eSports
Emily Rand 10d

Lee 'CuVee' Seong-jin is smiling all the way to the top

esports

A taxi ride to OnGameNet's e-Stadium, home of League of Legends Champions Korea, takes visitors past the Seoul World Cup Stadium in Sangam, Mapo-gu. It looms large above the nearby buildings. Three years ago, this stadium hosted the 2014 League of Legends World Championship finals, where Samsung Galaxy White was crowned world champion.

Nearby, the S-plex center looks like any other high rise, and OGN's e-Stadium is at the top. On Sept. 7, the ground floor was filled with fans milling around with permanent markers and blank signs provided by OGN for the League of Legends World Championships regional qualifier, the final series of the season. Some fans had brought homemade signs with more complex, detailed drawings to cheer on Samsung Galaxy or KT Rolster. Hours later, a cheer rose from the e-Stadium crowd as the five starters of Samsung Galaxy exited the booth and walked onto the stage as South Korea's freshly-minted third seed at the 2017 World Championship. Over half of the crowd made up of KT Rolster fans made their way out or had already left.

Onstage, OGN caster Lee "CloudTemplar" Hyun-woo cheered, "Sam-sung! Sam-sung! Sam-sung!" AD carry Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk immediately joined in, dancing a bit as the audience picked up CloudTemplar's chants. "Sam-sung! Sam-sung! Sam-sung!"

"Last year, you guys were surprised when you made it to Worlds, but this year you seem a little bit more composed," caster Kim "Dangun" Eui-joong said. Top laner Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin nodded and laughed. Ruler fanned himself with his hands, now a signature gesture from the young Samsung AD carry.

Dangun teased CuVee and the Samsung team. CuVee continued to nod, interspersing Dangun's jabs at Samsung's unlikely victory with the occasional, sheepish, "Yes" in agreement.

"I think our entire team was just really focused on working hard," CuVee said. "And I think that really paid off in the end."

It was a canned answer, but no less true. Samsung did work hard to beat favorites KT Rolster. For the second year in a row, Samsung was South Korea's unlikely third seed. And, for the second year in a row, Samsung would later make it to the finals of the World Championship, facing off against Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's SK Telecom T1. Like Dangun said to CuVee on that early September night, Samsung was less surprised this time around, and more focused with a quiet confidence born of playing together for a year and a half.

The quiet and an assuming CuVee might be the most unlikely of them all to hold the Summoner's Cup.

CuVee began his competitive career in early 2015, living in the shadow of Park "BlisS" Jong-won, the mid laner who famously duoed with Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook as "Bell Park" on the Korean solo queue ladder amidst whispers that the two would soon be on North American soil. Instead, BlisS helped found the new Samsung team, while Ryu went to Europe and H2K Gaming.

"I originally had no intention of going pro because my mind was set on going to college. I refused all offers that came my way," CuVee told Blitz Esports earlier this year. With test scores were too low for him to apply to his desired college choices, CuVee queued up a game of League of Legends while rethinking his own future.

"When I logged onto League to cheer up a bit, BlisS whispered me out of the blue, asking me if I was willing to try out for his team," CuVee said. "His message made me think that perhaps this was the path I should now be walking."

This fortuitous request inspired CuVee to try out for the top lane position on BlisS' new Samsung roster. Looming over CuVee was not only his recent academic failures, but the shadow of the 2014 Samsung Galaxy sister teams. Samsung had set a precedent for excellence in the previous year. A Samsung team had made every Champions Korea final in 2014 and won one of them. Samsung Galaxy White, and now Samsung by default, was the reigning world champion.

The perceived strength of this new Samsung lineup was focused on former Prime Optimus AD carry Lee "Fury" Jin-yong and former SK Telecom T1 support substitute Kwon "Wraith" Ji-min. They became known as one of the league's up-and-coming bot lane duos after Samsung's surprisingly solid 2015 LCK spring preseason results. The two were also the only players on Samsung's new roster that had competitive experience. Most, like CuVee, were high-challenger solo queue stars.

"They are kind of a bunch of scrappy solo queue players," OnGameNet caster Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles said. He and Erik "DoA" Lonnquist ran through the new roster. The new Samsung was young, talented, and the team's greatest flaws were that the players lacked coordination, and CuVee. On this new Samsung roster, CuVee was not just an afterthought. He was said to be the worst player on the team.

"CuVee has looked relatively unimpressive in Samsung's games," DoA said.

"Yeah, CuVee had some pretty disastrous laneswaps," MonteCristo said. CuVee's dismal 1.7 KDA was shown on the large screen above the LCK stage. "He didn't seem to know the right time to teleport or how to get back into lane. Really this team is helmed by the strength of their duo lane and some hit-or-miss games from BlisS."

That summer, BlisS, and mid lane substitute Kim "Ace" Ji-hoon were replaced by midlaner Lee "Crown" Min-ho, after Crown's brief and somewhat harrowing stint in Brazil. Samsung finished seventh, well out of playoff contention, but an improvement from the previous split. It wasn't surprising to see Fury as Samsung's most decorated player in the MVP standings that summer. But sneaking up in the standings behind Fury with only 100 fewer points (one less MVP win) was the unassuming CuVee. Throughout his first year, CuVee quietly transformed from Longpanda award nominee - a dubious honor developed by OGN's English casters for the worst top laner - to one of the best players on his team. At the end of the year, BlisS, Eve, and Fury all moved on. Wraith, Crown, and CuVee stayed on Samsung.

