Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook, one of the all-time great mid laners of League of Legends, celebrated his 23rd birthday last Saturday, making him one of the oldest players in the North American League Championship Series. At 23, he would still be a junior to his Phoenix1 teammates in any traditional American sport.
Ryu is an elder on his team, an integral piece of Phoenix1's plan to evolve from a bottom table team to a championship contender. Not only did his new club celebrate his birthday, he starred in his team's win over Team EnVyUs, sporting a smile in contrast to his perceived serious persona.
ESPN spoke to the birthday boy following his team's victory over NV inside the LCS Battle Theater.
"[North America and Europe] are kind of similar," said Ryu, comparing his different experiences playing in the United States, Germany and his homeland of South Korea. "But between [the three], Korea is more try-hard. In scrims, if they lose, they're angry. But comparing [Korea] to in EU or NA, they're just having fun."
So playing in Europe and now North America must have lightened him up in-game?
"I always try hard," he laughed, rejecting any notion he has gone soft the past few years.
From his days in South Korea's Champions League, Ryu's stoic face has become synonymous with him. When inside the game, he is strictly business, playing at the same level -- or even better, possibly -- in Los Angeles with P1 as he played with perennial champion contender KT Rolster Bullets back in what was considered his heyday of late 2013. Outside of the game, however, Ryu is nothing but smiles, laughing with his teammates and joking around, breaking the character he falls into while on stage.
"It was always my dream in [a] gaming house to get an animal, cat or dog. P1 did it for us and me, and I'm really happy. His name is Rengar," Ryu said of his new kitten.
When talking about his love of animals, Ryu smiles, reminding you that even the "old-timers" in terms of professional gaming are still just kids in the grand scheme of things. That's the wacky thing about esports. Someone who would just be finishing up college in the real world -- inexperienced in almost every way -- must often assume the role of grown-up and leader on teams made up predominantly of 17- and 18-year-olds. When behind the computer, Ryu lives up to his persona -- a solemn killing machine; in the real world, though, he's your regular 20-something, smiling from ear to ear talking about his new pet.
"I don't like ordering people to do this or do [that]," he said. "I laugh a lot when I'm not playing."
A professional for almost five years, Ryu is one of the originals in the South Korean professional scene. Players often stagnate due to burnout, among other reasons. But for Ryu that isn't an issue. For him, the game he has played daily as a job since the spring of 2012 is still as fun as ever.
"I'm still having fun," he said. "As a pro-gamer, I think if you have no fun in-game, you can't play, because you have to play a lot of times and think about [all the] champions. I'm still having fun, but compared to before, when I try hard like this, I get tired easily."
At his core, Ryu is like any other kid his age walking the streets of Los Angeles. He laughs when talking about the living conditions of L.A. and South Korea, saying it isn't that big of a change, and that the food -- "I like Chipotle" -- is really good. He's becoming quick friends with fellow South Korean Noh "Arrow" Dong-hyeon. Arrow is the exact opposite of Ryu on the surface -- a jovial, always joking marksman with a variety of extravagant hairstyles. Although the Phoenix1 teammates aren't all best friends just yet, Ryu thinks they're getting closer by the day, and that the team atmosphere is good.
At the end of the year, he wants people to remember him for something other than his death stares on stage that mask his true personality.
"I would like them to think about me as always a good player. Consistent," said Ryu.