Korea—and more specifically Seoul—is often lauded as the capital of esports. From the StarCraft boom of old to the multi-year dominance in games like League of Legends just a few years ago, South Korea is where it's at—where the highest echelons of gaming skill and discipline is achieved.
At least, that's the case for PC games. However, recently, a scene has been emerging and developing quietly. Benjamin "JJROCKETS" Rowe, a midwest resident and competitor who spent multiple years in Korea teaching English, takes us through the elusive Korean Super Smash Bros. Ultimate scene, and gives us some updates on his personal life and thoughts on the game.
Hey JJROCKETS, thanks for taking time out of your day to interview with us. First thing’s first, how has it been the last few years being an English teacher in Korea? Do any of your students play Smash?
Being an English teacher is great! The job itself is pretty fun and easy, and there are many opportunities to travel around Asia (pre-Covid at least). I teach elementary school students (grades 3-6), and I always try to talk to them and find out what they are interested in.
A few of them do play Smash and have Switches, but in Korea PC games are way more played than consoles. More of my students play Minecraft and PUBG than Smash. Unfortunately the situation never presented itself for me to bring in my Switch and have an end of year Smash party or anything like that though haha.
Related: JJROCKETS: "...the Midwest will be a contender for the best region I believe" (2017)One of the most unique things about the Korean esports scene in any game is their incredible work-ethic and approach to training. Having already been a huge grinder back when you played in the midwest USA, how has that translated to Korean Smash? Do you find others within the scene have a similar training philosophy to other big esports in the region?
The thing I've always done best was just going to as many tournaments as possible. In Chicago that meant going to all the locals and then finding the biggest tournament within a 3-4 hour drive or so from my house. In Korea the scene wasn't big enough to have locals besides a weekly practice session in Seoul. So instead, my grind was to go to tournaments in any neighboring countries that I could find cheap flights to. In 2019 I went to tournaments in the Philippines 3 times, China 3 times, Taiwan once, and Japan twice.
As for the Korean players, I think that that intense work ethic tends to apply more to games that have the infrastructure to support it. Games where young kids aspire to be full time players for a big name organization. But with Smash most of our tournaments were held at bars with bar credit prizes for the winners and without any major sponsors.
Everyone that plays does so just because they love the game. However, I do think that Korean society as a whole has very competitive elements that translate to trying to be better than your peers at everything, including Smash. There are some Korean players that do watch all the international tournaments and dream of going to a big tournament and representing Korea on the international stage. The grindiest players often practice on the Japan WiFi ladder to get practice with a much larger pool of strong players than is available in Korea.
What do you think the main things holding back the Korean Smash community at the moment are?
In the beginning, it was just the fact that the overwhelming majority of Korean players' first Smash game was Ultimate, so they were starting so far behind. When I first arrived I was dominating all the events, but as time went on the gap closed and I ended up at 4th on the last PR.
Nowadays COVID-19 is probably the biggest obstacle. At the start of 2020 there were a lot of up and coming players, and many Koreans started to travel to out of country events for the first time. The TOs had just opened up a new bigger venue to accommodate bigger monthlies, and plans were in motion to host another international tournament in Korea. But after COVID-19 hit, Korea's and the rest of Asia's mandatory 14-day hotel quarantines upon entering the country have meant it's impossible for any kind of international competition. Even within Korea we've only had one small 8 player invitational tournament since February 2020. Because the scene wasn't massive to begin with, I think that will set Korea back pretty far, especially now that events are back in full swing in America, while the vaccine rollout in Korea remains sluggish and COVID-19 restrictions remain in place with no end in sight.
What are some other fun contrasts between scenes?
Korea's Ultimate scene is really interesting in that it's split between two demographics. The first is expats like myself that have been long time fans of the series. Many are English teachers, students, US military, and tourists. However, this demographic is mostly temporary visitors to Korea, leaving after a few months to a few years. It's interesting how we always have strong players coming and going.
The second demographic is new Korean players just starting out with Ultimate. The Wii U and Smash 4 never got a Korean release, so there were only a handful of diehard fans that imported the game from Japan.
