The 2018 LCK Summer Split wasn't an easy competition for Afreeca Freecs. Although the team placed 2nd in the Spring Split, AFs faltered during the Summer and was even at risk of not being able to qualify for the Playoffs.
But thanks to KT Rolster's help(?), AFs placed 5th in the regular season standings and made it to the Summer Playoffs. In the wildcard match of the playoffs - denying fans' expectations of Gen.G Esports coming out on top - AFs took a dominating victory against them. AFs then proceeded to defeat Kingzone DragonX in the round that followed. Although their momentum was halted by Griffin in the semifinals, AFs played many memorable games throughout the playoffs and placed 3rd in the LCK Summer Split.
At the core of AFs' increased performance was Spirit. Although he's a player that received heavy criticism in the past for his inconsistency, Spirit played his heart out during the Summer postseason. We happened upon an opportunity to hear from Spirit about his team's famous practice routine, and the state of the LCK junglers at international tournaments.
Hi, Spirit! How have you been spending your time?
I'm on vacation. I didn't do anything special. I've just been playing games and streaming.
It's been a while since you've gone on a break... was there no urge to spend your vacation away from playing games?
It's different playing games on my own accord versus playing it during practice in the teamhouse. Freely playing League at my own house -- however I want -- feels really nice.
Afreeca Freecs finished the 2018 LCK Summer Split in 3rd place. Though it was a bit unfortunate, I feel that it was a satisfying result for your team.
We were very lucky to have qualified for the playoffs. But when we made it in, I wanted more. I didn't show my desire to reach higher to my teammates though. I simply told them, "It was very good that we could make it this far, so let's just do our best and have fun." It's funny because I was the only one that couldn't do that. (Laughs)
I always practiced late, and I tried harder than I had ever before. It was really disappointing that we lost in the semifinals despite my effort. I could've done more... I had felt that our team would do well in the Finals.
So in a way, I was more disappointed than satisfied. In addition, I lost to KT Rolster 4 years ago [in the Summer Split], so I was excited to get revenge this year...
Did you practice more in this split compared to the past ones?
I think so. But honestly speaking, there was not a single moment where I slacked after joining Afreeca Freecs. In addition, the team atmosphere changed to where we're encouraged to do our best at our own will. This type of practice method works really well for me, and I think that's why I was more motivated to do better.
When adjusting to a strict practice schedule, you easily become exhausted. Personally, my body couldn't handle it. When practicing by my own will, I know my body's limits, so I can more effectively span out my practice hours during the day. It's a lot more efficient.
For a veteran player such as yourself, I don't see any problems with you practicing in that kind of environment. But rookie players may face problems.
It's a case-by-case thing. There are players that'll practice on their own, whereas some will slack. And normally, you can immediately tell if a player has been slacking through team practice.
I imagine that competing with Mowgli for the starting position motivated you even further.
My goal in the Summer Split was to never allow Mowgli play a single game. (Laughs) I was successful at doing that until our 9th game of the Split. It was a promise that I made to myself, so it was a bit unfortunate. But of course, Mowgli is also a hard worker, and his strengths as a player are a great addition to our team; so it was correct to have him play. I'll have to push myself even further.
That seems like a fair and healthy competition for you and Mowgli. I've heard that in some teams, players become discouraged at the thought of competing with their own teammates for a starting position. Do you have a word of advice to give them?
If I'm to give realistic advice... I'm not a good player myself. I've thrown games on stage and have even trolled. But I never gave up and I kept trying my best. "Let's do more, I can't keep on being a detriment to my teammates," I said. Then, eventually, I started playing well. This advice isn't just for players who are competing for a starting position, but for every professional player.
I experienced that in Europe. When I first joined Fnatic, I couldn't fluently communicate with my teammates. I felt that I was playing a different game. I couldn't speak a word of English at that time. I felt disappointed in myself. Then I bit my lips and pushed myself. After 3 months of insanely hard work, I started playing better and my English improved.
The practice schedule in EU and NA is seen as more lenient compared to the LCK's. Wasn't it hard adapting to Afreeca Freecs' strict practice schedule?
I actually felt more comfortable here. In Europe, I practiced hard, alone. I slept 4 to 5 hours a day, practicing whenever I'm not asleep. Even the coach went as far as to approach me and tell me to "please go to sleep! Don't be too hard on yourself." When I joined Afreeca Freecs, I think I slacked at first. The environment was something that I was really used to; eating Korean food and knowing the local area. It wasn't difficult adapting to AFs' practice environment.
Now that I think about it, you're famous for bringing unorthodox picks and strategies out to the competitive stage. Recently, you even showcased Electrocute/Predator jungle Gragas, popularizing it.
Predator Gragas was our head coach's idea. He always brings great ideas. Even when the majority of the team denied the viability of some of his ideas, I thought differently. I try and practice it before judging him. So I tried predator Gragas, and it was good. That's why we played it during scrims, and on stage soon after.
Even if the one providing the idea is bronze or silver, the idea can always be of use. It's because they think differently from us that it breaks certain bias that professional players have. In addition, only so many ideas can come out of one person. Multiple people sharing different ideas will get you far. If you watch certain one-trick players playing in solo queue, you can find them taking odd but strangely good item builds and runes. You can also take note of their jungle pathing, no matter how low their rank is. I've watched and even imitated them in-game before.
After MSI and Rift Rivals, the LCK junglers received a lot of flak. Fans said that LCK junglers play too safely, making them very predictable. As a jungler yourself, what's your opinion?
