Gun Woong Jang is a famously polarizing figure in South Korean esports. His sometimes controversial actions, epic plays and even more epic victory songs have gained him a healthy amount of fans and critics alike.
More than anything else, though, "Woong" has been a builder.
He founded the popular and powerful League of Legends organization Maximum Impact Gaming in October 2011. Its two teams, Frost and Blaze, went on to earn two domestic titles and a second-place finish at the League of Legends Season 2 World Championships in its very first year. Frost brought together talent like Jung "RapidStar" Min-sung, Lee "CloudTemplar" Hyun-woo, and Hong "MadLife" Min-gi, and even Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-sub. With Woong himself in the top lane, the team won the OnGameNet League of Legends invitational in January 2012, one of South Korea's first professional League of Legends events.
This early success can be partially attributed to Woong's decision to add a second team, called Blaze, to the MiG lineup as a way to provide consistent, valuable practice opportunities for his players. The "sister team" method enabled new strategies to be developed secretly "in-house" and helped Maximum Impact Gaming flourish throughout 2012. Though originally thought of as only practice partners for Frost, Blaze was able to defeat its counterparts in the finals of Korea's first major tournament, Champions Spring, with a score of 3-0.
Other teams then followed suit with the sister team approach, including KT Rolster, NaJin and MVP.
After Frost and Blaze were acquired in early 2013 by Korean esports giant CJ Entus, Woong retired from professional play only to return mere months later as head coach for two new MiG squads: Blitz and Wicked. Success proved to be more elusive the second time around, however, and the teams didn't last long before disbanding.
That is, until MiG announced two new Overwatch teams with a new gaming house based in Mok-dong, which was more than intriguing. It's a fairly sleepy, family-oriented part of Seoul, but is certainly no stranger to esports. GOMtv ran its famous Global StarCraft 2 League out of a rented space in the high school there.
I myself lived in a different pro gaming house as a commentator in the same area for most of 2011. I hadn't been there for a long time except to renew my visa. Apart from the constant rotation of small cafes and cell phone stores, not much had changed. Still, a chance to talk to Woong about coming out of his esports hibernation proved enough to get me back there.
He meets me at the nearest subway station and we took his small, cube-shaped car the remaining distance to the new MiG facilities. My Korean and Woong's English are at about the same level, which is to say conversational, but not anywhere near fluent. Luckily my OGN coworker, Genie Kim, came along to help translate.
The Maximum Impact Gaming house is actually a large apartment tucked away from the main road in Mok-dong. It's a pretty spartan setup, but as with any Korean professional gaming house, there's an aura of intensity from the players that you feel as soon as you walk in.
As the players finished their scrimmage match against their sister team, Woong introduced me to his coach, Tae Young "Tairong" Kim. Kim is a seven-year veteran of Korea's small, but dedicated, competitive Team Fortress 2 scene.
"He will be the one to make them great," Woong tells me. "His experience in first-person shooter games and his strategy feedback really helps the team."
I'm also introduced to the team manager, on-site strategy analyst, and media guru, Hyun Woo Kim, who goes by the fairly questionable in-game ID of "Wife."
"So who does the cooking for the players?" I ask.
"Wife," replies Woong and points at Hyun Woo.
"And who cleans up and does the players' laundry and stuff?"
"Wife!" Tae Yong says with a large smile.
All three grin at me expectantly to see if I get the joke. Joke received.
Hyun Woo Kim's key duties, however, are mainly to observe and record every practice game both MiG teams play against each other. He also does observing work for South Korean online Overwatch tournaments and creates promotional highlight videos of MiG's players for YouTube.
The team finishes its practice match and Woong makes introductions. He explains that one team lives in the house here in Mok-dong while the other lives in a separate team house in Ilsan, a smaller city on the western outskirts of Seoul. Surprisingly, most of the six players here come from Dota 2 and Heroes of the Storm and have little real experience in FPS games. They wouldn't be the first pro gamers in South Korea to change genres to chase their passion for esports competition, though.
