For DAMWON Gaming, 2019 was an incredible year. With a combination of unknown rookies and a coach who led a team to win the world championship last year, they’ve become the first team to promote from Challengers Korea to head into Worlds in the same year. With much ambition and the DNA to bring their fights, they were considered the underdogs with a nasty bite.
Coach Kim Jeong-soo, a man who has led Invictus Gaming into winning the world championship last year, started his new challenge this year at this relatively unknown team called DAMWON Gaming. It’s hard to imagine how he must feel. Is it the thrill of cultivating rookies? Or does he find joy in creating success out of something impossible? Whatever it may be, in a world where results are the only things that matter, Coach Kim has again, made the right decisions.
After their loss against G2 Esports in the quarterfinals of the 2019 LoL World Championship, we’ve had a chance to chat with Coach Kim on his day off. With a mix of regret and pride, he shared his thoughts about this year’s Worlds, and DAMWON’s tenure this year.
Amazing job at Worlds this year. This is DAMWON’s first year at Worlds, and it’s also the first time that players had to experience elimination from Worlds. How are they right now?
They’re doing better than I thought. We’ve had a team dinner last night as well. They were depressed right after the match, but since they’re rookies, they weren’t too frustrated. It’s not bad, and they seemed to be in a good mood when they had food in front of them.
Even still, they must be disappointed. Was there a player that was especially emotional?
Everyone was very emotional. During the team dinner after the match, Canyon told himself, “I’m okay”, but he was very quiet. He also looked quite shocked because he didn't play like he used to. Nuguri and Nuclear was pretty down as well, but they’re all okay now.
You’ve said that you’ll get some rest before you fly out. Will everyone be okay?
Things aren’t too bad. We had to stay another day because there were no plane tickets. It’s depressing to just stay at the hotel, so I’m planning to take them out for a bit.
How was your life in Europe?
The food in Europe wasn’t to my palate, so I’ve either had instant noodles and rice, or mostly went to Korean and Japanese restaurants.
Don’t the players prefer Korean food as well?
Yes, except for two players. Nuguri said he likes the food from the room service. The coaching staff didn’t enjoy the European food, but with a lot of help from our fans, we were able to have a lot of Korean meals.
You’ve had a very long journey. Which part of it do you regret the most?
I’m sad that we couldn’t play as how we played in scrims. It’s not like our scrim results were spectacular, but we’ve had a positive record against the EU teams, and went either even or lost against the Korean and the Chinese teams.
Because of your positive scrim results against the EU teams, does this result come to you as more of a shock?
That’s right. We’ve actually practiced an insane amount with G2. G2’s picks weren’t that surprising. We’ve shown them all our arsenal in scrims, and they’ve done so as well. Because of such a trend, we knew what they were going to pick and drafted accordingly. If how we played in scrims smoothly transitioned onto the stage, we could’ve won 3:0 or 3:1. However, I feel sad that we couldn’t do that. The players’ mentality were heavily affected after one game.
In the end, scrims are just scrims.
Yes. There are a lot of teams who’re good in scrims. Last year, IG didn’t have good scrim results. I think I can talk about this now. During that time, IG had a 20% win rate against the LCK teams. We were about 50/50 against the other foreign teams as well. Despite such results, we still won. Scrims are just scrims. What’s important is to overcome the nerves from playing in front of a huge crowd. I think that for the DAMWON players, it was still a bit too much.
I agree. They’re still very young talents.
There are young players that adjust well on stage. Not everyone’s like that though. If they played with a comfortable mind, they would’ve put on a better performance.
The fans agree with you as well. There’s no reason for DAMWON to lose in teamfights, but they think that the players really felt the pressure.
There were many instances where the game was just over in 5 minutes. In scrims, we were actually a lot more proactive than G2. We made dives first, and snowballed hard from them. However, when I listened to in-game comms, I could hear them being really nervous, so they couldn’t even land skillshots. Sometimes, they even had vision, and the enemy was cc’d, but they still couldn’t land skillshots… I’ve never seen them that nervous.
Through this, I think that the players learned a lot.
Yes. Also, G2’s really good at snowballing the game, so that’s something to learn as well.
This current DAMWON squad hasn’t even been around for a year, yet they did achieve a lot in such a short amount of time. Who do you think has improved the most?
