Hitting the next level: Huni thriving under kkOma on SKT

Riot Games

The announcement of Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon joining back-to-back world champion SK Telecom T1 was met by hesitance in both the western region and his home country of South Korea.

Huni had played two years in the west with large amounts of success, but in South Korea, he had never played a professional game. There was no doubting Huni's individual skill; his mechanics and knack for offensive skirmishes had never been in question. His mentality when behind and his champion pool, especially when it came to supportive, tank-like champions, is what brought concern to the signing.

Under coach Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun over the last five years, SK Telecom T1 has had four starting top laners, including Huni. Three of them, all playing different roles on the club at one point or another, became world champions under SKT T1 banner.

"KkOma is better at cultivating certain players," said Cloud9's Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong, the first SKT top lane champion. "For example, if I were to rate myself 70 percent before I joined SKT, after I joined SKT I became 120 percent. He amplified me a lot."

SKT T1's head manager is a kingmaker. While other South Korean coaches, like former ROX Tigers coach Jeong "NoFe" No-chul (now in China for EDward Gaming), have been heralded more for their sharp tactics in the draft phase, kkOma is undisputed in his finding and nurturing of talent. SKT T1 tryouts have become synonymous with finding not only the next big talents in the world's strongest region but in the world.

The likes of Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, Lee "Piccaboo" Jong-beom, Lee "Rush" Yoon-jae and even Huni himself were finalists for an especially stacked tryout class before the 2015 season. In the end, Huni, whom kkOma liked, decided to begin his pro career in the European League of Legends Championship Series in Berlin; he joined Fnatic alongside SKT tryout finalist Reignover with little to no understanding of English.

Two years later, Huni was offered an opportunity to join SKT and work with kkOma. He decided to sign after four successful splits in the LCS circuit. Two years older, Huni is different from when he first attempted to become a starter on SKT T1; his English, which was nonexistent, is now at an arguably fluent level. He is comfortably able to conduct interviews in a language that troubled him when he first landed in Germany.

Huni has never brought a team down with his personality. On the contrary, his spirited antics and joyous aura have only bettered the teams he has been on. He's not the type of player to cause disarray in a team house. No, his issue has been trying to bite off more than he can chew. From Fnatic to North America's Immortals, Huni has been positioned as one of the team's primary carries, and he doesn't waver from that role, but it can, and has, put him in positions of desperation when playing from behind. If he falls down early in game, he will still persist, attempting to grab a double-kill to get the gold difference between top laners back in his favor.

He's a gambler in that regard. When things go right for Huni, things usually go right for the teams he has played on. He's the type of player who draws attention from everyone on the map with his expertise, and if he gets a kill in lane, watch out -- there is little to do, especially when he has someone like Reignover maneuvering him in the right directions.

The biggest losses in Huni's career have come when he has been put up against a force he can't break down. In the 2015 World Championships semifinals, Huni, then on Fnatic, threw everything he could at fellow SKT tryout finalist Smeb, then of the KOO Tigers; nothing worked. Smeb was unmovable, and Huni underperformed.

If you look at the matches where Huni's teams have ultimately collapsed out of tournaments, you generally see Huni pushing himself to the limit, using all his spells, and attempting any idea he has in his head to get himself back into the game. Instead of falling back, relying on the rest of his teammates, Huni's mindset over the past two years has always been the one of putting the team on his back, to lead the charge. If he can't help his team win, to himself, he's useless.

When it comes to Huni not having the capacity to play tanks, that isn't the truth. When Huni was on Immortals, he suffered a gut-punching 0-3 loss in the playoffs at the hands of the sixth-seeded Team SoloMid; Immortals were the heavy favorites after going 17-1 in the regular split. Huni went into the third-place match against Team Liquid in Las Vegas with something to prove. Against TSM, Huni played top lane Lucian -- no, this isn't a typo, this was a thing -- with no success. After being embarrassed, he played two games of Gragas and one game of Poppy vs. Team Liquid in Sin City, meaning ironically it's the one place he didn't decide to gamble. The safe play worked out, and Immortals decimated TL in one of the biggest best-of-five blowouts in history. The average game time of the series clocking in around 30 minutes.

If you talk to Huni, you'll converse with one of the funniest, most charismatic individuals in esports, who also happens to have a deep understanding of League of Legends. But he's eccentric. He doesn't (or didn't before SKT) watch VODs of opposing clubs. He focused on his team and himself more so than his opponent, and that got him into trouble at times. Little nuances that moved him from great to one of the world's best were fixable, but Huni was never with the right coach -- his right coach -- to unlock his full potential.

Huni started playing League of Legends at the Bronze level. Following a declaration to himself to become better at the game, he did just that, rocketing up the ranks. He wanted to learn English after he felt out of place on Fnatic, and so he did, teaching himself the language through Google Translate and dictionaries. When he felt like he wanted to lose weight, he did it, dropping a considerable amount of weight during his time in North America on Immortals with a healthier lifestyle. When he was knocked down a peg, like the series versus TSM, he showed he could adapt, play inside the meta, and grow as a player.

Say what you want about Huni, but his will to move forward is unquestionable.

For a person like Huni, the world is limitless. All he has to do is find the right motivation and environment to get him there. KkOma, who took a team made up mostly rookies to the Summoner's Cup in 2013, is the right manager for Huni to learn under. If Impact went from 70 percent to 120 percent under kkOma and SKT's tutelage, Huni has the potential to double his current output. And he's already showing massive growth.

At the time of this writing, through his first six games in the LCK, he has played generally tanks; he got one game where the team allowed him to play a carry Gangplank, to his glee. While an extremely small sample size, Huni has been the best top laner in the world. His communication has been on point, particularly in one game on Poppy where he set up Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's Katarina for an overabundance of kills. His individual play has been equally stellar, getting multiple solo kills even without his arsenal of carry champions.

In a strict system, Huni, enthusiasm incarnate, can be harnessed into a dangerous weapon. Often in the top five of deaths for top laners in the LCS back on Fnatic and Immortals, Huni only has three in his first six games, and is towering over every player in Champions with a 23.7 KDA ratio. He's also second on SKT and first out of all top laners in the LCK in assists with 55, and leads LCK top laners in DPM at 584 per minute.

Jin Air Green Wings, BBQ Olivers and Kongdoo Monster aren't a killer's row of teams, and we still need to see Huni against the likes of KT Rolster, Samsung and Afreeca, but he, or SKT, couldn't have asked for a better start. Huni has stopped gambling on himself, and he's putting his full trust in kkOma.

And if kkOma has anything to say with it, Huni, by the time he's done with him, will be the head coach's magnum opus.