America and Europe's top StarCraft organizations get a harsh lesson in Korea.
Nobody expected that competing in Proleague, the oldest and most elite Korean StarCraft team league, would be easy. The Korean teams who call Proleague their home have been playing professional StarCraft for a decade, ever since StarCraft: Brood War became a surprise sports phenomenon in Korea, and they routinely recruit and train the best aspiring pro real-time strategy players.
But in their worst nightmares, the owners of the two strongest StarCraft teams in North America and Europe didn't think their combined Evil Geniuses – Team Liquid (EGTL) "dream team" would find itself in last place by a humiliating margin. A daring attempt to steal a Proleague title out from under the Korean teams' noses, one that could vindicate a Western StarCraft scene suffering from low morale and weakening tournament results, was a full-blown debacle by the halfway point of the season. For foreign StarCraft fans, it was as if the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team had gone to the Olympics, forfeited to the USSR, then offered themselves as hostages to the Ayatollah.
With their credibility on the line, the heads of both teams tried to salvage their season by talking to one of the most accomplished Korean coaches in the history of Proleague: Park Yong Woon. In his career as a coach he had never failed to lead a team to the postseason and helped create an eSports dynasty with the SK Telecom T1 team. Now he had to find a way to save EGTL's season and, along the way, teach a pair of Western eSports organizations exactly what it takes to compete at the pinnacle of Korean eSports, where greatness has become a science.
A once-in-a-decade opportunity
Team Liquid and Evil Geniuses are the two most prominent and talented non-Korean StarCraft teams in the world. Team Liquid is literally synonymous with the Western StarCraft community. So when the two organizations announced that they would compete jointly in Korea's Proleague, it seemed like the birth of a dream team. Together they had some of the best players in the world who were almost at the peak of their powers, hardened by three years of StarCraft 2 competition.
The timing, it seemed, could not have been better. While Korea is renowned as the home of pro StarCraft, the release of StarCraft 2 complicated things. The Korean eSports Association (KeSPA) that runs Proleague was slow to transition to StarCraft 2 from Brood War, so the seven other Korean teams in Proleague were relatively new to StarCraft 2. Their novice status created a window of opportunity for EGTL, one that's unlikely to open again. It didn't seem like too much to hope that the Evil Geniuses – Team Liquid squad could have a podium finish, or even a championship victory, in the storied Korean League.
Proleague occupies a unique position in eSports. It's a team league, despite the fact that StarCraft is played one-on-one. Its format is what makes the team more relevant than the individual. Classic Proleague format is a seven-game series, each played by a single member of the team. The maps are known in advance, and both teams declare which of their players will play on which map. The other format is all-kill, which follows the old arcade rule where you stay up at the machine for as long as you can take on all comers. In Proleague, little is left to chance. Imagine two football teams who are forced to exchange perfectly complete injury reports, who know exactly what each other's starting lineups and the conditions of the field on game day will be.
"The level of preparation that other teams put into it is incredible," Evil Geniuses CEO Alex Garfield says. "Some teams have a head coach and a dedicated coach for each race. They'll go through and look at every player's streams and past replays, and they'll figure out one strategy on one map to snipe one opponent. So the level of preparation and attention to detail and thought that's required from a coaching perspective is completely unparalleled."
"The level of preparation that other teams put into it is incredible."
This is what we talk about when we talk about Korean StarCraft. Outside the eSports community, and even within it, there is a tendency to treat Korean StarCraft with a degree of Orientalism. Chances are, you've heard some variation on "crazy Korean kids" when it comes to games like StarCraft. As if it were some kind of odd, localized mania for Terrans and Zerg that's led to Korean domination of one of the world's biggest strategy franchises.
But if that somewhat accounts for the rise of pro StarCraft in Korea during the early 2000s, it fails to explain why Korea remains to StarCraft what the United States is to basketball. These days, you have StarCraft fans in the West who are every bit as passionate as the Korean audience, and Western players who are training every bit as hard as their Korean counterparts. Yet Korea still has a lock on the highest honors in the game. And EGTL's elite Western team, packed with Korean pros, was about to find out why.
An ugly pattern
By the third round of Proleague, EGTL had been competing well in Korea for two months. The team hadn't been dominant, but it was solidly in the middle of the eight-team pack, fighting for fourth place.
"It started out pretty good," Team Liquid CEO Victor Goossens says. "Even the matches we lost, a lot of them went to ace matches. And we lost those matches, but in the early season, we were competitive every single match. We were in a decent position."
But during round three, EGTL's problems began to surface. The round started poorly, with a pair of 4-1 losses to STX SouL and Samsung KHAN. In the third week of the round, what started as a slump started to look like disintegration. Woongjin Stars, KT Rolster and finally SK Telecom T1 crushed EGTL in a series for 4-0 defeats.
"Our second 4-0 loss in round three was when I started looking for things that were wrong," Garfield says. "You are only one more data point away from a pattern at that point. And when we started looking, we started finding things that were just not good enough."
