Roughly one year ago, DAMWON Gaming relegated bbq Olivers and MVP to be promoted into the 2019 LCK Spring. They were a fresh team that tore up Challengers Korea, and while it was a team full of incredible talent, they also were a team with zero experience in the LCK.
Meanwhile, Coach Kim Jeong-soo (Head Coach at the time) was with IG, and it was the year that he lead the Chinese squad to win the World Championship. When it was announced that Kim will be leaving IG to join DAMWON, people were excited to see how far this man can lead a team of hot-headed rookies, but also worried that this year will be his first year that he’ll be absent from Worlds.
However, with a pencil and a notepad in his hand, he led the rookie squad far beyond anyone’s expectations. DAMWON showed nothing but continued growth over this year’s Spring and Summer season, and eventually punched their ticket to this year’s LoL World Championship. This year is Kim's 4th consecutive year at Worlds: first with Samsung Galaxy in 2016, Longzhu Gaming in 2017, Invictus Gaming in 2018, and DAMWON Gaming in 2019. Coach Kim spoke out on why he moves from team to team every year, how he led DAMWON into Worlds, and how he likes to lead his players into success.
DAMWON will soon fly out to Europe for Worlds. How’s the preparation going?
We’ve had a one week break because of Chuseok, had a couple of interviews and media stuff in the following week, so we’ve realistically had 3 to 4 days of scrims. Since we’re flying out soon, our preparation wasn't anything out of the ordinary.
*Chuseok is a long national holiday in Korea.*
You must feel a little sad because DAMWON is starting from the play-in stages.
I’ve never experienced playing in the play-in stages, so I don’t know if it’s actually a good or a bad thing, but I suspect there’s a bit of both. More matches will mean more stage time and experience, so we’re just trying to think of the situation in a more positive light. Maybe the lack of available scrim time and a chance of burnout for spending so much time overseas will be detrimental.
I personally want to start in the group stages, but the players are simpletons in that regard. Not only do they not have any experience in groups or in play-ins, but they’re simply just happy that they’re going to Worlds.
Are you confident about play-ins?
I think we’re definitely going to get through play-ins. I think quarterfinals will be our first biggest obstacle. If we meet an LCK team in quarterfinals, we’re going to struggle, but if not, we’re confident that we can at least get to the semifinals. Our goal is semis. It’d be even better to make it to the finals (laughter). I think this year’s Worlds is going to be insanely fun. I’m excited to see how far I can lead a team of rookies in the tournament. We’ve prepared a lot for Worlds, so we hope to play without regrets.
For you, this is your 4th Worlds appearance. How do you feel?
For me, going to Worlds via gauntlet is exhausting. This is my first gauntlet in 3 years, and I had a hard time preparing for it. Each year, I kept thinking to myself that I won’t get to go to Worlds, but I somehow made it each year. I feel incredibly happy that I make it to Worlds each time. It’s hard to verbalize that feeling.
Now that you talk about it, you’ve played in the regional qualifiers twice.
Our current players had priority against Kingzone in lane, but they have problems with nerves. I was worried that if they were gonna throw if they couldn’t keep their head in the game. Back in the Samsung days, there were veterans on the team, so I worried a lot less.
After losing two best-of-5s in recent times, people were definitely worried.
I was worried that we were just going to lose without being able to show everything we’ve got. I’ve tried many things to take care of our players’ mentality. I’ve tried baby-ing them, and said stuff like “It’s okay, you’ll do better.” That didn't work, so when it was time for the gauntlet, I told them, in a stern manner, that it’s a do or die situation, and 3 months of scrims will have all been for nothing.
It was the same when they got Baron stolen by Lucian. I’ve told them, in the same manner, that it was an unacceptable mistake, it happened because they lacked concentration, and if they lost focus around the 15-20 min mark, that small window is what decides who gets to go to Worlds.
Well, your efforts have definitely paid off. How did the players react?
It was definitely more effective than baby-ing them for sure. The players actually told me that they prefer to be kept in check in a stern manner. They even made a joke telling me to physically hit them (laughter).
I heard that DAMWON really wanted you to join their roster. Is that true?
When I announced my free agency, there were a lot of offers from domestic and foreign teams. When I met with some of them, DAMWON seemed to want me the most. I’ve known Micro for years before I joined the team, and back then, it was also really important in who I work with.
DAMWON was the only organization that offered me a coaching role, and my salary was the lowest out of all my other offers. However, since I’ve had much success in IG, I wanted to produce good results in a rookie team. I also believed in the potential of the players on DAMWON as well.
Did you join DAMWON knowing you’d make it to Worlds?
Absolutely not. Although I really hoped that this squad would make it, but at the time, DAMWON was not a Worlds team. There are a countless number of teams that are good at solo queue and in scrims, but they can’t even get past the promotion tournament. However, this squad has significantly improved. When we went on a 7-game win streak, that was the first time I thought about going to Worlds.
