The puzzle known as TheShy
The former world champion has been at the top of the game before, but his ups and downs make him a mystery
In the decade that I’ve covered esports, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview hundreds of people from all walks of life brought together by the world of video games. Along with some of the biggest names in competitive gaming, I’ve interviewed chart-topping musicians and even NBA MVPs like Giannis Antetokounmpo about their love of games (the “Greek Freak” is particularly fond of the original Ratchet & Clank for the PlayStation 2).
But through all these journeys across the world, from Los Angeles to the packed Beijing National Stadium in China amongst 50,000 fans, there has only been one instance where a subject of my interview corrected me when I complimented them. Not once, but continually, making sure I understood my praise was misplaced.
It’s the interview that, to this day, I still sometimes think about up late at night, wondering about it all. It was an interview with Kang “TheShy” Seung-lok.
The setting was the sticky hot streets of Hanoi, Vietnam, in May of 2019, where the humidity pressed through your clothes like you’d woken up in a steam room. It was the second-largest League of Legends tournament of the year, the Mid-Season Invitational, and the world’s best team, Invictus Gaming of China, were burgeoning on a dynasty. The franchise had won the most recent world championship and had picked up a domestic title to boot. At MSI, they appeared to be on the verge of another trophy added to their collection. TheShy, famed for his supremacy at the top lane position, stood at the forefront of it all.
When TheShy played, it almost felt like he played on a different hardware system than the average person, weaving through the enemy like his character was an Olympic figure skater. He maximized performance with his mechanical play, pushing the characters’ boundaries programmed into the game like no other. Whether the spectator knew the first thing about League of Legends or not, TheShy’s play would often leave onlookers with their mouth ajar and eyes wide open.
In my first interview with TheShy, through a Korean-to-English translator, my initial thought was to uncover the mystery about his unhuman-like reactions and piano fingers on the keyboard. Yet, as I broached the subject, bringing up how his technical ability wowed millions, he stopped me. He didn’t want to be viewed as a “mechanical player” that won duels through natural instinct and skill.
TheShy, his posture straight as an arrow and a smirk on his face, believed he was above that.
“People say I’m a mechanical [player], but I feel because I already have the idea planned out, I’m more of a theory player,” he said. “I have it all crafted out in my mind, but I get that the fans see that as mechanical. But it’s more than just mechanics. It’s more thoughts.”
The way TheShy views the game of League of Legends is different than anyone else. From an outsider’s perspective, TheShy can appear to rely solely on his reflexes, daring anyone who lines up against him in the top lane to a duel to the death. He believes the opposite, however, considering that everything he does is deliberate. Instead of a bloody boxing match, it was more akin to a line of dominoes, each move offsetting the next. In the end, it culminated in the grand finale, a firework showing of TheShy leaving a trail of greyed-out screens in his conquered wake.
Even in the League of Legends Pro League, China’s premier domestic competition, known for its never-ending brawls and individual prowess, TheShy saw his way of playing differently. Although Chinese teams play in a fast-paced, free-flowing manner that welcomes bombastic maneuvers, he doesn’t share a familiarity between his business and his bloodthirsty peers.
“I think my favorite recent story of TheShy is his attendance as a commentator for the Top Esports vs. Suning Worlds semifinal series on the [South Korean] broadcast claiming he ‘doesn’t get’ LPL teams and the plays they make while being known for making ridiculous plays,” Joe “Munchables” Fenny, a lead English LPL commentator, said. “When questioned on this, he said in his plays he can see the way it can work out, but in theirs he can’t. I just think that’s perhaps the most TheShy sentiment possible.”
On that sweltering day in Hanoi, I ate up what TheShy told me like it was ice cream. At that moment in history, he was arguably the best player in the world, a reigning world champion with the eyes on another (or two) not so far off in the distance. He didn’t only want to get into the eventual League of Legends Hall of Fame but be the exhibit’s crown jewel. Minutes earlier, I watched him skewer world-class players on Akali as if they were newcomers picking up the game for the first time. He could have told me that the sky was neon green, and I probably would have written it down as fact.
The League of Legends world orbited around the sun, known as TheShy, in 2018.
Three years later, while TheShy’s belief remains intact, everything else has changed around him.
That Invictus Gaming dynasty on the verge never came to be.
Shortly after I interviewed TheShy, the reigning world champions experienced an upset for the ages. They fell as the No. 1 seed in the single-elimination playoff bracket to North America’s Team Liquid in a stunner. One moment, nothing could go wrong for Invictus Gaming, and in the blink of an eye, the magic was gone.
Those plays TheShy had made earlier that made jaws drop in unison were still ending in people’s mouths open, but not for the same reasons. As the months went along, the South Korean-born enigma would still go for those razor-thin, high-risk plays that made him a worldwide superstar, but in lieu of cheers, there were groans. As if he were a battering ram with only a single goal in life, he kept his foot on the gas pedal, some games ending with senseless death totals for him and nothing to show for it.
As a viewer watching from home, staying up until the morning hours with the sun peeking over the horizon, I was frustrated. I wanted TheShy to evolve. He had all the tools in the world to do so if he wanted. In his own words, his intellect and view of the game were at a high enough level where he could change his habits if needed. In the 2020 LPL Spring Split, he finished second in total deaths of any starting player in the league. The next split in the summer, he one-upped himself, sitting alone at the top of the death rankings, dying eight times more than the next closest player.
