The Korean player is the Big Bad of the Starcraft scene. He is the threat that lurks across the world, playing on a ladder everyone knows fosters talent against opponents openly admitted to be the strongest. Stereotypically, the Korean player is an embodiment of discipline, practising harder and better than his non-Korean counterparts. In Starcraft, ”Korean” has become synonymous with ”skill”, his legacy of victory and success searing an almost instinctual respect into the minds of the fans. Almost by definition, a Korean tournament is a top-level tournament, and a Korean player is a player worthy of respect. Korean players are many and often seemingly unbeatable, epitomizing mastery of Starcraft. Often, distinguishing one player from another in such a cutthroat environment can be difficult.
Winrate68% vs. Terran57% vs. Protoss72% vs. Zerg
Earnings$54,962 USD in 2014
"Also, personally, I think I have excellent strategizing skills for boX match formats. So my opponent better watch out (smiles)."It is no secret that the foreign community has, at times, had a hard time accepting the Korean dominance. There are barriers of culture that make understanding the Korean scene difficult, differences in language that makes communicating with their players nearly impossible. Korean players making the effort to speak English in public settings are lauded, celebrated for their willingness to speak a foreign language sometimes more so than for their achievements within the competition. Players that cannot – or for some reason do not – communicate directly with the foreign fans are commonly misunderstood as uninterested, or worse, faceless. Few Korean players achieve lasting recognition overseas without clowny antics, a cabinet full of gold or half a million dollars in prize money.
It is telling, then, that herO has come to be defined by his smile. Not his play, or his race, or his history in Starcraft. Naturally, these are all important parts of his identity, but they are not what has come to finally distinguish him. Kim Joon Ho's personality and demeanor has earned him the nickname ”Smiling Assassin”, encapsulating the essence of his character more than any one build or result ever will. Few Protoss players have been as successful as herO has in 2014, and even fewer repeat finalists have had to suffer the dishonor of losing three times in a row. Yet unlike his counterparts – players like soO, Jaedong and Marineking in their respective times – herO hasn't come to be defined or discredited for his losses. Perhaps it is because he had won once his losses came, but there is definitely something about herO that at least in part defies results. His embarrassing Global Finals performance in 2012 lies long forgotten, his KeSPA Cup silver a showing of strength rather than a demonstration of weakness like it would have been for many others. It is neither fair nor wholly logical, but herO has come to rarely be associated with defeat, despite suffering his fair share.
Playing any game at the highest level is bound to cause a certain amount of stress. This is a fact of life for any progamer or athlete, the stress and the pressure of having to put in absurd dedication and time to remain competitive always present. Some players handle this stress better than others, shrugging it off as part of the game, a step on the road to becoming the best and a necessary evil paid back a hundredfold once results begin to show. Others suffer more, fighting inconsistency, exhaustion and fading confidence, and having their performance take a beating as a consequence. Few can manage sequential defeats without suffering mentality problems as a result, and those who have to go through the trial of silvers often fail to ever walk the path of gold.
It is telling, then, that from his victories early this year and through his struggles with second places and agonizing defeats just inches from the finish line, herO has at no point seemed truly disheartened to the point of weakness. For some time he, like soO does now, seemed to suffer from psychological injury - stemming from the agony of his $100.000 loss at the hands of sOs and his 2gates - but even in his moment of weakness he remained an anchor for his team in CJ's rise from the bottom to the top of Proleague. He is the poster boy of CJ Entus, the most familial team in Korea, radiating a love for the game and the fans that most others fail to convey, a player with a rare kind of charisma that lets us forget even his most disappointing moments. When herO walks on stage, there is a joy about him that says more about how he feels for Starcraft than any words could. His celebrations feel honest, unlike the often forced ones of his peers. Rather than play to the crowd, he seeks to simply share his own joy, be it through a jovial tumbling on stage or a slightly embarrassed laugh cuter than anything you have ever seen.
"The group selections are going to go great no matter how they're done, so I want to make them as enjoyable as possible."
The fact that herO has become associated with the positive energy he seems to radiate rather than his achievements is deceptive. One might think that a player whose reputation is largely built on who he appears to be (in a scene that is, traditionally, very focused on results) rather than what he has done is a player who cannot stand on his own legs in a competitive setting. There are many examples of players making names for themselves through entertaining antics or streaming rather than through tournament placements, and while it true that herO might be similar to Dragon in his uncanny ability to charm the viewers, the nickname of ”Smiling Assassin” did not come about for nothing. This year alone, he has made it to the semifinals of four tournaments filled to the brim with talent, making it there through dependable strength in each match-up. herO embodies everything we have come to expect from Korean players - nearly flawless execution, a single-minded devotion to winning that is only matched by his peers, ingenuity in situations of disadvantage - and thus becomes a menacing player to be pitted against, but he is also very different from the stereotypical Korean bounty hunter.
In the booth, herO does not channel the fury of soO's second places or the Jaedong's relentless craving for victory, but what strikes me as a desire to win for the sake of victory and the sheer joy that victory gives him. The smile that rarely leaves him might indicate a satisfaction, a being happy with simply having come this far, but that would be an unfair representation. There is more to him than that, a singular dedication to his goals no weaker than that of Zest or Rain. He smiles as he plays Starcraft on a level very few can match, and keeps smiling as he piles one achievement upon another, but it is not the kind of smile that would be cocky on the lips of others. When faced with adversity, herO will clench his teeth but eventually, inevitably, emerge on the other side, unscathed. Perhaps adversity is what has taught herO never to surrender in the face of defeat, and to celebrate all the more when he wins. Perhaps victory is what has taught him to revel in those moments, to cherish the moments when he is the star of the show, the player no one else could beat. herO's distinctive smile is the symbol of his career, the constant in the story of a well-travelled and successful Protoss player who rose to power in the most chaotic era of Protoss, but also the sign that lets him share his passion for the competition with everyone who is watching.