ST. LOUIS -- For several hours on a cool Saturday, the halls of Chaefitz Arena lit up with a familiar chant of "T-S-M." Team SoloMid fans screamed through the hallways and in the arena, home to the Saint Louis Billikens basketball team. Many of those fans stood in awe, as the winningest team in North America looked to finally reclaim its title as the best in the League of Legends Championship Series. TSM had a two-game lead. This was their shot.
Onstage opposite to TSM, Team Liquid's Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in sat with his headphones on, as the chants blared from the crowd. Just hours earlier, CoreJJ was crowned the 2019 League Championship Series Spring Split Most Valuable Player. But now, both his back and the back of his team were against the wall.
For most, staring at the possibility of potentially going home empty-handed after a dominant split and one of the best six-month periods of their careers would be daunting. But not for CoreJJ, the 24-year-old South Korean who had played on the biggest stages of them all in front of tens of thousands at Staples Center in Los Angeles and the Bird's Nest in Beijing for two League of Legends World Championships.
Locked in and in the face of the TSM chants, CoreJJ led Team Liquid to a systemically strategic Game 3 win. And then to another win in Game 4 -- this time a 25-minute stomp, tying the series 2-2. The crowd, excited for the competitive series now on their hands, flipped sides.
"Let's Go, Liquid!" the crowd chanted. "Let's Go, Liquid!"
Just another 45 minutes sat between CoreJJ and the one achievement that evaded him years before: the League Championship Series trophy.
And in that moment, he did it. He hoisted that trophy, silver and blue, sparkling in the spotlight under the rain of confetti, above his head. CoreJJ was once again a champion.
"I always imagined if I won with a reverse sweep, the fans in the crowd would be going crazy," CoreJJ told ESPN after the win. "It was going to be really fun to see. It happened. I came here to see that moment."
Before 2014, not many around the world had heard about CoreJJ. In a time when League Championship Series teams looked for a way to one-up one another, players from Asia, particularly in China and South Korea, were recruited to make the leap across the Pacific Ocean and compete in Los Angeles. CoreJJ was one of those players, at the time 20 years old, and with less than a year of high-level competitive League of Legends experience.
Just weeks after his move, CoreJJ and his team at the time, Team Dignitas, were thrusted into an international tournament: Intel Extreme Masters Season 9 Cologne. There, CoreJJ showed promise in the AD carry position. He and fellow South Korean player Noh "Gamsu" Yeong-jin were integrating into a team with multiple North American veterans. But neither CoreJJ nor Gamsu were veterans, and their lack of experience called into question why Dignitas had selected them.
Less than a year later, in late 2015, CoreJJ would move back to South Korea and join a Samsung Galaxy team that had since fallen from grace as one of the most dominant teams in the world. Samsung's former players had since moved to China in an an exodus of South Korean talent looking to get paid high salaries.
"When I wanted the opportunity to play, I came to North America because it was very comfortable, so I chose here for the experience," CoreJJ said.
As Dignitas struggled in early to mid-2015, so did Samsung. CoreJJ would then get the chance to compete for Samsung in early 2016. Quickly, however, it became clear he was not as competitive as his South Korean AD carry peers. In fact, he said, his confidence level was low. That was, until he made the decision to swap his role in the bottom lane to a support.
That was the key.
"Since I switched my role, I have had full confidence always because I always think that I'm the best player in my role," he said.
Less than two years after coming to North America as a relatively unknown, CoreJJ -- then the starting support for South Korea's Samsung Galaxy -- would find himself back in Los Angeles. This time, competing for a world championship against the best team in the world, SK Telecom T1. From a small television studio at the Riot Games headquarters to Staples Center, CoreJJ's first return to the U.S. was quite the shock. And SK Telecom would pick those nerves apart.
"We were not good enough to get the win at that moment," CoreJJ said. "After that loss, I had so many regrets. Like, why I shouldn't have played like that and why I should've played better but I didn't. There were a lot of regrets."
Those regrets would be made up for a year later, however, as CoreJJ found himself in front of tens of thousands of people again. This time, in Beijing, as Samsung faced SK Telecom T1 in a rematch from the previous year. That was the moment he learned to channel the same energy he did on Saturday, and it led Samsung to another world championship title as it did for Team Liquid to one in St. Louis.
"When I won worlds, that was my first time to win in any series, any tournament," CoreJJ said. "It was crazy, I almost cried at worlds. Everything was crazy. I felt good then and feel good now. But it was really fun to play, everyone was cheering. ... I had more space in my mind [Saturday], so it was easy to play more. I've played at bigger stages than here. There's not much pressure, so I can just play my game and it was just really fun."
Drawing CoreJJ back to North America where he first gained notoriety wasn't just the comfort of living in Los Angeles, something he fell in love with during his time in Team Dignitas.
Rather, the opportunity to play with one of the best AD carries in the world, Peter "Doublelift" Peng. Peng, someone CoreJJ played against in 2015 with Dignitas, had improved tremendously since CoreJJ left the region. And Doublelift had captured five League Championship Series titles in three years with three different teams -- Counter Logic Gaming, Team SoloMid and Team Liquid. CoreJJ, he said, had the opportunity to learn from one of the best.
"Here I wanted to play with an AD carry that I can learn from," CoreJJ said. "And that was Peter. ... Peter has a really big ego. He has his own play style. He knows how to play the game and how to [get others] to play around him. He was really good and it's easy to play with him."
Playing in front of a grandiose crowd may not be new for CoreJJ, but something was different on Saturday in St. Louis. Early on Saturday, CoreJJ embraced his family as they arrived at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel. They had traveled 17 hours from South Korea, and for the first time, his mom, dad and sister would see him compete on a large stage for a championship.
"I really appreciated them coming here," he said. "I'm double happy, because I won when my family came here. This is the first time they've ever come to my game in a big stage. It was a really happy moment."
Soon, CoreJJ will go back to South Korea to relax and recharge. But in less than a month, he'll travel to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as Liquid gears up for its third international tournament in the past 18 months. Among their peers, Liquid has performed worse than the others internationally. Now, with a long-tenured world champion at the helm, they'll look to change that. And maybe they can channel some of that energy that led CoreJJ to a domestic championship in St. Louis, or a world championship in Beijing.
"If we win MSI, if we win worlds -- both of them," CoreJJ said, "I think I can say that Liquid is better than Samsung."