“Being identified with your life as others see it may mean that you come eventually to see it that way, too. This can only be a hindrance to memory (and, presumably, to invention).”
— Susan Sontag, “Where the Stress Falls for P.D.”
I’ve joked last year in private that the LCK now stood for Lacking Crucial Koreans. For me it was mainly because Mata — one of my all-time favorite players — retired from pro play to coach RNG, but many other storied names left the league in that window, too: Khan, kkOma, PawN, Peanut, PraY, Score. It wasn’t the first (or even the second) time that the region had lost top stars en masse, of course, but recent sporting context cast a gloomy light on everything. After two consecutive years of getting thoroughly outclassed by top foreign teams at pretty much every international event, many fans of the LCK couldn’t help but view these departures as being somehow symbolic, even if some of those talents had already looked to be well past their prime. That winter was wistful and foreboding, despite the offseason exodus ultimately turning out to be smaller than initially feared. Would the LCK ever best its rivals again? If T1’s superteam couldn’t win Worlds, who could? Was this the beginning of Korean irrelevancy?
The apprehension wasn’t at all baseless — ’20 Spring arguably marked a new low for the league in terms of average game quality, and all four LCK representatives got utterly smashed at the Mid-Season Cup. In an unexpected turn of events, however, things picked up afterwards and the year eventually ended with the LCK redeeming some of its former glory thanks solely to Damwon.
So this year’s offseason worked differently. Despite a whole legion of legends opting to depart (Crown, Flame, GorillA, Kuro, Smeb, Spirit…), unlike last year, this change of scenery wasn’t taken as portentous but rather propitious. As of current, things are very much looking up for the league: the Summoner’s Cup is back in Korea, Damwon managed to retain most of its championship roster, the game’s domestic popularity seems to be higher than ever, and LCK’s franchising era just kicked off. Against this rosy backdrop, the phenomenon of so many former stars of the league either choosing to retire or being overlooked in favor of rookie talent was taken by most as a promising, if bittersweet, development — a welcome influx of fresh blood in the wake of a golden sunset, the start of a new age.
It’s between these two tides of time I’ve been thinking about Ucal, who I feel has become LCK’s most gripping enigma. Over the past three years he has descended from being outrageously good (sweeping aside the domestic competition in his debut season) to good but inconsistent (showing both great laning phases and horrifying midgame throws in his sophomore year) then to barely intermittently good (his mostly lackluster ’20 showings on Griffin and KT). The prevailing community narrative, fueled by a borderline annoying overabundance of memes, is that Rookie magically robbed Ucal of his “memory” (by which fans mean “how to play the game properly”) during KT’s quarterfinals Bo5 against iG in 2018, and that Ucal since then hasn’t been able to recover what he lost. This meme narrative is misleading in the sense that it effaces both his preexisting inconsistencies in ’18 and his lingering brilliance afterwards, reducing everything to a crude before/after photo. Yet there is a haunting performative power to it, too.
Ucal has always been a player keenly aware of community opinion, arguably too much so; this much has been apparent ever since his first split on KT, when he regularly referenced memes about Score’s perennial trophy draught in interviews, and changed his Facebook profile picture to pay homage to a famous handwritten note that Mata wrote back in 2014 (“Worlds X -> Retire”). Even after moving to Afreeca, various snippets of in-game voice comms released by OGN, and the fact that he changed his Summoner Name to “19y/o Quickest-Ever Has-Been” after performing poorly in spring, again confirmed that Ucal was still constantly concerned with how fans perceived him, whether for better or worse. We didn’t get quite as much primary material from him in 2020 (mainly due to his spending the whole year on firmly bottom table teams), but there’s little reason to believe his constitution has suddenly changed.
Of course, Ucal isn’t the only League of Legends pro who gives probably a bit too much attention to what the public thinks of him, and the gap between players and fans is typically far narrower in esports compared to traditional sports. That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player remain so openly and genuinely receptive in this regard, and I’ve been watching Korean esports for two decades. It’s not that he’s mentally fragile; it’s more that he seems to sincerely respect everyone else just as much as he respects himself, which is an admirable mindset in everyday life, but maybe not so much in sports.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to being this attuned and expressive to the world as an athlete. It lets you be boundlessly endearing and beloved when ahead, but also leaves you vulnerable to malicious ridicule when behind. And when you’re always that sensitive and humble, maybe that ridicule might destroy you from the inside. Maybe this isn’t true, but I’ve always felt that Ucal’s plummet might have come into existence only ever because he once cared to buy into it.