Teams and players gain data through scrims, and they check which playstyle has the highest win rate. Sure, risky plays can bring good results, but it can also ruin your chances of winning. We have to play according to what the data shows because that's most helpful for the team.
I think teams overseas enjoy making risky plays. When watching them play, I sometimes think to myself, "how can they risk the game like that, making that play?" If you continue to attempt and make those 'dangerous plays', you'll get better at it; making it less risky with time. I think that's why the LCK teams failed to win the MSI and Rift Rivals.
Does that mean LCK junglers need to change their playstyle?
A professional player's career is all about results, and the Korean junglers were outclassed by both Taiwan and China. They lost. But then again, they've always played safely and won in the past, so we can't say for sure what's better for them. It's not an easy subject to talk about.
What do you think of your own playstyle? You seem to have an aggressive playstyle.
I try my best to play as safely as I can. But I've been playing for a long time, and have gained a lot of experience as a professional gamer. So I sometimes do whatever I want. (Laughs) I try different things on an impulse.
Afreeca Freecs has two competent coaches that know the game very well. Aside from the pros of having two coaches, I felt that having two leaders could cause disarray within the team.
I bet the coaches feel disarrayed because of us, too. We'll need to understand each other and move forth together. In addition, the coaching staff knows us very well, so there's barely any issues when it comes to that. There were times where we performed poorly after switching our 'picks and bans' style, but it wasn't only the coaches' fault. We just had bad teamwork.
Having synergy between players and coaches is just as important as having synergy between the players. It's important for a coach to know if a player is competent enough to utilize his strategy to a successful degree on stage. As for the players, it's important that players like their coach and his coaching style. In Spring, we had that kind of synergy, and we did well. During the Summer, that synergy was shaky, and that's why we struggled. The players performed poorly while at the same time, the coaches' understanding of the meta was off.
I guess in order to successfully pull off the coaches' strategy on stage, you'll need the necessary mechanical skills and need to be smart about your plays. So Spirit, do you consider yourself a smart jungler?
Back then, I was famous for my mechanics, but during my time in Fnatic, I learned to use my brain more. So in 2017, when I joined Afreeca Freecs, I was very egotistical. I felt that I was the best League of Legends players in the entire world. But in actual gameplay, things didn't work as I had thought and I threw a couple of games as a result. (Laughs)
It is disappointing. Many fans said that I was at my lowest during that time, but I truly believe that I was at my peak. League of Legends is a team game, so we have to funnel our opinions to flow in one direction. I wasn't able to do that in the past and failed to make good results.
Spirit, you're a veteran player of 6 years. Has the coaches' expectations of the players changed over time?
Of course. Back then, we played on instincts because we didn't know what the best way to play was. Back then we simply played our most confident comfort picks and hoped for the best. That's why players with good mechanics were famous at that time.
Many people were debating over whether or not a 10-man roster is beneficial to a team. Afreeca Freecs were the first to implement that type of roster, and they have even popularized it. What's your opinion of it?
The biggest strength of having a 10-man roster is that you can practice whenever you want in any situation. The downside is that you are limited to practicing against only a limited amount of players. If the skill gap is big, you can win with any composition, so the scrim data could lose credibility. Another downside is that you may start to know a certain players' playstyle too well. Where the player might be, where he will place his wards -- things could become too predictable, which ruins the practice.
Depending on the results of the Summer Finals, you will either head straight to Worlds or play in the Regional Qualifier. Is there anything you want to say to the players of KT?
To root for KT, I've started my '108 games marathon', where I play 108 ranked games in a row, rarely stopping for sleep. I'll finish my end of the bargain, so I hope KT comes through as well.
But when I meet KT players in solo queue, they are pretty bad. Deft needs to improve. I try my best in solo queue whenever I meet KT players to be good practice for them. (Laughs)
And even if KT loses in the Finals, I'm confident in winning the regionals. During the playoffs this Summer, our team was able to break the curse of 'never winning against Kingzone'. Thanks to that, I think we can beat them if we meet them in the regionals.
KT Rolster has secured their seed to compete in the World Championship. Now, two Worlds tickets remain in Korea. You're expecting your team to net the second ticket, so who do you think will be the third team to qualify for Worlds?
I never thought about that, actually. Personally, I want Griffin to qualify. In that case, all the teams that competed last year will not compete this year. It'll be really cool to see two veteran teams and one royal roader making it in.
LCK Finals, Regional Qualifier, and the World Championship. Which of these three seem the most pressuring to you?
For me, the World Championship. It's the biggest tournament! Even the group stage matches had me trembling. The 2014 World Championship was the first tournament where I played against foreign teams. I was so nervous that my hands shook throughout the entire duration of it. I want to feel that again, so I want to qualify this year.
This year's World Championship will be held in Korea. I bet that carries a lot of meaning for you.
I've attended every Worlds that was held in Korea. (Laughs) I want to compete this year. When I was in Samsung Blue, our team lost to White in the 2014 Worlds semifinals. Samsung White had a better understanding of the meta at that time, but it's still very unfortunate that we lost. This year, I'm going to aim to win.
Is there anything else that you want to add to this interview?
There's something I want to say to my teammates: "I know it was exhausting. Good work."
They really tried their best. Since I was already used to Afreeca's hardcore practice schedule, I didn't think too much of it. As a matter of fact, I actually found it odd that the other players were having a hard time because of it.
Then, I decided to take a step back and think about things from their perspective. When I did, it really broke my heart. Seeing them stressed out because we got poor results on stage, even though they're barely getting enough sleep due to their practice -- it made me feel extremely sorry for them. Especially because some of the games were lost due to me.
I want to thank them for not giving up. For always having trust in me.