学一门语言, 就是多一个观察世界的窗户. To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world. —Chinese Proverb
Though there's only one team in the Overwatch League—the Seoul Dynasty—that officially represents a South Korean city, more than half of the players in the league hail from the country. There are several cities represented by fully Korean rosters, including the New York Excelsior and the London Spitfire, while others like the San Francisco Shock and the Washington Justice boast mixed rosters.
LA Gladiators support Benjamin “BigGoose” Isohanni is embracing a new challenge outside the game: learning Korean.
For most of the Korean players in the league, then, learning English is crucial, whether to facilitate better communication with their teammates or to help them connect with their local fanbases. It's an effort that often goes unnoticed; along with practicing hard for each of their matches, Korean players must also take on the challenge of learning an entirely new language at the same time.
Some players are ahead of others, either because they've had experience learning English in school or because they're simply picked it up quickly. I spoke to a few Korean players both from mixed rosters and fully Korean rosters—all in English—about their progress.
Dong-Jun "Rascal" Kim, San Francisco Shock
The Shock are currently the most accomplished mixed roster in the league, and their ease of communication is thanks in large part to having Rascal, one of the most vocal players on the team, as their flex damage. As a player, he's been known to pick up new heroes quickly, and it's a skill that clearly translates to real life as well, as he's only been studying English for half a year but has already made impressive progress.
How Rascal practices English: "I talk to others and I watch Netflix. I liked watching 13 Reasons Why. Usually when people try to learn English in the Shock house, they watch Netflix. I also watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse recently."
"I learned some English in school, but I didn't really focus on it because I was not a good student," Rascal said. "It's a little bit easier [to communicate with my teammates] now, but still hard sometimes. My teammates teach me how to say things more simply and how to pronounce better. Even though [the Korean players] learn English, we don't have good pronunciation. They also teach me some words."
Like what? Rascal grinned. "Like... Twitch emotes? 'Kappa.' Like that."
During the break between Stages 2 and 3, the Shock took a trip to the Bay Area to visit their fans at home. It took Rascal a few moments of careful consideration, but he came up with a rather creative way to describe his impression of the local fanbase.
"Our fans looked... big orange," he said finally. "Everybody was wearing Shock jerseys! Playing in San Francisco next year will be good. I'm really excited to fly to other places, not just San Francisco. Everywhere."
Jun-Ho "Fury" Kim, London Spitfire
Despite being a fully Korean roster, the Spitfire players have still been putting in a lot of work to learn English in preparation for next year, when they will be based in London. Flex tank Fury has been learning English since he was in middle school and was one of the first Korean players in the league to explicitly request interviews in English.
How Fury practices English: "I like watching movies without subtitles sometimes. I watched Avengers: Endgame like that recently; hero movies are easier to understand without subtitles. I also like football [soccer]. On off-days, I play FIFA and it helps me."
"In middle school, I practiced hard by going to extra classes and watching English movies," he explained. "When I was in Team Liquid, I went there alone and the team had no translator, so I used a translation app."
During the offseason last year, the team visited their home city to meet fans and see the sights. "When I was in London, we went to a game bar, and there were so many fans there," Fury reminisced. "London has so much beautiful architecture. I liked Tower Bridge and Big Ben, but when I was in London, Big Ben was being fixed, so I didn't see it."
Before he became a pro gamer, Fury had aspirations of going to culinary school, something that he thinks he'll revisit after his gaming career ends. "I like making food—I don't do it now, but if I stop being a pro gamer, I will try to learn cooking. If I keep learning English maybe I can go to another country and learn there."
Yeon-Jun "Ark" Hong, Washington Justice
As the New York Excelsior's main support last season, Ark gained a large fanbase just by being near-fluent in English from the get-go.
"I learned English when I was in Korea, and in the Korean SAT, there's an English part, so I started there," he said. "Mostly in Korea people learn reading, and they know a lot of vocabulary, but they can't really talk at a fluent level."
Ark joined the Washington Justice midway through the 2019 season and has been a huge boon to the team's mixed roster due to his ability to shotcall in both English and Korean.
