The quotes provided in this article are taken from an interview conducted by the author with Washington Justice Head Coach Seung-jun “Sup7eme” Han on Thursday, July 8, 2021. This was done in due part with the Justice’s team translator, Haeni Kim. For any questions or queries about this interview, please contact TGH’s Jordy Garcia at [email protected]
For a job that only holds a total of twenty spots at the highest level, becoming a head coach in the Overwatch League is not an easy feat. Climbing up the ladder of coaching is as hard as it is for an up-and-coming player. And it is almost identical to the path a coach takes in traditional sports.
While many may see esports like the OWL as a concoction of child’s play and wannabe competition. It can also be seen as a classic blend of high-end skill and sporting future from those who are immersed in the culture.
And for someone like the first-year head coach of the Washington Justice, Seung-jun “Sup7eme” Han: that concept of culture is everything.
“I felt very happy when I got promoted to head coach,” Sup7eme explained after being asked about his promotion during the 2020 season.
“…but rather than caring about the promotion, the biggest reason why I felt happy was when I joined the esports pro scene it wasn’t about my position, it wasn’t about the big money: it was all about the passion, effort, and talent.”
The mindset of being one of the elusive twenty individuals who hold the title of OWL Head Coach varies. Some might be just happy financially, some may be ecstatic to be in a leadership role, but for the few like Sup7eme, nurturing a team environment is what he cherishes the most.
“With that great passion, everybody gets together and builds up together this great team culture. I wanted to be a part of that: the team. That was my ultimate goal when I joined esports.” the Korean coach said.
Built For Coaching
From the very beginning of Sup7eme’s esports career: he seemed ready for the job. He made his first big mark in the competitive Overwatch scene by leading Team Seven in 2017. He coached a team that steamrolled over the Open Division by going undefeated in all four matches. Sup7eme then went on to help the team place in the Top 3 during the APEX Challengers Season 5 group stage amongst household names like Lunatic-Hai and Element Mystic.
If it was not for the development of the Overwatch League and Contenders, Seven had a quality chance to make a name for themselves in Season 5 of OGN’s APEX tournament.
…I focused on taking care of my players and minimizing their mistakes.
But the timeline was not set up that way for Sup7eme.
Instead, his talents brought him to OWL where he would be able to jumpstart his true passion: mentorship.
“…when I was with Hangzhou, I focused on taking care of my players and minimizing their mistakes. It was more about 1-on-1 sessions,” Sup7eme explained.
In November 2018, Sup7eme was announced as one of the Assistant Coaches of the newly-branded Hangzhou Spark. The expansion of the OWL provided an influx of personnel like Sup7eme a chance to prove themselves at the top level of Overwatch.
While the role of strategizing may have fallen into the lap of the head coach at the time, Lee “Mask” Mu-ho, Sup7eme embraced the role of a more supportive coach. This was especially true as former Seven players like Jun-ki “Bazzi” Park and Jaehwan “Adora” Kang joined him as well with the Spark. The concept of teamwork and synergy, both on and off the map, became a tentpole in Sup7eme’s coaching philosophy.
“On Hangzhou, I tried to focus on taking care of my players…”
Bridging The Gap
That mindset, however, would not continue with Hangzhou as at the end of the 2018-2019 season the team moved on from his services. But that lull would not last for long as the Washington Justice would acquire Sup7eme as a Developmental Coach just a month after his release.
Sup7eme explains his former role as the uniquely-dubbed ‘developmental coach’ as this, “On the Washington Justice, last year, we had a mixed team. So I tried to bring harmony between the Korean players and non-Korean players.”
The Justice saw value in the Korean coach’s experience as someone who was in a similar situation with the mixed-roster Spark. Even beyond that, Washington also allowed Sup7eme to start to instill his concepts early in his tenure as a coach for the team. This is what would later become his signature head coaching style.
“…we tried to overcome [the reliance] on skill, talents, abilities, etc. and focus on making up for their mistakes and team gameplay.”
The ideal scenario of teamwork over pure skill is something that Sup7eme holds to this day. During his days as the developmental coach, he strived to push those ideas.
“[I focused on] development, building synergy within the team, and overcoming our limits.”
