Over the weekend, Korean Contenders Season 2 finished with Runaway finally winning the title. This is a team that has been searching for their first big victory since the beginning of Overwatch. This is a story that has spanned across games, lineups, franchises, and broadcast companies. A story of a dogged stubbornness, of team unity, of a team that has persisted through all of their struggles in the chase of their dreams.
The story starts with Yoon “Runner” Dae-hoon. He was a League of Legends streamer who decided to chase his esports dream when Overwatch came out. Someone who couldn’t let go of a dream that had kept them up at nights, that made them wonder what if. The beginning of Starcraft 2 had a bunch of these types. The most apt comparison is Lee “Choya” Hyung Seop. He started off as a player who had dreams to one day win a title. Like Runner, he decided to found and create his own esports team. It started off as fOu, short for “For Our Utopia”. It was a clan filled with players, but eventually became a team with a team house and Choya as the coach of the squad.
It was a mad dream as Starcraft 2 was a game that was never popular in Korea, but Choya refused to let it go. In that way, he and Runner were very much alike. Even their situations were nominally similar. Both were games that didn’t have the support of the KeSPA teams upon launch. Korea’s esports system is split between the haves and the have nots. All of the haves are part of the KeSPA system, and everyone else outside of that system are barely scraping by. Of the dozen or so esports teams I’ve seen spring up in the last 6 years, only two of three of them have survived and continue to thrive (MVP, StarTale now known as Afreeca, and IM now known as Longzhu).
However unlike the Western model of franchising, the Korean esports model will always let the underdog organization have a chance. If the five players are good enough, they can work their way up and win the entire league anyway. We’ve seen this before with the KOO Tigers and more recently Griffin in the LCK. This chance creates this intense incentive for the diehards. Those with the passion and will to bet it all on the chance that they can prove themselves to be the best in the world. It is a different model from the West. A dog eat dog world where the winner can take it all and the loser is left with nothing. To the business oriented minds of the franchise league system, it must look like madness. Instead of creating a stable environment where everyone can benefit, it is a battle of survival. But it is also about the passion of chasing a dream greater than themselves.
The dream in this case is victory. Though victory itself comes with a high price. Ignore all of the feel good stories of the champions and look to those who lost. Those whose dreams had to be shattered so that the champion could make their own dream come true. That is the price that must be paid, however that very price is what makes the dream worth chasing. The truth of competition is that all victory is proportional to what can be lost. It is why losses in the round robin stage hurt far less than losses in the playoffs. It is why playoffs hurt far less than losses in the semifinals. It is why finals losses can be the most destructive thing imaginable for the competitive player.
For Runaway, they have lost four tournaments throughout the organization’s history: Apex Season 2, Nexus Cup Summer, Apex Season 4, and APAC Premier 2017. It is one of the most important runs in history, though the lineup has changed. Among all of the players on Runaway now, only three players on the squad have lived through it all: Kim ‘Haksal’ Hyo-jong, Park ‘Bumper’ Sang-beom, and Lee ‘Stitch’ Choong-hui.
The team was never supposed to get that far. I mean that literally as the team was set on blowing up after Apex Season 2. It was a heartbreak loss to Lunatic-Hai as they lost 4-3 after being up 3-1 in the series score. It felt like a ceremonial end to Runaway. The end of the run had then come so close, but not quite enough. It was similar to the team’s own situation outside the game. The sponsors were pulling out, there was no way to continue the project, and their tank player Ryu ‘KAISER’ Sang-hoon was bought out by Cloud9.
It was their passion and dream that got them that far. It was to be love and support that would sustain them. This time the impetus came not from Runner, but his wife, Lee ‘Flowervin’ Hyuna.
“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.” – Via ESPN
So Runaway continued onward. They reformed, found new players, adapted to the patches, and slowly came back. At Nexus Cup 2017, they made the finals to only lose to Miraculous Youngster. At Apex Season 4 they lost against the Royal Roaders, GC Busan in another heartbreak loss of 3-4. At APAC they were rematched against them again, to only lose 1-4.
They were cursed as the Kongs of the Korean scene. A tag that is mythic in its scope. It was originally created for the Brood War player Hong ‘YellOw’ Jin-Ho for his continual losses in the six big finals he lost in his career. So close, but never quite good enough. The most tortured position any top level competitor can have.
However there is one trait that is admirable in all of these losses. It is the fact that each time Runaway has lost, they have gotten back up to challenge for the title again. This belief in the entire structure of the team as a family has sustained them through the losses. It has also been what has stopped them from progressing forward. Rumors were abound that the Runaway players were not willing to split up piecemeal to get into the Overwatch League. It was either all of them or none of them.
In the end, it was none of them as Overwatch started up. All of the other titans of the scene had left. Lunatic-Hai, EnVyUs, KongDoo, GC Pusan. All of them and their rosters were slowly changed overtime as they came to Overwatch League under completely different team names and logos. Runaway were the final surviving great of the Korea scene. A reminder of what once was, perhaps an anachronism in the modern times.
After all, their sense of loyalty and family had cost the players opportunities. However it was also that sense of unity and culture that had made them such a great team to begin with. That drive to be all or nothing, both inside or outside the game. That was what drove them to such great heights and it was also why the players didn’t join the league. It was all of us or none of us.
They were a living memory to the original passion that drove all of Korean esports. From the days when Lim ‘BoxeR’ Yo Hwan went from playing in PC Bangs to playing in arenas, to Lee ‘Infiltration’ Seon-woo’s one man crusade against the entire world in Street Fighter 4, and now to Runaway’s stand in Korea. The people and the games are different, but the dream and the drive are the same.
That was what made it all the more sweet when Runaway finally won. At Contenders Season 2, KongDoo Panthera played against Runaway in the finals. Like the other two finals, it went the entire distance, actually it went past the distance as it went to a decision eighth map. This time however Runaway got the victory they have been looking for all of this time. It was a moment that culminated all of their pain and experiences. From losing all of those finals, to being unable to join the Overwatch League as an entire squad, to finally being able to win the tournament that they have been looking for all of this time.
In the modern age of Overwatch League, the Runaway story is a reverie made flesh. A reminder of a time long past, when futures were uncertain. When a team and it’s players were faced with the risks of no tomorrow, but took that risk because of a dream that was greater than themselves. No one can say what the future holds. If Runaway join the League or if they split up, but for at least this one moment, they made their dreams come true. They won Korea and this moment will be crystallized into Overwatch history for years to come.