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SKT Blank on heavy criticism in 2016: “At some point it was too much for me to handle. It wasn’t an easy process, but playing well was the answer.”

Few League of Legends players came under as intense scrutiny last year as Kang “Blank” Sun-gu. As a member of SK Telecom T1, Blank was constantly under heavy criticism as the weakest member on the team during his rookie season.

Constantly over shadowed by Bae “Bengi” Seong-ung, Blank was in an unenviable position to compete against one of the most prolific junglers in Korea. Just 18 years old when he joined SKT, Blank had a difficult time dealing with the community’s negative perception of him, and detailed his hardship in an interview with Fomos’ Park Sang-jin.

“I would have intrusive thoughts of ‘what happens if I start to play poorly,’ even when I was doing fine,” he said.  “My performance was impacted each time that thought popped in my head.”

It’s not hard to imagine how a young professional like Blank would have trouble with overwhelming negativity coming from the fans. Blank confessed that at some point, he gave up on even reading the reactions from the community, and wanting to focus on improving instead.

“At first it was suffocating for me to see the community’s reactions after the games I played, and at some point it was too much for me to handle. It wasn’t an easy process, but playing well was the answer.”

Despite the negative perceptions of him, Blank isn’t a bad player by professional standards, or else he wouldn’t have a spot on the reigning world champions. SKT’s coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun noticed Blank back in 2013, and he eventually attended SKT tryouts through the coach’s introduction.

Although he was given a shot at making SKT, Blank instead opted to play in China in 2015’s summer split as part of Star Horn Royal Club. But after an unsatisfactory experience, he returned to Korea after one split. Seeking another chance with SKT, Blank said he contacted kkOma to see if a spot was still open.

“After returning, I told kkOma that I would work hard if he would accept me as a trainee,” he said. “I was full of passion and confidence at the time. I thought I could improve a lot because it was after SKT won worlds.”

Not only did kkOma accept Blank as a member of SKT, he also put Blank on stage a lot earlier than Blank had anticipated, perhaps a showcase of just how much confidence kkOma had in the young rookie. Although Blank played only four games (with a record 1-3), SKT elected to take him instead of Bengi to IEM Katowice last March, and Blank assisted in SKT taking home the trophy that eluded them in 2015.

After the impressive results at Katowice, though, Blank would again collapse in the summer split, as the vociferous Korean League of Legends community again scrutinized him as he shared the starting jungler spot with Bengi. Blank turned to therapy with a former professional athlete to deal with the criticism, he said, as his mentality sagged.

“With consecutive bad events, I started to doubt whether pro gaming suited me,” he said. “I wondered if I was doing the right thing and that I didn’t feel like I had a clear place in the team.”

Astonishingly, Blank recovered from the pits of uncertainty and made it to 2016’s world championships with the full support of SKT’s coaching staff. He had a breakthrough in mentality, which propelled him to turn negativity into motivation while having some sort of understanding of how the fans looked at professional gamers.

Blank shows immense maturity for his age, having survived a period of his career when there was so much hate directed at him. Turning a nickname that was created to criticize him into a title of endearment, Blank successfully defused a large part of the negativity, and now seeks to better himself in an effort to change the perception of others, rather than spiraling ever downwards.

“Up until the summer split, my mood swung depending on the community’s reactions,” he said. “But as we confirmed our spot to worlds, I thought I should just do what I need to do, without giving too much mind to other people’s perceptions of me. There must have been fans, even among those who criticize me, and I thought they would be supporting me if I played well. I thought about it for a long time, and concluded that the people will change once I play well.”

Blank still remains as one of the starting junglers for SKT, as Bengi left and Han “Peanut” Wang-ho joined the fold. Although some fans might have been concerned that Blank might be compared again by a great jungler from 2016, Blank said who he competes against means little to him now.

“It doesn’t matter who comes in,” he said. “Peanut is a good player, but all I need to do is play well, regardless of how he plays. I think I can be friends with him like I was with Scout (Lee Ye-chan).”

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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