In a dark interview room on the second floor of the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, I met Yoo “Ryu” Sang-wook, the happiest League of Legends player in North America.
Walking into the room from the brightly lit hallway, my eyes took a moment to adjust, but in his orange and black Phoenix1 jersey, Ryu was easy to spot. He stood on his own with his hands in his pockets, waiting.
He was tall, with broad shoulders and shaggy black hair. His red sneakers could be seen from space. We met, we shook hands, and we stepped through the curtain behind him.
Inside the interview booth sat two chairs, a backdrop, and two very bright lights. Ryu and I sat down, while my gracious compatriot and Rift Herald colleague, Austen Goslin, agreed to stand and hold the microphone.
We spoke about his career, his fans, his travels across the world, and his most recent victory against Flyquest in the 3rd/4th place match of the 2017 Spring Finals. Despite the years of him being called a stoic and emotionless player (even in his official Lolesports bio), Ryu laughed and smiled throughout our conversation. And what did he have to say?
“I’m really happy.”
In early 2012, an 18-year-old Ryu joined StarTale, a new team competing in South Korea’s OGN Spring (now known as LCK Spring). Ryu played mid lane, now his signature role. However, in the summer, Ryu moved to jungle, a move that he would repeat later in his career.
The team was middling at best. In the first split, they failed to make it into playoffs. In the following split, they barely made it into playoffs at all, beating out their previous performance by only a few spots. StarTale’s failure to make a name for themselves in such a young and quickly evolving scene caused them to disband at the end of the year. This led Ryu to his first great team: KT Rolster Bullets.
It was here that Ryu first began to show up on the League of Legends radar. Ryu was known for his wide champion pool and strong mechanical abilities. Ryu was also partially responsible for bringing Fizz to the region, and was one of the first players to really master him. During the 2013 Korean Regional Finals, Fizz made an appearance in 8 of 12 games. The champion was banned five total times, with four specifically targeted at Ryu. Fizz was played by Ryu three total times, netting Ryu three wins, and giving Fizz a 100% win rate over the course of the finals.
Ryu and the KT Bullets had a strong 2012 Winter Split, finishing in third place. Their Spring Split didn’t go nearly as well, but in summer they plowed through the competition, making it all the way to finals.
In the finals, the KT Bullets played against SK Telecom, a team that went 3-0-0 in the season and dropped just one game to MVP Ozone in the quarterfinals. At this time, SKT’s now-legendary mid laner, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, was already known as the best player in the world. However, Ryu was easily the second-best.
Throughout the season, Ryu regularly ended games with over 10 kills. His average KDA was 4.97, second only to Faker’s 5.5. This was in an era when the mid lane was not only the leader, it was the position that set the pace for the entire team.
SKT and KT battled for four matches and went even. At the time, OGN’s 5th games were always blind pick, meaning the draft would occur without bans and without each team seeing what the other was picking. Both Ryu and Faker selected Zed. It was in this game, during this mirror matchup, that the most famous play in League of Legends history took place.
Towards the end of the game, Ryu, who had full health at the time, engaged onto a half-health Faker. A duel between the Zeds ensued. After a flurry of shadows and blades, Faker somehow emerged the victor, and Ryu the loser. This, along with a shot of Ryu’s emotionless face, became his legacy. Ryu would forever be the one who lost to the greatest of all time.
After this moment, things changed. People viewed Ryu differently. While he may have been the second-best in the world,
2017 Ryu has some mixed feelings on matching up with difficult opponents. I asked Ryu how it felt to play against someone even better than he was.
“It is always fun to play against a good player, because even if we lose I can improve something,” he said. “That is why I like it. I also don’t like it because it’s good to win, you know? If I win, I have more happiness. If I lose, I am just sad. But there is some improvement that comes too. It is happy and sad.”
Now, Ryu approaches good opponents with maturity and grace, but that doesn’t mean he has forgotten what it feels like to lose on such a grand stage.
In a 2016 interview with Odoamne, H2k’s top laner and Ryu’s former teammate, The Rift Herald asked his opinion on Ryu joining H2k.
