LOS ANGELES -- "Where are your rings?" asked a Riot Games producer.
Blank-faced, Bae "Bang" Jun-sik realized he had left them at his new home, forgetting he needed them for a League of Legends Championship Series photo shoot. The rings, personalized for the AD carry, represent his past: two world championships with SK Telecom T1 in 2015 and 2016. The place he left them, the 100 Thieves team house located in the whimsical 75-degree winter of Southern California, represents his future.
The cornerstones of the team, top laner Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho, former league MVP Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black and head coach Neil "pr0lly" Hammad, remain. But all the attention during the LCS asset day was on their newest recruit: Bang, the most decorated AD carry in the history of League of Legends.
The former SK Telecom T1 player has already made the pilgrimage to In-N-Out Burger, a West Coast staple, with 100 Thieves owner Matthew "Nadeshot" Haag -- the food was a bit salty, he said. And Bang is still learning English -- "passionate" was the word he'd learned for the day -- but he has connected with his team despite the language barrier.
In the LCS, international players are nothing new. North America has deep pockets but a player base that isn't comparable to major regions. The solution? Open up the wallet and bring in international talent from places like South Korea and Europe. In early 2018, the only North American-born starting mid laner in the league was Eugene "Pobelter" Park, whose residential status made him one of the more valuable players in North America. Teams in the LCS, for the most part, build around their two import slots.
But after a while, a vast majority of the international signings, especially from South Korea, began to fail. There were instances where South Korean players would come for a year, pick up a paycheck and then leave, vanishing from North America as if their stint in the LCS was nothing more than a fever dream.
Famously, Clutch Gaming's top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon taught himself English when with European team Fnatic so he could communicate with his teammates. If he didn't know a certain word or phrase, he would go online and look it up. Four years later, Huni conducts all his interviews in English and has made America his second home. He is entering his fourth season in the country.
Most South Korean players coming to North America aren't like Huni. However, Bang, a former teammate of Huni's on SKT back when the two made the world final in 2017, appears to be cut from the same cloth. At assets day, he was already speaking in English with the various Riot Games staff, showing off pictures and video of his dog that he left back home in South Korea.
"I'm really enjoying the team atmosphere and playing with everybody, Bang especially," Aphromoo said. "Quirky dude, really enjoyable to play with. ... I'm going to learn a lot from him over the year."
The relationship between the Thieves and Bang couldn't have come at a better time. Although their first year in the scene was a success, disarray at the AD carry position and the lack of a veteran presence alongside Aphromoo in the bottom lane led to 100 Thieves stumbling through worlds. Even though the team came in third in a group that eventually produced the two world finalist teams, 100 Thieves were raked over hot coals on social media for their perceived mismanagement of the roster.
Bang's run with SKT, meanwhile, had run its course. The team had its worst season in franchise history, and though Bang wasn't the problem, the organization was looking at major roster changes. SKT wiped the slate clean aside from mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and went shopping for the best players from rival squads. They decided to sign Park "Teddy" Jin-seong, a slightly younger, less-proven talent from the ailing Jin Air Green Wings who'd built a reputation for his Herculean carry efforts to keep his team above water.
100 Thieves needed a game-changing talent in the bottom lane to stack up with Team Liquid's Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng. Bang, slighted, needed a chance to broaden his horizons and prove that he still has what it takes to be the best AD carry in the world.
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Before the team signed Bang, 100 Thieves held a video conference with him to get a feel for his personality. Afterward, it felt like everything fell into place. He was social, and maybe more important, he was adventurous with English, unafraid of misspeaking or not knowing the exact definition of a word.
"He's already super good at English," Ssumday said of his new teammate. "He's learning a lot, so it's good, and he's fun. He's good at [the game], and he also has a good personality."
Already, rumors are swirling that Bang has adjusted to the team and is playing in the form that won him two world championship rings. When 100 Thieves went out in the offseason and signed Bang, it was not a vanity signing. And for Bang, it wasn't a retirement check.
In Year 1, making worlds was an accomplishment in itself. This year, just making worlds won't cut it. "We want to do a lot better," pr0lly said. "Last year, we were like, if we made worlds we'll be happy. I think if the only achievement we get this year is worlds, we'll probably be pretty upset."
Before that, though, comes the Mid-Season Invitational. For Bang, nothing would be sweeter than standing on the Mid-Season Invitational stage and proving that SKT made the wrong choice in the offseason.
"Bang, in particular, definitely wants to go to MSI," Aphromoo added, "so we're going to make that happen."