The elongated name "RICK FOOOOOOOOOXXXXX!" echoed through the upper-echelon of the South Korean ladder as a North American made waves against the world's best in the game's most competitive region. Yuri "Keith" Jew ascended as high as the sixth spot in the solo queue ladder, and made friends (and probably some enemies) along the way by playfully spamming his famous team owner's name in every game he loaded into. By the time Echo Fox had departed to return for the summer split of the NA League Championship Series, the expectations for Keith's sophomore season on EF had risen like his rank in South Korea.
"It was all good. I loved playing in Korea," told Keith ESPN after sweeping Phoenix1 2-0. "It's so competitive in solo queue, and I pretty much got along with everyone. Maybe it's because they thought I was funny by spamming "Rick Fox". I just started adding pros by looking them up on OP.GG, and if they were a pro I know, I'd pretty much say hi. All Koreans are pretty polite and friendly so I got to know a lot of them."
Keith's journey in the professional scene has been an odyssey up to this point. A talented player online, he was in the Team Liquid system as a substitute and minor league player before getting called up to sub in for a struggling Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin. Keith replaced the former world champion, who was having issues assimilating into his newfound career in the United States, and played brilliantly in the time allotted to him. His cleanup AD carry play style brought success to the once dysfunctional Liquid starting roster. Alas, the impressive stint wasn't enough to win the starting job, and Keith was sent back to the world of semi-pros and journeymen.
"I mostly soloed," he said about his climb up the Korean online hierarchy over the duration of Echo Fox's boot camp. "Maybe 10% were dynamic queue. I don't want [people] to be like: 'This guy abused dynamic queue. What a boosted player,' and yeah, it was mostly solo. Sometimes I'll duo with Gorilla [ROX Tigers' support], and I'd say I'm pretty close friends with him now. Actually, I had this long streak of unlucky games where I never got my role. I just played support four games, and then jungle like two games, and top. That's where I started losing, so I couldn't get rank one, unfortunately."
At an individual level, at least online, Keith doesn't see a barrier between himself and the superstars of Korea's Champions competition. For the first few seasons of his career, that talent gleamed through, but was quickly forgotten due to him being relegated to sub status. Regardless of how well he played around the team in front of him or what his solo queue standing showed, the young AD carry was never the first option -- always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
"Gorilla is my favorite [Korean pro I played with during the bootcamp] because he's so nice to me. We won like every game if we got our [respective] roles.," he admitted. "They're all friendly, and I'd say I like all of them. But if you asked me who was the best player I played against, I'd say [ESC] Ever's Loken. I think that guy is so good."
Echo Fox is Keith's first real chance at being able to show the skill he's showcased countless times in online form. His days on Team Liquid were overshadowed by Piglet's growing pains, and the same storyline occurred when he subbed in to light a fire under Team SoloMid's then starting AD carry Jason "WildTurtle" Tran a split later. Last season on FOX was supposed to be his coming out party, but even that was disrupted with a myriad of visa issues and constant roster switches.
This split, however, there are no excuses. The man Keith lovingly screams the name of in online chat has given him the keys to his team's future. There are no AD carries looking to put Keith back on the bench, and the visa issues that plagued the team last split have been rectified. If there was ever a moment for Keith to shed his unlucky demeanor and establish himself as an elite carry in the league, this summer would be that time.
"There's no comparison, they're too far apart," Keith laughed when I probed him on the differences between playing in South Korea for a few weeks and then coming home to the North American servers. "Korean solo queue is way better. There are long queue times sometimes, but for the most part they're shorter [than NA] because everyone is playing and everyone wants to be competitive."
Keith mirrored the thoughts of other pros on the announcement of Riot shutting down solo queue for good and replacing it with dynamic queue. The queue times are too long coupled with the fact the pro-gamers don't even have good ping anymore due to the changing of servers from Los Angeles, where all the NA LCS teams are located, to the midwest of Chicago. In its stead, some of the progamers have created an in-house solo queue league on the Tournament Realm amongst themselves.
Moving on from the despair of the current North American online scene to the more uplifting potential of Echo Fox's intact starting five, Keith says "The expectation for our team is playoffs, but I can't really predict which place. We had good practice in Korea, but we still have our problems. But because we actually are going to have our full roster this entire split, we're going to make playoffs for sure."
The last topic we discussed was the former NBA champion who has become so closely connected to Keith's persona in Echo Fox owner Rick Fox. After playing subbing and trying his best to breakthrough into a starting role for two of the best clubs in NA, Team SoloMid and Team Liquid, it was Rick Fox who finally believed in Keith enough to say he was his team's full-time starter.
"Rick Fox is an owner who is so involved with his team, more than any of the other owners I've experienced," he said. "He's a busy guy, but whenever he has time he comes to visit us. He comes to check up on us to see if we have problems, and he'll give us advice. And he's really friendly, too, so he's like almost a dad to us. He's experienced -- he's definitely won championships, and he knows all about this team stuff. He just kinda emphasizes the importance of being together and as a team."
Rick Fox allowed Keith to stop his perilous quest to find a home that trusted in his ability.
It's Keith's turn now to repay the belief his owner has in him.