When you first joined, what was the first thing that you’ve asked the players to do?
I’m a firm believer that fundamentals are the most important. You don’t need anything special to win regional leagues or even Worlds. It’s all about building fundamentals, one block at a time, with no shortcuts. I first expanded the players’ champion pool. I’ve asked them to play certain champions in solo queue, and told them to not worry about LP. With a vast champion pool, players become more confident, and draft suddenly becomes that much easier.
I’ve also taught them how to communicate. Since League is a 5 vs 5 game, even if the macro decision is wrong in certain situations, you avoid the worst by following through as a unit. I’ve focused on such teamplay issues. Also, I’ve built this macro manual with them, which is deciding what to do after pushing tier 1 turrets, and how to play certain team compositions. Our Spring season was us trying to fully build and master that manual.
As a coach, who do you think has improved the most on DAMWON?
Everyone has improved a lot, but I’d say Canyon and BeryL. I’ve talked with Canyon the most out of anyone on the team. We’ve talked about even the most detailed things, such as jungle pathings and when to make certain plays. I’ve also asked him to make riskier plays. I didn’t want to lose while wasting time and doing nothing. If he screwed up a tower dive, we can talk about it, and try again in the next match with a different team comp, but nothing can be solved by just sitting there. He was struggling with pressure from making mistakes, but he’s overcome that.
With BeryL, we’ve talked a lot about shotcalling. BeryL’s gifted at looking at the game in a bigger frame, and he’s a very smart player. However, he had communicative issues. As I mentioned before, it’s important for 5 players to move as a unit. For example, in a certain situation, if the right play is taking Baron, but if the consensus is to push mid, then everyone has to follow through. Except for his selfish communicative issues, he was the perfect player, so as time passed and he fixed his issues, he naturally became the starting support on the team.
What’s the biggest change that the team went through?
Macro. The team’s macro made zero sense at first, but now, it’s a lot better. I’m not talking about avoiding fights as a whole while making certain macro decisions, but actually taking fights and advantages together. Nowadays, players are really good at that. When I saw the players execute what I’ve asked them to do in such a manner, I felt very satisfied. The good results that followed also made me a very happy man.
Just like DAMWON right now, it seems to be a trend that wherever you go, the upper lanes are really strong.
I’ve heard that every year. I’ve always joined teams that already had strong upper laners, and I actually like such teams. During draft, I prefer to invest in the upper lanes and have them carry the game, because such games are the easiest to play out. I think we were able to build such a strong synergy because players were mechanically gifted.
As a coach/head coach in esports, it’s actually odd to be moving from team to team every year. Is there a reason why you switched teams?
I had a different reason each year. I left once because of low salary, and left another time due to difference in values. Once it started happening though, I realized that it’s kind of fun to produce good results in new teams.
In 2017, you were briefly in Dignitas. Did you not like your time in NA?
I was in NA for exactly 38 days. First of all, I couldn’t do anything in NA. I couldn’t even go up on stage for picks and bans. Second, there was a lot of interference from the business side of the organization, and they’ve limited me in what I can and can’t do.
Also, the players didn’t accept feedback very well. For example, when I talked about a lane that lost, the players would say something like, “Well, I didn’t lose lane.” I felt like they were treating the coaching staff like managers. After 4-5 games, they told me to go home, so I came back (laughter). Since I couldn’t do anything, I actually think it turned out for the best.
Can you talk a little bit about your time in Invictus Gaming?
In IG, the players and the coaching staff were equals. It was an environment where everyone freely praised and criticized one another. For example, TheShy would say stuff like “I’ve won because of how you told me to play. You’re pretty good, coach”. Although, between the Korean players and the coaches, they couldn’t fully treat us as equals because of the way the Korean culture is.
Despite IG struggling this year, they’ve made it to Worlds as LPL’s third seed. Were you watching?
I do think they’re struggling. I’m still close with the IG players, and it seems that they’ve gotten worse and are definitely struggling. However, they’re veterans in the scene, so once the tournament starts, I hope they’ll step up. Rookie always messages me and says that DAMWON and IG are one (laughter). When we were losing during the season, they’d be losing too, and when we were winning, they were winning as well. Rookie told me that if DAMWON made it through the gauntlet, they’d win as well, and his words really became reality.
As a coach, if you had to choose a player that you’ve struggled to lead the most, who would it be?
It would definitely be Nuguri. He’s really stubborn, so it was hard to communicate with him. Even if there was something wrong, if he thought it was right, then no amount of words ever got through to him. The issue’s gotten a lot better and he now listens more. Speaking from experience, top laners were always hard to deal with (laughter). Their in-game principles are very clear, and are obsessive about their lane. I think CuVee was also like that.
For example, it’s impossible to just be taking tower plates for the first 14 minutes of the game, but top laners have to take all of them to feel satisfied. Also, when you look at them after winning a match, if they lost lane, they’d look depressed. It was kind of odd. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first, but if people start playing top lane, it changes them. I think it’s because top laners are put on an island, and they have to play the game out on their own.