In the 2015-16 offseason, Samsung took a risk. The team acquired Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong. In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions the organization has made. At the time, it was near-universally panned. Many expected Ambition to retire. Looking for an experienced veteran to teach the younger, less experienced players on the team, Samsung signed him.

For CuVee, Ambition's arrival was the final puzzle piece.

That spring was a learning process for all involved, especially CuVee. In the beginning of the season, CuVee was mocked by OGN observers, who focused on him farming side wave after side wave on Lissandra, while the rest of his team engaged in a teamfight elsewhere on the map. CuVee had made progress in 2015 LCK summer individually, but still lacked the awareness and depth of cross-map understanding that characterized a top-tier top laner.

With Ambition as his jungler, though, CuVee learned. His teleports improved. They started to reorganize into a team that had more than a fifth laner for a jungler in the power-farming Ambition, and more than a split-pusher in CuVee. The team began to fight as five.

CuVee will never be the one clenching his fists in rage at a loss. Despite developing a punishing 1v1 laning style, CuVee remains joyful in victory, and sheepishly sad in defeat. It's rare to not find a smile on his face, and his buoyant personality helps keep the rest of Samsung afloat. This is a stark contrast to Ambition, whose dominion of his teammates in and out of game is legendary, and the dutiful but simmering Crown, who reportedly has to be pried from his chair and told to stop practicing lest he injure himself or fall ill.

At the World Championship last year, I asked CuVee how he felt about Ambition. CuVee, like in many interviews that year, gave Ambition nearly all of the credit for his team making it through the regional qualifier to get to the World Championship.

"So you aren't afraid of Ambition then?" I asked. He burst out laughing at the joke and joined in, pretending to cower in fear.

While Ambition taught Samsung communication, coordination, objective trading and teamfighting, CuVee kept the team atmosphere upbeat. He approaches League of Legends pragmatically. It's a career for him, one that he thoroughly enjoys. On some days, his smile holds a unique awe that few players still have, the wonder of going to work every day and doing something that he loves.

"I had planned on living an ordinary life in an ordinary way. I wanted to enter an ordinary company, have an ordinary career, lead an ordinary life, and die an ordinary death," he told Blitz Esports. "That's really how I felt. But now ... things haven't quite gone according to plan."

In 2016, on a team with a rookie AD carry in Ruler, an AD-carry-turned support in Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in, and the intense personalities of both Crown and Ambition, CuVee's effervescence was a welcome staple of Samsung's team dynamic and remains a key component of the team's success. Samsung now relies on CuVee to hold his own, while Ambition cares for a slumping Crown in the mid lane or helps snowball the bottom side of the map.

In the first game of the Worlds finals last weekend, CuVee locked in Kennen, a signature pick and strong laning choice, against SKT top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon's Gnar. In the second game, he picked up Gnar, flanking at the correct time for a crucial teamfight in the bot side river that opened up the game for a second Samsung victory. Come Game 3, SKT and fresh jungler Kang "Blank" Sun-gu focused on CuVee's Cho'Gath heavily in the early game. He was set far behind Huni's Trundle, and SKT appeared poised to reverse its fortune, just as the team has done so many times in the past. Yet, Samsung stalled the game. CuVee's Cho'Gath farmed and scaled into relevancy. And at one point, CuVee took on almost the entire SKT team so other members of Samsung could escape.

A few minutes later, CuVee and Samsung Galaxy had swept SKT 3-0 and won the 2017 League of Legends World Championship.

His teleports were well-timed, his teamfight flanks on the likes of Gnar and Cho'Gath were peerless, and he had become a monster in the 1v1, but CuVee brushed off most praise with a courteous laugh. He admitted that he lacked the same outwardly somber diligence that some of his teammates have, but credited LoL for developing his competitive nature.

"When I was a student, I always had a 'let it be' mindset," CuVee said earlier this year. "A loss is just a loss, let's just go with the flow, that kind of attitude, but I simply could not help but get angry after losing in League, especially solo queue games."

In League of Legends, the flashiest players make the highlight reels. Due to his affable nature and lack of arrogance, CuVee is easy to overlook in favor of other LCK star top laners like KT's Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, or the trash-talking Kim "Khan" Dong-ha, whose carry performances in the LCK summer finals this year earned him an instant international fan base. By contrast, CuVee deflects individual praise, turning it back toward his team, especially if these compliments call him the best.

"Honestly, I want to be part of the best team in the world, rather than being considered the best top laner in the world," he said after Samsung's championship win. "I don't think much of being the best top laner, but I am more proud to be part of the best team in the world."

Both Smeb and Khan are cases of players that didn't appear to be top performers from the outset, but developed and grew over time. CuVee also deserves a spot among these well-known South Korean superstars.

CuVee is quietly and happily, one of the best top laners in the world -- and now a world champion.

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