One day before the 2018 League of Legends Rift Rivals began, our team was able to interview Rookie. It has already been about four years since he's left Korea; after having knocked on the doors of LPL at the age of 19, Rookie has grown into one of LPL's biggest superstars.
Currently, Rookie is under the spotlight. The thought of Rookie going up against Faker, again, in the midlane brings a lot of excitement for both the LPL and LCK fans. Why is Rookie garnering so much attention despite his short LCK career? It's because he is one of the few midlaners that's defeated Faker.
Many years passed. Faker mentioned in a past interview that he's "no longer confident" in himself. Coincidentally, Rookie explained that he felt the same way. We heard from him directly on why he feels that way.
"Looking at the LCK players... they all seem really scary. From among them, Faker especially has a strong aura about him..."
As soon as the interview began, Rookie mentioned Faker. As a matter of fact, Rookie constantly mentioned Faker throughout the entire duration of the interview. We decided to interrupt him in order to continue the interview as planned.
"We're professional gamers, so I've been spending all of my time playing games. (Laughs) I think I'm practicing more here than I did back in Korea. Once in a while, I reminiscence about the day I won my LCK title. I think it was the highlight of my career. Although I wasn't able to compete in the World Championship that year, winning an LCK title was still a very valuable experience for me."
Soon after the interview began, the LCK teams who just finished their midnight scrim sessions walked across the hotel lobby and into an elevator.
"Since I play in the LPL, seeing Chinese players have become a norm. It feels great seeing Korean players like this. And in a way, the Korean players feel very "huge" to me. Last time I was here in the lobby, I met the players of SKT. Although Bang had a friendly aura, Faker was very difficult to approach. He felt like some sort of celebrity."
Although Rookie described Faker as a celebrity, Rookie himself is also quite popular here in China. Despite being a Korean, Rookie had done many things to appease to the Chinese audience. There were times when he recorded himself singing Chinese songs and playing the guitar. One time, his salary also became a hot topic in the CN League of Legends community.
"The things I did weren't that impressive! I could've played the guitar and have sung in Korea, too! Since EDG has a lot of fans, you might be able to feel like you're some kind of celebrity, but I'm not that popular. As for the salary... I was the one that was surprised when I heard how much Faker makes, it completely blew my mind. (Laughs) Let's just say that my salary won't blow you away. Many people tried estimating how much I make, but most of them were wrong. A lot of them overshot."
I then wanted to ask the question, "why is Rookie mentioning Faker so frequently?" The two haven't met each other for a significant amount of time.
"To be honest, I haven't had spoken a word to Faker before. In the LCK, there is no handshake culture after matches, so I couldn't even share a simple conversation with him. Also, he's my role model, so I can't help but become more and more interested in him. I still can't shake off the feeling that I got from Faker's famous 'Zed vs. Zed' Finals where SKT was able to reverse sweep and win -- I was a trainee for KTB at that time."
After revealing to us that Faker is his role model, Rookie became drowned in thoughts. He made an expression as if he had forgotten something very important. Then, Rookie started ordering the people that he missed and is glad to see.
"The people that I really miss, however, are the members of KT Rolster. I heard that coach Oh has been promoted to the head coach position. He still seems like the same person that I used to know... he does seem to put his hands inside his pockets a lot more often and naturally now. (Laughs) I haven't met with Score yet, but I really worry about his leg injury. He'll need to go do his military service while in a healthy state, right? Also, I really miss Poohmandu. I became close to him when we were in IG together. He used to be really handsome back then. Now, I'm sad that he just looks like an average middle-aged man with a big belly."
Rookie smiled, brightly, while talking about his old acquaintances. I then grew curious if Rookie is willing to return to Korea. He quickly replied with an "of course."
"I don't think there is another Korean import that has remained in the same team for as long as I have. I think I'm amazing in that regard. (Laughs) I think it's thanks to the incredible genes that my parents gave me. During my school years, I was a very talkative boy that had a hard time focusing on his classes. That exact personality actually helped me become closer to the Chinese players. My older sister, when young, lived abroad in Germany and the US. My older brother is in Shanghai right now. My parents are very open to us working/studying abroad, so they didn't worry too much about me.
I also thought about the possibility of returning to the LCK. But I'm not sure if I'll be able to adapt to the environment over there. LCK is literally a Warfield where you have to risk your life. Here in China, you are given more freedom. In Korea, if you lose a match, the storm that follows it hits really hard -- I'm not necessarily talking about fan criticism here, there are a lot of other things, too. Therefore, I never formed a plan about returning to Korea. In addition to that, I haven't made any impressive results here in China, but I'm still receiving a lot of love from the fans. It'll be difficult for me to just leave them."
Rookie will soon face Faker again in the midlane. The only difference between then and now is that both players have gathered more experience than before. Both players have become a senior of their respective teams, and they both have become a lot more thoughtful.
