The Berlin crowd teemed with Origen supporters. H2k-Gaming ground stares into their monitors at the start of another fifth game in another EU LCS semifinal. Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu, Yoo “Ryu” Sangook, and Coach Neil "pr0lly" Hammad felt the familiar sensation of sinking into a third place match. They weren’t going to catch a second wave of confidence. Someone would have to take the responsibility to carry the game.
And Ryu wanted to play LeBlanc.
Ryu had demanded to take the pick in the fourth match as well, giving H2K their second loss of the best of five, but this wasn’t the first series where he’d had this inclination. With unwavering conviction in the SK Gaming third place match in 2015 EU LCS Spring, at match point in Game 4, Ryu had asked to play Kassadin. pr0lly relented, and Ryu demolished SK Gaming to tie the series, leaving an opening for H2K to close it out in Game 5.
Against Origen, PR0LLY assented to Ryu’s Game 5 request, and H2k-Gaming locked in a last pick LeBlanc against Origen’s Orianna. The game unfolded as a slow bleed, setting the LeBlanc further behind in CS despite an early kill, and they lost after 40 minutes, dropping down to their third consecutive third place match in the EU LCS as a team.
The LeBlanc pick stuck with viewers of the semifinal well after the series concluded. Usually praised for drafting, H2K had their champion select called into question. pr0lly has expressed multiple times that Ryu is a player he has relied on in the past to make a confident call for a comfort champion to carry a game. The failure of the LeBlanc pick didn’t change that.
Ryu said last week that, at the time, he didn’t realize pr0lly had this kind of faith in him when he made his requests. “[Against SK],” he said, “I just said that I want to play Kassadin.”
When asked about the minds that drive H2K, the other players will heavily credit pr0lly as a coach, a mastermind of lane swaps, and Ryu for his in-game voice, suggesting that part of H2K’s struggles in 2016 Spring came from losing Ryu as part of their shot-calling system. Rather than having a very formal coach-player relationship, Ryu and pr0lly would rather describe themselves as friends — friends that share care packages from Ryu's Korean family. pr0lly's public depictions of exchanges between himself and Ryu are often filled with jocular quips. Though far more of a pressing situation, Ryu’s “I just said that I want to play Kassadin” response is consistent.
H2K fans have come to expect their “Ryu of the Day,” an ongoing series of tweets from pr0lly that depicts instance when Ryu begrudgingly complies with pr0lly's whims in exchange for Starbucks, short-changes him or avoids standard niceties. Though Ryu has said that “Ryu of the Day is overhyped,” pr0lly disagreed.
“It’s like that, but for everything… I think if he just gets a chance to get something his way, he’ll ask for it in three different ways," he said.
"So the first time I want something, he’ll ask to put it off for an hour later, and then the next thing is he says, ‘Let’s just do it in my room then,’ so I say, ‘No, we can’t do it in your room, we can’t do it an hour later.’ ‘Okay, well buy me McDonald’s,’ so he has a tier list of what he wants, and he’ll just go through it until he gets something.”
As humorous as pr0lly makes their relationship seem, and from what can be gleaned by watching them play on Ryu’s stream or talking to the two of them together, Ryu’s frankness is part of what makes him seem trustworthy. When it gets down to the eleventh hour, and the team has lost their cohesion, Ryu will still say what he thinks without judgment, the same as he will in team discussions.
“[Ryu] has the best arguments,” pr0lly said, “and his arguments are always just ‘Why?’ and a very sincere why, not like he’s judging what I’m saying, but more like he wants me to explain it… He never dismisses my opinion without really questioning if I have thought behind it. He can tell if I actually have good judgment, but if he can’t see my point of view, he’s really curious and wants to know more.” Even in the case of a stalemate disagreement on champion picks, Ryu doesn’t shut pr0lly down. “It ends with, ‘No, I don’t agree with it now, but I’ll look out for it in the future.’”
To an extent, the dynamic between Ryu and pr0lly has stayed the same since they became player and coach. “Personally I don’t ignore [other] opinions on something,” Ryu said, confused by any suggestion that pr0lly would have had to do something special to earn his respect. “I just listen.”
