When we met Song “Rookie” Eui-jin in a cafe in Gangnam, we came with good expectations. The short conversation to arrange the interview highlighted his friendliness and we’ve also all seen his vibrant talking style during his streams: the best ingredients to make for a great interviewee.
Just as we anticipated, Rookie answered all the questions with sincerity and honesty and, enthralled by his talkative persona, we asked more and more, and more...
Let’s dive into our pleasant conversation with Rookie.
Hello! How long has it been since you came back to Korea? How have you been doing?
It’s been a bit over a month since I came back, including the quarantine. I just kept sleeping after I came back. It’s like I was getting rewarded for all the sleep I was deprived of over the past three years. If I woke up and it was dark out, I would just sleep again.
Can you say hello to the Korean fans as well?
Hello. I don’t know how I should start [Laughs]... Many people are calling me and TheShy Song hyeong and Kang hyeong [In Korean, hyeong means “older brother” — Ed.]. I’m not playing in Korea, but it seems that there are many more people that started to like us after we won Worlds. I’m always thankful for that. Although we’re pro players, we only exist because of the fans. So all the fans, regardless of country, are very precious and I’m grateful for them.
Worlds 2020 just came to an end. Unfortunately, you had to watch as a viewer. How did you feel after the Regional Qualifiers?
I was obviously really heartbroken when we got eliminated in the qualifiers. It was sad that we lost and I regret lacking a lot in my individual performance. But on the other hand, I felt kind of relieved.
Personally, I think teams that aren’t good enough shouldn’t go to Worlds through luck. Our team wasn’t fully prepared and neither was I, so it was a deserved result for us. It wasn’t that we slipped after doing well. We were bad and were gradually improving, but we failed to reach Worlds because we weren’t able to perform better from that point. Although there were regrets from the loss itself, there wasn’t any resentment coming from “Why did we lose”.
Did you watch all the Worlds games?
Since we didn’t qualify, I got to take a break for the first time in a long time. I gave it a lot of thought about whether or not I should watch Worlds during my break, but when it started, I just started watching. I watched all the games that fans would consider “big matches”. From the quarterfinals on, I watched all the games live.
The LCK and LPL came strong at this Worlds and the tournament ended with DAMWON Gaming winning the championship. Did you anticipate this would happen?
I am streaming on a Chinese platform — even when I’m here in Korea — and I often express my thoughts on that stream. I’m in an LPL team so I cheer for the LPL but I’ve always thought the LCK was a strong league. It’s like an eternal rivalry. Even when we won Words 2018, we really struggled against kt Rolster.
While watching the performances that the #1 and #2 LPL teams showed in the quarterfinals and semifinals, I thought that these teams aren’t ordinary. DAMWON Gaming showed what they were capable of and they seemed to be getting stronger with each game they played. I believe they were able to win the championship because of that.
You participated as a guest commentator on the LCK broadcast and earned a new nickname: Song Chan-ho.
Song Chan-ho? Oh, because of Park Chan-ho. [Parck Chan-ho’s nickname is “too much talker” in Korea. He is known to go out of his way to talk with other people — Ed.] Did I get such a nickname? I don’t think I’m that talkative, but I think I was in a very good condition that day. The game itself was really interesting as well. Since I was invited to do this job, I thought I should try to talk more… Was I too talkative? [Laughs] I really don’t think I was.
I’m sure that I’m not a quiet person, but I don’t think I talked that much. Gangqui, Caster Jun, and CloudTemplar were there and it felt that I should talk more. They’re there every day, broadcasting. It must be tiring for them. I thought that if I tried to talk more, they would be less tired. And most importantly, I never once thought that I am too talkative.
"I want to keep changing myself. If I don’t, I’d get stuck and become stagnant water."
Did you watch TheShy commentate as well? His comments were straightforward and good, and the community really enjoyed them.