But diagnosing their team was difficult to do from the other side of the planet, through a series of language and culture barriers. And the people on whose judgment they were relying were a bunch of teenagers and 20-year-olds whose chief expertise is playing StarCraft.
"What a player wants for himself is not always the best for him," Goossens says. "So if you ask him about a situation in the team house, he may enjoy more freedom. He may enjoy waking up whenever he wants. And he may feel like he doesn't want to say there's not enough structure because he's enjoying those things. So if you're running it remotely and you're trying to get all the information from how it's going in the house? It's not that easy to make a clear judgment."
Then there was the problem of trying to get a group of primarily Korean players to speak frankly about conditions at the team house and the current team leadership. "We had a point where we started going to players to get the truth out of them. And this is Korean culture. They're extremely respectful of elders. And they refused to say anything bad about [coach Park Sung Jin] at the time, so we had to basically interpret what they were saying. And after we made the change, they were more open about it. And it turns out our gut feeling was totally right. But it took time to figure out that that was going on."
As EGTL was floundering in Proleague, and Goossens and Garfield were waking up to the fact that they needed to overhaul their operation, KeSPA approached EGTL with an offer. Coach Park Yong Woon was available as a head coach, having left his position at the powerhouse team of SK Telecom T1 the year before. KeSPA wanted to make the introductions between EGTL and coach Park and help the Western team save its season.
He would cost top dollar, more than just about any top-tier Western player. Esports salaries are notoriously secretive, with top players on Western teams known to be making over six figures. A top-tier KeSPA coach like Park, Garfield and Goossens said, commands an even higher salary. While the Korean eSports Association has created a league where their superstar players can earn even more than that, it was a major expense for EGTL.
If they were lucky enough to hire him, that is. While Park was happy to give EGTL a hearing, and had been following its season with interest, he wanted to make sure EGTL knew what it would be getting into.
Garfield describes EGTL's negotiation with Park Yong Woon as being like the film The King's Speech, when Lionel Logue meets Prince George for the first time, insists on calling him Bertie and subjects him to an interview.
"It was a very 'Lionel and Bertie' kind of thing. 'I haven't agreed to take you on yet.' It doesn't matter who you are," Garfield says. "And that was one of the first indicators that this guy really knows what he's doing."
He picked the team's operation apart from top to bottom, explaining everything from the issues with the roster to the fact that the players' beds in the team house were inadequate. Garfield and Goossens had known they were lagging behind the KeSPA teams, but Park's critique of the operation demonstrated the magnitude of the teams' firepower disparity.
First things first: Park needed more players. EGTL had gone into Proleague with a talented but dangerously shallow roster. While only seven players can participate in a Proleague match, it takes a deep bench to generate a solid lineup from match to match.
"I did not expect great results, even though our team might be good individually."
Goossens admits that they had approached Proleague too much like other leagues and tournaments that the two Western organizations specialize in. "Most international tournaments are played over the weekend. So if you're a player with a high skill level, you go there and perform well, you have a shot at winning. But at Proleague, if you just go in there and play your standard top level game, they are going show you people who have specifically prepared for you. They probably had a whole team of guys that could mimic your play style and have prepared their player accordingly. Meanwhile, there were times when it was hard to just field a lineup, let alone have enough people to practice with each other."
There was also a question of motivation. Lee Jae Dong is the most experienced Proleague player on EGTL, having enjoyed a legendary career as a Brood War player before moving to StarCraft 2. He wasn't surprised that EGTL stumbled so hard, because players didn't have to fight for their positions the way players on larger KeSPA teams do.
"I did not expect great results, even though our team might be good individually," he says. "Proleague is a very long competition and the KeSPA teams thoroughly and systematically prepare for Proleague. The players in those teams are involved in fierce competitions just to play a single match in Proleague, and the big corporations backing these teams are able to give very nice incentives. As a result, the attitudes the players approach Proleague tend to differ, and I think this is what led to our poor results."
The point about the sponsors is also important. Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid enjoy strong sponsorships by the standards of Western eSports: Razer, Twitch, Monster and Intel all number among their backers. They are the rich kids of StarCraft in Europe and the Americas.
But the KeSPA teams operate on a different plane, supported by some of the largest companies in the country. They are lavishly funded, and their business model allows them to fully dedicate themselves to achieving results in eSports.
EGTL was always going to be operating on a comparative shoestring, but coach Park knew the team needed to adapt much better if it wanted its Proleague experience to end in anything other than disaster. While it couldn't match the Korean teams for resources or infrastructure, it needed to show a lot more discipline and to start thinking and training as a team. Once he had secured his expanded roster, he went about remaking the EGTL team house into a proper Korean team house.
For Park, this meant a place of strict rules, a careful work/life balance and team spirit. Jens "Snute" Aasgaard, a Norwegian Zerg with Team Liquid, joined the team shortly after Park arrived and talks about how a coach multiplies what players can get out of their training.
