HLE Head Coach Kang on His Relationship with His Former Players, the Future of HLE, and His Coaching Philosophy

The interaction of two or more forces to make something greater; that's the definition of 'synergy' in a nutshell. It's easier said than done. Teamwork needs to be present, and the individuals need to learn to yield and put his or her ego aside. That's when synergy is truly formed. 

Hanwha Life Esports' head coach Hyun-jong Kang went through a large rebuilding process in preparation for the 2019 LCK season. We witnessed a side to Kang that we haven't seen before. Kang, along with the rest of the HLE staff, took part in signing SoHwan, Thal, Moojin, Bono, and Tempt. The signed players were far from S-tier. When the FA market opened its doors in 2018, many prestigious players entered the market. However, Kang didn't bat an eye. 

Following this big decision, Kang sincerely wished the best for his former players, while at the same time, setting up new plans for his new players. What Kang focused on for 2019 was 'synergy'. 

Let's begin by talking about the 2018 LCK Summer Split. You weren't able to qualify for the playoffs. 

It was very unfortunate. In truth, we tripped and fell hard near the end. During the summer, patches were much more dynamic. I believe that the players were worn out by it. In order to keep up with the changes, I drastically increased the practice time. Some players were able to follow, while some struggled to keep up. That was a mistake in my part [for having pushed them like that]. 

We were 10-8 in the regular season. Realistically speaking, it wouldn't have been odd if we had qualified for the playoffs with that score. However, during the summer, every LCK team had drastically improved. It wasn't just us that had seen a major upgrade. For two splits in a row, we regretfully failed to reach the playoffs. I often spoke about this to my players as well. "Had we won one more series; no, one more game!"

It was very unfortunate. 

After losing to kt Rolster, HLE was locked for 6th place. 

KT was more motivated than us.

We had won our previous match before facing KT. I think we carried a complacent mindset. "It's just one more game, what are the chances that we'll lose it," we thought. KT had a number of players that had already experienced playing at the Finals. They probably had a strong thirst to experience it again. 

We played our match against KT with our playoffs ticket on the line. As for KT, they played with their ticket to the LCK Finals and moreover, a guaranteed passage to the World Championship on the line. My players didn't know the hardships of having to play in the regional qualifier, the playoffs, and/or the Finals. I'm not taking anything away from their hard work; they did well despite not having experienced the big stage. I'm simply stating that there are definite differences between those who have experienced something and those who didn't. 

After that regretful split, you said farewell to a lot of players that you have grown fond of. 

After the split, I was extremely busy with HLE's projects, such as 'HLE Global Challenge'. Despite the busy schedule, however, I constantly thought about the players. Lindarang and SeongHwan had been under me for more than three years. I personally felt, "instead of spending another year with me, it may be better for their career to experience playing in a different environment." Including the staff, I shared countless conversations with the players before making that decision.

The two players you mentioned, Lindarang and SeongHwan, are two players that you scouted yourself before fostering them into the players they are today. How did they react when their contracts expired?

I was flooded with all kinds of emotions. However, I tried my best to hide them. We said our goodbyes lightheartedly. I've been in this industry for a while now. I've had my farewells with numerous players; my heart aches every time I have to let someone go. However, I saw this as a good opportunity for them to further grow as a player. "Let's all gather one day for lunch," we said.  

Do you think the two will do well in a new team?

Honestly speaking, the two players didn't exactly have the best start. They have been criticized by fans all throughout their career. As rookie players, that kind of treatment from fans can either become a tool for motivation or become a scar that'll last a long time. I actually told Lindarang that it might be better for him to accept an offer from an overseas team. The fan culture from other leagues greatly differs from the one here in Korea; I felt that he could be more confident with his plays. They began their career with me; I felt that they could mature more if they learn to adapt to a new team in a new environment. 

I bet the time you spent with the two players reminded you of the Frost-Blaze era. 

By a lot, actually. Maybe it's my personality, but when I become close with a player, that fondness lasts a long time. The first time meeting them, the happy memories that we shared, and the hardships that we experienced together; I remember them all. 

Now, it's safe to say that Lava is the only remaining true disciple of yours. 

