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Q&A: Susie Kim on her career, getting started as a translator and Korean players’ trash talk

Slingshot contributor Amanda “SageGnosis” Stevens had the chance to catch up with Susie Kim, longtime esports host, interviewer and translator, to talk about her career, how she got started and Korean players’ trash talk.

Amanda “SageGnosis” Stevens: Welcome everyone to another edition of Stacked Deck, your E-sports interview broadcast. With me this time I have Susie Kim! How’re you doing, Susie?

Susie Kim:  Not too bad! Hello!

AS:  I’ve grabbed Susie at something like 10 p.m. Korean time, 9 a.m. my time, a time that I don’t see ever, so this is going to be a very fun experience for me. So, I have a question: What was the first game you ever played?

SK:  That I ever played?

AS: Yeah

SK: Um probably Super Mario. No. Yes? I had an NES when I was 6. Probably Duck Hunt. I’m gonna go with Duck Hunt.

AS: That’s a good one. That’s a good pull. So, I know that you got started with Brood War, so how did that even start? Did you have friends that played Brood War? Did you see a Brood War commercial and go, “This is probably gonna be my jam?”

SK: So basically Brood Wars came out. What was it, like ’98?

AS: Yeah

SK: I started college in ‘99. And pretty much everyone in the dorms was – like that’s all they were playing. And so, you know as a freshman, and everyone getting to know each other and stuff, we would sit around and watch each other play and — I mean this is like we were on dial-up and playing this game.

AS: That sounds abysmal

SK: But I liked it. It was good and — I don’t know how to explain it. Probably just a couple years later I found out that Koreans were playing it professionally and so I started watching and realized that I sucked at the game, and that these people were absolutely amazing and they’d do things that I never even imagined in my dreams. So I actually got more into Brood War watching than playing myself.

AS: So watching the pros didn’t like make you go like, “Aw man. I wanna be them. I wanna be that good at the game?”

SK: Absolutely not. I’m not a very competitive person. I enjoy games for the community aspect. I enjoy games, like I watched Brood War with and played with friends because of the whole playing with friends thing, making friends, and sharing an experience, and that’s kinda what watching Brood War was for me as well

AS: OK. So then how did this getting involved — how did you transition from being the person who likes to watch Brood War with their friends to interacting in the esports scene itself?

SK: Oh gosh, you’re really making me dig. I enjoyed watching it. I would watch the pros I said this in a previous interview with ESPN, so I went to Blizzcon, because I was also playing World of Warcraft at the time and went to Blizzcon and saw that there was Starcraft and saw that the Korean pros I had been watching on TV or on streams at the event and thought it was really cool. Then that’s where I met a bunch of people from Team Liquid, and at the time Team Liquid forums were mainly for Brood War.

And then that’s where I learned there’s a big community of English speakers who also enjoyed Korean esports. And then one of the girls who I met, she was writing articles and doing interviews with non-Korean players at the time. So she invited me to go to a WCG — and this is 2007 — to come and help her out, maybe get some interviews with Koreans, and I thought that was really cool, so I went. So, yeah, that’s when I started translating and helping out with journalists to do interviews, and then, how I transition to become and actual translator was: At the end of 2007 WCG grand finals in Seattle, the winner was Korean, obviously, and he had to do a press conference and his translator was missing. There was no one to translate for him. Cause I think she was stuck in traffic or something? And I’m standing on the sideline and everyone’s waiting for this translator because they want to do this interview, and all the sudden I hear someone go “Wait that girl! She speaks Korean.” And I’m like, “What?” And I just see a bunch of people waving at me and they’re like “Come here! Come here!” and I was like “Oh. OK.” And they put me on stage and they’re like “Can you translate for him?” and I was like, “Uhh OK?” So I did and

AS: I’ve heard this story…

SK: So fun side story is that one of the reporters asked — so Stork won — and they asked Stork like, “By the way, did you throw your games during group stages so you wouldn’t have to face another Korean?” etc. And Stork at the time was also very new and he was young and he answers honestly, and he’s like “Yeah. I didn’t wanna face another Korean. So I wanted to get second in the group,” and he’s just like telling it as it is.

And his manager looks at me and she’s like shaking her head and waving her hands. She’s like, “No, you do not translate that” and I was like “Uh, OK?” And of course the interviewer’s like “well? what did he say?” and I (didn’t know what to say), and his manager said to say “that his condition was really bad and he couldn’t play well” and I was like “Um, his condition was bad and he didn’t play well?” (laughs).

