Baek "Kranich" Hak-jun has been in competitive Hearthstone for forever. A veteran of three World Championships (2014, 2015, and 2017) and a career that spans back seven years, Kranich has seen and played it all.
In April, the Korean signed with arguably the most prestigious organization in esports — the storied T1. Inven Global caught up with Kranich shortly after the signing about what kept him in the game for so long and the time esports almost cost him his prestigious education.
It’s been about a month since you joined T1. How has your life been? [Interview was conducted in early May — Ed.]
My daily life is pretty much the same, but my stream viewership has grown a lot. I am not sure if this is because I joined T1 or because the new Hearthstone expansion is out — it’s probably both. Although I did not have many chances to interact with my team due to COVID-19 issues, the team supported me a lot. I like how they care about me a lot.
The most important change is that people started to focus on me. Of course, the fact that I joined the team is great news for me personally. However, I think the more important point is that a Hearthstone streamer joined T1. A lot of people were thinking that Hearthstone is in a downtrend and going to be dead soon, if not dead already. T1 signing a Hearthstone player implies that the game is not dead. For both reasons, the Hearthstone scene seems to focus on me.
"Due to my top-end performance in Starcraft 2, my GPA ended up at the very low end. Right as my life as a student in KAIST was in danger, Hearthstone was released."
Great to hear that you are doing well. How did you get in touch with T1 before you joined the team?
T1 contacted me first when they were recruiting new streamers and content creators. After discussing the directions and goals of the team, I thought that they matched well with my own, so I decided to join T1.
T1 originally had three players under the competitive Hearthstone roster. However, the team announced you as a “Hearthstone streamer”. What is the reason, and are there any differences?
I’d like to answer that question in two different parts.
Firstly, I don’t think there are any differences between “professional players” and “streamers” for Hearthstone. Hearthstone streamers can play competitive tournaments and competitive players can also stream Hearthstone. In Hearthstone especially, streaming is very important for the competitive players. When T1 contacted me to recruit me as a Hearthstone streamer, I honestly did not care about the job title.
Secondly, after I joined T1, people often asked me if I am not allowed to represent T1 in tournaments because I signed with the team as a streamer, not a competitive player. There is no problem representing T1 in competitive events. In fact, T1 said that they would be very thankful if I represent them. They are paying me specifically to stream as a T1 member, but if I also represent T1 in the competitive events, it would be more beneficial for the team. It’s just a matter of job title.
Overall, what are your thoughts on T1 as a team?
I notable difference between T1 and other esports teams is that T1 prefers specialists with top performances over simple viewership numbers. T1 recruits streamers who are top performers in less popular games over other streamers who may have higher viewership but not the best skills for a game. T1 teammates like Korpick, Bebe872, and Sejun are great examples of the best players in a game with a middle-sized scene.
I like the way T1 is building its brand with such skillful players. It also fits very well with me because I am a player who has been fully focused on competitive Hearthstone, and specifically in Standard format, since the release of the game.
T1 has a lot of great players. Did you have any chance to meet with other legendary T1 members, like Faker and BoxeR?
As a T1 teammate, not yet. But back in 2015, OGN invited Xixo and me to an LCK game of SKT T1. Luckily, I got to talk to Faker because he subbed out for Easyhoon that day. I was very surprised to hear that Faker actually plays Hearthstone. He also recognized Xixo from the OGN Hearthstone Masters Korea S2 Special Invitational match which happened a few days before the LCK match. He also told us that other SKT T1 teammates like MaRin and Bengi play hearthstone a lot. In fact, MaRin even reached #1 legend before. It was great to hear that many League of Legends players play Hearthstone, too.
"I’ve noticed that the first grand champion for a new game often gets washed up very quickly. I did not like that. [...] I did not want to become a washed-up player quickly."
How do you feel about your T1 Hearthstone teammates?