Maybe because I’ve been in the team house with TheShy for so long, I don’t tend to watch those things. We know each other too well… He probably didn’t watch me commentate either. [Laughs]
Let’s go into some deeper questions. You have always said that you are a person that works really hard. I wanted to talk about that “working hard” first.
Many people say that I’m a hard worker, but I wouldn’t be able to catch up with the younger players otherwise. When I first started my pro gaming career, I was like 16-17. I was the youngest player on the team, but now I’m the oldest. It feels that I should lead the team both in and out of the game, so I tend to work harder.
I’m now in my seventh-eighth year. Whenever we play tournaments, when I’m in practice, or when I’m playing solo queue, I’m thinking about what I didn’t do as well and what I can improve on. The Chinese fans often say that “Rookie’s performance doesn’t decline”. That’s probably the reason they tell me that.
I want to keep changing myself. If I don’t, I’d get stuck and become stagnant water. I really don’t want that to happen. Moreover, LoL is a game that continues to change. There are also changes to our esports roster and unless I change myself, I don’t think I’ll be able to catch up with them. This is always on my mind.
Someone asked me about retirement once in an interview, asked me when I think I would retire. And my opinion is the same: I’ll retire when it feels that I’m dragging my teammates down. I haven’t felt that yet. This is the biggest determination that I have for myself, and I’m really doing my best, not giving up and working hard.
"I’ll retire when it feels that I’m dragging my teammates down. I haven’t felt that yet."
Your former coach Kim Jeong-soo’s comment on you was quite impressive as well. He said that you really tried hard on your own to survive in China.
Jeong-soo hyeong is really good at interviews. He praises me a lot too. [Laughs] I really sympathize with what he says.
When I first joined Invictus Gaming, I wanted to learn about Chinese culture and language quickly. One of the reasons I wanted to learn Chinese was… That I really wanted to talk [Laughs]. As I said, I’m not a talkative person in general, but when I’m with close friends, I get talkative. Whether it was in-game or out of game, I really wanted to talk, but since I couldn’t, I did my best to learn.
I think I’m a person who’s blessed with acquaintances. I had many friends that I could communicate with after joining IG, and I still have those friends. That’s one of the reasons that kept me in IG for a long time. It’s like family. They all treat me well and I return the favor. There are many people that have passed through IG and whenever they say good things to me, I feel good. I didn’t read Jeong-soo hyeong’s interview, but I feel really good that he said such things.
Many players mention the spices are the most difficult part of living in China. How did you adapt to that?
I like eating. Frankly, I didn’t like food with strong spices. I wasn’t used to it, so I tried to eat only the food that I could eat. One day, it all got okay. I just took a bite and it tasted really good. I’m in Korea now, but I keep thinking of Chinese food.
I recently uploaded on my social media that I wanted to eat Chinese food so much that I looked up the recipe and made a dish for myself. How did it taste? How could I put this… It wasn’t bad, but it was kind of a confusing taste. [Laughs] Is it supposed to taste like this? I miss the food and everything. Currently, my visa is being delayed because of COVID-19, so I can’t go back yet.
Right, there were a lot of struggles because of COVID-19 this year. Many players said that having no spectators was a real bummer.
One of the joys of playing on stage is listening to the crowd’s roar. Many pro gamers would agree. Obviously, there are players that get better when they play on stage, while others get nervous and underperform. I play because I want to listen to the crowd. Winning is good but I really like that atmosphere where we can celebrate or be sad together.
Also, Chinese fans are really active. They’re really aggressive when they’re cursing, too [Laughs]. As much as they’re active, they get really happy when we do well. I’m always so thankful for that. That’s why I was really sad about the crowdless matches. Any player that has experienced what I have would agree.
"One of the joys of playing on stage is listening to the crowd’s roar. [...] I play because I want to listen to the crowd."
You’ve been playing as an import in the LPL, but now it’s been four years: you can become an LPL resident but you didn’t apply. Was there a reason?
