TAIPEI, Taiwan -- On the busy streets of Hanoi in Vietnam, there is no slowing down. Everywhere, motorbikes swerve along the busy streets, packed together like they're in the race of their lives. Traffic lights are few and far between in Hanoi, and the simple task of crossing the street turns into a real-life version of Frogger.
The locals dodge through the incoming cascade of cars with little trouble, headphones on, some even peering down at their phone to text in the chaos.
In the same city at the country's national convention center, Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok has his eyes closed, resting during a curiously long pause during the League of Legends 2019 Mid-Season Invitational. At 19 years of age he's already considered one of the best video game players on the planet, winning a world championship with Invictus Gaming last year. In China, where the team is located, the players are treated like celebrities, posing in fashion magazines and collecting hundreds of thousands of fans on social media. The team's owner, Wang Sicong, is the playboy son of Wang Jianlin, whose net worth as of 2018 is over $30 billion.
When TheShy opens his eyes, it's as if he's one of the locals of Hanoi, weaving through the virtual traffic on Summoner's Rift. It doesn't matter if he's having the best game of his career or the worst, there is no fear in his decisions, no hesitation. He pushes every character he selects to their absolute limit, enjoying the madness and never letting up on his opposition seated across from him.
"I think [League of Legends] as a game right now isn't very mechanically demanding," said TheShy in an interview with ESPN. "[Each game] it's already set up on what plays you have to make. It's already set in stone. I don't think there are any mechanical players left, so there isn't anyone [that can] compare to me."
When speaking to TheShy, there's an air of all-knowing confidence behind everything he says. He's what any marketer in any sport would want in a superstar player. He isn't afraid to talk trash, has a tall, good-looking frame and plays an attractive style to both the diehard and casual fan. So far at the Mid-Season Invitational, he has openly stated that he hasn't been challenged in any of the games. He wants to have exciting games where he feels like he's being pushed to the limit as he does with his characters in the game, and his opponents aren't giving it to him.
"TheShy plays a lot of very aggressive top laners, and he always has the ability to bring the team back from the brink of defeat," said his teammate Wang "Baolan" Liu-Yi. "When he plays champions like the Kennen and the Vladimir, he always does things people didn't think were possible. So mainly when I'm playing with him it's just a sense of I don't know what's happening."
On Invictus Gaming, four of the five starters speak fluent Mandarin, while TheShy -- who speaks Korean -- uses the team's bilingual mid laner, Song "Rookie" Eui-jin, as a de facto interpreter. This results in games in which TheShy has those moments Baolan referenced where he impossibly bull rushes into the enemy team to somehow be the only one to make it out alive. He is given freedom on a team that prides itself on a free-flowing and messy style that stems from the Chinese region as a whole, where fights are as frequent as fans in the generally sold out crowd.
TheShy is South Korea-born, but moved to China as a teenager to stream before transitioning into esports when he came of age at 17. While he conducts his interviews in Korean, he plays League of Legends like he is from China. When talking about the legends of the top lane position of the past who came from South Korea, he mentioned playing someone he considered an actual challenge -- Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho -- a player whom TheShy said was adept in all aspects of the game like himself.
The two faced off in the most memorable match of last year's world championship during the quarterfinals. TheShy and iG escaped with the 3-2 victory over Smeb and KT Rolster, but it was the only time the team was really pushed in the tournament.
So was TheShy finally satisfied facing off with arguably the best to ever play the top lane position?
Of course not. This is TheShy we're talking about. He was disappointed.
"He didn't play as well as I expected him to be," he said. "I think if you play in [South] Korea, the LCK, the top laners lose a bit of their skill in the laning phase."
Compared to his teammates, TheShy carries himself far more elegantly. He's often loud and boisterous and wears shoes that cost, well, a lot. When questioned about his team's love of streetwear, especially their jungler Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning, he admitted the entire team has gotten into the latest fashion trends. The exception for him, though, is that instead of getting the newest shoes or bags, TheShy is far more into business casual clothing; nicely made belts are far more interesting to him than whatever Kanye West decides to drop next.
He's a superstar and he knows it. Offstage, when he walks into an interview room, heads turn and people recognize he's around, something only a select few have the power of doing. During games, the cries of his name from loyal supporters of the crowd can be heard across the arena. Inside the game, the other teams at the Mid-Season Invitational follow him around the map as if they were fans flocking around a pop idol, doing everything in their power to stop a superstar.
"He really knows how to play every matchup to the limit," said G2 Esports' Martin "Wunder" Hansen, probably TheShy's biggest competition in the top lane at the tournament. "Sometimes he can be prone to ganks or he can push up too far [in lane], but generally, he's a pretty controlled player. He knows his limits really well."
Often when TheShy makes plays on champions such as Akali, who's tailor-made to be put into a highlight clip package for years to come, the first words to come out of someone's mouth (after they've picked up their jaw from the floor) is how amazingly talented he is at controlling his champion.
But the biggest misconception TheShy wants to clear up about himself is that he's solely a mechanical player. We're missing the whole picture, he says. When you see TheShy make one of those jaw-dropping moves, those aren't instinctual decisions he's making based off how quick his fingers are. Everything is calculated. Everything. When he goes for a 1-on-2 play, it's not that he thinks he can win it because he's mechanically better. He thinks he can win it because he's thinking one or two steps ahead, analyzing what would theoretically happen if everything went according to plan.
"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 [tactical] thoughts."
After only dropping a single game in the group stage, TheShy and Invictus Gaming now move to Taipei, Taiwan, for the knockout rounds. Their first matchup will be against the North American Team Liquid with former world champion SK Telecom T1 top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong. If they win as expected, they'd move to the final to face off with G2 and Wunder or SKT itself, the only team to beat iG in Vietnam. If Invictus Gaming goes undefeated in Taiwan and wins MSI, it'll be their third straight championship and second international trophy in a row, solidifying themselves as a true dynasty.
Although he has been called the best player in the world by fans and pundits alike, TheShy, per usual, isn't satisfied with just a dynasty or being the best player in the world at a single moment in time. He, like many before him, is aiming for Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. Unlike the others, though, he might actually have what it takes to do it.
TheShy, as he does in-game, already has it all planned out.
"So I feel like Faker is quite unreachable because he's been built up as such a big [deal]," TheShy said. "So I want to follow Faker in that way. So I'll win more world championships, and if I win three worlds, I can say I'm one of the best players ever."