When RunAway lifted the Contenders Korea Season 2 trophy, it should have been the start of another Korean esports success story
Having worked through various changes for two years, and experiencing some heart-breaking runners-up finishes, it was now looking likely they would be called up to Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League (OWL). On December 1, 2018, it was revealed by the Canadian Aquilini Investment Group that the Korean roster would be representing their new franchise, The Vancouver Titans. The pick up was seen as something of a coup, and fans of both Korean and Canadian esports flocked to the brand.
The team delivered on their promise, quickly establishing themselves as one of the best in the league. Setting a still-standing record of 19 wins in a row, they also went on to form a rivalry with San Francisco Shock who were vying for the top spot with similar consistency. That back and forth ended in brutally disappointing fashion in the 2019 OWL Playoff finals where they were swept 4-0 by the Californians. Runners-up once more, the team had to look to the future and had time to do so, with the off-season lasting four months.
Cutting the roster
Fast forward to May 6, 2020. With the season underway, an announcement on The Vancouver Titans website revealed that the entire roster was to be cut, including the Korean coaching staff. “We would like to thank Titans fans for your patience during this difficult period,” it read. “The organization and the team have been dealing with a very complicated situation which included sensitive information and player confidentiality made even more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The partnership with Adamas Esports Training And Performance gave the team a world-class facility to call home located in one of the top human performance centres in the country, Fortius Sport & Health,” it continued. “The team started the season with two convincing wins, but meanwhile the impact of COVID-19 was being felt across the globe and all businesses were being affected, including ours. With canceled homestands and travel increasingly limited, the players were bound to their training facility home. Once it became apparent this would be an extended situation, and out of an abundance of caution, the players were flown to their homes in South Korea to be with their families.”
It is there the players would end up staying. The organization pointed to the impracticality of trying to manage a team that wasn’t on the same continent as them, citing time differences among other logistical problems. With that, the former RunAways were back home with an uncertain future ahead of them.
The move seemed to come out of the blue and fans were divided. Some could understand that unprecedented situations would arise as the world tried to get to grips with the global pandemic. After all, the homestand model that was to be a cornerstone of the Overwatch season had already fallen by the wayside and the league had to pivot its broadcast to showing entirely online games. Others saw similar franchises working with Korean and Chinese players without having to take such drastic steps as dropping an entire roster and sensed something was amiss. Some decided that the whole situation reeked of both negligence and incompetence.
The same day, a report by Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson quoted anonymous sources that suggested the decision had more to it than meets the eye. The players said they were angry about the downgrade in the standard of accommodation, and were in the middle of contract disputes relating to salary and timeliness of payments. They were on the brink of a player strike before the pandemic lockdown even began, the article stated. It also added that an agreement to end the contract early would mean that the players would forego some of their pay. One of the team’s highest-paid players, Chan-hyung 'Fissure' Baek, refused to comply. The organization then terminated his contract for a supposed breach that they had found. An anonymous representative from the Vancouver Titans denied the characterization of events.
Just two days later, the Titans announced their new roster comprised of four different nationalities, the core of whom came from contenders team Second Wind.
It was unquestionably a downgrade in quality, and fans adjusted expectations accordingly, but there was also an acknowledgment that the roster featured some solid young players that definitely deserved a shot at the big time. They would go on to debut with two losses against the Washington and Florida franchises.
Deeply unsatisfied with how the situation transpired, an internal team source reached out to me in order to set the record straight about what happened and why the relationship degraded over time. The story that was laid out to me was one that contained multiple lessons for those who wish to learn them. If you’re a player going to compete in a foreign country, sometimes the culture shock can be too much. However, by the same token, if you’re an organization that is going to actively recruit foreign players then there is an expectation that you will at least try and contribute towards softening the hardship of such a move.
These latest allegations suggest that Vancouver Titans were woefully ill-equipped to deal with the recruitment of a Korean team and, as my source told me, were more than happy to use the global pandemic as an excuse to cut their losses.
