From the outside, Sushion looks like just another mom-and-pop sushi bar, a common establishment in South Korean commuter towns. The fascia's four different fonts, the canopy's clashingly intense red and the two upright signboards' dated design form a weird homely jumble. The impression is that of affordable price and pedestrian flavor. Nothing indicates that this is one of League Champion Korea's prime hangout spots.
But the shop's second identity becomes apparent once I step inside. As soon as I walk through the door, signed posters of Lee "Faker" Sang-Hyeok (Spring 2017), Longzhu Gaming (Spring 2017) and the ROX Tigers (Summer 2016) greet me, affixed to the first wall I see. There's also a piece of Jhin-themed fan art for Kim "PraY" Jong-In that was once caught on broadcast. Above the counter's POS machine, there are even more signatures from Faker, PraY and Kang "GorillA" Beom-Hyun, petalled by polaroid photographs of themselves and their teammates (Bae "Bang" Jun-Sik and Han "Peanut" Wang-Ho). The sushi menu is barely noticeable amidst the cornucopia of memorabilia; it almost appears to be another LCK poster.
When I step further inside and turn around to face the shop's rear wall, it's covered -- from top to bottom, from left to right with laminated signatures from past and present LCK players. Most of the names are still active in the league, but some have transferred overseas or suffered relegation since, and a few have retired to streaming, casting or cryptocurrency trading. A number of signs feature sushi recommendations (Lee "Kuro" Seo-Haeng vouches for the tamago; Gwak "Bdd" Bo-Seong, the salmon; Lee "Wolf" Jae-Wan, the unagi), while others contain competitive resolutions (Um "UmTi" Seong-Hyeon wants to qualify for Worlds). All of them are dated between 2016 and 2018. Seen in whole, the panorama feels less like a stack of endorsements and more like a contemporaneous memorial wall, a landscape snapshot in time.
I hear someone coming out from the kitchen in the back.
"You must be the reporter," says a gruff but gentle voice. "Any allergies? Do you eat shrimp?"
Owner-chef Jo Han-Seok is peering at me from behind the bar, sipping from a stained white Bdd mug.
"That wall's more expensive than it looks, you know," Mr. Jo says, chuckling gently as he starts to prepare my sushi. "So much double-sided tape." He estimates he spent a couple hundred dollars on tape.
Mr. Jo, 50, has been operating Sushion on the outskirts of East Ilsan since January 2016. Becoming a sushi chef came late in his life; in the 2000s, he used to run his own business supplying dental gold to orthodontists. But then the Great Recession shot gold prices into the stratosphere, and he was forced to scramble for a new profession. He always had a soft interest in sushi, so he went into apprenticeship at a famous sushi restaurant in Seoul to learn the trade. For a number of years, he slaved through 18-hour workdays for meager pay, suffering near-debilitating leg cramps every night, holding onto his dream of opening his own sushi bar someday. He is still taking medication for the pain he developed back then.
One of his few diversions during that time of his life was keeping up with his favorite Korean baseball team, the Hanwha Eagles. Little did he know that he would soon discover another league to enjoy.
Mr. Jo's encounter with League of Legends was by pure geographical serendipity. Ilsan is the home to a great number of esports teams, and Sushion happened to be located not too far from the former ROX team house -- close enough that, when the store began construction, the Tigers took notice and agreed to check out the new place when it opened. One night after scrims, they did, and fell in love with Mr. Jo's sushi right away. The team became regulars, with GorillA in particular becoming an ardent ambassador. He recommended Sushion to viewers on his personal stream, invited other nearby teams to the restaurant (making regulars out of them as well), and suggested that hanging up player signatures would help business (it did). Thanks to GorillA's efforts, the tiny bar gradually became a comfort food location for players, and a site of pilgrimage for those in the know.
Over the years, fans have visited Sushion from all over South Korea, and sometimes even from outside the country; travelers from China, Taiwan and America pass through every once in a while. Some come with photos and stickers of their favorite players, which Mr. Jo will happily attach to the respective signatures. Others just come for the delicious and reasonably priced sushi.
