Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu has competed at League of Legends’ highest level for a decade, but Deft’s Worlds 2022 quarterfinals win against Edward Gaming may be the crowning achievement of an incredible career.
Deft’s journey through professional play has been a story of individual greatness, falling short of past pinnacles, and the price of true dedication. Worlds 2022 may be the final time that Deft steps onto the international stage, with the South Korean deadline for mandatory military service looming.
Looking back on a full decade of play, Deft is one of the esports’ irreplaceable founding figures. Last weekend Deft delivered one of League of Legends’ greatest moments on its largest stage, here’s why.
Deft’s Worlds journey
Deft debuted on the LCK stage in February 2013 as a member of MVP Blue. At this point, Deft was young and inexperienced but already a phenomenal talent sharing a marksman spot with Gu “Imp” Seung-bin. Deft was proving himself quickly, and in Champions Winter 2013-2014, Deft joined Samsung Blue, one-half of the dominant Samsung sister teams from before organizations were limited to a single slot in a league. His first split with Samsung Blue was full of improvement, ending in a fifth-to-eighth placement, but it was in 2014 that Deft began to truly make his name.
Samsung Blue surged to the top of Champions Spring 2014, triumphing in playoffs with a resounding win. Both Samsung teams were at the top of their game, presenting themselves as two of the best region’s premier competitors. Champions Summer brought a 2-3 finals defeat at the hands of KT Rolster, a team that Deft would later come to join. At that year’s World Championship, Samsung White and Samsung Blue were considered equal favorites to take home the Summoner’s Cup. Riot had other plans, as playoff seeding would see the sister teams clash in what many had expected to be the final. Deft’s Samsung Blue would fall to eventual champions Samsung White, and Deft would leave to play in China for two years in the great Korean talent exodus of 2015.
Deft spent the next two years in China on Edward Gaming, winning the LPL 2015 spring split by defeating LGD and his once-teammate Imp. He chained that into an impressive Mid-Season Invitational victory. The LPL Regional Finals were also EDG’s to claim, defeating Invictus Gaming, who had rebounded from an earlier loss against Edward Gaming in the playoffs. After second in LPL Spring 2016, and a victory in Summer, Deft had officially ascended to all-star status. Deft returned to Korea in 2017, where he would play for KT Rolster, DragonX, and Hanwha Life Esports, before returning back to DragonX in 2022.
Through this impressive competitive run, Deft would fail to make it past the quarterfinals of Worlds despite qualifying in 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2021. Time and time again, Deft had fallen short of the semifinals stage since the heartbreak of Samsung’s mirror match in the World Championship that could have been his. Despite distinguishing himself from his peers, fate would conspire to keep Deft from the heights he’d once reached.
DragonX vs. Edward Gaming: Ghosts of the past
Last weekend, Deft and DragonX faced off against LPL titans and defending world champions Edward Gaming at Worlds 2022. The Chinese representative was the favorite of most analysts and fans. The series began toe-to-toe, DragonX taking early objective advantage while EDG kept neck-and-neck with near identical gold accrued. A brutal team fight at what should have been DRX’s Ocean Drake soul cracks the game open and EDG takes the first round.
Then came the heartbreak of game two, in which cataclysmically poor luck would put DRX and Deft on the brink of defeat. At 39 minutes into the game, EDG opted to take Baron after catching and killing DragonX’s jungler Hong “Pyosik” Chang-hyeon. DRX is in a poor position to fight and can’t threaten the smite steal, so Deft takes matters into his own hands and teleports to a wave next to EDG’s destroyed top lane inhibitor. DragonX is already up thousands of gold, but EDG is in a position to rebound, so the all-star AD carry makes a play to end the game.
Destroying both Nexus towers, Deft turns on the exposed Nexus, shredding its health apart with all the alacrity of a full-build Ezreal. EDG’s top laner has backed, but it’s too late, or so every person watching the game believed. At the absolute last second when Deft turns to deliver the final auto-attack, the top lane inhibitor respawns, and the Nexus becomes invulnerable. It’s once-in-a-lifetime bad luck, and it’s on the world’s largest stage during what could be Deft’s last dance.
