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Photos of Santorin from Team Liquid's 2021 League of Legends team before heading to Worlds.
NEWS

Santorin - There and Back Again

Oct 082021

The record for the largest gap between appearances at League of Legends World Championships is 5 years. It’s a joint record, held by seven players. Three of them made their second qualification in minor regions: Vietnamese veteran Archie, the legendary Moscow 5 support Edward, and Korean wild card KaKAO, who qualified last year via the Turkish Championship League. Two players are closing that five-year gap this year: Rogue’s top laner, Odoamne, and 100 Thieves’ journeyman mid-laner-turned-support Huhi.

The last two players’ bridged that gap on the same rosters: FlyQuest’s offbeat 2020 squad and the ill-fated 2015 TSM team, which crashed and burned at Worlds. But while flashy AD Carry WildTurtle spent his absence on championship contenders and won another split, the other player had to grind his way up through the amateur scene to claim a spot at worlds again. In the process, he’d also garnered a different, more dubious record, although one indicative of longevity in its own way: a whopping five losses in relegation series.

But if you ask Lucas “Santorin” Tao Kilmer Larsen, he’d say those failures are why he’s still around today.

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.

 

When Santorin’s head started to throb during the Spring Split playoffs, it wasn’t a temporary annoyance; It was literally threatening his career. “I feel like I and nobody else actually knew if I was going to get better,” Santorin said. “We were doing everything we could to make me feel better... but I was definitely not sure if I would even be able to play again.”

 

Santorin’s migraines were not just taking a physical toll, but a heavily emotional one as well. “There were weeks where my head would just be so bad that, after scrims, I just couldn't look at a screen anymore… because like my head was pounding twenty-four-seven. I'd wake up and go to bed with the exact same feelings. I’d wake up and feel miserable.”

 

Here he pauses, coming to terms with the enormity of the health issues he faced. 

 

 

“I questioned my entire existence, I guess,” he says. After so much hardship to reach the top again, Santorin couldn’t even fully participate. “It's kind of like you can have the cake, but you can't really eat it,” he says.

 

Santorin says that League of Legends is his “true calling,” the venue in which he can most express his love of competition. To have that livelihood at stake much earlier than he expected rattled him: when forced to picture doing something else, he says “my life would actually just become miserable if I couldn't continue doing what I'm doing.”

 

But that same perpetual drive has led him at times to prioritize the game over his health. “If I had a headache [before], I’d just push through and keep playing,” Santorin says. “And it's definitely like a wake-up call for me that your body is really important and you sometimes have to listen [to it]. I feel like I really pushed my body to its limits.”

 

“Being a League of Legends pro, it's really hard to not keep playing because there are so many things you can always improve on. New Champions, new metas, new way to play the game. So like, you don't want to fall behind, but at some point, you also have to realize that sometimes you being slightly worse at a specific Champion is a lot better than you feeling like shit on the day you have to compete.”

 

It’s a conversation that feels especially relevant these days, as awareness of the unique health issues esports competitors face is at an all-time high. Santorin’s case is not unique; in a cruelly ironic twist, his health issues repeat the travails of Liquid’s interim head coach, Kold, who was forced to step down as Origen’s jungler in 2019 before retiring from pro play entirely. Then there are the other chronic health issues that plague esports, such as the wrist and back pain that forced Chinese superstar Uzi’s retirement.

 

What lengths will you go to for victory? It’s not a new question. But what Santorin has learned - through a situation entirely out of his control - is that balance out of game is the key to in-game success.

 

Santorin won his first split in his rookie season. Six years later, he’s never won another. 

 

Make no mistake: victory is still everything to Santorin. “I play the game to win and winning is all that matters,” he says. “And… it's funny saying that because I literally don't win.” He gives a small chuckle. “I'm always reaching for winning, and I'm just waiting for the moment where I actually win again. Even though we won the lock-in tournament, it's like - you didn't actually win a split.”

 

And yet: even Santorin is cognizant of how far he’s come. After years of labor, he escaped the TSM-jungler-graveyard, is universally recognized as one of the region’s top junglers, and will be the longest-tenured LCS representative on his team when they play at worlds. His legacy speaks for itself, even if his trophy case may be sparse.

 

“Now, being on the top... it’s what I've been wanting for, like six years in a row,” Santorin says. “The feeling of winning, or being on that top two teams, that's something that… that's all I wanted in life. I just wanted to get back there. So I'm really, really happy.”

 

With his migraines finally subsiding and Liquid’s roster at full fighting capacity for the first time in nearly a year, Santorin is confident that they can put up performances of the same sort they displayed in their run through the playoffs winners bracket. Does that mean he thinks Liquid will win Worlds? He’s not thinking about that yet - instead, he’s focusing on getting out of groups first. 

 

After a career filled with setbacks, Santorin knows to savor the victories you have; you never know just how long they might last.

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