When you think of SK Telecom T1, there are many faces that you think of, just like the team’s achievements. There are many who will be remembered for their glorious moments on the Summoner’s Rift, but you absolutely cannot forget the one who puppeteered those greats as the coach and head coach, Kim “kkOma” Jeong-gyun. Recently, he said goodbye to the team that he’s been with for 7 years, and everyone started talking about it.
From a young man who first joined the scene under StarTale, kkOma is already 33 years old. As a hard working member of society, he’s at a crossroads of his life. Compared to his younger days, he himself underwent much change. Not only is he a man with 8 LCK titles, 2 MSI titles, and 3 world championship titles under his name, he grew out his once-short hair, and now about to marry the love of his life.
After hearing the news about kkOma’s departure from T1, I quickly contacted him for an interview. Knowing how I won’t be able to see him less often, I was in a hurry. I wanted to talk to the man that was behind the veils of his incredible achievements. Hoping that I’ll be able to have a deeper conversation with a man that’s always protective of his players in official interviews, I hopped on the subway for the conversation.
“After deciding to go to another team, I joined the FA race very late. I’m working hard to bring in great players to the team. There’s a lot of people that I need to meet, but I don’t have the time to do so. And yes, I’m also preparing for the wedding. Despite my hectic schedule, I’m grateful that Ji-soo (kkOma’s fiancée) has been such a great help. Ji-soo… I was just so focused on my work that I couldn’t do a lot for her.”
After T1’s official announcement, kkOma’s days become very hectic. Not just because of work, but also because of his wedding preparations, he was in a spot where he needed clones to get everything done. Despite being in the situation, he repeatedly expressed his appreciation to his bride-to-be that was very understanding and supportive.
I suddenly became curious of his younger days. Was he a model student, just as how sharp he looked with a notebook during matches? Or was he just a person who purely enjoyed the games, his seemingly quiet private life and image?
“When I was young, I was very optimistic and bright. I think I was a happy kid who looked at everything with optimism. I viewed everything in life as good. When I was a student, I only played games. It was a simpler time where I didn’t know anything about the realities in life, and just played games. Even when I became 20, and after I finished my compulsory military service, the world still looked very bright and I was very happy. I may sound like I’m bragging, but I was the type that had to achieve every single goal set for myself.
In order to achieve my goals, I gave myself a lot of time. For example, during the time that I started streaming, I have never once verbally cursed back then. I knew that if I may be on official broadcasts someday; if I cursed, it can cause problems in the future. I always lived my life like that, by setting long-term goals. Obviously, there were moments where I was stressed out in achieving those goals, but over time, those moments of stress came back to me as moments of accomplishments.”
“There were many fun things that happened. I wanted to do well on the show (‘I am Carry’) that I was asked to be on. I thought that in order to do well on the show, I needed to be good at the game, so I just played League all day. All I did was practice all week except for the days that I needed to go to the studio. Because of it, my rank naturally went up, and I was offered to play top for Azubu Blaze. That was 2012, which is already 7 years ago.
However, I had only played jungle while ranking up to hit high elo. But to be asked top… A player told me, ‘You just need to use The Equalizer well,’ but I wasn’t even confident in doing that. I remember declining the offer because I felt, ‘This isn’t going to end well if I join’. The point of this story is that because I worked really hard after setting a goal, I was offered many opportunities. I really worked harder than anyone else.”
Goals, effort, and the opportunities that follow. I felt that I was already learning something from an interview that had only just started. So, how did kkOma become interested in games in the first place, even before setting such goals? Also, how did he enter the cold-blooded world of pros?
“I started gaming by playing Starcraft 1 in middle school. I was good at the gaming back then as well. Starcraft was just a hobby of mine, but I was still the best in my neighborhood. After that, I played Warcraft 3, and it was so fun that I decided to try going pro. However, my parents at the time didn’t allow me, so I gave on that dream at the time.
After some time had passed, when I was in my early 20s, I was playing and streaming ‘Chaos’, a Warcraft 3 custom map. Even when I was playing Chaos, I was also grinding ranked games on Warcraft 3. Then, when I was 26, I heard that whoever’s on the top of the ladder, maybe around top 100, they would get the beta test codes for Starcraft 2. I was eventually picked as a tester, and despite my old age, in order to pursue my childhood dream, I gave up many things and became a Starcraft 2 pro player. I also remember playing my very last Chaos tournament with Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon back then."