Sup7eme’s experience with both a mixed roster with Hangzhou and an all-Korean roster with Seven made him highly sought after for the Justice. Thriving with a mixed team was a goal the Justice looked to reach.
…if you want to acquire a great outcome in a short amount of time, then speaking the identical language is very helpful.
But for many, the idea of the mixed roster is risky. More often than not, a team that is bound by a language barrier has one more thing to worry about apart from aspects like skill, solid team play, etc.
“Both mixed and all-Korean rosters have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s also the same with all-NA teams, Chinese teams, etc.” Sup7eme said
“When you reach the level of Overwatch League, the highest level, as a brand-new team, if you want to acquire a great outcome in a short amount of time, then speaking the identical language is very helpful.”
This short-term concept reigns true – as told by the league’s history. A mixed team like the San Fransico Shock have dominated the OWL in the last couple of seasons. But, it was an all-Korean roster in the London Spitfire that won the inaugural OWL Grand Finals over a mixed Philadelphia Fusion team.
“…if you’re on a mixed team: you need a translator. You will have a meeting in the morning, and then the translator has to translate [the meeting] to the players, going back and forth, and the translator [also] has to stay with the team 24/7. If the translator has to translate just one sentence, [meetings] will take twice, or three times, as long.”
While translators can be a bane to the team as a whole, Sup7eme does not end there.
“But there are advantages to mixed teams like, for example, you have a wide view or perspectives compared to all-Korean, NA, etc. So there are non-bias, non-tilted views, and there are more creative ways [of thinking].”
As previously stated, this is potentially why the Shock have thrived amongst this mindset of “mixed equals bad”. The team has worked beyond the barring nature of a translator and has used a variety of talents from around the world to create an international super team. This was an approach Washington initially had as an expansion team but eventually abandoned as Sup7eme took over.
The idea of a “super-team” may be too high-concept for the current head coach of the Justice. For Sup7eme, the human side of the esports scene is as important as high-level gameplay.
That’s Just Geography
After a few roster changes and coaching swaps, Sup7eme saw himself promoted as Washington’s head coach midway through the 2020 season. With a stellar playoff performance, Sup7eme continued his tenure as the head coach going into the 2021 season of the OWL with an all-Korean roster to boot. This partnership also lent itself to the opening of the Justice’s new team facility in the heart of Washington D.C.
“…Washington is the capital of the States, so we get to see a lot of beautiful buildings and architecture…I think it’s a great experience for us and our players, sometimes [after] scrims they can go for a walk or get some fresh air.”
For Sup7eme, the location of Washington is as important as having a team full of all-stars.
“When I was on Hangzhou, I was in California. California is a very touristic city, but Washington D.C. is a very American, traditional city.” Sup7eme stated.
“…when I go out for a walk I see a lot of historic buildings everywhere. And the players, they really like it too…California is very wide and broad, everything is scattered in a big area, but Washington D.C. is a smaller city so everything is close to each other.”
…That’s a small goal I have, that we are all family…
The perception of location relevancy does not come up in many people’s minds. First and foremost, skill or talent is what usually stands out for the OWL faithful. But the Justice’s coach likes to simmer things down to base level.
“…if you are an adult: you have to act like a grown-up,” Sup7eme said.
So, to be a good Overwatch team player: you have to act like a team player whenever you can – and wherever you are, so to speak.
According to Sup7eme, Washington seems to make that lifestyle a bit easier.
Sup7eme describes Washington the same way as he likes to describe his ideal team: close-knit. While cities like Los Angeles or New York may be the American Dream for foreigners like the current Washington squad, the Korean coach explains that Washington is a perfect setting for a proving team.
“That’s a small goal I have, that we are all family, but the main reason [why it is important] is that only having great mechanics will make you face your limits [at some point],” Sup7eme said.
Separating The Wheat From The Chaff
That humanistic side to Sup7eme’s coaching is an aspect that may be too few and far between the other nineteen head coaches in the league. To him, what separates skilled teams from championship teams are those human relationships.
“Let’s say you have a six-man, “S-tier” roster, but they [somehow] can’t become the best team.” Sup7eme describes.
“This is because, let’s say they have good knowledge, quality playstyles, etc. but if they have strong opinions or strong personalities then it might be hard to get used to that atmosphere [rather than having] great teamwork or team play.”
