NEW YORK -- The basement of the Hammerstein Ballroom shook. A loud cry echoed from above followed by rolling cheers of "M-V-P, M-V-P!" for Bang "JJoNak" Sung-hyeon. They drowned out a slight young man in a Paris Eternal windbreaker. DPS prodigy Kim "Sp9rk1e" Yeong-han stood next to his Paris Eternal and former Element Mystic teammate Choi "Hanbin" Han-bin and frowned a bit, tossing his head before smiling slightly.
"It feels like I'm in the dark," Sp9rk1e said as the cheers faded. "May 31 seems so far away."
He and Hanbin laughed in the stairwell with their Paris Eternal brethren who played in both games last weekend and chatted with coach Yoon "RUSH" Hee-won. It will be months before Sp9rk1e can play in the league. He'll be able to play in the second Excelsior homestand, but only on Day 2 -- his 18th birthday, May 31st, is that Sunday. Hanbin will likely start in the Eternal's next match on Feb. 22, two days after his birthday.
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"Because I play soon, I'm trying to work hard and push myself to think that I can be better than other players," Hanbin said.
Sp9rk1e has been playing Overwatch at a semi-professional level on Element Mystic in South Korea since 2017, but doesn't turn age-eligible for the Overwatch League until this May. Until then, he'll be on the sideline, cheering on his Paris Eternal teammates while getting in as much practice time as possible. His rookie debut is one of Overwatch League's most highly anticipated this season. Hanbin has been playing since early 2018 in both China and South Korea. Both players have been playing for years, but have had to wait on their Overwatch League debuts due to their ages.
There was a time when OGN's APEX tournament in South Korea was the premier Overwatch event in the world. It hasn't existed since 2017, when Sp9rk1e was just beginning his semi-professional career. Element Mystic came up through the offline qualifier during APEX Season 4 and performed well in APEX Challengers Season 5 before OGN's tournament was shuttered, becoming Contenders: Korea. Sp9rk1e's initial Element Mystic team was a star-studded lineup that included Lee "Happy" Jung-woo (Guangzhou Charge), Lee "Guard" Hee-dong (London Spitfire, now retired), Lee "Fearless" Eui-seok (Shanghai Dragons), Kim "Rapel" Joon-keun (Vancouver Titans, Houston Outlaws), Lee "Jecse" Seung-soo (Seoul Dynasty, Houston Outlaws), and Seo "DACO" Dong-hyeong (Atlanta Reign), all of whom made it to the league well before Sp9rk1e was eligible. Now he plays a different waiting game than his time in Contenders Korea, counting down the days until he can play on the Overwatch League stage.
As the Overwatch League has become the game's strongest and most competitive professional league, players making the jump from Korean Contenders to the league have a lot to learn, particularly around map setups and coordinating plays with their new teammates. While it was once thought that top Korean Contenders teams like Sp9rk1e and Hanbin's 2019 Element Mystic -- which made it to several Korean Contenders Grand Finals, taking home a title in this past October's gantlet -- could easily contend with Overwatch League teams, this idea has been debunked by South Korean pros making the transition last year.
"Contenders is more of a rough fight," Hanbin said. "It's mechanics versus mechanics, where the league is more constructive. You have to look at the format, you have to look at different things and details even more."
"For Contenders it's important that players play well," Sp9rk1e said. "But in the league it's about how coaches think and coach the players to be better, so to put it short, in Contenders if the players are just good they can do well, but in the league you need coaches and players to do well."
Learning coordination on a hybrid lineup can be difficult, but the Paris Eternal are taking that risk for the potential of a much larger reward later in the season.
"Yeah it's kind of hard to play because we had some problems with visas when some people were in Korea, in France, and in America," main tank Benjamin "BenBest" Dieulafait said. "We were bootcamping in Korea to practice communication especially."
This past weekend, the Eternal looked surprisingly coordinated, even with main tanks Jeong "NoSmite" Da-un and BenBest covering for the lack of Hanbin as their flex tank player. Former Element Mystic DPS player Jeong "Xzi" Ki-hyo showcased his formidable hitscan prowess and French support player Brice "FDGod" Monsçavoir dazzled audiences with his Lúcio in his Overwatch League debut.
"Mixed rosters have a lot more advantages than a Korean roster because [in] mixed rosters I learned to express myself in a way I've never thought before," Hanbin said. "There are a lot of mixed roster team plays that are better than the all-Korean ones so if we synergize well I think we can be a stronger roster than an all-Korean roster."
"The good side of it is that because we've all lived in different cultures, have different backgrounds and game sense we try to be more considerate to other people," Sp9rk1e said. "And that makes us work harder than other teams."