Why Ambition is ESPN's player of the year

Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong and Gen.G defeated bbq Olivers in Week 7 of League Champions Korea. Provided by Riot Games

Fans of Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong have waited for him to lift the Summoner's Cup for years. Some, since his early days in 2012 as South Korea's first AP carry mid lane prodigy. Others, since his initial foray into the jungle in 2015. For them, his victory at the League of Legends World Championship in Beijing was cathartic, just over five years in the making.

The competitive landscape in League of Legends is littered with players who peaked and slowly fell with time or meta shifts, trying to outrun the fatigue and repetition by escaping to other regions in hopes of a fresh start. Younger, stronger players would rise and take the place of older, hardened veterans. In order to survive, Ambition reinvented himself, first by becoming a jungler to escape South Korea's rising mid lane talents. Secondly, he took a leadership role on a team that was considered always on the cusp of LCK playoff contention and propelling it to two World Championship finals. Here was a player who went from flashy and selfish to adaptable and selfless. His determination made him an invaluable leader for Samsung, while his teammates' easygoing and considerate personalities rubbed off on him more than his still stern visage lets on.

Ambition's reaction to winning the World Championship was almost anticlimatic. He hugged his more excitable and emotional teammates like Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk and Lee "Crown" Min-ho. He waited at the back of the handshake line, exhaling a large breath of air. He gave Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, his biggest rival, a respectful bow and handshake before walking out to a screaming crowd.

To understand Ambition and why his win over SK Telecom T1, and more importantly Faker, propelled him to the top of our list, one must first examine his legacy in South Korea.

The first ever OnGameNet Champions (OGN) tournament in 2012 ended with Ambition and Maximum Impact Gaming Blaze winning. OGN would later become the biggest organizer for competitive League of Legends in South Korea. During that time, it was considered the beginning of a new era. Blaze and Frost's model of sister teams spread rapidly throughout South Korea's growing esports landscape. At the forefront stood Ambition, a player that most pundits and fans considered World Championship material. Despite losing to Najin in the Regional Qualifier, Ambition's appearance on an international stage seemed inevitable.

Enter Faker.

In his debut professional match, Faker's solo-kill onto Ambition became the pinnacle of his legacy -- the kind of play that echoed around the competitive landscape. Who was Faker? Who was this mid lane prodigy? And shoved away into the shadows, a question that still lingered: Who was Ambition now?

At the time, Ambition was considered the best mid laner in South Korea. And after that fateful encounter with Faker, Blaze (now under the CJ Entus banner) and Ambition's dry spell continued throughout 2013 and 2014. He never won another Champions title, nor did he qualify for the World Championship. Rumors of petty infighting surrounded the players on the lineup. Ambition found himself outpaced by not only Faker, but other mid laners like Bae "dade" Eo-jin, Heo "PawN" Won-seok and Song "Rookie" Eui-jin.

It took four long years and an entirely different team for Ambition to make it to the world stage.

The transformation began when he moved to the jungle position during CJ's 2015 season. Ambition was still considered a talented mid laner and amidst rumors of retirement, the role-swap was startling. But the move made room for another rising mid laner, Shin "CoCo" Jin-yeong, and solved the jungle problem that CJ struggled with for so long. Had Ambition stayed in the mid lane, it's difficult to imagine he would have ever lifted the Summoner's Cup at all.

Ambition's first year of jungling was moderately successful, in terms of results, compared to his actual in-game performances, where he was selfish, focusing on power-farming rather than helping his lanes.

Come the 2015 KeSPA Cup, the final tournament of the competitive year in South Korea, it was clear that this CJ team would not be together going forward. The atmosphere only grew worse toward as ESC Ever, a group of young upstarts that failed to make League Champions Korea, succeeded in putting an aging CJ Entus squad out of their misery. Again, Ambition found himself in a situation where he and his teammates were at odds with each other.

Ambition's move to the jungle had staved off retirement for a year, but now the rumors bubbled up again. Many thought it would be better to retire now, with the memory of Ambition's exemplary mid lane performances still fairly fresh in mind.

Ambition disagreed.

He signed with Samsung Galaxy, later citing the players' dedication and easy-to-work-with personalities as the primary reasons for pushing back on retirement. During his first year on the squad in 2016, he led them to a World Championship final against SK Telecom T1. Though Samsung inevitably fell, the team brought the match to five games, which is more than what both fans and naysayers expected. In 2017, Ambition finally fulfilled his legacy, taking down the very player that stole the spotlight from him in the first place -- Faker. Some may point to his selflessness and willingness to adapt on Summoner's Rift; but those who have followed his career since the beginning know that it required an entire transformation for him to become the player he is today.

"This win today is really unrealistic and it's really all the hard work that I've been putting into the game, that it's finally paid off," Ambition said, in his post-game interview at the Bird's Nest.

Next to him, his Samsung teammates chatted loudly. They bounced with energy while Ambition seemed content to smile. Unlike his younger counterparts, this victory lifted a large weight from his shoulders, Finally, he had proof of being one of the world's best.

"As a professional player, it's important that I do the best I can with this game."

This was Ambition's response to what motivated him as a player while the confetti continued to fall at his feet on stage.

It was the culmination of five years of hard work. As people continue to dissect and reach for something compelling to say about the man who lived in Faker's shadow, for Ambition, it might just be as simple as doing his best on the world stage. At least this year, he finally has the trophy to prove it.