…getting close to each other and getting along with each other is the most important thing…
Overwatch, as a game, is team-heavy. For those who have hundreds of hours played in competitive play, when two teams are evenly matched, it is usually the team with the better teamwork that is victorious. In the OWL, in particular, these players spend hundreds of hours in-game together building that teamwork on the highest stage possible.
According to Sup7eme, however, going even further than that is necessary to build a successful franchise.
“Because Overwatch is a game that you play together with your teammates, I think getting close to each other and getting along with each other is the most important thing [to me]. If the players only have a business relationship, like they don’t talk after scrims, then someday that negative factor will appear in-game.”
On A Personal Level
Plenty of reports have come out about players not cooperating with management or game plans not coming fully together due to obvious incoordination. By focusing on building those bonds both inside and outside the game, teams rely less on individual mechanical skills and focus more on an overwhelming barrage of team play.
Sup7eme gives this example, “So, for example, Decay and Fury get along with each other and they talk a lot. Sometimes they have deep conversations, in their spare time they play games together. Because they do this, in-game you will see them be able to understand each other more deeply.”
Sup7eme continues this by explaining that if the team is running at one hundred percent efficiency, there is no external banter in comms about where everyone is and what everyone is doing or is about to do.
…the fundamental thing we need is to [continue] to understand each other…
“I think that is the big difference and gap between A-tier teams and S-tier teams. As the Justice head coach, whether we lose or win, the fundamental thing we need is to [continue] to understand each other, what they are thinking and raise our gameplay level as a team: as one-unit.”
Throwing away those unnecessary explanations in-game lends the team to focus on the objective–and in turn–gives the team an open-ended opportunity to thrive in any situation.
“…when [the team] can’t perform as well as they did in scrims, that’s the time I feel frustrated. I’m not talking about [being frustrated] at our strategies or opponents, it’s our own problem.” The coach stated.
“When we can’t bring that explosive energy on stage, I feel very empty and sometimes hopeless. On the opposite side… I can tell [they are playing well] just from hearing their callouts, that is when I think to myself “Oh, I wasn’t wrong. I made a good decision”.”
Because of this tight-knit nature of the Justice, Sup7eme explains that he can tell if games will go well or not right off the bat. For those uninitiated, the coaching staff do not have communication with the team during a map. Unlike certain sports like hockey, where players can get feedback mid-game in between shifts, esports like Overwatch rely on pure teamwork from the players themselves. This is why Sup7eme further iterates on the importance of community, especially when he has no control over the situation.
“I get a little nervous during a match. During a match, I watch and look closely at our players’ abilities and what they practiced.” Sup7eme explains when asked about what happens backstage during a match.
“I can tell what they are thinking by just [paying attention] to how their voice sounds. So I can tell if “Oh, this game is going to be easy, or Oh, this game is going to be hard”.”
With all this said, for the coach, it all circles back to a passion for the game.
“I want to experience the active league scene again and the time where we met our fans. The time when we poured and showed our passion to our fans. Back in the day, we were able to meet our fans play in front of them.” Sup7eme explained.
“There were a lot of interesting factors to our Homestand that was held in Washington D.C., I want to experience that one more time again.”
…I also wanted to keep the players passionate and to have dreams…
In the end, Sup7eme is akin to those tuning in every weekend to watch OWL matches. He very much wants to see the league flourish and through his coaching, he hopes to contribute to that for years to come.
“I wanted to solve all these problems together and build a teamplay-styled culture. And I also wanted to keep the players passionate and to have dreams: that’s why I was happy when I was promoted to head coach.”
For one of only twenty human beings to be an Overwatch League head coach, Sup7eme seems to be in the minority of coaching styles. Combining that of passion, team synergy, and altering the boundaries of success in the OWL, the Korean head coach hopes to help bring a title to Washington through that ideology.
If anything, it is a commendable attitude to have towards the cutthroat atmosphere of the Overwatch League and esports as a whole.
Follow Jordy on Twitter: @JRDNGRCA for more like this Sup7eme Head Coach interview!
Featured Image Courtesy of Ian Cunningham/Washington Justice.
Sup7eme Head Coach Interview
“From Our Haus to Yours”