"This might be the last time we ever make it to a finals together, guys. Let's leave with no regrets."
They seemed to be prophetic words, marking the beginning of the end. Four hours after player-owner Yoon "Runner" Dae-hoon uttered them to his team, RunAway's fairytale run to the OGN APEX Season 2 finals ended as just that: a fairytale, as things started falling apart.
Various sponsorship offers depreciated then disappeared. Ryu "Kaiser" Sang-hoon left for Cloud9 in an untimely departure. And the continued lack of a team house was starting to take its toll on the squad's synergy.
When APEX Season 3 started, RunAway was unrecognizable. The team looked nothing like the past season's finalists, the band of brothers in the bright pink sweaters who would make everyone else dream along. Now their matches felt like cruel jokes, a jumble of mangled dreams of what the team could and should have been. Few were surprised when RunAway bombed out of the round of 16 -- just sad, and worried for the future.
In the following days and weeks, RunAway lost its coach, then two more players. The chances of securing a good sponsor drifted further away than ever, with other star teams emerging. And Runner's finances were tanking -- as a professional full-time streamer, any time spent on the team was a direct hit to his livelihood.
For Runner, RunAway was his childhood dreams come true, one of the most precious things he ever built. But his guilt towards his wife, daughter, and his remaining players were rising. His family deserved much more time from him, especially his baby girl. His players deserved a much better team, somewhere with a dedicated coach and a comfortable team house. It felt too irresponsible to carry on with this juggling act.
And so Runner quietly prepared to call it quits. RunAway would disband. It had been a good run.
But then his wife stopped him.
"The kids deserve one last shot," she said. "They all stuck with RunAway just because of you. It's okay if our family has it tough for a while. Let's get a proper team house and give our players all the support they need."
So they did. They rented out a large two-bathroom apartment fully equipped with home appliances. They redoubled their efforts to seek out sponsors, particularly for peripherals, and eventually succeeded in securing an equipment sponsor in Logitech. And because the team seemed to be floundering without a coaching staff, Runner decided to take on the role, taking full charge of both lifestyle management and tactical research, even though it would be a crippling blow to his income.
The team and the fans responded in kind. The players volunteered to help with paying the rent and started to push themselves much further in practice sessions. One fan anonymously gifted a brand-new 17-kg washing machine for the team house. And Xenics Creative, although not a sponsor, donated gaming chairs to the team. It was as if the world was coming together for RunAway. Now all they needed to do was start winning.
The new setup has been paying off massively; never before has their teamwork been this great. Although their coordination still requires a lot of work, as shown in their recent match against X6-Gaming, RunAway's current team spirit and individual form is reminiscent of their old Season 2 brilliance. Considering the team's rate of improvement since starting to live together, there seems to be a real chance for Runner and his boys to convert fairy tale into reality this time around. Now only one match separates RunAway from a long-awaited second finals appearance, and it will be against NC Foxes, a squad RunAway is expected to beat.
"To be honest, back in Season 2, we basically were an insanely talented ranked 6-stack," Runner recounted. "Our games then were all about mechanics, just like how it is in Competitive Play. But we're different now. We may have looked a bit clunky in some matches, but our synergy is definitely there and growing. The team house has been really helpful in bonding us together, and I really think we'll be able to make it to the finals."
Runner was still sad and frustrated about what happened back in Season 3. Had it not been for that train wreck of a season, he explained, RunAway would have joined the Overwatch League, or at least be having serious discussions. But with Lunatic-Hai, LuxuryWatch Blue and Kongdoo Panthera already in the League, the chances for a fourth all-Korean main roster to join the fray seem slim.
Still, Runner has hope. RunAway is still the second most popular team in South Korea, and if they do well in their remaining matches of APEX Season 4, foreign organizations will definitely take interest. And Runner is adamant that star player Kim "Haksal" Hyo-jong's OWL ineligibility due to age won't be a problem at all.
"I already scouted out a number of players just for that reason," he said. "Haksal is an amazing player, but there are countless players in Korea that can replace him."
He also added that several of RunAway's flex players, particularly Kim "KoX" Min-soo, could easily serve as a top-tier DPS at a moment's notice.
"Our mechanical ceiling is comparable to, or even higher than, any other team in the world," Runner said. "Just look at how quickly and how much we've improved since moving into a team house. We had been playing with a huge disadvantage in previous seasons. I'm sure that given more time together, our team will become capable of beating any team, any roster. I truly believe we deserve a shot in the Overwatch League."