It is claimed that the relationship had already been rocky coming into the Overwatch League’s third season, with a big bone of contention being the move to a training facility, which Vancouver Titans had constantly boasted about being “world class” and “state of the art” ever since the partnership began. Essentially, the Fortius venue was designed for athletes recovering from injuries or looking to have intense training sessions ahead of competition. As a long term living solution, it was seen as a step back for the players.
“The rooms had unpainted concrete walls and were more akin to a hotel room than an actual place you would live long term,” my source explained to me. “One of the players told me in confidence that he could not see themselves living here for an extended period of time for several reasons."
A typical evening for the players was claimed to comprise of sitting in their rooms, watching YouTube videos on their tablets until it was time to turn in before another day of practice.
“They complained about being bored but couldn’t really go anywhere as they had no easy access to public transit or transportation in general. The communications manager, Alfred, was one of the closest people with the players on a day to day, but he was often described as hard to open up to and distant from the players on a personal level. It does not help when Alfred himself couldn’t communicate with the players unless he had a translator. The translator did not have the liberty to use a taxi service or Uber and bill the company to take the players out. Despite there being a hub of Korean restaurants just a 10-minute drive away, they just stayed for the most part in the facility," they claimed.
Vancouver Titans have since disputed this particular claim after Dexerto put the allegations to them, saying that it was "untrue.”
There were questions about how exactly the players would benefit from the facility. While no-one would doubt what it could bring to someone training for a sport, it wasn’t clear exactly what they could bring to an esports competitor. As my source alleged, the players weren’t even provided with personal computers in their rooms. Instead, they had to use designated, shared computers, machines that the players would learn were also monitoring their output.
“The Adamas Esports facility was not as advanced as the Titans make it out to be. The main practice room had no windows and is actually a size just bigger than two walk-in closets in length,” we were told. “There wasn’t that much space and it seems the players made do with what they were given. This is especially exacerbated by the fact that the machines they were using were not 'personal' computers. This meant the players couldn’t stream that well because they were sharing the PC area with other teammates. Players have told me how they had data gathered their average daily screen time among other things in a survey which they thought was outright weird.”
In retrospect, a lot of the bluster around the training facility looks to have been gimmicky. My sources stated that there were no real long term benefits to being housed in the facility and it was never made clear how sporting practice would translate to tangible improvement in Overwatch. The accommodation, double rooms for players, was hotel accommodation and wasn’t really optimal for long-term living. Yes, the optics of having access to a facility such as this made the Titans look as though they were taking things seriously, but other fundamentals had already fallen by the wayside.
For example, there had been several instances where, due to a lack of translators, public appearances were awkward and confusing for all involved. This started with the unveiling of the team. The RunAway manager, Hyun-Ah ‘Flowervin’ Lee, was in attendance to be part of the announcement in Vancouver and subsequent media coverage. The way that was handled already had the Korean players wondering what they had gotten in to.
“When Flowervin was here in Vancouver she said that she spent almost all of her time in her hotel room,” they claimed. “During the “big reveal” of the team during a live hockey game, the Titans embarrassed themselves by messing up Flowervin’s name, calling her [then team coach] ‘Harsha’, to the dismay of fans. Not only that, Flowervin couldn’t speak English, and the organization didn’t even consider having an interpreter there.”
The language barrier was an issue that would rear its head time and time again. For some of the early fan meet-and-greet sessions, the players were just brought to venues without anyone being there who could act as an intermediary.
“At the first fan meet [there] was no dedicated translators at each table,” my source recalled. “Fans would just go up and hand the players a card and awkwardly try to communicate before moving to the next table to get more signatures. Knowing that the players were not comfortable speaking English, the Titans management failed to hire Korean translators or even reach out to members of the community who offered to translate as volunteers.”
Even when translators were present, they were often hired without much thought being put into them. One public Q&A session saw the organization hire an elderly translator, who, while fluent in Korean, didn’t know anything about Overwatch, esports, or gaming. As such, she had to have concepts and references explained to her while trying to translate. It didn’t make for a great experience all round.
As the realisation of the day-to-day difficulties of having a non-English speaking team started to set in, our source claims the management themselves were already beginning to feel as though they had made a mistake. The results were great, but the additional cost for smooth fan interactions, and the player’s introverted manner were causing the organization to wonder how they could profitably market the team.