I’ve watched an unhealthy amount of KT (by which I mean more than one game) last summer. The games mostly left me feeling vaguely frustrated and nostalgic, as expected. It wasn’t because I expected or even wanted KT to perform better — I didn’t have much faith in that roster to begin with, and I’ve found it difficult to care too much about KT as a team after Score left. It was mostly because the glory at stake that summer was all about Chovy and Showmaker (and to a lesser extent, Bdd).
I remember a period during Summer Split in which first Chovy pulled off maybe the sickest Galio play of all time (a very clutch Flash quadrastun) to snatch victory from a game Bdd’s Zoe was running away with. The week after that, we saw ShowMaker overcome his demons (he hadn’t been able to properly best Chovy for a long while) and finally completely dunk on Chovy’s mid Camille. Naturally, both events were the talk of the town for at least a week. Then the week after that we saw Bdd thoroughly outclass Ucal, and no one got excited about this event because it was the outcome that literally everyone expected; just another chapter in Ucal’s quiet tragedy. The context itself was sad. According to not so long ago at all, he was supposed to be at the very least going shoulder to shoulder with Korea’s best, if not warding them off from his throne.
I like sifting through old snippet-sized interviews of current players, the ones that maybe drew some eyeballs for a day or two but never got the necessary traction to be permanently etched into the Grand Narrative.
- Winter 2018, Inven:
“Chovy will build on the experience he gained this year and get better, I think. As for Showmaker, I’ve heard a lot of good things about him, but we’ll need to see him play in an LCK setting first. One thing’s for sure, though — I’m the best out of the three.”
“My personal motto is to always become the best or second best at whatever I do. Rookies in their debut season are usually considered to be doing ‘well enough’ if they just go above average, but I don’t want to be just a typical player. I want to break the mold and rise above the rest.”
- Spring 2019, NoDak TV:
“I feel I’ve lost form […] I don’t feel I’m living up to a moniker like ‘the next Faker’ as of now.”
“I don’t want to admit it, but I feel that [my poor performance at ’18 Worlds] has affected me mentally. And aside from [that mental influence], I feel I failed to take away something from [Worlds] while other players did, which is why I’m falling behind right now.”
“I’ve been learning a lot from Chovy and Bdd.”
- Winter 2020, Fomos:
“You know how dark-horse teams might be weak but will still put up a fight when you start cornering them? How they’ll fight back more the more they’re hit, try to look for openings, and won’t go down without a struggle? But me, this year, I’ve become someone who has become so accustomed to getting pummeled that they [forgot] how to play for a win.”
“[Going into the next season], I don’t want to put pressure on myself. Of course I’ll still take responsibility for my play, of course I’m still going to work hard, but I don’t think I’ll be playing with some huge burden on my chest. […] When I play under pressure, I feel like my friend in Silver 3 might actually play mid better than me.”
“This is something I’ve felt over the years — I think the most important thing is to truly believe that you’re the best, even if [everyone else might disagree]. Even if others take it as baseless arrogance, I think it’s really important to believe in that. So I hope [my teammate Bonnie] can always hold onto the fresh confidence that he has now.”
“(To have two selves is the definition of a pathetic fate.)”
— Susan Sontag, “A Poet’s Prose”
I’ve thought for a while that Chovy’s brilliance in the midlane shines like impeccable prose, while Showmaker’s sparkles like free-flowing poetry. Chovy’s early-to-midgame primarily revolves around perfect execution: trading better in lane, farming better in lane, managing minion waves to best build upon his current power advantage, always going for the play with the slightly better expected outcome, not making a single misstep until laning phase ends. In contrast, Showmaker’s style places more focus on adaptation and unpredictability: drastically adjusting lane pressure to match team priorities, regularly going on roams that might lose him the lane but might put the allied composition’s key champion ahead, taking huge risks with outrageous confidence whenever the return might be worth it.
It seems like Ucal’s been around forever by now, but he’s still blisteringly young, barely any older than this year’s rookies. Despite that, his style hasn’t really ever changed too much since his debut. His preferred approach is to constantly apply near-maximum pressure in lane while relying on jungle backup to secure firm priority. Unfortunately it’s difficult to play in this way on teams with relatively weaker overall laning phases, in which jungle backup might not be an option to begin with or may too frequently be needed elsewhere; this incompatibility is a large part of why he looked lost on ’20 Griffin and KT. Whether ’21 KT will turn out to be a playoff contender is yet unknown, but if preseason scrim tales can hold any weight, the chances are not looking that great. Ucal will most likely have to finally recalibrate his game, find a new voice.
Today, the LCK kicked off. I saw Ucal face off against Bdd. He didn’t look half bad.