SHANGHAI -- It's difficult to talk about esports without mentioning South Korea before too long. Since StarCraft: Brood War created the competitive video gaming boom in the country almost two decades ago, the country has produced some of the finest players and organizations across multiple gaming titles, with dedicated gaming channels on cable like OGN broadcasting professional matches to the next generation of esports talent.
Phillip Hyun, the vice-chairman of KSV Esports, wants to create the next great chapter in South Korean esports. The start of this journey will begin in the heart of the country, where KSV's Overwatch League franchise, the Seoul Dynasty will hope to uphold and continue the winning tradition of past esports champions from the capital city. The only South Korean city to be accepted as a franchise in the inaugural season of the Overwatch League, Dynasty knows what is expected of it -- and dressed in a sharp black, gold, and white, Hyun and the team are ready to make their own history.
"We know they're high expectations," said Hyun. "We want to be winners, but we want to be great winners. There are teams that sort of exemplifiy what it means to be great champions, and I think that's what we want to do. We want to show that we don't only know how to win, we know how to win together."
The roster's core is made up of the most decorated South Korean Overwatch team through the first two years of the game's history, Lunatic-Hai, who won back-to-back OGN APEX championships before falling to eventual champion GC Busan this most recent season in its bid for a three-peat. A team famous for its frontline tanks and crafty supports, Lunatic-Hai's main weakness, its DPS lineup and its rigid play style, has been given a makeover moving over to the Dynasty franchise. The additions of Kim "Fleta" Byung-sun, the former tortured ace of APEX bottom-feeder Flash Lux, and Byeon "Munchkin" Sang-beom give the Dynasty an offensive edge that even the championship Lunatic-Hai teams of the past lacked.
Along with the Lunatic-Hai players, the Dynasty will also bring along the strongest part of the APEX-winning organization: its fan base. Far and away the most supported team in South Korea for Overwatch, and even matching or surpassing the biggest teams in League of Legends, the Lunatic-Hai fan base lives and dies with its players, through thick and thin. On the South Korean website Naver, Hyun mentioned that the Lunatic-Hai fan club has over 20,000 members and that you need to actually apply to become a member, even going as far as needing to pass a test to get accepted.
"The test questions actually aren't that easy," said Hyun. "It's legit. When we saw that, it was great. There is a really big fan base and have high expectations for the players. They know them really well, and at the same time, it really makes a great starting point to building a good fan base for us, the team, the players and the city. But yeah, they're the most loyal and passionate fan base you can find anywhere else."
Hyun and Dynasty CEO Kevin Chou know the importance of presentation and branding in South Korea. Throughout its history, esports in South Korea has been the benchmark of production value for all other countries to follow, from its colorful intro videos to its characterization of players and overall presentation. That engagement has nurtured bonds between the fans and the players. Knowing this, the Dynasty set out to create a brand that old and new fans alike could be proud of.
"We wanted it to be locally relevant and a good match for Korea [and] Seoul," said Hyun. "We absolutely did not want this to be a foreignized, foreign-made type of branding. Everything from working with fan groups in the local community to even hiring our own local agency in Korea to work alongside the agency with Blizzard, and so we really wanted to make sure that we did this right to represent the country."
While "Dynasty" is the team name, the logo itself and the mascot of the team, the tiger, is a sacred animal in South Korean culture. From top to bottom, Hyun and the rest of the Dynasty management made sure that although the team will be playing exclusively in Los Angeles for the first year of the Overwatch League before returning to Seoul for later seasons, the fans at home know they're not being forgotten during the team's excursion.
"It's absolutely in the forefront of our minds," Hyun said. "We're actively looking at a lot of different things for how we can keep them engaged. There is a lot of stuff we're going to announce in the local market and investments we're going to make to keep the fans engaged and be able to not only watch the games but get together. That's an important part of the experience -- all the other fans seeing the [opposing] fans in one place. So we're definitely going to be making a concerted effort to ensure that fan base is still highly engaged."
South Korea might be seen at the forefront of the esports phenomenon globally, especially with the country's success in the most popular esport at this time, League of Legends, but in reality, it's been a long time since a new, major organization moved into the space with actual financial backing to stand up to the established pillars like SK Telecom T1, Samsung Galaxy and KT Rolster. ROX Tigers and Longzhu Gaming have had top results in recent years, and yet both organizations have been shown to not have the funds necessary to contend in the long run with an SKT or Samsung.
KSV and Dynasty want to change that. After being accepted to the Overwatch League, the South Korean-American company acquired one of the best Heroes of the Storm teams in the world, MVP Black, and its sister team in MVP Miracle. KSV has its sights on Overwatch League glory and expanding the fan base of the game as a whole in South Korea, but its end goal seems to be something grander than physical hardware. KSV could be the first Korean organization in over a decade to shake up the status quo of competitive gaming in the country, and with an Overwatch franchise and Heroes of the Storm pair already in possession, there's an obvious question to be asked:
Is League of Legends next?
"We love what Riot does," Hyun said. "I'm very familiar with League of Legends as well. I think both of us think that if not the premier league, [it's the] one everyone is following at this point. So yeah, we're definitely interested. I think what's happening in the esports system -- more of the landscape and all the changes happening with the franchising model, are things that have to be considered in a way, but absolutely, we think we would be good partners with Riot and the LCK or in the League of Legends ecosystem. So we're definitely looking at the right time to get into that."