“At an event in 2019, I overheard that Titans felt the players weren’t that marketable at a local level,” they said. “The roster brought with them many fans of RunAway who weren’t considered to be that important. The Canucks distanced themselves from anything relating to the legacy of RunAway or the history of the players. The Titans never hired Korean staff on their content team.”
I consulted a source who handles marketing for another Overwatch League franchise for some insight into why local marketing would be a priority over having a significant presence in South Korea.
“The concept for the league is regional, so you are going to prioritize people who can actually attend your live events," they said. "That is a huge part of the business model of the league for the teams, especially when you consider merchandise sales. The pandemic happens to have ruined that for everyone right now but creating a bond between players and your local fans that encourages them to attend your events is something crucial we are all working on.”
It begged the question then why, in a city with a significant population of Korean-Canadians, this avenue never seemed to be explored. When asked if the management had undertaken any outreach to businesses in the Korean-Canadian neighbourhoods, our source from within the team said that hadn’t occurred.
There was another issue that the Titans management seemingly hadn’t considered before they picked up a Korean team and that is the rules that have to be adhered to within the Overwatch League itself.
Due to the regional and, by extension, territorial nature of franchises, it is agreed upon that teams will not do promotional work in cities occupied by rival franchises unless it is agreed upon in advance and has a cross-promotional element. I have verified this fact with several franchise owners and staff. Despite the team having a significant following in South Korea, a source claims that they couldn’t do any marketing there as it would infringe upon Seoul Dynasty’s area and would likely cause conflict.
With such pressure to build a local fanbase, it is alleged that the Titans management wanted to control the local events that took place, meaning that there were stories of clashes with grassroots fan movements, such as the Rain City Runners group. "The watch parties set up by the local fanbase and university clubs were seen by the Titans as competitors to official watch parties of their own and staff indirectly told the clubs to stop hosting them and that they should just go to the officials," the source said. “It very much felt like they were fighting the community and wanted a monopoly on all things related to fan events.” Vancouver Titans have also told Dexerto that these allegations are "untrue."
Fans left disappointed
When all of this is factored in, the local events were of critical importance, and yet they ended up being handled very poorly. Many fans that adhered to the instructions to attend the official events were left disappointed with the experience, and groups that felt they could organize something better were left frustrated that their efforts were being suppressed by the team they supported. And while the local fans became jaded, the Korean fans are said to have been mostly ignored entirely. Social media communications were all tailored to a Western, English speaking audience, and acknowledging the Korean fans was apparently treated as an afterthought. Our source said that this was likely due to the infrastructure of the organization having numerous issues.
“For the entirety of the 2019 season, the Titans did only one hire who was given way too much work both helping host events and manage the entire community," they alleged. "They had the support of moderators on Discord, some of which were able to read and write Korean so they could translate tweets and live streams for the fans. This is something that the Titans didn’t even try to remotely do on a social media or community management level last season.”
They had also outsourced the social media output to an esports PR firm, Level 99, on the basis they had done good work for another franchise, the New York Excelsior. However, this added an extra layer of time zone issues as the person assigned to handling their social media account was based in London and didn’t speak Korean either.
All of these issues seemingly created an environment where the Titans management, and their ownership, were alleged to be exhausted by the Korean association. The alleged absence of the additional staffing and support required to build the relationship between players, fans, and brand was said to be taking its toll on all parties. By the time the 2020 season came into play, my source says that the management had already mentally tuned out of wanting to commit long-term to the players, and were mulling over other options. It's claimed that the relationship with the players had eroded to the point where management was barely communicating with them at all. Behind the scenes, moves were afoot to find players on short notice that could come in and replace the Koreans.
We spoke with someone close to the Vancouver Titans management who offered their insight on condition of anonymity. They explained that the decision to cut the players came mostly on the basis of economic considerations and that the situation with the ongoing global pandemic, while not the sole reason, was certainly the last straw.
