Where Rainbow Six Siege goes, G2's Pengu will follow

Pengu at the Rainbow Six Siege Invitational. Provided by Bruno Alvares, Ubisoft Brazil

At the Place Bell arena in Laval, Quebec, there is a line snaking through the first-floor corridor. Security, peering from their stations in front of the entrances, is checking to see what the issue is. The head of the snake, the cause of the entire commotion, is a singular person standing with a concessions drink in hand.

G2 Esports' Niclas "Pengu" Mouritzen only wanted to grab a Coke as his team waited to play in the Rainbow Six Siege world championship, the Six Invitational. He didn't realize his own celebrity at the biggest Siege tournament of the year. Fans from across the world ran at him to give a quick hello before pleading for just one more second of his time to take a picture. Every opportunity the 21-year-old Dane was given to slip away, another fan would ask for a picture.

"Just three more!" he yelled to the crowd, hoping to bring some order to a chaotic situation.

A father and daughter approached Pengu, intending to shake his hand and take a picture, smiles plastered over their faces. First the father, and then the daughter. When Pengu was done with the third of his "three more," he relented, unable to say no to fans from Japan wanting to meet their hero. Wait, just one more, Pengu explained to the crowd. Then another. And another. The zigzagging snake of fans continued to extend.

"I don't expect to get a Coke and get stopped by so many people," said Pengu, finally disappointing the crowd of fans by promising he would be back later to sign more autographs. "More importantly, it's amazing at the same time. The fans are always there. Three years ago when we started [in Siege], there wasn't any of that. It was us the players, and the staff was the audience, going 'Woo! We did it!' Now, we have our own fans. It's crazy."

Sometimes too shy to even ask for a photo, Pengu can see himself in his newfound fans. Before he became a two-time Rainbow Six Siege world champion, he was one of those fans back in his home of Denmark watching professional League of Legends and dreaming of one day playing on the grand stage with heroes. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of one of his idols -- fellow Dane Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, the teenage League of Legends phenom starting out in Europe before becoming the face of one of the biggest esports brands in the world, Team SoloMid. Five years later, Bjergsen is a multiple league MVP and recognized throughout the world.

Pengu saw himself as the next great League of Legends player to come out of Denmark. Although he climbed the online ranks and neared an opportunity, the chance never came. Not wanting to give up on his esports dream, he transitioned to another MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), Heroes of the Storm, believing that would be his way into playing video games professionally. Unfortunately, as it went with League of Legends, it wasn't meant to be.

In the grand scheme of things, Pengu was just another high schooler with big dreams who failed to make the seismic leap from being a very good player, maybe the best his friends had ever seen, to becoming a professional gamer. Not everyone could be Bjergsen. Of the millions of high schoolers around the world who loved to play video games (and at one point or another thought for a split second they, too, could play video games professionally) only one or two special talents actually complete the jump to the world of pros.

"Fun thing, 10th grade was like four years ago, I was sharing a [class in Denmark] with Wunder from G2," Pengu said. Martin "Wunder" Hansen, 20, is one of those special talents who clawed his way from the online circles to international fame in League of Legends. In Wunder's three years as a pro, he has made it to the League of Legends world championship twice, with his most recent visit in 2018 netting him a top-four finish with G2 Esports.

"Now I'm their Siege player [in the] same organization. Four years ago, we shared the same lecture class," Pengu said. "How crazy is that, right?"

Ultimately, the game changes his life forever. Rainbow Six Siege, a first-person shooter with a character selection system similar to a MOBA, released at the end of 2015. Two months later, Pengu realized his dream when he signed with PENTA E-Sports. A few months later, he won his first esports championship, leading PENTA to the Pro League championship in Cologne, Germany. The prize was $25,000, but the bigger reward was the confirmation of the years of daydreaming finally becoming a reality. No one could ever say again Pengu wasn't good enough to go pro. He was a champion.

Now Pengu is on stage at Place Ball, standing in front of another wave of autograph seekers. The Six Invitational is done, and the crowd is cheering Pengu as he lifts the tournament's trophy, a sledgehammer, high into the air. For the second year in a row, Pengu has won a world championship. If he had gone pro in League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm, he might have never won a world title. But because of his failures, celebratory smoke and confetti mix together to commemorate another title won.

