From 'Rookie' to world champion and everything in between

Song "Rookie" Eui-jin is backstage during the League of Legends World Championship finals. Provided by Riot Games

Song "Rookie" Eui-jin is comfortable.

Over the years, comfort is something you could say the newly crowned League of Legends world champion lacked. Since departing from his home country South Korea at the end of 2014 to begin the next chapter of his professional career in China, it has been a constant struggle between warring sides. Is he a South Korean player, or, after adopting China as his new home and tirelessly working to become fluent in Mandarin, a Chinese player?

While his ID is "Rookie," can we still consider him a young lion finding his footing on the international scale, or is he now a veteran in dire need of team hardware to dignify his standing?

Even after creating his own path in China, is Rookie his own man? Or is he still in the shadow of the best player to ever download the game, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok?

After winning the Summoner's Cup a month ago in Incheon, bawling as he thanked his fans in both Korean and Mandarin on the champion stage, none of those questions seemed to matter anymore.

Rookie, smiling at the League of Legends All-Star event in Las Vegas, was comfortable. He was wearing an expensive jacket, fancy designer watch and carrying around a Balenciaga bag for good measure. At an event where Faker and the other best players in the world were on display, he was no longer in the shadow.

He was under the spotlight, and it suited him just fine.

"Fashion and clothing is a way for me relieve stress," Rookie said about his outfit following the second day of the weekend-long event. "When I get stressed out, I go shopping or kinda browse around to see what I like and what looks good. I find I'm not as stressed anymore afterward. All the pieces of my clothing are similar, so I really don't look at it as [what's the most expensive] but how much I like it."

Everything, like his outfit, came together at the right time in 2018.

Although Invictus Gaming ran roughshod over the Chinese domestic league in both spring and summer split regular seasons, they failed to capitalize in the playoffs and came up just short in the summer versus rival Royal Never Give Up. The team, filled to the brim with raw, mechanical talent, appeared to have shortcomings when placed in a best-of-five format with the more cohesive teams in the league like RNG. Come Worlds, although a favorite to do well, the attention of possibly becoming China's first League of Legends world champion went to Royal, the golden boys of the domestic league, winning both the spring and summer split whilst also capturing the Mid-Season Invitational title in between.

Yet, come Worlds, the pieces fell into place. The meta shifted in favor of the aggressive, knockout-style Rookie's team thrived in. During the bracket stage, Rookie defeated his old South Korean organization and tournament-favorite, KT Rolster, in a five-game thriller that gave the team momentum for the rest of the tournament. RNG, iG's supposed kryptonite, was ousted in the quarterfinals by G2 Esports in the biggest upset in world championship history. On the other side of the bracket, upsets continued, and the final South Korean team in the competition, Afreeca Freecs, was eliminated. Following the team's game four loss to KT Rolster in the round of eight, Rookie and Invictus Gaming would not lose another game in the entire tournament, sweeping both the semifinals and final over Europe's G2 Esports and Fnatic, respectively.

In front of his fans in South Korea, he won the first championship for China. While the majority of players traveled to new countries in pursuit of a payday before returning home in a year or two, Rookie isn't that type of player. An exodus happened in the South Korean region during the start of the 2014 season, where a slew of the country's top talent signed hefty contracts to compete in China's domestic league, an arms race between the owners to build the strongest team imaginable. Rookie, still a bright-eyed teenager, was one of those players. He signed with Invictus Gaming, traveled over to China to play in its domestic league, and began his life anew.

Every split from that point on, a few of those highly touted South Korean names would leave. Some didn't like the difference in work ethic. Some couldn't handle the cultural difference. Some just didn't like living there. But Rookie was different. By the time many of his countrymen were returning home, retiring to pursue coaching, or traveling off to the western world to try and find another big contract, he was already conducting interviews in Mandarin. He was doing fan videos without a translator. He wasn't just surviving in China, he was adopting it as his second home.

"It's hard to say specifically [why I love China]," he said. "I'm a simple person. I think I have a simple type of personality that likes to try new things. So when I first went to China, it felt like I was experiencing new things and starting a new life. And now that I've adapted, I really love China, from the food to the culture around the country."

At post-match conferences, Rookie would act as translator for his South Korean top lane teammate Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok with little issue. He would hear a question in Mandarin, translate it effortlessly into Korean for TheShy, and then translate his teammate's answer to the Chinese press like he's known both languages his entire life.

If Rookie was born and raised in South Korea, then China was the place where he became a man. And although he represents both regions with equal respect, he hopes to be considered a player from the country that turned him into a world champion.

"It's not something I put a lot thought into, but there is obviously a lot of talk about it since I'm South Korean-born and play for a Chinese team where I've immersed myself," he said. "But I would prefer if people would just think of me as a Chinese player because I'm a Korean player playing on a Chinese team, so I'm a Chinese player in that respect."

Coming off of his world championship win, Rookie announced on social media that he had been dating one of the female hosts who covered the domestic league. The pair shared a segment together earlier in the year where they toured a local food market in China.

"Dating [in esports] depends on each relationship," he said. "In our case, we help each other cover up each other's points that are missing. But if a pro player were to ask me they want to date someone and what do I think, I probably wouldn't recommend it mainly because it does take time away from practicing and focusing on the game. So it's something I wouldn't recommend, but it differs from person-to-person, from relationship-to-relationship."

Rookie has truly found a place of comfort in China. Five years ago, he was a child leaving home in hopes of pursuing a greener pasture along with many of his peers. As his peers left China, he stayed, making it his home. Now, a world champion, happily in a relationship with someone from China, and proud to be known as a Chinese player, he doesn't have much to say if he could go back in time and talk to his former self.

"I'd tell myself to keep working hard," he said. "Keep being diligent. Because my past self was diligent and worked hard, I was able to get to where I am, so I'd just say keep doing the things you're doing. I'm proud of you."

He knew if he kept working at it, one day he'd find the place where he was meant to be.