“The team were well paid,” they explained. “I doubt anyone will go on record and say differently. There were already concerns about the connection with the fans and how the homestands in May and July were going to go, but people were optimistic. Having to cancel was really upsetting for everyone. If the homestands went ahead, I think the players would have been given more time.”
They also added that despite speculation to the contrary in the community, the decision to cut the roster was done after consultation with league operations.
My source responded by pointing out that part of the major problem with how Vancouver Titans has been run has been the focus on the business side instead of building community and taking the time to show appreciation to fans. “The story is that Francesco Aquilini thought esports would be a money-spinner after watching [Valve’s Dota 2 tournament] The International. There’s no genuine interest or enthusiasm when it comes to Overwatch,” they explained.
“At the Grand Finals the Titans didn’t have nearly as much staff representation as the SF Shock did which is disappointing. That would have been the prime time for them to really make a positive impression. Andy Miller was seen walking around talking to fans at the Fan Fest and I wish that the Titans could have done anything for the Vancouverites, people from the Pacific Northwest (their target geography) and fans from all places, who had flown into Philadelphia to cheer them on.”
Life after disaster
So what now for the players? Well, life in esports goes on for most of them. Hyeon-Woo 'JJANU' Choi and Chung-hee 'Stitch' Lee have taken spots with the Washington Justice, and Sung-jun 'SLIME' Kim has joined Seoul Dynasty. Jooseok 'Twilight' Lee joined his former rivals at San Francisco Shock.
Naturally, as they have continued to have a home in the league, they haven’t spoken of their experiences. Those in the Activision-Blizzard bubble understand that critique comes at a cost. Fissure currently has his Twitter account protected and has yet to address any of what has been reported, despite his name being the one mentioned the most in reporting around the incident.
The one player that seems to have spoken briefly about what happened was Min-soo 'SeoMinSoo' Seo. In a clip from his stream that was posted to Twitter, he said that he had an offer from another team, but the situation with Vancouver had left him “not in a good state of mind.” The clip, if translations are accurate, also alluded to him drinking to deal with the disappointment.
(북미 있을 때 스크림에서 솜트 맛깔나게 잘했다고 함)
- 근데 진짜로 개 아쉽다 난 진짜 솜트 해보고 싶었거든 우리 밴쿠버 있었을 때 대회로
- 오퍼 온 적 있긴 한데 제 입장에선 좋을 수 있어요 근데 그게 나가자마자 바로 온 거라 제 심정? 마음? 느낌으로는 '아.. 이게 해야되나' 이런 느낌? pic.twitter.com/5OHg4PIBeF
— 맥주!!!🍻 (@akdclskrktlsek) May 17, 2020
Chances are, all the players will be back in some capacity. The Overwatch League continues to play out despite the challenges placed before it, and the former Vancouver Titans roster represent some of the best players available provided the franchises they end up part of can accommodate the needs of South Korean athletes. My source says that if there is a lesson from all of this, it is that organizations should look before they leap, less everyone ends up dissatisfied with the outcome.
“I think that the organization's lack of cultural and industry knowledge, and their willingness to not make decisions on improving those, ultimately led to recent events,” they said. “The fact that they didn't initially provide a translator at local fan events and in LA should have been an early indicator that in this organization was nowhere near ready in terms of handling an immensely popular Korean roster that was going to be difficult to market to the local Pacific Northwest Market.
"I wish the organization would have done better at properly connecting with the local and grassroots supporters club because eventually, those types of fans will be the ones that would buy merch and fill the local stadiums. Now, we’ll wait and see.”
Dexerto reached out to both Vancouver Titans and the Overwatch League for comment on these latest allegations. Tim Holloway, the team's Director, released the following statement to us:
"We have certainly faced challenges this season and worked closely with our Titans players to provide all the support we could. The accommodation and training facilities were first class, having been used frequently by teams including the Toronto Raptors and several of Canada’s national teams. We carry no hard feelings and wish our former Titans nothing but success in the future."
A spokesperson for the OWL also replied on behalf of the League, and said:
“The league has been monitoring this situation, and all but one player agreed to a mutual severance, allowing those players to become free agents and sign with a new team of their choosing.”