Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho exits his plane at Los Angeles International Airport and is greeted by an immediate rush of various English words and sounds that are unfamiliar to him.
“Baggage claim at Terminal 3!” One lady says over the PA. “Do not leave luggage unattended.” A pre-recorded message follows shortly after amid a crowded roar of conversations bypassing him at each moment. A wave of different thoughts rush into the top laner’s head instantly.
Everything had been a complete shift from the life he had grown up with in South Korea. The 20-year-old Ssumday had a humble upbringing in his home country. Although that life picked up in pace when he became KT Rolster’s mainstay top laner, it was nothing compared to the change he was about to experience in Los Angeles.
A distraught look zooms across his face as he comes back into the moment. He tightly grips his luggage case ready to embrace discomfort and the upcoming challenges as an imported top laner in the League Championship Series. Contrary to the narrative that follows many imported League of Legends players coming to North America, Ssumday’s reasons for coming to North America were not because he wanted a cushy life away from the pressures of playing in League’s top region. For Ssumday, his path to North America started with one goal: embrace change.
More than five years from that moment, Ssumday now is in his sixth year as an LCS top laner, and he has since become the franchise cornerstone to one of the LCS’s fastest-growing esports organizations, 100 Thieves. Since the moment he arrived at LAX, he has overcome numerous roadblocks in order to develop true confidence in his own abilities as a teammate and player. This is his story.
A tough first year in North America
Photo credit: Riot Games
Ssumday truthfully shared that his first year adjusting to North America with Dignitas was tough. Although he was excited at the prospect of being able to experience something new, he could not help but feel the growing pains of trying to communicate in a language that was completely foreign to him.
“It was actually a big challenge to me because I couldn’t speak English, so it was kinda uncomfortable, but I wanted that change to my life,” Ssumday said about his initial experience in North America. “There was that other part that was very excited for the challenge, but it was very tough that first year.”
Ssumday’s individual performance on Dignitas was strong throughout 2017, but the adjustment was still tough for him. Ultimately, his season was cut short after losing to FlyQuest in the 2017 LCS regional qualifier, after which he contemplated the idea of returning to Korea.
“After my time with Dignitas, I was considering going back to the LCK,” Ssumday said. “I was having a really hard time adjusting to North America, and it was really challenging.”
It wasn’t until he felt the support and admiration from fellow players in the LCS who really wanted to play with him that gave him the strength to give it another shot.
“There was a lot of good people that wanted to play with me,” Ssumday said. “It was really nice knowing how much they wanted to play with me. So when 100 Thieves said how much they wanted me too, I chose to stay in North America.”
Feeling at home with 100 Thieves
Photo credit: Riot Games
In 2018, Ssumday joined 100 Thieves as their starting top laner, where he felt the immediate impact and love from the organization. It was something that he was grateful for when thinking back to his first moments with 100 Thieves.
“It just felt like a family and not a business,” Ssumday said. “Even though we lose spring finals, people were still cheering for us and the organization took us out to dinner saying we would win the next time. It meant a lot to me.”
After two years with 100 Thieves, Ssumday chose to stay with the organization for the 2020 season, where he experienced a new set of changes to his career. Truthfully, he shared that it was another moment of growth in his career.
“I was kind of worried because naturally, I am not a talkative person and I was the only Korean player,” Ssumday said about adjusting to life as the only Korean player on 100 Thieves. “It was definitely a tough period at first.”
After years spent with a support system of Korean staff and teammates to help him live life in North America, adjusting to a different country on his own became difficult. It was something that 100 Thieves’ general manager Christopher "PapaSmithy" Smith had grown to understand.
“He’s definitely the sort of person where it takes a little bit of time to warm up to new people,” PapaSmithy shared when asked about Ssumday. “He’s very traditionally Korean. Soft spoken. Doesn’t want to volunteer his opinion to someone older, unless it’s asked for.”
Yet, even with these warm-up and adjustment periods, something he noted was the leveled approach Ssumday took in his everyday life facing new challenges in the LCS.
It was this period that Ssumday credited most for his own personal development as both a player and a person.
“It is what it is, and after I sat with it, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Ssumday said. “If that situation never happened, my English would not grow as much even if I lived here longer.”
Ssumday smiled after sharing his recollections of that time.
Loyalty to 100 Thieves
Photo credit: Chris Bet / Riot Games via ESPAT
Ssumday’s dedication to 100 Thieves runs deeper than his own personal goals of being a starting top laner in the LCS.
A conversation that stuck with PapaSmithy in particular was following the team’s 2021 season. He sat Ssumday down to discuss the idea of bringing 100 Thieves’ 2021 Academy top laner Milan "Tenacity" Oleksij as the team’s sixth man. He shared his own fears of telling that to Ssumday before revealing how well it had been received.
“A six-man roster is something that can break a relationship with a player knowing that his spot is going to be contested,” PapaSmithy shared. “But, immediately, he told me he understood that and held the mindset that the better player should play.”
Tenacity became the team’s sub, but he only played one game during the Lock In tournament. Throughout 2022, Ssumday continued his consistently excellent level of play seen throughout his career and added an even stronger level of play going into the LCS 2022 summer split.
“Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.”
American author Bob Goff once said that. It was a fitting quote to describe Ssumday’s ongoing five-year chapter as an LCS top laner as he continues to embrace new challenges in his career head on. Now, he enters the final stretch of the 2022 season looking to lead 100 Thieves to the team’s second LCS Championship in his fifth year with the team. It’s still a surreal feeling for Ssumday.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be a pro player in North America, I would think you are crazy,” Ssumday truthfully shared while reflecting on his growth. “It is crazy that I am still here playing in Los Angeles because it is so different than what I grew up around.”
He recalled the many people he has met throughout his time in Los Angeles, but said not list them all so as to not offend anyone before mentioning his current teammates.
“In my team, we have a German, an Australian and a Turkish player,” Ssumday said. “It is crazy that they have been my teammates for so long because in Korea, there are not that many different foreigners. It’s definitely different, but I am happy here.”
Photo credit: Riot Games
The interview closed out with one final question, “What does 100 Thieves mean to you?”
He paused for a moment before crossing his arms and really reflecting on the right words he wanted to say. But just like all the other roadblocks he has run into, he embraced the question as he eventually was able to characterize his admiration and love for the organization.
“If someone is good company, they will stay in my life forever and I will give them that same loyalty and respect,” Ssumday said before explaining why 100 Thieves is that good company. “100 Thieves is the one that has really helped me a lot both as a player and a person outside of the game. I trust them because they have taken care of me and they trust me. I just want to keep repaying that to them.”
Ssumday will look to help 100 Thieves acquire their second LCS title during the LCS Championship finals this weekend in Chicago. Their first match will take place Saturday at 4 p.m. ET when they will take on Evil Geniuses in the lower bracket final. If they win, they’ll move on to face Cloud9 in the grand final on Sunday.
Lead photo credit: Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games via ESPAT