Los Angeles Valiant interpreter Andrew Kim could not be found.
This was a rarity. Kim was almost always beside or seated next to his charges, shuttling them across the Immortals/Valiant compound or through the maze of hallways at the old "Tonight Show" studio, now called the Blizzard Arena. Earlier that morning, Kim had helped introduce Kim "Izayaki" Min-cheol to the team. The support player had arrived on campus directly from LAX and immediately wanted to go to the practice facility. Kim was ready to help make the adjustment as smooth as possible for a 20-year-old who had just endured a 15-hour flight from South Korea.
Now, Kim was out on a quick errand, ill-timed with the filming of confessionals for "Inside Valiant," the team's video series. The film crew had already interviewed all of the English-speaking players, and opted for support Park "KariV" Young-seo, whose English was good enough for a quick confessional without Kim's interpretations. A few moments later, Tracer specialist Chae "Bunny" Jun-hyeok stepped through the studio doors. KariV was in a game. The producers had brought Bunny instead.
Bunny blithely hopped up on the stool, center stage in a small room dedicated to filming the confessionals. He blinked a bit as his eyes adjusted to the bright studio lights. He brought up Google Translate on his phone to help him in this rare moment without Kim.
"How have you been practicing?" one of the producers asked.
"Practice?" Bunny cocked his head to the side in confusion.
Immortals PR and communications manager Jen Neale and I sat on the couch observing as Bunny typed something quickly into his phone.
"어떻게 . . . 연습해요?" I blurted out.
It was a poor translation, which ended up being something like "How ... practice?" with a slight intonation at the end indicating a question. I didn't even know whether "어떻게" was the right "how." It was the only way I knew how to say it with my limited Korean knowledge.
Bunny's eyes widened.
"You speak Korean?" he pointed at me in disbelief.
I waved my hands frantically in front of me and shook my head no.
"한국말 못 해요!" I don't speak Korean, I said. My Korean was much worse than Bunny's English.
Bunny laughed. "Korean gosu," he said. Gosu is a Korean word meaning expert or exceptional that has crept into the general esports lexicon. It has become a loanword that anyone in esports, South Korean or not, will understand, another direct influence of South Korea on the esports world.
What Bunny lacked in English comprehension in his "Inside Valiant" confessional segment, he made up for in determination and positivity, saying his answers loudly with help from Google Translate on his cellphone. After the confessional was over, Bunny bowed and smiled.
For the rest of the day, whenever I saw Bunny walking across the compound, he would greet me with a loud "hello" in Korean, "안녕하세요!" followed by a hearty laugh.
"안녕하세요, Bunny," I replied every time.
When the Overwatch League was officially announced at BlizzCon 2016, it departed from other esports in two major ways. The first was a focus on regional fan development, or geolocation. Despite being played at Blizzard Arena, teams were urged to appeal to fans in the cities or countries they represented. Related was the Overwatch League's insistence on having a completely open league. No region locking for players. A team representing London could sign two full rosters of South Korean pro players, which was exactly what Cloud9's Overwatch League team, the London Spitfire, did by picking up the South Korean rosters of Kongdoo and GC Busan.
"Region-locking might have led to some of the incredibly talented players we've watched compete this season not have a chance to participate in the Overwatch League," said Jon Spector, Overwatch League's director of franchises and competition. "We believed many players would come from South Korea since it has such a vibrant Overwatch community, but we did not have specific expectations for how many players would join from any specific part of the world."
South Korea often boasts the title of "esports mecca" born of snapshots of young adults in Seoul's PC bangs, the 2010 Korean Air OSL Finals entrance in a hangar featuring a Korean Air airplane, and dominion over nearly any esport that features South Korean players. Upon launch in May 2016, Overwatch was the latest game in a long line of esports to capture the interest of the South Korean gaming community.
Currently every team in the Overwatch League has at least one South Korean professional player. Three teams, the Spitfire, the New York Excelsior, and South Korea's home team, the Seoul Dynasty, have entirely South Korean rosters. Over 50 South Korean Overwatch players landed in Los Angeles for the inaugural Overwatch League season, and this number does not include support staff, many of whom are also South Korean.
Big and small places
When Kim "Fury" Joon-ho first came to Los Angeles, it was in June 2017 as part of a now-defunct Team Liquid Overwatch lineup. Fury knew little English, and didn't have an interpreter. He was the only South Korean on the roster and initially had trouble adjusting. But he learned.
