As I descended down the steps of the AfreecaTV PC Bang on a rainy day in Seoul, I didn't know what to expect.
ESPN was given the opportunity to hang out with world championship-caliber team the Afreeca Freecs throughout the day. It began at the company's PC bang establishment and ended at the team house to interview the nearly two-decade esports veteran, coach Choi "iloveoov" Yeon-sung.
Out of all the major contenders at the League of Legends World Championship, the Freecs were the team that I least expected to embed with. When would they actually have time?
Afreeca Freecs, when stripped down to its bare essentials, is a team known for its diligent practice. Coached by iloveoov, who was brought up in the ultra-competitive early days of the esports boom in South Korea with StarCraft: Brood War, his League of Legends team followed the same rough, nose-to-the-grindstone approach he became famous for.
Where a majority of the teams at worlds will schedule two to three scrimmages a day against peers also prepping for the event, the Freecs are rumored to play four a day, practicing into the wee hours of the morning, along with individual solo queue practice in-between. When they have no one else to practice against, it's no problem -- the Freecs possess a 10-man roster, meaning that when other teams are sleeping peacefully in their beds, Afreeca can play against themselves, starters butting heads with the backups working tirelessly to succeed them.
I don't want to say I expected frigid interview conditions, but with the winds whipping outside, the sun setting and the rain coming down steadily all day, I thought the team would be slightly annoyed by us stealing away precious practice time. Instead, I was greeted at the PC bang by a cheery, blonde-haired boy with glasses who barely came up to my chest, shyly greeting us before accepting his assigned seat to begin an interview with one of my colleagues on camera. This was Lee "Mowgli" Jae-ha, the designated sixth man of Freecs, who will be the lone substitution available for the team during the tournament. Along with team media and handlers, one of the team's strategic coaches, former League pro, Lim "Ccomet" Hye-sung, sat beside Mowgli on one of the PC Bang's computers, browsing various online pages.
"[Our team] has been an inspiration to other LCK teams," Ccomet said. "What the Afreeca Freecs has started, the other teams have started following, such as having the 10-man roster and increasing the number of practice hours."
The Freecs, Ccomet told me, are not the best individually. Separated -- except for maybe the team's rookie superstar top laner Kim "Kiin" Gi-in -- the players on the Freecs are deeply flawed. But through the rigorous training, the building of chemistry, and quantity of practice, Afreeca has done its best to wring out the maximum result from each one of its players like a sponge. "We're a masterpiece molded through countless effort," said Ccomet. The team's identity comes from the team's head coach iloveoov, and the players follow wordlessly, respecting the fact that he, too, was once in the same position, practicing until the sun peeked over the horizon and only getting a few hours of sleep before beginning the same routine once more.
Over the course of two hours at the PC Bang, eyes of patrons took a quick glance at Mowgli before shuffling away to their own chairs. Outside of one fan screaming "MOWGLI!" before running away, too afraid to see if anyone noticed him (spoiler: they did), the customers didn't linger long. Unlike in North America where a pro player can't walk to the bathroom before being accosted to sign an autograph or take a picture, it's different in South Korea. The fans want to talk to Mowgli but want to be respectful at the same time, deciding to observe from afar rather than possibly bother him during an important time.
As we began to wrap up interviews, one of the English-speaking Afreeca staff members asked if we could wait a few minutes for Mowgli to order some ramen and eat before taking the team van back to their house. When asked why he couldn't just grab some food when he got back to the apartment, we were told that this was the designated eating time for the players. If Mowgli didn't eat now, he wouldn't be allowed to eat until after the team's next scrimmage later in the evening.
We stayed until Mowgli ate all of his ramen.
The trip back to the Afreeca team house was an odyssey in itself.
We weaved through the soaked streets of Seoul, neon lights starting to reflect off puddles, to get to the team's transportation. It was hard to miss. Amongst the beige and silver vans and cars, there was Afreeca's van -- big, white, and an oversized Afreeca logo painted onto the side. Inside, it was what you would hope for in a vehicle that you'll travel in daily as a team: big, comfortable, and for viewing pleasure, a television situated for the riders in the back to watch while traveling.
