The many faces of Afreeca Freecs' Choi "iloveoov" Yeon-sung

Afreeca Feeec's coach, iloveoov. ESPN.com

Everyone sees something different when they look at Choi "iloveoov" Yeon-sung.

To his players on the League of Legends Afreeca Freecs team, they see a sweet-toothed leader with an array of candies lining his desk.

To the older esports fans, he is a legend. An icon. One of, if not the most dominant player in StarCraft: Brood War history. He's the "Cheater Terran," someone who was so good at one of the most complex video games ever created that it was thought he must have been hacking.

To his close friend and mentor, Lim "BoxeR" Yo-hwan, the godfather of esports in South Korea, iloveoov is a stubborn youngster who broke through the amateur scene with a tireless work ethic to become an even more accomplished player than himself.

And to the newer western audience just learning of him, he is the towering head coach of South Korea's most disciplined team who was recently fined by Riot Games for being reported in over 70 percent of his League of Legends matches last month.

In person, iloveoov's face switches at the drop of a dime. One second, his lips twist into a frown, making you fear he's about to scold you. The next, with a simple chuckle, his hands spring to life and he begins a long monologue about the olden days when he was a professional gamer on the now world-renowned SK Telecom T1. Standing at 6-foot-3, his stature threatens to overwhelm anyone who walks past him, and his blank face, always teetering on a sneer or a smile, does him no favors.

To his colleague and Afreeca's strategic coach, Lim "Ccomet" Hye-sung, this is all according to iloveoov's plan.

"He's a bit like a peacock," said Ccomet. "He has so many faces. Sometimes he's really angry. Sometimes he's fun. Sometimes he's joking around. Sometimes he's really serious. But what I've recognized is that everything he does is about the game. So if he's acting angry, he's purposely doing it to increase their performance. If he's being all joking and funny, which he can be, he's [sensing] that the team house atmosphere is down and is trying to raise the spirit of the players up. So, he has a lot of different faces, but every single thing he does is for the game."

Iloveoov was not introduced to video games until he was 16 years old [14 or 15 in the Western age format] in his third year of intermediate school. One day, a friend of his told him there was a new game out and took him to a PC Bang. This is the moment where iloveoov found his calling with StarCraft: Brood War, the game which upon release would become a cultural phenomenon in South Korea. It created the first esports boom in the country during the early-to-mid 2000s. After being taught the basics by his friend, iloveoov slowly began to realize his skill at playing computer games.

"As I continued to play, I became the best player in my neighborhood," said iloveoov. " Then [I] became the best player in my region, then became one of the best in my country."

At first, iloveoov was hesitant to enter even amateur tournaments. This started a controversy where his future nickname would derive from; people thought he was hacking and that was the reason he too scared to enter offline events. That is around the time where he was first introduced to BoxeR, who became the face of video games in the country through his charming good looks and aggressive strategies. His school friend was the one who introduced iloveoov to computer games, and BoxeR, a man iloveoov reveres as a "pioneer," introduced him to the world of professional gaming.

"BoxeR...is a teacher to me in all aspects," he said. "By saying that, I'm not saying that he directly coached me or taught me things. However, I lived with him and saw how he approached different aspects of [a life as a professional player]."

By his 21st birthday, iloveoov already had won four major domestic championships, the protege to the most famous video game player in South Korea. Before long, he was the ace of SK Telecom T1, taking the place of his aging mentor as the head of the StarCraft world. Over the years, he created rivalries with other future legends such as boyish idol-looking Lee "NaDa" Yun-yeol, who contrasted with iloveoov's gruff, burly exterior, and Ma "sAviOr" Jae-yoon, who later was exiled and banned from professional gaming for his implication in a 2010 match-fixing scandal.

During this period where he became the best in the world is when he would adopt the practice regimen and outlook on gaming that he now passes onto his players on the Afreeca Freecs. While his average practice time along with the team would go anywhere from noon in the afternoon to 1 a.m., the periods where he was practicing the hardest were almost never-ending, a revolving door with little sleep in between.

"When our schedule was at its peak ... we would start practicing at 9 a.m.," he said. "We'd clean together from 8:30 a.m. then start practicing, which would be over by 4 a.m. By the time you head back to the [bedroom], it's not like you fall asleep immediately. If you cook, eat [and] then head to bed, it would be a little past 5 a.m. Then you have to go to work again at 8:30 a.m. and do it all over again, which means you get around three and a half hours of sleep. At that period, we would joke to each other, 'See you soon.'"

To iloveoov, nothing defeats the quantity of practice.


It's the foundation which everything else in sport is built off. He has observed other sports like soccer and figure skating to see how one rises to the top, and the great connector between all of the sports and games he's analyzed is the hours of work you put into them. If you're a tennis player, you must practice diligently to become the best. In basketball, there are players like Kobe Bryant, who became obsessive over their drive to become better, practicing jump shots at the gym until the middle of the night before being the first one back into the gym when the sun rises to run laps around the court.

"When I first entered the League scene, that is what I had noticed," he said. "That the practice times in this scene weren't sufficient. With that realization, I decided to fix it, and that's how I believe [Afreeca Freecs' practice regimen] began."