Since the beginning, I’ve had the mindset that I’m an LPL player. I never thought of myself as an import. I did my best to do well, to be proud of being an LPL player, and I think I did pretty well. I also worked hard to get appreciated in China as a Korean import. Thankfully, many fans really like me, so I didn’t really feel the need to transition to a local player, even though it’s been four years.
You mentioned age earlier — that you can’t catch up with the younger players if you don’t work hard. What are your thoughts on pro gamers’ aging curve?
Esports is a sport that is played with the hands and brain, rather than using the whole body like traditional sports. Although the brain can develop with the years, I feel that the hands slow down as we age. I haven’t found a way to change that through working hard yet. In traditional sports, if you can develop your muscles through continuous training, that can cover for it. Just look at Ronaldo or Messi: they’re still doing really well. I think that’s the difference.
Going back to the StarCraft days, most pro gamers would retire because their prowess declines as they age. There are exceptions, obviously, but I do agree that there are aging curves for pro gamers, at least within esports. I’ll really be doing my best to overcome the aging curve.
To be active for long, staying healthy is also very important. The most common ailment pro gamers suffer is from wrist or back pains. How are you in that matter?
Thankfully, I haven’t had any such yet. That might be one of the reasons that I’ve been active for so long without much exercise or treatment. I do take vitamins, but I don’t do anything special. I wasn’t even a sub player for long either; I haven’t taken a break for a long time except for when my father was sick last year. It’s a blessing to be rather healthier than other players. Maybe my body age is young [Laughs].
"I need to do well. I always think that every year could be my last year."
Younger players are coming up every season. As a veteran, what do you think when you see the young prospects coming up?
I’ve played one game for a long time as a pro gamer, so I have a deep affection for it. It’s still fun. I still have that excitement when I win or that anger when I lose. So I want LoL to be around for a long, long time.
That said, I always think this: if one player or one team wins everything for too long, the game wouldn’t evolve. Rookies have to come up, they would catch up to those who were good before them, they would have intense series and someone would win… This kind of storyline would be a plus for the scene.
It’s a game, after all, and competition has to be done together. We have to be together for the game to develop, and the game has to live for a long time so that pro gamers can get better treatment. Then, we would have a better chance to transition to a coach or another position in the scene. It may be regretful for a player to step down, but in the long run, a generation shift is inevitable and necessary.
The mid laners that lead that change had quite good results at Worlds 2020. The first names that come to mind are ShowMaker and knight.
Four LPL teams participated in Worlds. What they have in common is that they think of me highly. When another player says positive things about me, I feel good, and they make me want to give them more advice. They’re all good players, but there are things that they lack and I can see some of that. Although I didn’t make it to Worlds, I can still see and think about it.
Knight lost to Suning so he failed to reach the finals. Angel did really well, too. Knight would feel the most regret out of everyone. I just felt really sorry for him, watching the games. I really know that feeling. Everyone evaluates him really highly. He was at the top of ESPN’s power ranking and everyone in China has always said that knight is the best.
I think he had too much pressure mentally so his plays were rather conservative. If he was in an environment where he’s more comfortable, the freestyle plays of the LPL may have been more visible. I’m proud of him for making it into the semifinals in such a pressuring situation. I’m positive that he’ll become a huge mid laner that represents the LPL. He’s proven himself that much. It’s just the process of growth.
Although he lost in the finals, Angel too showed improvement during the tournament. I think no words need be said about ShowMaker. He’s a great player, and I believe he’ll continue to be one. I like all the mid laners that went far this year. They all spoke positively of me [Laughs].
Oh right, did you predict that Suning would defeat Top Esports to get to the finals?
I often said it in my own stream. Frankly, considering their performance in the quarterfinals, Suning had a better chance to win. I thought if Top Esports recovered their style, they would win, but if they didn’t, Suning would. That’s exactly what happened.
Let’s change the subject now. Slumps are normal for all players. For you, it might have been the year 2019.
