The Journey of Ryu Je-hong — Charting the Evolution of a King
Before he was bathed in the opulence of his fans adoration, before he was widely considered to be the best Overwatch players in the world, Ryu Je-hong was much like you or I. He was someone who sat awake conjuring up vespertine thoughts of cheering crowds and the bright lights of performing on stage. Ryu Je-hong was self admittedly a dreamer. It was his dream since a young age, to pursue his passion of video games and achieved status and stature within a scene that aligned itself with his interests. But it was not a meteoric rise to greatness, Ryu Je-hong had countless divites in his own personal “path to pro.” This is the evolution of a king begrudgingly entering esports deflated and undergoing the metamorphosis into a multiple time domestic champion in numerous FPS titles.
Before he was the immovable leader of the Seoul Dynasty Overwatch League team that we know and love, he was a small Counter Strike (CS) 1.6 player who went by the name “ninja.”
The “ninja” Era
(circa 2011, WEG’s e-Stars Seoul)
“Probably around grade 4, when I started playing Counter Strike. Before that, I did go to an arcade near my area, but it was replaced by a PC cafe. I used to follow some of the older kids to the cafe, and tried CS for the first time.” In an collaboration with Daily eSports and Akshon Esports, Ryu Je-hong gave an interview that was equal parts incredibly candid and insightful into his humble beginnings in competitive gaming. “My first tournament was in grade 8, when I participated in the WCG Korea qualifiers.” Before he was collecting trophies in Overwatch, Ryu Je-hong slogged through almost two decades of FPS experience between Counter Strike and many other Korean FPS games.
After his victory in CS Online the clan Regular Season 1 Ryu Je-hong was given an opportunity to join the Lunatic-Hai roster as it journed to WEG’s e-Stars Seoul in 2011. Ryu “ninja” Je-hong played had a brief stint in Lunatic-Hai’s CS 1.6 team before moving to more domestic FPS titles like CS Online and Special Forces. The only problem being that Lunatic-Hai had closed operations of the CS team almost 2 years prior, citing the heavy focus on Starcraft and a floundering FPS market. Ryu Je-hong had shown enough promise to join the team as they pulled Lunatic-Hai out of retirement and attempted for one last hurrah at e-Stars Seoul 2011.
Lunatic-Hai’s Counter Strike 1.6 team was aged much past its prime. With players dropping to rival teams and teammates having to leave to attend their compulsory military service, but nevertheless Lunatic-Hai entered the e-Stars Seoul with an untested roster. Their first round opponents were the strongest team in the world at the time, GeT_RiGhT’s SK Gaming. Ryu Je-hong and Lunatic-Hai looked ahead towards the losers bracket as they were quickly dispatched on Inferno 3-16. In their losers bracket match they pair off against Ultimax Gaming Taiwan, but Lunatic-Hai would fall flat again with a 3-16 loss on Train. Ryu Je-hong and the reburbished Lunatic-Hai were sadly no match for the level of competition that was at the event. They walked away with some amazing experiences, but no trophy to speak of. Much like his namesake of “ninja”, Ryu Je-hong came into CS 1.6 quietly to a fault. Lunatic-Hai extied WEG’s e-Stars Seoul event at 13-16th place.
Enter STX SouL
After competing and winning a local PC Bang tournament for the FPS game Special Forces 2 (SF 2), Ryu Je-hong was drafted to join the STX SouL esports organization for the upcoming Special Force 2 Pro League Season. It would be here that Ryu Je-hong would meet his long time teammates and dear friends, Kim “EscA” In-jae and Lee “LEETAEJUN” Tae-jun. The SK Telecom SF2 Proleague Season 1 would be his first true foray into the harsh world of South Korean esports, but STX SouL would fall short and regroup for Season 2.
The 4G LTE Special Force 2 Pro League Season 2 would usher in Ryu Je-hong’s first title major title reign after STX SouL’s victory over SK Telecom T1 in the final. He and close confidant, Kim “EscA” In-jae would be integral members of the team and it was under the tutelage of the STX brand that they both would become legendary FPS leaders in their own rights. Sadly shortly after their championship win, STX parted ways with Ryu Je-hong and the STX SouL Special Forces 2 roster officially on September 1, 2013.
Returning as a Lunatic
After the collapse of the Special Forces 2 Proleague and the disbandment of the STX SouL Special Forces 2 roster, Ryu Je-hong refused to sit still and his urges lead him back to his roots within Lunatic-Hai. Ryu Je-hong started with Counter Strike and now he would return to it, as he joined the Lunatic-Hai as captain for the CS Online “The Challenge” Tournament that was hosted by GomTV.
Lunatic-Hai consistently had great performances throughout the round of eight trouncing over their opponents in dominant fashion. In the grand final against Project KR, Lunatic-Hai came close to another championship win, but would crash just before reaching the finish line. Losing both Inferno (9-16) and Train (10-15) Lunatic-Hai would bow out of the CS Online “The Challenge” Tournament at second place.
This defeat would lead into Ryu Je-hong taking his leave from competitive gaming for a time as he still had to complete his compulsory military service.
Climbing to the APEX
Ryu Je-hong returned from his military duties on May 25th 2016, one day late for the release of Overwatch. In the beginning, Ryu Je-hong admittedly was not fond of the game when he first tried it, but after the competitive modes were added in, he quickly began his climb to the top. He reunited with EscA and Lee Tae-jun and formed the core of Lunatic-Hai’s famed Overwatch roster that lead into the first season of OGN’s APEX Overwatch League.
Leading into the first season of the Overwatch APEX League, Inven held the Overwatch Power League - Preseason event which was the first time the world was able to see Lunatic-Hai in action. With the roster of EscA, Tobi, dean, Leetaejun, Miro, and Ryujehong they approached the tournament as slight favorites as five of the six members had previous experience in other FPS titles. Lunatic-Hai took an easy win over AIM Arrow 3-0, but fell at the hands of the eventual champions LW Red.