"We never use it," Mowgli told me matter-of-factly in English.
What was first thought to be a simple journey to the team house turned into an almost two-hour ordeal due to the traffic and weather. Ccomet drove the team home with Mowgli in one of the back seats, looking out the window to the torrent of rain coming down around us. It didn't take too long before he was fast asleep, his hoodie drawn over his face and his head resting on the window.
For two hours, I sat back and listened to the custom playlist selected by possibly Ccomet or a combination of the Afreeca Freecs. It was a healthy dose of Korean pop, rap, and R&B, with some Ed Sheeran thrown in for good measure. They even had this year's world championship theme song, "RISE," which played as murky clouds turned into the night sky outside. Mowgli, who has hours of practice ahead of him when he gets home, doesn't awaken until the trip is over, prompted by one of Afreeca's staff members in the front seat that they're home.
Once stopped, I emerged from the van to meet the rain, forgetting my umbrella in the backseat. Mowgli, already standing outside waiting for the rest of us to exit, moved his spotted purple umbrella over my head, smiling, making sure I didn't get hit by the rain. When I stood up straight, he did his best to stand on the tip of his toes, extending his arm as far as it would go to make sure the umbrella kept over my head.
"You're 195 [centimeters]," he said, laughing at the absurdity of situation at hand, the smallest person in the van holding the umbrella for the tallest.
"I think you might be right," I replied, not knowing the conversion for centimeters to feet offhand.
Later on, after I had gone back to my hotel, I checked Google to see how close he was. At 6-5 I stand at 198 centimeters.
If this is the part of the story where you expect a luxurious team house that is four stories tall with the team logo 4D printed into the front door and a smoke machine blasting from above to make it seem like you're entering an alien spaceship from a cheesy sci-fi flick, I'm sorry to disappoint.
The Afreeca Freecs' home, like themselves, is simple. It's an apartment complex indistinguishable from all other apartment complexes. Kids were returning home from wherever kids return home from at 6:30 at night. Mothers were bringing in groceries to cook for the night's dinner. Other than a small Afreeca Freecs plaque next to the front door, you would never know this is where one of the world's best teams practice.
It was no different inside. A sea of shoes and sandals created a moat over the floor. To the left, some players were solo queuing before scrimmages. One of the substitute players who didn't make the worlds roster as the sixth man, Kim "Aiming" Ha-ram, ran into us as we made our way into the house, quietly bowing to us and speaking pleasantries in Korean before scurrying away to a computer.
We were then greeted by the head of the house, iloveoov himself, who also towered over everyone in the complex. He's 6-3, making himself one of the tallest professional gamers in the history of South Korea. In his grey Afreeca jacket, his face balanced the fine line between a smirk and a grimace, never quite telling you if he's angry or amused at you. He ushered all of us -- Afreeca social media staff, the ESPN staff, and himself -- into his small coaching room to do our one-on-one interview. His wooden desk was littered with all sorts of candies and snacks, the most prominent being his giant bag of Tootsie Pops strategically placed right next to his computer.
"When it comes to effort, it's always quantity over quality," he said. "[South] Korea is a very competitive society. Winner takes all. If you lose, you deserve it. You grow up in this society and you get used to it, even from such an early age, so we get used to having such a competitive mindset when it comes to anything."
The Freecs strict schedule isn't for everyone. The Freecs' almost masochistic schedule has made the rounds at worlds.
"I heard they do four [scrimmage blocks]," said Eugene "Pobelter" Park of Team Liquid. "Man, that probably sucks for the players, first of all. Yeah, that's a lot of hours."
"I think it'd become really stressful if you do it for more than two to three days," G2's Petter "Hjarnan" Freyschuss said. "I don't see myself doing it, that's for sure."
When asked why the team practices so much, iloveoov tried to explain it through a common understanding. It's believed it takes 10 years of constant practice for someone to master a craft, be it something artistic like the guitar or something practical like mathematics. For professional video game players, that luxury isn't possible. A decade ago, StarCraft: Brood War was a phenomenon in South Korea. After a match-fixing scandal in the scene, the younger generation shifting towards different types of games, and other unforeseen challenges, Brood War lost its standing. A professional gamer might only have a finite time to maximize their playing and financial potential.
