It has been only a few months since Kim "Khan" Dong-ha boarded his plane from China to return home to South Korea as a failure.
One of the first South Korean players to make the jump to the Chinese pro league, Khan joined Team WE's sister team, Team WE Academy, and played as a starter for the first and last time in the premier Chinese league in the summer of 2014. From there, he moved to another WE offshoot, WE Future, where he began his long stay in China's secondary league, the LSPL, along with hundreds of other hopeful players wishing to get promoted into the top competition and a chance at the World Championships.
It never happened for Khan. A solo queue standout, his play online made for nice clips or a YouTube highlight reel here or there, but his play on the main stage left teams and coaches unimpressed. Over his almost two years in the LSPL, he bounced from club to club, a foreign journeyman with no real direction, never staying at a club too long to make a legacy for himself. By the end of his stint on his last LSPL club, Newbee Young, he had dropped seven games in a row, his ravenous style of play shown ineffective in the world of professionals.
"I was always impressed with Khan's mechanical ability but never his decision-making," LPL English commentator Indiana "Froskurinn" Black said of Khan's performances in China. "He played in the LPL in an era of some tough top lane talent, so that's a feat in itself."
After returning home to South Korea, Khan didn't return to professional gaming until the region's annual post-Worlds tournament, the KeSPA Cup, in which a variety of teams were allowed to compete, including amateur teams that advanced through city qualifiers. On the Seoul team, Khan made his first appearance as a pro since leaving the LCK in the middle of 2014, with his final match a 2-0 on Optimus Prime over the highly favored SK Telecom T1 S club that was anchored by future world champions and superstars Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan, Bae "Bang" Jun-sik, and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan. In the opening round of the tournament, Khan's ragtag squad faced off against Kongdoo Monster, a low-level team in terms of the LCK but a complete and utter mismatch when compared to the players surrounding Khan. It was supposed to be an easy walkthrough for the premier league side.
Although Monster did end up sweeping the series 2-0, former LCS head coach and LCK caster at the time Nick "LS" De Cesare became captivated not by the players on the winning side but by the top laner on the losing side, doing his absolute best to drag an undersized team over an unclimbable mountain.
"It was the first time I said this person was different, or, like, this is not a normal-level player," LS said. "It was the game Khan was on Fiora [against Kongdoo]. Just the way he moved his champion -- the way he controlled Fiora in the game and the way it felt like he was literally trying to 1v9 in a pro match, with teammates that people had never heard of or were regarded as bad -- I just thought it was super fantastic, and I remember immediately after the game, I'm like, I know this guy exists on the solo queue ladder, but I need to know more."
In both games against Monster, Khan attempted to make an incredible miracle occur, but the teams were too lopsided. The Seoul team, besides Khan, couldn't keep up with the LCK-proven team, and just like that, Khan's hopes of proving himself in the KeSPA Cup and possibly getting picked up by a bigger organization in his home country were dashed. After the tournament was over, he signed with another Chinese organization, the QG Reapers, as the substitute top laner. He bided his time through the 2017 spring season, awaiting the chance to change the narrative about himself. He wanted to show what he could do on a large stage. If he had one more chance, this time would be different. But that chance never came, and the 21-year-old watched from the bench, seeing his career pass before his eyes.
Before he signed with QG, however, LS, a champion of Khan's potential, talked to several teams in North America about looking into him. Although a few teams from the LCS and Challenger asked about him, no signing came from it.
How did so many teams miss out on a player who would months later become a champion in the world's most competitive league?
"It's mostly because I think they're idiots when it comes to determining what actually makes a good player," LS said. "The generic reply [was]: 'If he's so good like you're saying, why does no one else want him?' I'm like, are you trolling me? That was their response. They didn't look into him or research him. All that they saw was that he was a bench player, that he sits on the bench, and he's just a solo queue star."
Another story LS shared was about a Challenger organization in North American interested in possibly signing Khan. The team wouldn't budge on a small salary bump for the South Korean top laner, and because of the team's alleged unwillingness to pay one player more than anyone else on the roster, no deal could be reached, and Khan returned to China for one more season, with the LCK caster wondering how everyone could let a special player slip through their fingers.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, Longzhu Gaming couldn't do anything right. The Dragons failed to make the postseason for the umpteenth season in a row, and a group captained by one of the best bottom lanes in the world, Kim "PraY" Jong-in and Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyun, was relegated to watching the knockout rounds from the gaming house. An organization infamous for its ineptitude and lack of success, it was the perfect home for a journeyman who bounced between South Korea and China like a tennis ball.
Longzhu was in need of an ace who could change its miserable past, and Khan needed a team that believed in him. So after years of being in a secondary league or on the bench, Longzhu took a gamble on Khan, signing him as the team's starter and allowing him the opportunity to transfer his online success to the main stage for the first time in his career.