Thank u very much for all the NYXL fans. Another fun chance to join new @washjustice squad. Gonna try to keep up with the team. Starting from #15 is first objective. And thanks to all the NYXL teammates. Personality skills and everything was perfect. Thank u.— ArK (@Arkyjun) March 18, 2019
"In-game, I do some translation and I do the main shotcalling, so it's kind of busy," Ark said. "I think I talked quite a lot when I was in NYXL but now I talk twice as much, so my throat kind of hurts after games."
How Ark practices English: "I don't really study or practice, actually. I learned a bit from streaming or comms, or talking with foreign players, but other than that I don't really practice."
Nearly all of the players surveyed for this piece said that they were most excited to go to Europe next year, a sentiment that Ark shared.
"I've been to China and some cities in the US, but I've never been to Europe," he said. "I'm excited to see the culture and the statues, the memorials... things like that."
When he found out that the other players had said pretty much the same thing, Ark laughed and said he wasn't surprised.
"I think it's just a big difference in culture," he mused. "Many Korean players have never been to Europe before either. I lived in Seoul, which is a big city with many skyscrapers, and when I first came [to LA], I was really surprised. Everything was so flat and wide!"
Young-Seo "Kariv" Park, Los Angeles Valiant
In 2017, Kariv joined Immortals as their new flex support, becoming one of the first Korean players to play on a North American Overwatch team. Immortals then became the Los Angeles Valiant, and over the past two years, Kariv has continued to improve his English both in and out of game.
"I didn't really learn English in school, but I have a tutor now," he said. "It's not so hard to communicate with my team anymore. Sometimes there's problems, but we have a translator so it's not as hard."
One of the most helpful things for Kariv’s progress has been having Canadian native Brady "Agilities" Girardi as his roommate.
"Brady helps me a lot," Kariv said. "Like sometimes I accidentally say 'him' when I'm talking about a girl, and he'll correct me and say 'no, her'—something like that. Everybody helps me, but Brady especially helps me a lot because he's my roommate."
How Kariv practices English: "I like to sing English songs and watch dramas, like The Walking Dead."
The Los Angeles Valiant usually get to play with a home crowd on their side, so visiting Dallas for the Dallas Homestand was a new experience for the whole team, Kariv included.
"Dallas fans were so excited and loud, it made me a bit nervous because they were all screaming," Kariv said. "I think it's good for fans to be loud, though. I'm very excited to go to other countries other than Korea and the US. I'm excited to go to New York because I saw [the Grand Finals] and other players posted pictures on social media, and it looked really cool."
As for whether he'll continue to learn English after his gaming career ends: "By the time I stop being a pro gamer, my English will already be very good," he said, smiling.
Jong-Ryeol "Saebyeolbe" Park, NYXL
New York has one of the most prominent local fanbases in the league, mostly due to the large personalities on the team and their frequent efforts to connect with their hometown fans. Saebyeolbe, who rose to fame last season as an excellent damage player with charisma to spare, is one of the team's most proficient when it comes to speaking English.
"I started learning English in games," he explained. "In ranked games, I always matched with English-speaking people, not Korean players, so I learned from the game. I started this three or four years ago. I didn't learn anything in school—just from the game."
How Saebyeolbe practices English: "I watch some TV shows—I like Chernobyl. When I go to the market, I use English. That's how I practice, just living life. I don't live with the team, so when I call Ubers or order food—I use English."
Saebyeolbe is known for dropping iconic one-liners in English, such as "I'm the best Tracer in the world," which he said in his interview following NYXL's Stage 3 Finals victory last year. He's keenly aware of how much learning English helps his personal brand, as is the rest of the team.
"Our team learns English together," Saebyeolbe said. "We have an English class with different levels like A, B, or C. The other teammates are all in English class C—the lower class."
He laughed. "I think I have the best English on the team now—because we don't have Ark anymore."
Last summer, Saebyeolbe made history as the first esports player to throw a first pitch in a Major League Baseball game, which he did at Citi Field in New York. That experience made him excited for localization in 2020.
"When I went to New York, I felt like it was my home," he said. "New York fans are like my friends and my family... I'm very excited to go ‘home’ next season."