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Shots of Infiltration at EVO 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada
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May 232018

Early Momentum

When Street Fighter 4 was released people were just happy that a new edition of their favorite game was out. No one expected it to become popular or grow into a big esport that could bring fame and money. When I started playing SF4 in 2009 it took me 3 years to go pro. My future was uncertain and I had to grind my way to recognition through international travel and competition.

Street Fighter V release was totally different for myself and the scene. Capcom actually had a clear vision on how they were planning to support the game. I was excited to see how far SFV would go, and who would be the winner of the first EVO SFV tournament. Of course I wanted to win the first EVO for SFV but I didn’t think I could.

Even as a former EVO champion it was hard to imagine winning EVO for SFV. There were major differences between my EVO win in 2012 and 2016 and not only the games but also in myself. In 2012, no one knew Infiltration, it was only Seon-woo Lee. In this time there were a lot of legendary Japanese and American players, but no one expected this unknown Korean player to take over.

Now I’m a well-known professional but back then I was just a rookie. I tried hard to make things happen and achieved big wins in 2012 and I’ve continued to keep up the same spirit in 2016 and beyond.

I think what led to my early success in SFV is that I have good analytical skill to find what works during the early phase of a newly released game. I also believe in being decisive about picking a character right away so as not to waste time. It’s very important to select your character and focus on it, then you can move on to understanding the systems of the new game. As the game ages, the focus shifts from learning the game and more about studying how your competitors play the game. 

The New Game

 

The biggest change from SF4 to SFV is that the game became much simpler. Most acknowledge that in the days of SF4, if you have a professional player and an amateur, the amateur player would never beat the pro. Now with SFV, Capcom tried to reduce that gap between the experienced and the newbie.

 

As someone who really worked hard to win, this approach seemed unfair, and beginners benefited a lot early on as newer players could upset pros. This was hard to accept. The professional players didn’t like it at first; they all had experience of playing Street Fighter for decades and although there were new additions to the game, we had pride as professionals. If it is so easy for a newbie to beat a veteran, would the professional scene have any meaning at all? 

 

After further reflection, I think the changes were positive. Fighting games are such a small slice of the gaming scene so giving people the impression that they can become a strong player is encouraging and makes the game more popular. Sometimes I lost horribly at tournaments which made me feel ashamed of myself and it made me feel negative about the game, but now as I look at the big picture, I’m over it.

 

Arcade Edition, The First Major Update

 

I see some positivity in the new game update. Capcom changes the balance of the game every year, but the Arcade Edition is a bigger update with new modes to engage casual fans. 

Capcom is really putting effort into the game, so there is definitely a lot of life around SFV. 

 

Regarding where the community is headed is tricky; Capcom is still pushing to make Street Fighter series big in the esports field, and is actually doing well, but the the game is focused on making big comebacks and high damage. [Note: Interview was conducted prior to damage scaling nerfs in the midseason patch]

 

I’m the kind of player that is slow and steady so I make deliberate moves to win, I’m not the raging, hyper offensive type of player, so I don’t prefer some of the SFV mechanics. However, I think these new changes are right in the long run. I just need to be able to adapt and hope my characters gets stronger. Capcom is doing well with the new changes.

 

Training

 

Due to the lower execution barrier, spending a lot of time practicing is not as important. Finding players to play with online and offline is now the most important task. Now that the game reaches its 3rd year, the top players are a select few, and even though there can be a dark horse who may win a game sometimes, it’s pretty similar who will win the tournaments. 

 

The best strategy is to understand how the other star players play, how they’ve developed their skills and knowing their trends is the most important way to win. Youtube, Twitch, etc., are a great resource because the community makes highlights of players. I study these videos a lot at home or on the go with my phone. 

 

Korea is a tough place to play as there aren’t many players or fans, so I have to train mostly by myself. I use a technique I call ‘imagine training’ which is to think about how I can do better, whenever and wherever. I turn all of my affection and dedication to the game and combine that with with my abilities to analyze and adapt to create good results. 

 

Unlike PC esports, fighting games don’t usually do any training camps since the players mostly play on their own and not as a team. In Japan, while they don’t have training camps some of the professional players will rent a house together to share and train. Japan is well known for its fighting games and arcade culture too. These days, playing online can work well too, so sometimes I can play from Korea to Japan without any lag. It would be hard to play with players in the States, but in Asia we can practice online with each other. 

 

An Emotional Year

 

Despite my early success in SFV, I had a disappointing 2017. I was busy with personal affairs so there was little room for practice in my life. I didn’t even have much time to think about the game. This lead me straight into a major slump. I tried to focus and recover at the end of the year but it wasn’t enough. I’ve struggled and I’ve been on top and the key factor separating these highs and lows is the amount of time I’m able to dedicate to the game. When I can put in the time, I know I can win. 

 

Personally, I think Street Fighter is the toughest and most competitive game in the fighting game community. Everyone from around the world plays the game so there are a lot of strong players; it’s extremely difficult to stay ahead. 

 

Many may steal the spotlight for a moment by winning an event but few are capable of having consistent results. When I results slipped even after winning several events people started saying that I’ve lost my grip and that I was no longer capable of being a champion. This pressure made it hard to keep my mind straight. 

 

Turning a Corner

 

Even though my 2017 results hadn’t been good, I decided to compete at the Last Chance Qualifier with Menat who had only recently been released. If I had won, I would have went to the Capcom Cup finals, so it was bittersweet getting 2nd. I was so close but even though I didn’t win, my play was pretty good and I saw a future with Menat.

