Before the start of the 2019 LCK spring split, no one expected SANDBOX Gaming to make playoffs, let alone be a top team. Despite that, SANDBOX debuted in style, coming as high as second in the LCK at one point, being the only team to take a game off of Griffin in the first round robin of spring. Many of the team’s players and coaches pointed to the team’s support player, 27-year old Cho “Joker” Jae-eup as the reason for the team’s success, both inside and outside of the game.
Ashley Kang talked with Joker, who discussed how he coped with his loss against DAMWON Gaming in the playoffs and the unique challenges he has faced on his road to becoming a professional gamer in the LCK.
This interview is volume 3 in LCK Sketches, a series of in-depth interviews with the LCK players.
- Volume 1 – LCK Sketches – Kiin discusses Afreeca Freecs, the growing pains of LCK, his goals
- Volume 2 – LCK Sketches – Griffin Viper talks MSI, inspirations from G2, his goal to play in an international stage
- Volume 3 – Joker, 27 and the oldest player in the LCK, talks about his unexpected life journey – from military service to Challengers Korea to SANDBOX Gaming.
Thank you for making time for the interview, Joker. Last time we saw you, it was the spring split. You had just been eliminated from the LCK playoffs by DAMWON Gaming. If an old friend came up to and asked how you’ve been doing since the spring split, how would you answer that question?
We had lost the LCK playoffs in such a futile manner, and I was trying desperately not to dwell on it. If you break up with your girlfriend, you might be going out more often so you don’t get overwhelmed by the thoughts. It was the same for me.
I could not bear to think about [the loss], so I kept myself occupied. I’d stay out all day, hang out with friends, wander around, get drunk then stumble home to fall on the bed exhausted. Then, as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning I’d be going out again. I spent my first two weeks just doing that.
[The regret] did slowly fade away after the first week. The first week was very difficult for me, however.
What made the loss at the playoffs so tough for you to process? Was it the fact the loss also meant that you’d lose your fourth place in the LCK and miss out on Rift Rivals? Or was it something else?
It was the fact that we lost our chance to go to Rift Rivals, and also the fact that we lost to DAMWON Gaming. Damwon and us, we have such a long history. We were in Challengers Korea together, then got promoted to the LCK alongside one another. DAMWON Gaming has always been the one team in the LCK that we always want to beat.
Can’t help it. We just didn’t perform, that’s it. The entire team lost steam near the end of the split. I think we tripped on our own toes. We had been too focused on reminding ourselves how weary we were. We were already telling ourselves “We’ve come this far, haven’t we done enough?” When, instead, we should have been telling ourselves “We’ve come this far, so let’s finish well”. It led to everyone declining in performance.
If the team faces a similar burnout during the summer split, do you think the team will cope with it better?
I’d say that spring split was a warm-up for us. If the LCK is a year-long journey … The summer split is tougher; it’s the one that matters. During the spring split, teams are still finding their teamwork with their new rosters. The summer split is when everyone reaches their final state, and teams show their full potential.
When you start walking on a strange path, you don’t know how long the journey will be and the walk feels even longer than it should. We didn’t know just how difficult the spring split would be.
When SANDBOX Gaming came into the LCK, many analysts were predicting that the team was “relegation material”. Yet you broke everyone’s expectations, reaching all the way up to second place in the LCK at one point. Now that you’ve had time to reflect on the split, what are your impressions of the spring split?
People like surprises. People like to predict, but also like to have their predictions turned around. We wanted to do something like that, break everyone’s expectations.
In fact, I have the same mindset right now: that we must continue playing as if we are a bottom-tier team. At the time of [the spring split], I think other teams underestimated us. As a result, we caught them off guard and got a few victories. However, in the summer split, the teams that have lost to us will be on their guard and go against us with their best effort. We can no longer rely on the opponent team to make mistakes; we have to win through our own good performance.
What is a single lesson that you have taken out of the spring split that you’ll be taking into the summer split?
When you start walking on a strange path, you don’t know how long the journey will be and the walk feels even longer than it should. We didn’t know just how difficult the spring split would be. We thought that it wouldn’t be any different to Challengers Korea. Then we got dropped into it, and we realized that we weren’t prepared for it. We were challenged, mentally and physically.
This time, we know how long the journey is. We’ll know how to prepare ahead and pace ourselves. We’ll know how to take care of ourselves, especially physically, so we may complete the run successfully.
I know that age is a subject that comes up whenever you get interviewed, however, I really wanted to ask you more about it.
Joker, you are currently 27. That makes you the oldest active player in the LCK. You became a professional gamer after you completed the South Korean military service. Let’s start from the beginning – How did you first get into League of Legends?
When I went to serve my military service, League of Legends had just been introduced into Korea. Whenever I went out for leave, everyone around me would be playing League. My friends suggested the game to me too.
However, I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get into games after I finished my military service. I had played StarCraft since seven. I had spent over ten years of my life playing a variety of games. I remember hiding in my room, pretending to my parents that I was studying when I was playing video games. I was ready to put all that behind me. I was going to study or pursue other things once I was back from the military.
Then, after my military service, my friends kept goading me. “Hey, give it a go. You’re so good at every game, won’t you be good at League of Legends, too?” In the end, I budged. My first champion was Talon — I think it was a rotation champion. My first main was a Singed. Yeah, I was a Singed top player.
Many people start playing League of Legends one way or another, often by being introduced to the game by their friends. However, most of these people stay as casual gamers. Very few people work themselves all the way into professional gaming. How did you go from a casual gamer to a professional gamer?
