On November 25th, 2018 Lee “Crown” Min-ho joined OpTic. Like many other Koreans, he decided to leave the LCK to try his chances abroad. There are many reasons as to why Korean players do this. For some it’s opportunity, players like Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon had a choice between either staying on the bench of playing for one of the premier teams in Europe. For others it’s a payday with Gu “imp” Seung-bin being the most iconic example. In the case of Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, it was his chance to try to travel the world and experience something new in his career. In the case of Crown though, it is a search for meaning.
Crown’s entire career has been informed by this search. Like many young Korean players, he grew up watching Brood War and came to idolize the greats of that game. Among them, he had a particular affinity for Lee “Jaedong” Jae Dong. In an interview with invenglobal, when he was asked if there was a player who had motivated him to become a pro, his answer was Jaedong.
“Lee Jaedong. At the time, he was very cool. After witnessing his plays, I was motivated to try even harder for myself. I chose the best of the best as my very first role model, so no other player really caught my attention.”
While Lee “Flash” Young Ho is considered the greatest Brood War player of all time, Lee Jaedong was not far behind him. In many ways the two of them defined each other’s greatness. Both were transcendent players of the game. Players who had the talent and raw determination to push themselves to the very heights of Brood War competition and to claim dominion in the most competitive periods of Brood War. There was a destiny that entwined the two and for people who seeked individual excellence, their careers were as bright stars shining in the night sky.
That brilliance drew Crown in and so he decided that becoming the world’s best in Brood War was to be his life goal. In an interview with Waxangel, he told him about the difference between him and other League of Legends players,
“LoL players, it feels like most of them don’t have a goal? I do feel that they can’t help it, because salaries are so high with foreign teams and all—the salaries are just so much higher than before. People are only looking for more money, better teams, and better rosters.
Me, since I was young, I dreamed while watching Brood War. Since a long time ago, I’ve always played with the definitive goal of becoming the best player.”
However, Crown never attained those heights. Never even got close. His career ended before he started. He was able to become a trainee, but didn’t get much further. By the time he got to that point, the entire scene had shifted from Brood War to Starcraft 2. SC2 was a completely different type of game from Brood War and one that didn’t fit him. In his interview with Waxangel, he reflected upon this,
“So I tried StarCraft II for the first time, and it really wasn’t fun for me. It made me think, “why am I doing this? What I like is Brood War.” I felt that way for a bit, and I told myself it was time to call it quits. If I had started earlier, and Brood War had gone on for a bit longer, I probably would have been a better player.”
Brood War was to be a distant dream, one that could never be fulfilled. So Crown moved on in his career and started to play League of Legends. In 2014 he played in Brazil before joining Samsung Galaxy at the end of 2015. For Crown, 2016 was to be his best year as an individual player. That was the year when he was arguably the best mid-laner in the world. It was also the year when Samsung Galaxy rose up as a serious regional threat within the LCK. They were barely squeezed out by the Afreeca Freecs in the Spring Split and denied a spot in the playoffs. In the Summer Split, they got fourth in the regular split, but were swept by KT Rolster in the playoffs 3-0. In the gauntlet to decide who was to take the third spot to Worlds, Samsung made a revenge tour as they beat Afreeca Freecs and KT Rolster to take the third slot to represent Korea. The team then went on to make the finals where they lost to SKT 2-3.
When asked by Waxangel about his feelings about coming so close, but being unable to take the victory, he replied,
“*Laughs.* After that… I don’t think I’ve ever felt happy since we finished in second place. I want to win a championship already so I can find happiness, which is why I’m continuing to play.”
The next year was to be slightly better for Samsung Galaxy. They had added Kang “Haru” Min-seung as jungler. He was to be the potential replacement for Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong as he was the better player. It never worked out that way as while Ambition was a worse player, he brought intangibles to the team that defined their playstyle. Outside of that, the other players all started improving and coming into their own. While they improved, Crown went into a slump. Despite the loss of Crown’s individual form, the team got better results. They took 2nd in LCK Spring Split and 3rd in the Spring playoffs. In the LCK Summer Split they got 3rd and took 4th in the Summer playoffs. They found themselves in the regional gauntlet again where they once again beat Afreeca Freecs and KT Rolster to make it to Worlds.
The Worlds start was shaky as they went 1-2 in the first week of play, but were able to adapt and grown from those losses which helped them finish out the group 4-2. Once they got into the playoffs, they cruised through the rest of the tournament as they beat Longzhu 3-0, WE 3-1, and SKT 3-0. This was supposed to be the crowning moment of the player’s careers as Worlds is the tournament that everyone dreams of wishing.
In a post game interview with invenglobal though, Crown was dissatisfied,
“Being completely honest here, after Worlds, I was considering the idea of retiring because I was not satisfied with my own performance. Despite winning… how do I put this… it didn’t feel like I deserved it? It didn’t feel like I had won with my own skills. My team had won, but I have lost. I can’t describe how I felt, and to be honest, I don’t know what made me think that way. It felt as if the team had won the game for me.”
It was a victory, but not one that filled Crown with the glory that he was searching for. When Crown first started on this path, he wanted to be a Brood War player. He wanted to be able to stand tall on the podium, pick up the trophy, and know that he was the best player in the world. However in League of Legends, you can be a worse player, but still win so long as the team was better. This was the paradox that Crown felt. He knew in his heart of hearts that he wasn’t the world’s best mid laner, but his team had won anyway. Because of that, he was unable to find the happiness he thought was supposed to come with winning the championship.
The coming year of 2018 was to be his year of discontent. Crown never became the awe-inspiring mid laner that he was in 2016. Instead his team slowly crumbled away as they were unable to evolve and change past their past selves. During this period, Jaedong was streaming Brood War and Crown came to ask his idol for advice.
Wow, Crown went into StarCraft legend Jaedong's channel to ask him if he found meaning in life after winning a championship… Jaedong could only tell him that it's an endless struggle, where you try to find happiness in little things https://t.co/4l2ePNBdid
— Kwanghee Woo (@SaintSnorlax) June 19, 2018
Jaedong did not have the answer he was searching for and though Samsung Galaxy was able to make it to Worlds, they busted out in group stages without leaving any kind of impact. Now we come to the present where Crown has decided to leave LCK to join OpTic and compete in the NA LCS. This was foreshadowed in his interview with invenglobal following his 2017 Worlds victory when he was asked if he ever considered joining a team overseas. He replied,
“Recently, yes. I also have intentions of going to either NA or EU if I fail to become satisfied with my own performance during the next season – taking the opportunity to learn English and remotivate myself. Up until now, I was never satisfied with myself, but it might be different this year. I want to “try and experience” playing overseas.”
For Crown, this move to NA LCS looks to be his final gambit. One last try to find the meaning in being a professional League of Legends player. For Crown, he has held a gaping hole in his heart. The one that yearned to be a Brood War pro, but never got the chance. He filled that with becoming a League of Legends player. He became on of the world’s best players in 2016 and in 2017 he won the ultimate prize with a victory at Worlds.
Even then though, he was never able to fill that yawning gap in his heart. He could never find the meaning of why he played or what made him happy. For Crown this is his Journey to the West. A personal crusade to try to find out what gives him happiness, what gives his life meaning. To try to understand what he was, what he is, and what he wants to be. To once more capture that feeling when he started this journey, when he first dreamed of being a pro.