"The best thing I got out of that experience was mastering ride share applications," Fury said. "Everyone else was scrambling around and they didn't know how to call Ubers or Lyfts, but I knew how from the get-go so it made it a lot easier when [the London Spitfire] first came to America."
Fury had to navigate the city on his own, after coming from a country with one of the world's best railway systems in Seoul.
Now part of the all-South Korean London Spitfire, Fury added that he taught his ride-sharing skills to his teammates, along with North American-specific vernacular. The Spitfire has no shortage of South Korean managers and interpreters so players are as comfortable as possible with everything from navigating the city to South Korean food catering. Due to the strength of London's support staff, Fury asserted that it wouldn't have taken long for his teammates to adapt to L.A. regardless, even without his help.
"I almost got lost the moment I arrived," San Francisco Shock DPS player Park "Architect" Min-ho said laughing. Despite his initial confusion, Architect said there wasn't much of a difference between living in Seoul and L.A. He spends most of his time practicing with the team. "I didn't get around much in Seoul either," he said, still laughing.
English was the first difference Architect thought of between Seoul and L.A., and he said so in English with a bright smile. "Oh, yeah!" he added. "I was really shocked when I saw that there was nowhere [on the floor] for water to drain in the bathroom. Oh, and people wearing shoes indoors."
Small details like shoe placement and architecture stood out to a lot of South Korean players. Beyond the obvious differences like the English language and food, players noticed the lack of foot traffic and public transportation compared to South Korea, and Seoul specifically.
"The trees are big, but the buildings are not as tall as I thought," Shanghai Dragons flex tank Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon said. "And there aren't many people on the streets."
"When it comes to everyday life, Korea is small and very dense so there was an air of urgency in terms of how people act and understand things," Valiant main tank Koo "Fate" Pan-seung said. "In America, people are more relaxed and more chill. They're not as urgent, and that's a big difference."
With food a legitimate concern for South Korean pros in L.A., many organizations take players to Koreatown. The densely-populated neighborhood in west of downtown L.A. is peppered with brightly-lit hangul signs, and delicious smells waft from various Korean restaurants. It's the closest thing to Seoul in L.A., but the small differences can make the distance all the more pronounced. "It was interesting because you can speak Korean and only Korean," Shanghai Dragons DPS player Cheon "Ado" Gi-hyeon said. "But the things there are kind of expensive."
"Well, Korea, you can get a lot done with not much effort," Seoul Dynasty support Heo "Gambler" Jin-woo said. "If you want to eat something, you order it on the phone. If you want to go somewhere, it's like right in your neighborhood so you go. ... America's big. I think it's a difference of big and small places."
From Apex to Arena
Like many places in Seoul, OGN's e-Stadium in Sangnam is at the top of a high-rise. Seoul is a vertical city with approximately 10 million more people in its metro area than L.A., while L.A. lazily stretches in all directions for miles and miles. The Blizzard Arena is tucked between studio lots in Burbank, just over the Hollywood Hills. Professional Overwatch is no longer played at OGN's e-Stadium, once home to the premier tournament OGN APEX, where most of the current Overwatch League South Korean pros made their debuts.
The Blizzard Arena stage is surrounded by an LED display that shows everything from full map visual tours to the individual Overwatch heroes in game. Above the stage floor seating, a large LED ring shows the progress of a team on an escort mission or control point with team-specific colors. OGN's stadium setup was warm, creating a community atmosphere. After every match, teams would have fan-meets on the first floor of the high rise, several times a week depending on their schedule.
"It's a much bigger stage, where Apex was more of a fan event," Geguri said. "Overwatch League feels more official because you have big sponsors and big companies backing it up."
On this larger stage, teams with full South Korean rosters like NYXL, Seoul, and London had to adjust to a new living environment and the new stage alongside the usual meta adjustments that come with being a professional Overwatch player. Organizations with hybrid rosters dealt with all of these hurdles, plus the added task of integrating a South Korean player, or several South Korean players, onto their lineups. Overwatch is a game that requires constant communication between teammates to disclose map position or the location of an opponent along with more basic playcalling.
"When you're in game, everything needs to be rushed," Dallas Fuel flex player Pongphop "Mickie" Rattanasangchod said. "Decisions need to be made immediately so all of that is in the moment."