“Starcraft 2 was in its infancy at the time, so I was able to appeal my “work experience” with the number of games I played, and I was very lucky to join a pro team. After that, I practiced a lot of in-game builds, but I was only playing old all-in or cheese builds, so I quit being a Starcraft 2 pro. Then, I heard about LoL, and StarTale proposed me a role so I was able to start a different life as a LoL pro gamer. Despite being so long ago, it all seems like it happened yesterday.”
In the world where 16 year olds start preparing their pro gaming career, kkOma’s career started 10 years too late. However, by setting goals and working towards them, he was able to go on a new adventure. Was he able to treasure memories in his early 20s because of becoming pro at an older age? I knew that many pro gamers spend the prime of their youth practicing, so I asked kkOma if he has any regrets at the time, and any other dreams before becoming a pro.
“Back then, I was so focused that I didn’t even have time for regrets. After some time, I realized that there are things that I can do later on that I missed out back then, so in a way, things worked out for the better. I believe that it’s hard to achieve anything without sacrifice. If you’re working towards a goal, you need to learn to give up on certain things. If I did everything that I wanted to back then, the current me wouldn’t exist. I made my choices.
If you ask me what I wanted to be before gaming... There’s nothing else but wanting to become a pro gamer and win competitions.”
His early to mid 20s seemed more consistent than I thought. Then, in December of 2012, now in his late 20s, kkOma makes a huge decision in his life. He joined SKT T1 as a coach, and with his cautious approach to hand picking the legendary SKT players, he took his first step in becoming the figure that everyone knows and loves.
“At the time, Choi “cCarter” Byeong-hoon contacted me, and told me that Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu was with the team as well. I went to visit the team, and after carefully talking to the management, I joined the team.
When SKT was picking their players, all the testees went through 2 months of tryouts. They all went through rough testing processes, such as mixing the players up, and endless hours of voice comms and spectating. There were a lot of now-famous players that went through that process back then.”
“However, the sole player that joined the team without any tryouts was Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Rather than to say he didn't have any tryouts, testing wasn't necessary, and the sole reason was because he was simply that good. Faker was a cut above the rest, I wanted him to work with him, and he was the one member that the team absolutely needed, so we signed him right away. Even if there weren't any other members in the team yet, I'm grateful that Faker joined right away. After that, in order to fill the team with great players, countless hours of tryouts followed.
After observing Bae “Bang” Jun-sik and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan for a long time, I had a hunch that these two players will do incredibly well. I’m also grateful to both of them for living up to my expectations over a very long period of time.
I want to thank all the players that have been working hard towards nothing but victory. If I were to list the players that I need to thank, it’ll be endless. When Lee “Scout” Ye-chan contacted me for a wedding invitation, I realized that everyone’s keeping up with how I’m doing. Although I was pretty harsh when it came to work, I’m grateful that they contact me after all this time. However, I do get a lot of calls, so things are a bit hard (laughter). There are too many players, so I don’t have the time to meet all of them one by one.”
“Speaking of the bot duo, I want to say something for Wolf. Although I support every single player that was part of SKT, I heard the news of his retirement. I hope that many will support him, who now prepares for the second chapter of his life. Also, to all the SKT players that will eventually announce his retirement, I hope many will be supportive of them as well.”
A man that really values human relationships. As much as he’s grateful, his stern image as a coach is just as big. From the nicknames, ‘kkOma’s whip’ and ‘kkOma’s belt’, he appeared to be very stern in the videos that featured him after games. On the flip side, he’s also appeared to be very friendly with all the players on SKT, even those that left the team. What did he think about the various angles of how he appeared to be?
“Through a video, everything comes off a bit more strong and stimulating. To be honest, I don’t act like how I usually am in front of a camera, because I hope that all the focus would be on the players. I humbly ask to not believe everything that you see in a video.
I feel awkward to say this because it comes off as bragging… but I believe that you can’t always be stern to build trust with the players and have a long-lasting relationship. I believe that I found the right balance between being stern in feedback and caring for them on a personal level. I want to say that I put a lot of effort in caring for the players behind the scenes. It’s really hard to make the players like their head coach, not just in esports, but in all sports.
