Kim “Khan” Dong-ha has arrived in the beautiful country of Iceland as part of the overwhelming favourites to win MSI 2021. Damwon Gaming KIA, the reigning World Champions, come fresh out of a 6-0 LCK playoffs and a regular season with only 2 losses. Funnily enough, this position isn’t entirely unfamiliar to Khan, who in 2017 headed to China with Longzhu Gaming as the favourites to win that year’s World Championship after an incredible 14-4 record in LCK Summer. Back then, his team was dismantled by Samsung Galaxy in Quarter-Finals and this inability to succeed in international tournaments has followed Khan ever since. Now, four years later, he is trying to finally achieve this feat in what seems like his best but likely last shot.
Hanlabong becomes Khan
A peculiar career makes Khan stand out from most League of Legends professional players, especially South Korean ones. Although he began playing professional in 2014 (under the alias "Hanlabong"), he seemingly disappeared from the map between then and 2017. He was a part of a few LSPL teams and ended his time in China as a substitute player for the QG Reapers. In a world where 17 year olds appeared to join the LCK every split, having a 22 year old top laner being called a rookie was odd, but Khan proved everyone wrong with an incredibly dominant showing, especially on his signature Jayce.
Unfortunately, this Longzhu super team (Khan, Cuzz, BDD, Pray and Gorilla) collapsed in the World Championship and then did so again in 2018 MSI as Kingzone Dragon X. Khan seemed to be at the top of his game, had a cocky personality to back it up— with iconic sentences like “I’ve conquered Korea now. All top laners of the world, come bow down in front of me and kneel.” — but he kept missing one thing: an international trophy with his name on it.
Khan played with the confidence he showed in interviews, sometimes to a detriment. He was very resource heavy and open about his preference of squishier, damaging champs over tanks or bruisers. Although he was part of one of the most stacked super teams in history, he wanted to be the focus and the roster did play around him.
From one super team to another
After his time with the legendary Pray and Gorilla team ended, Khan joined another— and possibly even more intimidating— super team in SKT 2019. With teammates like Clid, Faker, Teddy and Mata (and later, Effort), the only acceptable result was winning absolutely everything, but that wasn’t the story. Faker and Clid always seemed to be on two different pages, Effort and Mata were sharing the Rift, Khan and Teddy both played as if they were the team’s focus. The roster never seemed to truly mesh and the star top laner saw another golden chance slip through his fingers. At this point he was already 24 years old and, due to South Korea’s mandatory military service, the clock was ticking.
This year in the legendary SKT roster already showed some changes in Khan, both the player and the person. He was playing more teamfight oriented champions rather than lane dominant ones, he started opting into some tankier picks like Urgot and Sion, but his top 5 most played still included Aatrox, Jayce and Vladimir. Yet, his tone in interviews changed slightly. He mentioned his age in a question Ashley Kang made about Mata, when Inven Global asked what he thought about the lack of MVP points he had in Spring 2019, his answer was:
“I don't care too much for them. League of Legends is a team game, so if there exists a carry, there needs to be someone that can enable that carry. Not every lane can carry in a match.
I'm currently playing in the direction of what the team decides. It's actually a lot less pressuring than before.”
The change from the carry mentality to the winner mentality is stark. 2017 and 2018 Khan wanted to win while being the best, 2019 Khan wanted to win however he could. It might not have been enough at the time, but it was a step in the right direction.
One step back, two steps forward
After 3 years of trying to win it all in his home region, Khan returned to the LPL in 2020 and joined FPX, the reigning World Champions. The move was a weird one for both parties, and unfortunately had little success. FPX made the risky investment of trying to make a Worlds winning roster even better, but as Emily Rand pointed out in a video regarding the move, it wasn’t the right one. Khan shared time with Gimgoon, but eventually the team chose their previous top laner and the Korean star didn’t even step into the Rift during Summer Playoffs.
Despite this poor year, Khan’s talent wasn’t forgotten and he joined another Worlds winning team, Damwon Gaming KIA, the reigning champions. After losing Nuguri to FPX and already showing interest in veteran talent with their previous hiring of legendary top laner Flame, this choice by Damwon makes a lot more sense than the FPX one a year before. DWG is a team built around dominant solo laners with incredible individual talent, Khan fits the bill perfectly and even has years of experience to assist his much younger teammates. His chances look better than they ever did, and it seems like Khan’s considerably changed his approach to the game and to some aspects outside of it in order to do everything in his power to finally get the international trophy.
Khan becomes hyung
As he returned to the LCK, he officially became the oldest player in the League. At 25 years old, he is 6 years older than his jungler Canyon and he’s seen by all of his teammates as a hyung, the older brother. He seems to be taking this responsibility at heart, although never in a serious or “boring” way. The serious and sad aspect of this situation is that this will likely be Khan’s last year as a pro player. In an interview with Ashley Kang, the star top laner says: “I feel like 2021 is really, truly, my very final year. And if this IS my final chapter, I want a good ending at the end of this.” The reason given is the mandatory military service. At his age, Khan is becoming unable to postpone it any longer, so soon he will have no choice but to retire. Not all is doom and gloom though. We might be losing a legendary top laner soon, but for now we have him in the best team in the world and ready to finally achieve the highest honours in the League of Legends circuit.
Despite the somber tone of the interview, Khan gave very interesting opinions regarding older players and why it seems that the age of retirement in esports is so early. He believes that older players don’t get worse because of mechanics or reaction time, but because distractions outside of the game begin getting more important and prevent you from playing hours on end like you did when you were younger. These factors are even worsened for South Korean players who have the military service looming ahead of them and getting ever closer. Khan still obviously believes in his individual ability, but this older, wiser side of him is being mirrored by his performance inside the Rift.
His champion pool has changed dramatically since he joined Damwon, with his top 3 most played being Sion (18), Gnar (8) and Ornn (7). Remember that this is the same player that in 2017 said "Nowadays, tanks rarely show up in the toplane... The meta shifted in my favor". Simultaneously, his view on his role also seems to have morphed into something new. The transformation that was beginning to occur in SKT seems to have completed in Damwon. Khan knows how talented his teammates are, players like Canyon and Showmaker impressed him with their talents so he is convinced that as long as he does his job, the team as a whole will always win. As he said in another interview with Ashley Kang: “I’m trusting my brothers, while just trying to finish what’s on my plate”.
Khan has come a long way from his days on the bench of LSPL teams, he’s undergone multiple transformations and has had to endure very tough losses. Now, at what seems like the end of the road, he is ready to do what he never could and win an international trophy. Perhaps, to finish the chapter in the best possible way, he might even be able to achieve what has never been achieved before and win the Grand Slam.
One can dream, and by now we know that Kim Dong-ha will never stop doing so, with the unfettered confidence and the cheeky smile that are synonymous with the name Khan.
Images courtesy of Lol Esports' and LCK's Flickrs.
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