Jongin “PraY” Kim’s debut was nothing short of impressive. As he appeared in the LoL scene in 2012, he was instantly touted as one of the best ADCs. In the first six months, he placed third in the Summer, made it to Worlds, won 12-13 Winter, and participated in All-Star. There are numerous veteran players who never got close to any of his achievements. Before Faker came on, no one thought it was possible to outdo PraY.
However, his professional gamer life was far from perfect. Though his climb to the top was gran, his fall from grace was much more so. It was then that his long slump began. Players often have differing opinions on how to get out of a rut. The most common way is to practice and get feedback. PraY was an oddity. Although he regrets his choice, he still rebounded in his own way. After hearing his story, I wished more players would be able to reinvent themselves to reach new heights as he did.
After setting a date for the interview, I went to bed in happy anticipation, because this interview, out of the many other ones I have gone to, was one of the rare cases where I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say. As I expected, PraY was as upbeat as he appeared in his personal streams. The interview itself lasted about an hour, with bursts of laughter found throughout. Even when approaching heavy topics, he kept his bright composure without dragging down the general atmosphere. From his stellar debut to the middle of his slump, here is the story of PraY.
The most obvious way to break the ice with pro gamers is to talk about the game. After pleasantries were exchanged, I asked him how he did with the Solo Queue he just finished prior to the interview. Smiling, he told me it was a close defeat and began to introduce himself.
"Hello, I’m Jongin 'Pray' Kim, the ADC for Longzhu Gaming. I’ve been a pro gamer for the six years come next year. It’s nice to meet you. Actually, I took a half a year off, so it’s more like five years to be exact."
He didn’t seem like the kind of person who took time to open up since he often smiled as if to prove that veteran players like himself are used to these things. Even as an amateur, PraY made a name for himself. I was curious as to how he got started.
"I started playing LoL about three months prior to my college entrance exam, when my older brother asked me to join. I wasn’t a particularly good student, but I looked the part. Even though I got into League, I sneaked a few games on a laptop here and there if my mom was away after coming home from after-school classes. In the NA server, I hit max level and was placed in Silver. Then I quit after winning 10 consecutive games because, after all, I was a student preparing for a test. Soon after the exam was over, the Korean server opened. People were given the chance to transfer their NA accounts to the Korean server, but I made a new account from scratch. While playing with my friends, I felt I outplayed most of them."
"I used to play a Warcraft 3 mod called CHAOS before I played League, and wanted to qualify for CCB(CHAOS Clan Battle) with my friends. I wanted to hear what commentators would say about my plays. I think I longed for an honest evaluation. After qualifying at the off-line event, online tournaments were set to take place where shoutcasters would be talking about my plays. Eventually though, my teammate had a personal issue and asked me to forfeit. Since the team was made up of my friends, I couldn’t go on without him."
Not every skilled player gets to become a pro gamer. Despite efforts from first generation gamers like BoxeR to break the image, public perception of professional gamers was still generally negative. PraY, too, admitted to having been stereotyped. Then how did he decide to become one himself?
"Honestly, it’s pure luck that I’ve become a pro gamer. I hate to toot my own horn, but I was singularly good when I used the ID, 'Troll Kim.' [laughs] I didn’t play hard to become a pro gamer. I didn’t even know there was such a thing for LoL. I just kept playing the game in my place near college, and away from parental supervision. My parents were adamant about me going to college, so I did. They told me to focus on my studies and maintain good grades."
"The slacker in me never went away just because I was in college though. [laughs] I played LoL everyday in my house; sometimes lying to my mom that there was no class today. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure she knew that I didn’t go to class. You know, sometimes moms just play along even though they know full well what’s happening. Playing like that, I was ranked second place and received offers from NaJin e-mFire and StarTale."
"Stracraft’s popularity was at its peak when I was in middle school. Many of my friends said that they will become pro Starcraft players. Aside from a few semi-pros, none of them became a fully-fledged professional gamer. Even when Starcraft reigned supreme, I never played a single game. I still had preconceived notions about pro gamers when I got offers from teams. You know, things like how pro gaming has a short life span and an uncertain future. That’s why I didn’t accept the offer right away. It was hard to even bring it up to my parents."
"Despite everything, I began my career in pro gaming. A part of me wanted to do it, but the other part saw it as an escape. I rarely went to school and failed every class except for one. I couldn’t bring myself to show my parents the report card. College education wasn’t cheap, either. So, I carefully approached the topic with them. They told me to come home to talk about it in person, and I went back home. When I talked to my mom about it, she said she didn’t know much about the matter and told me to talk to my father. Then when I talked to my father, he said the same thing. [laughs] I was nineteen years old at the time in Korean age, so I persuaded them I was young enough to try my hand at pro gaming. That’s how it all began. I guess my parents gave in because they thought that I would try for a couple years and go into mandatory military service if it didn’t work out."