"I spent a summer in a pro gaming house in Europe. But it can't be compared to this," he says. "We didn't have a dedicated coach. We had a part-time coach who showed us a few new strategies and that was pretty much it. Coach Park actually comes over to me and talks to me about strategies. About how to manage my conditioning. Things that I need to focus on in order to improve my game in general, not becoming too predictable."
It comes down to efficient practice, Aasgaard explains. Ask most any StarCraft pro how many hours a day they practice, and you'll hear anything from seven to 12 hours (although lowballing your practice time is a time-honored psychological warfare strategy among pro gamers). But there is a world of difference between churning through ranked multiplayer StarCraft matches, or doing random scrimmages with teammates, and the kind of workshopping that takes place under an attentive coach. Eight hours a day of StarCraft, working on breaking bad habits or getting comfortable with a wider variety of strategies, will trump 12 hours of self-directed play.
To make sure everyone was practicing as efficiently as possible, Park imposed a new regime on the entire house, and set out fines for players who did not adhere. They cut down on streamed gaming, and rather than streaming whenever they wanted (typically far into the night), he moved it to their morning session so they could get it out of the way and stay fresh for practice. He also wholly dedicated the hours between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. to StarCraft 2. Players could not so much as open Twitter or a YouTube video during practice time.
Nothing was too small to escape Park's regulatory eye. During the daily lunch break, he started fining players who took food to their desks and ate at their computers. It almost seems needlessly fussy, but in time Park made his meaning clear.
"It's completely standard and normal for most gamers to just eat behind their computer, to not step away from it. Most people have the urge just to not make things too difficult," Goossens says. "So if they're eating and they like to sit at the computer, they're going to eat at the computer. But you also learn that maybe it's better for yourself to step away from it and don't make a mess at your desk. Keep a separation between taking time to eat and sitting behind your computer."
"People resist change, but literally immediately after coach Park started, several players messaged me, telling me that this was great."
Imposing the same rules across the house also turned a group of individual eSports stars into a real team. But Park was more than a disciplinarian and taskmaster. Park made a special point of taking the team out on mountain hikes, having them do team-building exercises and watching movies as a group. He would gamely chat with his international players, despite a mutual language barrier, relying on context and enthusiasm to bridge the gap. The team of mismatched Koreans and foreign StarCraft pros and coaches would get by on poor English and Korean, and a lot of StarCraft terminology.
The team responded. "People resist change," Goossens says. "But literally immediately after coach Park started, several players messaged me, telling me that this was great. They could already feel the better atmosphere, already felt more motivated. They felt healthier. So maybe they weren't asking for that change, but the moment it happened, they saw it was a good thing for all of them."
Despite their grim losing streak and poor odds of making the playoffs, Park's team was surprisingly unruffled. "Everyone is trying their best, and we're all strong individuals," Aasgaard says toward the end of the season. "When we started to improve, it affected the team in a positive way. But it all stabilizes after a while. The losses. The wins. They eventually fade away, and things get serious. We just do our best."
Park's remedies for EGTL seem obvious: train harder and smarter, work better as a team, be more disciplined and hire more veterans. These are all classic sports management cliches, as likely to be uttered by a caller to a drive-time sports radio show as a championship-winning coach. But few people can breathe life into those hoary truisms and use them to animate a team. Park is one of them.
"You need someone whose job it is to work with players on everything from their tactics to their mental acuity. Should they go the gym, to regulating a practice room environment so that people are only playing StarCraft from 10 until 6 and then they can do other things on their computers after that," Garfield says. "The thing is, finding that person and actually pulling it off is a lot harder than people think. Because you can't just have it be one of the team's buddies; you can't have it be another 20-something. It needs to be a person who can command respect and be a leader. And that is, in my opinion, an older representative who actually understands the game. That is a very hard person to come by in the West."
Still, coach Park and the reformed EGTL squad could not work miracles, especially after round three left them so far behind. The team rallied to once again become a creditable competitor, never quite managing to win the majority of their matches in each round, but avoiding any further disasters. A last or near-last place finish is likely cold comfort to EGTL and its fans, but it at least was able to close the distance on the rest of the field. Had it avoided its mid-season slump, and won a few of its close matches, it would have been in position for a late-season run at the playoffs.
Most sports teams can always look forward to next year, but the future is not so clear for EGTL. For both Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid, it's at once hard to justify the expense of making another attempt at Proleague and painful to abandon the lessons they have learned and the progress they have made.
"Whether we're in Proleague next year or not," Garfield says, "do we keep a Korean training house now? How could we not keep a Korean training house, because it's still the best practice environment in the world, with the right coach and right facility."
Park may not have kept his playoff streak alive, but he did show Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid what it takes to create an organization capable of competing against the very best StarCraft players in the world. He and the KeSPA programs he represents are in the business of winning. For a Western eSports audience that is tiring of big personalities and small results, Park's system and methods may represent the future. It's just a long way to get there.
Photos: David Zhou, MLG, Joey Thimian
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan
Special thanks: John Funk