I've been listening to Heenari, the 1985 ballad from legendary Korean rock vocalist Gu Chang-mo. Backed by crisp guitar plucking and tacky airy synths typical of the era, the forlorn narrator likens his lingering feelings of unrequited love to heenari, the Korean for unseasoned firewood. As anyone with camping experience will know, green wood is difficult to light and burns poorly. Without excessive firepower, it will struggle to blaze and only slowly smolder.
Many professional singers have covered Heenari over the years, but the original has yet to be beaten, for none have managed to recreate the regretful angst of Gu's half-apologetic, half-accusatory neediness. I have a soft spot for one amateur cover, however: An "wakawaka" Jee-ho's, performed at the 2nd OGN Overwatch APEX Karaoke Contest. The 20-year-old Kongdoo Panthera player wasn't half bad technically, and the song fit him well in an endearingly ironic way, for he was simultaneously old enough to want to tackle it and young enough to actually believe that he could. He sang it sincerely, unaware of his innocence, and the product was charmingly, refreshingly plain.
I've been thinking about wakawaka's cover of Heenari, because he recently retired from professional gaming. It was depressing for many reasons, the obvious one being that it was a case of great talent gone to waste. Less than half a year ago, wakawaka was one of the best Lucios in the world, and not in the hyperbolic sense; he was easily top 5 in his position, on par with the original masters like Yang "tobi" Jin-mo and Jeong "ANAMO" Tae-seong. He wouldn't have looked out of place on any Overwatch League team's starting roster -- if only he had made it there.
Last fall, wakawaka was offered a spot on the London Spitfire alongside his Panthera teammates. He refused it, however, in hopes of trying out for the Seoul Dynasty. He thought Seoul would be a better fit for him for several reasons, all of which were sound. The problem was that a spot on Seoul had not been guaranteed. He ultimately failed to join Seoul, or any other team in the Overwatch League, and ended up stuck on Kongdoo's new roster for Contenders Korea, a competition he found little meaning in. After playing a handful of inconsequential matches with the new squad, he announced his retirement; his last official match ended up being a forgettable group stage Bo3 against a mid-tier Chinese team. On his final stream, while wrapping things up, he admitted that he now regretted having declined London.
Watching that broadcast I was overwhelmed by compassionate frustration and pity; although he tried to sound upbeat, who hasn't made woeful life choices then tried to brush them off at 21? Yet from a wider perspective, I found that empathy suspended by a familiar gloom -- gloom from seeing yet another APEX legend, one of the only ones to remain in Korea, leave the domestic scene. And from the widest, I couldn't help but recall that in the grand scheme of Korean esports, wakawaka's career was but one of many things to be swept away by the recent winds of change and a relatively insignificant one at that.
I'm thinking about wakawaka's cover of Heenari, because without APEX it would have never seen the world, and now APEX is dead. There are many such reminders these days, reminders of all that has gone away, is going away, will go away. They remind me of the end of OGN the Champions (2014); the end of OGN Superleague (2016); the end of StarCraft Proleague (2016); the end of OGN APEX (2017); the Korean exodus to the Overwatch League (ongoing); and the end of OGN-produced LCK (imminent). They remind me esports is becoming an increasingly global affair, an increasingly developer-controlled affair, and that Korea's place within it may thus gradually recede from cultural vanguard to talent farm, for there isn't enough money here to keep all of our stars, and most developers will want to standardize premier regional events towards formats and aesthetics suited for a general global audience.
They remind me that the times are changing, inevitably and irrevocably.
One train of thought I've never boarded is that esports events should aim to look and feel more like traditional sports events. I became a fan of esports and sports at around the same time, the early 2000s: on the esports end, I mainly watched Brood War on OnGameNet (and later also MBC Game), while on the sports end I started with American baseball then moved on to European football. I loved both equally, but in terms of production, I found esports' to be far more appealing, particularly OnGameNet Starleague's. The cinematic openings with overt but memorable symbolism, exaggerated badassery, and blistering metal soundtracks; the contrived but riveting narratives shamelessly drenched in mythic grandeur; the eardrum-shredding play-by-play commentary; the gladiatorial finals stage setups -- everything about it felt perfect, unbearably cheesy but perfect. It's a testament to the formula's lasting power that every significant Korean esports event ever held has been based on it. In the cultural sense, this aesthetic -- the OGN aesthetic -- traditionally has been the quintessence of Korean esports.
As a late millennial in the year 2018, it feels awfully anachronistic, almost ironic, to profess love for a conglomerate-owned cable TV channel. But no other word feels right when describing my relationship with OGN. One of the very first memories I have as a child is playing StarCraft for the first time when I was five or six. I had no idea what I was actually supposed to do, nor did I understand big English words like "extractor" and "metabolic", but I thought everything looked and sounded very cool, and from then on I played it whenever I was allowed to. Eventually, I figured my way around how everything worked. Then one day, while checking to see if any cartoons were on after coming home from third grade, I saw the game, my game, on TV, on this channel called OnGameNet. It was surreal, thrilling, engrossing, and I sat transfixed watching it until my mom noticed that it wasn't Pokémon and came over to disapprove.
