Ambition and reinvention in the jungle

Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong, jungler for Gen.G. Riot Games

Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's early claim to fame in League of Legends has been dissected time and time again. His professional debut on SK Telecom T1 in 2012, where he managed to solo-kill his lane opponent, propelled him to immediate stardom. It was a highlight reel for the ages: Nidalee, a feline character that can transform into a cougar, lands a spear onto Kha'Zix, the cockroach hugging his tower for safety. She dives in, transforming into her feline form, crushing the bug in a single burst. It's a play that's so quick, so impressive, that it often needs one or two replays to properly analyze and break down.

Faker was the prodigious newcomer who took the scene by storm. And Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong -- the cockroach -- was but a stepping stone that jettisoned Faker into the upper echelon of greatness. Look at any story mapping Faker's career trajectory, and you'll find Ambition lurking in the background. Like a shadow under the sun, he became the reluctant villain of a well-established narrative.

"[Ambition] getting dumped on by Faker and [Ambition's] decline really changed his viewpoint on a lot of things," says Yoonsup Choi, Ambition's former housemate under the MiG org. "It crushed his confidence. I think that's why he started playing worse and worse.

"His mental state got shocked. It's earth-shattering. It's reality-shattering," Choi says.

Before Ambition became Ambition, he was called "Segimal," which means end of the world in Korean. He played Brand, a pyromaniac entity composed of fire instead of flesh. His friends urged him to use the apocalyptic skin (imagine a morose version of Marvel's Ant Man living in a dystopian wasteland), a not-so-subtle nod at his in-game ID.

When MiG Blaze formed, players were assigned different roles in the game. "It had a butterfly effect that no one could've imagined," Choi says.

Five players ranked the positions they wanted to play. At the time, League of Legends was a game in its infancy, so players were unlikely to specialize. Ambition was a highly adept AD Carry player, but someone already filled that role.

Although mid lane wasn't necessarily his forte, Ambition slowly ascended to the top before Faker entered the picture. The mid lane was fast-paced and highly mechanical. If you weren't moving, then you were falling behind. Outside the occasional short-lived career renaissance, it seemed like Ambition was stuck in a state of stasis, and retirement was all but inevitable for him.

But then, he did something inexplicable.

He decided to become a jungler.

"His personality is very cold. Edgy," Choi says. "Sort of like it gives you a Sasuke vibe."

Sasuke -- an animated character from the Japanese show "Naruto" -- is the archetypical byproduct of tragedy and suffering. He exhales anger and vengeance in every line, and his only connection to the real world wavers on a thin thread of friendship. He's highly-intelligent, driven and adept, but his fatal flaws stifle him from reconciling with reality: cold, brooding and un-empathetic.

"One thing you have to know about Ambition is this kid has grit," says Choi. "He wants to win. He has a winner's arrogance, a winner's confidence. Like, I'm going to beat you. I'm going to work so hard until I'm better than you."

Ambition's journey in the jungle wasn't easy. It seemed like, despite all his self-assurance, he was outstaying his welcome in the professional league. He could've become a coach, or even an analyst. He could've stepped away from the spotlight, relieving a precious professional spot to a hopeful young prospect. Instead, he left CJ Entus and joined Samsung Galaxy, which gave him the chance to reset.

Samsung Galaxy's legacy fell to the dust after 2014, where their World Championship roster disbanded for greener pastures in China. 2015 was a time for them to rebuild, and 2016 saw a team of young players with potential who needed guidance and leadership. It took a while, but after the Spring Season wrapped up, it seemed like something finally clicked. And Ambition's transformation from the cocky upstart in the mid lane to a seasoned veteran in the jungle carried him all the way to the League of Legends World Championship Finals against SK Telecom T1.

"It doesn't surprise me he found success in the jungle role," says Choi. "Whatever role he switches to, I'd imagine he'd find success."

The air hung thick and heavy in Los Angeles three weeks ago in advance of the League of Legends World Championships final at Staples Center. Sun-kissed cosplayers perused the street outside Staples -- congested with big white tents filled with fantastical League of Legends memorabilia.

Black Team SoloMid jerseys filled up the entryway of the arena. Like blips on a radar, SKT's red jackets were sprinkled in.

Tables by the walkway were set up with posters. There was a pile of red markers sitting in one corner of the table, dried out from overuse. Most fans were drawing signs for SK Telecom T1, the most dynastic team in League of Legends history. There was a smaller subsection of fans making posters for CoreJJ, a Korean player on Samsung who had a brief stint in North America's regional league. The last hope of North America, fans wrote. From that subsection, an even smaller group drew Samsung Galaxy posters.

Ambition's name was missing from sight.

The boys in red from SK Telecom T1 looked like polished veterans in front of the camera: Faker's determined gaze. Bang's finger-guns. Wolf's signature rockstar hand gesture. Their poses were met with hot red fireworks and deafening fanfare.

On the other end of the stage, Ambition looked uncharacteristically meek. He spared a sheepish smile, waving to the crowd. The look on his face said it all: Am I really here? There were no fireworks for Samsung.

SK Telecom T1 took the first two games in dominating fashion, and the series looked like a surefire sweep. Some fans began to filter out the stadium, leaving sections visibly empty. But then, Samsung Galaxy did something unexpected: They began to fight back.

They took two games in return, putting the possibility of a reverse-sweep closer to the realm of reality. The crowd fully committed to the Samsung Galaxy hype train. Chants of Sam-sung, Sam-sung echoed throughout Staples Center. And the TSM chants that seem to be universal to any League of Legends event were forgotten by the wayside.

"If there is a difference between Ambition of the past and now -- back then, I was filled with a lot of confidence," says Ambition. "I just kept thinking 'who would beat me?' Just very stubborn. Having that quality might be good if you get good results, but it can have a negative influence when the team does poorly, because it's a team game."

But despite Ambition's best efforts, Samsung faltered in the final game.

Still, the looks on their faces were incredulous. It was sadness, but also inexplicable relief. The rivalry is still there, but Faker and Ambition have something in common this time around, even if they're standing on opposite ends of the stage: They're both survivors of the old vanguard.

But while Faker is the undeniable king of SK Telecom T1's reigning dynasty, Ambition remains the stubborn architect remodeling Samsung Galaxy's lost empire, brick by brick.