LOS ANGELES -- The thing that stands out most about League of Legends professional Cody "Cody Sun" Sun is how unremarkable he seems.
At an average height and average build with a subdued, shy personality, Cody Sun blends into the background at the League Championship Series Arena in Santa Monica. If not for the Clutch Gaming jersey he wears while walking around the concourse of the TV studio turned competitive video game venue, it'd be difficult to tell the difference between him and the fans who converge at the arena every weekend to watch him play.
Even his gamertag, which is supposed to make a player stand out among the crowd, is simply his full name.
Cody Sun can seem nondescript on Summoner's Rift, too. His playstyle can be considered safe and rarely flashy, but it's consistent in its efficiency. As an AD carry, a position that hinges on the player's positioning and not making unforced errors, he's been one of the best in North America since becoming a pro player in 2017. In games in which he looks like a nonfactor for the first 40 minutes, your eyes will wander to the stat lines of everyone on the field and widen: Often, Cody Sun can silently put on a clinic without ever being the focus.
And just like those standout performances that don't stand out, Cody Sun's results quietly speak for themselves. The easiest way to put his career in perspective is this fact: Cody Sun has qualified for the last three League of Legends world championships, all of them on different teams: Immortals, 100 Thieves and now Clutch Gaming.
In a way, it makes sense he's overlooked. When compared to the other two top-performing North American players over the years at his position, it's hard for anyone else to get noticed.
Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng is the most decorated American player in League of Legends history. He plays for the best team in the region, Team Liquid, which recently won their fourth-straight LCS championship and enter the upcoming world championship in Europe as one of the billed stars. With more than 900,000 followers on Twitter and thousands showing up to watch him any time he streams on Twitch, every little thing Doublelift says becomes headline news. His catchphrase "everyone else is trash" has even become the center of a commercial for Honda, where the trash-talking star literally throws out a garbage bag before getting into a Liquid-themed car.
The other famed North American bot laner, Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi of Cloud9, is one of the more popular streamers on Twitch, at his peak averaging over 10,000 viewers per broadcast. Not known for his quotes like his rival Doublelift, Sneaky has a brand all of his own: His relaxed, trollish personality is his staple. Whether he has lost 10 games in a row or is playing in the world championship semifinals in front of a sold-out arena, Sneaky is Sneaky, a calming presence who never takes things too seriously. On top of all that, Sneaky moonlights as one of the internet's most popular cosplayers when he's not playing professional League of Legends; he's nominated for Cosplayer of the Year at the upcoming Esports Awards.
Cody Sun is somehow right next to them, but simultaneously miles away. Despite their high profiles, though, controversy doesn't seem to follow the outspoken Doublelift or the sometimes-trollish Sneaky.
Instead, it manages to find Cody Sun.
It all began with Immortals, the team that signed Cody Sun to his first pro contract after several years playing in the amateur circuit. It was the stereotypical big break: The Immortals organization had narrowly missed out on worlds in 2016, and they saw Cody Sun as a young prospect they could insert into a lineup filled with veterans to see how he would grow throughout the year.
As an AD carry, Cody Sun was situated in the bottom lane alongside South Korean support player Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung. The two, following an up-and-down start to their relationship, turned it around during the summer split, with Olleh even being a contender for the MVP award due to his play alongside Cody Sun.
"When I played with him, I roamed a lot, and he still stayed alive and [played so well]," Olleh said about Sun. "I think if he wasn't my ADC, I wouldn't be [able to] shine."
Cody Sun was able to easily integrate into the team, which made Immortals a special place to start his career. The team's starting jungler for the second half of the year, Jake "Xmithie" Puchero, was known for his smarts and leadership skills. Every other player on the team, Cody Sun said, was talented in their own individual way, which made it easier to build chemistry throughout his rookie season.
He finished his first year in North America playing in front of more than 10,000 fans at the TD Garden in Boston for the league title. Immortals didn't win -- losing to Doublelift, who at the time was playing for Team SoloMid -- but their finish qualified them as the region's No. 2 seed for the world championship in China.
"Immortals, it felt like a family," Cody Sun said.
That family fell apart in China. After a successful first year as a pro and a growing reputation as an efficient player, Cody Sun fumbled in the worst way imaginable. The most notorious play of that run, which occurred during a game against Europe's Fnatic, came in the final moments as Cody Sun looked to send his team to the quarterfinals.
In what was described as a "betrayal of his teammates" by the commentators, the normally position-focused Cody Sun flung himself into the enemy in an attempt to make a Hail Mary-esque play to win the game.
Fnatic used Cody Sun's folly to claim victory and advance out of the group. The Immortals, bewildered, were out of the world championship hours later.
