They say mother knows best, and some would say no one knows better than 35-year-old Susie "lilsusie" Kim. For nearly a decade "The Esports Mom," a self-given title, has been guiding young pro gamers and newer colleagues through the chaotic and convoluted workings of the esports industry. Her background is well suited for it: a passion for gaming, bilingual, a degree in developmental psychology (and English), and a crack at a school counseling degree so she could "counsel them when they're young before they f--- up their lives."
While that may sound stern, esports is notoriously fueled by younger demographics. The insight and presence is appreciated by many.
"Even off-air, she takes care of the people who work in this industry like they are family," said freelance caster Wolf Schröder.
A unique approach to her work and her compassion and dedication to the people around her has paid off. Since she is able to speak Korean and English, big-name teams like SK Telecom T1 and Jin Air from South Korea have utilized her translation services, both in sponsor interviews and tournaments abroad. Numerous Western outlets, including CBSi, theScore and Twitch, and tournaments needing translation work, have looked to Kim for help navigating these waters and delivering content.
In the end, Kim says she's probably the most connected person in esports, and Kelsey Moser, a veteran writer currently at theScore, mostly agrees.
"By virtue of being bilingual and traveling to many events, you'll naturally have more contacts than most people in esports," Moser says. "But I also think just the fact that she is quite approachable and outgoing makes it possible for her to have a lot of friends and connections. In terms of her being the most connected in all of esports? Well, that's a good question. It may be true in [League of Legends]."
Kim first made a name for herself as one of the earliest translators in StarCraft; she started by helping Western fans connect to pro players in South Korea during the Brood War days in 2007. As a result, her name and personality is one that many fans have come to know. But in order to truly understand Kim, we need to go back to 1984.
A cultural and linguistic foundation
Growing up as Korean-American, Kim's life has parallels to other esports personalities, such as William "Chobra" Cho and Sue "Smix" Lee. At the same time, her experience has its own uniqueness.
Kim and her family immigrated to the United States in 1984 when she was 3 years old, settling in New Jersey. She grew up in an "slightly above middle class" Korean-American family, as she puts it, with a younger brother as her only sibling. Because he was nine years younger, Kim said she was stuck babysitting him a lot while her parents worked.
Growing up in the 1980s and '90s in the U.S. was different than it is today in a cultural sense for Korean-Americans. "The mentality of the people were different," Kim said. "It wasn't as accepting and available like it was for Chobra or Smix growing up."
Kim said her mom would pack her lunch and include a kimbap. At school, kids would inquire to its contents, and after learning it was rice wrapped in seaweed, they reacted about as well as expected with a chorus of "ewww."
These days, South Korean culture is a cool thing to be part of, a big contrast from the days when she'd eat South Korean food and people would see it as an alien cuisine. "People really like South Korean food like South Korean barbeque," she said. "It's really hip."
"At the end of the day, my advisor was like, 'You know, instead of doing computer science, [which is something] you're really bad at, why don't you just major in English and Psych?'"
There were fun ways that she kept up a cultural interest, like purchasing, listening to, and reading the lyrics of one of the most celebrated pop artists in South Korea: Seo Taiji and the Boys. Language was another big connector. At school, she spoke English. At home, she spoke Korean, keeping her fluent in both languages. Her mother also tried convincing her to go to a Korean school, but Kim said that it didn't quite stick.
Kim attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for her undergraduate studies, double majoring in English literature and psychology. "I actually jumped around a lot of majors including, like, computer science. And I actually did education first. But at the end of the day, I enjoy reading ... I took a lot of English literature courses 'cause I just wanted to read a big spectrum of books. And then I did a lot of developmental psychology classes just 'cause I was interested in that."
Eventually, all of the interesting coursework caught the attention of the school adviser. "At the end of the day, my adviser was like, 'You know, instead of doing computer science, [which is something] you're really bad at, why don't you just major in English and psych?' I had enough credits that I would be able to double major," Kim says. "So, I did."
After graduating in 2004, Kim traveled to South Korea to teach English. "I didn't really have many other job opportunities, and ... I mean, I had a degree in English literature," Kim said. "My parents were like, 'Oh, you need to go back to [South] Korea to learn your culture.'" Though she could've gone elsewhere to teach English, Kim said the existing connection ultimately led her there. "My mom also wanted me to spend more time with my grandma and get to know my culture better."
The transition from one country to the other wasn't easy. There were the obvious cultural differences, and she also needed to double down on knowing when to use formal and informal versions of the language. It was Kim's first time truly living on her own. Three years later, Kim decided she'd return to the U.S. to further her teaching career at Purdue University in Indiana. The degree? School counseling.
"I had been an English teacher in [South] Korea for years, at that point. So I figured it'd just help my career," Kim said. School counseling sounded like a logical step.
"When I started psychology, it was more developmental psychology. And ... it really interested me. Like, all the factors that help our development," Kim said. "It naturally made me interested in counseling. And since I had been working with students I figured school counseling would have been the best fit." Maybe it's from years of experience watching over high-school-aged teenagers, but Kim is very upfront about it all; she wanted to help the kids before they made any bad decisions.
Despite her intentions, Kim didn't complete the degree. She moved back to South Korea in 2007. "That was 2007. And it was probably the worst year of my life," Kim said. "It was just a really bad time for me. I just wanted to get away from it all and move on to a different environment."