I say to an extent because when Ryu and pr0lly first met each other in the H2k-Gaming house, they couldn’t communicate at all. Their first "conversation" consisted of the two of them sitting at a desk together. pr0lly asked Ryu to write out details about himself in Korean, and he complied. At the time, Ryu didn't speak any English. "I’ve never met someone I’ve had to start from zero with," pr0lly said. "There’s always something we can say to each other... Now we’re at a point where it’s like, ‘Holy shit, we can talk, isn’t this awesome.’ — We don’t say that, obviously.”
From there, Ryu’s own drive built up his ability to communicate with the team and pr0lly in match breakdowns more efficiently. During scrims, pr0lly pulls the players together to discuss VODs. In the earlier days, they would huddle around his tiny computer, trying to bunch wide gaming chairs about a single desk. Ryu always sat somewhere in the back.
When pr0lly does game breakdowns, he's thorough. After one 20-30 minute lecture, he remembers looking up from the computer to make eye contact with Ryu in the back. "Did you understand any of that?" pr0lly asked him.
Ryu just shook his head and laughed.
The Korean mid laner’s contributions to discussions increased slowly over time, largely driven by what pr0lly describes as a need to contribute and understand what's being said. Eventually, he would point to the computer screen and tell his teammates in broken English where he thought they should go on the map.
pr0lly had to learn to interpret and fill in the blanks. Just as Ryu gave pr0lly the benefit of the doubt and wanted to know his thoughts, pr0lly found himself thinking more and more about what Ryu meant or how he would think in a situation. “I would fill in all the gaps on why you would do this movement. I would be able to tell the players why you move here, and why this is good.”
This kind of communication would inevitably make the bond between a coach and a player much stronger. From these interactions to pr0lly’s “Ryu of the Day,” almost every mention pr0lly gives of Ryu suggests that he really wants everyone else to appreciate Ryu as much as he does.
pr0lly credits Ryu with helping to improve how he thinks about the game. “Before I started coaching for Ryu,” pr0lly said, “my thoughts were always short-term focused, so a lot of the decisions that I thought were good in game, if you were to repeat them, they would eventually get worse and worse on a longer time line."
As an example, pr0lly said one of his most common calls as a player was to group early. He remembers several instances while coaching H2K where he would point to the map and suggest they should have grouped up in a game.
"Why?" Ryu would ask, and pr0lly had to think more critically in order to provide an answer. The task of searching for the right way to explain why he would make that decision and Ryu's own explanations for why he thought they shouldn't group forced pr0lly to begin to think about the loss of CS and experience to the team that came with grouping.
“So working with him helped me see not just mid lane things,” pr0lly said, “but other roles as well because a lot of the mid lane things are not just like mid lane-specific. They very much encompass how the rest of the game should be played, so things like grouping for mid lane and the [resulting] XP or CS losses I’ve been able to gauge a lot better. The fact that he questions a lot of things, just like purely out of curiosity, kind of helps me pick and choose what’s actually good.”
Though expressed with a more limited English vocabulary, Ryu had similar things to say about pr0lly. “When I have many [thoughts],” Ryu said, “he talks with me, and it helps me.” He added that this isn’t just limited to the game, but to a lot of problems he’s encountered in living in Berlin or other aspects of his life.
Being the only Korean player on a foreign team is rare. Many teams usually follow the model of the “Korean buddy system.” Ryu hasn’t had that, and it’s forced him to bond with his European teammates and his coach more rapidly than perhaps he would have otherwise.
Becoming friends with pr0lly, Ryu said, was just natural. Within minutes of speaking with them over Skype, it became clear that pr0lly's accounts of his interactions with Ryu on Twitter aren't always exaggerated. I started by asking Ryu what he thought of pr0lly as a mid laner.
“What can I say?” Ryu asked pr0lly.
“You have to tell them about how amazing I am.”
“pr0lly is good.”
“He’s a liar.”
