DWG KIA’s 3-0 sweep against the pride of Europe, MAD Lions, on Oct. 24 was as simple as checking another box off on their 2021 League of Legends World Championship to-do list.
DK aren’t necessarily out for blood at Worlds 2021; it’s more than that. The way this team has been playing throughout the tournament makes one thing clear to viewers: DWG KIA believe they’re the best and are deserving of becoming back-to-back world champions. They’re not only on a mission to win the Summoner’s Cup; they’re on a mission to collect what they believe is theirs.
For the bulk of the South Korean cohort, that means repeating last year’s success. But for one player on the team, winning means something much more.
Top laner Kim “Khan” Dong-ha just played one of the most impressive best-of-fives of his career against MAD, and it was also one of the last that he will ever play. If he lifts that trophy on Nov. 6 with his teammates, it will be his first and last time doing so.
“I’m feeling a bit emotional that it’s finally coming to the end,” Khan said after his match against MAD.
Khan will retire after Worlds 2021 to complete his mandatory military service for South Korea, and no one is quite sure how the top laner will be remembered in League of Legends esports lore. Khan can only pour his all into playing at a level that people won’t ever forget.
Given his monstrous performance at Worlds so far, it looks like he and his teammates are doing everything they can to make sure he’s successful in that.
The unshakable Khan
When Khan played his first World Championship with Longzhu Gaming in 2017, Kim “Canyon” Geon-bu, Heo “ShowMaker” Su and Cho “BeryL” Geon-hee were all watching from home as fans and aspiring pros. That was four years ago, which is a long time in League of Legends. In those four years, Khan’s been on four different teams: Kingzone DragonX, T1, FunPlus Phoenix and DWG KIA. He’s also won five domestic championships in that time, but it wasn’t all easy.
League of Legends, especially as a pro career, is difficult to stick with as a journeyman. The fun and frustration a casual player experiences are compounded with the pressure of consistently performing at the top of your game. That’s been the case for Khan, across two regions and multiple teams. What he needed to be for each team was different, and what he was able to do changed too.
Think of it like learning a new instrument. It’s exhilarating and rewarding in the beginning because everything is new. Learning how to produce a sound or even hold the instrument correctly can feel like a huge milestone. But once you master the basics, there’s a plateau, a place where the next big step is anything but.
That’s when the job becomes more mundane, the improvement less tangible. You’re practicing scales and listening to albums to improve your tone. Doubt about what the best you can be creeps in, and there’s nothing stopping you from quitting at this point; you’ve already achieved plenty. But if your goal is to be the best, stopping before you reached that goal rarely feels like a choice.
Despite rough seasons, missed goals and community criticism, Khan kept showing up. We joke about it, but a player who became known for joining rosters the season after they win Worlds would only do so because they’re trying their best to win each season.
“Khan has matured and grown as a player,” League of Legends and Worlds analyst Emily Rand said. “He’s been around longer than most people assume and has learned a lot since his start, especially regarding how to play with and in tandem with his team. I’m happy to see him perform so well on the international stage since this is the last time we’ll see him take to the Rift.”
Khan has been to Worlds three times, but he wasn’t always a world-class player. Despite his pedigree, the obstacles thrown at him throughout his professional journey were difficult to overcome. After his Tier 1 career began with a half-year stint on Newbee in 2015, Khan struggled to find a starting roster spot until Longzhu in 2017.
Since then, he’s found a healthy measure of success despite being so-close-yet-so-far from that Worlds title. And now, the clock’s almost run out; the thing potentially keeping Khan from being the best is far outside of his control. All he can do is play his best every time he steps on stage until he’s no longer afforded that privilege.
As long as he’s been in the spotlight, Khan has sort of been the embodiment of top lane. Some call it an island or a useless role, but top laners know more than anybody else that once it’s just them and their opponent face-to-face, pride is all that matters.
Most of the best top laners are unique strategists or mechanical monsters, able to strike fear into any player just by appearing on their screen. But they all share the same thought every once in a while: “If this person walks up to me, I’m going to fight them, and I’m going to win.”
Khan is the top laner who insta-locked Riven in the LCK 2019 summer finals against Griffin. He’s the top laner that locked in Nasus on stage with no fear. He’s the top laner that will harass you under your turret with no vision just to deny you two minions rather than safely dropping a ward and resetting. He’s the top laner that some could confidently call the best in the world at one point in time.
There’s a reason why Khan has the highest first blood percentage (67%) of any player at Worlds 2021 and the highest gold difference at 10 minutes among all top laners (second-highest overall) at 450 according to Oracle’s Elixir. He’s stayed true to his bold and unafraid manner of playing, and it’s clear Khan is trying to make the most out of Worlds 2021 and has been one of the most impressive players on DWG KIA.
Make or break
The “MAKE/BREAK” theme for this year’s World Championship resonates with Khan more than most players. At most, he has potentially 10 more games left in his professional career to achieve his goal of becoming a world champion.
It’s an odd feeling watching DWG KIA lay the foundation to pull off one of the most impressive world championship runs ever amid this bittersweet finish line for their 25-year-old top laner. DK are two series wins away from becoming the second team in history to win Worlds back-to-back — and they’d have to get through T1, the only other team to do it, in order to establish their new dynasty.
Despite how tempting it might be to ignore, though, DWG KIA’s remaining matches are about something bigger than a trophy. They’re a love letter to their warrior in the top lane, who will only log into the tournament realm on stage a few more times in his career. They’re a sendoff to a veteran player that helped them win two domestic titles and reach the finals of the 2021 Mid-Season Invitational.
It’s easy to relate to some aspects of what Khan might be going through. Whether it’s an experience, a loved one, a career path or even a city or town that you grew up in, the process of leaving something behind is one that rarely becomes easier over time. By the time we’re done counting all the what-ifs and thinking about what we could’ve done differently, the moment has passed, and it’s already time to move on.
There are also aspects of what Khan’s facing that others will never relate to. Sometimes, you don’t get to choose when the journey stops; sometimes it’s taken from you. If that time ever comes, the only option is to accept the circumstances and make the most out of what little time is left. When that time came for Khan, he decided to sign off on his own narrative with the same brazenness and courage he began it with. That’s blindingly clear from his play at Worlds 2021.
In some ways, we do know how Khan will be remembered, and it’s not related to how he plays this weekend or even the weekend after that. People will remember his unfiltered silliness. They’ll look back at the surprises he’s given us in champion select over the years and all of the solo kills in between. These are the memories we’ll be left with once Khan turns in his jersey for the last time, and if nothing else, we should be grateful for that.
With MAD out, DK are one step closer to claiming their second consecutive world title, and Khan one step closer to closing the last chapter of his legacy.
The only thing standing between Khan and becoming a world champion for the first time will be his old team, one that he failed to find great success on, in a rematch of this year’s LCK summer finals. A win there means either China’s Edward Gaming or South Korean rival Gen.G will stand between DWG KIA and a second-straight Summoner’s Cup.
Khan’s career might end Saturday against T1. It might end a week later against one of those two teams. But the end’s here, and time isn’t stopping, and there’s so much more at play than a world championship and a title for this top laner.
This weekend, and the next, are about a legacy. About finally being the best after so many trying years. About struggle and endless plateaus and, suddenly, another mountain to climb, another peak and a final hope of reaching the top before life moves on.
This is the closing chapter. And Khan, ready or not, will rush forward to meet it.
About the Author
Pop culture consumer and League of Legends thought-haver. Working on becoming a weirder person.