The gloomiest season since I started my pro gaming career was 2019 Summer. My father was quite ill at that time, so I returned to Korea for a while.
As I said earlier, after aging a bit, I felt that I couldn’t catch up with the younger players if I didn’t practice enough. I’ve felt that since about season 7. That’s one of the reasons why I try to practice harder. But last year, I had neither the time nor the mentality to spare. I was very uncomfortable mentally.
Since I’m a pro, I needed to show professionalism, but I regret that I couldn’t. I still made it to Worlds, though [Laughs].
It must have been a struggling time out of the game. How did you overcome it?
Thankfully, the results correspond to my practice. If I don’t practice, I’m really bad. I’m so bad that the performance isn’t becoming of a pro gamer. But if I do practice hard, I get repaid for all the hard work. How much I’m proud of and respect myself depends on how much I practice. That’s one of the reasons why I keep trying hard.
So I just worked really hard back then. My father really likes me being a pro gamer. The mental part is really important for getting healthy. The more things that bring happiness, the better. I thought it would relieve my father’s stress if he watched me play in matches and if he smiled more. I kept that in mind while working hard. The result followed.
It wasn’t completely satisfying since we didn’t win the championship, but it was better than expected. I really didn’t think we would make it to the quarterfinals. I’m the mid laner, which is a position that has to be at the center of the team. I wasn’t able to do that, but my teammates trusted me and worked hard together with me. I was really grateful and sorry for that at the same time.
So you overcome your slumps by working even harder.
I can’t sleep until I’m satisfied. You know, there’s that expression, “riding a bus” [in Korea, “riding a bus” means to get carried — Ed.]. I can’t understand that. Maybe it’s because of my position. It doesn’t feel like winning if I “ride a bus”. This might be one of the reasons that I’ve been able to be active this long. Sometimes people say that I’m really strong; if I’m not, I wouldn’t be able to be in this spot today.
I always think that. The reason I’m here is because I’m good. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I have without my teammates, but I’m recognized socially, in the game, and I’m compensated well with money because I’m also good enough individually. There are many fans that like me as well. So I always think that I have to repay them through my performance. I need to do my best like that until I can’t play well anymore. That’s what I’m obligated to do.
Since you brought up money, it was once rumored that your salary was around $10M. Could you say anything about that here?
Well, this is really interesting. When I meet someone in Korea, they ask me, “Is your salary really $10M?” [Laughs] To tell you the truth, it’s not. It’s not quite in that range, but IG compensates me really well, more than enough.
You’ve been in IG since 2015. Have you ever thought about playing with other players in another team?
There have been offers from other teams, but I’m kind of a scaredy-cat. I was afraid of having to adapt to a new environment again. I do think about it sometimes, though. I think it might be fun to play with other players, but it always stopped there. The team really treats me well, too.
"I want to be remembered for a long, long time, even after I retire."
Then will you keep on going with IG?
Most likely? I think I will. [Laughs]
We’ve talked a lot. Time really flies. Wasn’t it tiring talking this much? [Laughs]
I like to talk. I don’t get tired from it. I’m getting quality rest recently as well. Since I’ve been home for so long, there haven’t been many places where I can use up my energy. I’ve been going to the gym recently… But there haven’t been any other things to do besides going to the gym or meeting up with my friends.
I think it’s time to wrap it up. What are your resolutions for 2021?
I’ll really do well. I need to do well. I always think that every year could be my last year. I’ll be thinking the same next year and be doing my best. Oh, and it might sound arrogant, but I’ll be bringing the Summoner’s Cup back next year. It’s been a while since I’ve touched it last.
Here’s our last question: how do you want to be remembered as a player by the fans?
Before, I wanted to be remembered as a trustworthy player. But recently, I’ve wanted to be remembered as a player about whom people would say, “Yeah, he was a great player that represented the LPL”. Also, out of the game, I want to be remembered as a player that has a great personality. And, I think it would be the same for anybody. I want to be remembered for a long, long time, even after I retire.