[Crumbz's Desk] Always a Sub, Never a Starter: The Blank Story

 

The dream of becoming a progamer among teenagers has spread like wildfire. At an age when passion and commitment often overflow into obsession there's nothing more rewarding than doing what you love and making a life out of it. Sungu "Blank" Kang was no exception.

Following Samsung Galaxy White's victory in the 2014 World Championship, Riot prohibited sister teams. The most successful sister teams were Samsung Galaxy - White and Blue. Both had major regional and international success in 2014. This success sparked the interest of Chinese teams in Korean players, for the Chinese had been bested by Koreans in 2 World's Finals, and the reason was deemed to be that Korean players were simply better. Bids for players begun, and ultimately all 10 members of both Samsung teams left to compete in China. We remember this as the Korean Exodus, an event of massive importance to the global scene that eclipsed many other regional moves.

For the interest in Korean players wasn't just in elite talents. Rookies and lesser known players were also on the radars of Chinese organizations. For unknown Koreans, this would be a great way to kickstart their careers. Blank was one of those players. A 16-year-old Korean Rookie signed to Energy Peacemaker Carries, but he wasn't the only Korean on the team. They also signed Uijin Park; you probably know him as Untara.

Neither Blank nor Untara saw play for 5 months and eventually they both joined another more successful Chinese team, Star Horn Royal Club. Untara did not appear in any games, and returned to Korea to join the struggling CJ Entus. On the other hand, Blank played a few games, but for the most part remained on the bench, overshadowed by legendary jungler Insec.

 

Early in 2015, Bengi, SKT's jungler, was becoming inconsistent. While SKT was affected by the ban on sister teams, they were no strangers to substitute players. So they signed solo queue player Tom as their second jungler. Tom made some waves pioneering his Udyr into the competitive meta, but ultimately did not live up to SKT's standards. He left the team alongside Marin and Easyhoon at the end of the year.

As Bengi's performance continued to deteriorate, SKT was looking for a new jungler for 2016, and like Tom's acquistion, they signed Blank, a young and untested player. Blank saw some playtime in Spring against weaker opposition, but his performances left much to be desired. Then, in March, he received his true test: IEM World Championship. SKT chose to bring Blank and not Bengi for this tournament. They were just coming off of a Worlds victory and the quick bracket format of the tournament would be perfect for a rookie to play in. The tournament also lacked major competition for SKT with only Fnatic and Origen being World's Semifinalist but both were dismantled 3-0 by Koo Tigers and SKT respectively not long ago. The chances of SKT losing with a substitute jungler were minimal.

SKT swept the tournament and Blank showed signs of promise. Not in the eyes of fans, as they remained rabid supporters of Bengi, but in those of SKT. Back in Korea during the 2016 summer split he nearly doubled Bengi's 14 regular games with 27 of his own and was even entrusted with the entire semifinals match versus KT Rolster. SKT lost 2-3 but managed to qualify for Worlds as the second seed from circuit points.

 

During Worlds, SKT played Blank in a couple of group stage games and in all the wins of their 3-1 victory against RNG. This was an inconsistent RNG who barely got out of groups and every analyst across the world agreed that SKT would win with ease. Yet when it came time to play versus the Korean powerhouses of ROX and SSG, Blank fell short and Bengi came in to rescue SKT in both the semis and finals to secure SKT's third Worlds title.

Afterwards at the end of 2016, SKT announced the departure of Bengi and acquired superstar jungler Peanut from ROX Tigers as their new starter. A universally praised carry jungler, with both charisma and skill to boast. He was seen as the perfect addition to SKT. Peanut commanded the field in 2017 Spring and Blank once again saw very little playtime with only 6 regular split games. Back to square one. That year, SKT won MSI, and while Blank was present, he did not play a single game.

Now we arrive at today, where Blank sits at a whopping 13-game win streak in the LCK. He also has more games played than Peanut in this split. Somehow Blank has been coming into matches that start at a deficit, turns them into a win and saves the day, thus earning him the nickname "Blankman" - most notably in the first Telecom War of the summer split where KT obliterated SKT in game 1 and as Blank and Untara entered the rift SKT won 2 back to back games to beat KT. But how did we get here?

 

You have to understand the past to know the present. Knowing Blank's origins helps us understand the reasons for his success. This player is the living embodiment of a 'substitute' mentality. What do I mean by substitute mentality? As a substitute your goal is obvious: to prove your worth as a starter and no longer be on the bench. But how? You're most likely a sub because the team has deemed you inferior than their starter. So the perspective that a substitute must take is similar to that of an engineer's. They need to find flaws in the current system and fix them, while improving the already working foundations.

Blank started on Energy Peacemakers (which didn't play him) and the team failed. He learned what can cause a downfall in a team. He then moved onto Star Horn Royal Club, which had with better players, but failed just as Energy Peacemakers did. Once again he learned the mistakes of the team from the sidelines, but is not entrusted with significant playtime. Then he joined SKT. There he learned from Bengi, who often came in to turn matches around after an opening loss. He learned a new perspective on how someone else can come in with a game disadvantage and change the morale of the team, and finally got to apply those concepts himself on stage.

 

When a player joins SKT, an internal dialogue is sparked. Even if the player does not see themselves as worthy player, the organization does. And that builds confidence.

That confidence is used to power through the nerves, the negative fan response and the new environment. But it's the responsibility of everyone involved to encourage and build these players up. Of course, playing alongside Faker, Bang and Wolf while under the supervision of the SKT coaching staff sets the player up for success as they can easily see the path to victory alongside the world's best; it's a luxury that no other organization has. But being thrown into this high pressure environment can prove to be too much, and for Blank it was, but SKT was there catch him. They intervened and Blank was placed in psychotherapy to get him back on track.

This split, most of the games Blank has played have been alongside his former benchwarmer buddy, Untara. But the synergy those two have is something we can only observe from an analytical perspective in games and VODs. Perhaps one day we will be lucky enough to have insight into their thoughts on their past and current situations. What we can be certain of is that they will continue to make their way onto the hearts of viewers as players that truly started from the bottom and are still earning their way to the top. From their already impressive accolades they have ammassed a wealth of fan support and trust from their team.

They are making an argument for being starters. For us viewers it's interesting to dig deep into the intricacies of the team, speculate who is better or worse and who deserves to start. However these are not the matters that SKT or its members concern themselves with and that's what keeps them at the top. Win or lose, subbed or not, in their minds they can always play better, they chase perfection. They have even told us that they are being taught a new form of League - 'Art' as Huni calls it. This art has no room for complacency and it's that attitude that gives us a never ending stream of high quality League of Legends.

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