Iloveoov's players don't have a decade to master their craft -- they only have two or three years.
Afreeca's starting support Park "TusiN" Jong-ik said "There are more upsides than downsides to the practice schedule we have at the moment. Physically, yes, we might experience burnout, but because of that, we try to strategically allocate rest days or rest hours to avoid it."
Everything iloveoov does has a reason behind it. There are no wasted motions in his plan to get his players the best possible chance to win the world championship. Before he took over the team two years ago, the Freecs organization was in a carousel of mediocrity. The team's funding, talent and coaching was good enough for the team to barely make it to the playoffs as the No. 5 seed, smack dab in the middle of the 10-team domestic league, but not nearly strong enough to take out organizations with history of success such as SK Telecom T1 or KT Rolster.
After he took over the team, the Freecs did a little better under iloveoov's coaching in Year 1, but experienced a breakthrough this year: Afreeca being the runners-up in the spring split season and narrowly missing out another final by placing in third-place during the summer split. Still, it was good enough for automatic qualification into worlds.
At the end of the interview, we thanked him for his time, ending the interview earlier than we would have hoped but not wanting to intrude on another block of scrimmages beginning at 7:00 p.m. Before leaving, though, we asked if there was any chance we would take a quick look around the entire team house for some photos. After a few seconds of discussion between him and some of the staff members, iloveoov's poker face turned into a head shake, signaling that we couldn't.
What were they hiding?
Were they scared we would find something they didn't like?
Did they fear their playful face would turn ugly during practice when things become serious?
Iloveoov laughed, ending the asinine speculation going on in my head. "We didn't clean the house. If you told us earlier, we would have cleaned up."
A day after our day with the Afreeca Freecs, the three members we spent the most time with -- Mowgli, Ccomet, and iloveoov -- were all warned or fined by Riot Games for toxic behavior in-game. Mowgli and Ccomet were just warned for their behavior, while iloveoov, the captain of the Afreeca ship, was fined $1,500. He was reported in nearly 80 games, which was more than 70 percent of the solo queue games he played last month.
Days later, the No. 2-seeded Afreeca Freecs sit at 1-2 at the League of Legends World Championship group stages. "The atmosphere in the team is terrible at the moment," mid laner Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng said after losing two in a row to start worlds.
What conclusion can we draw from this?
Is iloveoov a bad coach because he was toxic in-game and promotes a style of practice that is uncommon for a majority of westerners?
Are the Freecs, who in person are one of the closest teams I've ever seen, hugging and talking to each other all the time, actually putting up a fake front to hide their burnout the practice schedule is putting on their bodies?
No. That's a knee-jerk reaction.
We can't draw conclusions so quickly. Just because Mowgli was one of the nicest players I've ever met in esports -- no hyperbole, and I've had to interview a lot of players -- doesn't mean he also can't be rude while playing in solo queue. Just because on paper practicing upwards of 20 hours on some days sounds like torture, doesn't necessarily mean the team isn't giving their players off days in-between those long days and caring for their health.
No one really knows what really goes on within a team other than the people who live in those team houses. All that people like me and you receive are snapshots. Sometimes of their best moments and sometimes of their worst. Teams, and especially people, can't be summed up in a single line of text. People are complex.
When I went to bed that night I reviewed the day, thinking about the PC bang to the long car ride with Mowgli holding the umbrella for me to the atmosphere in the team house with iloveoov's unique way of talking and apparent love of sweets.
I didn't know what to make of the Afreeca Freecs. I expected one thing, and I got the complete opposite, and then I learned more about them a few days later. The answer, though, like most things, probably falls somewhere around the middle.
The only thing I knew for certain, though, was an hour away from me, at their plain apartment complex, with families sleeping around them in other units, the Freecs were wide awake, practicing, clicking away on their keyboards until the rain subsided and the sun peeked through their windows.
Only then, I imagine, iloveoov's face would truly turn into a toothy grin.