Casters erupt in disbelief, Jax leaps onto the exposed Deft, and the opportunity is gone. Edward Gaming claims Baron Nashor, the team fight, and proceeds to close the second game. The New York City crowd roars in screams and cheers that rock the stadium, and the world stands still.
It feels like the nail in the coffin, the final proof that sheer bad luck will keep Deft from seeing Worlds’ semifinals this last time. The whimper with which eight years of “close but no cigar” fizzles out and Deft’s curse gets the best of him. However, as the League of Legends esports history books will canonize, that’s not what happened.
A reverse sweep for the history books
The subsequent three games are some of the hardest-fought League of Legends to ever grace Worlds quarterfinals. In what could be his final game ever on the professional stage, Deft locks in Draven blind, a hyper-aggressive, feast-or-famine pick from well outside the meta and his preferred pool. It’s yet another risky call by the veteran bot laner, but this time, the risk pays off.
Inch by inch, kill by kill, DragonX fights back against EDG game after game, each time displaying a different configuration and team composition. It’s not Deft pulling an unwilling roster across the finish line; it’s a refreshed and refocused DRX fighting for its tournament life, back to the wall. Every game rested on a knife’s edge that could send the Korean underdogs home and spell the end of Deft’s career.
That horrible moment never comes, though, and Deft miraculously keeps winning. It was never a slaughter. Edward Gaming is putting DRX through its paces but the Korean representatives manage to emerge victorious time and time again. At nearly forty minutes into the fifth game, DRX stood 8,000 gold ahead of their opponents, a single drake from Ocean Soul when top laner Hwang “Kingen” Seong-Hoon is caught and killed. It’s only through an unbelievable smite steal that DRX claims the Ocean Soul, and that impossible objective steal is the straw that broke EDG’s back.
DRX fights four versus five at 36 minutes into the game, but even with a man advantage, the gold differential is simply too much for the Chinese defenders. Deft escapes with a sliver of health as EDG crumble, and every eye on the series knows a simple truth: it’s over. DragonX takes the miracle smite steal and ends the game before any member of EDG can respawn.
But it is not the unbelievable stakes and plays that cement this moment as the pinnacle of what League of Legends has to offer. It’s what comes next.
The man in the arena
After the game, Deft is asked by interviewers Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere and Jeesun Park what it means to return to the semifinals after 2,942 days. That was the time since Samsung Blue and White faced down, marking Deft’s journey back to the penultimate stage of Worlds.
When Deft is asked this, the reality of where he’s standing sets in and he cannot help but clasp a hand to his face and let the tears flow. Pyosik, standing next to him, smiles understandingly and pats his teammate’s back, but there’s only one person who understands exactly what those nearly 3,000 days have truly meant. Deft has committed the entirety of his adult life to the singular pursuit of competitive glory. While millions of fans have come to know his name and story, none can quantify what was sacrificed except the man on the stage, Theodore Roosevelt’s “man in the arena,” Kim Hyuk-Kyu.
Spending ten years of non-stop competition pursuing a stage that most players will simply never see, trying and failing over and over to recapture the glory seen with Samsung Blue, only Deft can ever know the cost of. No fan, no commentator, no analyst, expert, or talking head has seen every sleepless night, every crushing defeat, and every drop of blood, sweat, and tears shed in the name of the sport.
Deft’s victory last weekend is more than a historic return to form or excellent play. When Deft bursts into tears, eight years separated from his last Worlds semifinals, the esports community bears witness to a glimpse of the personal cost of pursuing genuine excellence. Only Deft, and Deft alone, can fully know the life he has given up to strive for mastery.
But for just a moment, for a brief, touching moment, we can empathize with the immense weight of that burden.
It doesn’t matter if DRX goes on to be one-sidedly dispatched by GEN.G or if 2022 is truly Deft’s final year in League of Legends. Deft’s quarterfinals victory was a story of peerless determination, a decade of unflinching commitment, and the relentlessly personal price of exceptional ability.
Deft’s win is a crowning moment in League of Legends’ esports history, because it is, at its core, fundamentally and superbly human.