Rapid decision shot-calling doesn't have time for cultural differences. In Stage 3, the Dallas Fuel fell apart with only one win for the entire stage, against the winless Shanghai Dragons. This was precipitated by the release of main tank Félix "xQc" Lengyel, and further aggravated by the release of DPS player Kim "Rascal" Dong-jun. Communication from the team and individuals trickled out on social media and public forums, the court of public opinion shifting its perspective with each new piece of information. Internal issues on any sports team occur, even when all of the players are from the same country and speak the same language.
"When it comes to everyday life, Korea is small and very dense so there was an air of urgency in terms of how people act and understand things. In America, people are more relaxed and more chill." Valiant main tank Koo "Fate" Pan-seung
"Kim "viOLet" Dong Hwan is a full-time player-manager for the Dallas Fuel," Fuel CEO Mike "Hastr0" Rufail said in a Reddit AMA. "As a native Korean, former professional Starcraft 2 pro and one of the first Korean professional gamers to move full time to the U.S., he is available to assist our Korean players with their assimilation into the team and translation with coaches and other players. In addition, we have made English tutoring available to our players. We are adding another translator to our team moving forward which obviously doesn't help Rascal now. Maybe it was something we could have done better, but certainly not a situation where no communication was happening because translation was available to him."
It's an admission that the Fuel might not have been as prepared as Hastr0 would have liked, while also protecting his players and team. As outsiders, we'll never know what happened internally, but cultural miscommunication appears to have been a major factor. It wasn't simply about speaking English, but the ability to communicate needs both in and out of game. During Stage 3, when Dallas looked its worst, Mickie blamed Dallas' issues on continuous readjustment every time a new player joined the team. This was an issue Mickie himself dealt with as a Thai player when he joined Team EnVyUs before it became the Fuel.
"For example, the first time I joined it was really tough. I couldn't understand anything at all," he said. "I asked at first, 'Can you say my name first before you speak.' Especially in game because you have to focus on the game. I didn't understand at all. When [Hwang "EFFECT" Hyeon] joined the team it happened to EFFECT. It happened to Rascal too. When you never speak English every day, even if you study it in school, it's just way different. Now we have OGE as a new player who doesn't speak English."
Main tank Son "OGE" Min-seok looked shaky in his introduction to the Fuel with strong individual play but a complete lack of coordination with a team that seemed to be flipping through roster permutations to find something that stuck. When the Fuel found it in Stage 4, the team made stage playoffs for the first time in the Overwatch League with a winning record of 6-4. OGE said that learning how to communicate with the team took only two weeks, but deciding how their internal communication system would work took much longer.
"We have three players, uNKOE, Akm, and Harryhook, two of which are French speakers and one is a Spanish speaker," OGE said. "Harryhook wanted to be our main shot-caller, but I think a lot of us had trouble understanding his accent, which everyone adjusted to as the season went on."
The Los Angeles Gladiators dealt with a similar situation regarding the benching of superstar main tank and league MVP candidate Baek "Fissure" Chang-hyeong before the playoffs. Part of it is certainly game-related. Yet, the Gladiators' announcement was met with confusion and speculation as details trickled onto social media. It was the Rascal situation all over again.
When the Dallas Fuel parted ways with Rascal, it was former Kongdoo Panthera/London Spitfire teammate Fissure who became one of the loudest voices, citing the myriad cultural differences that South Korean pros have on hybrid lineups. On his stream, Fissure addressed a few of these problems and highlighted Aaron "Bischu" Kim's invaluable help as a Korean and English speaker.
"I got frustrated for the first time during scrims in L.A. Gladiators due to English," Fissure said. "I thought I was going crazy. How do I make specific orders in another language? I knew we could win with this shot-call of mine, but I couldn't convey it. So in the beginning, I fought with the L.A. Gladiators players a lot.
"In game, even if there's something as simple as, 'Let's go together to this location' then sometimes it's still hard," Fissure said. "What you say in Korean and what you say in English is very different. When you have to tell people which one to do, it already is really hard because there's a conversation problem. Since almost every team has at least one Korean, Bischu's value of translating in game is so much more."
