Lee "Rush" Yoon-jae has no illusions about the kind of player he used to be.
Though the South Korean jungler's notorious aggression was impactful enough to win him MVP of the 2015 North American League of Legends Championship Series Summer Split, these days, all the recent Echo Fox addition can see are the decisions of an incomplete competitor.
"My mindset was definitely wrong," Rush said. "Everything was about killing the enemy. I just wanted to hit Level 6, get ulti, and if I get ulti, I can kill these targets easily. I just focused on how to kill camps faster, really small things that don't make you win."
In order to correct his mindset, Rush needed to escape the confines of NA LCS. By the summer of 2016, he wasn't even in the top league, consigned to boost the Cloud9 Challenger squad that became FlyQuest just six months later. Rather than waste his time against competition he had long surpassed, the player fans called the "Kind Boy" departed for his native shores.
"I still felt like I was missing something in League of Legends," Rush said. "I felt like I could get something more, but I couldn't figure it out in Cloud9. I fantasized [about] Korea too because people usually fantasize about what they don't have. So maybe if I go to Korea, maybe I can get it. Maybe I can be greater."
Rush wasn't the first player to leave North America in search of something more, but he is among the first wave of players to return. The 2019 LCS Spring Split is dotted with experienced pros who, having left as unfinished players in an immature league, are now eager to flex their newfound powers.
"I'm confident in myself even more than before," said Cloud9's new mid laner Yasin "Nisqy" Dinçer. "I'm playing aggressive until I cannot. I'm trying to play out my limits."
Back in 2017, Nisqy made his North American debut on Team EnVyUs, a struggling organization in search of a new mid laner after Noh "Ninja" Geon-woo failed to meet expectations. What Nisqy knew of EnVyUs boiled down to a single name: Nam "LirA" Tae-yoo, widely considered the region's best jungler. Their partnership helped transform the team from relegation fodder to playoff contender, and EnVyUs nearly upset Counter Logic Gaming in an electric five-game Summer Split quarterfinal that year.
Nisqy credits LirA with much of his development during that abbreviated stint in North America. The jungler taught him how to properly reflect on his past performances, asses mistakes and widen his champion pool. But most important, LirA, along with bot duo Apollo "Apollo" Price and Nickolas "Hakuho" Surgent, taught Nisqy how to stay positive in the face of adversity.
"I remember everyone was usually happy, but then once it went downhill, everyone was kind of depressed," Nisqy said. "I respect Apollo, LirA and Hakuho because they were the ones keeping a positive mindset, and if they can keep the positive mindset up, I can do it as well."
Though he was disappointed not to be included in the EnVyUs player package that formed the core of Clutch Gaming, Nisqy kept his old colleagues' lessons in mind during his time on Splyce. Even as a European LCS rookie in 2018, Nisqy noticed his mentality spread inside a team stacked with veterans. Those best practices forged Nisqy into a player capable of competing against world-class European mids like Rasmus "Caps" Winther and Luka "Perkz" Perković.
"In EU, mid laners are better than the ones in NA," Nisqy said. "In NA I was bad, but in EU I was quite bad. I realized I had to step up, had to watch VODs, got to play more solo queue, really focus on what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. I started to set goals for myself, and that's a big part of why I was successful in Splyce: because I had goals, and in the end, I achieved them."
By the time Splyce were admitted into the franchised League European Championship, Nisqy was halfway out the door. Having heard the rumors surrounding mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen's departure from Cloud9, Nisqy offered owner Jack Etienne his services via top laner Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, whom he knew by reputation through shared coach Kublai "Kubz" Barlas.
After one year away, Nisqy headed back to LCS, this time as the focal point for its flagship organization.
"It was really fast and smooth," Nisqy said of the transition. "Jack had a really convincing approach, really familial. For me, feeling like in a family is really nice, good for the relationships, and just my play in general. He told me C9's just a family and stuff, and I was like, 'Damn, that looks perfect for me.'"
As Nisqy built his career across two major regions, Rush was trying to rebuild his in solitude. He devoted most of 2017 to relentlessly grinding South Korean solo queue and spent day after 14-hour day attempting to improve his understanding of the game past the narrow perspective of a jungler.
"Back then, everything was related with a gank," Rush said. "I was not even thinking about priority or laner's perspective. Like, some mid laners think, 'This wave I can do this this this, next wave this is going to happen, so we should prepare for the next play.' I was definitely lacking those. That's what I was looking for, rather than mechanical things or champion pool."
Rush ended his exile from pro play when KT Rolster came calling in 2018. Like most LCK teams, KT were interested in adding a second jungler who contrasted stylistically with their starter. Though he only played 12 stage games for KT, Rush found the macro perspective he was looking for in jungler Go "Score" Dong-bin.
"His macro was insane," Rush said. "He thinks what the enemy top laner would do, what our top lane wants to do, and made a path around what laners want to do. He played top and ADC as a pro player, so he definitely has understanding of lanes, a system. I was thinking about only my path, only jungle. So he might pick up something beneficial like champions, mechanics or item builds from me, but I picked up his understanding of the game in general."
Armed with Score's knowledge, Rush left KT for a team to call his own. He ultimately chose LCS, the region that catapulted him to international fame, and Echo Fox, where he reunited with Apollo from their days on Team Impulse. In his four spring split games, Rush has shown flashes of his trademark aggression with picks like Lee Sin and Kha'Zix, but it's clear that the era of brash ganking has past.
"I try to talk with laners," Rush said, "try to think what I can do for them and how I can interrupt what the enemy wants to do. It's focusing not on the current state of game, but maybe one minute later. Maybe our comp is a pick comp, scaling comp, we need to fight like this, we need to play around objectives, we need to make a fight with this comp. I'm thinking about the big picture.
"I felt like wherever I joined could shine because I can help them; 2019 should be my year, the Year of Rush."
Both Rush and Nisqy agree that franchising has improved the stability of LCS, but apart from that, the league they left bears a strong resemblance to the one they now inhabit. About one-third of the current players on LCS and Academy rosters were playing when Rush left C9 in 2016. There are still super-teams and bottom-feeders, promising youngsters and wily veterans.
It's Nisqy and Rush who've changed, and both are prepared to take the reins of their respective teams after years training for this moment.
"In Envy, it was all about mechanics," Nisqy said. "I was playing random champions like Lucian, Kog'Maw, all that stuff. Playing Taliyah and ignoring 3-4 waves mid just diving top and bot. I was either winning lane or going even. Now, I play macro, I play good champions that are meta, but also weird champions. I think that's the difference."