When Immortals failed to qualify for Worlds in the NA LCS Regional Finals in 2016, their top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon could not have predicted that he'd be spending his next split in the LCK — and on SK Telecom T1, no less.
That's partially because the list of players who have left Korea for Europe and North America and then returned to play a relevant role in the LCK is pretty short. Now, playing with some of the biggest names in the esport as part of SKT, Huni can count himself among them.
Though Huni played as a practice member for LCK teams in 2014, he did not start on a Korean roster and chose to leave his country of birth to pursue options in Europe, ultimately spending 2015 with Fnatic.
That campaign saw him reach the semifinals at Worlds, with what was arguably the strongest Fnatic roster ever assembled. But even with that roster's historic finish, Huni had no illusions that he would return to the LCK.
"I thought I could never get back into Korea to play as a pro gamer, competitively, because the LCK level was insanely high compared to other regions," Huni said. "I actually felt that after 2015 Worlds, I saw that the result was a Korean team versus a Korean team in the finals, and we got 3-0'd against a Korean team. So it was like, I don't know... since then I couldn't imagine joining an LCK team."
After his stint with Fnatic, 2016 saw Huni move to North America, playing top for Immortals. Though he did sometimes play more supportive picks, he became known for playing carries in the top lane, a reputation that began in the EU LCS and followed him to NA.
When, in the NA LCS 2016 Spring Playoffs, Huni played exclusively carry champions, including Lucian, in their 3-0 match loss against Team SoloMid, it raised concerns from some about his champion pool and playstyle. But he cautions that, while he was known for carries, it didn't mean that he couldn't play tanks.
"I played tanks in scrims, of course. People thought that I never played tanks when I played for [Immortals], they thought I played only damage champions," Huni explained. "Lucian was the champion I played most in scrims, and it was the highest win rate in scrims, the top Lucian. It was quite funny, but I got f**ked with it at the semifinals."
Immortals fell short of Worlds again in Summer, and Huni headed back to Korea, where he was furiously grinding solo queue while also reacquainting himself with his friends and family.
Eventually, he was contacted by SKT, something which took him by surprise. Though he expected to field offers in the offseason — likely from NA or EU organizations — he wasn't expecting them to come from LCK teams.
"In the few LCK teams [contacting me] was SKT. The feeling was insane. It was so surprising. Because SKT... I couldn't even imagine joining SKT, because of course they're the best team in the whole world, they've won Worlds two times in a row," he said. "'This just doesn't make sense, wow. This is a really great chance. This is going to be the biggest chance of my life,' so of course I tried to talk to them instantly."
Despite his previous sentiment that the level of play was simply too high in Korea to allow him to continue his competitive career there, Huni said that SKT coach Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun, as well as head coach Choi "cCarter" Byoung-hoon "saw, somehow, my talent. I really appreciate it."
"And the feeling was — first of all, 'Wow, I'm an LCK player,'" Huni said. "That made me really excited."
Adapting, not changing
As Huni sees it, his playstyle has adapted to the meta, not changed, since joining SKT. He has been playing mostly tanks, as befits the current meta. He was always capable of playing tanks, he said, but as an import there was more pressure in the West to carry games.
"NA and EU is — of course, compared to Korea — lower-level. So imports need to do more things than in an LCK team," Huni explained. "So I was getting pressure that I need to do something more and more, not playing defensively or... when the game is even or when we're being pressured, of course I felt like I need to do more, I need to make the game reverse like this. I think that was the problem that made me a carry top laner."
That pressure to carry has disappeared on a stacked SKT roster that also boasts the likes of mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho and bottom lane duo Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan.
Now, the focus is on adapting to the meta and making sure that he fits into the team's overall strategy. And, he adds, that process takes time and is ongoing.
"For now, here, I'm just trying to adapt to the SKT playstyle. Of course, when I just joined SKT, there were problems with me and as a team, because I'm just the new player. This 100 percent should happen, because it needs to be fixed. There was a lot of problems, and I was trying hard to adapt to SKT. I would say, adapt to the meta, not really change."
For fans of the LoL competitive scene, the name SK Telecom T1 itself conjures different images: but one recurring theme likely common to most is the idea of the wholly-dedicated players that make up its roster.
The illusion that the team is "all business," that its players were single-mindedly devoted to winning as their sole goal, is one that captured even Huni's imagination. He assured me that the team has breaks, just like any other he's played for, and that players meet with friends or go out for drinks. But before joining, even he was worried that that may not be the case.
"I even thought that there's going to be no time to take breaks if I joined SKT. That was my first worry point. Like, 'Wow, maybe SKT's so strict,' that's what I thought," he said. "When I just played solo queue, there was always an SKT player. That means that, insanely, they're just working hard always."
But it isn't the organization, he said, that is making the players put in longer hours than might be strictly required. The pressure comes from outside the organization, from its fans, and from the idea that the team — which has rightfully earned a reputation as the world's strongest — must defend their legacy.
"Of course you can have off time. Of course players want off time, even coaching staff wants off time," Huni explained. "But there's a lot of pressure from outside the team. SKT is the best, and they need to save the title. So that's why they're working really hard, and they never lose that motivation. And we are still the best."
Huni, too, has felt that pressure. SK Telecom — the company as a whole, not the esports team — is a huge business in Korea. That kind of recognition surpasses even big western esports organizations like Immortals and Fnatic.
"And it feels quite different. It makes me proud, myself. Because I'm working on SKT, dude! I can make jokes to people," he said. "And compared to the West, it's quite different. The team name is not a company name."
One down, one to go
SKT's Spring 2017 campaign saw them take first place during the regular season, and seal the playoffs with a 3-0 match against KT Rolster. They will soon head to the Mid-Season Invitational as their region's representatives.
Even after that dominant result, heading into an event where they are considered favorites, SKT has retained the motivation to win.
Teammate Faker, who Huni described as "way, way better than people think" — a serious feat for a player who is casually and frequently described as the game's greatest ever — is a great example of the kind of motivation that seems to envelop SKT's roster.
A three-time World Champion, Faker could be excused for resting on his laurels. But he doesn't, hasn't and if history is any indication, he likely never will. As Huni explained his initial surprise at the level of discipline from both the roster and the coaching staff, he sat next to Faker, who was playing solo queue into the evening. Huni confirmed that the team had already been playing all day, and describes Faker's drive as "insane."
"He's winning all the time, but he never loses motivation. As a pro gamer and League player, it's five people playing. Let's say two people aren't working hard, the other three people will obviously be getting exhausted, because if you see one of your teammates isn't motivated, then of course you're going to lose your motivation."
Huni won't say that he's confident about Worlds 2017, noting that teams often seem to work much harder in the summer split.
But despite his efforts to remain humble and laud his teammates — themselves certainly worthy of distinction — one fact seems abundantly clear. Huni does indeed feel he has been underestimated in the past. He seems happy and thankful, but at the same time, he doesn't intend to let this chance slip away.
And, whether or not he was able to imagine it in 2014, his first split has shown that he belongs in the LCK.
Josh "Gauntlet" Bury is a news editor for theScore esports. You can find him on Twitter.