South Korea has always been considered the Mecca of esports; countless key individuals in the industry have long endorsed this historicity. True to the analogy, most looking to make a name in esports make a pilgrimage to the holy land at least once in their lives.
The majority of visitors leave with their curiosity satiated, possibly a little more enlightened, but nothing more than that. A select few, however, stay and study. They dedicate themselves. Some, legends say, do it long enough to become prophets, ready to head down from the mountain and spread the good word of esports.
This is a tale of two such gentlemen.
Moving the payload, join me
Kyunglidan-gil is one of the trendiest places in Seoul, featuring an unfettered mix of the old and the new, the unabashedly domestic and the entirely foreign, the dirt cheap and the shamelessly overpriced -- all located in fashionably cramped dimensions and haphazard-looking slopes. Basking in April's soft midday sun, the modest low-rise sprawl around the central hill appears more vernal than metro on this day.
A quaint café near the edge of the rise offers a tiny garden patio, empty but for a couple of well-worn benches, magnolias slightly past full bloom, and scattered cherry blossoms still budding in patient huddles. Here sit Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Erik "DoA" Lonnquist, both sipping Americanos.
It was announced last week that the esteemed Mykles-Lonnquist casting duo would be leaving OGN -- and thus South Korea -- to join Blizzard's Overwatch League in both a casting and consulting capacity. Many fans were surprised at the news -- the two had always been proud to represent the South Korean tournament organizer and broadcasting station. But Lonnquist doesn't mention being unhappy, more like unchallenged.
"At this point in our careers, yes, we could stay, keep doing Apex, working for OGN, which has been a wonderful company to work for. But professionally, career-wise, there isn't a lot of growing challenge. It didn't seem like there were many more places we could take our esports careers here in Seoul," Lonnquist says.
While the decision to move back to America was a difficult one, due to his affinity for South Korea as a place of residence (his wife is from South Korea), Lonnquist, a Minnesota native, welcomed the challenge to move on, or move back if you want to look at it that way. "It was such a cool opportunity. ... It was impossible to say no."
Mykles, sporting a slick side part and a tight leather jacket, believes South Korean esports has basically become as big as it's going to get. All the top teams already have big non-endemic sponsors and fanbases, and there are only 50 million people in South Korea. Populations don't change overnight.
But in the United States?
"It's blowing up so fast," Mykles says. "There are so many more opportunities, and everybody's trying to get in."
Of all of those opportunities, the Overwatch League may be the largest; an esports project on a scale that has never been seen.
Lonnquist offers another reason he got so excited about Overwatch League: Blizzard's consistent respect of his input.
"In [all of] my years in esports, I have never worked with a development team so willing to listen to my feedback and act on it."
Taking a sip of his drink, Mykles shares his co-caster's enthusiasm. He states too many developers attempt to use non-endemic talent to navigate their esports projects, who usually are unaware of what exactly their audience is looking for.
Trying to deliver shows with traditional television's polish and boundaries is missing half of the point, he stresses. Instead, producers should try to preserve the "irreverent, tongue-in-cheek, and self-referential humor" that appeals to esports fans and millennials.
"[We should] embrace more of esports for the silly s--- that it is, which is a bunch of adults playing professional video games. The competition's great, but it's also just hilarious as a concept, and if you don't have a sense of humor about that, it really shows," Mykles says.
Lonnquist nods. "No one can deny there are real human stories, real serious competition, [and that] people's lives are changing because of all this, and we give that its due. But at the end of the day, it's just dudes playing video games!" he exclaims. "So you got to have fun with it too, you know?"
When it comes to high-level esports production, Mykles is convinced the OGN model is the way to go. Having already made all the mistakes to be made over its 18 years of operation, the station knows exactly what clicks with fans: balancing heroic and hilarious, being careful not to sway too far to either side.
"What OGN does is walk the line between lionizing the players -- making them look so f------ cool -- but then, at the same time, realize it's a bunch of nerds playing video games, and make fun of them, or show their humorous side, in the same broadcast."
Can't stop, won't stop
Mykles and Lonnquist's prestige in esports was mainly built over their 10-season tenure as the English voices of League Champions Korea, home to the world's best League of Legends teams and players. Serving as the "custodians of Korean esports history," the duo played an instrumental role in growing the competition's popularity in the West.