An uninspiring college life left PraY with dreadful grades. Although he partly started his career as an escape, his first year went smoothly. I imagine that the accomplishments of the first six months did some good to his ego and helped wash away some of the guilt he felt from his unsuccessful college life.
"It’s not so much that playing well changed my family’s perception, but me being on TV did, to some extent. They recalled being entertained every time I appeared on TV because it provided an opportunity for the family to come together and watch me play. Additionally, I was doing quite well and made it to Worlds that year. Me being happy made my parents happy as well. I felt blessed to enjoy playing at the time. Games are fun when you win. It was really fun back then. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s a chore now. [laughs]"
Reminiscing about the early days, PraY did not stop smiling. Even though he’s reasonably happy now, perhaps what he missed the most was the simpler time, where he didn’t have to worry too much about outcomes. However, NaJin Black Sword’s streak soon came to a grinding halt after facing the Taipei Assassins.
"We were a team that made it to Worlds just as we were founded. Thinking back, players were pretty inexperienced. TPA was a team that was known to be weak through a show called Battle Royale. We didn’t think much of them either and thought ourselves to be already half-way to the semifinals. Then when we actually played against them, we were completely caught off guard because they were ruthless. We couldn’t do anything. Underestimating an opponent is one the biggest vices as a pro gamer, but we succumbed to that weakness, partly because of our inexperience."
But NaJin Black Sword didn’t let the defeat slow them down. As if to prove that Worlds was just a mistake, NaJin took the trophy home in the Winter against Azubu Frost, the runner-up of LCK Season 2. PraY went on to All-Star at the end of the year, effectively achieving titles in his debut year that most other gamers accrue over the course of their careers.
"My family was ecstatic, of course. My takeaway was that winning creates more confidence as a player. At the time, my honest mindset was that I’ll beat you. Period. Nowadays, it’s more along the lines of I won’t be beat so easily. Back then my confidence was through the roof, and I thought I could take anyone."
These days, most pro players do not have a huge variance among them, but PraY was unparalleled at the time. From imposing lane presence and perfect positioning, to having a wide champion pool, he was in a league all his own. Unfortunately, his unending confidence in that half year could not continue, as the 2013 Spring Season, the same time SKT T1 K made its debut, marked the beginning of his slump.
"I don’t clearly remember that season. People usually rank teams before the season starts, and we were chosen to be everyone’s favorites; the ones who were expected to win the championship. We also thought we could do it, but our practice sessions didn’t go as we expected, and our games degraded as a result. I think we didn’t get enough practice and had bad coordination. I still don’t remember well, but it was a season where I had the most regrets, because we couldn’t live up to the fans’ expectations."
Unfortunately, his slump continued through that year’s winter, and NaJin was eliminated in the next year’s Spring of Ro16. Even PraY, whom many considered to be a flawless player, began to show signs of weakness, evidenced by his impatient plays.
"Peaking in the first year and dropping down like that really pressured me to make something happen by myself. I don’t think I lost because of the pressure though; I just wasn’t good enough. I was devastated when I started to make mistakes that I’d never done in practice. I felt like it was out of my hands. After all, pros have to prove themselves with results. That season was when I couldn’t refute the claim that I was in a slump. It was the beginning of my slump."
"I honestly don’t know why it happened. I could try to go into some internal stuff, but I’d rather not because then I’ll have to point fingers. I believe we had a disappointing season because we played poorly. It’s not a single person’s fault. I was still confident, though. You know, I thought I could beat anyone if I set my mind to it. At the same time, I was starting to lose some of that confidence due to games not going my way and disappointing results."
A common trait among successful pro gamers is that they focus on their own mistakes rather than finding faults in others. Not every player who blames others succeeds, but all successful players don’t blame others. PraY is a case in point.
After Spring 2014, PraY left the team. I even heard that he was considering quitting pro gaming altogether. I was curious as to why he contemplated leaving his pro gaming career, one that he enjoyed and felt fulfilled in.
