Birdring reaches new heights with Kongdoo Panthera

Kongdoo Panthera DPS Kim “Birdring” Ji-hyuk has become one of the best players in the world during OGN Overwatch APEX Season 3. Now, he'll try to cement that status in the league finals against Lunatic-Hai. Nayeong Kim for ESPN

He took his headset off to a deafening roar, to a thousand splendid shrieks, to a wave of collective ecstasy that swelled over the booth and made it tremble almost as much as his hands.

Kim "Birdring" Ji-hyuk looked at his monitor, then at the crowd, then back at his monitor. It still read "MATCH COMPLETE." So it was true. They had won. Kongdoo Panthera had made it to the OGN Overwatch APEX Season 3 finals.

Something hot welled up in his eyes. He wiped it away with both hands.

To his right, Baek "Fissure" Chan-hyung lay flat on his chair, backrest slammed back, eyes closed and hands neatly folded, pretending to ignore all the ruckus. He hadn't even bothered to take his headset off.

"Don't talk to me," Fissure said in his usual exquisite deadpan. "I'm tired."

Blinking back tears, Birdring smiled.

Leaving League behind

Before Overwatch, Birdring's life was dedicated to League of Legends. He dreamt of becoming a professional gamer, and like most wannabes, poured all his time and heart into solo queue in the hopes of being noticed. But unlike most, he went a step further and built a reputation on not one but three servers: Korea, Japan, and China.

His two extra miles turned out to be well worth it. After reaching Challenger in Japan and China, offers started rolling in from both countries. But there was a snag: He wasn't 17 yet.

"I felt dejected," he said. "I was all ready to go, but the age limit prevented me from playing in any [LCS-affiliated] matches. And there was really nothing I could do but wait."

Disheartened, Birdring decided to take some time off from League until he could actually join a team. And it happened to be that right when he did, a shiny new AAA title, Overwatch, was taking South Korea by storm. Bored and having little better to do, the still-to-be-17 trainee decided to give the latest craze a spin, and was instantly hooked. He couldn't believe how fun the game was. Within weeks, he was piloting heroes more often than champions.

But while League slowly faded from his mind, his dreams did not, nor did his work ethic. He still wanted to become a professional gamer more than anything. Setting his mind to a new but familiar grind, Birdring rocketed up the Overwatch ranked ladder and made a name for himself at the top level of yet another game. He also joined an amateur team to start playing competitively.

Later that year when Kongdoo Company announced tryouts, a friend urged him to apply. He did. And amongst a group of 40 applicants, he was selected.

It seemed as if he had finally made it. Living in a team house was fun and exciting. Working with 11 other teammates from all walks of life was eye-opening. Most importantly, the organization's steady support was allowing him to solely concentrate on improvement.

Everything about his new life felt great.

Stumbling blocks

In OGN Overwatch APEX's inaugural season, Birdring's team, Kongdoo Uncia, proved itself as one of the best in the world. Despite being humiliated in its first match against BK Stars (an amateur squad cobbled together by a streamer), Uncia promptly bounced back and pumped out a string of sweeps to advance all the way to the semifinals. Although its story ended there at the hands of EnVyUs, who would go on to win the entire tournament, the 3-2 match was extremely close and left no doubts regarding Uncia's strength.

That wasn't enough for Birdring, however. In his words, Season 1 was merely bearable; his team may have made a deep run, but for him it hadn't been deep enough. He wasn't satisfied with his individual performance, either. Fans who recall his standout games on McCree and Roadhog would be confused, but again, for him, it hadn't been good enough.

Still, it was much better than what followed in Season 2.

At the outset, everything looked fine. Kongdoo had tinkered with its two rosters over the offseason, making a few transfers and role swaps, and it seemed to have benefited both. Uncia made a promising start to the season, as did its sister team, Panthera. Hype mounted as they tore through their groups undefeated. Some fans even started arguing that Kongdoo's two squads would soon become nigh unbeatable by organizations without a sister team setup.

