Scrims have just ended for Team Liquid, and the team prepares to sit down and review their footage 20 minutes before I'm scheduled to talk with Austin "Link" Shin. Like most things in esports, the review ran late, but that was to be expected. After all, he's more than a year removed from the competitive scene and is bound to be a little rusty.
LoL and Link have a tumultuous connection, at least from the community’s perspective. References to Link are often met with the immediate recollection of a fiery document, known jokingly as the “donezo manifesto.” The heightened drama of such a document, which outlined Link’s problems with the Season 4 iteration of Counter Logic Gaming as well as LoL as a whole, overshadowed his legacy as an LCS pro. At his height, Link was considered a stalwart presence and an incredibly smart player with a great intuition for how the meta would shape up.
When we delve into the sensitive topic of his departure from CLG and the competitive scene, the veteran mid laner shares an enlightened perspective as he turns the page on a new chapter with Team Liquid.
“After my period in CLG where emotions were high, we were kind of feeling sad. It was kind of a pretty shitty period because of all the feelings that just accumulated afterwards,” he said. “Quite honestly, I don’t really like how I did things or how I ended things as well. You know, I have regrets as well, and I have matured as a person since then.
"When you’re emotional, you’re going to make some bad decisions.”
In the time he spent away from LoL's competitive scene, Link dabbled in a few activities. The one that garnered the most attention was his foray into Dota 2, which included a rapid ascent in solo queue and a run in The International qualifiers.
But not only did Link make the jump to Dota 2, he was really good at it. He had a 60-70 percent winrate while playing above 7,000 MMR — in the ranked environment, 7K put Link in the 99.98th percentile of all Dota 2 players. He thinks he could have easily hit 8k, and given his win rate and competitive mentality, it's hard to argue against it.
His raw ability, coupled with his connections in the Dota 2 scene had him playing with well-known casters Ben "Merlini" Wu and Austin "Capitalist" Walsh on their TI qualifiers squad known as the Vegetables Esports Club. The squad was mostly for fun, and Link suggests that his participation was “just an on a whim thing.”
“They just kind of invited me to play with them. It was just for fun,” he said, adding that he's learned a lot from his time in Dota, specifically some insight into the differences and what he would like to see carried over to League of Legends.
“There's too many patches in League. There’s a lot of small patches rather than one big one that changes the game. A lot of new champions are incredibly overloaded in what they have.”
At this point, he goes on for quite a while about Camille, a champion that many professional players have agreed has an overloaded kit. “Champions then get too overtuned when they get buffed, and they get overnerfed too hard. Their balancing is very strange to me because sometimes champions stay on the S-tier for too long, rather than having one S-tier and then a lot of A-tiers.”
He furthers his points with very specific examples and proceeds to cite a focus on imbuing power onto champions over items in League of Legends. He remarks, almost nostalgically, on how heroes in Dota 2 have unique identities and specific purposes. As a result of this specificity, he mentions how big of a role counters play in the game and immediately runs through certain scenarios.
"They pick Alchemist, I pick Ancient Apparition," he says before we laugh about other noteworthy counter-picks.
Link also finds that items are a lot more interesting in Dota 2 than in LoL. Whereas Dota 2 provides potential to all heroes via trinkets such as Blink Dagger, Eul's, and Force Staff, he sees League's itemization as very clunky. Morellonomicon, Redemption, Locket, and Rylai's are considered as the worst offenders, gating how champions are supposed to be played because of how optimization is too obvious in League. If I already didn't think that Link could cut it as pro Dota 2 player before, I was now a true believer.
In addition to playing Dota 2, Link returned to school and took computer science classes at UC Berkeley, which proved to be an interesting experience for the veteran LCS player.
