SHANGHAI -- When Samsung Galaxy's Lee "Crown" Min-ho was a child, he dreamed of becoming an esports champion. Growing up in the "Mecca of esports," South Korea, his adolescence was shaped by the professional video game players he watched on television. As the StarCraft: Brood War phenomenon swept through South Korea in the early-to-mid-2000s, Crown, now 22 years old, wished to become someone strong enough to stand on the center stage of a sold-out venue, trophy in hand, with the crowd chanting his name.
Last year, Crown had his chance to make his childhood dream a reality. In front of thousands in attendance at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Crown was one game away from winning the League of Legends World Championship and defeating the game's greatest player, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. After a tournament in which he and the rest of his team overcame expectations and pushed the defending world champion SK Telecom T1 to a climactic final game, Crown couldn't get over the last hurdle. Samsung stalled. Mistakes were made. Faker and the more internationally experienced SKT prevailed, leaving Crown to sit at the side of the stage and watch the confetti fall on his opponents.
It was the hardest loss of his life.
"I want revenge," Crown said when asked if he would like to play SKT T1 again at the World Championship.
What was an up-and-down year for Crown, beginning with the ultimate individual honor of being named LCK MVP in the spring and ending with the worst season of his career in the summer, has been salvaged once again at the World Championships. After failing to finish first in its opening-round group, Samsung rebounded in its quarterfinal with the odds-on favorite to capture the Summoner's Cup, fellow South Korean club Longzhu Gaming.
This year, it was Crown who was the experienced Worlds mid laner facing a younger, maybe more talented overall roster. His opponent in-lane, Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong, outplayed Crown overall in the series on an individual level, but his team's play helped him down the summer LCK MVP and the reigning domestic champion in a convincing sweep.
"Of course I'm happy for our victory ... but for myself, there were some good plays, but there were also some unsatisfactory plays from mistakes that I made," Crown said. "I would give myself a 6.5 out of 10."
No one is a harsher critic of Crown than himself. Through hard work and diligence more than pure talent, the South Korean mid laner began his career in the then-fledgling scene of Brazil, cutting his teeth by playing with teammates with whom he couldn't fully communicate. When he was given an opportunity to join Samsung, he wasn't even the team's second option. Crown was forced to split time with two other players on a rebuilding Samsung roster that lost all its core members following the exodus of South Korean players to China after the 2014 season.
Everything Crown has achieved has been through tireless hard work. Eventually, the two players above Crown on the depth chart on Samsung were forgotten, and Crown took over the starting mid lane position. To this day, a quick glance at his online profile shows that, even as a Worlds finalist and league MVP, he never stops putting in the work to become better; on his main solo queue account on the South Korean server, he has played more than 1,985 games for the 2017 season, which would have gone into 2,000s if it weren't for Samsung Galaxy needing to be in China for the World Championships. Where other professional players have 900 to 1,200 solo queue games on their main accounts, Crown has doubled the amount of time he has played online compared to other pros.
Still, he is unsatisfied.
"I don't think I deserve praise at my current status," he said. "I don't think I should be considered one of the top three or four mid laners. On the other hand, I do think [Cloud9's] Jensen is one of top three or four players out of all group stage teams. I definitely think he's a very good player."
To most, Crown's esports journey seems short. He came out of seemingly nowhere two years ago as a "rookie" on Samsung. In actuality, Crown is one of the most veteran players in all of League of Legends when it comes to esports experience. Before starting his pro League experience in Brazil, Crown wanted to become like one of his idols by becoming a professional in StarCraft: Brood War. Unfortunately for Crown, when he was actually of age to become a pro player in StarCraft, the peak of the scene had already gone, and he was forced to switch games with the arrival of the game's sequel, StarCraft II, which was becoming the priority for professional teams in South Korea.
Crown never connected with the new game, and his odyssey continued.
From his personality to his career trajectory, everything about Crown personifies blue-collar. One of the shorter competitors at the entire World Championship, his stature is bigger on stage and behind his monitor. Although he wears his emotions on his sleeves, sometimes looking on the verge of tears, he never gives up.
Last year's defeat in the Staples Center bent Crown, but it did not break him. His slump in the summer wounded him, but it did not kill him. He knows that he hasn't played well, and all he can do is put his head down and keep working, chipping away until he finds a breakthrough like he has done throughout his nearly decade-long career in esports.
"It's my eighth, ninth year pursuing a professional gaming career," he said. "I am actually burned out a bit. I am exhausted. I didn't have a considerable vacation or break the past couple years. It is getting more and more difficult to have the same passion and have the same energy to keep practicing on and on and on. I especially felt that emotion this year, and I wasn't able to practice as much as last year and the year before.
"But I think this is my last chance to finally fulfill my childhood dream to achieve that success as a professional gamer, so I'm definitely going to give all I have for the remainder of the tournament and leave no regrets."