Xpecial: 'I'll keep playing until that flame dies out'

Alex "Xpecial" Chu calls out commands during Rift Rivals. Provided by Riot Games

When current Phoenix1 jungler Mike "MikeYeung" Yeung was leading his ranked fives team through the North American League of Legends competitive ladder at the age of 13, Alex "Xpecial" Chu was the starting support for Team SoloMid, a rising professional team playing the same game.

None of them could have predicted the rise or influence of League of Legends within the esports landscape. Now they play for the same team, Phoenix1, in the fourth year of the North American League of Legends Championship Series, a professional LoL league.

With the addition of both players - rookie jungler and veteran support - mid-split, Phoenix1 has shifted from a directionless team to a surprising upstart, recent losses notwithstanding. Phoenix1 is 3-9 and ninth in the NA LCS so far this season.

"What I try to bring to the team is communication and a lot of improvements in that area and a lot of out-of-game stuff, " said Xpecial, who left Team Dignitas to join P1 in June. "Being an older figure makes it very easy for me to be like, 'Yo, guys, let's do teamwork stuff,' bring in my experience and use that in and out of game. And Mike brought in this new energy. He brought in this very aggressive early game jungling and very good jungling in general. So we kind of had different areas that we could help the team in."

Although the team was already looking significantly improved in its few series leading up to the recent Rift Rivals tournament, Rift Rivals put P1 in the international spotlight. Predictions for P1 prior to the event ranged from a definitive 0-6 to a lukewarm assurance that maybe it would win a game.

Phoenix1 went 4-2, the second-best record of any team at the event. Xpecial had one of his best performances in years.

It's an odd mixture of players that includes a rookie jungler, veteran support, former KT Rolster stars Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook and No "Arrow" Dong-hyeon, and Derek "Zig" Shao, who has played off and on since Season 1 but didn't really find a stable home until he came up through the Team Liquid organization.

"This team is very vocal," Xpecial said. "Both Ryu and Arrow have been really outspoken in game, and it's really helpful to have two really strong voices that are veterans along with myself and then two kind of newer players in Zig and MikeYeung. I think that's a pretty big difference between us and a lot of teams."

Memories are often short in League of Legends esports, where a continuous influx of new patches, new players and new fans cycle through the competitive ecosystem.

Those watching P1 now, enamored with MikeYeung's aggressive jungling style and sudden appearance off of the solo queue ladder, aren't guaranteed to remember, or even be aware of, some of the histories of P1's other players. They may not remember Ryu's heartbreaking loss to SK Telecom T1 in the 2013 OnGameNet Champions Summer Finals, even if they've seen the highlight clip of Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok out-dueling Ryu on Zed. They may not know of the early antics of TSM during Xpecial's time with the organization or the etymology of "Baylife."

Xpecial has been through all iterations of League of Legends, one of few legacy players in the West who is still starting for a professional team. He has little company outside of Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, who plays for Xpecial's first competitive home, Team SoloMid, and Paul "sOAZ" Boyer. Most other players of this era have transitioned into management, coaching, or out of League of Legends entirely.

Xpecial has not.

"The passion I have for the game and the passion I have for winning," he answers immediately when asked why he still plays professionally.

There is no hesitation in his voice.

His determination to remain a pro player is continuously tested. Xpecial admits that the losses, even in regular season matches like P1's series against TSM and Team Dignitas this past week, still hurt.

"Coming off of a loss never feels good," he says. "Losing to TSM, well, it wasn't expected but they're a good team and it would be a surprise for us to beat them in most people's eyes. Losing to DIG is very heartbreaking. But there's really no point in looking back and regretting it. We've just got to keep moving forward and hopefully we get better."

He voices frustration that P1 returned from Rift Rivals with an 0-2 week in North America. The event itself was good for the team's development, but not conducive to winning once they returned to NA, especially having played their picks onstage while most other NA teams spent two weeks practicing.

"I think it helped us get better as a team, but it was very low impact," he says. "There's no circuit points, no real prize pool, no real first place. C9 went 3-3, but got the same amount of prize money as TSM, so it's kind of just a pride thing and I didn't really care too much about it. It sucked that we did so well at Rift Rivals but came back to LCS and went 0-2. It's definitely not something that we can be proud of."

Nowhere is Xpecial's continuing passion for League of Legends more evident than in discussing a loss, frustration apparent in his voice and his expression.

"It's definitely tough for me to have to cope with so many losses, especially in recent years, and that's been very frustrating for me. The passion I have for the game and my work ethic has kept me in the game for so long and that's something I'm pretty proud of. As long as I have the desire to keep playing, I'll keep playing until that flame dies out."