And so of course I caught flack, and everyone’s like “That translator sucks. That’s not what he said.” But then I mean I had people like “You do understand why she had to say that.” But that’s kinda where I got started. When I went back to Korea — I moved to Korea at the end of 2007 and then I would go watch a bunch of Brood War games at the studios, and so people who were at Blizzcon and at WCG they recognized me and they’re like “hey you’re that girl from America.” And I just got to meet a whole bunch of people that way. And then they were starting the GOMtv Classic where there were actually — GOMtv was doing a tournament where they were actually having English casts for the first time and Tasteless had done Season 1 by himself so he solo-casted the entire tournament, and they realized how difficult that was and so they were just like, “Well, you like brood war, you speak both languages, do you wanna cast?” And I said no.

I don’t know this game well enough to cast it. Are you kidding me? And they were like “Oh, no, no, no. Come on, you can just listen to the Koreans. We just need someone for Nick to bounce off of because he’s just sitting there talking by himself.” And I was just like, “OK.” So that’s how I  cast my first Brood War gig, and then while I was there, like I said, obviously, I don’t know the game in depth enough to be a good caster and or analyst. So I started off by researching on the players and trying to see if I could get backstories on them instead to see if I could fill the air time with at least interesting facts about the players that the Western fans wouldn’t know. So I did a lot of like Korean research and talked to people and..so every cast was literally like, “Oh, well this player, in his last 10 games was…”  

AS: So like Pop-up Video type stuff?

SK: Yeah. I’d have to fill the time with something, and then they had me do interviews there and translate them on the spot so we could post the interviews, and that’s basically kinda how I got started.

AS: So I know that you have a background in teaching. And, this is something I’ve always thought about, and you have like a decent rapport with a lot of the players in the Korean scene and across a bunch of different games. If you ever like stopped doing sort of the translating, interviewing, desk host thing, would you ever consider like doing PR training for orgs?

SK: I would like to. I enjoy player management. I enjoy making sure that everyone is — what’s the word I’m looking for — I enjoy making sure that everyone

AS: Is taken care of?

SK: Is where they’re supposed to be. And are taken care of. Yeah that would be great. PR Training or just kind of — (sighs) — I was actually more thinking like teaching life skills.

AS: So like their post-career, how to survive outside of the game house?

SK: Yeah. But it’s like how to cook your own food, and how to do laundry, how to take care of yourself, like how to make a bank account.

AS: So you’d be like Travis Gafford to their Doublelift?

SK: I guess?

AS: Do you know that story? When Doublelift moved in with Travis after he got kicked out of his house, apparently Doublelift didn’t know how to cook or do laundry or like set up a bank account and like Travis had to teach him all of these things.

SK: Yeah, I mean I understand most pro gamers are, they’re like students, and like you said I have a background in education and I just wanna make sure they’re well-equipped to become good, functioning adults later on.

AS: One of the things I’ve noticed from watching a lot more OGN is that the players seem to have a better grasp of how they do interviews than the Western players seem. And so I was wondering is that just the Korean system how the orgs train the players?

SK: Koreans, yeah they have media training.

AS: It doesn’t feel that way in the West.

SK: They all get media training because how you represent yourself and your brand is very important in Korea. We are a more collective society, so obviously the organizations kinda wanna make sure that the players represent them well. That’s why you never hear Koreans be like “Aww yeah, that team sucked” or anything. They’ll always be like, “Oh, our opponents played very well, but we were lucky this time to come out the victors.” Or something like that.

AS: I always wondered about that because I’ll listen to those and be like “Yes, yes, SK Telecom, you were really lucky to beat Kongdoo Monsters. That’s exactly what happened that series.”

SK: “We know that they practice very hard and perhaps this time we just happened to do better.” And you’re like “Uhh, sure.”

AS: Except when they do the trash talk threats.

SK: Oh. Well because that’s all kind of — I don’t want to say scripted. They’re not scripted, but they know that that is a space where they can talk freely. Does that make sense?

AS: Yeah

SK: They know at interviews they need to be PC and they know that when OGN is doing a trash talk segment that is what is expected of them, thus they will go ahead and say things like that.

AS: I was about to say that if you told me that the trash talk threats were scripted, my mind would be blown and I’d be really sad about life.

SK: No, they’re not. They’re not completely scripted, but obviously the producers will kind of egg them on and be like, “Hey, you know this guy said this about you. Do you wanna retaliate?” and they’ll kind of look and they know that’s a safe zone that they can say that because they understand why they’re doing that segment.