Woong tells me the game IDs and roles of each player on the team: two support players, one with the fitting ID "YesMan," two damage dealers, one tank and one player who I'm told is proficient at all roles in Overwatch. Interestingly enough, he's considered an esports dinosaur as far as South Korean pros are concerned -- at a venerable 30 years old.
As we watch the team start another practice match, Woong tells me that, until recently, the two squads have been playing only against each other. Lately they've started scrimmaging against the other top teams and have been doing well.
"More than anything else, though, Woong has been a builder."
I ask if Woong has decided on names for his two two teams yet, but he says he hasn't come up with anything. He asks me for suggestions and shares the anecdote that the names for his original League of Legends teams were originally "Fire" and "Ice," but a reporter visited the team house early on and suggested a change to "Blaze" and "Frost" since it sounded better. The names stuck.
The Mok-dong squad ends up losing to its counterparts in Ilsan, and the team sniper looks like a batter who has just struck out: staring into space and clearly wondering what small adjustments could have been made to make things turn out differently. There isn't much time for reflection. Another exhibition game begins, and Woong and I move into the main room to sit on the floor to talk about why he'd want to get back into esports.
"Overwatch is already really popular here and I know it's going to be a huge game in Korea," Woong says.
He's probably right. Overwatch has been an instant hit among South Korean gamers due to its bright visual style, competitive nature, and the fact that it's a Blizzard game. It has already risen to second place in internet cafe ratings (determined by what percentage of players are playing which game) and surpassed the previously most-popular FPS game, Sudden Attack, in less than a week.
Perhaps most notably is that it appears to have have reduced the dominance that League of Legends has had over those ratings by nearly 10 percent, a shocking amount considering the game has held the top spot by a large margin for years.
"I also have the experience necessary to build winning teams," Woong says. "I've done it before."
What will really make the new Maximum Impact Gaming successful, he thinks, is the environment that's being created by having the players live in the team house, a space where they can focus completely on the game. Here, the coaching staff can provide immediate feedback to the players and the team chemistry can improve more quickly.
I point out to Woong that South Korea isn't exactly known for its history in competitive FPS games, and other parts of the world like North America and Europe seem to have a pretty sizable head start in producing great teams and players. While he agrees that both continents have the lead in Overwatch, he says it's not going to last.
"The thing that matters the most is the dedication of our players," he says. "All of them are playing Overwatch full-time right now. They don't have normal jobs. They wake up at 11 a.m. and practice until 4 a.m. every day.
"Players in places like North America practice in too free of an environment. They want privacy. They want to date girls, etc., but Korean players are willing to give up everything to win."
It sounds intense, and maybe even a bit crazy, but it's hard to disagree with him. After living here for five years, I can tell you this attitude toward practice is the biggest difference between players here and players in other parts of the world. Woong's dedication to his new team is just as serious as his players'. In fact, he's paying for everything out of his own pocket while he looks for sponsors and waits for the professional leagues to begin.
Time will tell whether things will work out for Maximum Impact Gaming's Overwatch teams like Woong dreams. It's a risk, he admits, but he also reminds me that you'll never be the best if you aren't willing to go all-in.
Fried chicken is ordered and everyone sits on the floor around short Korean-style tables to dig in. The players field a few questions while we dine.
"Who needs a nerf?" I ask.
In unsurprising unison, the team shouts, "McCree!" referring to a six-shooter-wielding cowboy.
"Who should get buffed?"
There's a pause as the players consider the question before D.Va, a hero modeled after South Korean pro gamers, is selected as needing some love from the Blizzard design team.
It's not long before the food is gone and it's time for more practice games for Woong's team. It's a rare thing to get a glimpse of an esport in its infancy in a place many would consider to be the world capital of the industry.
This is how it has always started in South Korea, though. It's easy to focus on the large company sponsorships, flashy team jackets and the fanatical fans. But at it's core, what has always made South Korea a titan of the esports world is the simple dedication of its players and coaches.
The cycle is beginning again for Overwatch. Time, and undoubtedly many exciting matches, will tell where it ends.