Slingshot’s Andrew Kim visited the Cloud9 house last month and had an extended talk with League of Legends coach Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu. They talked about his approach to coaching, getting to know Cloud9 and why he wanted to coach in the first place.
Andrew Kim: You’ve been a player, a caster, and now a coach. Of the three professions, which one do you think fit you the best? If you ranked them what would it be?
Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu: If I were to rank them, coaching would be No. 1. When I was playing, the concept of what a coach was very different. It was a time when there wasn’t really a coach who was good at the game or understood the game to a certain level. Driving the team around, or waking the team up, would also be part of the coach’s job. When I was a player, I was involved in feedback after the games since then so I think because of how used to the role I am, coaching would be No. 1. Second is being a pro player, and then a caster. When it came to casting, I had trouble with keeping my thoughts in order and speaking clearly.
AK: Cloud9 is a very storied team that won the LCS a fair number of time. Do you ever feel pressured by the fact that you’re working for such a team? Is it a good source of motivation?
BHG: I’ve never thought that I was a person (who couldn’t handle large responsibilities). Regardless of the size of the team, I think as long as I can perform my duties well, I’ll be OK. I got many offers from different teams, but I remember seeing them bootcamping in Korea and joined thinking that they had great potential, rather than thinking about how big of an organization they were.
AK: Many fans bring up the difference of infrastructure of Korean and North American teams, let it be practice times or good coaching. What’s the difference between coaches in NA and in Korea?
BHG: The fundamental basis of coaching is the same no matter where you go. More specifically, a coach is supposed to alert the team to certain things, and teaching them things about the game. If there were big differences between the coaching in Korea and NA, it comes down to how much freedom do you give or take away from the players. In Korea, culturally you are compelled to listen to someone who is older than you, so Korean players follow instructions like what time to show up, how to practice, stuff like that. NA players tend to question those kinds of orders and can think that it’s unfair. I’m not saying that thinking that way is bad, I’m saying that NA players like to move logically and fairly. You can’t really suppress their freedoms. Other than that, it’s very similar.
AK: Do you think that attitude from players come from a purely cultural standpoint?
BHG: Yes I do.
AK: If we only look at results, it seems the methods in Korea of taking away freedoms from the players are working, as they produce results regularly. What do you think about those who think that the Korean way is the best regardless of the drawbacks?
BHG: I think it depends on the team’s policies. In my case, the C9 players have their lives as professionals, but I also want to respect their personal lives. The way I run the team is that I have a set of rules, and as long as those rules are kept, everything else is free game. I never felt that the team wanted to produce results by taking away player freedoms.
AK: The team structure in Korea seems to follow a hierarchical structure of age and position, but the more free-form players from NA may not show the same respect to that system. Do you think it’s more important that there is a firm power structure or respecting the players’ freedoms?
BHG: I think they all interact with one another. When I first got here and looking back on what I’ve done or told the team, the most important thing was I expect the players to play well, and they expect me as the coach to understand the game well. We play in a system where we both respect each other to play as best as we can, and in order to keep that balance, I will study more as a coach to give the players more information, and the players need to reflect what I say as a coach. That was one of the rules that was kept in the team. When both parties lose respect for one another, then it becomes impossible to coach them, since the players will just ignore anything I say, or I will give up on trying to coach them. I don’t feel that I’ve ever felt the need to implement a firm power structure in the team.
AK: To turn to more personal questions, how did you become a professional gamer?
BHG: I started playing LoL after watching Fnatic win the Season 1 world championship. I saw that there were a lot of people in the crowd and they seemed really into it, so I thought if I wanted to play a game for a living, I should play in a big scene like that. It took me a long time to get to Level 30 playing here and there, and in ranked games, you tend to get more competitive and it becomes more fun. So I reached No. 1 in the rankings in two weeks on the North American server. Then I got an offer from MiG Blaze, so I took the offer and became a pro. To be exact, MiG was an amateur team, but they became a pro as they won the 2012 LCK.
AK: There tends to be a negative perception of pro gaming in Korea. Were your parents against you going pro?
BHG: No. My parents and my close family members were always open to what I wanted to do as long as I keep in touch with them, so there was no discomfort on that front.
AK: Was there another, more traditional career path if not for gaming?
BHG: No. Since I liked games growing up, I even went to a game academy in Korea. Not for pro gaming, but for game development. I think I would have been in the gaming industry no matter what. I spent a lot of my life playing games; I played console games as a kid, PC games afterwards, and games were my life soon after. No matter what I think I would have been in the gaming industry in whatever capacity.
AK: What was the game that really made you fall in love with video games?
BHG: Final Fantasy, Diablo 1, and Team Fortress 2. I played a lot of Super Mario, and Legend of Zelda too. The most influential game has to be The War on Genesis series. I remember finding games to be really fun playing The War on Genesis.
AK: Were you planning to be a developer in the technical sense or something else?
BHG: I wanted to be a designer. I had a vague thought growing up of “Why can’t they make games to be more fun? I think I’ll do a good job at it.”
AK: I don’t think choosing to coach abroad is easy. How did you reach that decision?