The nicknames like ‘kkOma’s belt’ aren’t really discouraging. If the team’s underperforming, It’s natural for those nicknames to follow. However, I want to emphasize that I’m not always stern, and that I put in a lot of effort in caring for the players. And no, I never took off my belt (laughter).”
SKT is a team that even the most simplest video can bring forth small to big controversies. What was his reason for sticking with a team that everyone was keeping an eye on? Was it comfort? Perhaps affection? When was kkOma happiest and the toughest moments with the team? Now that he’s left the team, we took some time to take a trip down memory lane.
“Personally, I love staying in one spot for a long period of time (laughter). I was with the team for a long time because… I just loved everything about it. From the fans, management, and the organization, I loved them all. Surprisingly, the money was irrelevant, because I was consistently offered a lot of money from orgs overseas. However, I was able to continue with the team because I loved everything about SKT.”
“To pick the happiest moment… It’s a hard question to answer. I think it was when we reverse swept the finals vs. KT Rolster to win our very first LCK finals. Yes, that was when the famous Zed moment happened. It was my first LCK finals as a coach, and when we lost the first two matches against KT, I really wanted to just go home. Many of the upper management from the team were there, so I was under an immense amount of pressure. The management was so proud of me for leading the team into the finals in my very first year, and with all the fans cheering on… I really just wanted to go hide in a hole. However, after reverse sweeping the series, it was… the most exhilarating and exciting moment ever."
“To pick out the toughest moment… Looking back on it now, there aren’t any. It’s natural for fans to have high expectations, and it was expected of me to live with them. Although there were moments where things felt really tough… were they really? Once they all pass, they’re all good memories.
One thing that I really wanted to say was that I think I did great in 2018. Although the public opinion wasn’t great, we still played in Rift Rivals, went to playoffs, and even played the gauntlet. There were moments that were really tough, but the team and I always tried our best, and over time, those moments are remembered as, ‘Wow, we really tried everything and gave it our all’. Eventually, the fans recognize our efforts. Although we should be criticized for poor performances, every hardship we faced are left as good memories over time. You’ve asked for the toughest moment in my tenure, but I want to say that things were never tough.”
Although he claims that those moments will eventually end up as good memories, the evaluation and the reaction from the poor performances are always cruel. In a tough situation where small changes in emotion can lead to a critical decline in player performance, kkOma must’ve been faced with a great responsibility to provide an environment where players can focus on nothing but the game. I was curious to see how kkOma felt when he voluntarily offered to be the ‘shield’ for the players, and what he had to say to coach Kim Jeong-soo, who will be inheriting his responsibilities as the new head coach for T1.
“The players are always giving it their all in every situation. Despite such efforts, as a person who also holds much responsibility, the criticism that follows bad performance is only natural. I just want to help the players that are working their hardest to focus on nothing else but the game. That’s how I’m giving it my all. Our goal is not to entertain, but to fight the battles that determine wins and losses. That’s why I have such responsibilities, and I feel that the blame falls on me for all the team’s losses. I was sad to see people trying to figure out whose fault it was for our loss in the semifinals at this year’s Worlds, because I know the players gave it their all.”
“I have nothing but respect for coach Kim. I know the role better than anybody else, so I want to give him my full support. He’s really good at his job, so there isn’t much to say to him. Also, when it comes to the game, and even outside prospects of the game, coach Kim knows exactly what he has to do, so I want to tell the fans to have faith and support him. He’s a head coach that’s so perfect, I don’t need to say anything to him, and in time, I know that he’ll do well.”
Towards coach Kim, kkOma wished nothing but the best. However, it must have not been easy for him to leave a team that he was in for 7 whole years. How did he feel about making such a hard decision? And what was the final message he wanted to send to T1?
“After the announcement of my contract expiring, there were a lot of reactions… but most of them were telling me that I did great work. I even cried alone, because I was with the team for a long time, interacted with fans for so long, and became very close with the management that’s been through a lot as well. I became more sad when I thought about the fans that must’ve gotten sad from my decision. I read through different reactions at night, and ended up crying a lot. Up until now, I cried when many of the SKT players went on to play in different teams, but this time, I was in tears from the fans’ reactions.”
