Few players understand what it takes to win. Fewer understand what it takes to become a winner.
Out of all the major League of Legends regions in the world, South Korea is known to have the strongest and most structured work ethic. It's the reason why there's a mile gap in competition between it and the rest of the world. Even more remarkable, in the high-strung competitive pool of League Champions Korea, Samsung Galaxy leads the pack when it comes to this ethic. It may come across far-fetched, but this is not casual guesswork or assumption. It's an observation religiously reinforced by reporters, commentators and observers who keep tabs on every team's practice hours.
Among the bright stars of Samsung, there's Lee "Crown" Min-ho, Galaxy's most dedicated player.
Pushing himself relentlessly in front of a computer for 16 hours every day, always being the first to come to the practice room in the morning and last to leave - this is not a modus operandi someone can maintain through mere passion alone. But such is Crown's existence. For the 22-year-old, staying committed to improving his game is not so much about drive as it is about discipline.
"When I returned from Worlds, I was mentally distraught. Angry and regretful. I couldn't let myself take a break. All I could focus on was practice. I was determined to improve, to fill in all the gaps in my game," Crown said.
When the mid laner became the only Korean Worlds participant to finish Season 6 in challenger (the highest and most prestigious tier on the League of Legends ladder), fans around the world were stunned. But as Crown slowly found out, his decision to entirely forgo rest for practice came with a cost.
"By the time the new season rolled around, I found myself all burnt out. The game didn't feel fun anymore, and I even started to question why I even bothered. Our head coach soon noticed, of course," he said with a sheepish grin. "So I was severely reprimanded."
The kick in his behind was fully deserved, Crown admitted. While the tongue-lashing was harsh, he was glad and grateful for it. Then a new problem emerged: Something within him had changed. He could no longer return to the hardcore grind. Pushing himself that hard, nonstop, was not sustainable anymore. He had to make a change in his approach.
"I decided to relax a bit more, allow myself small [luxuries]. Like when I feel bored after practice, for example, I now [tell myself] it's OK to go out for a movie or take a walk, get some fresh air, stuff like that, if I want to. And by doing so, my play also improved," he said.
Despite having realized the value of maintaining some semblance of a work-life balance, the mid laner remained wary of dismissing the can't-stop-won't-stop approach to practice.
"I'm still not sure if my recent good form is a result of my new mindset or a delayed reward from the long hours I have put in until now," he mused.
Whatever it is, it's working. Crown was recently named the league's season MVP, having racked up more points than Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok -- the very player who denied Crown last year's World Championship by dominating him one-on-one in the deciding game of the grand finals. There were even murmurs that Crown was in better form than Faker, that Crown might be the best mid laner in the world right now.
Crown, however, was not so convinced.
"When I read those kinds of comments, I think, 'What have I done to deserve such praise? I don't have any results to back that up. My career achievements are nonexistent. I have yet to prove myself.' A second-place finish at Worlds is all I have, if that even counts," he said.
For Crown, there was no solace whatsoever in being second best in anything.
He shook his head again, "By the time Worlds 2017 ends, I will either have earned something, or have failed in the process. Only then will I be able to actually accept or refuse any accolades."
He paused. Then, unprompted, he said, "You know, every night, right before I sleep, I always repeat to myself, 'Let's win, let's win, let's win.' But lately, my mind started to immediately question me back. 'But why? Why do you want to win?' And at first, I didn't really have an answer."
"But then I started thinking. Well, I'm a pro -- I want to win because I'm a pro. Pros are supposed to win. That eventually became my response. It isn't some mental burden. It's just that I want to win everything I possibly can," he said. "So I live every day, day to day, to win."
Crown suddenly furrowed his brows, then silently gazed into the empty space in front of him, as if something about his last sentence sounded off. He wanted to find the right words.
His face lit up, "To put in the effort to win."