined the same team.
“I saw a lot of leadership from him,” Dodo says. “Obviously some people take it the wrong way as they say, ‘That’s toxic.’ But for me, that’s a top quality to have in a player. He knows exactly what he wants to try to win the game.”
Being a pro League of Legends esports player has not been without its ups and downs. Just as Peng has been extremely lucky in his life, he’s also faced tragedy and adversity. In 2018, his older brother killed his mother and injured his father. Peng continued playing, finishing in fifth place at the mid-season invitational, followed by first place in the North American season, making it to the finals at Worlds.
“I guess when I become really overwhelmed emotionally, I’ve learned my response is to just feel completely numb and completely robotic. I feel absolutely nothing,” Peng said. “So when I heard the news that my older brother had murdered my mom, I just didn’t feel anything. I just felt kind of numb.”
Peng continued playing through playoffs and recalls people telling him that that must have been one of the hardest things he ever had to do. “People will have this romanticized idea that I am so sacrificial or I’m so strong-willed. Couldn’t be further from the truth. I think I’m just operating on complete base instincts. I’m just doing the thing that comes naturally to me. And only afterwards, months afterwards, did it really hit me and I felt affected really emotionally.”
“Even to this day, I’m not really sure what to really think about it. It’s one of those things where when you hear about stories like mine, I would never think that anything like that could ever happen to me. Because in everyone’s mind, they’re the main character. They’re shielded from horrible things happening to them or to people that they care about but then it happens. You’re like, holy shit.”
Peng says it took him a couple of years to make peace with it. Every few months, Peng will hop on a phone call or hang out with his dad and his younger brother, which he notes is a closer relationship than what he had with them before.
In 2019, Peng started dating Leena Xu, Chief Revenue Officer at esports organization Sentinels and former president of Peng’s former team, Team SoloMid. They’ve now been dating for four years, have enjoyed living together and have a cat named Mochi, which Peng was initially allergic to.
Xu says of when she began dating Peng, who had been a longtime friend: “At that point in my life, I was really, really into my career at the time, and I think for him, too, where we just both really connected and understood each other’s main priorities in life, which was our career at the time.”
Both Peng and Xu talked about how since Xu is in the same industry and his advisor, she has never complained about Peng needing to disappear for long hours playing League of Legends.
“Man, she’s so understanding,” Peng said. “She wants me to pursue my dreams and she hasn’t complained once about it. Because she works on the business side of esports, she knows how much time a pro player needs to spend.”
In late 2021, both Riot Games, which operates League of Legends Esports, and TSM began separate investigations into allegations of bullying and verbal abuse made against TSM CEO Andy Dinh. The investigations began shortly after Peng described Dinh as a “bully who gets away with being a bad person because he’s powerful” in a live stream. Last year, Dinh was fined $75,000 and placed on a two-year probation.
Xu, who worked for TSM until 2021, says that Peng spoke up against Dinh because he saw people being mistreated. “That was definitely not something that I had planned or even wanted him to talk about, but I’m really glad that he did do it, now that the record is set straight. It feels good,” she said.
Peng says that although he worked on teams with toxic environments that involved people screaming at each other and putting each other down, and because of his upbringing, he originally didn’t see these work conditions as abnormal. But he reflected that he wanted to be a good person and teammate and give more constructive feedback.
Last year, Peng was nominated for best streamer of the year at the Streamer Awards but tyler1, who is arguably an even bigger trash talker, won.
Peng returned to the competition this summer, as his team 100 Thieves went up against other North American champions, many of whom are much younger. They lost.
“Obviously it sucks to lose but other than that, I feel happy. I think there are a lot of positives to the year, even though my season is over.” Peng said on a Twitch stream in mid-August. “I’m just going to be streaming a lot.”
“I’m fully aware of the narrative of older players being washed and like: Make way for the new generation. They’re super cracked mechanically, they have faster reaction times than you, they’re more handsome than you, they play the game better than you, they have a better, bigger champion pool,” Peng said to Motherboard. “I want to just completely smash all those stereotypes. You can’t just willpower yourself to do that, you actually have to put in the work.”