On November 3, 2018, the South Korean team lifted the Overwatch World Cup trophy for the third year in a row. They were invincible. Undefeatable.
Before 2016, there were no major tournaments organized by Blizzard. No power ranking for countries to flex their gaming muscles. This changed when the first Overwatch World Cup was introduced in October 2016.
South Korea went undefeated throughout the tournament. 14 maps played across six matches with not a single loss. Winning the Overwatch World Cup was one thing, taking the trophy undefeated created a legacy.
Fast forward two years and South Korea remain the undisputed champions of the Overwatch World Cup. Two more world cup victories, 15 matches played, 15 matches won, with 51 map wins, and only 6 losses. The legacy is stronger than ever.
Domination: Overwatch League
In the Overwatch League, South Korea’s legacy grew as the South Koreans dominated the Overwatch League with their presence, both in numbers and victories.
In the inaugural season, out of 130 players, 59 of them, or 45%, were from South Korea. The United States, which had 19 players in the League, was second with just 14%.
Korea’s dominance grew in season 2. There are now 198 players in the League, and 110 of them, or 55% are from South Korea. Additionally, of the 20 teams in the League, 18 have at least one South Korean player, 11 have at least six Korean players, and five teams field a full 12-man South Korean squad.
South Korea dominated the Overwatch League with victories too. New York Excelsior, an all South Korean team was by far the best team in the inaugural season, with 36 wins and only six losses, while London Spitfire, another all Korean team, absolutely stomped through the playoffs, losing only one set on their way to the title.
South Korea created its legacy in the Overwatch World Cup, but it cemented it in the Overwatch League.
Sung-hyeon “Jjonak” Bang is so good he got Zenyatta nerfed
On an individual level, the South Koreans were dominating too. Sung-hyeon “Jjonak” Bang was regarded as not just the world’s best Zenyatta player, but as the best player in the world period.
Just how dominant was Jjonak? His statistics were in a league of their own. His 6,942 hero damage per 10 minutes was 22.8% higher than the Overwatch League average.
In April 2018, Blizzard nerfed Zenyatta by reducing his secondary rate of fire by 15%. Most of the Overwatch community regarded Blizzard’s actions as a response to Jjonak’s high damage output with the hero. Never before had a hero been adjusted due to the skills of a single player. Zenyatta’s “burst damage was a bit too high” noted Blizzard in the patch notes.
At the end of the season, Jjonak was voted as the Overwatch League’s inaugural season MVP. The craziest thing about him is that he wasn’t even a pro player before OWL. The New York Excelsior plucked him from competitive ladder play, just another testament to the high level of play in Korea.
South Korea’s esports engine
How did the South Koreans become so dominant? It wasn’t the result of just one factor. Like a finely tuned engine, many vital components were required to make it work. This engine includes South Korea’s internet speed, PC bangs, esports organizations, and esports’ large presence in South Korea.
Fuel: Internet speed
The internet in South Korea is among the fastest in the world. In the late 1990s, the South Korean government focused on building internet infrastructure following the Asian Financial Crisis. As of 2017, South Korea had the fastest average internet connection in the world. At 28.6 Mbps, it is four times faster than the world average.
Fast internet speeds result in a better connection and less lag while gaming online. South Korea’s internet is the high-octane fuel that runs the esports engine.
Pistons: PC bangs
Taking advantage of South Korea’s fast internet speed were the cheap and accessible PC bangs, LAN shops with rows of powerful PCs for gamers to use. There are more than 25,000 PC bangs across Korea, with most of them costing just US$1/hour on average.
Many young players were recruited from these PC bangs. In 2016, when Overwatch was released, it was the second most played title in PC bangs.
If fast internet is the fuel of the South Korean engine, pc bangs are the pistons, churning out professional players.
Mechanics: Esports organizations
Even the most powerful engine needs tuning, and that’s where South Korea’s esports organizations come into play. These organizations don’t just focus on in-game results but manage the “mental and physical wellness” of their players to make sure they can reach their maximum potential.
“This is one area where we are working hard to learn from the traditional sports world,” said Arnold Hur, Chief Growth Officer of Gen.G Esports, owners of the Overwatch League’s Seoul Dynasty, in an interview with the Korean Times.
Chassis: Esports prominence
An engine with no chassis is useless. For South Korea, that chassis is the prominence of esports itself.
Unlike most countries, in South Korea, gaming is viewed as more than just a hobby; being a professional gamer is a viable career choice. This started in 2000 when the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) was created. KeSPA manages esports in South Korea and has helped establish pro gaming as a legitimate career choice.
With a larger pool of talent to practice against, the high skill level of the Korean players reached greater heights. Before the Overwatch League, South Korea’s APEX was considered the most prestigious Overwatch tournament in the world. Lunatic-Hai, two-time winners of APEX were considered the best team in the world at the time, and made up half of Korea’s Overwatch World Cup 2016 team.
Here comes the new challengers
In a few months, the Overwatch World Cup will take place again. While South Korea is widely expected to defend its crown, it’s likely not to be as easy as in past years.
After two years of playing against the best Koreans in the Overwatch League, the field is more level than ever, and there’s now a legitimate case to be made that Americans like Matthew “super” DeLisi and Jay “sinatraa” Won are among the best players on the planet.
But will they be enough to stop the invincible South Korean engine or should we all just bend the knee and submit to our South Korean overlords?