"It has been 3 years now since I played against Faker at All-Stars. Both of us changed since then. In the past, Faker made a name for himself through his extremely aggressive plays. I also used to have that kind of playstyle. I continued to play with that playstyle for 1 to 2 more years after arriving here in China.
But as you gather more experience as a professional player, your losses start racking up. And with that, you start becoming more aware of them -- you start to feel more pressure when playing. A lot of the fans may have started to notice, but Faker started altering his playstyle to be more of a team-oriented player. However, despite having become such a player, he still makes a lot of bold and aggressive plays. This is only possible because he is Faker. Back then, he made plays to carry his team. Now, he makes plays for his team."
According to Rookie, both him and Faker were hardened through the "fierce and cold world of competition." However, even though the two shares many similarities, there were definite differences between the two. Rookie, who has seen stardom here in China, stated that he still looks up to Faker -- for his strong mentality.
"We both had cried after losing a match before, but it wasn't similar at all. (Laughs) Faker shed tears from the bottom of his heart, his tears carried deep emotions. As for myself, I cried like a crybaby. During the Spring Split, I was under a lot of pressure. Following the opening series, I went on an 18-game winning streak... a lot of fans simply praised us for our performance, but I felt that we weren't deserving of that victory -- we weren't that good. I had a lot of concerns regarding our performance, I didn't know what was the issue. I felt a lot of pressure in that regard... I felt that we were still far from perfect, but fans saw us as a strong team that deserved those wins.
In that regard, I feel that Faker is simply amazing. He has a strong mentality and is able to perform at his best in large-scale tournaments. As for myself, I still have a weak mentality. I still haven't reached his level yet, and that's why I constantly look up to Faker in order to learn from him."
We then grew curious about what his opinions are on the new LCK midlaners, Ucal and Bdd.
"I feel that they have caught up to me. I truly think that both Ucal and Bdd are great players. Back then, whenever I saw a good play, I shrugged it off and thought that anyone could've made that play. Nowadays, I become amazed when I see those types of plays. Aside from pure mechanical skills, when I play against those two, I feel that they'll push me back with their fighting spirit alone.
During the Spring Split, whenever I met those two players in solo queue, I often won against them; so I didn't think too much of them. But now, it's become really difficult to play against them. That's why I also try and learn from those two. A lot of fans say that the new players are learning and growing at an explosive rate, but I don't like thinking in that way.
Saying that the new players are growing at an explosive rate implies that they'll eventually surpass me and that I won't be able to catch up to them with effort alone. So I simply tell myself that "I am a bad player," and have faith that in time, I'll be given an opportunity one day to catch up to them instead."
An older generation of players being replaced by fresh blood sound brutal in a way, but it's necessary to keep the esports scene fresh and entertaining for the fans -- and Rookie has now become one of those older players. Therefore, he'll need to be quick on his feet to adapt to the changes and keep himself motivated to continue to improve.
"Back then, I was a selfish player. I didn't care too much about my teammates' performance... I only paid attention to my own performance and believed that only I had to perform well. I was also very confident in myself. Even when we lost as a team, I comforted myself by telling myself that I did well. However, when I saw other Korean players making a name for themselves when moving teams to teams, I realized that my idea was heavily flawed.
Though slow, I think I improved steadily at my own pace. I started talking a lot more in-game, and I started altering my playstyle for the team. But once in a while, I get confused. If I stop playing the game during breaks, I heavily start underperforming.
If I play solo queue in that state, my winrate drops significantly. But I still make good results in scrims because I play more carefully during it. This is what I'm concerned with right now. Although I have lost a lot of confidence, ironically, I still make good results when playing with my team. That's why I started doubting myself, and that's why I don't ever become satisfied with myself. While practicing, you have to be able to measure yourself and see how much you've improved. However, I don't get that feeling anymore... and that's why I'm worried."
Rookie stated that this year's Rift Rivals is very important to him. Not only because the tournament will act as a way for him to test his skills, but because it'll be an opportunity for Rookie to become satisfied with himself. He concluded the interview by exerting his resolution for the tournament.
"Rift Rivals kind of carries that 'mid-term check' feeling, you know? Although it does have that lighthearted feeling to it, you can't just play in it for only fun. In a way, Riot Games is really brutal. (Laughs) They gave us a fun yet heavily pressuring tournament...
This tournament is very important to me. I want to try and enjoy the pressure and the burden of having to play in an international tournament. RNG did so well at MSI, so imagine what'll happen when we underperform.
It was very fun doing this interview... it had been a while since I've had one in Korean. I also missed it. There are still a lot of Korean fans that remember me. They've been consistently messaging me through SNS. I've only read and haven't replied to any of them, but I want to borrow this interview to thank them. "Thank you so much for remaining as my fan." (Laughs)
Also, I want to apologize to the Chinese fans. IG wasn't able to perform up to expectations. I have been dodging the fans' criticism by throwing excuses left and right. Now, I want to accept all of them and begin fixing the team as a whole -- and step by step make better results as a team. Please continue to cheer for me."