“Hi. My name is Sungwoong ‘Bengi’ Bae, and I used to play jungle for SK Telecom T1.”
“It’s only been three days since I’ve left the teamhouse,” started Bengi. “My going was peaceful. No one cried or anything when I walked out, although Wolf claims to have after I left. The quiet leave was expected. I had a lot on my mind, the others were busy. It went smoothly. Like flowing water.”
Being expected to win Worlds every year brings a massive amount of pressure, as does having to fight for a starting spot every game. Bengi’s primary factor for leaving was stress. “I was okay with sitting out as long as the team did well. And we did pretty well. The weight of being an SKT T1 player took its toll on me, though. I’ve thought about playing abroad for years now,” he admitted.
It was not the first time Bengi had thought about leaving, but it was the first year the team was willing to let the veteran go. “I’m an old player now, and haven’t been the most consistent this year. I think the organization wasn’t too keen to retain me this time.” SKT T1 has a long history of gradually rotating out veterans for younger talent. The two parties’ thoughts had finally aligned.
Many players on top teams confess to being hurt too much by negative fan reactions, but Bengi’s stress seemed to be mostly self-inflicted. “I don’t really care about how people outside our team think of me. I always focus on just doing what our team wants me to play.”
Bengi’s voice was reassuringly lighthearted. “Nicknames such as ‘Dark Flame Dragon’ and ‘the Jungle’ started out as barbed criticism, too, but through enough great performances, I’ve turned everyone around. Now they’re titles of praise. Even when fans ridicule me on Inven, I appreciate the humor in those jokes and sincerely enjoy the laughs together.”
Well aware of the “retirement home” mentality of certain previous exports, I began to worry if Bengi was another case of complete burnout. Those fears were baseless, however. The veteran jungler had figured out that he could use his slumps and hardships to prolong, not shorten, his career.
“It’s true that this lifestyle is painfully repetitive. Many players find it difficult to stay the course for years on end,” admitted Bengi. “For me, though, it was always more about trying to keep up with my own expectations, one step at a time.”
“It’s no secret that my form dipped a number of times over the years. I worked hard to return to shape every time it happened. Had I not possessed that work ethic, my career would have ended a long time ago.”
To his potential future employers, Bengi offered: “I’m open to all regions, and I can play any champion or style you want – you all saw my Nidalee at Worlds, right?” Bengi flashed a proud smile.
“Oh, and I’m particularly strong in big games!”
No Myth of Clutch
Bengi’s several midseason slumps, increasingly vision-centric style of play, and quiet personality have made him prime prey for many self-proclaimed experts. Even the most vitriolic of his critics, however, could not deny his mysterious tendency to deliver cracking performances in big games.
Some players choke all the time, others much less, but very precious few are as immune to it as Bengi. How does he do it? He answered lightly: “I think I’ve passed the point where the gravity of a match can get to me. I’ve been playing for quite some time, you know.” To the veteran who had already won all there was to win, an individual game was but the next drop to his tranquil ocean.
“kkOma probably turned white during the Game 4 draft, but I was actually quite confident,” shared Bengi, chuckling at the recent memory. “Everyone else was playing Nidalee – of course I would, and should, be able to use Nidalee well! It’s what’s expected of me as a professional. Which I am.”
The Polearm Master
Bengi did not start out with the model determination he has today, although his love and loyalty for his teammates was strong even then.
“I actually walked out during SKT T1 K’s open tryouts in 2013. All my friends that had applied with me were being disqualified one by one, and I didn’t want to play without them. But kkOma urged me to reconsider and asked me to return to the tryout. I did and was selected. How fortunate I was!”
Bengi laughed with relief. Without kkOma, Bengi would not have become SKT T1 Bengi, and SKT T1 would have been an entirely different team.
Before selecting “Bengi” as the name he would go by in professional play, Sungwoong Bae was known as “Polearm Master”. Renowned for his aggressive play and stellar mechanics on champions such as Jarvan IV and Lee Sin, Polearm Master was considered one of the hottest amateurs in Korea prior to signing with SKT T1. This may be a surprise to newer League of Legends fans, who will only have seen Bengi’s now signature style of heavily vision-centric, supportive jungling.
“As long as my team can have a better chance to win, I don’t care what I play, how I play, or what fans will think of me. Professional gaming is about winning. Only your victories, your career, remain with you at the end of the day.” Bengi’s voice was confident and adamant.
“I switched to a supportive style of jungling because we won more often when I played in that fashion.” Bengi understood that aggressive play was more attractive and exciting, but emphasized the importance of the greater picture beyond the tiny portion of the Rift shown on screen.
“Even if you pull off a gank successfully, revealing your exact location instantly empowers the opposition players on the other side of the map. All of my teammates and coaches pushed me to play the way I do now – around vision, around the team.”
Trouble in Paradise
It was one of the ferryman’s greatest virtues that, like few people, he knew how to listen.
A few months ago, C9 Impact starred on a casual League of Legends talk show and credited Bengi for being a “Buddha” that kept SKT T1 K as a functional unit. It was heavily implied that Bengi’s kindhearted style of conflict mediation was the only thing that saved the team from degenerating into a messy clash of egos.
