It was the first match of the day. Park "Saebyeolbe" Jong-ryeol sat at the end of an empty row of plastic lawn chairs at Studio Paradise, Incheon, to watch Team Finland play Team Japan. He shook his head a bit, clicking his tongue lightly. His side of the audience was peppered with team players in their jerseys, waiting for their matches to begin. Saebyeolbe was in plain clothes, allowing him to momentarily blend in with the audience.
After the match finished. Saebyeolbe moved to stand in front of the South Korean caster desk at the back of the venue. Soon a line of fans reached around the back of the studio all the way to the entrance. Saebyeolbe apologized with a stream of "sorrys," short bows and a sheepish grin as staff quickly approached him and the ever-growing crowd. Later, in the entrance hall, an even larger line formed across all entrances and the merchandise booth, full of fans chatting excitedly. A few had Saebyeolbe's jersey from his time in the Overwatch League on the New York Excelsior. Others had colorful paper bags with carefully wrapped gifts for Saebyeolbe and his Team South Korea teammates. It was a rare chance for South Korean fans to reunite with players such as Saebyeolbe, who have been overseas for close to a year, preparing and playing in the inaugural Overwatch League season.
"Playing in the league, we have a lot of people cheering," Team South Korea and NYXL flex player Bang "Jjonak" Seong-hyeon said. "But this is our home crowd. The cheering feels more like I'm at home. The World Cup is more pressure but also more fun."
The line for the Overwatch World Cup Qualifier at Incheon started every day at least three hours before the first match. Every time Team South Korea took the stage, the studio audience was packed. Thundersticks moved in unison to the amusement of the South Korean casting desk, who wanted to sway in time with the home crowd. Before the first map of each match, the traditional countdown and "Fighting!" cheer was unified and deafening for the country's native sons. It was a redemption stage for each and every member of Team South Korea, all of whom had lost at various stages of the Season 1 Overwatch League playoffs.
"In Korea, there are a lot of players from the Overwatch League," support player Hong "ArK" Yeon-joon said. "In other countries like Finland, they can only pick their best members for each position. There's more competition that is actually playing in the league. I think [there's pressure] because of that."
Prior to ever stepping foot on the Incheon Qualifier stage, ArK admitted in an Inven interview to staying up late with his NYXL teammates to see if they would make it onto the Team South Korea seven-man roster. The NYXL razed through the regular season with four stage finals appearances and two stage finals wins. Even with a meta shift from the dive compositions that the NXYL had seemingly perfected, the team was a heavy favorite not only for a Season 1 Grand Finals appearance but the title of Overwatch League champion. Despite Stage 4 hiccups and a Stage 4 finals loss to the Los Angeles Valiant, NXYL's playoff loss to the Philadelphia Fusion was stunning.
"Because some of the Korean fans, it's really harsh," ArK said, laughing. "I was really scared and some of our members were really scared of that, so they trained their best."
ArK still thinks that this South Korean team will have to continue the country's undefeated streak at the 2018 World Cup Finals at BlizzCon to truly prove themselves and earn possible redemption in some fans' eyes. "I think we have to win Blizzcon if we really want to get maybe some endorsement." He laughed again. The playoff loss is still fresh for most of the NYXL players. A home crowd is indescribably uplifting, but there is also the added pressure while playing as Team South Korea.
"Because this is a World Cup, we're representing our country," flex tank Kim "MekO" Tae-hong said. "That's a bit more pressure than the league."
Yet, the NYXL members of the Team South Korea seven-man starting lineup (DPS player Saebyeolbe, ArK, JjoNak, MekO, and DPS player Kim "Libero" Hae-seong) aren't the only players on the team aiming for redemption or increased recognition from their South Korean fan base. No starting member of the South Korean World Cup team is from the reigning championship team, the London Spitfire. Main tank Koo "Fate" Pan-seung and DPS player Lee "Carpe" Jae-hyeok from the Valiant and Fusion, respectively, both suffered their own losses with their teams in the Season 1 playoffs. ArK appreciated the different styles that Fate and Carpe brought to Team South Korea. Their presence also allowed him to play differently and take on different roles in team communication than he would usually have on the NYXL.
"It added lots and lots of color to our team, and actually I really liked that because Carpe was one of the smartest players in his position," ArK said. "And Fate was actually doing the main calls. It helped me a lot to do the main call things. Doing different jobs and separate jobs was really good."
After South Korea's opening match against Taiwan on Day 1, a happy ArK was brought to the stage. A wave of impressed oohs and ahhs rolled through the crowd when the support player responded to host Alex "Goldenboy" Mendez's questions in fluent English. For the average American Overwatch League viewer, especially in the Los Angeles area, it's easy to forget that these players have an entire history, rapport and relationship with their domestic fan base that extends far beyond the Overwatch League stage.
By the end of Day 1, the atmosphere of Team South Korea was one of exhaustion and relief, having barely held on to the team's undefeated World Cup record. Although South Korea entered as a heavy favorite in the Incheon Qualifier, the team only narrowly won against Finland in a close, five-map match that included a game crash and reset along with brilliant tank play from Fate and Finland's Joona "Fragi" Laine. Recognizing the weight of playing in front of a home crowd, the members of Team South Korea credited that same audience with inspiring them to push even harder for the victory.
"I had my headphones on, but I could still hear the fans cheering," Libero said. "So that was really good. I'm grateful for the fans' passion. I hope we can repay them with good matches."