There's a reason why Seoul is called the mecca of esports.
Most of what we know today as competitive gaming—how the experience is structured, produced, and celebrated—was pioneered here nearly 20 years ago, when the launch of StarCraft sparked a nationwide fever intense enough to build an industry. As early as 1999, players were filming prime-time TV ads and being recognized as pop icons; within a few years, superstars were receiving six-figure salaries and invites to presidential and parliamentary events. All this was long before any other nation had even started to consider esports as something more than a niche fad.
Much has changed since then. With esports becoming a global phenomenon, in recent years the distance between South Korea and all other regions has shrunk rapidly. In some aspects, South Korea is no longer ahead at all, as evidenced by the many Korean players who have ventured abroad for better salaries and opportunities. But the region's competitive dominance as a whole has yet to show any signs of disappearing. In virtually every game that Koreans take seriously—including Overwatch—they still continue to dwarf the rest of the world. Why? The first Korean Overwatch League team, the Seoul Dynasty, believes that at least part of it is due to the cultural intangibles ingrained in the nation and its people.
"Korea has always shared a culture of humility, of teamwork, of respect for seniority, of sticking together as parts of a greater whole," said Seoul Dynasty Vice Chairman Phillip Hyun. "And I think people will notice and appreciate those cross-cultural values that can be positive across the world."
No city is better suited to represent these values than Seoul. The capital’s greater metropolitan area houses not only five active esports arenas and several hundred esports teams, but also half of the nation's entire population. In many ways, as Seoul goes, so does South Korea. The Seoul mayoralty, for instance, is often considered to be the second most powerful elected position in South Korea, behind only the presidency itself.
Going into the first season of the Overwatch League, the Seoul Dynasty will be considered one of the favorites—and by many, the favorite—to win the whole thing. Seoul's core roster, formerly of Lunatic-Hai, is the only team to have won back-to-back titles in OGN APEX, until now thought by many to be Overwatch's most prestigious international tournament. It's true that the squad has recently gone through a rough patch, but that's hardly reason to undermine their historic dominance or individual talent. In fact, the turbulence may even have strengthened the team, by forcing them to identify and address their weaknesses, as reflected in the team’s second wave of roster acquisitions. With such talented reinforcements, and the motivation to reclaim their honor, the Dynasty will be a force to be reckoned with come December.
But their fight will not be as much about seeking personal or even team glory as it will be about defending an entire nation's pride. On the Dynasty’s shoulders rests the history of Korean esports, two decades’ worth of prestige that continues to make gamers worldwide use "Korean" as the ultimate laudatory adjective.
The Eye of the Tiger
The tiger is a popular symbol of South Korea and was even chosen as the mascot for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
"I believe that we will be the world champions," said Seoul Dynasty COO Kent Wakeford, an 18-year gaming-industry veteran who leads internal operations for the franchise. "The reason why we came to Seoul is because it's the birthplace of esports, where the level of sophistication is the highest. Our first priority has been bringing in the highest-caliber professionals in esports, and giving them every resource necessary for them to succeed."
The key to Seoul achieving its lofty goals will be teamwork.
Unlike in traditional sports, it's common in esports for a game to undergo meaningful changes several times over the course of the year. This means there are precious few long-term axioms in Overwatch. Any hero, any combination of heroes, and any strategy could go from mandatory to useless overnight; it really only takes a single update or strategic innovation. But no matter what's included (or isn't) in the latest patch notes, one thing will never change—Overwatch is a team game. It doesn't matter if you're playing in Bronze or in Grandmaster, if you're competing in a tiny LAN cafe or in a packed stadium full of thousands of roaring fans; the team foundation of Overwatch remains fundamental. And it’s arguable that no organization can claim to understand, or illustrate, this truth better than the Seoul Dynasty.
L-R: Seoul Dynasty's Kevin Chou, Michael Li, Phillip Hyun, and Kent Wakeford.
"We aren't perfect by any means, but I do think we are ahead of other teams when it comes to teamwork," said Seoul Dynasty Head Coach Baek Kwang-jin, who has managed the team since their days as Lunatic-Hai. "Teamwork is not just about coordinating in-game play. Our players believe in each other and can depend on each other, both in and out of the game. And everyone on the team, including the staff, knows their exact role."
This trust and synergy is what allowed for the core roster to rule the world prior to joining the Dynasty. Sure, Lunatic-Hai did have some of the best players in Overwatch, but so did every other top-class team. What set them apart from their rivals was how closely all six players would work together, and how that elevated their tactical execution to levels that were, at the time, inimitable. Their coordination in backline protection, Winston-Genji dives, Orb of Discord focus fire, and various Sombra-based maneuvers, just to name a few aspects, set a standard which other top teams have only recently caught up to.
Time and time again, Lunatic-Hai proved against elite competition that individual brilliance can only take a team so far; both of their APEX trophies were won via their superior playbook and their teamwork. Seoul is determined to make the same case in the Overwatch League.
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"Other teams in other countries will have to develop the culture we have, whereas for us, it's just innate," said Hyun. "'Why don't they ever argue? Why don't they ever fight?' I bet people will ask those kinds of questions, because our teamwork is what will allow us to be the best."
Beyond the boundaries of the organization, another kind of teamwork will be propelling Seoul forward: the sheer size and passion of the city’s esports fanbase, which is as yet unparalleled in the world. The love that the city’s fans send towards their players—box meals and snacks on game days, heaps of personalized gifts and letters, birthday ads in subway stations and cafes—is comparable to what K-pop idols receive.
"We consider our unique, amazing fanbase to be an essential component of our team," said Wakeford. "All of our players love our fan clubs, and our fans' passion is part of our identity."
The Overwatch League will feature the best of what Overwatch esports has to offer—and within it, Seoul will represent South Korea's two decades of competitive excellence, unparalleled teamwork, and spectator passion. In short, Seoul and its Overwatch team will represent the best of what esports itself has to offer.
"I lived and worked in Seoul all my life, and so did many of our team," said Seoul Dynasty Business Manager Yoon Jeong-ho. "We lived and breathed esports, Seoul, and everything that ties those two together. We couldn't be happier to represent such a vibrant city on the game's greatest stage."