Career perspective: Seraph, the self-proclaimed grandfather of Korean imports

Season 4 was a magical year for Korean League of Legends. Organizations developed young talent with the use of sister teams, while rookies trained in hyper-competitive team houses. The Season 3 World Champions, SK Telecom T1, struggled against a host of teams, notably Samsung White, which bred fierce rivalries and emotional matchups. Even NLB, the secondary league for teams that didn’t make it into the top four of OGN, produced entertaining matches and engaging storylines.

Without foreign teams to cherry pick the top talent, Korea’s domestic leagues were widely considered the most competitive in the world. For many players, however, Korea’s long hours, poor living conditions and meager salaries were unquestionably taxing. This instability took its toll on Shin “Seraph” Wu-Yeong, a former top lane sub for NaJin White.

Four months out of a substitute role with NaJin White Shield, Seraph was at the crossroads of his competitive gaming career. The top lane phenom — who made a name for himself with unconventional mages and a cutthroat Nidalee top — considered putting his playing career to rest. The volatile professional climate in Korea seemed to claim another victim, until a job listing on the Korean forum Inven gave Seraph one final spark of motivation.

The job in question was unheard of for the average Korean youth: a chance to travel to the United States and join Counter Logic Gaming in its quest for a League Championship Series title. Aside from the English-speaking Choi “Locodoco” Yoon-sub, no Korean League of Legends professional had ever joined a North American team. A gaming career in a foreign country was a gamble at the time, but Seraph was determined to see it through.

“I wanted a fresh experience in my life,” Seraph told Slingshot. “I thought that was a really good chance. I just play (the) game and I work in NA. There was really good merit for me.”

Today, foreign players are quite common. Organizations from all major regions max out their import slots and engage in fierce bidding tactics with the hopes of competing against the world’s top international talents. But CLG’s acquisition of Seraph was the first of its kind. The move captivated an entire region, as fans clamored for information about the mysterious Korean.

Unfortunately for CLG, the increased attention brought on the very pressures that forced Seraph’s predecessor, Zach “Nien” Malhas, out of the LCS spotlight. CLG deemed the experiment a failure, and Seraph was replaced by Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha (then known as Zionspartan). Regardless, Seraph paved the way for a surge of Korean imports, most notably Season 3 world champions Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin and Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong.

“I’m actually the grandfather of the Korean NA players,” Seraph said. “I’m a little bit proud. I regret some of it because I could have been better when I first came to NA.”

Many pegged Seraph as an ambitious gamble gone wrong, but he was not content with the reputation of a failed experiment. The more English he learned, the more comfortable he was on stage, and likewise, the livelier his banter became. Seraph’s persistence led to a respectable career in the North American LCS. Now playing for Team Envy, his sixth team in North America, Seraph might finally have a team to back up his famous unsolicited trash talk.

The Wanderer

Before SKT made its post-worlds victory lap through Champions Winter, a top lane substitute named Seraph entered the rift for NaJin White Shield in a group stage tiebreaker against Samsung Galaxy Ozone. With the threat of poor seeding at risk, NaJin trusted the rookie with a priority champion, Shyvana.

In his long-awaited competitive debut, Seraph maintained a two-kill lead and a CS advantage over Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok, who would go on to win the 2014 world championship with three of his Ozone teammates. The resources at Seraph’s disposal should’ve been enough to snowball a typical game during the 2014 preseason patches. Unfortunately, NaJin would not contain Choi “DanDy” In-kyu. Nearing his prime, Dandy manufactured a 10,000 gold lead with a dominant Elise performance.

Seraph could do nothing but split-push the bot lane inner turret, as Samsung poured into his team’s base. Najin was helpless against Samsung’s siege, and Seraph was forced to back. Seraph’s baptism into competitive play climaxed with a desperate Dragon’s Descent that allowed Samsung to focus him down and tear down NaJin’s last remaining structures.