(Lunatic-Hai, circa 2016)
The next event would see Lunatic-Hai travel to China for the APAC Premier 2016. Lunatic-Hai would enter the tournament as favorites and they would traverse the group stage as such, only dropping 1 map to Rogue. In the playoffs Lunatic-Hai coasted to the grand final, taking a 3-0 victory over Vici Gaming and a 3-1 victory of the North American team NRG Esports. Rogue wished for a rematch against Lunatic-Hai and that is just what they got, but in an odd turn of events, Rogue upset the South Korean hopefuls in a best of seven, 4-1.
In an interview with Akshon Esports, Ryujehong refused to be debilitated by the loss in China. “Our goal is to win, and nothing else.” Lunatic-Hai’s fearless leader stood strong in the face of a disappointing loss. He projected strength and confidence to his teammates and fans alike as continued his foresight on the finals for APEX Season 1. “For the finals opponent, we desperately want to see Rogue. We were frustrated from that loss in China.” After making it out as the first seed in their group, Lunatic-Hai lost against KongDoo Uncia in a shocking 0-3 upset. Once again, Lunatic-Hai and Ryu Je-hong for that matter had faltered. Again, this failure to close the deal would plague them at their next event; IEM Gyeonggi as they fell against LW Red once again and would capture second place.
2017 would see a new and reinvigorated Lunatic-Hai. It was a new year and a new Lunatic-Hai as the young prodigy Lee "Whoru" Seung Joon would be a key addition to the team after some unfortunate events that lead to the early exit of dean and Leetaejun. Ryu Je-hong and Lunatic-Hai would once again take first in their group, going 3-0 (9-1). They would find themselves in the same predicament as APEX Season 1, where they would look to be in prime form to succeed, but could they? Lunatic-Hai was seated into their playoff group which included the likes of RunAway, KongDoo Uncia, and Team EnVyUs. With a 3-0 victory of the Season 1 champions, Team EnVyUs, Lunatic-Hai advanced to face RunAway for a spot in the semi-finals. The odd inconsistency of Lunatic-Hai reared its ugly head once more as they narrowly lost to RunAway 3-2, but would easily defeat KongDoo Uncia 3-0 to secure their spot in the semi-finals. Lunatic-Hai just barely defeated rookie team Meta Athena for their ticket to the grand final where they would face off in a rematch against RunAway for the APEX Season 2 trophy.
* * *
“Our goal is to win, and nothing else.” — Ryu Je-hong
* * *
Everything accumulated into this moment. All the hardship, all of the experience, all 20 some-odd years of FPS training boiled down to one best of seven - and they did it, but more importantly Ryu Je-hong managed to overcome his demons and final return to the throne with a major title under his belt. This victory would bear new fruits for the team as they continued to perform well leading into APEX Season 3 and repeat their victory in stunning fashion against KongDoo Panthera for the APEX Season 3 title. Unfortunately they would not make a 3-peat as Lunatic-Hai floundered out of APEX Season 4 at 5-6th place after being upset by rookie team, and eventual champions, GC Busan.
Lunatic-Hai would undergo some core changes under the hood and added some all-star caliber talent to their roster in the form of Kim "Fleta" Byung-sun, Koo "xepheR" Jae-mo, and Byeon "Munchkin" Sang-beom. Under Ryu Je-hong’s lead as captain, Lunatic-Hai would defeat an undefeated Chinese powerhouse in the form of Miraculous Youngster and would capture the Seoul Cup Supermatch title over Cloud 9 KongDoo, 3-1.
The Seoul Cup Supermatch would ultimately mark the end of many things, one of them being the Lunatic-Hai roster, but not in a somber way. The roster itself wasn’t breaking apart, but merely being rebranded as the Seoul Dynasty for the upcoming Overwatch League.
The Once and Future King
After almost two decades which traversed handfuls of games, Ryu Je-hong finally sat comfortable in his throne, not only a decorated champion domestically and internationally, but he rested as one of the best players in Overwatch to date. He not only lead his team, but Ryu Je-hong would end up leading and representing his country at both the 2016 and 2017 Overwatch World Cup. Ryu Je-hong and the rest of team South Korea would end up dominating the competition in 2016 and would retain his and South Korea’s title as the Overwatch World Cup champions. Another brilliant accomplishment would happen later in 2017, as Ryu Je-hong was nominated for the “Esports Player of the Year” at the 2017 Game Awards after only a years worth of playing on the global stage.
If there was ever to be one, Ryu Je-hong is undoubtedly Hall of Fame material. His name is synonymous with his signature hero Ana and amazing support play. With his pedigree within esports and competitive gaming, Ryu Je-hong looks to lead the Seoul Dynasty to another title as they approach the inaugural season of the long awaited Overwatch League, set to take place in Los Angeles, California.
The evolution of Ryu Je-hong shares some parallels with some of the greatest stories ever told. A boy who dreams of success on a grand scale chases his dreams. Through the twisting and winding valley of fate, he finishes his journey meeting his goals which superseded his expectation ten fold.
Ryu Je-hong now stands at the cusp of not the end of his story, but merely the beginning of a tale that will shape the narrative of Overwatch esports forever. As captain, support, and king.
Joseph “Volamel” Franco has followed esports since the MLG’s of 2006. He started out primarily following Starcraft 2, Halo 3, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. He has transitioned from viewer to journalist and writes freelance primarily about Overwatch and League of Legends. If you would like to know more or follow his thoughts on esports you can follow him at @Volamel.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment, GomTV, Inven, and the Seoul Dynasty.