They are all great. Orange has been playing Hearthstone competitively for a long time. I think he consistently plays very well. He seems to build a lot of creative and different decks. Feno works very hard as a streamer. He is also very entertaining, so it is great to see that he is doing well as a streamer. I think Surrender is the best Hearthstone player in Korea. He has been doing very well in Grandmasters too.
You are known as a student of KAIST, one of the best universities in Korea. It is very impressive considering that Korea is a country where school and education are valued higher than anything else during teenage years. How did you get interested in the esports scene and choose esports over success in education?
I started following the esports scene after graduating from high school. I graduated a year earlier than my classmates because I got accepted to KAIST in my second year of high school, in 2009. I had a few months of free time between graduation and entrance to KAIST. The problem was that I had no friends to play with because early high school graduation is a very rare case. All of my friends had to study to get into university for another year.
With plenty of free time and the absence of friends to play with, I started watching Starcraft games. Even before the early graduation, I had a bit of interest in Starcraft but did not have enough free time to care about video games. I quickly became a big fan of the Starcraft esports scene. I watched Starcraft VODs all day long. I watched all the previous games and researched player histories. I became a passionate Starcraft fan over the few free months. Even after my university life started, I did not lose interest in the esports scene. Starcraft 2 was released during my freshman year. I spent all my time playing Starcraft 2 and reached Master. Due to my top-end performance in Starcraft 2, my GPA ended up at the very low end. Right as my life as a student in KAIST was in danger, Hearthstone was released and my career as a competitive Hearthstone player began.
There’s more to this story. When I was obsessed with Starcraft, I was a big fan of SKT T1 because I was a Terran player and FanTaSy was amazing. I spent a lot of time watching FanTaSy’s games. Now, 10 years later, I've become a T1 player myself. It’s a great pleasure to join the team that started my interest in esports.
One of your outstanding skills as a competitive Hearthstone player is consistency. You’ve been playing Hearthstone since 2013. For the last seven years, you've always been involved in the competitive scene with the exception of a year and a half serving in the military. Although there are many players who've played Hearthstone casually since the release, there are only a few who have been competing since the release without quitting. What is the motivation behind this amazing consistency?
When I first decided to play Hearthstone competitively, I did not give a lot of thought to the future. Things changed when I decided to pause my study in the university to become a full-time competitive player after my top 4 finish in the Hearthstone World Championship 2014. As I’ve said, I was interested in other esports scenes including Starcraft, even before I started playing Hearthstone.
As a viewer, I’ve noticed that the first grand champion for a new game often gets washed up very quickly. I did not like that. As a top finisher in the first competitive Hearthstone World Championship, I did not want to become a washed-up player quickly. Apart from my mental attitude, Hearthstone is just fun to play. It is a video game that changed my life, and I simply enjoy playing the game.
Currently, you are focused on Constructed, and specifically Standard. When Hearthstone was first released, Constructed and Arena were the only two available modes. But now there are a lot of different modes, including Battlegrounds, Duels, and the upcoming Mercenaries. Even within Constructed, there are three different formats. Do you have any plans to play other modes or formats?
I am going to stick with the Standard format for sure. I enjoy playing Standard. I think it fits me the best. Furthermore, there are not that many streams that focus solely on Standard. My viewers watch my stream because I am one of the few Hearthstone streamers who focus on it. For both my pleasure and my stream, I have no reason to play other modes.
Tell us more about your future plans as a Hearthstone streamer and content creator.
My daily routines are streaming Hearthstone on Twitch, then uploading interesting games to my YouTube channel. This is the very basic plan. To add on, I’d like to make content related to the competitive scene. For example, I can help my viewers to increase their skills. I am also thinking about reviewing tournament games to explain the plays that top Hearthstone competitors make. I want to help more people get involved in the competitive scene.
So are you not interested in playing fun, non-competitive decks for the stream?
No. My stream has always been based on competitive Hearthstone. My viewers watch my stream for competitive content. I may try to entertain my viewers as a streamer, but not by playing non-competitive Hearthstone.