I know that Lava is capable of more. He definitely has potential, but his weaknesses are very clear. I speak with him -- a lot -- during feedback. He's still young, and I think that's why it takes a while for him to fully understand the given feedback. When he does come to fully understand the feedback given to him, he immediately applies it to his plays on stage. 

You have signed four new players. What was on your mind when picking up these players?

This new roster may not be a 'super' team, but it is a team built in terms of bringing out synergy. All of these players have something in common: they are players that were great but were missing something. These are players with potential; players that can do better. 

The plan to pick up these players were rushed. And in truth, I had even thought about diving into the bustling FA market to compete with the other organizations to pick up big name players. Then, I reminded myself of the HLE team atmosphere. "Spend time and mature. Together." I'm a person that prefers to start small, slowly adding on to it. I might have a change of mind when the Spring split begins though. (Laughs) 

I meet a lot of players not only through the stage but through scrims as well. There are a lot of players that perform well in scrims, but fail to do the same on stage. After seeing these players, I got the urge to work with them -- and that's the HLE's current roster. I didn't pick them up just because they were available; I had kept my eyes on them for a long time. You could say that these players were only formidable against HLE, but being strong against one means they could eventually be strong against another.

Tempt was the biggest case, and Bono shares a similar story. The coaching staff of a team not only keep their eyes on their own players, but they carefully inspect the opponents as well. In addition, by watching solo queue VODs, you can somewhat see how their teamwork is, too. You could say that the current HLE's roster formed through that process. 

I've felt this for a long time, but I think players who experience relegations become a different man. A good example is Bdd and Kiin. Playing in the LCK again; their mentality and attitude towards playing in the LCK completely changed. In a way, our roster for 2019 may not be as exciting for the fans, but I want to construct a team with a fine-tuned, strong internal stability.

Are the new players adapting well to HLE's team environment?

It's been about a week since they've joined. I'm a head coach that puts a strong emphasis on teamwork. So I'm currently leaving them alone, giving them time to talk and hang out. They have already been to the movie theatre and public bathhouses together. The previous HLE players had created this team culture. The new players were a bit surprised seeing how we operate, some of them even said that they have never seen this kind of environment in a team before. I personally believe that life in the gaming teamhouse should be fun. I believe that if the players bond through this method, they will be able to synergize well on stage. 

Woong has joined HLE as a coach for 2019. Like HLE's previous coach, Emperor, you hired yet another one of your old disciples as coach. 

Both my company [HLE] and I put importance on a player's welfare once he retires from professional play. I spend nearly 24 hours a day with my players, and I think about their future from time to time. For example, SeongHwan and Sangyoon, I think about what would be the best for them after retirement. 

The biggest reason for hiring Woong was Riot's unpredictable patches. Riot is pushing the game in a direction in which it requires creative picks and bans to succeed. The "best team composition" no longer exists. In regards to this, the first person to come to mind was Woong. He's been getting along with the players and coach Ho. Although he's still lacking a lot of qualities, we're doing our best to correct his flaws.

Coach Jin-seok Ho never really stood out during his time in the team. 

Coach Ho is currently coaching our secondary team. (HLE's academy-equivalent team) When CoreJJ used to play for Bigfile Miracle as ADC back in the day, coach Ho played as his support. His summoner name was 'LinLan'. During my last few moments in CJ Entus, I tested him to potentially hire him. But unfortunately, we went our separate paths. When coach Ho finished his military service and tried out for ROX Tigers, I felt that he'd be better as a coach. 

He's a very hard worker. Although he isn't high speed (Laughs), he finishes the assignments he's given, even if he has to stay up all night to do so. Since he transitioned from player to coach, I'm sure there were plenty of difficulties that he needed to overcome. 

My expectations for the coaches are just as big as my expectations are for the players. At first, I didn't think I'd get along too well with Woong. But to my surprise, we work really well together. We're always by each other's side; it's almost like we're lovers! Since Woong just recently joined, he's learning a lot about the players through coach Ho. 

