OnAir: The father of Korea’s first dynasty, and the most underrated coach in history

Oddball 2020-12-01 10:56:17


It’s hard to be more off-the-radar than Kang "OnAir" Hyun-jong. A skilled coach more experienced than maybe anyone in the industry. A brilliant leader with countless successes under his belt. And a man with true love for esports, who accelerated League of Legends into the modern era. Despite all this, OnAir’s name barely registers with fans. Though it isn’t too surprising a Korean coach isn’t more well known to Western fans (partly because his tag is the most unsearchable name imaginable), he shouldn’t be. OnAir is one of the greatest and most influential figures in the game’s history. A story of success, trailblazing, and stirring passion. A Storied Coaching Career Although his name is frustrating, it’s certainly fitting (and not only because of his time acting in Korean dramas). OnAir’s career in esports originally began as a caster for the Korean television channel MBC Game, commentating for games like StarCraft and WarCraft III. This was around the time League of Legends wasn’t very popular in South Korea, with people having to deal with North American ping just to play the game. Despite this, future legends like MadLife and Woong were already honing their skills, forming a team to compete at the 2011 World Cyber Games. The team had many informal names, but eventually settled as Maximum Impact Gaming. It was here OnAir found his first role in the new game, brought on as a manager to help with team scheduling. Although they failed to qualify for the tournaments, OnAir clearly impressed, soon given larger responsibilities as the team’s new coach. So would begin a long and storied coaching career. Maximum Impact Gaming split up into MiG.Ice and MiG.Fire, but through sponsorships and better poetry, became Azubu Frost and Azubu Blaze.  Note: To stay consistent and avoid confusion, I’ll refer to these teams as simply as Frost and Blaze; rather than cycle through a windstorm of MiG, Azubu, CJ Entus madness. OnAir’s coaching of the two teams was incredibly impressive. Let’s ignore the fact that he coaches two teams at the same time for almost three years. The results speak for themselves. In this time period, Frost and Blaze became one of the most legendary dynasties the game has seen. Frost made it to the finals of three OGN Champions seasons, won in the summer of 2012, and made the finals of the Season 2 World Championship. Additionally, for almost two years, they never lost earlier than the semifinals in any tournament they played. Blaze posted similarly amazing results. They won two MLG tournaments, an IEM World Championship, and made the finals of two OGN Champions seasons, winning one. Their success in competition both domestically and internationally was the first of any Korean teams. SK Telecom T1, Samsung White, and DAMWON Gaming have been some of the greatest teams ever. All followed in the footsteps of Frost and Blaze, the original kings of Korea. The fact that OnAir (along with Kezman) was able to coach both teams at the same time defies understanding. Like all great coaches, OnAir experienced speed bumps. Going into 2014, it was clear other teams had passed the old titans. Compared to organizations like SK Telecom T1, Samsung, and KT Rolster, Frost and Blaze seemed tired and antiquated. It was almost painful watching the former giants shrivel up and die to stronger opponents. OnAir’s career seemed to turn a new leaf in 2015, after Riot rules forced the two teams (now known as CJ Entus Frost and CJ Entus Blaze) to merge. The singular CJ Entus found success, placing third in that year’s iterations of Spring and Summer Champions. After summer, however, OnAir would cut ties with the organization and the team he helped build. After his end with CJ, OnAir’s performance did not match up with his previous greatness. Although at times respectable, the results on Afreeca Freecs, the ROX Tigers, and Hanwha Life Esports were less than impressive. None of these teams ever made it past 5th place in an LCK season. Though never leading a team to their destruction, and performing far above expectations with Afreeca Freecs, middle-of-the pack placements weren’t up to his former standards. Even so, it’s impressive that OnAir was able to coach to a decent level for so long. That, on top of him recently coaching Detonation FM to a LJL 2020 Spring victory, and it’s clear he still has talent as a coach. There’s also the matter of him shaping some of the best players of all time. A skilled scout, OnAir recruited and trained some of the all time legends in Korean esports. Reapered, Shy, Ambition, and MadLife still stand as some of the greatest players of all time. Gods of their respective positions. All found their start with OnAir. OnAir doesn’t have a flawless career, but his track record as a coach is one of the greatest we’ve seen. One doesn’t need a history entirely glittered with gold to be one of the best. His career isn’t as stellar as the likes of Kkoma, but for every Phil Jackson there’s a Rudy Tomjanovich. A lesser legend, but a legend nonetheless. Innovator The upheavals he has caused the game have often been overlooked. Being involved since the very beginning of its competitive scene, many of OnAir’s contributions are still felt to this day. His commitment to being the best and looking for any advantage possible has made for some exciting innovations. He is credited with being among the first teams to have a team house. What was truly remarkable, he did so with no proven success. MiG for a while did not have any strong results, but OnAir viewed a team house early on as a necessary investment to improve.
