Professional Overwatch player Jeong "Recry" Taek-hyeon's routine used to start before sunrise.
Each workday morning was the same. He got up, rolled out of bed, took a quick shower and hurried out to catch the company carpool. No time for breakfast; he was due at the plant by 6 a.m. sharp.
Upon arrival, he would pop down to the cafeteria for a quick bite, usually a solitary cup of instant ramen. Then he would prepare for work, putting on a dustproof mask, a safety cap, protective coveralls, latex gloves and safety goggles. He would be handling dangerous chemicals. He was never sure what exactly they were -- never was that interested in technical nomenclature -- but knew enough to always keep alert.
His work varied by day. Sometimes it was filling up FIBC bags with white powder, then stacking them neatly on a wooden pallet so they could be forklifted to the warehouse. Sometimes it was squeezing a viscous goop through an industrial strainer, then pouring the filtrated liquid into large cylindrical tanks.
He always got off either at 1 p.m. or 4 p.m., depending on how much work there was.
And then he would go home to play Overwatch.
Less than a year ago, Recry was one of the best flex DPS players in the world and a legitimate national team candidate for South Korea's 2017 Overwatch World Cup campaign. His consistent aim and situational ingenuity on McCree, Soldier: 76, Pharah and Hanzo were second to none. His clean play was an instrumental part in Afreeca Freecs Blue's 15-0 undefeated streak during OGN APEX Season 3.
Given how many foreign teams were shopping in South Korea right around then, one would have imagined he'd have been snapped up early by an Overwatch League franchise. Yet meta shifts in Overwatch can often be merciless to players with rigid hero pools, and South Korea is a widow's cruse of esports talent. The dive meta becoming all but mandatory leading up to the OWL preseason heavily depreciated Recry's value, as most rosters then had little use for DPS players who could not play Tracer or Genji at a sufficient level.
Recry ended up heading to Ilsan instead of Burbank that winter, joining Contenders Korea squad Meta Athena after Afreeca Freecs discontinued its operations in Overwatch. Merely playing against weaker competition, however, did not solve his meta compatibility issues. He remained incapable of playing a top-tier Tracer or Genji (to his credit, his Tracer did notably improve -- it just wasn't enough), and as such, he was progressively shunted to a limited tactical substitute role within the roster.
Disappointed and frustrated with his situation, Recry eventually decided to leave the Meta organization and work on his game again from the ground up. He was never unhappy with how the team treated him, but he really wanted to become a starter; perhaps he didn't deserve such a spot here, but he might elsewhere. Meta Athena tried to dissuade him several times, as the team rated his attitude and work ethic highly, but Recry was determined to prove his worth. The two parted on amicable terms in January.
It wasn't a terrible decision by any means. Recry had figured that he would make it onto another squad quickly, and it was a very reasonable guess, considering the number of tryout offers he received from both South Korea and overseas following his exit. Never could he have foreseen himself staying teamless for months. But he soon learned the hard way just how vulnerable a naïve free agent can be. A few empty promises here, an arbitrarily annulled contract there, and just like that, he ended up missing out on all of Contenders Season 1.
I met Recry in early May at his hometown Ansan, a planned factory city on the outskirts of the Seoul metropolitan area. Ansan is built around the Banwol Industrial Complex, a massive heavy-industrial park comprised of several thousand companies, including the chemical plant where Recry worked three to five days a week. We sat down at a small Starbucks not too far away from Banwol. Around the store building were numerous billboards for burn centers and orthopedic hospitals.
Recry told me that juggling a factory job and a pro gaming dream wasn't an entirely new thing for him. Before he was picked up by Maximum Impact Gaming in 2016, he used to work full time in a nearby assembly plant, having jumped straight into machining after graduating high school. He played games competitively back then, too, although he was heavily doubtful of whether he would ever be good enough to make it as a pro in any. Then one day, just when he had planned to shelve his lingering esports daydreams and get his mandatory military service over with, he was suddenly contacted by MiG's Kim "TaiRong" Tae-Yeong. It made him feel like he had just won the lottery.
"If TaiRong hadn't recruited me then ... right now, instead of trying to get into the Overwatch League, I'd just be watching it after work with beer," Recry said, grinning. "It's funny to think about that sometimes."
Regarding his current situation (still teamless), Recry was less upbeat but not too worried. While he was disappointed about his misfortunes in free agency, he had been receiving a lot of positive feedback from the various teams he had tried out for. It wasn't as if he had fallen off further -- in fact, the exact opposite was true, he insisted. Not only had he improved his previously borderline-mediocre Tracer, the meta had shifted back in his direction as well. Now he was just waiting for a good, trustworthy offer to arrive.
Aren't you worried about injuring your fingers or your back?
"There is some potential for injury, but I haven't had any yet. I'm doing my best to be careful."
Isn't the double schedule too tiring? What does your family think?
"My parents have always been supportive of my pro career. They told me it's OK to quit the factory if things get too tough. But I'd rather not. Our family isn't that well-off. And I think the work has been keeping me healthy, both physically and mentally. Gives me a nice little routine."
Not many players would find enough stamina and willpower to maintain a schedule like yours. What does esports mean to you? What about it motivates you to work so hard?
"At first, it was just because I idolized everything about pro gaming, because it all looked so cool. But then, once I got used to being a pro player myself, and also grew up as a person, my perspective changed. Now I think of pro gaming more as a real and rare chance to earn a lot of money while doing what I truly enjoy. So my main motivation is to earn enough money to buy my parents a house and let them live in comfort. And if possible, I'd like to earn a bit more still, so I could also afford my own place, then marry a woman I love and live happily ever after."
- MetaGaming (@TheMetaGaming) May 29, 2018
May 11 was Recry's last day at the chemical plant. He told his supervisor that he had found a new team, and that he would soon be leaving Ansan to move to the teamhouse. His supervisor bid him well.
"I know you'll do well wherever you go," he said. "You've worked hard. We'll all be rooting for you."
Recry will make his return debut with Meta Athena in the upcoming Overwatch Contenders 2018 Season 2 Trials: Korea. Sources say the tournament will be held in mid-June.