"I was really scared, but I also really wanted to prove myself," the AD carry said. "I felt like I had the mechanics and the skills to play against the world's best ADCs, but I just didn't have the experience nor the knowledge."
That legendary fumble began a steep decline. The LCS moved to a franchise model with the start of the 2018 season, and Immortals saw their application declined. Cody Sun, still under contract, was sent to Team Liquid with three of his teammates, where he'd seemingly be given another shot at playing with the core he thought of as family.
There was only one problem: Doublelift.
The multitime North American champion was dropped from TSM after a similar world championship group stage exit, and Liquid wasted no time signing him to a multiyear deal. This made Cody Sun disposable, and the second-year player didn't see any LCS action before eventually signing with the newly admitted franchise backed by the ownership group of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers: 100 Thieves.
Despite all that went wrong to end his first year and the subsequent offseason, Cody Sun found himself in another viable situation. His support, Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black, was one of the best in the LCS, and 100 Thieves weren't frugal in building out their roster, adding talent alongside the young AD carry that could compete immediately. If he couldn't be on Immortals or Team Liquid, 100 Thieves felt like the next best option.
What possibly could go wrong?
At first, Cody Sun said, 100 Thieves had a family vibe similar to what he had with Immortals.
"But by the end," he said, "it really wasn't like that."
The AD carry's first split with the new franchise was like a honeymoon phase: 100 Thieves made it to a league final in the spring and traveled to Miami to play for the LCS title. Doublelift sat in Cody Sun's way again, ready to deny him.
There was no redemption story to be had. Doublelift, along with Cody Sun's former teammate Olleh, and Team Liquid took down 100 Thieves in a one-sided shellacking.
"I think he didn't really get [a] spotlight because of me and Aphromoo," Olleh said. "But I think he deserves much better. I have been happy seeing his growth every year as a person and a gamer. I sincerely want him to succeed in his career."
What appeared to be a sunny situation, even in defeat -- Aphromoo won LCS MVP and Cody Sun was voted to the LCS All-Pro First Team -- deteriorated over the next couple of months. One of the team's veteran leaders, William "Meteos" Hartman, was traded to opposing franchise FlyQuest. From there, 100 Thieves bounced around the standings during the summer split, eventually righting the ship late in the season to win their quarterfinal matchup and give Cody Sun another chance at defeating Doublelift in the LCS semifinals.
When the time came, though, Cody Sun wasn't onstage. 100 Thieves pulled him out of the starting lineup and inserted substitute Richard "Rikara" Samuel Oh to give the team another look against the reigning champions. It didn't change the results. As Cody Sun watched off stage, Team Liquid rolled through the semifinal 3-1 en route to another piece of domestic hardware.
Thanks to their spring and summer postseason successes, 100 Thieves qualified for the 2018 world championship, but Cody Sun didn't play. He traveled with the team to South Korea and watched as they played their six group stage matches. The one team Cody Sun desperately wanted redemption against, Fnatic, the team he fumbled against the previous year, was drawn in the same group as 100 Thieves.
All Cody Sun wanted was a chance to face the team he made the biggest mistake of his career against and get another shot at Fnatic's star AD carry, Martin "Rekkles" Larsson.
"Not a lot of people know this, but I'd been studying Rekkles for the past year leading up to that," Cody Sun said. "I was really confident, and I said to my team that, 'If you guys put me in against Fnatic, I'll do really well against Rekkles and his champion pool.' But that didn't happen, unfortunately."
Cody Sun was once again relegated to the bench, and 100 Thieves were blown out in the two games they played against Fnatic. The North American squad finished the group stage with a 2-4 record and was eliminated.
Amid the backlash from the community after Cody Sun's benching and the team's elimination from worlds, 100 Thieves founder, owner and CEO Matthew "Nadeshot" Haag posted a YouTube video addressing the issues brought forth by the fanbase.
"There were personnel issues," Nadeshot said. "I had a very, very long heart-to-heart with Cody Sun, and we got him back on track, and he wanted to be a part of this team, and he wanted to work as hard as he could, and he wanted to be there with everybody. ... But again, the coaches thought Rikara would be the better option to start at the world championships, and so that's what we went with."
A year later, on a new team, Cody Sun is past the drama from 100 Thieves. He still thinks about what could have happened if he started but agreed that being taken out of the starting lineup wasn't a single person's fault. When it came down to it, the team just didn't really gel, Cody Sun said. The chemistry needed to succeed wasn't there, and 100 Thieves needed to do what they thought was best to win.