On the flip side, is there a player that you think you could learn from?
There are exactly two players, and that’s PraY and Rookie. I felt that I could actually learn a lot from PraY, and I was just amazed by Rookie.
Players usually don’t like to admit their own mistakes, because of their pride in their abilities. However, PraY is the type of player that goes “I’ve made mistakes here and there, and I’ve screwed up. I’m sorry”, and tries to look at the situation as a whole. That’s not an easy thing to do. He’s always the one to practice the latest, and tries to lead the younger players. PraY also acts like a coach, so he’s a born leader.
Rookie was similar to PraY. He’s a leader. He also tried his very best to survive in China. He studied the language extensively, and even tried to adjust to the local food. He did whatever was needed to adapt to the LPL. He was also close to perfect in-game.
Whenever players were told to go on vacation, PraY and Rookie would always just watch replays and play solo queue. Who wouldn’t love players like them? For example, last year, Chinese players would practice until 1-2 a.m., but Rookie would always stay up to 5 a.m. practicing. He’s always giving it his best, and I’ve told him, “You’re going to be the best until the day before you retire.”
It was noteworthy to see you mentioning Showmaker in many of your interviews.
I’m always grateful to Showmaker. I even feel bad to the other players that I only talk about Showmaker. I’ve praised him so much that people may even think I favor him over other players. The praise is well deserved because he really is the perfect player. Good personality, mindset, skill, and provides good feedback. I don’t think I’ve ever scolded him since I came to DAMWON, and I don’t think I’ll need to in the future.
You must’ve been disappointed when Showmaker couldn’t play to his full potential.
He needed time to get adjusted to the stage.
What’s the difference between rookies that adjust to the stage right away, as to those that need time to adjust?
It all depends on the players’ abilities, but I believe their personalities play a part in it as well. To be blunt, if a player is selfish, then they won’t have trouble adjusting to the stage. Since they only think about what they need to do to win, they play comfortably on stage. However, I’ve noticed that if a player is selfless and docile, the player tends to get nervous on stage, and thus need stage time to play to their full potential.
To be brutally direct, DAMWON’s weakness was the bot lane, especially Nuclear. Did you find a solution to that weakness?
If I’m being very honest, there’s not much that the coaching staff can do. We can help them with lane matchups, the synergy between the bot duo, and macro/rotations, but in terms of their own abilities, they have to be the one to put in the work. However, the coaching staff never once told Nuclear about such a problem. We know how much work Nuclear puts in, and how well he acts as an older figure in the team.
People say that ADCs have become old and washed up when they hit their mid-20s, but I highly disagree. There are definitely late bloomers, and Nuclear has a chance to fully bloom in this tournament, because he definitely puts in the work. It must be very hard for him, but I’ll continue to support him in any way to overcome his hardships.
How do you think this year’s Worlds will go? Do you think LCK will be able to reclaim its throne?
I really think that LCK will win this year. It might not be as one-sided as before, but I really think LCK is ahead of the other regions. This belief stems from my experience in this year’s LCK and Rift Rivals. G2 Esports is looking very strong, but I can’t say for sure because we’ve never played against them. G2 has never won Worlds, so they don't exactly scare us. I think LCK will win Worlds, and SKT T1’s the closest to taking the throne.
Speaking of SKT, even if they seem to be struggling, they’re right back on top. As a leader, how do you feel about SKT?
I personally think KkOma is a really good coach, and I think he’s just gifted in being a leader. I’ve met SKT in many different occasions, and I think SKT was always in the finals. They’re just that good, and the players have that much experience. I think he’s the best coach in the LoL scene. I can say the same for Faker. With both experience and talent under their belt, they’ve become untouchable.
Over the years that you’ve been on your esports journey, there must’ve been a time where things seemed very hard.
It’s hard every year. Sometimes, I just want to say screw it and leave it all behind. I might not show it, but it’s even the case when we lose games. However, when it’s off-season and I’m on break, it only takes me about 3 weeks to pick myself and keep going. The next thing I know, I’m looking for a new team (laughter).
Lastly, can you say something to the fans and your players about your resolution for Worlds?
I’m fully aware of what the domestic fans want. It’s hard to always meet the fans’ expectations, but it’s our job. We’ll do our best, so please continue to support us. We’ll make sure to put on one hell of a performance.
I want to thank my players for making it all the way here. When I first came to DAMWON, I’ve jokingly asked them if they want an easy-going coach with little to no results, or a stern coach with good results, and at the time, they didn’t care how hard things had to be, as long as they went to Worlds. Those words became a reality.
I don’t want the players to think about results, but to just play the best they can. I want all of us to become more famous, and I hope to make a lot of money through salary negotiations (laughter). But most importantly, I want everyone to have fun at Europe.
Striving for perfection to achieve excellence in esports