I asked Fissure how difficult it was at first to communicate, and he echoed a similar sentiment repeated by many South Korean Overwatch League pros. The basic in-game stuff comes first, but actually getting to know your teammates outside of the game is a lot harder. That communication between Gladiators teammates was also heavily reliant on Bishu's efforts. He became the default interpreter in and out of the game.
"Going into this team, I was telling our staff members, 'Yeah, yeah we don't need a translator, I've got this, I've got this! It shouldn't be that hard,'" Bischu said. He burst out laughing at his past self. "Turns out it's a lot harder than it looks. I was incredibly drained, but I think it really helped our team and I'm so happy with that."
Cultural barrier as well as a language barrier
After a full day with the Valiant, observing the team's dynamic and practice culture, I sat down with the team's Korean interpreter, Kim. The Valiant had the most successful hybrid roster in the Overwatch League through Stage 4, with players from South Korea, Australia, France, Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Iceland. Part of this is thanks to Kim's efforts interpreting full time for the team.
"One of the more bizarre but important things I've been doing is translating what the Korean players are saying when they're just talking to each other," Kim said. "I want people to know that they're not talking about, say, other players or bad-mouthing, it's never that, but I think that's important for people to know. From an outsider's perspective that's a real concern just because you don't know what they're saying."
This is especially important for the roster of the Valiant, where Fate and KariV had both previously worked with the team's head coach, Moon "Moon" Byeong-cheol. Kim ensures that nothing is lost in translation to quash any potential rumors of favoritism before they start.
"In game, even if there's something as simple as, 'Let's go together to this location' then sometimes it's still hard. What you say in Korean and what you say in English is very different." Los Angeles Gladiators main tank Baek "Fissure" Chang-hyeong
The burden put on interpreters like Kim, bilingual teammates like the Gladiators' Bischu, or community members/fan interpreters is enormous and not readily apparent on the surface. They become the mouthpieces for South Korean players to a massive English-speaking Overwatch League community that includes other players, support staff like coaches and analysts, content creators, journalists and fans.
"Everyone talks about the cultural divide between Western and Korean players," Kim said. "The way that they look at practice is different. The way that they look at feedback is different. The way that they look at coaching is different. Korean players can also be very blunt. From their end, they're trying to help and give feedback to help the team, but from another perspective that can come across as condescending or trying to coach when you shouldn't. From an organizational standpoint, that's a nightmare. If you can't understand where they're coming from culturally, you can misinterpret that as, 'Oh, this guy is insubordinate. This guy is uncooperative. This guy feels that he's better than everyone else.' when the actual intent is the complete opposite."
Los Angeles Valiant Owner and CEO Noah Whinston had a head start with the hybrid rosters of his Immortals League of Legends team, and admitted he was still growing through the efforts of the Valiant's hybrid roster in the Overwatch League. It's never perfect, and players are continuously learning as a team.
"It's really easy for Western fans or Western teams to see Korean players/coaches as homogenous robots, and that does a disservice to understandings to the diverse nature of people who play professional esports in Korea," Whinston said. "Teams and players can make assumptions when in reality they're unique individuals."
Both Whinston and Kim reiterated the difficulty of striking a balance between meeting South Korean players' cultural needs, while also recognizing that every player is different. Each player will communicate differently and receive information in a specific way, all while also having to deal with a language and cultural barrier.
"The most important thing, before you pick up a Korean player, your organization should preemptively find a translator or interpreter who knows that you have a cultural barrier as well as a language barrier," Kim said.
Your English is good
Florida Mayhem DPS player Ha "Sayaplayer" Jeong-woo lit up the Overwatch League stage upon arrival, despite his team languishing at the bottom of the standings. He made his way up to the press room with manager Matt Akhavan in tow but without an interpreter. I greeted him in Korean, and after some confusion, he agreed to do the interview in English.
He cited the usual communication differences "English is hard" and the food. He added that Overwatch itself was much different in the U.S. because the South Korean playstyle is so much more aggressive. Sayaplayer said that adjusting to the larger number of matches in Overwatch League over APEX was difficult.
"한국말 못 해요." I said in Korean at the end of the interview, with a hint of admiration that he agreed to the interview without an intepreter. Like Bunny, his eyes lit up for a moment. I assured him again that my Korean was much worse than his English.
"Your English is good," I said.
"No, no, no," Sayaplayer said. "Very bad English. But soon. Soon I will learn."