An above-average showing wasn’t enough for the rookie; Baek “Save” Young-Jin returned to the top lane for the rest of the tournament, and Seraph watched his team finish fourth in the winter season. Afterward, Seraph and NaJin parted ways. With one professional game and months of in-house experience under his belt, Seraph was disenchanted by his lack of results. In an interview with Inven, Seraph claimed he had no intentions of continuing his professional career.

A Brave New World

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Seraph was rusty and in need of motivation when he learned of CLG’s search for a new top laner. The chance to compete abroad was just the spark he needed.

Being both a foreigner and an outsider, Seraph struggled to make contact with the team’s management. With no word from the organization, Seraph attended NaJin’s spring semifinal match and approached OGN commentator Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles, then coach of CLG, after the game to make his case for the starting top lane position. Monte agreed to try him out, pending some unconventional language training.

“He kept saying ‘I want to do this. I want to come to (North America). I want to learn English,’”  Montecristo said during an on-stream recollection of Seraph’s plea.

Monte housed Seraph for two days and led him through a gauntlet of communication-based trials. Seraph proved he was as equally motivated as he was skilled. Monte saw the value in Seraph’s renewed mental drive.

With the full support of his mother and father, Seraph flew to CLG’s team house to complete his tryouts for the starting lineup. Once in the states, however, Seraph was limited by his sub-par English.

“Every single person who graded high school, they know at least a really basic English, so they can at least write or read or something,” Seraph said. “My English was not that good. I just knew some words. But after joining CLG, I just tried to (improve). I just kept trying. I tried to hear something and understand everything…that’s why I a little bit grew my English.”

Once Reddit received word of CLG’s mysterious Korean import, the forum exploded with speculation. Dominating efforts in recent international tournaments left no doubts in the strength of the Korean region. Some users even believed Koreans were genetically superior to Westerners, in regards to video games. Seraph’s arrival was a welcomed test to said hypothesis. In response to the buzz, CLG introduced Seraph to the team’s faithful in a now-private vlog, accompanied by Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black.

On May 14, 2014, Seraph began his first stream. Although CLG streamed exclusively on Azubu, Seraph’s broadcast garnered a sizeable crowd. There, viewers clamored for the foreigner’s attention. Users even went as far as to add Seraph’s account “Kina,” because he had yet to disable notifications, in an attempt for a few seconds of fame. Seraph was distant, aside from the occasional laugh at an Inven thread. Through this stream, however, Westerners witnessed Seraph’s aggressive play style in action. Be it Nidalee, Lissandra or Kassadin, his mechanical prowess on mobile top laners was on full display. The initial chatter spread quickly: CLG had something special.

Baptism by fire

In his North American debut, Seraph appeared lost. He went negative in every game of Week 1, but the rookie was shielded from blame due to CLG’s 2-2 overall performance. The team understood a language barrier would take time to improve, and the outcomes were acceptable.

“There was not much stuff for helping the foreigners,” Seraph told Slingshot. “They don’t know how to be really good teammates…I couldn’t tell anything, and I didn’t understand anything first time.” (Seraph also told Inven that Marcel “Dexter” Feldkamp’s European accent further complicated the matter.)

CLG bounced back in the coming weeks. By Week 4, the new-look roster sat atop the LCS standings. CLG’s success was in spite of mediocre communication. Seraph couldn’t coordinate ganks with Dexter or well-timed teleports with bot lane. In retrospect, winning masked CLG’s fatal flaws. Then came the losses.

Whether the rest of the LCS caught up, or if CLG’s honeymoon phase had ended, is uncertain. Regardless, CLG failed to win a game in Weeks 9 and 10. According to former mid-laner Austin “L1nk” Shin’s 17-page exposé of his time on CLG, charmingly dubbed “The Donezo Manifesto,” AD Carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng lost faith in Seraph. Seraph and L1nk lost faith in Dexter, and communication broke down to a point where Dexter was allegedly told to no longer gank top. The drama coincided with Machinima’s documentary series on CLG and Cloud9: “Chasing the Cup.”

