On September 2019, Heo “PawN” Won-seok, a pro gamer that has been in the LoL esports scene for 7 years, suddenly announced his retirement. He has been inactive for the entirety of the 2019 LCK Summer split due to his health issues. Although some may have expected his goodbye, the reason behind it was totally unexpected. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a word that may be unfamiliar to the public, yet it’s the reason why he decided to say his goodbyes to the fans.
I met him quite a bit during matches. During the preparation for his matches, he had all these tools that doesn’t really match those of a pro gamer. For PawN, a ruler was a necessary tool at his matches. I vividly remember him carefully measuring the height of his monitor, the positioning of his keyboard, amongst many other things in his prep for matches. I once thought that it was a normal routine for him, but I was wrong...
“I went on break for a very long time. After the Spring split ended in April, I did nothing but stay home all day. Although I received constant treatment, my condition didn’t get better. I lost confidence in myself, and I didn’t even want to play. And then, I think it was September 29th. I remember feeling very frustrated, and I knew I couldn’t continue. I remember writing my retirement post feeling very angrily, and thought to myself, ‘Why are these things happening to me?’ and was left confused.
“When I wasn’t in China, I didn’t need to use a ruler to prepare for matches. I think things were pretty similar to how other players prepared their gear. Perhaps it was my desire to play better on stage, but my disorder became worse after I returned to Korea. In 2017, symptoms appeared with setting up my monitor, and it was okay when I started using a ruler. It was right around when I won the KeSPA Cup and was full of confidence.”
“I don’t exactly know why, but in 2018, things got really bad to the point where I couldn’t play on stage. Not only did the symptoms for OCD appeared with the monitor, but it also appeared with my chair as well. So I went on break, and when I played from home, I was able to play well again. I got permission to go on break during Worlds in 2018, and after finding various solutions, my symptoms got better. I was able to climb high in the solo queue ladder, and started anew with Kingzone.
“Once my long break ended that I took after 2019 Spring, my symptoms reappeared again. I thought to myself that my break was just very long, and with practice, things started to become better. However, I was faced with a huge problem: the size of the monitors used on stage changed from 24 inches to 25 inches. I had a method of setting up the 24 inch monitor, but it didn’t work with the new ones. I tried to find a way to set up the monitor, but I couldn’t find it. It was a rule, so I didn’t think about making a request.”
“With the new monitors on stage, I felt like I was playing worse than a player in Gold. Nothing worked for me. Whether it was at the practice room or at home, no matter how I tried to set things up, I couldn’t play well. I was very stressed out at how I couldn’t play at my normal level, so I was frustrated, and also faced depression.”
“Whether it was exercising or meeting up with friends, I tried to live like a normal person, but things didn’t get any better. The time I spent at home grew by the day, and I started to gain weight as well.”
PawN was known for his professionalism to the public. Through his personal streams, he was that ‘cool’ player who expressed his pride of being a pro gamer. However, whether it was those characteristics, or his obsession and desire for victory, it all came back to him as OCD. For many professional athletes, jinxes and routines are pretty common. However, they can maliciously grow to become paranoia, obsession, and OCD, and can have a negative impact in their professional careers.
A legend in the Korean basketball scene, Seo Jang-hoon, was more obsessed with victory than any other player. As a public figure who is outspoken about his OCD, he claims that he never had OCD in the beginning of his career. He claims that because of his desire to win was so great, he started to be wary of things outside his matches, and that’s how his OCD developed. Although OCD isn’t necessarily fatal in a professional athlete’s career, for PawN, it proved to be critical in his career.
The desire to win and professionalism were necessary components in creating a great player like PawN. Even until this Spring, his passion for victory was so strong that he was able to stay competitive amongst the tough competition for 7 years. However, those qualities created PawN’s OCD, and it’s very unfortunate to see that the very thing that drove him made him retire. It’s not like someone can say to him, “Please don’t be so obsessed with victory”, can they?
Being a professional athlete brings more mental pain than any other job. Not only do the instantaneous decisions and actions that you take can create the biggest difference in results, the processes and the results are also evaluated in real-time by the public. What’s worse is that in a score card, there’s no middle point. You either win or lose, win the championship or don’t, or it’s a comedy or a tragedy.
“I think my disorder became worse while I was playing in Korea. When I was in China, I couldn’t read all the comments online because I couldn’t read it. I think that the term, ‘Super team’, also put a lot of pressure on me as well. When I was on KT, I was the least famous player on the team, so my desire to play well was that much bigger.”
“With a ruler, I measured the distance between me and the monitor, the height of the monitor, and even the angle of it. I had to adjust the height of the chair, the angle of the back rest to even the arm rest. Whatever that I couldn’t measure with a ruler or a protractor, I had to measure it by feel.
“To be honest, I still really want to play as a pro gamer. If I really could, I really want to fix my OCD and play on stage. That’s why I refused all the offers I received as a coach. However, in my current state, I absolutely cannot play as a pro gamer. If my OCD gets fixed, and I’m able to play as well as I need to be, I’ll start anew. However, if not, I’ll be putting an end to my professional career.”