From then on until I entered high school, I would always flick on OnGameNet after coming back from school and keep it on, sort of pretending to do my homework during commercial breaks, only actually doing it when StarCraft wasn't airing. It was an obsession -- but it wasn't a peculiar one to have. I was never alone. Every year in school I could always befriend at least one or two esports junkies in my homeroom, and the game was omnipresent on the internet anyway. There was always so much content and discussion around Starleague and Proleague that it was impossible to keep up with it all unless you spent every second of your day rotating in and out of forums.
Of course, Brood War wasn't forever. The game dipped off in popularity over the years, and in 2012, its KeSPA-fueled professional scene was terminated. But not OnGameNet. Like the vast majority of Korean gamers, I had switched over to League of Legends by that time, and was watching as much OnGameNet as before, if not more. While BW and LoL were very different games, Starleague and the Champions felt quite similar -- partly due to caster Chun Yong-jun's booming presence, but mostly due to the entire OSL aesthetic being carried over. I still missed OSL a lot, but in a way, it was almost as if nothing had changed; my love for esports and OnGameNet production was preserved, and soon, further increased.
Around this time, OnGameNet started mixing in goofy and entertaining K-pop-style shoulder content into Champions, such as lifestyle sketches, awkward-but-adorable comedy skits, and blatantly scripted trash-talking, adding layers of hilarity to its core ethos of heroism. It was a brilliant move that added greatly to the viewers' emotional investment in the tournament; making every competitor more likable and relatable encouraged fans to root for the entire field, rather than only for their favorite gladiator. The diminished mystique of the champions was a small cost to pay. This shift towards the casual was pushed progressively further, particularly after the channel officially rebranded to OGN in 2015, and reached its climax in the station's most recent flagship, Overwatch APEX, with events like the Karaoke Contest. Other Korean broadcasters followed this trend as well, albeit to a lesser and slower extent.
In short, the OGN aesthetic developed over the past two decades is a maximalist crossover between elements from gaming culture, WWE, professional sports, shounen anime, and K-pop. It's an incredibly specific blend that, on paper, could easily have ended up appealing to only the very intersection of those five circles, rather than the general Korean esports audience, let alone foreign viewers. Yet for almost 20 years, this amalgam was beloved by tens of millions of fans around the world, many of which weren't quite taken at first. The reason they stayed and gradually fell in love with it was that the sheer quality of production and play on display were by far the best in the world.
But what about now, when OGN is no longer categorically ahead of other event producers? When many of Korea's best players aren't even in Korea? When many of the world's largest developers are, for legitimate reasons, increasingly centralizing their esports and dismissing the involvement of most third-party producers, including OGN?
Will OGN still be able to run the best tournaments? Will OGN even get to run any real tournaments? The times are changing, inevitably and irrevocably; what will happen to OGN?
Retirement is a flimsy concept in many sports, I guess, but in esports, it feels borderline meaningless. Players return all the time. After a while, you almost stop believing in first-time goodbyes, unless they're from a Korean male in his late 20s being dragged off to the army (in which case you meekly wish him well).
I appreciate the impermanence, the reversibility. There are many cases in which a player "retires" too early when they still can compete at the top level under the right circumstances. Such retirements usually come from an immediate lack of motivation that solves itself over time. For many players, it only takes a few months without real competition for them to be driven mad and compelled to return.
Few things in this world are sadder than the premature termination of something meaningful. Early retirements are such a shame because they terminate three cherished things at once: their presence itself, the arbitrary personal significance we had ascribed to their narratives, and the anticipatory joy of hoping for their future glory. So I hope wakawaka will return one day, and hoping it makes me less sad because he technically could, even though I don't really think he will.
But I'm not sure how to be less sad about the great winds of change and its effects, not only because they are permanent and irreversible, but because I'm unsure if it's even right to feel that way about them. While losing superstars to foreign teams is depressing as a local, the opportunities have been godsends for so many Korean players and coaches that I honestly can't complain. And objectively speaking, OGN's dwindling influence in esports isn't particularly premature; other stations both in Korea and abroad have been catching up for a while now, and the developer esports era has been a long time coming.
Yet whether something feels premature is subjective, like how the deaths of loved ones feel untimely regardless of their age. I can't imagine having gone through childhood without OnGameNet, and its successful transitions to League of Legends and Overwatch had given me irrational confidence that the station would last forever, that its signature aesthetic would always be the quintessence of Korean esports. But with OGN losing the broadcasting rights to both of those titles, and PUBG Corporation announcing the launch of a centralized circuit system (into which the OGN PUBG Survival Series will presumably be subsumed), I can no longer envision how OGN will remain truly relevant in the years to come.
In his final broadcast, wakawaka said his parting wish was to be remembered. Not for anything in particular; just that once upon a time in Overwatch, there had been a main support player called wakawaka. He said it would be enough.
I know I will remember more.
I've been listening to Heenari, because Gu sings of understanding why, but not why, something cherished had to go; of feeling utterly helpless and preemptively nostalgic; of knowing all too well his love would fade but still wishing that it wouldn't. Even the wettest wood will dry. All emotions come with their own thermal efficiency. All things change over time, inevitably and irrevocably.
Photo Credit: Kongdoo Company