Don't let the bright lights blind you: Behind the glitz and glamour of Overwatch APEX lies a world of unsupervised destitution. The tournament itself may feature the pinnacle of OGN esports production, but most of its competitors are nearly broke, and the outlook in South Korea is bleak. As things stand, there isn't enough money or professionalism to go around in South Korean Overwatch. This situation is unlikely to change unless the upcoming Overwatch League can restructure the domestic landscape for the better.
In a way, a recent controversy following Jang "Luna" Kyung-ho's surprise termination from LuxuryWatch Blue is a byproduct of this status quo.
On Aug. 8 at 4 a.m., Luna was informed -- with zero prior notice -- that he was being released from LW Blue. As the registration deadline for Overwatch APEX Season 4 had just passed, he would not be able to participate in top-level competition for at least several months. Confused and angry, Luna expressed his frustration via a number of social media posts and Twitch broadcasts.
Luna's claims were twofold: One, his release was a retaliatory discharge by Team LW's owner and manager, Ji "Jidset" Yeong-hun. Two, the LW organization had been severely mismanaged virtually since its inception.
In response, Jidset released an official statement two days after Luna's release. While he did accept responsibility for the far-too-late timing of the termination, Jidset claimed the entire team had wanted Luna to be replaced, saying in the statement that Luna had shown poor performance in scrims, aversion to critical feedback, a lack of improvement and attitude issues. Jidset also announced that he would be temporarily stepping down as Team LW's manager.
The community response was in favor of Luna. Most found it hard to believe that the player had been that terrible, as his skill had been respected by fans and opponents alike. Many also pointed out that the timing of the release was unacceptable regardless of what led to it and that Jidset's excuse for terminating Luna past the APEX registration deadline -- his "woeful incompetence" as a manager -- was barely plausible and highly suspicious. Jidset's seemingly noncommittal and self-prescribed punishment, a "temporary" leave from management, drew much ire as well.
Over the past 10 days, ESPN has examined testimony and evidence from over 20 individuals connected to the event, and the findings are mixed but indicative of the larger issues in the South Korean Overwatch scene.
Could Luna have reasonably anticipated his release?
No. While Luna had been undergoing a huge slump -- acknowledged by both the coaching staff and himself -- it would have been difficult for him to imagine that he would be terminated in such a fashion. A great number of events that took place over his final month with LW had suggested the opposite.
July 11: Luna was asked to provide size details for his new uniform.
July 13: Luna signed his official contract with LW's new sponsor, a North American organization set to participate in the Overwatch League.
July 24: Luna went to Jidset for advice because his prolonged slump was showing no signs of abating. Jidset suggested that Luna should stay with LW and try to improve his play, stating that he "wouldn't even be able to start for another team in his current form." Luna was shocked but accepted Jidset's assessment of the situation.
Late July: Each member of LW, including Luna, was asked to provide information (birth date and top ladder rank) for APEX Season 4 registration. Luna provided said information.
Aug. 1: All of LW, including Luna, moved to the new team house.
Aug. 8: Luna was released at 4 a.m.
Would Luna have been able to join a good team in time for Season 4?
Yes. Multiple players and coaches from various teams in APEX told ESPN that they would have signed Luna immediately had he been available for Season 4.
Furthermore, multiple coaches from top foreign teams participating in the Overwatch League told ESPN that they rate Luna as a top-tier support -- not a superstar on the level of Ryu "ryujehong" Je-hong, but a player who can solidly hold his own at the top level of competition.
To be precise, such external appraisal had nothing to do with LW Blue's decision to release the player, nor should it discredit their internal evaluation of him in any way. It does, however, suggest that Luna would have had plenty of options to choose from had he been released from LW at a reasonable date.
Did the whole team actually want Luna replaced?
Yes, albeit to differing degrees. While most of the team had nothing but praise for Luna's level of play in previous seasons, they also claimed the player had fallen into an uncooperative and aloof emotional rut of sorts which started around mid-June and did not improve until his release. (To be clear, the players had no direct influence on Luna's release; they only agreed that Luna was not bettering the team's competitive chances. Cutting Luna was a call made by the coaching staff, including Jidset.)
ESPN also was granted access to statistics collected and analyzed by LW coach Kim "WizardHyeong" Hyeong-seok. The data was sufficiently comprehensive, well beyond the scope of a few impressions taken from scrims and showed that Luna indeed had been underperforming to a meaningful degree in that period of time.
By July 23, the majority of Luna's teammates on LW Blue, as well as all of the coaching staff, had decided that Luna was unnecessary for their team for various reasons, most of which were mentioned in Jidset's statement. Jidset, however, arbitrarily delayed the termination because he "felt very bad" about cutting a slumping player who had played well for the organization for most of the past year.
Luna claims to have been largely unaware of this sentiment. While he indeed had lost his starting flex healer position to Kim "pine" Do-hyeon in recent weeks, his understanding was that he was supposed to fight to take it back, not look to leave the team. Records of his communication with the rest of the team suggest the same. This, of course, does not invalidate LW Blue's evaluation of Luna that he was underperforming.