But things immediately fell apart once the tournament moved into the knockout stage. Both teams ended up dropping out in their quarterfinal decider matches, old weaknesses exploited and new ones exposed. Between the two, Uncia's defeat was far more devastating.

Uncia's backbone had always been its teamwork; back in its prime, few teams in the world could match Uncia's uncanny ultimate management or undivided targeting in teamfights. But all of that had evaporated. In its 3-0 quarterfinal loss to Lunatic-Hai, Uncia looked not like one team of six, but rather three unassociated groups brought together via in-client matchmaking. Kim "DNCE" Se-yong might as well have been playing solo queue for how disconnected he was from the rest of his team. Birdring and Yoo "Lucid" Jun-seo managed to work in sync, but only with each other. The breakdown was disastrous.

"Season 2 was a really tough time for me," Birdring said. "I was actually supposed to join Panthera right at the beginning of Season 2, but because I had been one of Uncia's pillars, it was decided I stay with them one extra season and give it one last go. It didn't work out very well. I was extremely stressed out, partly at my play, but mostly at our results."

When the next off-season rolled around, Birdring was moved to Panthera.

Birdring rises

When his transfer to Panthera was first announced, many expected Birdring and Kim "Rascal" Dong-joon to form one the world's most versatile DPS duos. That turned out to be true. Much less expected, however, was just how dominant of a player the former would become. Soon after the two started playing together, it was clear which would be the team's ace player. Birdring tore enemy teams apart with far greater confidence than he ever displayed on Uncia.

"I felt liberated after the move," Birdring explained. "On Uncia, I always played with a slight burden. As one of the cornerstones of the team, I felt as if I could never [afford to] mess up. It was a weight on my chest. But on Panthera, there's less pressure; I can rely on other great players like Rascal and Fissure to [share] the load."

Birdring has always possessed a fantastic hero pool for a DPS player. He himself calls his unnatural flexibility "a gift from God." But as a tradeoff, his carry ceiling -- how much individual impact he could have on a game -- had always been lower than that of superstar specialists such as Kim "EFFECT" Hyeon (Tracer) or Lee "Whoru" Seung-jun (Genji).

This season, however, even that drawback is fading. In Panthera's semifinals against EnVyUs, Birdring put out one of the best big-match Tracer performances of all time -- against EFFECT, no less -- and led his team to a clean 4-0 sweep. Both the Korean and English OGN commentators had no shortage of praise for his brilliance. After the game, EnVyUs's Timo "Taimou" Kettunen hailed Birdring as the best DPS player in the world.

Still an underdog

So far, Overwatch APEX Season 3 has been Birdring's season. It has been the buildup to the climax of his personal odyssey, an exhilarating takeoff of a magnificent talent unshackled at last. Now only one series lies between him and timeless glory. But it will be his hardest.

Like in most team-based Blizzard titles, competitive gameplay in Overwatch primarily revolves around how tanks and healers set up and respond to situations. In the Korean region, where tactical play and teamwork are given highest priority, this focus is accentuated. And this is why most Korean experts believe Lunatic-Hai to be the favorites in the final.

Kongdoo Panthera might have improved massively over this season, but Lunatic-Hai's tanks and healers are far and away the best in the world, and their current form looks untouchable. And although Panthera will have the advantage in the DPS matchup, Kim "EscA" In-jae's recent world-class Sombra play against Afreeca Freecs Blue suggests that most of his prior failings were due to being forced on Tracer. When all things are considered, Birdring really is the only player on his team that is categorically better than his Lunatic-Hai counterpart.

And so Birdring has again become a cornerstone. He will again have to rise up and fight onward despite having the weight of a team's destiny pressing down on his heart. But this time, he says, he's OK. He's finally ready to deal with it.

"I no longer have any fear. The finals will be tough, but I feel confident."