“I know I can play well if I don’t have OCD, but things aren’t working as I want them to.”
The finale to PawN’s career can seem like a tragedy because he announced his retirement due to his OCD. To be blunt and direct, the ending is a tragedy. However, the word ‘success’ rightfully befits his career. PawN’s professional career is like a play that felicitously combines both joy and despair, and he was the perfect actor for such a play.
From winning 2014 Worlds, 2015 LPL Spring, and 2015 MSI, PawN was the starting member in the rosters that greatly contributed in lifting all those trophies. He also won the 2016 LPL Summer split, and the 2018 LCK Summer split, so not only did he taste victory many times in the fierce and competitive world of esports, he stayed competitive for 7 whole years.
For those who dream of becoming pro gamers, PawN’s career may not seem like the best that they can aim for, but for those that are currently pro gamers, his career is a monumental one. He achieved many great things, and he needs to be the one to tell himself that he did really well.
His teammates must think the same. Behind PawN, there were teammates and coaching staff that all supported him. That’s why he has even more regrets, feels sorry for them, and is frustrated with himself.
“When I transferred to Kingzone, the coaching staff knew why I took time off in 2018. However, I was really high up in the Korean solo queue ladder, and when I told him that I just need time to prepare my gear before matches, they put their faith in me. The coaching staff really went out of their way for me. I always went to matches early to set up my gear, and the psychology coach helped me every single time. Even before scrims, they really helped me a lot in setting up.”
“I felt really sorry that I couldn’t live up to their faith. Not only the coaching staff, but also towards Deft as well. We promised that we’d play together… but I left the team both in 2018 and 2019. The same goes for the rest of my teammates as well. I announced my retirement while drunk on emotions, and I didn’t consult with the team before I did it, so I feel bad for it as well.”
“I learned a lot from Mata. He taught me how to properly play out the laning phase and the overall macro decisions I need to make. I have a lot of people I want to thank, but I especially want to thank Mata. While I was on KT, I was especially met with a lot of criticism from various communities. Back then, I was hurt, and was really stressed out. On KT, I was unofficially the one in charge of receiving all the criticism. I think all teams unofficially have someone like that. However, thanks to Mata, I was able to play better, so I’m grateful. I know he’ll do a great job as a head coach.
“I played with Deft for a long time, and because of him, I never had to worry about my bot lane in my professional career.”
Faker is a figure that can’t be left out in PawN’s story. Ever since PawN’s debut, the narrative wrote him to be Faker’s rival. At the time, he was the absolute, outperforming all his competition. All the mid laners that opposed him shuddered in fear and fell, but not PawN. He was fearless and brave.
They competed against one another for a long time, and the two of them were called ‘The Eternal Rivals’. For the longest time, he was the one challenger that fought for the throne, and the two giants were continued to be compared by the fans. Although he never took Faker’s throne, he gave it his all, and the fans found their joy in their rivalry. PawN may be retiring, but their rivalry storyline will last forever.
“My goal was to be remembered as ‘the GOAT’. I’m confident that I was able to achieve that goal if I continued to play, but I’m sad that I can’t achieve that goal. I told myself that no matter what it took, I need to become the best. I had a dream to leave a career bigger than Faker. Although I may have been nervous at times, I was never afraid of any competition that came my way.”
“When Faker suddenly kept winning all these championships and widened the gap between us, I did once think to myself, ‘This is going to be hard…’ Things looked okay when I won MSI with EDG, but after that tournament, Faker played really well and achieved so much. Although I don’t regret going to China, because I was really happy with my teammates, I once wondered what it would’ve been like if I stayed in Korea.
And just like that, PawN’s professional career came to an end. The end is full of regrets, as many hoped it will be much more flamboyant and positive.
“While the best memory that I have is when I won Worlds by beating Samsung Blue, but I can’t forget about winning the KeSPA Cup. Not only the tournament itself was very fun, it kind of relieved the sadness from not being able to win the championship with KT.”
“I regret every moment that I had to spend to take a break. While every other players are all playing on stage, whether it’s because of my bad back or my OCD, I had to spend my time resting and recovering. My back is still not fully healed, so I have to continue exercising to make it better. Although I resented the world and thought, ‘Why is this only happening to me?’ I I didn’t properly take care of my own body. I didn’t exercise, and loved junk food too much, so in the end, it was all my fault.”
“The decision to retire was a very sudden one. I didn’t even consult with my parents. I told them later on that as long as I had OCD, I couldn’t continue. If I returned as a pro gamer after completely curing my disorder, I knew that I was just going to be a bother to everyone. So now, I’m being especially careful.”
“To my fans, I want to tell them that I’m incredibly sorry. I’ll try my hardest to cure my OCD while I’m on break. If I ever do end up returning, I hope you’ll welcome me back. Thank you.”
Putting aside the abrupt ending to his career, PawN definitely gave it his all in his play. He left us with a story that deserves nothing but a standing ovation. Although he can’t take any encores from his audience at the moment, they would definitely want to see his encore when he’s ready.
Striving for perfection to achieve excellence in esports