“I want to tell everyone at T1 that I’m really sorry for choosing to leave the team. To the trainees, the former players, management, the coaching staff, and all the players that are choosing to stay, I want to tell them I’m sorry and that I’ll always be rooting for them.”
Looking at kkOma, who seemed to be very apologetic in his voice and gaze, I decided to change the topic a little bit. As a man getting ready to get married before joining a new team as head coach, who was the man that was gifted with the qualities of a leader, and which virtues of a leader does he value?
“Wedding preparations? (Laughter) I’ll just say that they’re going well, and that I want to thank my family and Ji-soo for helping me with so much.
On what kind of a man I am… I think that I’m the type of man that women would dislike. I’m a workaholic. If I can clone myself, I could split the responsibilities… but it’s hard to provide equal input in both family and work. Since I’m more inclined towards work… I think that women will find me very hard to deal with. That’s why I feel very sorry for Ji-soo.”
“In the end, I believe that the most important values of a leader are results. It’s easy to explain all the important values of a leader, but in the end, results are what really matters. Even if a person is blessed with much leadership, it doesn’t matter unless proven with results. And with results, I believe that showing growth in a team that you’re responsible for is the most important. Being able to build a team that can become better is an important virtue.
As the interview came close to its end, I wanted to ask about his future further down the road. As a person who treasures those tough moments dear to his heart, what kind of life will kkOma live after he lays rest to his nickname?
“How satisfied am I with my achievements? I always gave it my all, so although I don’t have any past regrets, there’s just no way I can never achieve everything in the competitive world of the pros, where everyone’s working so hard. There definitely were tough moments, but I think I did well so far. I tried my best to fix my mistakes, so up to this point, I think I did well on a personal level. Down the road, I just want to be remembered as a head coach that can be trusted and works hard.”
“After I become much older and when I eventually leave the scene, I want to become a university professor. Even though I taught many as a coach and a head coach, I still want to teach kids. I want to work hard in teaching the kids what I know, and want to become the person that can be of help to another by being able to point out areas of improvement. I received so much from the fans, so I want to be a person that can give back.”
After much talks about the past and the future, the sun was starting to settle outside. The questions seemed too simple to bottle everything about his dramatic and objective-driven life, and the time I had with him seemed too short. An interview with him was rare to begin with, but knowing that such a time will become even more rare in the future, I requested for his final words that are even more honest than usual and without regrets, for this interview.
“First, I believe that I am where I am because of all the fans, so I want to give them my wholehearted thanks. I’m really scared to meet a lot of people, but despite my fears, I want to thank those that have been by my side and listened to me. Park “Reach” Jung-suk, caster Kim Dong-jun, caster Seong Seung Heon, and Son “Kezman” Dae-young were those that were there to listen to what I had to say and dealt with my baby-like complaints, so I especially want to extend my gratitude to those four people.
I want to thank the foreign fans as well. One thing I do feel bad about is that because of my limited English, I wasn’t directly able to directly communicate with them. Whether they’re from Korea or from overseas, in the end, I believe that they’re all fans, so that’s why I want to thank all the fans overseas for their support, as they are a great source of motivation. Also, my life as a married man is just on the horizon. Through thick and thin, I thank Ji-soo for always believing in me, and I hope that she will continue to put her faith in me. To my family and my in-laws, thank you for putting your trust in someone like me.”
“Lastly, there is one thing that I want to tell the fans. If I had more time, I wanted to tell you this through a lecture, but it’s something that I couldn’t do so. These next words are for all those in elementary school, to those that are just starting to be a part of our society.
We live in a world where we’re always competing with one another. Although it’d be great for everyone to enjoy themselves and not be stressed out, the reality of the situation is that it’s impossible to do so. You may think that I’m in a spot in esports that everyone envies, but I was stressed out to the point where I started avoiding people, and had to deal with a lot. Despite all that, I absolutely loved watching the fans smile from watching our games, I focused on nothing but work, and always gave it my all.
If you have a dream or a goal, I hope that you’ll invest your time, fight through the stress, and experience growth from your journey. If you want to achieve something, you have to put up with more and work harder. Apart from expressing my gratitude, I wanted to say something that will help all those that live in this competitive world. I’m glad that I had the chance to say all this, as it’s something that I wanted to tell all the fans one day.”
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