Diving into esports
In a blog entry from 2008, Kim wrote, "I've been a fan of StarCraft since 2004 - when [South Korean esports TV networks] MBC and OGN were my only friends in lonely Cheongju, Korea."
But it wasn't until BlizzCon in 2005 that Kim by chance attended a party with legendary StarCraft commentator Nick "Tasteless" Plott and then-SC pro player Kang "Nal_rA" Min. When she saw there was a community in the West fervently celebrating Brood War, she wanted in. "I kind of fell into this space," she said. The people at the party were really welcoming, she recalls. So much so that a member of the Team Liquid forums, photographer and reporter Michelle "mnm" Martinez, commented that despite a lot of women coming in and out of esports, she felt Kim would be sticking around for a while.
The first big event that Kim worked was the World Cyber Games Finals 2007 in Seattle; a Korean translator was desperately needed for an onstage interview.
"I had been there to help out an esports coverage website, to translate for them. So [Song "Stork" Byung Goo] was the winner [for StarCraft]. And, his translator for some reason was MIA, I think she was stuck in traffic or something? And so, he's like, on stage and they're trying to do this big press conference and there's no translator. And literally, the best I remember it, is someone just goes, 'Hey, that girl, she can speak Korean.'"
Kim was baffled. "And I was like, what? Because I'm just literally, on the sideline. Then I see just like a bunch of people, literally waving me over with their hands. They're [saying] come on over here! They [were] like, 'Can you translate for this?' I was like, 'Oh, uh, OK?' Then they just literally put me on stage." She said, "I was probably like, 'What the f--- just happened?'"
That moment pointed her firmly in a direction that would take her under the lights and behind the scenes of esports.
Her experiences teaching those high-school-aged kids aided in the quick transition to dealing with pro players from South Korea; most pro players are in that age bracket. "It 100 percent transferred over from dealing with high school students. I like working with high school age boys, because I can understand why they act the way they do."
Though much of the work Kim has done over the years has been as a translator for live events like the Intel Extreme Masters World Championships, she has built up a sheet of other on-camera duties. She's most recently been an English caster for games like World of Tanks and Point Blank for South Korean broadcaster OGN, and an interviewer for many Western outlets.
In addition to translating South Korean esports content to the non-Asian fanbase in an official capacity, she often reveals quick, less formal glimpses behind the scenes through social media channels. This uniqueness makes Kim a sought-out source for many fans devoted to certain players or teams. It's not unusual to see pictures of Kim with players (sometimes donning a flower crown) watching a match. Video clips pop up, too - like another favorite, Impin' Ain't Easy featuring pro League of Legends player Gu "Imp" Seung-bin. Fans are delighted to see another side to their favorite pro players, and Kim has the access and the people skills to make that happen.
Fork in the road
In 2011, Kim came to a crossroads. For one, she has said on a variety of interviews and vlogs that she lost the passion for StarCraft when it transitioned from StarCraft: Brood War to StarCraft II in mid-2010. It was time, Kim felt, to take a break. "I thought, I'm also 30. I should stop these shenanigans with video games ... I had always divided [my life]. Esports was a hobby, and my career is in teaching."
So, Kim took a two-year hiatus, using the time to complete a master's degree program in applied linguistics and English language teaching in England.
She couldn't stay away. Near the end of 2013, the timing coinciding with the Season 3 League of Legends World Championship, Kim decided to make her way back into esports. "I guess what compelled me to come back was just, I finished my degree, I came back, I taught. And then, I realized I still enjoyed competitive video games. I enjoyed watching it."
When she returned, she saw a huge discrepancy between the esports content that was available in the West and what was available in South Korea. People like Travis Gafford were filling a content gap in North America that wasn't available in South Korea.
Kim saw an opportunity.
She landed a gig as the Korean esports correspondent for the now-infamous ESports Global Network, and had the chance to reconnect and re-forge the connections that she had made. Though the company was marred by murky circumstances, the role allowed her to step back into the scene that she had left. Then, in the later months of 2014, Kim was hired on by OGN to become their global project manager, re-opening the path into Korean esports.
Taking a step back
Contributing to various esports communities like the aforementioned StarCraft, StarCraft II and League of Legends, Kim trucks along as a freelance translator/interpreter. She additionally works with the streaming titan Twitch, primarily helping the Korean branch of the platform establish itself within South Korea.
Despite all the time she's spent in front of the camera, Kim said that it's something that she won't continue doing for the rest of her career. "I want to transition myself away from the stage to a more backstage role," she said. "Ideally, I'd like to work in operations and team management or something similar."
In the end, it stems from being an Esports Mom. "So, I enjoy doing that - I enjoy being player manager. For the last few IEMs, I know I go as translator, but I also go as the Korean team manager," Kim said. "Just to make sure that they get their food vouchers, [and] I tell them what time they have to be somewhere. So, I take care of them in that way."
That care doesn't stop at just Korean players. When foreign players travel to South Korea to bootcamp against the best in the world, she's there to be the bridge between the two cultures.
"In that way, it kind of ties into being a teacher, right? I like being in charge, and I like making sure that everything gets done."
Ultimately, Kim feels that her place at the intersection of multiple worlds helps her provide something different to the industry. "And now as I grow older, being on stage is ... I mean, I enjoy being on stage too, I definitely do. I love being talent. But, I think that my skills can be used elsewhere. And especially because I'm one of the older people in the industry right now, I'm in a really unique position to be able to do that."