 

When Menat was first released, her appearance looked quite attractive and she seemed hard to manage compared to others. Her complexity made me want to become a specialist. Since Menat was new, I reckoned that other players were not fully used to dealing with her tools. Due to the complex nature of the character and the short time between release and the Last Chance Qualifier I saw an opportunity to exploit people's unfamiliarity. 

 

On the first day of the new season, I did my first 24-hour live broadcast on Twitch. I just wanted to play all day. I invited some Japanese players and studied all the changes to prepare for EVO Japan which was held only 10 days after the new season began. With this new version release not even 2 weeks before the event, I figured everyone would be confused. 

 

I tried my best to focus and get a grasp on the changes more quickly than the other players. I put in a lot of my time and relied on my imagine training. It worked really well and everything went as I expected.

 

After my win, I decided to be provocative when I said “I don’t think I’m fully back with my skills, but still I’m the only person who won EVO Japan and EVO USA”, and I think that was a good motivation for the other players. So many players are quiet during interviews, so I thought a little bit of showmanship was necessary.

 

A New Point of View

 

After 2017 and going through my struggles, my perspective changed. I realized that I could fall so far, and that was hard to accept. I had personal issues to cope with too but after surviving these tough times, I feel much stronger, and more mature. 

 

As the Korean proverb says, ‘the ground becomes more solid after the rain’, it rained a lot last year, and very hard too. I went through a lot of showers, storms and floods, that’s how I feel about last year. It was a tough time, and I felt that I was being forgotten, because people used to say ‘Infiltration is the best’, but that changed to ‘Infiltration is rusty now.’ 

 

I used to think that ‘there is something more important than just winning’, but now I think that ‘winning is a must, then comes the stuff that matters’. Even if you show really great play, if you keep losing then no one remembers you. So in order to make the good play mean something, winning has to be the default and then comes the great story behind it.

 

Reflections of an EVO Champion

 

Each EVO win was like winning the World Cup in soccer or a Gold medal at the Olympics for me. To all fighting game players, winning an EVO is a dream come true. I’ve always imagined it myself as a kid, watching the players on the Internet in high school and thinking about how I want to become a professional player.

 

In 2012, I won SF4 and SFxT, which is quite rare to win two events in one year. I really felt my dreams come true in 2012, becoming a pro player and then winning two EVO events. I had such a happy feeling, it all felt surreal. These wins gave me motivation, made me feel that I should work really hard now.

 

The first EVO for SFV had 5000 participants and the game was broadcasted on ESPN. So it wasn’t just a fighting game event known only to the players, but people drinking at the bar in Las Vegas were watching me play on TV. On my way back to the hotel after the event, the taxi driver recognized me from ESPN, and that felt really great. He said “Hey I was drinking at the bar, and saw an Asian player playing games on TV, I saw you there.” That was when I recognized the power of TV broadcasting, and the result of being exposed to a larger audience. It was an impressive experience and vindicated my career choice.

 

Next was EVO Japan 2018, and even though many of the North American & European players couldn’t participate due to the location, there were still over 2000 entrants. There were a lot of Asian players, and since Japan is the original country for Street Fighter, their players are remarkably good. The whole experience felt like it was a story from a movie. No one would have even put me in the list of potential winners. The final 8 consisted of 6 Japanese players, 1 player from Hong Kong, and myself, the sole representative for Korea. This win was very special to me because of my struggles the year before.

 

When I reflect on these wins, the most meaningful EVO is the SFV win in 2016. No one in Korea knew who I was back when I started off as a professional SF4 player. When SFV was released and started getting popular, people found out this Korean guy won the biggest tournament ever. It’s very important for the Korean public to have a Korean star player, so when I won it meant a lot, not just for me but for the Korean FGC. Helping the Korean scene is important and is why I originally played ‘Juri’, a Korean character as my main in season 2. 

 

Success Now and in the Future

 

This year will be a success if I can gain stability and earn money. That may sound superficial, but it’s important for the scene to have fighting game players that can make money. I want to be able to show the value of players so that I can establish a good precedent to help more players earn a living. 

 

The types of goals I set for myself are to earn $10,000 a month or to make $100K a year. This is important because by accomplishing these goals, I can inspire more people, especially Korean players, to get motivated to join the scene and grow a new generation of players. This is how I will define success in 2018, by making a lot of money and helping more people join the scene.

 

Looking further into the future is different. Right now, the expression ‘mutant’ is the closest word to describe myself. Korea is a funny and unique country. The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics (2018) had Korean teams winning medals at Curling and Bobsleigh, which wasn’t even known to the public nor did they have any financial support from the country. It’s the same with fighting games too, Korea doesn’t have any support but our players are really strong. The strength of our players is unbelievable but the support from the country is some of the lowest in the world. This hurts growth because when Korean players win events, nobody knows about it. 

 

Due to this lack of exposure, my existence itself looks like that of a ‘mutant’; a mutant that appeared out of nowhere in an environment where it’s not supposed to exist. That’s how I would describe myself now, but I don’t want to continue being the only mutant here. I want to have more support here in Korea, to see positive changes so that other ‘mutants’ can rise up and be recognized.

 

My wish and ultimate goal is simple — to keep going. I never want to stop traveling the world and competing with my friends and challengers even when I’m an old man. I want to play the game that I love and I want to be in the scene for as long as possible while showing great results along the way.

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