"Naturally, I do connect with gamers, but when I was a freshman and I was still 19, so I made a lot of good friends. I did take a break and I did join CLG and I did go back to Berkeley, but this time was a lot different because I was a lot older, and you know everyone in my classes are younger. A lot of people recognized me, so it makes it a lot harder to really... instead of being Austin to them, I was Link, CLG Link. It's very different.“
Being Link instead of Austin resulted in a lot of pressure, and even more distractions. Often, his fellow, younger classmates would try to get his attention during classes. Laptops in front of him would beam with empty word documents turned into billboards of "Hi Link!"
Suffice to say, the attention had him less focused on notes and more focused on laughing it off. The level of dedication of these Berkeley fans made him feel uncomfortable and out of place at the school, so much so that when I asked him whether that presents too high of a barrier for him to complete his degree, he had to contemplate the question for a few seconds before saying that he did want to finish his degree. But before that, he wants to enjoy the perks of being a competitive LoL player.
So why did he come back to this esport? After all, Link had already sworn off the game in his manifesto, citing the fact that “League of Legends is devolving into a game that I don’t even recognize anymore.”
"I felt like if I wasn't going to go into the true competitive Dota scene, then there's no point of me playing at that high of a level anymore… I like being competitive, I like to be the best, the feeling of improving is really nice. I was burned out at the time [of leaving], I felt like school was not the right thing to do... and watching  Worlds kind of lit up a fire in me. So I wanted to come back and play.”
Dota's scene is much different in Link's eyes. it's too much of a grind for it to be worth it, and even then you might get lost in the roster shuffle. Maybe his 7,000-8,000 MMR could get himself out there, but being successful and on a team is the difference between knowing a TI winner and not. Building those connections was exhausting, so he returned to League because he already had the connections necessary to facilitate a successful return.
Link found comfort in his League connections, and therefore opted with that environment. Resting on his laurels, however, are not what he has his mind as he makes his comeback. He in fact dropped everything in order to accommodate his return, from college to other games to his newfound social connections outside of the game, all for the sake of being competitive again.
“The thing about entering any competitive scene is you need to make connections. You need to be high up on the ladder and you have to prove yourself. It's very risky. When I first entered it was a risky move, but I still felt like there was a good chance that it was low risk. I joined CLG and we almost got relegated twice, so in that sense it's very risky, but at the time I didn't feel like it was that risky."
Team Liquid had approached Link with the prospect of the tandem mid setup in mind. One of the points of interest for a lot of people watching Team Liquid will be who exactly plays, when, and why. With Link coming into the fold after a lengthy absence, the tandem system along with the extensive staff can allow him to slowly and surely come back to form. As a result, he doesn't mind the setup, and seeks to thrive in it. “I would like to dominate the starting spot, and become a competitive player. Grayson [goldenglue] and I are trying not to think of it as a competition. It's rather like, if you're better you deserve the spot, if I'm better I deserve the spot. Until that moment happens, we're gonna help each other in mid lane.”
And, as fate would have it, Team Liquid will kick off the 2017 NA LCS Spring Split against Counter Logic Gaming, in a matchup that he knows will get the community excited.
“Yes, I want to face CLG. I would like to play as much as possible; for the fans it's kinda hyphy, [they’ll say] Link just came back and he used to be on CLG his entire pro career and now he is versus them. Yeah, it's a good story, but there's no bad blood between us," he said. "To me it's just having fun. It doesn't matter who I am playing, to me it's competition. I'm not playing vs five players, but five champions; I just have to beat those champions. I'm also not too worried playing versus my old friends. To me it's fun, if anything. Playing against your friends and beating them is even more fun, so if I do play I fully intend to go in and win.”
A stark contrast to his exit, the return of Link to the LCS, from my experience, seems noticeably measured, mature and insightful. What at first seemed like burning bridges now looks to be flames that ignite a renewed passion for competition and professional play; and what at first seemed like Team Liquid themselves playing with fire is instead a shrewd investment on the growth of their team.
Gabriel Zoltan-Johan is a News Editor at theScore esports and the head analyst for the University of Toronto League of Legends team. His (public) musings can be found on his Twitter.