To confirm pr0lly’s assertion that Ryu had indeed lied, I asked him what about pr0lly's play differed from his own.
“I really didn’t see his play in mid,” Ryu admitted.
“You don’t watch your coach?” pr0lly feigned dejection.
“Yeah, I don't watch.”
This kind of intrinsic ease and trust can raise alarm bells. Friendship between a coach and a player is something that’s been in the public discussion before, covering both positive and negative aspects. The upsides are obvious, as trust needs to be something teammates share to rely on each other to succeed, but spectators might interpret things like the LeBlanc pick in the Origen series as placing too much value in what a single player wants to play.
pr0lly’s responses to these criticisms are consistently self-reflective. On Summoning Insight, he explained that, though he ultimately still believed it was the right decision at the time, he’d have to consider it again if something like that happened.
“It didn’t change anything [about my level of trust in Ryu to make those calls] because I knew at that point in the series it was up to Ryu to be making these big plays,” pr0lly said when I asked him about it again. “The trust stayed the exact same, and it was more I need to make sure my team doesn’t get to this state where I’m relying on this one person to make these big plays.”
pr0lly added, "He’s been the most intelligent player I’ve played with before. Even when I was a player and now as a coach, I haven’t met anyone who has matched him. You look up and trust the person who is smart, you know?"
Though pr0lly trusts Ryu in these situations more than the other players, he said that it’s at least in part because he was a mid laner himself. “I’ve played LeBlanc against these two champions, and I know it’s miserable. There’s nothing you can do. But he’s a really smart guy, I’m sure he knows this already, so this is something he can carry on. Whereas with top or jungle it’s hard for me to see their perspective because I never played that role really. So when they really want this champion, on paper I know it’s bad, so they either have to earn the trust by pulling this off before or talking to me before the game. Then I can treat everyone else the same way.”
In a similar vein, pr0lly asserted he has a close relationship with Odoamne, the player who has been with him and H2K the longest. “With Odo, I just kind of saw myself in him. He’s like super passionate and he would never half-ass anything. When he puts his name on something, he really gives a shit about it, and I feel the same way," he said.
"If I were a player in Europe, I probably would have ended up like Odo. I would have the exact same mentality, probably a lot of the same issues that he had throughout teams and stuff like that.”
Regardless of one’s perspective on pr0lly's give-and-take with his players, it’s clear he views these friendships as strengths, having gone so far as to say he stayed with H2K this year because he feels obligated to Odoamne and Ryu as his friends. “It is my duty to change public perception of them and show who they actually are,” pr0lly told RedBull, “They haven’t got the recognition they deserve.” For him, this is a major motivating factor.
And with Ryu, again, it seems to be rooted in a mutual desire to succeed. PR0LLY has said publicly that the 2015 World Championship motivated Ryu more. Beyond that, he values that Ryu will always challenge him in ways that are productive — ways that make him better at, not only his job, but the job he used to have as a pro player.
“I wish I had him as a coach when I was a player,” pr0lly said. “Watching him and learning from him has made me a lot better as a player, and it’s kind of hard to remember how I used to play because after watching him for so long, I’ve kind of become like a mini-Ryu in how I play solo queue… Everything he did was just way more efficient.”
Though H2K fall into ruts and fail to adapt in playoffs habitually, one of their biggest strengths as a team is in figuring out how to play the map most efficiently before almost any other team in Europe as patches change drast. The mutually challenging relationship between Ryu and pr0lly is just one cog in the wheel of how it works. With a major patch rolling out, H2K have the opportunity to play to their strengths and crack the code before anyone else.
Ryu is at least 1-1 in tense playoff series when H2K are scraping the bottom and he demands a champion he can use to carry a game. Though if what pr0lly says about how their dynamic works is true, H2K will focus on the "whys" and on refining the details thoroughly this time. They won't get to the point where morale has depleted, and they need to rely on a single player to try to carry again. The important thing about H2K's Game 5 LeBlanc pick isn't just that it happened, but why pr0lly trusted Ryu to make the call.
That answer could turn out to be a major reason that, this time, it doesn't happen again.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.