“When I learned that he was going to play with us,” he said at the time. “It was kind of, like, weird. I was still kind of like a kid back then and I was like watching the Faker-Ryu meme and I was laughing at it cause Ryu got outplayed hard.”
This sentiment followed Ryu into the months and even years after the play. In May of 2014, Ryu swapped to jungle, and by the end of that year, he had been released from KT Rolster Bullets.
After he was released from the KT Bullets, Ryu made his way to Europe. At first, Ryu joined Millenium, an EU Challenger Series team. When they failed to qualify for the EU LCS, Ryu played with Roccat for about a month.
It was around this time, in early 2015, when Febiven left H2K to join Fnatic. Now without a mid laner, H2K decided to pick up the former LCK legend. Ryu found success almost immediately, and H2K placed third in both 2015 EU LCS splits.
The team did not find much success at Worlds , as they did not even make it out of the group stage. Defeated, the team went home to prepare for the next season.
Most of H2K’s 2016 was fairly similar to the year prior. They did well in Spring, placing second in the regular season , but placing fourth in playoffs. In Summer, H2K finished the playoffs in third and scrounged up enough circuit points to punch their ticket to Worlds 2016.
Determined to do better than the year before, H2K brought their best to the competition. In the group stage, they shocked the world by taking first place in Group C, dropping only two games. In the quarterfinals, they faced fan-favorite underdogs Albus Nox Luna, crushing them in three fast games.
When the semifinals rolled around, Ryu and friends were the only non-Korean team left. Ryu, a player who could have been considered washed-up when he left Korea, had helped elevate a Western team to relative glory. H2K lost to Samsung Galaxy in three games, but they went home as Europe’s champions nonetheless.
I asked Ryu what made H2k so successful in the tournament.
“During World[s], I think everyone was looking for improvement for themselves,” he said. “I think that was the point. During Worlds, we played scrims against good teams and we improved a lot from that. Also we were against not really good teams; that was helping.”
Shortly after their defeat at the hands of Samsung Galaxy, Ryu left H2K and joined Phoenix1, a relatively new NA LCS team that was restructuring after a rough first season.
When we started talking about Phoenix1, Ryu’s face lit up.
“They help us with whatever we want,” he said. “Like if we want to eat something, they buy it no matter what. Like if we want new chairs, they buy it. If we wanted something, they’re going to do something, and I think that is different from other organizations. So I think that helped us get a win. That and managers really work hard for us. Everything was fun and good.”
Whatever they are doing, it appears to be working out for them. Throughout the Spring Split, Phoenix1 showed themselves to be more than capable, maintaining an impressive 11-7 regular season record.
No matter how good he has been in the past, Ryu has never actually managed to win a prestigious Riot-organized competition. He may place second or third, but he has always fallen short of that final hurdle. But that doesn’t bother Ryu: it motivates him.
“I know motivation is really important,” he said. “To me and my teammates, I think motivation takes patience. We play hard, we want to win and we see that happening. So when I see them (my teammates) playing hard and always looking for improvement it keeps me motivated.”
Finally, Ryu and I spoke about his fans. As joyful as Ryu had been, he drew in a little over the topic. Ryu has fans from all around the world now. He has Korean fans from his KT days, European fans from his H2k days, and he is fostering a new group of NA fans now that he is with Phoenix1.
“Even though I have played like 3 years EU and NA, some fans in Korea keep messaging me on SMS,” he said. “I really appreciate them and I’m really happy. It is always helpful for player to stay motivated and for fans to cheer. It is like really healthy for players.”
Even when talking about being beaten, Ryu remained jovial. During our time together, he seemed to jump quickly from nostalgia for his old teams to his future hopes. It was almost strange to see the face known around the world for being stoic spend all of our time together smiling.
The Faker outplay will forever follow Ryu, as will his emotionless response at the time, but it certainly won’t haunt him. After all of these years, after his many successes and many failures, Ryu seems more ready than ever to continue.