When Ultimate was new, around 60% of the tournament players were older expats in their 20s and 30s that had a strong edge over the Korean competition, but as time went on more and more younger Koreans started joining the scene and now they make up the majority of players and top spots in tournaments.
In our previous interview we discussed the balance of Sm4sh and you felt the game was very balanced. This was an uncommon opinion in a game where Bayonetta existed. How do you feel about Ultimate’s balance?
I always thought Ultimate has been incredibly well balanced. It feels like nobody has ever really agreed on who the top 5 characters are, and tournament results around the world show that you can win with a ton of different characters.
I also want to bring something else you mentioned a few years back to see if your opinion has changed. It is particularly relevant now because you’re in an entirely different country. You mentioned that you don’t really think living in any particular region holds anyone back because of the quantity of top tournaments and WiFi. So this is a multi-layered question: If we ignore COVID-19, do you maintain this opinion of regional influence? And do you still consider WiFi a viable form of training? I know there’s been arguments that Elite Smash is actually worse than For Glory.
Oh God, I will say the worst experience you could ever have in Smash is playing elite smash in Korea, but that's a story for another day LOL. I still do believe you can get really good even in an isolated region,though it is much harder. The resources nowadays to improve are better than ever, and it's so easy to find VODs of top players of your character to study.
WiFi for sure helps, but you do need to acknowledge the differences between online and offline when you play and know not to lean into online habits too hard. For example if you try to play reactionary online it doesn't work very well. This can lead you to missing out on situations that you can react to when you play offline. But if you study the game enough to recognize these situations online, you will know not to make it a habit to go for a hard read when the reactionary punish is guaranteed offline.
What does the future hold for you? Would you like to return to compete in the states if the opportunity presents itself, any plans to build up the Korean scene more? Etc
My teaching contract in Korea just finished so I'm actually returning to the states in mid September*, which will unfortunately be before any more tournaments are allowed to happen in Korea. Once I'm in America I'll likely be playing at some locals, but given the current trends on COVID-19 I don't think it would be smart to fly out to majors in the immediate future since I'll be living with at-risk family members for now. I will for sure be more involved in the scene though, and I'll have more time to focus on content creation. Eventually I'm looking to get back to teaching in Asia, but in a new country, likely Taiwan or Japan next.
* Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to SeptemberAmong the top ranked players in Korea, Tanark is the top one that hasn’t competed against Western competition. Looking at his playstyle, how do you think he would fare?
Tanark actually lived in New England for a while during Smash 4 and made the New England PR. I think he's definitely improved through Ultimate and I'd be curious to see how he does. His character, Fox, tends to have a rough time online, so he may have some catching up to do post-Covid.
Are there any rising players in the region you most think people should look out for?
I think Lynzle always had the best chances of making waves outside of Korea. Within Korea there's a ton of good players that were just starting to place high right before corona hit that could rank high in the country. To name a few off the top of my head: AD (Diddy), beanmoney (Joker), Dadudi (Yoshi) , Guma (Pacman), and Misutgaru (Luigi) were all on the way to becoming threats to the top PR players.
Have any other esports caught your eye while you were over there?
I played League of Legends a ton when I was in college. I haven't played in years but I still watch on occasion and always follow the storylines going into Worlds. My first year in Korea the World Championship was here, so I had to attend. Coincidentally that was the first time in a few years that no Korean team was in the finals haha.
Thanks again for this interview, Benjamin. Anything else you’d like to add before we close out?
I just want to say that the Korean Smash community is so friendly and chill; once Korea opens up again and can host another large scale tournament, everyone should definitely consider coming out and checking it out for themselves and see what it's all about! Or if you are ever visiting Korea be sure to check out Core-A studios for your Smash and FGC fix! Thanks for helping to shed some light on an often forgotten region in the world of Smash.
Michale 'Drexxin' Lalor is the Editor-in-Chief of Esports Heaven. Follow him on Twitter at @ESHDrexxin.
Images taken from JJRockets.com with permission from interviewee.
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