That stat about relegations is one that Santorin himself offers up willingly. “I mean, it's no surprise to anyone that I've lost a lot of my career. I think I've lost five relegations,” he says, able to pull the stat from nowhere and remain unfazed.
Santorin displays an admirable grace in defeat, but that doesn’t mean he’s unflappable. When I talk to him, Team Liquid is still reeling from an absolute shellacking at the hands of 100 Thieves in the LCS finals, and Santorin is none too easy on himself. You can see it on his social media - he describes the finals as a nightmare, a bad dream he wishes he could wake up from. It’s no surprise: in last split’s playoffs, Santorin suddenly suffered a series of migraines that forced him to withdraw from play entirely, a handicap that plagued Team Liquid all the way up until this summer’s playoffs.
Santorin’s return was meant to be a rebirth for Liquid, a chance to finally showcase their full potential. And at first, it was: Santorin was the keystone player in their dominant victories over Cloud9 and TSM. But that same confident play faltered come Grand Finals.
“If I fail, I just feel like I'm a failure,” he says matter-of-factly. “After we lost, in my head, I messed everything up. I was just like, ‘I was the reason we lost.’" he says. “I mean, this is my fourth finals in a row where I lost.”
Santorin is the only player to participate in all four of the last LCS finals; he has four silver medals to show for it. You can imagine that being the perennial runner-up would dampen Santorin’s motivation, but it’s just the opposite; “For me, if I go through a hard defeat, or something is rough in life, that usually motivates me to get better,” he says. “Having that kick in the butt is what always helps me come back stronger.”
Let’s be honest: the ability to find motivation in defeat is not an unusual quality among any competition’s cream of the crop. But Santorin’s loss in finals is far from the worst he’s seen; and as Santorin’s gap between worlds appearances shows, it is not common that you see a talent rise again after they have fallen so far out of favor. What Santorin has discovered is potentially the most sought-after aspect for any competitor: the secret of longevity.
The trick? To burn out spectacularly first.
Take a look at Santorin in his rookie season on TSM and you can see the new dew of youth on him. He’s still got that proud, sharp jawline, but there’s a hint of adolescent fat above his cheekbones, and his hair is perfectly coiffed, a far cry from the Nordic mane that decorates him today. You could see youth in his play, too: the firecracker confidence of someone who hasn’t learned better yet.
He was an essential part of TSM’s two incredible tournament wins. In Spring, they won the LCS; they’d go on to earn a gold medal at IEM Katowice: to date, the only time that a North American team has ever won a tournament with a Korean team in attendance.
“I remember back on TSM, at some point, it started becoming just like, natural to win,” he says. “At least for me personally, I didn't realize how much I could still improve as a player because we were just winning.”
Despite a much shakier Summer Split, that conviction wouldn’t be totally dispatched until Worlds, where TSM posted a dismal 1-5 record, and management, seeking to correct for their group stage failure, cut Santorin from the roster. In one year, he’d gone from Rookie of the Split to the backwaters of Challenger.
By Santorin’s own admission, it was exactly what he needed. “I feel like I was kind of thrown too quickly into the LCS. I feel like I could have used some more time in the [Challenger series] just to learn more about the actual game. Because I played the game mechanically really well.”
Santorin spent the next few years toiling in Challenger and on lower-tier LCS teams. But in the process, he confronted his own shortcomings, developing his mentality as much as his game knowledge. “When I was a rookie, I should have just [said] ‘I just don't know a lot of things. I just need to learn.’ Instead, I had some kind of personal ego, where I felt like I knew what to do even when I didn’t.” He started watching his VODs, taking time to analyze his own mistakes and accept his faults; and in the process, developed the selfless, team-based style he’s known for today.
There wasn’t an immediate return to elite competition - after devoting his 2017 season to studying the game, Santorin was booted from a rebuilt H2k roster just 6 games into the split. It was an experience that even made Santorin briefly consider retirement. “I was really not sure what to do with my life because… like, if [I’m] getting kicked off the tenth place EU team, do I really have a career in League of Legends?”
After H2k, Santorin even considered switching to Fortnite. But that same penchant for introspection came in handy here. He watched his play and decided that - despite being kicked - he’d actually been playing pretty well. What would be a humiliating experience for another player was instead just one more learning opportunity.
Santorin still suffers from the same crises of faith as anyone else - in fact, he may even feel them more intensely than others. “After losing that final, I kind of doubted everything,” he says of the loss to 100 Thieves a few weeks ago.
But Santorin, as you might expect of him, managed to make the proverbial lemonade. “I took a couple of days off the PC and after just a couple days, I started feeling really, really motivated,” - and here he starts to get animated - “and I re-watched our series and I studied my VODs and figured out all the mistakes I did and what I could do better.”
Time off was not normally how Santorin recovered from a loss. It’s a new habit - one he’s had to pay dearly to learn.