Benjamin “BigGoose” Isohanni is sitting at the kitchen counter in one of the Los Angeles Gladiators’ team houses, staring at a pen lying next to a thick workbook. Today’s lesson is about relationship words—above, below, inside—and after a beat he sounds out the right syllables in Korean.
The pen is next to the book. Beside him, a smile breaks on language instructor Sophie Ahn’s face. “Excellent!” she exclaims.
This is the scene once or twice a week, as BigGoose embraces a challenge that’s wholly different from learning a new Overwatch hero or mastering a new meta.
“If we go back to season one, I think we always had the option to take Korean lessons,” BigGoose says. “I always thought it was interesting, and I think after season one I wanted to learn Korean and just see how it goes. It turns out to be very fun. I don’t really have hobbies outside of gaming, so it’s like another hobby.”
It’s not lost on me that we’re conducting this interview in BigGoose’s second language, and that he has already gone through this process more than once, learning both English and Swedish while growing up in Finland. The European Union has 24 official languages, but more than half of the population is conversationally fluent in a second language, with English making up a large portion of that.
For European pro gamers, English is almost a prerequisite, as BigGoose points out. “Everything in games in Europe is communicated in English, so it’s more natural for European people to be a bit better in English. In Finland they teach you Swedish. I got taught for five years but I don’t know anything.”
BigGoose lacks the proper English phrase to express why Korean is more appealing to him than Swedish ever was (“I don’t know… It’s more fun, interesting, everything…”), but it is true that Korean and Finnish have many points of commonality in pronunciation and sentence structure, although they aren’t actually related. That makes it slightly easier to pick up—which in turn makes doing homework less of a chore.
“When I compare it to school—language, math, whatever—I never did homework, but now that I’m studying Korean, I go out of my way to do homework,” he says.
Ahn has nothing but praise for BigGoose the student. “The best thing about him is he’s always motivated,” she says. “For example, this week is their break, [but he said,] ‘Oh, I’m so bored, I want to have lessons.’ Having a lesson and learning a language, to him, is a hobby, so he’s learning so quickly. As a teacher I’m so happy and I’m always having fun teaching him.”
For the most part, Ahn’s participation in the esports world goes the other way—guiding newly arrived Korean pro gamers across multiple esports titles to a level of English proficiency that will allow them to integrate with their teams. The Overwatch League alone keeps Ahn plenty busy, as she’s currently teaching players from the San Francisco Shock, Dallas Fuel, Florida Mayhem, and Houston Outlaws—and often posts amusing anecdotes from her lessons on Twitter. This season, she has also started lessons with the London Spitfire, an all-Korean team that may be looking ahead to 2020 localization.
“The players want to learn English for when they go outside or order food,” she explains. “The biggest motivation for them was when they visited London, they wanted to interact with their fans. I think they just want to learn English for their fans and for their life here, too.”
Found in Translation
Esports introduced Ahn to new vocabulary in both languages. English words like “tilt” and “throw” mean much different things in a gaming context, for example. She also provided some Overwatch-related Korean terms that she found interesting:
Self-Destruct: 자폭 (ja-pok)—“We know the word in reality, but we never ever use it.”
Transcendence: 초월 (cho-wol)—“It’s a very abstract word, and it’s actually beautiful.”
Dive: 돌진 (dol-jin)
Gold damage: 딜금 (dil-geum)—“It’s so unfamiliar to me, even in Korean.”
Of course, Ahn is also working with the Gladiators’ Korean trio: Gui-Un “Decay” Jang, Chang-Hoon “Roar” Gye, and Jun-Woo “Void” Kang. Among her “graduated” students—those who have become proficient enough to no longer need lessons—are former Gladiator Jun-Sung “Asher” Choi, Jae-Hyeok “Carpe” Lee and Su-Min “Sado” Kim from the Philadelphia Fusion, and Young-Seo “Kariv” Park and Pan-Seung “Fate” Koo from the LA Valiant.
For Ahn, the main difference between teaching English to Korean players and teaching Korean to interested teammates and team staff lies in the incentive. Most of the interest in learning Korean comes from curiosity or personal interest, but for Korean players on mixed rosters, learning English is a necessity.
“It can be sometimes challenging because it’s not something that they want to learn, always—it’s because they have to learn for their work,” she says. “If they do not have good performances onstage, then they are frustrated, and sometimes they think, ‘Is it because of my English?’ But because I’m Korean too, I’m more attached when [Korean players] feel stressed out or frustrated with the language, and I also feel like it’s partially my responsibility as well.”
BigGoose’s Korean is currently not advanced enough for him to practice speaking with his Korean teammates on the Gladiators yet, and their English isn’t advanced enough for them to incorporate it into their everyday lives. Void has made big strides since arriving late in the 2018 season, but for a newcomer like Roar, progress is still in its early stages.
“I still need to improve my English if I want to have a real conversation with my teammates,” he says. Just over a month into his Overwatch League debut, the confidence is coming along, although in-game communication still often comes down to intuition and game sense.
The language barrier is still there, but regardless, having a shared learning activity itself brings the players just a little bit closer.
“It might help break down a wall or two when it comes to socializing with the other players,” BigGoose says. Sometimes he’ll go to his Korean teammates and ask them what a word means, for example, and he has absorbed a few things by osmosis. And if he hasn’t picked up Korean swear words yet—well, he will, with or without Ahn’s supervision (they all do).
For Roar, even though he still can’t communicate well with his teammate, seeing BigGoose take up Korean has been interesting. “Since BigGoose is one of the players who really likes Korean food as well, I thought, ‘Oh, he’s really into learning more about the culture,’” he says.
A team is a funny thing, in this way. Of course, the in-game communication and coordination are what ultimately leads to wins, but when you’re spending so much time with each other on a near-daily basis, developing interpersonal relationships can help ease the pressures of the job. The Gladiators do have bilingual support staff, but maybe, one day, BigGoose won’t need to rely on a translator as much.
“In-game you can make all these keywords, shortcuts to whatever you’re saying,” he says. “But when it’s outside the game… being able to get your thoughts out, your frustrations, your good ideas out, is very important. It might be more important than things inside the game.”