Before he was a three-time world champion and considered the greatest coach League of Legends has ever seen, Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun sat in a booth made for one, a nervous smile on his boyish face, before his professional gaming debut. The year is 2010 and StarCraft II is just starting to take shape as an esport in South Korea and worldwide. Under the ID "LittleBoy," kkOma took his first steps into the world of esports as a Terran player, defeating Zerg opponent Cho "jookTo" Man-hyuk to advance from the first round. Afterward, he cited how shaky he was in the booth, even admitting to English commentator Dan "Artosis" Stemkoski that he chain-smoked before the match to try to cool his nerves.
While his first televised match was a success, kkOma's impact on the StarCraft II scene would be nothing more than a small blip on the esports radar. His run in the Global StarCraft League would end in the second round, and his results would only drop from there. With the debut of League of Legends as a game in South Korea and another rising esports scene on the horizon, kkOma shifted his attention and eventually became the starting jungler for the club Startale. He played in the inaugural OGN Champions season alongside still professional players Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook and Go "Score" Dong-bin, hoping to have better luck with his nerves in a team game rather than an isolated individual competition.
kkOma only lasted a single season as a professional player in League of Legends; his overall record in the main Champions tournament was a resounding one win and two losses. He ended his pro career with six kills, seven deaths and 18 assists. The one time he saw the words "Victory" across his screen as a pro League player was with a jungle Riven over future international rival Fnatic.
Five years since that lone victory as a pro player, kkOma is the gold standard for all coaches to follow in League of Legends. Nothing more than cannon fodder as a pro player, he has risen up the ranks to become the strategic brain behind six domestic championships, three world titles and various other conquests across the globe. The youthful smile as an aspiring pro has transformed into the stern, determined face of a coach that expects nothing less than perfection from his players at all times.
Coaches and the word "scapegoat" often pair together in League of Legends. When a team fails, a head coach is often the first to go. Coaches switch teams yearly, in between splits, or even during the course of the regular season. Especially in the West, the coach is routinely the last piece of the puzzle instead of the linchpin. Players are more important than coaches, with the exception of a few clubs, and the style of a team is dictated by the players, not the coach or his own schemes.
kkOma, the same person who clutched at his chest to calm himself down as a StarCraft II rookie, grew up to smash all those preconceptions. Over the years, even when he has directed his team to win after win, it has never been enough for him. He is never satisfied. In his three runs to the world title, he has done it with three different top laners. Each time the roster has a different atmosphere from the last, but still holds onto the foundation kkOma's built throughout his tenure.
The lineage of SKT's success over the past four years can be traced to two people: kkOma, the coach, and Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, the player. One is far and away the most accomplished coach of all time in League, and the other is the undisputed best to ever download the League of Legends client. Names have come and gone throughout the three world titles and countless domestic victories, but those two, the teacher and the student, have persisted, not unlike the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and Tom Brady or the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich and recently retired Tim Duncan.
Even so, even with the man nicknamed "God" under his tutelage, kkOma has never pampered or held his superstar up on a pedestal. When the common thought would be that the rest of the team besides Faker would have substitutes behind them, it's actually been the bottom lane that kkOma has praised as the team's backbone, not having a backup in place for either AD carry Bae "Bang" Jun-sik or support Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan. Wolf, who at times has struggled to keep himself in the Challenger ladder online and has struggled onstage, has always had the confidence of kkOma behind him. Faker, on the other hand, has almost always had a midlane sub behind him since the abolishment of sister teams at the start of 2015, the most famous example being when kkOma started Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon in the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational Finals against China's EDward Gaming over Faker.
EDG won the series 3-2, with Faker subbing in after the series was tied 1-1. That would be the last time kkOma would leave Faker on the bench for an important final. Since then, the team has won two world titles and three South Korean crowns, and exacted revenge at MSI, winning the 2016 edition with a 3-0 sweep over North America's Counter Logic Gaming.
When it comes to bringing in new players, no matter how skilled or accomplished they were in the past, they must conform to kkOma's way of playing. This has never been more apparent than with his 2017 team, as two of the more aggressive, offensive-focused talents in the world, top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon and Han "Peanut" Wang-ho signed with the team. The process hasn't always been seamless, especially in the case of Peanut, who was benched a few times during the spring split, but the end product has exemplified kkOma's artistic brilliance.
SKT look to paint Summoner's Rift every time they load into a new game, and the players are how kkOma expresses himself; what he wasn't capable of reaching as a player himself, possibly due to his own nerves and self-confidence, he's achieving through his players and their steely resolve.
His team not only likes him but respects him. When SKT won its third world title last October, two-time champion Bae "Bang" Jun-sik bought his coach a Rolex as a thank you for leading SKT to back-to-back Summoner's Cups. Most of the furniture in kkOma's apartment was bought by his players. Although gruff in his demeanor at times, a scowl prominent on his face following a game that wasn't executed to his liking, his players, from the past to the present, credit kkOma for unlocking their full potential as League of Legends players.
Currently at the top of the coaching world, no credit or thanks are necessary for kkOma -- a fourth world title in China this November, and another MSI title this weekend, will do just fine.