"You know, Spring was my last season before I left. Actually, I didn’t want to play in that season to begin with. Sangsu Shim, more colloquially known as 'Coach Sing,' was my coach at the time. I asked him why he didn’t let me go, and he said he didn’t want to face me as an opponent. [laughs] Except for the bottom duo, almost every player was new to the team. I felt like I should be the team's pillar and trudge through the season. I even requested that I be put on as a trainee later, if I’m not let go. I badly wanted a break. Then I thought I should give it another shot because it might be different this time. It wasn’t."
"All pro players aspire to play their top games. I guess constantly losing tired me out and made me want to take a break from it all. I needed time to refresh and start again. I became unsure of myself. I kept questioning if I could beat the other team. I needed some time for myself to recharge. I didn’t have any other special things that I wanted to do during the break. I decided that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend some time outside playing games."
While interviewing numerous pro players, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most important virtues for gamers is confidence, which can only come from practice and form. Without confidence, even the most mechanically capable player will struggle against those of less skill, because mindgames are a big part of any match. Players with less confidence will play passively and not make impactful plays, meaning that those players cannot attain the highest level of gaming. Bengi also cited loss of confidence as the main reason for his slump. PraY followed a similar pattern.
I asked him what he did to overcome his slump during the six-month hiatus.
"To be honest, I didn’t touch League for the first three months. It was around then that Ohq joined the team to form the Ohq-Cain duo. My mom kept telling me to go into mandatory military service because I wasn’t play the game. Then it dawned on me that I’ll have to go to the army if I keep this up. I booted up LoL again because I didn’t want to go and because I missed the cheers from the crowd. In the first game, I met pro gamers probably because my MMR was still so high."
"In my first game after a three-month break, I faced the Cain-Ohq duo. I was demolished. [laughs] It was such a decisive defeat that I felt my champion was obliterated. Curiously though, it was so much fun. I was laughing the whole time while I was losing. Suddenly some switch went off in my head, and I felt the urge to win again. That’s when I started to get back into League. I didn’t get very far with the ID, 'I’m a whale.' I reckoned that some teams will look for me if I rank near the top and got to about 20th place. I still didn’t get any offers. Then it hit me. Would it be possible that teams won’t sign me because I’m PraY?"
"So I created a new account called 'Afterglow Hill' and took it up to second or third place. I don’t think I ever hit first. Since it was a new name, I guess people forgot about PraY completely. As I was making my way through the ranks, people started to add me and asked me who I was. Many of them told me to get into pro gaming. I was rather pleased. I did my best with this unknown ID, thinking that I’ll get more offers if I keep trying."
His hiatus, stemming from a lack of confidence and a desire for rest, went on longer than expected. While he constantly had doubts about the future, he never seemed to lose that spark about him. I immediately changed topics to clear the air.
PraY returned to the scene after GorillA’s call. Frankly, no one would have expected GE Tigers to do as well as they did. Many people were skeptical of PraY’s form, while the rest of the team largely consisted of lesser-known players. I asked him how he regained his confidence.
"I think that Solo Queue is a good way to regain confidence for pro gamers. When GE Tigers was first established, I was full of confidence. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I could take on anyone. As you know, I went to hell and back. Most people didn’t know Smeb or Kuro. GorillA was the only one with a recognizable name. And no one knew Hojin at all. I asked who he was, and they could only tell me that he was a solid player. [laughs] It turned out that Hojin originally played below average and showed off some amazing plays near the end. That was how he made the team. When we started practicing, it didn’t go so well. We had to go through off-line qualifiers and the main event, but no one wanted to scrim with us."
"I tried my hardest, thinking that as long as we played well, we would find scrim partners. It was when we played in a Chinese tournament called IEF that our teammates became close and improved as a team. After that, we continued to do well and started to breeze through qualifiers without dropping a single game in the first round. That’s when other teams wanted to scrim with us. It was good times. I felt like we accomplished something on our own."
"We got more fans, too. Previously, our fans were mostly those of NaJin, especially people who liked Kuro and GorillA. I did have some fans, but they dwindled as rumors circulated on top of my slump. I accepted most of the blame for myself. Fans aside, most criticisms were targeted toward me and the company. I think more people started to hate on the team because of the company’s poor corporate image. I still believed that fans will root for good teams. Above all else, I tried to play better, so everything would be okay."
GE Tigers started with nothing but became a force to be reckoned with. At the center stood PraY, who proved that he was still relevant. Going from a team who couldn’t get scrim partners to a team that got requests for scrims in three months, GE Tigers took shape just as PraY imagined it would. I asked him if he had any second thoughts about his teammates as most of them were relatively unknown.