While all of them have improved dramatically, I’d put ShowMaker at 1st, and Canyon at 2nd. ShowMaker is like a sponge. He just absorbs every single piece of feedback given to him. He perfectly executes the things asked by the coaches. Although it’s still unfortunate that his win rate is higher on a certain champion… He’s good on other champions as well, but it’s a shame that he can’t play as well on stage. He has a wide champion pool, but when he’s on certain champions, he has a harder time matching his teammates’ macro. For instance, if ShowMaker’s on a champion that excels in teamfights, someone has to play a split push champion, but the players aren’t at the level where they can adapt to such situations.
Canyon was definitely a rookie. He didn’t know proper jungle pathing, and he was the type of player that even pro gamers didn’t know who he was. He didn’t really talk, and he just blanked out before games. So in Spring, I thought that it would be an achievement if we even made it to playoffs. However, everyone knows him now. I think that his hidden potential was unlocked. He improved dramatically. He had good mechanics to begin with, but he’s built synergy with mid, so DAMWON’s mid-jungle duo is one of the best in the world.
What about you? How have you grown as a coach?
At first, I didn’t know what to do because DAMWON just promoted into the LCK from Challengers Korea. In the past, I was always part of ‘good’ teams that had the potential to win the league, but this team was full of rookies who’s never played in the LCK. It took me a while to get adjusted to this new environment full of rookies. It wasn’t easy to lead them. I once thought that I’ve hit the ceiling. Even if there were other coaches, there were many instances where I had to teach the coaches about many things.
Then, I thought, “It’d be really fun if I can lead this team into Worlds.” So, I worked really hard. It was much different than my previous teams. It was a very fresh challenge, and I feel I have grown from it.
When DAMWON made it to Worlds, how far did you see your team moving up in the tournament?
The goal was semifinals. We honestly didn’t think we’re able to win the tournament. I’ve also expected the players to be really nervous on stage. However, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m still disappointed. If we made it to the semifinals and play SKT, even if we lost, we wouldn’t have any regrets.
A lot of head coaches and insiders tell me that because of DAMWON, the so-called ‘ecosystem’ has been broken. Our team barely made any investments on players. Compared to other LCK junglers, Canyon’s salary is a lot lower, and I’m pretty sure that all the teams that we played probably pay their players a lot more. I think it’s amazing that we’ve made it this far against those teams. It was fun, and I’m satisfied.
It’s a shame that Worlds turned out the way it did, but from a team that barely made it to playoffs in Spring, to playing in Rift Rivals and Worlds… It’s amazing to even play throughout the whole year, but to grow so much altogether is just incredible. In a way, I’ve gotten 2nd place at Worlds and even led a squad into becoming world champions, but the things I’ve experienced with DAMWON is very special in its own way.
It must be very satisfying. Do you have other plans in Europe?
Not really. When the players are hungry, we’re going to go out for food. We’re going to go back to Korea soon, so we’ll be having a Spanish cuisine. German cuisine wasn’t to my palate, but I like Spanish food.
Coming out of this year's Worlds, how do you hope your players will grow?
A lot of players suffered stage fright, but some get over it in 3 months, while for others, it can take even longer than 3 years. I hope that the players on DAMWON won’t be so nervous next year. As a coach, there’s not much I can do to help players fight nerves. Although I can help them set their mentality straight, coaches can’t help players get over their nerves 100%. It’s something that they have to work on themselves.
Next year, DAMWON will be much better. I guarantee it. We’ve walked the so-called ‘the elite road’. We played in matches that only an elite team will play; from the regular season playoffs, Rift Rivals, and even Worlds. I know that DAMWON will be much stronger after all this.
You learn a lot from losing in a tournament. This year, we lost to G2 at Worlds. Through that loss, we’ve learned how G2 snowballs the games and move as a team. The current DAMWON squad isn’t very good at that. No matter how much we analyze G2 and give the players feedback, they don’t fully understand it until they experience it. I hope that this team learns from this ‘hands-on’ experience and become more systematic. For example, while winning lane is important, it’s also important to know what to do after. DAMWON will aim for a place a lot higher than this year.
Thank you very much for your insightful words. Lastly, can you say something to the Korean fans, and the newly gained Western fans as well?
Although DAMWON fell at the quarterfinals and it’s disappointing, it is what it is, so I did not criticize them at all. I want to applaud them for working so hard throughout the year, and even when they were here in Europe, nothing but the game was on their mind, so please give them their much deserved support. Heading into next year, we’ll still be a team that’s proactively taking fights and entertaining to watch. I hope that the fans will continue to send their love and support.