Heart of a Hooligan
"It was a knife through my back." Having played on eight different teams since Heroes of the Storm's launch, Park "Hooligan" Jong-hoon was no stranger to how cutthroat the pro scene could be. But nothing could have prepared him for this kind of betrayal.
His eyes reddened as he gazed at the message:
"We decided to go with another player. Sorry."
Hooligan had been saying it for weeks: he would quit Heroes if he failed to make it into HGC Korea. It was mostly because he couldn't imagine a scenario in which his team would lose. But now he had lost his team. Thrown into the wilderness with only five days left until the most important qualifiers of his career, Hooligan was now suddenly facing involuntary retirement.
At first he was stunned, then angry. But most of all he was sad, both at the situation and at his naiveté. He had loved this team to the point where he considered himself a fan as well as a player. Perhaps he should have been more aware of his surroundings. While he had been merrily pushing for everyone to meet offline and have lunch together before their first game, the team had actually been discussing whether or not to replace him.
Drawing up a Plan B could wait until tomorrow. Instead, he spent the night bawling his eyes out.
It makes even less sense in retrospect. Eight months ago, Hooligan was wondering if he could even make it into HGC. Now he is playing for a world-class team. That’s not quite the trajectory you would expect from a veteran player long thought to have reached his skill ceiling—but, then again, Heroes allows for some sick comebacks. From what looked to be an unsalvageable situation, Hooligan turned things around step by step, hurriedly forming team GG, making it through the qualifiers, impressing the field in Phase 1, and then being asked to join L5 after acing his tryouts.
I met Hooligan at Seoul's Jonggak Station on a rainy Saturday. He was wearing a bright blue-and-white striped polo shirt that stood out against the dreary August drizzle. If there was any irony in conducting an esports interview in the heart of old Seoul, only a stone's throw away from royal palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty, it was lost on both of us. We headed straight into a cheap cafe nearby to talk.
Hooligan isn't much of a hooligan in real life. I've talked to almost every single pro player in Korean Heroes, and Hooligan ranks among the most polite, at least based on our interactions. I expected him to carry a bit more swagger after returning from the Eastern Clash with his first international trophy, but if anything it seemed to have made him even more humble. His age (at 23, he's one of the older players in Korea) might have something to do with it, but most seems to be a result of an earnest reformation; he had a bad online reputation before realizing how important it was to maintain a good public image. Now there is a contagious gratitude about him. I wouldn't go as far as to declare him a perfect gentleman, however—the mischievous glint of his eye and occasionally colorful language suggest a wilder layer below the surface—but I doubt any of his fans would want him to be one, anyway.
One of L5's Korean nicknames is 노잼파이브—"No Fun Five." The moniker was created because all of their old squad (the 2016 roster with Chae "Noblesse" Do-joon and Park "NaCHoJin" Jin-su) would only give standard-issue answers when put on camera. When Noblesse and NaCHoJin retired and were replaced by Hooligan and Kim "SDE" Hyun-tae, many L5 fans were worried for the team's competitive chances—though they were also excited to finally have a mic-friendly figure like Hooligan on the roster.
Hooligan doesn't think of himself as particularly interesting or polished, but he does admit to being comfortable speaking in public. "I used to be class vice president in high school," he said. "I probably should have put more effort into gaming or studying, but I always loved that kind of people stuff." Compared to his notoriously reticent teammates (Kim "sCsC" Seung-chul and Lee "Jeongha" Jeong-ha being the chief offenders), Hooligan might as well be a talk-show celebrity.
No other player in Heroes has had to fill larger shoes than Hooligan—not even MVP Black's true hero Jeong "KyoCha" Won-ho, who had the near-impossible task of replacing Lee "Rich" Jae-won, then Yi "merryday" Tae-jun, in two consecutive phases. Rich and merryday may have been vital team players, but MVP Black's backbone had always been KyoCha himself.
"Noblesse is L5, and L5 is Noblesse," the Korean casters would invariably cite during every cast. It was no mere sound bite; both L5's players and their opponents would affirm it week in and week out, hailing Noblesse over and over as the greatest genius in Heroes of the Storm history. And while some experts were skeptical of such superlative descriptions, very few dared to voice it publicly during his peak; after all, even if he was not quite the "Faker of Heroes," he was still clearly the top Heroes player in the world. Even at the tail end of his career, when it was evident his interest was waning, Noblesse continued to be held in high regard and acknowledged as the heart of L5.
Since Hooligan joined L5 at the start of HGC Phase 2, whether he could ever replace Noblesse was mentioned at least once every match. Yes, the point was rehashed to death, but only because it was that important; fans would ask the same question whenever L5 would drop more than a map. It's difficult to comprehend how large a burden Hooligan has had to carry, and is still carrying despite his Eastern Clash triumph.
Yet Hooligan had been surprisingly unconcerned about it all. While he did feel massive pressure since moving to L5, he explained that it was about having joined a team with high expectations of success, not having become Noblesse's heir.
"I never really thought about how to replace Noblesse," Hooligan said. "I only thought about what we should do to win. But speaking of Noblesse, I love the guy. He's one of the very few players in the scene who is really nice and really skilled. He bought me fried chicken once when I sent him a supportive message. I paid [him] back in chickens later, of course."
"L5 is a weird team, a special team," he said, furrowing his brows. "I honestly can't think of a single moment when the team atmosphere was bad. Everyone is super chill and never puts pressure on anyone else, even when we lose important games. But we still always try really hard and never let in-game communication peter out."
The original L5 was famous for being a tight-knit bunch, even if they all didn't get out very much; the team would spend most of their vacations on Skype together playing WarCraft 3 and StarCraft custom maps. It sounded like the new L5 had retained that relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
Throughout the afternoon, Hooligan never let a chance to praise his team pass by. "If it looks like I've improved since joining, it's because I've learned to listen to our team's calls better," he said. "Individually, I don't think there has been much change. I didn't suddenly learn new moves or anything. I'm just blending in better and paying more attention to how I can set things up for our ace players, Jeongha and sCsC."
Out of all the esports champions I've interviewed, Hooligan felt the least like one. His attitude towards his own presence in esports in unique. Whenever he spoke of his recent success ("I worked hard and played well but I still feel absurdly lucky"), previous lack thereof ("I had to work day jobs for most of it"), or even his future ("Maybe when it all ends I'll start learning a trade"), he sounds comfortable with the ephemeral nature of fame. There is a tranquility in his acceptance of the fact that none of his achievements are guaranteed to last. Hooligan is very much living in the moment.
In this particular moment, as we begin to wrap up our interview in the cafe, his face is lit up with happiness as we begin talking about two female fans in Taipei who ran up and asked for a photo. He had never been stopped for photos on the street before. "I couldn't believe that I had fans," he said. "I was so, so happy and thankful. And I'm still so happy and thankful."
"And to think only six months ago I was on the brink of quitting Heroes forever," Hooligan said, and smiled. "Life is so strange, isn't it?"