There is perhaps nothing that crosses the line between traditional sports and esports more than human nature, and nothing demonstrates that better than something that’s been ubiquitous in both from the beginning.
Good ol’ superstition.
From playoff beards to habits just plain weird, professional athletes have always done things just a little differently when preparing to compete. Some of these are quite common—who hasn’t seen a baseball cap turned inside out in an attempt to spark a rally?—while others are a little more extreme. Some players have been known to wear the same dirty clothes for multiple weeks or months when on a hot streak. In Detroit, it’s tradition for fans to throw dead octopuses onto the ice before a Red Wings playoff game. And that’s just some of the traditions fit for print.
From the Sports Illustrated cover jinx and the Madden curse to basketball players performing intricate free-throw routines, superstition will always be a part of sport—and the Overwatch League is no different.
Undoubtedly, the most wholesome superstition in the league belongs to Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park of the New York Excelsior. Married late last year, Park is never far from his wife—they regularly stream together—and he makes sure she’s with him even on stage by setting a picture of her next to his keyboard before every match.
“I first started it because I wanted to see her more often, even if it’s just a picture,” he explained. “Every chance I get, when I die or I’m getting ready for the next map, I look at it. It helps me relax and go into the next map focused.”
Saebyeolbe and his wife didn’t expect his tender ritual to garner such widespread attention, but the couple is enjoying the connection it has forged with fans—after a few tweaks, that is.
“When my wife saw it was becoming well-known, she gave me a better picture to bring the next time,” he said, laughing. “I’ve gotten a lot of comments on it saying how cool it is. We’re surprised that this many people are interested but we’ve been enjoying it.”
Saebyeolbe’s pregame routine is more than just an endearing gesture—he credits it for his personal success, which has helped carry the NYXL to a dominating lead in the league standings. That should come as no surprise: research has shown that no matter how silly, superstition and rituals help athletes cope with the stress of big moments by giving them complete control over at least one aspect of their day and helping ground them in a routine, which translates into confidence and performance once the game begins.
Saebyeolbe isn’t the only Excelsior player with a pregame ritual, though teammate Do-Hyeon “Pine” Kim goes entirely in the other direction when it comes to comfort.
“I don’t think players should get too comfortable on stage; it should be like the library where you focus 100% on what you’re doing, so I purposely don’t get too comfortable on stage,” he explained. “That’s what helps me play better.”
That might explain Pine’s own particular quirk—he wraps the headphone cord around his neck, which has the benefit of keeping it from becoming tangled but also keeps him from becoming too relaxed when competing.
The list goes on. San Francisco Shock head coach Dae-Hee “Crusty” Park has a special sweater he’s worn to matches when his team’s doing well. The Boston Uprising’s Se-Hyun “Neko” Park always drinks a Monster energy drink before games, while his teammate Young-Jin “Gamsu” Noh has his own unusual, but hygienic, habit.
“I had to brush my teeth before going to the game one day, but the game was good with a refreshing feeling, so since then I’ve just kept brushing my teeth before we play,” he explained. “I don’t think it is necessary, but sometimes I have forgotten and felt uncomfortable playing.”
Whatever it means for each player, being comfortable in your play space seems to be the name of the game—even if that comes in an unorthodox way. Sebastian “Zebbosai” Olsson epitomizes that, playing with his monitor at an angle and very close to his face, an oddity that just scratches the surface for the Florida Mayhem support player.
“At other tournaments before Overwatch League, we were really limited space-wise, which is how I ended up with my monitor the way it is and why my keyboard ended up on my mousepad; it’s just a superstition thing,” he explained. “When I die I have to swipe my mousepad a lot with my right hand—it doesn’t do anything but it makes me comfortable. It’s very important.”
Olsson’s superstitious nature has expanded, at times, to include the rest of the squad.
“We sat on the bus one day to the event and we won that day, so everyone had to pick the same seats the next day,” he elaborated. “I have to get an iced coffee before every game. It’s the tiny things like that make you comfortable and not get overwhelmed onstage. Every player in the league has to have some degree of it, and perhaps I’m more extreme than others. My teammates say I’m stupid for it, but hey, the superstitions and the beard, that’s what people know me for.”
Sports superstition is alive and well in the Overwatch League—and we’re just a few weeks away from what are sure to be some epic playoff beards.