As mentioned before, the idea of dedicated practice squads at the time was a foreign concept. Considering the lack of strong teams they could practice against, Woong and OnAir found it to be the perfect supplement to making sure their team stayed in form. It did a lot more than that.  Not only did it develop Blaze into one of the best teams, but actually worked strategically for Frost. See, Blaze would go out and scrim as many teams as possible. They would then replicate the different styles they observed teams having when playing Frost, who exclusively scrimmaged them. This gave Frost an enormous advantage over international teams, who never really knew how the Korean team played. Sister teams and internal scrimmaging are something we still see today in the form of Academy teams. OnAir was arguably the first to utilize such a tactic. Even if you argue others came before him, there’s no doubt he was the first to do so successfully. Seeing the strength of Frost and Blaze clearly resonated with other organizations, as teams fielding two rosters became a standard practice throughout the world.  Something else interesting OnAir pioneered was the standard seating order. Take a look at the Season One World Championship. Notice the order of the players in their respective roles: 
Before the Korean coach, seating order was largely ignored. Again seeking any edge, OnAir had his players in the order of Top - Jungle - Mid - ADC - Support. By allowing the jungler to see the solo laners’ monitors, ganking would become a much smoother process. Shortly after this became standard, and still is today.  Love of League The final (and in my opinion, most important) reason OnAir deserves our respect is his passion for the game. Very few figures in League of Legends have such a tender love for the game, and gaming in general. Looking at his history, it’s clear the man breathes esports. We talked about how OnAir helped foster Blaze, and as a result, Reapered into legendary status. The story goes beyond in-game coaching. See, before being recruited to Blaze, Reapered actually had his own team he was going to use his savings for support. This didn’t work out. After all his work saving money to run the team, he fell victim to fraud, scammed out of all his money. Without funds for his team or himself, Reapered’s future in the game looked uncertain. With that in mind, let’s see OnAir’s account of Blaze’s creation. “At the time, having formed team ACE, Reapered was prepared to commit his own personal savings to running the team. But he fell victim to a scam and lost all the money he'd saved from his previous jobs. He no longer had the necessary funds to run a team. As I witnessed his misfortune, I thought that even just for the sake of the game's competitive development, Reapered must stay in League of Legends. So I invited a now homeless Reapered to our team house, gave him my spot, and began to commute. Originally, the plan had been to find Reapered another team to join, but that didn't work out. After deliberating on what to do, I decided to take Cpt Jack, Reapered, and additionally, Ambition, and create a second team. Then, with the addition of two more members, Blaze was created.” That is passion. That is love. OnAir could’ve easily ignored the situation. He could’ve even seen it as an opportunity to eliminate one of the biggest threats in his region. But he saw something else. He saw Reapered’s potential for greatness, someone who could help his organization climb to the next level, and be an indispensable figure to the game. And he was right. Speaking of the team house he talked about, that’s another display of OnAir’s dedication. The team at the time of their first gaming house didn’t have any proper sponsors, only Woong’s family offering a few offices in their building. Even with this, the team’s players needed to convince their families to let them move in. If they pulled that off, they still needed steady income to manage team expenses.  For the first problem, OnAir individually visited each player’s parents to talk about them becoming professional gamers. He even showed them a PowerPoint presentation (probably the coolest ever) to show the benefits. Doing so, he got their permission. With a house set up and the team ready to go, they still needed funds to run the house. Their coach was on the job again. OnAir funded the team’s expenses using money from his casting career, as well as supplementary income he’d make at fish markets selling squid. Say what you want about how great of a coach Kkoma is, he’s never done anything as badass as have his dynasty built off the back of squid sales.    The most recent (and in some ways, most powerful) example can be found watching this:  
Rough to watch. OnAir found himself in a situation where he was forced to relegate the Jin Air GreenWings, one of Korea’s most beloved teams. OnAir is quoted saying “I cannot say I’m really happy that we won, it’s really sad because we’ve been together for a long time and Jin Air was always doing their best, their players were doing their best.”  Just listening to him, it’s clear to anyone how much he cares about the teams, the players, and the game. His experience and knowledge in many ways is unparalleled, but his passion is what touches me most. Conclusion I hope OnAir continues to find success wherever he ends up in esports. A man of so much experience, innovation, and passion is someone we would be unfortunate to lose. He stands as one of the greatest figures not just in Korea, but all of League of Legends.
If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @OddballCreator. Images courtesy of CSN, ESL, MLG, Azubu, and Riot Games.

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