As Machinima’s cameras rolled, the fractured team dynamic couldn’t have come at a worse time for Seraph and company. CLG’s troubles didn’t end there. Seraph’s visa required a return to Seoul during the final week of LCS. To make the best of the situation, the organization sent a rag-tag band of rookies and former players to the LCS stage, while the starting lineup joined Seraph in Korea for an emergency boot camp.

CLG’s Korean boot camp was a dream come true — if you’re producing a drama-driven documentary series, that is.

The chance to scrim top Korean teams with in-house coaching from Monte was welcomed by fans and players, alike. The tight time frame between finals and worlds meant CLG would have an edge over Western teams in September. They could also use the time to bond as a team and sort out their differences. In hindsight, though, forcing five people with strained relationships into an enclosed space was a fatal error.

After gradual improvement from “demolished by Korean teams” to “sometimes winning,” CLG returned to North America with the regional title in sight. Its quarterfinal match was against Curse, a 13-15 team with low expectations. Following a win, CLG would need to win in the semifinals or the third place match to qualify for worlds. CLG’s advanced Korean strategies and newfound understanding of the game meant a loss to Curse would be shocking. Then it happened.

The aftermath

CLG lost its fifth place match against Dignitas, which forced it into the promotion tournament against Curse Academy. Tied 2-2, CLG staved relegations against Lae-Young “Keane” Jang’s rampaging Hecarim mid.

2014 CLG went from the top of the standings to an underdog in its own relegation matches. Curse, Dignitas and Curse Academy nearly dragged them out of LCS.

Doublelift, Seraph and Dexter were pieces who would no longer fit, no matter how hard they were squashed together in a Korean apartment. Seraph and CLG both needed a reset button.

Montecristo and CLG parted ways, but fans continued to scapegoat. Was it Seraph’s communication? Dexter’s mentality? Some blame even fell on Aphromoo, given his perceived subpar performance in the playoffs.

L1nk footed the blame on the mentalities of Doublelift and Seraph and the play of Dexter. Doublelift lost faith in Seraph, while Seraph demanded resources and immaculate play. Everyone wanted something they were unwilling to give.

Seraph and Dexter left the team and left L1nk to try out for his own starting spot. Seraph went back to Korea, while his dreams of becoming a North American celebrity shattered like CLG’s playoff hopes.

The journeyman

Seraph’s fall from grace was well documented. Following his departure from CLG, Reddit threads cropped up describing his negative attitude in ranked. Famously, members of Team SoloMid poked fun at his death, causing the troubled Korean to rage quit. His apology thread may have been sincere, but the damage had been done. Seraph was branded as a whiny top laner who can only play volatile champions.

When no LCS team would touch him, Seraph found a home with Team Dragon Knights. The change in scenery was a welcome sight. Seraph had space to develop outside of the spotlight, and his Korean teammates — Seo “Kyle” Ji-sun and Lee “LouisXGeegee” Sung-jin — allowed Seraph to communicate in his native tongue.

TDK tore through the Challenger scene with Kyle’s explosive Jayce and Seraph’s expanded champion pool. In the spring playoffs, Seraph followed up a strong Mundo game with an absurd AD crit Nidalee build — a build that has not resurfaced since — that split-pushed its way to a 2-0 series lead. From there, TDK earned the second seed in the promotion tournament with a sweep.

It wasn’t just better communication or a change in environment that allowed Seraph to succeed. Seraph earned what alluded him most during his time with CLG: his teammates’ trust.

AD Nidalee top hadn’t been good since 2014. Riot buffed AP Nidalee several times to ensure it was the most competitive build. Seraph, however, had mastered the AD play style to a point that his teammates allowed him to give it a try in crucial Bo5. Losing to Fusion could’ve been the difference between TDK making the LCS and returning to Challenger. This level of trust was borderline absurd, but Seraph repaid them with a game-winning split-push.

