A snake sheds his skin: SwordArt’s journey of adaptation
By challenging himself with new opportunities, SwordArt has become one of the best supports in the world
While Hu “SwordArt” Shuo-Chieh may not always contest the title of “best support in the world,” he has spent his career growing and adapting to the point where he is certainly in the conversation. In Taiwan, he was affectionately recognized with the nickname “She She” (蛇蛇, snake snake in Chinese) in reference to his past mid lane performances on Cassiopeia, but now it feels emblematic of his ability to shed his skin and continually build upon his past self.
SwordArt’s starting point as a pro gamer began like many others — he loved games and was willing to put pretty much anything else on the backburner. As a young high school student in Taiwan, he often competed with his friends in small League of Legends tournaments and eventually made enough noise to get scouted.
He was a mid-laner at that time, but a professional team asked whether he was interested in joining them as a support player. SwordArt said it was a good opportunity for him, but the competitive environment changed the way he played beyond just the role swap.
“My teammates were first-time pro gamers, so when we joined the team, everyone just played for fun and didn’t really care about winning or anything,” SwordArt said. “When the first day arrived, our coach felt really angry at everyone because we didn’t care.”
Looking back, SwordArt said he can laugh at how woefully unprepared he and his teammates were, but their early results suffered. As part of the Gamania Bears, Taiwan’s eventual 2013 World Championship representative, things had to get worse before anything got better. Competing in the Taiwan Esports League in 2013, SwordArt and his team were up against more established teams, like the Taipei Assassins’s sister team, Taipei Snipers and ahq e-Sports Club.
“At the beginning, we were really not good,” SwordArt said. “We almost had a ten game losing streak in the tournament, but after that we made a lot of changes and our teamwork became much better. It’s an interesting story because before we qualified to Worlds, we knew that after this season, our team would break apart.”
Team instability is one thing, but SwordArt and his team used that to fuel their late season rise to the top. Gamania Bears defeated Taipei Snipers in the Taiwan Regional Qualifiers to earn their ticket to Worlds and cement themselves a small place in history. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep the team together.
Gamania Bears’s trip to Worlds was short-lived — they received a Quarterfinal bye and were promptly swept by Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s SK Telecom T1 — but it was the beginning of SwordArt’s international travels and push toward being one of the very best. SwordArt developed as an amateur gamer, but at Worlds, he shed his skin and became a true professional on the international stage.
The Korean Killer era
Next, the biggest stage of SwordArt’s career truly began — the reign of Flash Wolves. Alongside superstar players like TOP Esports’s jungler Hung “Karsa” Hau-Hsuan and PSG Talon’s mid laner Huang “Maple” Yi-Tang, SwordArt and Flash Wolves grew to dominate the Taiwanese region after usurpring ahq e-Sports Club of its title in 2015.
As SwordArt and crew took down huge names like KOO Tigers in 2015 and SK Telecom T1 in 2016, fans affectionately labeled them as “Korean Killers,” as it seemed like they could always find a win against the South Korean representative in David versus Goliath type situations. Flash Wolves punched above their weight at most tournaments, and SwordArt was at the center of that. Even though Flash Wolves were always perceived as fringe contenders, SwordArt pushed himself and his teammates for more.
“[SwordArt] works hard to bind the team together and give everyone a positive energy,” former Flash Wolves top laner Chou “Steak” Lu-Hsi said during Riot Games’ Legends Rising series. “All he thinks about is winning. He never gives up. But he still smiles everyday. The pressure he gives himself is immense. It’s something we can learn from.”
SwordArt’s work ethic and temperament kept his teammates together as they pushed to reach new heights, but for Flash wolves, things didn’t quite work out. Karsa was the first player to leave the team at the end of 2017, and SwordArt said he was thankful to Karsa for presenting the team with a new challenge. It was still one step closer to the team dissolving completely.
Following a rough performance at the 2018 World Championship, where Flash Wolves failed to make it out of the group stage for the third year in a row, SwordArt said he needed a change, and that led him overseas. It was once again time for SwordArt to build a new identity in a new place where he could continue to grow and excel among his peers, shedding his skin as an outside contender and challenging himself to be at the top of the world.
Super team status
SwordArt joined League of Legends Pro League team Suning Gaming, alongside Flash Wolves teammate Maple to form a new “super team.” Paired with AD carry Han “SMLZ” Jin in the bot lane, great things were expected from SwordArt and Suning. Unfortunately for them, the 2019 season didn’t pan out. Frustrated, SwordArt took some time to really adjust.
“That was my first time going to a new place,” SwordArt said about his move to mainland China. “I remember that when I arrived there and I played scrims for the first time, I felt really, really sad because my teammates weren’t working that hard and they didn’t feel serious in scrims. I didn’t have many people to complain to about that.”
Moving to a new place isn’t easy, SwordArt said, especially without friends or family to back you up. SwordArt needed some time, but he eventually adjusted to the new environment.
“I just felt like everytime I went to a new place, a new beginning, it felt really hard to stay,” SwordArt said. “But I just needed some time. It’s a good experience and it’s also made me better in both games and in real life.”
And SwordArt was right, at least in terms of his growth in-game.. With Flash Wolves, he dominated his region and showed the world just how strong they could be. With Suning, he became the ultimate underdog after reaching the 2020 World Championship Finals to challenge Damwon Gaming for a spot in history. SwordArt said before the final that “no one remembers the runner-up,” but to this point, coming in second that year is proof that he is among the world’s elite. SwordArt and Suning lost 3-1 in the World Championship final, but it was still the biggest leap he’s ever made.
The longest journey
After reaching the world final and potentially the apex of his career, SwordArt made another life changing decision — crossing the Pacific Ocean to join TSM in North America. SwordArt is the first ever player from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau to make the leap to the North American League Championship Series, and while he may have struggled at first, he’s proven his worth quickly. Of course, much like his move to mainland China, the change itself wasn’t easy.
“ The first time I told my family that I was going, they said it was not a good time to go there, with the virus and all,” SwordArt said. “They said, ‘You might have some big trouble there because you will have a language problem and go to a new place. Everyone is a new person and you won’t know anyone.’
SwordArt recognized that all of that was true. The United States was much farther away and there would be a language barrier, unlike in mainland China. But it was those types of opportunities that he treasures most. After all, he said he’s always ready to shed his skin and start anew.
“It will be a really big challenge, but I just told them that I want to do new things that no one’s ever done,” he said. “I like to go to new places to challenge myself and putting myself in a different place will give me new energy. “
That new energy may have permeated TSM, though their results still don’t necessarily show it. A third place finish in the 2021 LCS Spring Playoffs isn’t bad, but SwordArt is used to winning titles and contending internationally. SwordArt said he recognizes his role as a leader and how he needs “to carry the team,” and his coach believes in him to do just that.
“He knows how to make a winning team and he was a big part of why Suning did so well in leading that team,” TSM’s coach Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg said. “I try to work really closely with him so that we’re always on the same page because the players are going to listen to pretty much everything he says because he knows how to build a winning team.”
TSM’s start to the 2021 season was far from pretty, but the team improved with each and every week as the roster adjusted to their individual strengths. While TSM couldn’t best Team Liquid or Cloud9 at the end of the season, their potential with SwordArt at the helm could certainly set the stage for even greater growth.