What was $25,000 two years ago has now turned into $800,000 with the success of Siege, which continues to rise. Pengu, and the rest of G2, sit at the center of it all.

"Pengu is widely considered the greatest player to ever play the game," said Parker "Interro" Mackay, an ESL commentator and one of the lead voices at the Six Invitational. "That's certainly my opinion as well. I think he excels in every single role. I think he can play a huge number of operators. He's good in any way you want to use him. He has leadership qualities as well. He's calm under pressure. He has great aim. He's the full package of what you're looking for [in Siege]."

Those leadership qualities didn't come easy for Pengu. While he reached his ultimate goal of becoming a professional gamer, it took him until recently to find the balance between what it means to be "Pengu" and what it means to be Niclas, the person he was before people wanted his signature on a piece of paper.

It's the same conundrum all professional gamers have to face at some point in their careers. Unlike a traditional sports athlete like LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes or Bryce Harper -- where they grow up being one of the most popular kids in school, tailored to become a superstar in the sports world one day -- the current esports superstars of today were never readied for their moment in the spotlight. For many, they were the kids in the back of the class, using the escape of video games to forget about the issues in the real world. When they become superstars in the virtual world, it can feel like being suspended upside down, everything they once knew being flipped on its head.

For a player, their ID is more than just a silly nickname they chose because they thought it sounded cool. It can be a mask. It can be a shield to protect yourself from the realities of the world. As Pengu, nothing mattered but winning. He didn't have to be a role model. A year or two prior, he was just a random kid from Denmark, playing computer games to pass the time with esports on in the background, those players light-years away from him.

"Our online persona is what we make it to be," Pengu said. "I think that's why social media and online personalities are so big in general, because we can choose what characteristics we want to be. Are we cool? Are we shy? What kind of slang you want to use? What kind of language you want to use. But in real life, you can't hide who you are. Not really. You can try. Online, I was this cocky, arrogant super try-hard Siege player. In real life, I'm this skinny nerd from Denmark who has no friends.

"But now, I feel like we've mixed that together, where I've taken my good experiences from real life and good experiences from online and mixed them together to this comfortable person. Where I feel like I'm Niclas despite [also] being Pengu."

Those masks and personas are why esports is so popular. In traditional sports, it's hard to relate to the athlete you see on screen. When it comes to professional video game players, there is a kinship in the persona, each player's handle connecting them to the online world. Fans can watch Pengu play on stream, follow him on social media, and feel, like when they meet him at a concessions stand, that they know him. They've seen his struggles in real time. Although he possesses an undeniable skill in a game they love, Pengu, lanky with a childlike grin on his face, doesn't feel any different than all the other fans at the Six Invitational. They're all nerds who love the game. He just so happens to be one of the best players to play it.

"Pengu plays the game so much, he's pretty much the library of strategies," said Joonas "jNSzki" Savolainen, one of Pengu's teammates on G2 Esports. "You can probably ask him anything [about Siege], and he knows it. It's really nice that he has all the knowledge and we have a lot of different thinkers on the team. I come from [Counter-Strike: Global Offensive] and Call of Duty 4, so I play more straightforward game play compared to Fabian and Pengu, who want to go more into the meta games and such."

Siege is a game that brings together players from all scopes of video game culture. Some, like jNSzki, come from the world of first-person shooters, where aim and a steady trigger finger are the roads to glory. For Pengu, who dreamed of staring down Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok in a League of Legends world final, the overall strategy, variety of characters, and the intricacies of how a match can be won are what fascinates him about the ever-evolving game.

"Rainbow Six Siege is basically my life," Pengu said. "Guilty pleasure. I think, I touch, I feel more about Siege than my mother, which is a terrible thing to say right now. But Siege is a very, very big part of my life."

Be it as Pengu or Niclas, there is no uncertainty in his future. Rainbow Six Siege entered Pengu's life at the perfect time, and at two world championships, he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

Where Siege goes, Pengu will follow, a sprawling queue of fans surely in tow.