With his teammates’ trust, Seraph was allowed to carry. LouisXGeeGee was no Doublelift, after all, so Seraph was the optimal choice for side-lane resources.  TDK qualified for the promotion tournament and later qualified for the LCS. Seraph was back for the 2015 summer split.

TDK entered the LCS with a notable free-agent acquisitions. They replaced LouisXGeeGee with former CJ Entus carry Kim “Emperor” Jin-hyun. Noh “Ninja” Geon-woo filled in the void left by Kyle, which was an upgrade, given Ninja’s pedigree in both Korea and China.

The new-look TDK roster had enough potential to make a run at the LCS playoffs. The US Government had other ideas.

Square one

Visa issues plagued Seraph’s return to the LCS. Ninja and Emperor wouldn’t join the starting lineup until Week 5. By then, TDK was 0-9, and Seraph was underwhelming in the losses, but his teammates were nowhere near LCS-caliber.

This mid-season boost wasn’t enough. TDK ended the season with three wins — two of which came during the final week — which left them auto-relegated from last place. An entire year away from home yielded Seraph nothing. In that time, only his English had made any real progress.

Seraph watched his former teammates celebrate a championship in Madison Square Garden. Doublelift had his trophy, and Seraph was at another crossroads. The stress of a professional gaming career, paired with years of failed potential and disappointment should’ve been enough to convince Seraph to return to Korea. Instead, he and Ninja returned to TDK, briefly renamed Team Arena Online. His will to succeed in America was strong as the most patriotic natives.

“The reason I love NA is everything is perfect,” Seraph said. “Nice people. The best thing is I can be whoever. So I really love that.”

Seraph’s comfort with North America blossomed. His English improved, but there was something missing. Seraph enjoyed the atmosphere in North America, but his unfortunate circumstances never afforded him the chance to settle down and enjoy his time. As venture capital funding and celebrity endorsements poured into the scene, Seraph had yet to find stability.

The mercenary  

Seraph’s new-look TDK featured marked improvements in 2016. The organization made a splash by importing another ex-NaJin phenom: Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min.

TDK’s time in the Season 6 NA Challenger Series mirrored Seraph’s career. Ninja was sidelined by a two-month tampering suspension, which left Lee “do it” Chan-ho and Son “Thy” Seung-yong to keep TDK above water. The squad’s inconsistency led to ties in half its games. A 1-3-1 record seeded TDK third in the NACS playoffs.

Riot Games cracked down on players lacking proper working visas, and demand for LCS substitutes skyrocketed. Echo Fox, Team Impulse, Renegades and NRG needed to field a roster without their newest imports. As an English-speaking Korean who played prior to Riot’s two-import cap, Seraph’s stock had never been higher. Team Impulse requested Seraph on loan for Week 2. Although temporary, Seraph was back in the big leagues.

Impulse was considered by many the worst team in the LCS. Reportedly, Impulse meant to sell the team, but was forced to string together a lineup when nobody wanted in. These last-minute shenanigans left the door open for Seraph to capitalize on Impulse’s lack of proper visas.

Seraph delivered Impulse its first win of the season. After suffering the worst loss in LCS history, Seraph’s debut breathed new life into Austin “Gate” Yu and his quirky band of misfits.

With Seraph’s Week 3 return to the Impulse lineup, Impulse evened its record at 3-3. TDK was fine loaning its top-laner, and Seraph rewarded them with solid performances. His 2-1 record with Impulse came as a shock, given it included a win over Cloud9 and a nail biter against Liquid.

His evolution from an unproven talent to a perennial underdog was liberating for Seraph. Seraph made strides, professionally and mentally. He also captured the attention of several LCS-caliber teams.

High noon

Following his stint with Impulse, Seraph continued to perform in the NACS. TDK battled fierce competition, but their roster was a favorite against a weakened Team Liquid Academy. Meanwhile, another floundering LCS team approached TDK regarding Seraph.