"I never had second thoughts about my teammates at all. I didn’t even think about how well I could play because I just wanted to get back in the scene. You know, I thought about taking a break from pro gaming. Soon, I found out that it made no sense. Not one bit. [laughs] Speaking from my experience, I totally agree with CloudTemplar when he told players to remain in the scene as long as possible. I’ve learned it the hard way. I badly wanted to play, but no team wanted me. I owe GorillA for bringing me back in. I’ve never worried about my teammates because it was such a relief to be able to play in Korea. As long as they’re decent people, I was okay."
Trouble did eventually find GE Tigers when they lost at the IEM World Championship. Some may say it was more shocking than when NaJin Black Sword was defeated by TPA. More than anything, the GE Tigers themselves were shocked.
"We rarely lost in scrims right up until we went to IEM. We even talked big about how we could make the Worlds finals in our current form. In fact, we never imagined we would lose at IEM, but we did. I think it was on us for not properly preparing. That was GE Tiger’s first official defeat, which did a number on our psyche. It affected the second round, where we couldn’t play as well as the first one."
After the devastating defeat at the IEM World Championship, GE Tigers began to deteriorate. Their trials and tribulations continued as they lost 3:0 to SKT T1 at the finals.
"I knew it was going to be a 3:0. I just had this feeling. We weren’t prepared for it. I’m not trying to single someone out, but Hojin couldn’t adapt to the new jungle meta. He was comfortable on aggressive junglers but couldn’t handle tanky junglers with the advent of Cinderhulk. I think the loss was on everyone. You know, Smeb was on Irelia for three consecutive times. [laughs]"
"A day before the finals, Smeb and I went to a Kimbap place right below the team house to talk about whether we could win. We came to the same conclusion that if Hojin could hold his own, we could. [laughs] We were laughing around after the finals and decided that it was on every one of us. On a positive note, we thought second place was still pretty impressive."
People may resent the fact that the meta changed suddenly before the finals. GE Tigers’ signature aggressive jungling was dismantled in a matter of days. Sure, adapting to a meta is a pivotal part of pro gaming, but patch timing left much to be desired. PraY smiled brightly as he reminded me it was still quite a feat to be runner-up despite the circumstances.
When the team was renamed to KOO Tigers in the Summer Season, they didn’t do as well as they did in the Spring. Somehow, they managed to go to Worlds and were a runner-up the same year the team was founded.
"After becoming runner-up for Worlds, we talked amongst ourselves while we were coming home. Frankly, each one of us was still a pretty crummy player. [laughs] It was a miracle that we made it that far. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we lost to KT Rolster. It was luck that we turned it around against KT to advance to the finals. When we picked out KT for quarterfinals, everyone was so happy because we thought it was a sure win. In hindsight, we should’ve lost gameplay-wise. You know, we were so behind. All three games were comebacks. I don’t know how we did it."
Although PraY called the victory against KT Rolster a miracle, I disagree. Their victory was the culmination of the hard work. They improved on their weakness of lack of focus in extended teamfights at the summer playoffs through sweat and tears. With the sponsorship gone, KOO Tigers must have felt some pressure, but still delivered. How did they come around in spite of the external circumstances?
"At first, I kept thinking about why things like this were happening when the team is doing so well. I felt as if the foundation was being uprooted. Maybe that’s why that season was the most memorable. Believe it or not, we practiced in PC bangs for Worlds. If just one person said no, it wouldn’t have been possible for us to go to Worlds. There were many other issues; the A/C didn’t work in the summer and neither did the heater in the winter. The team house was spacious, but nothing in it worked. During the day, the practice room got too bright from sunlight. We asked for curtains many times and ended up putting up papers on the windows ourselves. I had to shower with icy cold water for the first time in my life. I can talk about it now, but it was really tough back then."
However, there was another issue that shook him outside the game. I wondered how he drew the line between pro gaming and streaming. I asked him about it, and he still had mixed feelings.
"I think it's still difficult to draw the line, because I get a lot of personal messages from fans saying how they were disappointed by my use of profanity on stream. Receiving messages like that makes me second guess myself about streaming. I like the way I stream now, but I realize using cuss words isn’t an ideal way to do it."
"If someone’s vehemently against something, I won’t do it. Head Coach NoFe does keep me in line by providing honest feedback. Despite the obstacles in my career, I started streaming because many fans enjoyed it. It’s something I’m now passionate about and couldn’t have done without the fans’ support."
In 2016, the KOO Tigers were aptly rebranded to ROX Tigers as if to unite the team into a solid rock. They were defeated by SKT again in the Spring and ended up as runner-up. In the next season, they finally took home the trophy after being second place for the third time. I asked him how he felt at the time.
