Lee Ji-hoon all but promised a world championship last November with his new League of Legends lineup. Built around AD-carry-turned-jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin, the KT Rolster coach had star-studded roster of some of Korea’s best legacy players. At the time, the bottom lane of Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong had yet to be announced. Nonetheless, Lee told OSEN’s Ko Yong-jun, “We are looking to make a team that can win the 2017 World Championship.”
With those words, Lee effectively sealed his fate. When KT failed to win the League Champions Korea spring split, pressure mounted, but KT was still viewed as a “summer team,” one that needed time to build and grow. When KT failed to win the summer split, there was still the regional qualifier. Seeded into the final round, KT was expected to win regardless of its opponent. When KT lost to Samsung Galaxy in a 3-0 sweep, the players sat, stunned in the booth. Across the stage, members of Samsung celebrated while Score buried his head in his hands and Deft and Mata stared blankly into the distance.
Almost a year after his team came to be, Lee stepped down Tuesday from the organization that he had called home for more than 15 years across multiple esports, taking full responsibility for KT’s demise.
“It’s very disappointing that I’ll be leaving a team that I’ve spent youth with, but I came to this decision after feeling the heavy responsibility of this season’s poor performance,” he said. “I think I have become both mentally and physically fatigued due to working with the team non-stop for the past 15 years.”
Lee Ji-hoon began his esports career not as a League of Legends coach or even a Starcraft coach, but as a professional FIFA player. During his time in FIFA, Lee had a 93 percent win rate and was scouted by KTF n016 (later called KT Rolster) in 2000. After his FIFA days on KT and his mandatory military service, Lee was approached by his old organization to coach KT’s Starcraft team.
“When I received the proposal, I didn’t have the idea of coaching,” he told Inven’s Seo Yong-dong in 2014. “I was in the Physical Education Department of Inha University and wanted to become a Physical Education teacher.”
Yet, he accepted KT’s offer. He began coaching the team in March 2008 and was promoted to the head coaching position later that year. Lee’s tenure, and KT’s acquisition of Lee “Flash” Young-ho in the previous year, ushered in the golden age of KT Rolster Starcraft: Brood War. Starcraft, not League of Legends, is where the Telecom Wars were fostered and where KT’s longstanding rivalry with SK Telecom T1 was born. In February 2012, KT became the first Starcraft Proleague team to achieve 200 wins. Eight months later, coach Lee oversaw KT’s first foray into the League of Legends esports scene.
When KT created its League of Legends esports division in October 2012, Lee made the announcement alongside KT’s newly-appointed head of sports, Yeong-beom Joo. “We will build a team that responds to the support of fans with a sense of responsibility,” coach Lee said, as the organization revealed its two new teams: KT Rolster A and KT Rolster B.
The first few months of KT Rolster League of Legends were all about playing catch up, Lee later told Inven. Recruiting players wasn’t difficult, but acclimating to the two-team system that Maximum Impact Gaming’s Coach Kang Hyun-jong had developed with sister teams Blaze and Frost was an uphill battle. Organizations like Azubu (formerly MiG), MVP, and NaJin were already ahead. Although coach Lee had initially only planned for one team, he found himself returning to KT and requesting permission for two.
KT Rolster A and B easily qualified for 2012-13 OGN Champions Winter, with 3-0 sweeps over their qualifier opponents. KTA barely squeaked out of Group A, but the real surprise, and triumph, was KTB. KTB topped Group B, beating out Azubu Blaze and eventual tournament champion NaJin Sword. The team later fell to Sword in semifinals but finished third in its first season. Throughout 2013, KTB (later the KT Rolster Bullets) established itself as one of the best teams in the world, even with a crushing defeat at the hands of SK Telecom T1 in the 2013 Champions Summer finals.
In 2014, Lee, who previously oversaw KT’s League of Legends, Starcraft, and Special Forces divisions, became the head coach of solely for League of Legends. The Bullets were on the decline, but the Arrows (formerly KT Rolster A) eclipsed their sister team under Coach Lee’s guidance and a few roster changes between the two KT teams. Jungler Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon moved from the Bullets to the Arrows and became the default leader for the young but inconsistent team. During the Arrows’ rise to prominence, coach Lee emphasized comfort and positivity to his young players above all else. When asked of his coaching philosophy in 2014, Lee responded, “Let’s enjoy.”
“KT Rolster is always enjoyable and positive. Players get a lot of attention at a young age,” he said. “Once you make a mistake, a lot of arrows pour out at you. I think that the emotions of the athletes influences their skill as they receive the attention and accusations at the same time.”
He reiterated that he always tried to be a positive person and invited players to emulate him.
“What I always say to the players is to make them comfortable. I tell you to do what you want to do, play a game that you will not regret.”
After five grueling matches on Haeundae Beach in Busan, the five members of the KT Arrows staggered around exhausted, screaming at their victory over 2014 spring champion Samsung Galaxy Blue. Coach Lee’s arrival in the booth set off another round of hugging and jumping, while KaKAO screamed and both AD carry No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon and mid laner Song “Rookie” Eu-jin burst into tears. Their victory interview is punctuated by players screaming intermittently, thanking their fans. The infectious energy of the Arrows earned them fans across the world, and it’s difficult not to see Coach Lee’s hand in ensuring the young talents were still able to be themselves and thoroughly enjoy their victory.
With this particular coaching philosophy comes no small amount of scrutiny. Occasionally, coach Lee was called out by KT fans for not being tough enough on his players. All too often, standing in the booth across from Lee and KT Rolster was Kim “kkOma” Jeong-gyun, the most well-known member of the SKT coaching staff. Choi “cCarter” Byoung-hoon is the team’s head coach, but kkOma is renowned for his intimidating and oft-enigmatic presence, scowling, glaring, and even face-palming at his team’s losses. Yet, SKT has almost always had KT’s number across the years, especially since the merging of sister teams and advent of the LCK in 2014-15. But this was supposed to be KT’s year. Coach Lee set this tone for the team before the “superteam” lineup was fully announced. Anything less than a world championship was a failure. KT didn’t win anything all year.
Coach’s Lee’s departure is hardly surprising. Not only did he make the bold claims for this KT team, but he has noticeably stepped back from the booth throughout the year, leaving Champion Select and other decisions to coaches Jung Je-seung and Oh Chang-jong. The latter will step into the head coaching position for the time being. It might not have been a surprise, but for the long-time KT Rolster faithful, it’s difficult to imagine a KT League of Legends team without seeing the warm smile of Lee Ji-hoon in the booth.