When Ho-Jin "IDK" Park celebrated his 18th birthday, he was in South Korea. It was one week after he successfully joined his first professional Overwatch team. For his 19th birthday, he was in China, practicing hard with his new team in preparation for Contenders China playoffs, which would begin the next day.
For his 20th birthday, he was in Allen, Texas, for the Dallas Fuel Homestand. IDK's unique career path has taken him to many places he wouldn't have gotten a chance to visit otherwise, and there's still a tone of amazement in his voice when he talks about it.
"Honestly, it’s an honor for me to even be here in the US," he said. "There’s not a lot of chances in a person’s life to come here. I’m still shocked that I’m here on a professional basis. Starting next year, we’ll be doing away matches in London, Paris, and Canada—I’m so excited for that. It was really meaningful for me to spend my birthday in Dallas."
Whenever IDK speaks, you definitely get the distinct sense that he's just happy to be there. There are only a handful of players whose dispositions match those of their signature heroes, and IDK is one of them—perpetually gregarious and good-natured, just like Lúcio, the hero he's most known for. He’s a player who will take a moment in the middle of a round to spontaneously high-five a teammate who just popped off, or complain jokingly about not being tapped for a postmatch interview. (For the record, he’s gotten ample screentime since, and hasn’t let any of it go to waste.)
Though his prowess on Lúcio has made him an indispensable part of the Hangzhou Spark and put him in the conversation for best main support in the league, IDK didn't start his career as a main support player. In fact, had it not been for some encouragement from his friends, he might not have started his career at all.
"I didn't like Overwatch that much initially, I just played it with friends because they introduced me to it," he recalled. "But when they eventually grew tired of it, that's when I grew to actually enjoy the game. I found myself making Top 500, and when I saw an announcement for pro team trials, I was very fortunate to make it into Afreeca Freecs on my first tryout."
IDK joined Afreeca Freecs as a flex support player, just as the team was preparing to play in OGN APEX Season 3 after a disappointing finish in Season 2. Expectations weren't high for them, but Afreeca stormed through the beginning of the tournament, making it through the group stage and quarterfinals without dropping a single map before falling in the semifinals. Their success was due in large part to the team's coach, Tae-Yeong "TaiRong" Kim—who now coaches the Houston Outlaws—making two crucial decisions: having current New York Excelsior tank Dong-Gyu "Mano" Kim transition from main support to main tank, and having IDK take his place as the main support.
Looking back on his days as a rookie player, IDK is critical of his own performance and deeply conscious of how much he's improved since then.
"At the time, I really didn’t know anything," he said, grinning bashfully. "I didn’t have a good understanding of the game. I was a flex support who was all about the mechanics. TaiRong suggested I switch positions to main support, and that’s when my life really improved. I wasn’t very smart back then! Since then I’ve really worked hard to make sure I’m at the very least not a burden to others, and now I think that’s why I get called the best, or I’m considered really good."
Though IDK’s time on Afreeca is cherished by Korean Overwatch fans, it might as well be just a footnote in the scope of his career, considering what he did next. Along with the core of a wildly successful Korean team who had been competing in the Pacific region, he joined a team called Lucky Future Zenith just as the Contenders system was taking shape in 2018.
"When APEX transitioned to Contenders Korea, I chose Contenders China over Contenders Korea because the way I saw it, there wasn’t a clear road to the Overwatch League from Contenders Korea," he explained. "I thought that it would look better for my career if I could win a lot of titles in Contenders China."
If he was looking to win titles, he certainly achieved his goal. Over the next nine months, IDK and Lucky Future Zenith won three consecutive championships, including back-to-back Contenders seasons which they won in dominant fashion. IDK’s hunch turned out to be a prescient one; the team's success definitely didn't go unnoticed when the time came to scout talent for the 2019 Overwatch League season.
"I was contacted by nine teams out of twenty," IDK recalled. "Diem was contacted by 11 teams. Erster, Marve1, and Michelle all made it to good teams, so it was a super important experience for us."
Five of the six Lucky Future Zenith players made it to the Overwatch League in 2019, spread across four different teams, and all of them have found considerable success on their new teams. "[My old teammates and I] still keep in touch and we’re close—honestly, we really wanted to make it to the Overwatch League together," he said.
IDK ended up accepting the offer extended to him by the Hangzhou Spark, an expansion team with a Korean core and two key Chinese players: flex DPS Shilong "Krystal" Cai and all-star main tank Qiulin "Guxue" Xu. With Guxue locking down a starting position, there were some growing pains at the beginning of the season due to the language barrier, but IDK says they've figured out a shotcalling structure that works for the team.
"We were playing instinctually and by whatever felt right, so that meant there was a lot of miscommunication," he said. "But now we have Korean, Chinese, and English, and whatever is easier is what we use. We’re all studying [each other’s languages]."
The Spark have surged over the last two stages, not only becoming the first Chinese team to qualify for stage playoffs in Stage 2 but also the first Chinese team to advance to a stage playoff semifinal. IDK's thoughtful in-game leadership and shotcalling has had a lot to do with how quickly the team was able to find their footing after early stumbles.
IDK smiled when he thought about their playoff run in Stage 2 and what it meant to him to be able to blaze the trail for the Chinese region, which he'd played in for so long and was now representing on the biggest stage of all.
"We write our own history," he said, simply.