Ordering an iced Americano at a bustling café just a few minutes away from his current home with the ROX Tigers, 25-year old Park "Shy" Sang-myeon looks every part his in-game ID - soft spoken, bashful smile, subdued yellow-and-black checked shirt instead of flamboyant gamer garb - but his quiet words carry a calloused resolve.
Shy exploded into the League of Legends scene in 2012 on MiG Frost (which renamed to Azubu Frost) with one of the most meteoric debuts in the game's history. He won League Champions Korea, made the World Championship finals, and won MLG Dallas all within six months. No one was surprised when he was voted in as Korea's top lane representative for All-Stars in Shanghai 2013; he humiliated most of the competition to ascend to domestic superstardom.
Once his year of glory passed, however, things never were quite the same. The slip was gradual, but for a player of his caliber, every descent was noticeable. By the end of 2013, Shy was no longer the world beater he entered as. Many fans argued it was a classic case of a weak team dragging down a strong player, and perhaps it was true, but no revelation of causation succeeded in magically recovering his form.
And that was the emerging pattern. Up and down. Few in League of Legends have passed through as many peaks and valleys as Shy.
"People said I had become a has-been. That I now was trash. That I now was done," he says.
The next three years would be a slowly sinking oscillation between promising highs and depressing lows. Sometimes it looked as if Shy still had it all, particularly when he would pummel in younger star players with all the force of his old dominance. Yet more often he looked lost, both against and amidst the sands of time, teetering on the edge of relevancy.
By the end of 2016, his team, CJ Entus, was relegated.
"But I knew I wasn't that bad. I knew I still could cut it at the top level. And most importantly, I could not stand the thought of going out like that, tail between legs, looking like an idiot."
Reflecting on his latest season, he cites he's been able to find the competitive fire in himself again.
"Since moving teams, I've been able to regain a lot of the focus and motivation I've lost over the years, and that definitely has impacted my play. I really feel that I've played well this season," Shy says.
"A lot of it has to do with being back under head coach Kang Hyun-jong, who convinced me I could and should leave LCK with grace - on a high note. He knows how to keep me confident and motivated. He also was the one who gave me my first shot as a pro, so I work hard not to let him down."
Player careers in professional gaming are fleeting regardless of region, but the hypercompetitive drive that permeates South Korean society, conjoined with the sheer depth of its amateur talent pool, ramps ups the transience to another level. Old stars are more than often the first to take the heat of the fans when things go awry. Even if they aren't the worst players in the booth, the conclusion is once they start trending downward, it's hard to stabilize, whereas the younger ones probably can improve.
Many in the industry, however, disagree with that line of thinking, especially when it comes to team esports such as League of Legends. This is because matches are not typically won through a series of one-on-one mechanical showdowns, but rather by five individuals working together, highlighting each other's strengths and covering for weaknesses.
"In baseball and soccer, there are plenty of old players there that bring their own value to the table, because those sports are team games," Shy explains. "The same holds for League of Legends. A younger player might have better mechanics than me, but there are ways for me to make up for it by working with my team."
Shy says that from a big picture perspective, there are only two directions that an individual functions in relation to the team: you either give more support than you receive, or vice versa. Being one of the very few players to have been on both ends of the spectrum, he believes both are necessary, and that older players can definitely perform the latter well.
He also points out that rookies often are yet to be equipped with the right mentality for success. To illustrate, he brought up the cases of teammates Yun "SeongHwan" Seonghwan and Heo "Lindarang" Man-heung, both of whom came to lose their starting spots this spring to a more seasoned player.
"SeongHwan and Lindarang really work hard - they regularly stay up until four, five, even six in the morning sometimes just for practice. So in that regard they do have a professional mindset. But there's more to being a pro than just practicing really hard."
It's competitive drive. It has to be high and relentless, Shy says, fiery enough to easily be mistaken as selfishness. He wants to see his younger teammates take on more of the combative, cutthroat kind of determination.
"You're not supposed to be okay with being a substitute. It has to be unacceptable. Someone took your starting spot? Win it back no matter what. You can't just be a nice guy forever," he stresses. "Lindarang and I are good friends, for example, but that should have no bearing whatsoever on our competition. The moment I mess up, he should be willing to pounce on that right away, to seize that opportunity."
Shy has approximately two years left on the clock before he plans to leave for South Korea's mandatory military service. When asked what career path he wants to pursue after being discharged, he answered that he was not yet quite sure. Options he has considered include finishing his college degree, trying to make it as a streamer, and staying in esports as a coach. But for now, all he wants to do is play.
"I actually ran through all of [those ideas] in my head last year, right after I left CJ Entus, because then I wasn't sure if I should keep on playing." Shy's voice grew livelier. "But no matter how much I tried, I couldn't really decide to act upon any of them. That's when I realized I needed to give it one more go."
He offered a shy grin with a hint of pride.
"Because I still had something left."