Blinking, disoriented, Jeong "Max" Jong-bin waddles out of the team house bedroom with a goofy smile. His black t-shirt and shorts are full of telltale sleep crumples. Coach Lee "Saroo" Jong-won, who seconds earlier had gone inside to shake him awake, points in my direction.
Max groggily says hello, then points to his disheveled hair, "Hey, um, I'll pop right out after I wash for a minute."
When I tell him I won't be taking any pictures, he is visibly relieved.
"Well then I won't need to bother. ... Yeah, let's just do it now!"
We plop down on a pair of gaming chairs in MVP's spacious living room. It doubles as the training area: identical desktop stations line the left and right walls. Off to the side is a rolling whiteboard, on which a haphazard list of various house rules and team pledges are handwritten in black dry-erase markers. Compared to the polished offices of the Telecom teams, the facility is decidedly humble, glowing with a domestic, familial charm.
Saroo brings us strawberry smoothies.
Prior to 2017, Max was considered just another middling LCK player: little to decry, little to note, and the occasional sign of promise. Not much was expected of him.
That meant the league was utterly dumbfounded this spring when he returned to play as an entirely different specimen: a full-blown fantasista.
The new Max -- Mad Max -- was flashy, magical and enthralling. Game after game, Max would whip out oddball support picks from deep out of left field, drawing confused stares from opponents, commentators and viewers alike. Then he would turn all doubt to awe. Not only did his knuckleballs lead MVP to victories, but they also made perfect sense once seen in action. Everyone would leave wondering why no one had thought of that before, and whether he had found other diamonds in the rough. (He had.)
So what happened? Where did all this gusto suddenly come from?
Max takes a moment to think about it, pushing up his glasses.
"I think [Saroo] joining us this season brought about my change," he said. "This hyung is a person who used to play things like Heal/Barrier Poppy support."
He rolled his eyes, "When he first came in, he immediately suggested I try out Dr. Mundo support."
From the other side of the room, Saroo bursts out laughing.
While Max had always loved to theorycraft and experiment, keeping an open mind about what could and could not work, working with Saroo was what unlocked his true potential.
"I think our cogs match up really well. He amplifies my strengths."
There have been plenty of standout support players over LCK history, many of them as impressive as Max. Due to the limitations inherent to the position, however, very few have ever been acknowledged as their team's main linchpin and playmaker. Most Korean fans would count only two: Hong "MadLife" Min-gi and Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong.
Since his debut, Max has mentioned those two giants at every opportunity, idolizing their status, aspiring to join their ranks. And for years it was a mere pipe dream. But no longer. This spring, he reached a level of individual skill and flair impressive enough to at least start a conversation about how far he might go. In fact, many fans started campaigning in March -- yes, March -- to vote him into All-Stars, an event usually held in December.
Yet there remains a fatal distinction, one seemingly insurmountable divide, between Max and the two big Ms: unlike MadLife's Azubu Frost or Mata's Samsung Galaxy White, Max's MVP is not a world class team, nor is expected by anyone to become one. Although Max is known to be ambitious, being a domestic star on a solid mid-table squad will probably not be enough to inscribe his name in League of Legends history.
Max bobs his head in agreement, "LCK is really high in skill, but geographically speaking, it's a small region. I want to prove myself on the international stage."
Flushing with excitement, he adds, "One day I hope to make a huge foreign crowd chant my name. You know, the one where they go 'Fa-ker! Fa-ker!' -- I want that. 'Max! Max! Max!' Just thinking about it gives me a warm tingle."
So does he think he'll be able to achieve all his dreams here?
His face flashes with cheery incredulity. Then he relaxes into an amused half-smile, taking a pause to choose the right words, "For me, it can't be any other team," he finally declares. "It has to be our team."
It isn't out of misguided sentimentality -- although he does get along superbly well with his teammates -- that he feels this way, Max explains. For one, MVP fits like a glove with his approach to the game: they have full faith in his unorthodox champion picks and daredevil shotcalling. Another reason is that the game itself seems to be shifting in a direction MVP favors. Max points out they have gotten stronger with every recent patch.
But the most crucial factor, Max says, was the one-on-one talk he had with Head Coach Kwon Jae-hwan, which refortified his trust in the team's long-term potential.
"[Kwon] reminded me that we've always slowly improved, and assured me one day we would find ourselves at the doorsteps of the title," he recounts. "And I agreed. I could see that too."
MVP is definitely improving. But what Max needs to become the third Big M is a title, not a playoff run. Does he have faith in this team's chances against SKT T1?
Max lets out a jolly snort upon hearing the question, although his brows furrow.
"Even SKT aren't gods. They, too, are people. They too make mistakes. It's just that their frequency is much lower," he insists. "If we work and research really hard and become good enough to capitalize on those few openings, we can definitely compete."
He adds with a cheeky grin, "Confidence makes the man!"