My sushi is ready. Mr. Jo places the geta on the bar.
He tells me that the sushi should be picked up delicately; I am to slide in my chopsticks at a near-horizontal angle at tray level. It's because he uses unusually warm rice and a deliberately weak grip for his sushi. The technique maximizes the pockets of air between individual grains, which makes the shari crumble into a savory granular velvet as soon as it's placed on the tongue. So the idea is to carefully lift the whole thing up from beneath; otherwise it could collapse.
Following his instructions, I pick up a slice of gari and use it like a small paintbrush, applying a thin lick of soy sauce to the engawa. Then I gently raise it up towards my mouth.
...preach, GorillA. Preach.
When the ROX Tigers first visited Sushion, Mr. Jo had no idea who they were. He soon learned that they were a professional League of Legends team, but that didn't really register in a meaningful way; it wasn't as if he had ever played the game or followed its scene. Still, wanting to better connect with his new regulars, he looked them up on the internet, discovered their celebrity, and found it intriguing. When he tried to watch one of their matches, however, he found himself utterly lost. He couldn't make anything out.
"I didn't know what was going on," he recalls. "Not a single thing."
Mr. Jo might have dropped his budding interest in esports then and there, figuring that video games weren't for him. But his regulars were such an endearing bunch -- the team and Mr. Jo were quickly becoming good friends -- and GorillA's efforts were starting to give Sushion's business a noticeable boost, so he felt compelled to try harder.
He decided to give the esports thing another go, devoting much of his spare time to learning as much as he could about League of Legends and the LCK. After some effort, things started clicking together. He slowly became able to follow what was happening on screen and understand what the casters were so excited about. Soon enough, he was fully engrossed. It wasn't only because it was heartwarming to see his lovable customers perform well on TV; League was just so damn fun to follow. His interest in the LCK eventually surpassed his interest in the KBO -- when they're on at the same time, he always watches the former now. He says this with a playful smile, as if he still can't believe it himself.
"Haven't been able to go watch a match live yet," Mr. Jo says with a tinge of regret. "Too busy running the place. But I watch all the games, every single one -- I put them on when I'm working. I watch Challengers games too, since Challengers players come here as well."
Mr. Jo sincerely cares about each and every player who has paid him a visit. The love is often reciprocal; most players enjoy the friendship of a fatherly figure who understands what a life of professional gaming entails, and can offer advice and encouragement as a true fan. Hong "Madlife" Min-Gi once made a three-hour journey to Ilsan just to catch up with Mr. Jo. Kwon "Sangyoon" Sang-Yoon used to have pre-game meals at Sushion for good luck. GorillA is now considered a close family friend. And many ex-LCK players playing in leagues abroad make sure to dine at Sushion when they come home for the offseason.
Apart from new friends, better business and an exciting pastime, esports has also given Mr. Jo a new outlook on how he should raise his two kids, a son in 9th grade and a daughter in 7th grade. Prior to meeting and befriending LCK players, he hoped his children would study hard and do well in school and overall lead traditionally desirable lives. But now he wouldn't mind them following their passion, whatever that might be. If one of them wanted to become a professional gamer, he says, he would go out and buy them a brand new high-end computer and support their dream wholeheartedly.
"I used to have some vague prejudices," Mr. Jo muses. "Learning about esports helped me lose them."
By the time I finish my meal, it's well past the end of the lunch shift; our conversation had run long. Mr. Jo had mentioned needing to close shop to prepare for the dinner shift, so I decide to leave quickly. He beams when I tell him the sushi was fantastic, and tells me to come again the next time I'm in Ilsan. I know I will.
Heading home on the subway, I receive a text message from Mr. Jo.
"I forgot to mention something," he wrote. "I'd love to make some sushi for the foreign players who'll be coming over this year for Worlds."