Without a team once again after the Thieves dropped him, Cody Sun knew one thing: That would be the last time he qualified for worlds and watched from the sidelines.
Clutch Gaming, Cody Sun's third team in three years, were unlike Immortals or 100 Thieves.
Because Clutch Gaming were a complete and utter mess.
Following the mishaps and disagreements on 100 Thieves, Cody Sun's stock was at an all-time low. Not even a year removed from being voted the best player at his position in the league, he was bounced to the developmental league and landed on Clutch Gaming's Academy team.
Gone were the days of dueling Doublelift and studying Rekkles. Now, he was on the worst minor league team in the region, matching up with rookies, journeymen and players past their prime.
Up in the majors, though, dysfunction, ironically enough, would be the reason Cody Sun got the chance at redemption he didn't receive in South Korea. Clutch, like their academy squad, were a disaster: The team sputtered to a ninth-place finish out of 10 LCS teams in the 2019 spring split with no real goal in sight.
With nothing to lose, the team promoted Cody Sun to full-time AD carry for the summer season and trudged forward, hoping to find an identity or at least some reason to continue playing.
A couple of weeks into the season, Clutch was acquired by the Dignitas, a longtime esports organization returning to the LCS after initially being denied entry when franchising began. The management overhaul sparked something in the team, and their once-aimless play evolved into a free-flowing, aggressive style that they'd been searching for the entire year.
"Cody has to be the most undervalued AD carry in all of LCS history," Clutch Gaming mid laner Tanner "Damonte" Damonte said. "This guy is unbelievably good. He's so consistent. He's a good teammate."
One win turned into two wins, and a pair of wins turned into Clutch making a mad dash into the summer playoffs. Once in the playoffs, they upended TSM before Cody Sun was given another opportunity to defeat Doublelift. This time, he actually got the chance to play, and although it was the best he had ever played against this hurdle, it still wasn't enough to take Doublelift down as Clutch lost in a five-game nail-biter.
Still, he was playing, and the season wasn't over. Clutch Gaming had a chance to make it to the world championship by going on a run through the four-team regional gauntlet.
First, they knocked off FlyQuest. The next day, it was Counter Logic Gaming. And finally, it was Team SoloMid, a team Clutch had recently beaten in the playoffs.
TSM got off to a strong start with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series, but Clutch didn't flinch. After the fact, Damonte said the team was, weirdly enough, more confident when Clutch was behind in the series because they felt like TSM had given them their best shot and Clutch were left still standing.
"I'm the most confident I've ever been in my teammates and in my coach," Cody Sun said. "I feel like we're bonded over this crazy run. It just feels like we all understand each other."
Clutch battled back to tie the series at 2-2, and with a worlds berth on the line, the team looked to Cody Sun and gave him the go-ahead. He locked in Kog'Maw, a champion known for being the ultimate glass cannon; in situations where the game goes long enough and a player's positioning is spot-on perfect, the character known as "The Mouth of the Abyss" is unbeatable. A poor Kog'Maw game, though, with lazy positioning and overly heroic plays, nearly assures victory for the opposing side.
Clutch believed Cody Sun could take them to worlds. And he did just that.
"Kog'Maw is my signature pick," Cody Sun said. "I was saving it for the whole year. Just being able to pull it out in the very end, it's pretty crazy, and I'm happy I was able to do it."
Cody Sun is flawed. He has made mistakes, in and out of the game. He has gone down a winding road that has put him on three different LCS teams in the last three years.
No one knows how Clutch Gaming will fare during worlds play-in games and, if they make it through that, the group stage. But Cody Sun's story isn't about where he finishes in a few weeks time.
It's about how, a year removed from the lowest point of his career and forced to begin the 2019 season in the minor leagues, he'll be at the world championship, front and center. Not as a bystander, but as a competitor. It's about perseverance in the face of humiliation and rejection. It's about how an oh-so-ordinary-seeming player proved he's extraordinary.
"Since I've known Cody for about four years, he has grown a tremendous amount as a player and person," Cody Sun's former teammate on 100 Thieves Andy "AnDa" Hoang said. "I think aside from his rough rookie split, he's always been consistent and underrated. ... I think if he keeps it up, it will only be matter of time that he will become the best AD in NA. With all the experience he has gained and what he's been through the past few years, I think we're gonna see Cody Pog play on another level this worlds."
Cody Sun's journey with his first team ended with him sitting alone on stage, dazed, a misplay immortalized.
His journey with his second team ended with him sitting alone backstage, a chance at redemption stolen.
But when his third team had their backs against the wall, they rallied around their AD carry. They told Cody Sun to go for broke, and guess what?
He came up clutch.