AS: So from talking to you I found out that you cover a very wide spread of games. How do you balance all that mentally? Cause I can barely handle following Street Fighter V, League, and Overwatch, and you do more than three games

SK: Right, but I’m not an analyst and I’m not a journalist. So, obviously, if I was an analyst that would be absolutely impossible. But in terms of casting, I’m play-by-play so I learn enough about – again I learn enough about the game but I also focus a lot on the teams and the players and their backstories. I think that’s really interesting. And it’s just over a course of time. StarCraft 1 took a while for me to get friendly with people. Through my reputation with StarCraft 1, I got to know a lot of people in StarCraft 2.

Because you know a lot of players did transition over and I knew the organizations already. And then coming into League of Legends, League of Legends was brand new to me. I remember…I was at WCH 2013 and I was doing an FPS game and on the side room, there was, I think it was like I think it was Monte and PapaSmithy were watching League of Legends and I remember asking Monte, “So how come they always play on the same map?” And he looks at me like, “Well those are minions.” And he was basically teaching me this game.

And it was a learning experience. But for me it’s just learning — it’s keeping up with Twitter and Reddit and seeing what people say, and just seeing how it affects the esports community on the whole, I guess?

AS: I’m not gonna ask you to do a listing, but what’s the best game to spectate for you and what’s painful for you to spectate/commentate?

SK: I’m a spectator period. I enjoy watching sports. I guess I don’t like watching baseball but…

AS: I don’t think anybody really likes baseball

SK: I enjoy watching basketball and American football. I like watching soccer. So when it comes to video games, they all kinda have their own feel. I think LoL is very hard for a new person to come watch because there’s 10 different characters doing 10 different things and lots of shiny bursts you’re like “I think something big happened. I think someone died. I don’t know why. But it’s pretty.”

AS: That’s how I felt when I got talked into watching Season 3 NA LCS playoffs. I barely played the game at the point, and then when I watched it I was like, “I don’t understand anything. This doesn’t look like the game I played three years ago. What’s going on?”

SK: The thing with StarCraft 2 that’s easy to follow as a newcomer is the 1-v-1. You can obviously see what’s going on. Do you know what I mean?

AS: Yeah

SK: There’s a big army. There’s another big army Okay they’re going to fight. Whoever has the smaller army loses. It’s very basic on that sense, And then as for FPS, again very easy to follow. Two teams, and if you die, you die. And something like Counter-Strike, think about it, terrorists and counter terrorists and they’re gonna plant a bomb and if you can’t — you know? It’s so simple

And because you can appreciate – everyone knows you shoot a gun. We know what guns do. If you shoot the men in the head, they die. It’s so obvious to watch and then you could appreciate how hard it is because you try to play it and you go “Huh. I for some reason can’t hit people, and those guys can do it really well.”

I can’t say – I really can’t say, and I’m not trying to be PR — I really can’t say what I enjoy the most or dislike because I think they’re all a lot of fun in their own ways.

AS: So then do you still play any of the esport games for fun?

SK: Well, I play Overwatch.

AS: Good choice, good choice.

SK: I love the game. Again I’m really bad. I’m really bad at playing games

AS: Who do you main?

SK: Lucio. I’m a Lucio, D.va main.

AS: New D.Va makes me really sad but it’s okay. She’s really strong that’s what I mean by sad.

SK: I actually started playing D.Va before her buff because she has a lot of HP. (laughs)

AS: Which means you die less

SK: : Yeah, so I could die less plus I had a two life thing. Once I lose my mech, I’m still alive? So I was like, “This is really safe. I like it. And then I – someone told me like “You should play lucio because then…”

AS: Then you never die.

SK: Well that’s the thing. I can still shoot as much as I want, but it’s not imperative that I get all of the kills. Do you know what I mean?

AS: Yeah

SK: I’m being a healer and it’s like, “Oh I kinda like that too,” so people can’t yell at me if I don’t do a lot of DPS. I’m like “Yeah but I kept you alive.”

Yeah I just want to put it out there I am really awful at games. I’m really awful. I love playing but I am bad. People are like, “Hey, you should stream” and I’m like, “You guys really want to sit here and watch a god awful player play? Come on.”

But yeah I do play Overwatch. I don’t play LoL. It’s because I got into it so late and everybody has smurfs now but even trying to level up I am literally sitting there looking at the champions and I’m like “OK, so I should do this now” and then obviously apparently I’m not doing it right because I don’t know what I’m doing and then again a bunch of blamers yelling at me and I’m like, “This is not fun anymore.”