While their rise to prominence was due to their proficiency as casters, part of what made them more special was a firm stance against developer pressure, as evidenced by their relationship with League of Legends developer and publisher Riot Games. Mykles in particular had consistently refused to back off from such contention despite real impact on his personal interests.
Tension between Mykles and Riot escalated over the past year, including a publicized dispute over freelance rates and the highly controversial ban of Mykles' organization, Renegades (which he has since sold the rights to Boston Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko). These events ultimately culminated in the two staying out of the 2016 League of Legends World Championship. Instead, they successfully transitioned to Blizzard's new title, Overwatch. Casting the inaugural season of OGN's Overwatch APEX, they contributed -- much like they did for LCK -- to the tournament's rise as the game's premier tournament.
As Blizzard has not been entirely free of suspicion when it comes to requiring casters to voice -- or not voice -- certain opinions on cast, particularly in games such as Hearthstone, some fans have felt compelled to voice their concerns regarding the duo's independence.
Both casters agree that while such concerns were valid, it would not be the case for them in Overwatch.
"I remember when one show when we were told we shouldn't mention RNG," Lonnquist says, drawing from his experiences casting Hearthstone. "I had a conversation with the people that were running it, and I said, 'It's not RNG you don't want us to mention. What you don't want us to say is that RNG is the only thing that determines this game. You don't want us to invalidate what the players are doing. So the problem isn't really with the terminology, it's with the context it's used in the broadcast.'"
And it was a battle Lonnquist won. Chuckling, he says "People didn't flee en masse to Yu-Gi-Oh."
The idea that casters should be hobbled about what they can say about the league and the game, by the developer, is outmoded, Lonnquist says. It happens all the time in traditional sports. "You need to be that public voice when things aren't going like they should. Of course it needs to be done in a diplomatic way -- you can't be a huge jerk about it -- but you should be able to say something."
Mykles jumps in and states both he and Lonnquist take their roles as independent casters seriously, and they are still freelancers, not Blizzard employees. Neither would have taken the job if they were going to lose their voice, and Blizzard wouldn't have signed the contract had they not liked the individuality of himself and Lonnquist.
Still, Lonnquist laments that they can't take everything, tangible or intangible, with them back to the U.S.
"One thing that we'll be lacking, unfortunately, is that we probably won't have multiple teams named Blue and Red, and we won't have players like [Kim "LongPanda" Yoon-jae] and [Kim "KoX" Min Soo] to uh, to draw from," Lonnquist jokes. "So we're taking a hit there. We're sacrificing a little bit."
"I don't know, Kox might come to NA, you know?" Mykles chimes in.
"You never know. There might be a lot of Koxes in NA."
Mykles grins. "We know there'll be at least two Kox in NA. We can guarantee."
The humor and camaraderie is clearly one thing that will be traveling with the duo.
Two summoners have disconnected
While it was widely expected that Mykles and Lonnquist would not return to League of Legends any time soon, some of their fans have been keeping hope alive. When asked to confirm whether this announcement was essentially a death certificate for such expectations, both nod solemnly.
"I love the fact that [Lonnquist] and I helped people fall in love with the most skilled region in the world, because we were in love with it too. I still watch a bunch of LCK and I still really enjoy it," Mykles says. "It's just that from the perspective from a couple of guys in their 30s, it was really hard to work with Riot as a freelancer."
As Mykles continues, it's clear the scars of the past bring forward a lingering frustration.
"I have never had problems with negotiating with anybody else, ever, in the esports industry, and I've worked with so many independent tournament producers. ... Basically -- [Riot] is horrible. They're horrible to work with in terms of negotiations. There's no other way to put it."
Lonnquist, generally the more non-confrontational of the two, and therefore balancing out Mykles' more direct style, laughs before agreeing. "It's true!"
On this subject, though, even Lonnquist was not interested in sugarcoating his disappointment.
"It was frankly, you know, insulting," he says.
"It was insulting," Mykles affirms.
Lonnquist's expression turns serious, a first for the afternoon. "[Riot's] negotiations were done from the perspective of someone who does not respect what you do, what you have done, as a professional adult trying to make a living ... who really sort of see themselves as a benevolent dictator giving handouts to poor peasants that need it."
"Yeah, that's accurate," Mykles says.
Working on League of Legends was fun with the production team and in-house talent, but the problems on the business side led to not feeling like they were a part of LoL esports.