For every game he’d look to be back to his old self, skating through the enemy backline and slicing up the opposition, it would feel as if there were 10 where he ended up with double-digit deaths.
“I think he’s a difficult player to diagnose in this way because his playstyle does vary from matchup to matchup,” Munchables said, “but the inconsistency is consistent.”
Although an impossible task, I wanted to figure out more about the man behind the gamertag. So I began watching his streams and trying to consume as much content possible from the world that was TheShy. Along with my quest, I talked to one of the more knowledgeable minds regarding Chinese League of Legends, an LPL enthusiast simply known as “Ran.” A leader in knowing all the ins and outs of the LPL, Ran, who lives in China, has worked as a journalist at a slew of the world’s most significant esports events, including worlds.
The first question I asked her was how, even with all his setbacks in recent years, has TheShy continued to not only be popular with the Chinese fanbase but actually grown in popularity?
“His playstyle,” Ran said. “Before TheShy came into the picture, LPL top lane was a neglected lane that mainly sacrifices for the team because that was the winning formula for a very long time in LPL as the region was dominated by EDward Gaming since 2014. Top laners are the pressure-bearing members. In Chinese, we call them ‘抗压位.’ It was a tank vs. tank senior center where nothing interesting ever happened at all. But then TheShy came into the picture. His hyper-aggression paired with IG’s achievements really made him shine.”
TheShy not only brought his own swagger and style to Summoner’s Rift, but he forced the rest of China to conform to his thinking. No longer could teams rely on stalwart tanks in the top lane to get them to the playoffs and beyond. In a league where TheShy was playing, it was fight or die on the stranded island known as the top lane. He revolutionized what it means to play the top lane in China as we know it. In a region where millions of people play a day, he’s influenced the next generation of teenagers that select top lane as their natural role.
As for his fans themselves, it’s sometimes too difficult to believe in his worlds, but they stick by the man who won the world title in 2018. According to Ran, some of his fans don’t care about his scoreline or if he continues running at a brick wall with no success. On the other side, others are beginning to see that he’s not the consummate player who always turned things around even if they started on the wrong foot.
Still, as TheShy goes, so does Invictus Gaming, a team that has long prided itself on its laning prowess and individual heroics. Their mid laner, Song “Rookie” Eui-jin, and TheShy have moments where everything is worth it as an Invictus Gaming fan. Even when no one on the team looks like they’ve played together before, they can still have a match that strikes fear into even the best teams today.
But just as quickly they show their fangs, they retract once more. And TheShy, playing as if it is still the fateful night Invictus Gaming won the Summoner’s Cup on a cold evening in Incheon, South Korea, ends the game with too many deaths to count and no kills to name.
It’s a lousy teleport that resulted in a death.
Then, a brush uncleared and unwarded leads to his next.
It’s back to the start with more questions than answers.
The true answer to unraveling TheShy’s persona is that you can’t.
No matter how many times I scream at my computer screen for him not to play the way he does, he will, because from his viewpoint, it’s the most optimal way to play the game.
The way he won the world championship is how he will find himself back again atop of the LPL or at the bottom statistically, depending on how his career ends. He will descend or rise on his own terms before going out on a whimper or a roar.
Trying to get inside the mind of one of the most perplexing players in competitive gaming is impossible. In 2019, he donated $100,000 to charity without any pomp or circumstance. When asked why he contributed so much money, TheShy bluntly answered that he had made so much money accidentally and didn’t know what to do with it. After discussing it with his parents, he thought it’d be a good idea to give some to charity.
During the same interview where he corrected me on complimenting his mechanics, we talked about his team’s love of fashion. His teammate, Gao “Ning” Zhen-Ning, told me in an earlier chat that he had spent upwards of $400,000 on streetwear and shoes in the past few years. Rookie was often seen with a Balenciaga that was easily worth over $1,000. TheShy wasn’t interested in neon-green shoes or designer bags, though. His interest was nice, formal belts, ones you can wear in a suit.
In a stream over the offseason, TheShy mused about his future. He wanted to play with Rookie, but after 2021, it could be his last year. The apparent future would be to use his massive fame and following to become an entertainer or streamer, but he brushed that off. He said he would disappear into the darkness, never to be seen again. Maybe he’d become a farmer in a rural land no fan would ever find, a piece of wheat between his teeth, the once fast-moving world of esports all but forgotten.
Was it a joke? Probably. But with TheShy, it’s impossible to tell. Of the incalculable number of professional competitive gamers I’ve interviewed over the past decade, I can often envision them and what they do after their days of playing are. For some, the route is to become an entertainer as a full-time streamer and content creator for Twitch, YouTube, or their home platform. There have been a few that I’ve seen in suits and ties ready to coach the next generation of gamers, and they’ve done just that.
TheShy? I have no clue.
I could see him in a suit and one of his fancy leather belts becoming a world-renowned tech entrepreneur that surpasses Elon Musk in net worth.
I could also see him retiring and taking care of cabbages for the rest of his days.
He could be a school teacher.
He could be a streamer.
He could be an astronaut.
He could become Batman for all I know, using the unlimited funds he made from video games to become a vigilante fighting crime at night.
After watching previous games, talking to experts, reading translations of what he says on his stream, I ended up having even more questions about TheShy than when I started. I’ll never see the world and League of Legends the way TheShy does, and that’s OK.
Life is more fun that way.