It happened when — I had actually decided to quit League of Legends during that time. I was going back to university, I wanted to focus on studying and work myself towards my first job. So we formed a team – Me and a few other friends around my age that played League of Legends together. We wanted to go out with a blast, leave one last good memory about League of Legends. We entered Challengers Korea promotion — Then, somehow, it worked out.
We ended up in the second place, but this happened to be the year when two teams dropped out of Challengers Korea, and we qualified. It was around the time I met the CEO of BattleComics. I did contemplate a lot during this time, but in the end, I swayed, and Team BattleComics came to be. [Note: Team BattleComics re-branded to SANDBOX Gaming at the beginning of 2019]
I know that my parents were often frustrated by how deep I was into gaming, but now they can say – You didn’t only like games, but also made something out of it.
Let’s say that you had decided not to compete in Challengers Korea. What would Cho Jae-eup be doing right now?
I had been studying to be a public worker in the police field. My parents really wanted me to get into that industry. I was living out of a gosiwon at Daegu working towards an exam. Keeping it a secret from my parents, I made a short excursion to Seoul and attended the Challengers Korea promotions.
My mother, who thought that I was studying hard, was shocked when she found out that [I was about to play games full time]. I didn’t talk to my parents for a while after I became a professional gamer. They were angry, they were hurt.
If I decided to go the other way – I’d either still be at that gosiwon, or finally pass the exam to become a public worker. In fact, if I had not passed the public worker exam by now I’d have given up at this point. I’d probably be working in an office.
I’m guessing your parents have not been totally accepting of your choice. Not from the beginning, at least.
No. It wasn’t just my parents, but all my relatives. I didn’t publicly advertise that I am a professional gamer, and my parents didn’t want me to tell other people, either. It wasn’t like I was 18. I had begun as a professional gamer at the age of 25.
But now that I’m in the LCK, I feel that my parents are very proud of me. I know that my parents were often frustrated by how deep I was into gaming, but now they can say – You didn’t only like games, but also made something out of it. This time that I spent playing the game, it wasn’t for nothing. Now I can tell all my relatives, who also support me and come to watch my matches.
Let’s say that a friend of a friend came up to you. That they want to get into professional gaming but are not sure if it is the best choice. What kind of advice will you give to that person?
It’d depend on the person. The person’s age would be a big factor. I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t become a professional gamer if you are old. However, the weight of the risk you have to take on yourself becomes bigger if you are older.
For younger people, I’d tell them to give it a go. For older people, I’d ask them how much the game means to them. If you truly believe this is the only thing you want to do, if you are sure you will regret it if you don’t get into gaming. If the answer is yes — Well.
This is the best time to get into professional gaming in Korea. The infrastructure, the people’s prejudice on gaming, has improved significantly in the last few years. The parents have become more supportive of their sons becoming professional gamers. At this time – Even if you try it for two or three years, and do not make it, it would be a good experience.
Soon, we will be heading into the summer split. Some teams have made drastic roster changes during the break, while SANDBOX Gaming has retained its roster. Which team are you wary of the most as you head into the summer split?
For teams that are placed mid or low, I’d have to go with KT Rolster. Out of the playoff teams, I’d say Kingzone DragonX — However, they went through an unfortunate roster move recently [with PawN taking a hiatus].
I didn’t mention SK Telecom T1. That’s because it’s such a given that they are a good team that it almost feels obvious to say that I’m wary of them. Griffin is also too good.
And, among these teams, what is your goal for the summer split or the rest of the year? It must be the World Championship.
You are not a professional gamer if you are not aiming for Worlds. Even if you are the tenth placed team, you must work towards Worlds. My goal is to go to Worlds.
Thank you for the reflection on your career. What is the next page in your life?
People’s perception of [SANDBOX Gaming] seems to fluctuate with every match. I guess that is because we don’t have many matches under our belt. We want to establish our team’s own identity. That this is a competitive team; even if we lose a series or two, that people should still believe in our strength.
They call Gen.G “The Gen.G of Autumn”. I want to create a label like that but for Sandbox. Let’s go with, “The SANDBOX Gaming of Summer”. A team that people know and remember.
Have you ever thought about the end of your career as a professional gamer? When you retire, what would you like to do?
If I achieve my career goals within my lifespan as a professional gamer — Say, that I win Worlds in the next two or three years – then I think I will be able to retire and leave this industry without regrets. However, if I don’t, I’ll stay as a coach, or … Stay in this industry one way or another. Until I reach my goal.
Thank you for this interview, Joker. Would you be able to add any final words as you head into the split? Would you be able to say something to your fans and your teammates?
To the fans — They send me messages of support. I am caught by a surprised and feel appreciated every time I get one of them. We will perform and repay this, so keep sending us love and support. I am always thankful for your support, in the back of my mind, every day.
To my teammates — [Summer split] is truly the new beginning for us. We’re in this boat together, for good and bad. Even when we go through a storm, please don’t think that it’s too hard or weary. This is the best moment in our lives. In the summer split, let’s work our absolute hardest. Let’s all look back at ourselves at the end of 2019 and remember this as a happy year. When the winter comes, may we have smiles on our faces as we look at one another.
Also — Can I add something? I’d really like to thank our company, SANDBOX.
Sure, go ahead.
You have been supporting us so much in every direction, taking care of our well-being, our mental and physical conditions. The company, the staff, the CEO – I am extremely grateful. This summer, I will repay this gratitude with a performance fitting the hot summer days. Thank you.