The LA Renegades were the only team in the LCS more desperate than Dignitas and Impulse. Although auto-relegation was abolished, their 11-game losing streak was reminiscent of the exiled Coast 2015 spring roster that set the record for losing in the LCS era. Renegades fielded substitutes in four of the five positions, as a stew of instability and desperation continued to fester.

Seraph came to Renegades in the midst of this losing streak. A loss to NRG brought the streak to 12, and a must-win matchup with Dignitas shortly followed. Renegades pulled out the win. Once again, Seraph’s touch awoke a sleeping giant.

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A week later, Renegades and TDK swapped mid and top to prepare for the upcoming promotion. Accusations of collusion sullied the trade, but Seraph’s reunion with Montecristo seemed sweet. For Seraph and Ninja, the LCS had arrived.

Seraph and Ninja

For a Korean that knows what it’s like to be alone in a foreign country, Seraph treasured his time with fellow imports. His friendship with Ninja, especially, carried him through good times and bad.

“I have played with Ninja for years,” Seraph told Slingshot. “Since I joined, me and Ninja, we go to relegations no matter what. I was a little upset about it.”

The new-look Renegades would’ve been a serious playoff threat. Their debut against Cloud9 was tight, and their rematch with TSM yielded a major upset.

Seraph declared in an interview that his new team could be a top two team, if given time. With five wins in their final six games, the Renegades were no longer a joke.

Seraph and Ninja were comfortable with their newfound teammates. In the eventual promotion tournament, the Renegades tore through TDK to secure a place in the 2016 LCS summer split. Or so they thought.

Redemption

Riot unloaded bans on several LCS organizations. Investigations on collusion, player treatment and hidden deals forced Renegades, Impulse and TDK out of the scene. Freeze abandoned ship, and a playoff threat was reduced to ashes.

Mike “Hastr0” Rufail pounced on the Renegades’ slot, and EnVyUs’ League of Legends team was born. He gathered what pieces he could, bringing in Seraph, Ninja and former-Renegades support Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent together with Choi “Pirean” Jun-Sik and Benjamin “LOD” deMunck.

According to Seraph, the new roster made the best of an unfortunate situation.

“To be honest, we haven’t had that much time to build on a perfect roster. Me, Proxcin and Ninja have been together,” he said. “We played dynamic queue so much time since the spring split. I think we are really good friends and have really good synergy. Also, me, Ninja and Hakuho played for Renegades, so I can play well with Hakuho and I can understand what he wanted. The link is really good.”

Team Envy sprung out the gates with definitive victories over several top teams. Seraph’s team evolved from a dark horse to a playoff threat with a 5-1 record. The team has since been in a brutal slump, its record at 7-9 after Week 8, but Envy is still in position for a playoff berth.

Two years and five teams later, Seraph may finally prove to the world that he’s a top-tier player.

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“First time, the true first time I really decided coming to a new country and new environment, I probably failed on CLG, to be honest,” Seraph said. “I disappointed myself and (was) feeling bad almost every time. But I didn’t give up, so I’m proud of myself a little bit. I don’t think I’m perfect right now, but I think it’s way better than like two years ago. I’m a little bit proud of myself.”

Seraph’s time in North America forced him to be the best person he could be. His communication and attitude were major factors in CLG’s failures. A mere two years later, Seraph is a mentor to fellow imports. He translates for Ninja and Pirean and bonds with his American companions.

“I’m really comfortable right now,” he said. “I’m close with everyone in the house, so I’m super comfortable and I feel like it’s my home.”

If Seraph stayed in Korea, he likely would’ve faded into the trenches of esports obscurity. He’d serve his military sentence and join his family’s restaurant, no doubt. Seraph’s true home may be in Korea, but his evolution is rooted in what made America a beacon of opportunity for those that seek it. Seraph’s failures continue to teach him to this day. He wasn’t flashy like Piglet or consistent like Impact. Seraph struggled through the depths, and paved a path for future imports in the process. Now is Seraph’s chance to reap the fruit of his labor. Now is Seraph’s time.