It has been a long four weeks since the 2019 LEC spring split started, and we have already seen it all: crazy outplays, funky decision-making, and unique picks. But there have also been Korean player arrivals — and most of them are shining brightly.
As unassuming as he is, Lee “Mowgli” Jae-ha has been the most successful so far. As a member of Team Vitality (6W-2L), he facilitated the team’s game plans. He has consistently tended to the needs of his laners - especially mid laner Daniele “Jiizuke” Di Mauro - and spiraled his team's advantages out of control. At the same time, he has swung tricky matchups into manageable ones. The team’s results don’t lie.
Somewhere in South Korea, his former coach on Afreeca Freecs, Choi “iloveoov” Yeon-sung, must be proud of what he’s seeing. During week 2, Mowgli mentioned that iloveoov reached out to him, and it brought back memories.
Mowgli spoke up as he reminisced about the stern and perfectionist head coach. “He told me to be a more meticulous person; I used to be very clumsy,” Mowgli said. “iloveoov always told me to pay attention to every detail. He had even told me that when an amateur joins the team, and he is told to clean or wash the dishes, you can make out how skilled he is in-game by seeing how he does his chores.”
Mowgli also remembered the man behind the famous nickname: Choi Yeon-sung, the doting elder brother, and a man who was as enthusiastic as his players when playing League of Legends — sometimes too much, as his competitive ruling during the 2018 World Championship attests. Among the Afreeca Freecs players, it seems he and Mowgli were quite close; “As a joke, Kuro, TusiN, and Kramer would sometimes say, ‘you're our head coach's son!’" Mowgli recalls, before laughing.
There were also nine other players competing for starting spots. In fact, Mowgli himself was competing for a starting spot himself, behind Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon, for nearly two years. Spirit is known for his talkative personality, and that rubbed off on Mowgli; “I was able to learn how to shotcall and communicate with the team through him,” he said.
Although they competed for a spot, that competition proved healthy for the team as a whole, as they reached the 2018 World Championship. There, they initially lost their first two games, and the situation seemed to reach a critical level for the Korean teams, as fellow Korean competitor Gen.G experienced similar losses. As talk circulated about Korea’s decline in League of Legends, Mowgli played in Afreeca Freecs’ third game and sparked a revival of sorts. Even then, he was nervous.
“I always wanted to experience Worlds as a player, so I was extremely happy when I was able to compete in it with Afreeca Freecs,” he said. “It’s very memorable since I won the MVP on the first match that I played at Worlds. The World Championship is the most prestigious tournament in the League of Legends esports scene, so it was very meaningful to me that I was able to attend it and gather experience. If I’m to compete at Worlds again, I think I’ll perform better - as I’d be less nervous.”
The team eventually reached the quarterfinals as the top seed of their group, but they were struck down by Cloud9. All of a sudden, his season had ended, and he had to decide: what would his future hold? Would he remain a substitute within Afreeca Freecs? Fortunately for him, his future became clear when some old acquaintances reached out; Team Vitality wanted him — and him alone — for their jungle position.
Team Vitality had bootcamped within the Afreeca Freecs team house during the 2018 summer offseason. They met Mowgli, iloveoov, and everyone else when they were there, and they scrimmed together. Team Vitality also took part in other activities; “[We] experienced Korean traditional food and culture,” Mowgli recalled. “Through those activities, we became pretty close.”
They became quite close - to a point where Vitality was comfortable reaching out to Afreeca Freecs during the offseason. They were interested in Mowgli's skillset, and they wanted him to complete their roster. There was a solid reason as to why they did: his adaptability.
“A jungler’s role varies depending on his or her team’s overall playstyle,” Mowgli said, modestly. “I always try my best to fulfill that role. Sometimes I’m given an offensive champion, while other times, I’m given a defensive one. Whatever pick I’m given, I do my best to do my part.”
He once looked up to KT Rolster’s Go “Score” Dong-bin for his smarts on Summoners’ Rift, and adapted some of Score's plays to his playstyle. But the thought of leaving South Korea behind hgot him thinking: there would be no Afreeca Freecs, and no iloveoov in Europe. “Now, Vitality plays in a league overseas from my home, so I thoroughly considered the option before deciding to go,” he said.
Mowgli made an immediate impact in Europe as a member of Team Vitality, seemingly not skipping a beat even after the changed environment. Despite the language difference, he has supported his teammates in-game throughout victories and defeats. In a way, his transition to Team Vitality has been mostly seamless, despite the distance between South Korea and Europe. It was essentially business as usual — except for a few key details.
“In terms of everyday life, I don’t feel a large difference between Korea and Europe,” he said. “The only big difference is the language, but thankfully, I’m not completely clueless about it. I think I’ll be able to quickly learn English and adapt to the team.”
At the moment, although he can understand English decently, his ability to speak it is not where he wants it to be. In a way, Team Vitality will improve as he eases into the language. “As of right now, I’m not too sure, because I can’t fluently communicate with my teammates yet,” he said. “If I shotcall in Korean, I can be more detailed with my orders; but here, I’m making the simplest of calls.”
Thankfully, his teammates have been welcoming — especially Jiizuke, with whom he built a nearly instantaneous synergy. Jiizuke is not the only one; Mowgli is close to everyone on the team, and he’s having a good time. However, some glitches occur from time to time. “They really like making jokes towards me - I think,” he said. “I actually can’t understand them fluently so I’m not too sure. They’re all very nice and active. I’m having a good time.”
However, it was not until recently that he truly realized that he had arrived in Berlin, Germany.
Mowgli could notice differences between Berlin and Seoul, South Korea. Mowgli had heard of Berlin before, but he was quick to notice — and to highlight — the lower pollution levels and the presence of ‘a lot’ of expensive cars. He had expected some of it, though, as he spoke to a few Korean players familiar with Europe such as Lee “IgNar” Dong-geun, Kim “Profit” Jun-hyung, and Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon.
“I actually spoke to them before coming to the EU,” he said, before adding: “I’m closest to GorillA, and I message him almost every day; just talking about things that you would with a friend. I remember GorillA telling me that he feels like he’s going to get depressed because the weather here is often gloomy. Personally, for me, the weather doesn’t really affect me emotionally. In addition, I heard that the European teams and their staff treat their players really well.”
On the other hand, he hadn’t experienced much of the city. That would change, as he joined Misfits Gaming’s GorillA and Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon, aong with translator Hyunseon “Hajinsun” Park to go on a discovery trip with friends.
“The Berlin trip we had was going around the city to look at its buildings and visiting museums and aquariums,” he said of the trip. “When I first arrived here in Germany, it felt unreal; but going on the trip made me realize that I’m actually, finally in Berlin.”