Even in 2013, when “Judgment Day” mostly steamrolled over their competition, the team was not without internal conflict. “Everyone had very strong opinions,” Bengi recalled. “There were countless times where I had my own complaints, too, but I just kept it all down. It was my nature – I absolutely hate criticizing others. I always wanted everyone to be happy.” He became pensive.
“Looking back, I think I failed to perform my captain’s duties properly. I should have taken on a more authoritative role when needed. I should have mediated discussions more proactively. But I didn’t. I was too reluctant to hurt my teammates’ feelings, even when I perhaps should have.”
Things grew much worse in 2014.
“When we started losing, the debates grew longer, more heated. Everyone had different solutions. Let’s play more solo queue. Let’s play more scrims. Let’s draft differently. It was horrible!” Bengi’s tone was quite cheerful, but it was clear his answer was bringing back many unpleasant memories.
“Draft debates happened most often. Everyone had their own ideas on which champions we should pick first and which positions should get last pick. Listening to that really hurt my head,” he grinned.
“What kept me sane was my personal response to our grim results: practice. We were not performing very well, nor was I, but I could at least find reassurance and direction in my work ethic. I practiced as hard as I could every day. I don’t think I’ve ever practiced as much as I did in 2014.”
T1 K’s bleak 2014 performances bled into T1's early months of 2015. With Easyhoon and T0M doing the best job imaginable as substitutes, Faker and Bengi took some time off from the stage to recover their previous form. Bengi credited T0M’s spring season play as the catalyst for his return.
“Watching T0M’s games as a spectator helped me figure out my own problems. Comparing his play to mine, I realized the difference was confidence. Despite being a rookie, T0M was making moves without fear. I began to believe in myself again. All I had to do was to recover my confidence.”
Inspired by T0M’s courage on the Rift, Bengi made a glorious return to form. Coming off the bench with his team down 2-0 against CJ Entus, Bengi led SKT T1 to a thrilling reverse sweep with near-perfect play from the jungle: “TomTomBengBengBeng”. It is still considered his most heroic feat.
Bengi had turned all his harshest critics into awed supporters in the span of three hours. In an ecstatic fervor, fans on Inven agreed to reverse the connotations of “Dark Flame Dragon” and “the Jungle Itself”. The two nicknames soon were universally understood as praise, not ridicule.
Perhaps, people of our kind can’t love. The childlike people can; that’s their secret.
“Each patch wears me out bit by bit, the big ones more so. Junglers have to plan their pathings almost from scratch every time there’s any change to Monsters. It really is quite tiring,” Bengi grinned. “I’m guessing this aversion to change also has to do with the fact I’m getting older.”
Facing the greatest change in his career, Bengi took a moment to say goodbye to his comrades.
“L.i.E.S has always been kind to us. Competitive gamers can be a bit rude at times when communicating, but he never lost his cool. He took care of everything out of game and ensured we could solely focus on improving as players. He recently became the father of twins. I hope to meet them next time we meet!”
“kkOma and I met several times since I left. He’s still looking out for me, and for that I’m really grateful. When I thought of retiring at the end of 2014, kkOma was the one who convinced me to keep playing. By the way, he used to be quite jovial but has turned more serious every year. People change, I guess.
Watching kkOma play League of Legends is hilarious. He has succumbed to old age since becoming 30. His mechanics fell off a cliff. He’s bad at the game now. [laughs] This applies to me too, though. I could hit Challenger anytime back when I was younger. Now I’m less sure. Anyway, I hope you can get married next year, coach!”
Faker & Bang:
“Both tend to get angry in game a bit too often, so it would be great if they could tone down their tempers and relax a bit more next year. That way they’ll be able to play with less stress. I heard Bang cried a lot when my leaving the team was confirmed, listening to a song from The Hobbit OST… that made me sad. Remember we can meet up anytime we want!”
“I worry about Wolf a lot. There are a lot of strong opinions, big voices, within the team, and he’ll have to play the role of calming people down and keeping them together. It’s a sacrificial position. You have to put down a lot of your own ideas and feelings. I hope he’ll do well with his new senior status and all.”
Blank, Duke & PoohManDu:
“It’s been a tough year for everyone. I hope good fortune awaits us all!”
As he wrapped up his farewells, tears formed in Bengi’s eyes.
Recalling his last night as SKT T1 Bengi, he said: “I didn’t feel much when I decided to leave, but I was playing solo queue alone into the night at our teamhouse, on the eve of my last meet and greet, the last day of my contract… it hit me hard then. It was really hard, right then.”
“To me, SKT T1 was a friend. And I was leaving. I was leaving my friend behind.” Bengi broke down in tears, and we paused our interview. He didn’t speak for a while before adding, quietly:
“…I was just so very sad.”
“I am forever grateful to everyone who have cheered me on over the years. I am sorry for having left so suddenly. If you still so choose, please keep supporting SKT or Bengi. Wherever I may end up.”
I’ll miss you, Bengi.
Interview conducted by Ccomet & Roxxy from the Inven KR eSports team.
Italicized quotes from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.