BHG: It’s simple. This is another part where the cultural differences between Korea and America becomes apparent, but in Korea it’s not easy to climb my way up to a high position with hard work. Simply put, you can’t start as a coach and then become a head coach. Overseas, you can be a coach and then be promoted to a head coach. I know that working in Korea will be convenient in a lot of ways, but I wanted to quickly become a head coach overseas, get recognized for my work, and still be a head coach if I choose to return since I won’t start as a (lesser) coach again — no matter how young I am. I thought if I wanted to get into coaching, if I compare myself to a class-A card, how could I improve my worth and value? Even when I was casting, I knew I wasn’t going to be a caster for the rest of my career, and with offers to be coaches of teams on the table, I debated with myself whether I should be a coach, an analyst, or start my own business. I thought this line of work suits me the best, and would be the best place to play the card that is Reapered. I started my coaching career with EDward Gaming. They were first place team in their region. I thought that I would be able to produce good results if I acted quickly, and subsequently also get recognized for my work, so I played my Reapered card on EDG.
AK: Is it safe to assume that you had your own desire to increase your value and worth?
BGH: Yes. There’s a saying: “Become famous. Once you become famous, people will applaud you no matter what you do.” Having people know who you are and value you, that means there’s a higher chance where I can make money regardless of what I do, and go down an easier path. I kept that in mind for sure.
AK: Was working on foreign soil ever difficult for you? I can think that China might be easier due to its proximity to Korea.
BGH: I really enjoy being by myself, and I like being alone as well as hanging out with people. I think I’m a person who balances the both of that well. When it comes to family, I’m happy with being able to see them three or four times a year. As for friends, they’re also all working as they are the age to have jobs, so it’s hard enough to see them as it is, so my school friends and I schedule a get away regularly. Honestly I don’t think there are a lot of adults who meet their friends and family as much as they want to, assuming they have their own work. I’m satisfied that I can keep in touch with both with the time I have, so I never had any trouble on that front.
AK: When you said you would work in the industry no matter what, did you know that you had talent in gaming or specifically in League of Legends?
BHG: Before I played League of Legends, I played a game called CHAOS. I played with and against with MaRin (Jang Gyeong-hwan), PoohManDu (Lee Jeong-hyeon), and other players that were well-known, and as I kept running into them and beat them from time to time, I came to the conclusion that I’m very talented in gaming. The way I look at the game is on a different level compared to others. MaRin and PoohManDu were my equals, and I thought if they can win tournaments, so can I.
AK: Cloud9 has become a team that really values your worth as a coach. Did you ever think that you wanted to coach another team or did you think more that you’ll bury your bones in C9?
BHG: I don’t think that deeply. I had a lot of offers from teams, and I consider if the roster is something I can work with to improve and if that team had any issues previously, since many teams had problems. If they have no problems and play clean, then I have no problems. For now I like Cloud9 the most.
AK: So of all the teams you could coach for, you’re happiest with C9?
AK: NA teams tend to fall off at worlds even if they do make it. Why do you think this is the case?
BHG: I have no way of knowing either. I’ve been working in NA for over one season, and this will be my second. Last season, I think our team (peaked) way too quickly, and I knew from the beginning that the team wouldn’t win worlds. A similar example is China’s IMAY, which made it to worlds after starting in the secondary league in one season. Splyce is the same as well. All three teams have grown very quickly, and even though C9 made it to worlds before, but as the roster changed, it’s also a team that grew quickly considering it’s fairly new. I can understand why these three teams didn’t go far at worlds. Why? They lack experience, and you can’t really expect them to do well at a stage where so many teams have accumulated so much experience. So I thought that we should do what we can and look towards next year. If you ask me while NA as a whole doesn’t do well, I don’t know.
AK: Not a lot of fans necessarily know the difficulties of working with young players even as an ex-professional. What are some aspects of your job that was difficult in this regard?
BHG: I rarely say no to whatever the players tell me that they want to do, as long as it follows the line of common sense. With that as a condition, if a player comes to me and says he wants to drink and asks me if they can look at the reviews or feedback later, I say that they can, as long as they show up on practice time, and as long as the drinking doesn’t impact practice. Even when I’m talking with them, I don’t really interject. I understand that an argument can happen, but I try to direct the main reason why the argument came to be in the first place, like a play in a game or something, and tell them that the origin point of the argument is the problem, and that the argument that comes after is only a symptom, so if the players find that to be fair, they fix it and work around it. I don’t really find any difficulties when it comes to talking or telling the players anything. It’s just that NA players like fair things, so if I take the conversation that way. There is nothing to fight about, and it’s been a lot of fun.
AK: Do you think this season Cloud9 will be able to duke it out with the other teams which have more experience?
BHG: Right now the goal is to win the spring split and make it to the Mid-Season Invitational. I want to see how much we’ve caught up at that international stage. For worlds, I think there needs to be better results after working with them for a year and a half. I think we can make it to the semifinals unless we get a really bad group draw. Even if the draw is bad, what can you do? You have to make it work. The goal right now is making it to semis, and I guess we’ll see if we can contest the cup.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games/illustration by Slingshot