AS: Yeah, I know how you feel. I decided –I’ve been trying to level up an account to play with friends who are getting into the game or who are lower Elo than me and it’s the most painful experience in the universe because in the early levels it doesn’t matter if someone’s a smurf really because there’s very little masteries or anything but once you hit level 10 there’s enough mastery points and you have enough runes that the smurfs can truly shine if they’re plat or diamond smurfs. Those games just become really painful and the only way you win or have fun is if your team has more smurfs than the enemy team.

And it’s pretty painful but people have talked about this. How that’s sort of the worst part of the League climate right now. Is that you can’t just acquire a level 30 account and not have to deal with…

SK: Well here’s the other problem: let’s say I have a given to me level 30 account. Oh I guess level 30 accounts for people who already have played the game would be great. But as a newcomer, let’s say I could just grab a level 30. I wouldn’t know what to do still. With all my champions and abilities so the leveling process is supposed to help you get to know your runes and masteries and your summoner spells and stuff, you know what I mean

AS: Yeah

SK: It’s kinda like World of Warcraft where, if you’ve never played the game and all the sudden you have a level 100 character, you don’t really know how to use that character. Do you know what I mean?

AS: Yeah. A friend tried to get me to do that with WoW because they can — you can get a high-level character — but I don’t know what I’m doing now because I’ve never played one of those types of games before. I’d never played an MMO until very recently and only shooter MMOs

SK: For me, I can do that because I have leveled three characters to max. So if they were like, “Here take this,” I would at least have a feel for how to play a certain character, even if it’s a different class.

With LoL, coming into it, I think it is really good that you have to level yourself up to 30 because it gives you a chance to get to know all your abilities. It gets you to play and to prove yourself. But since there’s so many smurfs, I can’t do that. (laughs)

AS: We’re going to do a bit of lightning round questions sort of to wrap up so that you can get to bed eventually. So first question is: what was the most fun player or personality you ever interviewed?

SK: I know this is supposed to be lighting but oh god, most fun person to interview. Boxer, I’m gonna have to say.

AS: That’s a StarCraft player, right?

SK: Yeah. So Slayer’s Boxer is legendary Brood War player

AS: Shows you how much I know about Starcraft by the way

SK: Yes, well this is one I think you should go back and read up on because he’s like father of Brood War.

And then, so at IPL3, I believe, we had him there and he was playing. And there was an internet outage because apparently, nearby the venue, some truck had crashed into a pole or something and took down all the cable lines

So we had no internet at the venue. And so we are trying to start this tournament and we can’t do it because we can’t connect to Battlenet or something. I can’t even remember. So we were just like “How do we fill 30 minutes of time? What do we do?” And they were like, “Well let’s get Boxer up here to do some interviews” because he had lost. I think this was for StarCraft 2 and he wasn’t as good at StarCraft 2. He actually had his own team and everything at the time

We got up there and we were doing interviews and Ana Prosser was there with me and so this was me translating instead of me asking questions. It was such an honor to speak with him for half an hour. And then afterwards he looked at me, he was like, “I know I gave really long answers and you did an amazing job translating for me. Most people have to get a notebook to write down my answers because I babble, but you were actually able to do it.” He understands English so he knew that my answers were correct, he just can’t say them himself. Do you know what I mean?

AS: Yeah, so similar to how Huni is like. He understands English. He’s just not confident in responding as much

SK: Yeah. Well Huni is better now. But at the time…

AS: It was just an analogy I could think of.

SK: Yeah..so that’s basically what it was. That’s probably one of my favorite interview translations I ever did. As for interviews myself, I don’t know really. Nothing really comes to mind that is best interview.

AS: What about worst person to work with

SK: There’s a Starcraft 2 player named Maru

AS: I like how this was quick. When it came to best you were (unsure).

SK: Okay, Maru. Sweet kid, really good player, but my god getting answers from him is like talking to a wall. It’s so bad. There was one IEM where he won and I’m trying to ask – in fact I talked to him before the interview and I said “These are the questions I am going to ask you. These are the answers I would like for you to say.”

I was like, “I’m gonna ask you this. Can you say this?” and I’m not prompting him. I would ask “well what’s your answer?” and get a one-word answer and I would re-word it for him and I’m like, “Can you just say it like this?” and he was like “OK” and then of course we would get to the interview and doesn’t. So it will literally be like, “Hey you won and your opponent came into your booth and gave you a hug. Are you good friends?” and he’d be like, “No.” And I’m like, “OK, well there must have been a reason he was congratulating you? Did it feel good to beat him?” (He’d say) “Eh, it was OK.” This entire interview.

