There is a meme that has become quite popular and appears in the comments in the League of Legends subreddit whenever a Korean interview goes up, especially when Western teams are mentioned:
People really need to understand that there's a difference between what Koreans say in interviews and what they actually think.
— MonteCristo (@MonteCristo) May 8, 2016
Many thoughts could be pulled from the tweet. Far be it from me to say that the Monte is wrong, since I think he has the right understanding of it. But part of the magic of Twitter is that you can only convey so much in 140 characters, and when there is no follow up (or at least when it’s not as popular as the famous tweet itself), then things get confusing. I think it’s about time to act like my blog’s namesake and give some cultural context as a Korean person.
First, here’s my interpretation of Monte’s quote: The things Korean professionals say about opponents, foreign teams or players during interviews are often in a positive light. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually believe everything that they’re saying, and this is where the “difference” Monte speaks about comes from.
No matter how one-sided the matchup may look like, it’s very rare to see Korean pros ever talk down about their opponents or even offer strongly-worded criticism. Actually, many seem to favor the language of “good match,” “good opponent,” or “hard to tell.” Quite a contrast from the usual trash talking that comes from Western pros on social media or other public forums. The root of this tendency comes from the culture of respect.
Generally speaking, being cocky in Korea isn’t held in a high regard. Especially when it comes to professional athletes, it is almost expected for them to have a certain amount of respect for their opponents. This mostly comes from a school of thought that in order to be respected as a professional, one must show respect, almost like a “what goes around, comes around” type of deal. Although there is clearly a market for trash talking to an extent, it’s firmly understood that the trash talking is a production and for the sake of entertainment of the viewer.
Another facet is that cockiness often is considered a sign of complacency. Humility is a virtue, and winners are often seen as very humble while complacency is often a telltale sign of defeat. There is no mercy to anyone who loses a game after talking all of that good trash, while the disrespected team can get double the adoration. Even if a cocky player wins, the likability factor kicks in, making one think twice before really celebrating and supporting that player.
But does that mean every single time Western teams, which are generally looked upon as weaker than Korean ones, are mentioned in an interview, is it simple lip service to seem humble?
Recently there have been multiple interviews with high-profile players specifically mentioning Western teams without the questions being about a certain team in particular. Commonly known as the “best top laner in the world,” ROX Tigers’ Song “Smeb” Kyung-Ho expressed he was cautious of Cloud9, Samsung Galaxy’s veteran jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-Yong said he was looking forward to his match against Team SoloMid. The highest praise came from ROX support Kang “GorillA” Beom-Hyun, who said he no longer thinks that Korean players are far ahead of western ones, and even credited his Trundle pick in the finals of the League Champions Korea summer split to G2’s Alphonso “Mithy” Aguirre Rodriguez, who gave GorillA the idea in the first place.
Now the planets may have aligned perfectly, or perhaps the earthquake in Korea shook the collective brains of the pro gamers, but when three top-tier players talk about specific Western teams in high regard, it does seem that maybe this time, they really do mean what they say. It’s also important to note all of these players are scrimming against Western teams bootcamping in Korea, so if anyone has an idea of just how close the games are becoming, it’s them.
The 2016 world championship is being hyped up as perhaps the closest the Western hemisphere will ever come to toppling the iron grip of Asia in League of Legends (though this seemingly happens every year). Its definitely possible that the Korean pros are playing into it, perhaps buying into the international hype that this time the finals might not be between Korean or Chinese teams. Besides, no matter who they go up against, it is a fact that all of the players mentioned above will give it their all, regardless of any of these interviews.
Still, it seems equally possible that maybe Western teams and players have really stepped up their game, forcing Korean players to acknowledge and respect their play. Perhaps we have come to the point where Korean teams need to work with and around Western teams, anticipating a closer matchup than most expect.
It’ll be indeed interesting to see if 2016 is the year when the eastern empire finally crumbles.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games.