In countries like South Korea, pop idol worship is a staple of fan culture. But at the OGN Overwatch APEX Season 2 finals in South Korea, the Tiger Dome is the venue for a new kind of fandom. Instead of bubbly pop songs you'd find at a concert, fans are here to watch two of the best Overwatch teams in the world duke it out in a best of 7 match for the championship crown.
While both Lunatic-Hai and RunAway have fans in the audience, the overwhelming majority of cheers are directed toward Lunatic-Hai. In their blue and white Adidas uniforms, they're the superstars of the Overwatch world. When Lunatic-Hai are on stage, the scene turns from a tournament to an idol festival. Every wink or wave from a player inside the booth elicits a frenzy of cries from the crowd. In a society where the stigma of the antisocial video gamer still exists, these players are breaking the mold.
Before the match starts, an opening video -- akin to an intro for a television show -- begins to play. The two teams walk toward each other with a "VS" symbol sitting between them. The loudest cheers from the crowd come when offensive star, DPS player Lee "WhoRU" Seung-joon, salutes. Winston and tank master Gong "Miro" Jin-hyuk follows, cooly pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. This is the new generation of idol in South Korea.
Fan culture in South Korean esports was initially driven by the handsome and charismatic players of StarCraft: Brood War. The godfather of esports, Lim "Boxer" Yo-hwan, was one of the first rock stars, with dedicated groups of fans in tow whenever he was playing.
If you combined every Overwatch fan base in the world, Lunatic-Hai's fan base alone would still likely outnumber the field. But these fans aren't bandwagoners or fair-weather fans. In fact, the support for Lunatic-Hai might have grown larger between the two seasons, with the team adding WhoRU and the best Zarya player in the world, Kim "Zunba" Joon Hyuk.
An all-star team. A die-hard troop of fans supporting it. Nothing could stop Lunatic-Hai going into the second season of APEX. Except itself.
The dark side of fame means being hyperscrutinized under a microscope of expectation. In South Korea, pop idols are often forbidden to date because the image of purity and singledom is so lucrative for the music companies that own them. So when an idol is caught in a dating scandal, they're usually forced to issue an apology.
Two of Lunatic-Hai's DPS players, Geum "Dean" Dong-geun and Lee "LeeTaeJun" Tae-jun, were recently accused of dating their fans. As the accusations surfaced, online accounts began to spread involving cheating and scandals.
OGN Apex and Lunatic-Hai eventually stepped in and suspended Dean and LeeTaeJun for the season. But the backlash didn't end there. Pressure from the fans continued and the two eventually announced their retirement not only from Lunatic-Hai, but Overwatch. They left the scene as villains when they were worshiped as heroes by fans merely a month earlier. From their high pedestal of fame and glory, it was a harsh fall back to reality.
Rookie WhoRU and veteran pro-gamer Kim "EscA" In-jae replaced Dean and LeeTaeJung in the starting six midseason, which meant the team was in an awkward position. When a Korean team loses a game, complaints and criticism from fans run rampant on message boards. If Lunatic-Hai loses, that microscope of scrutiny is amplified. EscA, the emotional leader of the team, received the brunt of the negativity during Lunatic-Hai's defeats. With a team fortified by its defensive players, he was the easy target.
Miro was the best Winston player in the world. Zunba was the best Zarya player. Supports Yang "Tobi" Jin-mo and Ryu "Ryujehong" Je-hong were the best Lucio and Ana players, respectively. Even WhoRU, the new kid on the team, was in contention for being the world's best Genji player in his very first season. EscA, on the other hand, was erratic. His Soldier 76 was spotty at best and often lackluster in ultimate usage. His Tracer was inconsistent. His Mcree, a signature hero, wasn't in top form.
A Lunatic-Hai win or loss relied on how well EscA played. He was the main issue, often getting caught out early in fights and taken out before a 6-on-6 teamfight, leaving his team shorthanded when the barrage of ultimates started going off like fireworks. The semifinal match at OGN Apex Season 2 against rookie sensation Meta-Athena was the turning point of the season for EscA. His Tracer was the saving grace for the club in a tough series that went all five games.
And while some players shrink when the pressure and scrutiny, the player given the most flack -- the veteran of the team -- played to his highest potential.
When the head coach of Lunatic-Hai was asked why his team had so many fans in an interview with Inven, he said, "I think our fans like us because each one of us has a story. A story that our fans find fascinating."