"It's really difficult to make career decisions around somebody that's not willing to give you any guarantees, or to respect you enough to tell you what's going on," Mykles says, comparing Riot's commitment to communication with Blizzard's. "Blizzard for years now, even when we were casting League primarily, has always been very talkative."
The world could always use more synergy
When asked whether the two would be able to function as a unit most of the time, as opposed to individually rotating with a third or even a fourth person in the booth, both casters were quite confident that would be the case. To achieve true excellence in broadcasting, Mykles says, you need to know the other person's style. The differing personalities of one another, Lonnquist adds, really helps, too.
"I can make fun of him for being a nerd, and he can make fun of me for being pretentious, and we'll just laugh at it, because it's f------ hilarious."MonteCristo
"We have vehement disagreements about movies pretty regularly, you know," Lonnquist says. "We disagree on a lot of things in a very strong way, but we both respect each other's opinions, and enjoy those conversations."
"I don't respect your opinions!" Mykles jokingly interjects, laughing. "It works because neither of us takes it seriously. We can make fun of each other on broadcast in a very friendly way -- I can make fun of him for being a nerd, and he can make fun of me for being pretentious, and we'll just laugh at it, because it's f------ hilarious."
"We both have fairly large egos, but we don't let it stop us from having fun," Lonnquist says.
Having a similar sense of humor and natural comedic chemistry, however, is only one of the things that lead to a top-tier duo cast. Being valuable enough as an individual talent is essential to coming together to form something more than the sum of its parts.
For Lonnquist, the primary strength he brings to a cast is his specific brand of excitement. He wants to cast as if he's on the couch with you, to get excited about the things you get excited about. He wants to be the "avatar of the fan."
"I'm from Minnesota, so I don't want to say anything good about myself, ever, but I think I've done a pretty good job of building that excitement."
For Mykles, his ability to recognize tactical patterns and big-picture strategies form the core of his identity as a caster. In short, he can explain "why teams are doing what they're doing."
Another crucial aspect, the two added, is constantly working to improve -- even if things are going swimmingly.
"[Mykles] knows from casting next to me that I'll rage at myself on cast. I've broken pens in half, throwing them and stuff like that, because I messed up a call during a teamfight. ... I genuinely get very angry. There's always room for improvement," Lonnquist says. "You can't allow yourself to plateau."
Nodding, Mykles jumps in. "You can [always] do an adequate job once you have a certain level of knowledge of the game, but over time, if you're not constantly trying to learn new things, then eventually all of your content ends up sounding sort of the same."
The payload is approaching its destination
For both Mykles and Lonnquist, South Korea has not just been a holy site of esports, but a land of opportunity, and a new home halfway around the world. Then pilgrims, now prophets, they each decide to take a final look back at their years on the peninsula before heading home to spread the good word.
Lonnquist starts, and harkens back to 2011 when he first took the risk to come to South Korea.
"I quit my job, kind of left everything back there. I wasn't in a great place emotionally at that point in my life, either," Lonnquist says. "So I'm very happy and blessed and thankful that I came in that position and I'm leaving in this position. Minnesota aside, I'm very proud of that."
South Korea is really a nice place to live, he says -- the food is great, the public transportation is great, the people are generally friendly and polite, and things are clean except for the air quality. As he now has in-laws on the peninsula as well, Lonnquist is open to the idea of returning again sometime.
"There's a lot to see, a lot to do, a lot to love, and a lot to miss about [South] Korea. I could see myself retiring here someday," Lonnquist says.
Mykles, on the other hand, waited nearly a decade for the chance to move to South Korea.
"I really wanted an opportunity; I started casting in 2004, and never really got to dedicate my time to casting, esports, full-time before," he says. "So I knew what this opportunity meant, coming to Korea. And I really feel like I made the most of it, just working incredibly f------ hard. It was the chance to break out of my old job and really cement myself for a lifelong career in esports."
Being an ambassador of sorts for the South Korean scene, he says, was an honor, a dream come true. "I hope that through our work here in Korea, people have gotten a lot of joy and had a lot of fun, and I hope that it affects them as much as it did me when I first was getting into esports in the mid-2000s," Mykles says.
Leaving the floral backyard with the not quite South Korean, not quite Western, and not quite serious décor, Lonnquist randomly comes up with an upside to living in America again: getting to play his old World of Warcraft characters with decent ping.
"It's been a long time," he says, grinning. "I'm really looking forward to that."