Blank Space

(Sorry for the screencap’s abysmal quality — I couldn’t find anything sharper than this gif. But you probably know this moment anyway, don’t you? Worlds 2016.)

***

For me, ever since 2016, this has been the first image that comes to mind when I think of Blank.

To be fair, it’s not that he hasn’t had memorable plays; I still fondly remember his intercardinal Explosive Cask against KT and his many smooth inSecs. If you’re feeling less gracious, I guess there are also plenty of infamous moments to choose from, too, like when he seemingly forgot what Cosmic Radiance does and dumped his entire skill rotation onto an invulnerable Jhin, or that time when he died to his own Krugs for no discernible reason without any enemies nearby, or that much-maligned post-match screen of his 612-damage Jax game. And even if we exclude in-game incidents from the discussion, many would argue that this is the photo most commonly associated with Blank (fans spammed it in 2017 to compare him to Batman — “Blankman” — for his Herculean performances coming off the bench), not the one I chose.

Yet there’s a certain poetry to this frame that I’ve always been drawn to. Perhaps it’s something about how so much of his career has been about coming off benches — whether that be to fill in for a star who lost his footing (inSec in 2015, Bengi in 2016), to heroically save his team from defeat (switching in for Peanut in 2017), or to merely hope to be the least of three evils (over Blossom and Wolf in 2018).

Here he is, in front of a crowd of 20,000, having just attained the greatest achievement of his career, the Summoner’s Cup. Here he is, coming off the bench at full sprint, ecstatically running towards his teammates, having watched most of the finals from the sidelines, having lost the one game he played.

How much do you think he cares about that second part? I’ve never been sure.

***

Blank’s legacy has long been one of the more hotly debated ones in esports. Even his most ardent defenders will concede that he did have some uniquely terrible games over his career, but they will also argue that without his many timely contributions, ’16 and ’17 SKT may not have even made it to Worlds to begin with, let alone make deep runs in both. Even during those peak years, however, he never once looked like the best jungler in Korea, let alone the world, for any extended period of time. (In truth, he was more frequently appraised the exact other way; his horrific showings aren’t limited to the clips I chose above).

Many of his detractors believed, and probably still believe, that any solid Korean jungler could have replaced him at any moment and SKT wouldn’t have lost all that much for it. Their rough consensus is that Blank stumbled backwards into a trophy cabinet most players would sell multiple organs for — he remains the only jungler in history to have played in and won both MSI and Worlds — merely by virtue of happening to be the sixth member of the best team League has ever seen.

Measuring Blank’s contributions to the tail end of SKT’s golden era is tricky. The discussion is necessarily murky because professional League of Legends still lacks empirical data on whether preparing tactical substitutes (as opposed to simply having designated backups, or having players compete for a fixed starter position prior to the season) is at all advantageous and/or preferable. No sufficiently informed opinions can be formed, as the sample size is pitiful — very few teams in League history have had the luxury of seriously and continuously experimenting with quality subs at the top level of play. Most would agree that SKT T1 during the kkOma era is the only organization to have ever successfully utilized it over the course of whole seasons; therein lies the problem.

In 2016, Blank functioned as an inconsistent but serviceable backup who eventually ended up starting most of the regular season, only to slowly recede to a substitute role as Worlds progressed. Then in 2017, he transitioned to acting as a dedicated tactical substitute, accumulating an impeccable regular season winrate as well as proving his strategic worth in several extended series at Worlds. Both statuses are frustratingly unique: Easyhoon (who arguably would still have won Worlds even without Faker) and Haru (who was mostly irrelevant in Samsung’s 2017 Worlds run) are not analogous at all. The closest case would be Duke on iG, but the teams and players have too little in common to draw any meaningful comparisons.

In most team sports, particularly the ones in which overabundant rosters are necessary (football, baseball, etc.) due to stamina, fitness, and injury issues, the hierarchy of contributions is always made clear. Fans understand that key players, first-team starters, rotation players, role-playing substitutes, backups, and rising youngsters all have different roles on a roster, and recognition is thus granted respectively, save for occasions when a player severely deviates from their expected output. Most of those structural factors do not apply to League, however, and as such, we only recognize starters and backups for the most part, even if they sometimes switch places following dramatic turns in form. The discourse has never properly recognized the liminal space in which those very few players who can’t be classified as either float — it remains blank.