Under his tutelage, the Afreeca Freecs have gone from a middling team going nowhere in the South Korean domestic league to making its first final earlier this year. Later the team qualified for the League of Legends World Championship in the team's home country of South Korea. While teams scrimmage throughout the week to get ready for games -- generally playing three games against a team per scrimmage -- the maximum amount of scrims for even the hardest-working teams is around three. When including food, small breaks, and even individual practice before and after scrimmages, a day with three scrimmages can go upwards of 12 to 13 hours of practice a day.

The Freecs, at their peak of practice, are rumored to play four scrimmages a day. When there are no other teams to play against, they make use of their 10-man roster, playing against themselves.

"There is a big cultural difference between the East and the West," said iloveoov. "When you are born into South Korea, you are drowned in competition the moment you are born. If you lose, you sink to the bottom. If you win, you rise to the top. So there is a prevalent antagonism for losing that has now been ingrained in our DNA."

Over the course of about five minutes, iloveoov went into detail why he believed the players in South Korea practiced more than their counterparts from across the world. He pinpointed the difference in activities for teenagers. In South Korea, at least for iloveoov, the only things you could do after school were to go to karaoke, maybe play some billiards, or play video games with your friends at a PC Bang. When you're a kid and there is a lack of options of entertainment with every street corner having a PC Bang readily available to play in for only a few dollars over an entire day, what else are you going to do?

He wouldn't say there is a right or wrong way of practicing since he doesn't believe he has enough experience interacting with North American or European teams. With almost two decades of experience in South Korean esports, he wanted to speak about his own country's dedication to working.

"I'd say that it's a matter of survival," he said. "If I stay up until 1 a.m. but someone else stays up until 2 a.m., then I will fall behind. Students in Korea study like this too, right? I stayed up and studied until 1 a.m. but someone else stayed up until 2 a.m., so I would now decide to study until 3 a.m.. They call it the chicken game. This sense of competition is so deeply ingrained in Korean culture, and only the strongest survive through it."

This is the life people in South Korea are born into. Competition is such a natural part of their daily lives, they accept it as just another part of life like breathing and eating.

It's not that they're practicing too much.

The rest of the world just isn't practicing enough.

"You just told me that 13 hours of practice is impressive. My immediate reaction is 'Isn't that the norm?'" iloveoov said when we discuss an anecdote of a former StarCraft II pro practicing upwards of 13 hours a day. "However, a person from the West will say: 'When do you eat food? When do you hang out with friends? When do you get to live your life? Haven't you got your priorities wrong?' However, for the people [in Korea], work is the priority."

The built-in desire to continue working is not contained within just esports or traditional sports in South Korea but is a widespread belief throughout all jobs in the country. It has even gotten to a point where the government has begun putting out laws to put a stop to the overworking. "Perhaps when the esports scene gets too big, the government might also release policy to prevent professional gamers from overworking," he said. "Eventually someone might die from overworking."

For people in South Korea with standard jobs, they have their entire lives to master their craft. Iloveoov, who saw the rise and fall of Brood War esports, knows that the players on the Afreeca Freecs have only a tiny allotted amount of time to master theirs.

That's why he is the man who must wear a thousand masks, pushing his team to the brink in every imaginable way to help them accomplish their dreams. To iloveoov, who has seen and heard everything that has gone in the professional video game scene in South Korea since almost its inception, this is the only way.

"We are squeezing on our very life essence just to achieve things in the pace we are achieving here," he said. "Does that make it easier to visualize? An average human being, as he lives his life, will spend 10 years mastering a single profession. However, here you can achieve the same level in two or three years."

The Freecs, expected to make a deep run at the world championship, sputtered to a slow start at the tournament. Iloveoov's team actually became the first South Korean team in League history to start worlds with a record of 0-2. With their backs against the walls, the team would rebound in their final four games in the group stage, firing off four-straight wins to take first-place in its group and make it to the quarterfinals.

When asked how the team was able to recover from such a disastrous opening -- team mid laner Lee "kur0" Seo-haeng even going as far as saying he believed his team had "no chance" at advancing after the team's second defeat -- Ccomet mentioned a changing in the team's overall practice style. The team was consistently getting beaten up by the stronger teams in the tournament in scrims, so they made the decision to start canceling most of them before the second half of the group stage. In replace of scrims, Afreeca let the players focus more on individual practice within solo queue, hoping they'd regain their confidence.

Now, qualified for the quarterfinals in Busan, Afreeca will go up against North America's Cloud9, a team with the exact opposite identity of the Freecs. Where Afreeca puts its head to the ground and works diligently, C9 are the poster boys of the NA region, led by their late night Tweeting head coach Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu. Reapeared recently posted a video on social media of a few of his players singing karaoke out on the town in Busan, enjoying the neon-soaked nightlife after qualifying into the top-eight. Its longest-tenured player, Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi, has become famous for more than just his play in the past year, cosplaying as female League of Legends characters like Lux and Sivir on stream.

Maybe, just maybe, if the Freecs make the semifinal in Gwangju or final in Incheon, he'll take his players out for karaoke, his stern face bursting into laughter as he sings along with the team to a catchy Korean pop song.

But only if he thinks it'll help his teammates win.