"At first, I didn’t feel much, but I was soon overwhelmed with emotion, since we finally did it. It was fulfilling. The games themselves were dramatic, too. It’s funny because we were quite excited for about an hour. You know, we should’ve collected ourselves because this season was just the beginning and we had to prepare for Worlds."
The ROX Tigers calmed themselves down and got serious for Worlds. Again, SKT was there to stop ROX in their tracks; it was extremely close. So close, in fact, that facing SKT would become almost a traumatic experience for them.
"When we were placed in the same group after Ro16, I said to myself, 'SKT, again?' I thought SKT was a team we eventually had to overcome if we were to win. It’s something we’ve been saying over and over. I imagined some other team defeating SKT for us, but none succeeded, except for KT Rolster’s dramatic comeback. We kept thinking that SKT is an opponent we had to face one way or the other, but I’m a little bummed that we couldn’t do it. It was so close. I still think about that match, but I probably shouldn’t dwell on it."
"Sure, I thought that taking the first game might have turned the match 3:0 in our favor, but speaking hypothetically is a slippery slope. When we played against them last year, there was a game where we were so far ahead but ended up losing. What’s done is done. We lost because they were a better team. When we brought the score 2:2, we thought maybe we could take SKT this time. All we had to do was take one more step, and that one step was what broke us. [laughs]"
I agreed with him that it was useless to be tied up in the past. PraY accepted the fact that there are some teams that had to be overcome. After Worlds, old ROX members left the team. Fans were shocked as the old ROX had the potential to make the next Worlds if the roster stayed the same. I asked him how he felt about starting over in his new team.
"It would’ve been nice if all members of the team had stayed together, but realistically, I felt Smeb and Peanut, who were under constant spotlights, would go their separate ways. After our contracts expired, we never talked about what we’d do, but knew it regardless. We wanted to stay together, but it couldn’t be helped. Although I’m not sure how the new ROX will do, one of my biggest regrets is leaving the fun-loving image of ROX behind. I’m sorry about splitting up, but it’s part of what pro gaming entails, because it’s a rather short gig."
"It’s probably not right to say things like this now that I’m in Longzhu Gaming, but I wanted to continue to play with Coach NoFe, who gives each player certain freedom while working inside the set rules himself. Whether he wants to work with me or not, is a whole different matter. [laughs] Since directors and head coaches have the most manager power, I think any team headed by him would be similar to old ROX. I totally dig that atmosphere."
"I actually received quite a few offers. My parents wanted me to go to China because other teams already made up their minds about what they wanted to be. My father was particularly keen on me going to China. Still, parents eventually give in to their children’s demands. I persuaded them I wanted to stay in Korea, and they respected my wishes. It was half persuasion and half nagging."
"I think people may forget you if you don’t do well in Korea, but they’re much more likely to do so if you don’t do well abroad. I’ve never played for foreign teams and had some fears about new challenges. It’s a small wish, but I want my new team to make a name for itself as GE Tigers starting from nothing. If I keep a positive mindset, I think we can take on the usual powerhouses. Originally, GorillA and I were going to go our separate ways because he didn’t get as many offers. If he went abroad, then I wouldn’t have been able to stay with him. Luckily, Longzhu wanted him, and we were able to play together."
PraY rejected some good offers from China. Even though he said his personal fear for new challenges made him stay in Korea, I think it was just the fear itself. Longzhu now has three ex-members of GE Tigers. Most fans don’t consider Longzhu to be a powerhouse since they didn’t have as much impact as Afreeca Freecs and KT Rolster. Still, I could sense in his tone of certainty that he could take the team to the next level. I can’t wait for the team’s spring.
His career choice which started as a mere escape turned out to be a suitable one for PraY. However, I wondered if he had any regrets about the roads not taken because that’s just how human mind works.
"I think even when you lose, you win some. I can’t be grateful enough for the attention I wouldn’t have gotten if I chose some other career path. Not everyone gets to be on stages like Worlds, All-Star, and LCK. I enjoy every moment of those special experiences. I believe there’s more to win than to lose. I’m only saying this because I’m thoroughly satisfied with my current life. My players may disagree because they have to lead different lives than people around their age do. I think being a pro gamer is a net positive for me. I don’t personally like going out that much anyway. Since my favorite hobby is video games, I just love to play games."
Only a lucky few do what they want to do as their jobs. Doing something one likes and does well is a true blessing. PraY knew this and understood that mulling over the past is poisonous to his psychology. To him, the present is what matters, and he knows how to make the most of it.