Although his ID derives from the famous Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, the top laner more resembles a boy next door than a murderous ruler, with an impish grin almost always across his face. But behind his childlike face and short stature, lies an aggressive personality that comes forth inside the game. When on Summoner's Rift, he moves his mouse across his pad thirsting for battle and treating each top lane matchup as another territory he wishes to conquer. In his first few games on Longzhu, Khan established himself as a fearsome opponent for anyone in the league. It wasn't just that he was mechanically sound; it was also the way he abused errors and capitalized on small timings. It's a never-ending wave of pressure that turns the top lane into an island for the opponent when playing again Khan, with no escape but surrendering the land and jumping overboard to safety.
"To say Khan burst on the scene was an understatement," OGN commentator Christopher "PapaSmithy" Smith said. "A lot of players have debuted in the LCK, caught the eye with flashy moments but inevitably would be found out by better teams or players. I waited for the other shoe to drop with Khan for an entire season, and if anything, his individual play only got better as his team grew as a unit of five over time"
As the summer season went along, Khan's play went from surprising to the norm. By the midpoint of the season, he had established himself as the team's ace, something that would have seemed ludicrous months earlier, especially on a team possessing the bottom lane of PraY and GorillA and starting mid laner Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong, who was compared to Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok even before he signed his first professional contract. Yet the team played through Khan, and the once vagabond repaid their faith in him, carrying on an almost daily basis with his arsenal of high-octane champions such as Jayce and Jax.
To give Khan one of his specialty champions almost meant certain death for the opposing top laner, and even he warned his opponents from doing so.
"To anyone watching, I advise you to ban my Jayce," Khan told Inven Global following another 2-0 sweep in the regular season. Jayce had become his signature champion, and even in a meta, where tanks and utility champions were the must-haves, Khan played his own game. Where other top laners stuck to what was in flavor and tried to come at things from a technical standpoint, Khan, someone who plays off feel -- the intuition of spontaneous freedom -- walks a different path, besting players and teams through how he sees the game of League of Legends.
In the league final against SK Telecom T1, Khan -- the reigning champion, undefeated in league finals, brash in his pre-game trash talk -- stole the show once more. In a best-of-five in which most pundits thought Khan would have to conform to have any chance of winning, Longzhu stuck with its ace and crafted drafts around his carrying abilities. Khan pushed around SKT top laner Park "Untara" Ui-jin in the first two games of the series and forced SKT to bring in Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon, a player more capable of standing up to Khan's immense force. Although Huni got the better of Khan in the third game of the series, there would be no reverse-comeback sweep on the night, with Longzhu going back to Khan in Game 4 on his Jayce to seal the deal in a blowout victory.
Months before, Khan had been sitting on a bench in China, looked over by North American teams for his accolades that could have fit on a Post-It note. When he gets on the plane this time to return to China for the World Championships, sitting next to his Longzhu teammates, he won't be arriving as a failure. Instead, he'll be returning to China as the most talked about player going into the World Championships, the ace player of the South Korean champion who finally dethroned SKT from its throne.
"I really admire [Khan]," LPL top laner and former Worlds participant Shek "AmazingJ" Wai Ho said at the World Championships group draw in Los Angeles. "I see him play games a lot, and I feel like he's always the MVP of their games. And he's really good at just breaking the meta. Like right now, the meta for the top lane is playing something tankier and something easier to absorb damage, but he won't do that. He'll switch to a damage dealer, and that's pretty cool on how he can just break the meta and play his own style."
"I think at Worlds, Khan is perhaps the player to most keep your eyes on," Smith said. "Longzhu's top-lane-focused strategy is a counterpoint to how near every other team plays, but the playbook is open to being countered has not hurt them. If you can play perfectly around a top laner with pressure, you will break the meta, and that's what Longzhu has tried to do nearly every time they've hit the Rift."
Before the summer split, Longzhu would have been happy with a simple playoff appearance, maybe a spot in the regional finals with a prayer's chance of making Worlds. Khan, likewise, just wanted to get back on Summoner's Rift, a place where he felt that he underperformed when playing in China. When the round of sixteen begins in Wuhan, China, Khan won't be sitting on the bench. Millions of eyes will be watching his actions in the top lane, and there's nothing that could make him happier.
He waited four years to write his legacy, and now that he's here, he's ready to conquer the world.
"One of the things that makes Khan such a monster is he is basically able to say f--- you to the meta," LS said. "I'm honestly expecting Longzhu to win Worlds. And I think with Smeb being absent, I think Khan is the undisputed best top laner at Worlds. I think the meta is great for them right now, and I think Khan's Jayce is sorta going to be like Crown's Viktor last year, where you have to ban it. It's not even because the champion is busted -- it's because you don't give that champion to Khan."