And for HLE's Global Challenge, Woong and I had gone to Vietnam together. I was very surprised at how famous Ho was there. With a bit of exaggeration, he was just as famous as Faker. Without any exaggeration, he was more famous than our players. I poke fun at him from time to time -- that I'll send him to a Vietnamese team if he doesn't do his work. (Laughs) We stayed in Vietnam for 14 nights and 15 days. But as if he was absorbing the fans' positive energy, Ho didn't seem like he was tired at all. He said he was surprised and thankful for all the love he received, a type of love that he didn't get a chance to receive when he was a player. 

His coaching ability saw a lot of improvement during his stay in Vietnam. After spectating and coaching amateur Vietnamese players' games, he was able to pinpoint the issues. He became more professional with his coaching duties. If his mentality at first was to 'not lag behind', he's now become an essential, core member of the team. I discovered a 'different' side to coach Ho in Vietnam. 

▲ Vietnamese fans' love for coach Ho

Let's change the subject a little bit. In the HLE hosted event, 'Flame Concert', you did a presentation on esports and jobs relating to it. 

I haven't done a lot of speeches or presentations before, so I did a lot of preparing. A lot of my acquaintances said that most people would just be curious about the simplest things. The presentation was about how I became a head coach for an esports team and what my daily life looks like. 

A lot of people believe that you need to be good at video games to work in the esports scene. 

To begin, I'm not a former professional player. I believed that I can make good use of what I'm good at within the esports industry. For example, this is something I said in the presentation, but if you are working at a real estate, you can make good use of your particular skill and knowledge to find work regarding foreign teams coming to Korea for bootcamp. If you enjoy writing, you can work as an esports journalist. If you like photography, you can become an esports photographer.

As the industry grows bigger and bigger, a lot more career opportunities will present itself. A lot of people asked me what they need to do in order to become a coach. I wasn't able to give a clear answer, as coaching is something that requires specific, special skills. Someone also asked me that he wants to work in the esports scene, but he's majored electrical engineering. After thinking for a while, I recommended him to work at the studios. I think it's very important to try and take the first step.

As an organization, Hanwha Life seems to frequently host events where they communicate with their esports fans. As the team's leader, does this cause any difficulties on your part?

In truth, the organization both thanks and apologizes to us. I always tell my players, "if there are no fans, there are no players." As a professional, you need to provide fan-service. 

Let's think about this the other way. Although we are busy with the LCK, traditional sports teams are devoting just as much time to their fans as well. It's not too difficult. A lot of these events are held during the offseason, and the organization is doing their best to minimize hosting events when a split is ongoing. The events Hanwha Life has been hosting were big but short, so I like it. (Laughs) 

There's a little story regarding the HLE 'Flame Concert'. During the event, a K-pop girl band, 'Goo-Goo-Dan' was invited. Lava really wanted to go, so I told him if he hits 800LP in solo queue, I'll allow him to go. He came back two days later with 800LP. (Laughs) He couldn't even shake their hands during the event. As unfortunate as it was for him, I told him to join his teammates during the fan meetings. 

Our players will most likely be unfamiliar with the fan-service culture. It's because they haven't played in a Finals or have reached a significant milestone in their career yet. They might grow tired of it eventually, but at the moment, they're really amazed by it and are having fun. 

Is there anything you want to say to the new players of HLE?

I told my players today, "you don't get a lot of opportunities as a pro. I'm sure there were things that you enjoyed, and things that you didn't in your previous teams. Everything depends on your mentality; how you approach what you come across. I'm hoping that you are able to mix the good and the bad and find the balance in things. Don't forget your 2018 performance, with that in mind, build a suitable nest here, and become a part of the family."

Please share a word for Sangyoon, Lava, and Key as well.

Sangyoon and Key are two players that I talked with the most, and they're also the two players that impressed me the most. I heard from other players that most bot lane duos don't usually play together during their time in solo queue. But Sangyoon and Key almost always play together. They have spent a long time together, but instead of getting sick of each other, 9 out of 10 times, they queue together. Sometimes, they even wait for their partner to log in before logging in themselves. I'm sure that these efforts will fruit great results once the split begins. 

As for Lava, he's gotten himself a rival now. He's done us good, but I want him to do better and become a mid laner that can reliably qualify for the playoffs. In addition, Lava is no longer a 'rookie'. I want him to get rid of that 'rookie' title and develop into an important mid laner here in the LCK.

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