On Oct. 21, 2016, an icy arrow soared across Summoner's Rift at one of the world's most famous sports arenas, Madison Square Garden in New York City.
In the semifinals of the League of Legends world championship, that arrow glided in what seemed like slow motion, striking SK Telecom T1's Lee "Duke" Ho-seong in the midst of an attempt to return to his home base under siege. The archer of the said arrow, Kim "PraY" Jong-in, kept firing away at SKT's heart, the rest of his team, the ROX Tigers, in tow. That cross-stage Ashe ultimate helped put the finishing touches on PraY's team's first win of the best-of-five series.
I sat in the upper deck of the Garden watching what would eventually become and is still considered today one of the best matches in esports history. As we produced our pre- and postgame shows that night, around me were eyeballs that had never watched League of Legends before or even played a video game before, people from a more traditional sports background.
But at that moment PraY's arrow sailed through the air and reached its crescendo, bringing the sold-out New York crowd to its feet, everyone knew they had just witnessed something special.
Even though that moment in a series littered with unforgettable moments is the one still most fondly remembered today, the ROX Tigers lost. SKT, ROX's greatest rival, having defeated them in the previous year's world final, had triumphed once more. Although the Manhattan crowd yelled out to the Tigers as they left the stage to applaud their efforts, PraY, the team's hulking superstar, so close to so many world titles, would never return to the semifinals.
That would be his final moment on the worlds stage with ROX Tigers.
Almost three years after the "Arrow Heard 'Round the World," PraY announced his retirement on stream Saturday, citing a lack of confidence to perform on a professional level as his reason for hanging up the mouse and keyboard. Following the beginning of his pro career in 2012 on NaJin Sword, PraY won South Korean championships on three different franchises. He made the world championship five times in his career, making his lone final appearance in 2015 in a losing effort to SKT. During each of his five trips, PraY would lose to the eventual world champion in the bracket stage, playing the role of kingmaker instead of the king.
Throughout his career, PraY was Sisyphus, pushing the gigantic boulder up a steep hill only to see it roll backward whenever he was close to reaching the summit. But it never seemed to weigh on him for too long. PraY was a lighthearted jokester, posing and grinning for the crowd, a teddy bear of a man despite his broad features. The tallest League of Legends player in South Korea, he towered over his opposition, figuratively and literally, quickly becoming one of the best AD carries in the country and then one of the best in the entire world.
Behind the cuddly and joyous exterior, though, was a man at a crossroads. After failing at the 2012 and 2013 world championships, losing at the semifinal stage in his most recent attempt, he decided to leave the game at a low point for both him and NaJin. No one knew if it was the end of the road. Players who had come into the pros at the same time as PraY were already falling off, his old team was rebuilding and the entire landscape of South Korean League of Legends was changing by the day with new players coming out of the woodwork quicker than ever before.
When PraY returned to League of Legends, he joined the team he'd forever become synonymous with: the Tigers. First as Huya, then GE before ultimately becoming the ROX Tigers, PraY returned to his roots with the latter. Instead of having the pressure of leading a storied franchise to a championship, he joined a team with like-minded individuals who had to qualify through preliminaries against amateur talent to even make it back to the major leagues.
The Tigers made it in, and from there, PraY's legend began anew, rejuvenated, surrounded by teammates who would become his best friends. In the two years he played on the Tigers, he won 70 percent of all his matches, creating the best bottom lane in the world with support Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyun.
In spite of all the success, however, international glory never materialized. The Tigers splintered at the end of 2016 when they fell to SKT in New York City, with PraY and GorillA joining Longzhu Gaming in hopes that being with a new team would produce better results. Again, PraY found success domestically, even exacting revenge against SKT in a split final, but it all came apart at the seams when he traveled abroad.
Longzhu lost in the quarterfinals of the 2017 world championships despite being favored to win it all. In 2018, on an even more dominant, rebranded King-Zone DragonX squad, the squad jetted off to the Mid-Season Invitational in Europe as the team to beat, only to disappoint and lose another heartbreaker in the final. The roster never recovered from its loss at MSI and failed to make the world championship, losing to Gen.G in the final of the South Korean regional qualifier.
In the final game of the 3-0 sweep, PraY went 0/3/4 on Xayah.
No one knew it at the time, but that would be the final game of PraY's illustrious career. He announced a sabbatical at the beginning of the year to take a break similar to the one he enjoyed in 2014. And similarly to 2014, many thought, he would return, find a new team and recreate himself for the umpteenth time and prepare for another charge up the steep hill, this time for sure the attempt that would bring him to the summit.
There would be no return and no next time.
PraY retires with one of the most storied stat lines in the game's history. He won 437 of the 668 professional games he played. When it comes to his arsenal of champions, he recorded a .500 or better record on every marksman in the game, except for his Draven at two wins and four losses -- in those six games, the combo was dubbed the "Prayven" for how terribly inept he was at the axe-tossing showman.
Over the years, PraY, giggling to himself in the booth, would hover over Draven, the crowd groaning in agony each time as if it was his very own catchphrase in a sitcom, the camera panning to his devilish smile.
I was told once as a kid that you'll remember only the winners. The ones who capture the grandest prize in their craft. The world champions. The losers, the ones who never reach the summit, are eventually forgotten.
But as I grow older, I disagree. Years from now, the memories of some of those world champions might fade, but I won't forget PraY. I'll never forget the night he turned back the clock at Madison Square Garden and electrified the crowd the same way Muhammad Ali did in his heyday. Sometimes, with special players such as PraY, the title is not necessary to stand out amongst the crowd.
He never needed to roll the boulder up the hill. He already reached the summit long ago.