At the end, I was like, “Are you trolling me by giving me these answers?” And he looks at me and (says) no. And I was like, “Oh god.I can’t even joke with you!” I think on some Reddit thread about that tournament, I think they were like “Susie vs. Maru was more entertaining than Maru vs. the player he was playing before.”

AS: Do you have a favorite team?

SK: I do, but I’m not going to say.

AS: That’s a tease! Can I know the region?

SK: I can’t say and I’ll tell you why: it’s because my position in the community – most people just know me as someone who likes everyone (laughs). And I do. For the most part I do. I worked with a lot – especially in LoL I’ve worked with a lot of teams — and I really do like all the teams. I like the organizations. I like the players. Everyone I’ve interacted with is great. By me being like “Yes I like this one team better than another,” it’s like asking a mom to choose her favorite child.

So yeah, you see me tweet whenever there’s a game, “I want everyone to win!”

AS: I do! But I was hoping I could maybe get it out of you, but I guess that was a lofty ideal. So I have two viewer questions. One is from Jeremy Ramirez and he asks: “Do you still help other teams when they bootcamp in Korea? And if you do, how hands on are you with them?”

SK: So with that, short answer is no-ish. So there’s a man named JoyLuck, who is very involved in esports in Korea. He speaks English. He’s a very hardworker. So this time around for boot camp, he actually organized everything for all of the teams. Hotels, computer rentals, practice rooms, everything. And so I’ve kinda been helping him because I don’t want that responsibility.

So no, I’m not very hands on. This time I was not very hands on at all because I also took a vacation while everyone was bootcamping here, but whenever JoyLuck would have an issue, he would message me and I would help him with that. And when he needed a helper, I found someone to assist him.

It was his operation. I was just kind of like a support character for it. Whenever the teams asked me, I had a couple teams be like, “Susie, do you know this JoyLuck guy? Can we trust him?” You know I would tell them, “Yeah! He’s very trustworthy. He does a very good job.” And to go for it. So I convinced a couple teams to just follow through with what JoyLuck set up for them. So that’s my extent of this boot camp.

AS: And the other question was just left in my DMs. And it was: “Do you have any advice for other females trying into the esports scene?”

SK: Yeah. You need to have thick skin (laughs). I mean, any industry really, you just need to be a strong person overall. For esports in general, I feel like for women to get into esports is very easy because you’re immediately “OMG girl,” and so everyone wants to include you? People might disagree but when I see it, if you’re female and you’re interested in esports and you’re slightly competent, you can get in easily. It’s just the moment you make one small mistake or – it’s the longevity — :Like one small mistake and you’re scrutinized crazily because you’re female. For men, I think it’s harder for them to get started in esports but once you’re in, it’s a lot more forgiving.

AS: I could agree with that. From an outside perspective looking in

SK: I think that’s — for women I think it’s very hard. If you are slightly competent and can take criticism, you can just shrug off any sexist comment and just do what you do and be good at it. It’s very easy to get into esports and try to make a name for yourself. But as you do, you really need to watch what you say and how to conduct yourself because I think the community is less forgiving for women than they are toward men.

AS: Last of two questions: For people who are translators, what’s the best avenue for them to get their work out there?

SK: Best avenue? Well, it’s hard because when I started, there were none. There were hardly any translators. I was just kind of in the right place at the right time and I got to know all the people. I think right now, tying back with what I said earlier, it’s competency. It’s willingness to work and do it because you want to do it not because you expect to get paid for. Does that make sense?

AS: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Then the very last question is a question I ask everybody which, if you could throw anyone under the bus to be interviewed next, who would you want to throw under the bus?

SK: Someone who doesn’t get interviewed often, I guess? This is a hard one too. I don’t know

AS: You don’t wanna throw anyone under the bus, esports Mom?

SK: No! I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus! I will save them from the bus Gosh, you know what? I’m gonna go with — this might be kinda weird — but I’m gonna go with Darin from ESPN. Because I think his history is kind of interesting and also him being one of the top editors over there and ESPN really trying to get into esports and making a wave with that. I think it would be really interesting to see what he has to say.

AS: Alright. So, thanks for being on Susie.

SK: :Not a problem.

AS: And where can people find you online?

SK: I’m on Twitter a lot. It’s just @lilsusie. And I guess that’s the best place to find me really. I don’t really stream all that much though I may start doing that in 2017. I may start so you guys can watch my absolutely awful gameplay – actually maybe I’ll do social eating! I’m really good at eating.

AS: That is a thing now on twitch, right? Eating and cooking?

SK: Yeah

Photos by Helena Kristiansson/ES, eslgaming.com