Also important to note is that such internal evaluation does not justify the date or manner of Luna's termination. It does, however, indicate that had Luna been terminated at a reasonable date with a full explanation, there would have been less controversy.
When did the organization make the final decision to release Luna?
Aug. 2 is when the final decision was made, according to Jidset. He decided against informing Luna immediately, however. He blames this on his own managerial incompetence.
Jidset claims that he was "overwhelmed by all the logistics" surrounding the team's new sponsorship contracts, and in the process, "miscalculated when [he] would have enough money to give Luna his severance pay" -- hence the delayed termination. Jidset says that he wanted to prepare 3,000,000 Korean Won ($2,625) in time for Luna's release. He failed to do so, however, even until Aug 8.
Immediately after Luna was informed of his release on Aug. 8 at 4 a.m., Jidset asked if Luna wanted the whole sum at an unspecified date in the future, or wanted it paid in an unspecified number of installments over an unspecified amount of time. Luna chose the latter because he needed the money to move back home. He received 200,000 won ($175) as his first installment. He has yet to receive further installments.
Multiple former and current LW staff members doubted that Jidset was competent enough to carry out intentional career sabotage. They claimed that "as unbelievable as it sounds," Jidset was inept enough a manager to have blundered into causing this farce.
Was the new North American sponsor involved in any way?
No. Contrary to certain South Korean rumors that were circulated at the time of Luna's release, it was confirmed that the North American organization exerted no influence on the move.
Was the LW organization mismanaged?
Yes. Especially for withholding payment to the players and for irregular player contracts.
All current and former players told ESPN they never received broadcast appearance fees and tournament prize shares on time; payment would be delayed by anywhere from one to six months after the tournament organizer had paid the LW organization. And in some cases, the money was never given at all. As many as six current and former players (and likely more) say they have not been paid their broadcast appearance fees and tournament earnings, with the oldest ones stretching back to October 2016.
All of LW's players, coaches and management staff worked for no set salary and no incentives for the entirety of their time with the organization. Prize and broadcast money were the players' sole source of income outside of individual Twitch donations.
The players say they were never given a clear explanation for the repeated delays in payment until July, when Jidset was confronted with an ultimatum by some players. The owner only then revealed that he had been using the income to first pay off urgent operating costs, despite the organization having an agreement to receive 30 percent of all prize money earned by its players to fund the operation of the team, according to the players and the coach himself.
Multiple players and coaches have competed for LW in official matches without a contract, and many of them -- including some of the team's best players -- were repeatedly prevented from signing contracts with the organization for unexplained reasons. Those players were, however, treated in all aspects as if they had signed LW's standard player contract form. The players say that they still have no idea why they were denied a contract, and that they just dropped the issue after a few inquiries since they seemed to be getting treated equally.
More confusing is that several other players actually did sign with LW but were never given a copy of their contract. Jidset denies having done this, but multiple players and staff affirmed that several players never received a copy of their own contract.
Even more confusing is that a few players not only signed with LW but also were given a copy of their contract, which contained no problematic articles.
There was no apparent criteria for how players were sorted into the three groups. None of the players had a solid theory for why Jidset would have done this, and there was no evidence of Jidset abusing his players' contrasting contract situations.
Multiple former and current LW staff members claimed that Jidset was "scatterbrained" enough to have done this for no good reason.
Was the termination a retaliatory discharge?
No evidence. To be clear, several individuals who have worked with Jidset for an extended period of time claimed that Luna's termination was a retaliatory discharge, with two saying that they were "absolutely certain" of it. The line of reasoning was that all former players who had spoken up against LW's faulty management had eventually gotten the short end of the stick, and Luna had always been one of LW's primary voices when demanding clarifications regarding financial situations. But while both accounts may be true, there is no direct evidence to support that Luna's discharge was retaliatory, especially in light of the player's recent poor performance.
Did Jidset take "enough" responsibility for everything he has done?
Perhaps. While what was mentioned in Jidset's Aug. 10 statement -- a seemingly self-prescribed temporary withdrawal from management -- incited more outrage than it suppressed, ESPN was told that Jidset would not be a part of any Overwatch League ventures the LW Blue squad will soon undertake.
Several LW Blue players told ESPN that the squad was very much looking forward to finally competing under proper, professional management.
Moving forward, Luna will try to break out of his slump and join a new team; the rest of LW Blue will be excited for their prospects in the Overwatch League; and Jidset -- well, while on his sabbatical, perhaps he could first focus on sending out still-due earnings.
South Korean professional Overwatch is in need of meaningful oversight. Whether it be through Blizzard Entertainment, KeSPA, OGN, an entirely new entity, or any combination of the above, a reasonable amount of protection for competitors should be discussed and implemented. Such would be welcomed by not only the players, but also the organizations; last year's Mighty Storm debacle, in which three former players defamed Mighty management via providing false information to tabloid publications, showed how the absence of proper regulation can hurt teams as well.
To be clear -- even seemingly sturdy systems can be bypassed when not properly utilized, as proven by the recent LCK Longzhu Gaming incident in which a flush foreign sponsor was revealed to not have paid its players and staff on time. But that can never be an excuse for not building a system at all.
If there isn't enough money or professionalism to go around, at least we should prepare to buffer its consequences.