***

It often feels like the Internet is getting worse every year; many people swear it really is. Based on my many years crawling around the web for sports and esports, however, I think people have always been this horrible to each other — it’s just that the toxic sludge keeps on finding new holes to leak out of.

I’m not sure how to describe the extent and degree of vitriol that can fall upon a player when they repeatedly underperform on an extremely, intensely popular team like T1. I don’t think I could ever do it justice, and I hope I never get to understand firsthand how it actually feels. Fans making endless fun of your terrible performances on online forums isn’t what I’m discussing — as much as that too might hurt, that’s something that professional players are in essence paid to deal with. I’m talking about some freaks genuinely wanting to harm you for having tried and failed some things in a video game. Sending you very specific slurs, threats, and ill-wishes through every channel they can access. Intimidating your colleagues to cut ties with you. Propagating baseless rumors to smear not just your professional career but also your personal life. I’ve often wondered what it’s like to be not only ridiculed but actively hated, even abused, solely for having done your best but coming up short.

I’ve also wondered what it takes to grit your teeth, smile, and say that you’re okay with it.

When Blank finally left Korea for Sengoku Gaming in 2019, I thought his career in the top tier of competitive play was over. And I didn’t mean that in a harsh, judgmental way; I suspected it might have been what he wanted for himself, too. I figured that he might have decided to not deal with the haters anymore. After what he had gone through in 2016 and 2018, who could blame him for deliberately heading to a league where he would be treated as an international veteran, not some hopelessly inconsistent forever-rookie who held his team back more often than he delivered? He had already won everything there was to win, after all — two LCKs, two MSIs, Worlds — even if he hadn’t been that essential to some of those runs. How likely would it be for him to repeat even one of those lofty accomplishments, anyway?

But then, this year, he returned to the LCK anyway.

Watching Blank settle into KT has been interesting. In almost comical cosmic ordinance, he began the year on the bench, again — Bonnie started in their season opener against Gen.G. Many people had said great things about Bonnie, and I thought he looked promising enough despite his team’s loss, but Blank took over the starting spot in their next match against LSB, and has been holding onto it since.

Blank came back from the LJL a rather different jungler. Some distinguishing traces of his previous self remain — he kept his habit of maintaining forward momentum after releasing skillshots, and continues to position rather recklessly when he has Flash up — but he seems to have heavily adjusted his style towards being more selfless and supportive. He has largely abandoned his old penchant for high-risk high-return early game counterjungling; he now focuses on providing timely ganks for key lanes. In the midgame, he clearly prioritizes maintaining vision over streamlining camp refreshes to keep up in farm. His game isn’t entirely without the odd harebrained decision, but overall, he has so far been displaying a kind of consistency and quiet reliability he had never managed to maintain as an SKT starter.

Watching his past three matches, I was repeatedly gripped by the feeling that there was something peculiarly refreshing about Blank’s play. The Korean commentators mentioned something along those lines, too — about how his gait seemed distinctly light. I’ve mulled it over for a while. I think it has to do with how he no longer seems to be perpetually grappling with the compulsion to prove his worth.

I feel he has finally started to resemble the jungler that he had so desperately wanted to become, once upon a time. Shades of Bengi. Something about this formulation makes me irresistibly happy and sad.

***

Blank’s nickname comes from the 2014 Taylor Swift track “Blank Space”. He used to be (and still reportedly is) a Swiftie; he happened to be listening to the song when he was trying to decide on a nickname. As “Swift” and “Space” were already taken by other Korean pros, he settled on “Blank”.

I’ve always been compelled to draw half-baked connections between a gamer’s tag and their career, so here goes: You can tell me when it’s over, Swift sings in the chorus, if the high was worth the pain.

I hope Blank still has a lot left in him.

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