Cloud9’s Director of Youth Esports Education and Training let us accompany her through a London Spitfire game day.
A London Spitfire banner flutters in the Blizzard Arena. There are no others hanging on the championship wall, a reminder of the team’s success in season one. It’s Susie Kim’s favorite part of the Los Angeles, California stadium.
Today is the third day of season two’s opening week, and the London Spitfire are playing the Paris Eternal. Kim, the former general manager of the Spitfire, is letting me accompany her throughout the day’s hectic activities.
In July 2018, the London Spitfire won the inaugural season championship against the Philadelphia Fusion in front of a raucous Barclays Center, 20,000 fans strong. Kim stood proudly on stage beside the Spitfire players, wearing the championship jacket, surrounded by twirling confetti.
Everyone that follows the Overwatch League knows Susie Kim’s name. As general manager, Kim was responsible for maintaining the London Spitfire players’ quality of life and balancing their drive to succeed with self-care. While the job comes with a laundry list of other duties, she focused on keeping them focused.
“My players’ wellbeing is the most important thing,” she said. “We want to make sure they’re all comfortable but at the same time, you get them to do the things you need them to do,” such as sponsorship obligations and workout regimens. But now, Kim’s focus has shifted to the future.
Kim has moved on from her role as London’s GM and is transitioning into her new role: the Director of Youth Esports Education and Training for Spitfire’s owner, Cloud9. “I’m the Director of YEET,” she says, laughing. She’ll be responsible for many esports education initiatives, such as creating a C9 Youth Program for aspiring esports professionals. She’s passed the GM mantle to Robin Lee, a former manager and translator for Cloud9’s League of Legends team.
The path from esports fan to C9’s Director of YEET has been a winding one. Kim began her journey into esports by appreciating the thrill of competition and wanting to be a part of that ambitious, exciting scene—despite her self-admitted shortcomings. “I’m terrible at video games,” Kim explains. “I played Brood War [a 1998 StarCraft expansion] and I sucked at it. I watch these pros and I’m like, ‘Holy shit, they’re really good! I didn’t know you could do that!’” While living in South Korea in the late ‘00s, she realized there was an overabundance of Korean esports content not being translated to English,and she carved out a niche for herself.
From 2006 to 2013, Kim participated in community initiatives within the StarCraft fan community. In 2014 and for a few years after, she worked as a translator and interviewer for multiple games through South Korean broadcaster OGN. Alongside her decade of esports experience, she holds a Master’s in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching. But Kim keeps carving out her own niches, including her role as London Spitfire’s GM.
In 2018, she wanted a new challenge, and the Overwatch League was calling. Kim knew she wanted to help an all-Korean team adjust and succeed within an organization she felt comfortable with, so she reached out to Cloud9’s CEO Jack Etienne to ask about the London Spitfire.
“I asked, ‘Jack, does the team have a general manager?’ and he said no,” Kim says. Etienne asked if she knew anyone who might be interested in the position. She did: herself. After a few conversations, she was on as general manager, tasked with turning around a team in flux. The Spitfire players were adjusting to American life after having moved from South Korea just months prior. Considering the large, gleaming trophy that the London Spitfire brought back to the Blizzard Arena, her mission was successful.
High noon with the Paris Eternal
Before Spitfire’s match with Eternal at noon, I’m led through a maze of backstage hallways and security checkpoints to a sacred place: the London Spitfire practice room. This is where champions are made. In reality, it’s where champions are yelling over a game of Overwatch deathmatch. Some of the players relax and listen to music before their games. Some nap. Robin Lee buzzes back and forth, completing the pre-game checks—who needs hand warmers, who needs an energy drink—during his first official week as GM. Kim comments that this is the quietest the players, and the room, have been all day. Normally, multiple players are singing or rapping, coaches are breaking down strategies, and music is blaring. Pre-game, there’s less chaos.
“Roll with the punches. Be organized and patient,” Kim advises, when asked about traits team managers need to possess. Organization is important because of the myriad of obligations players have to fulfill. Not only are they there to win a game, they also have to complete interviews, sponsorship content, and find a work-life balance. A team manager’s job is to align all of these things. Flexibility is important, Kim says, because nothing ever works as planned.
“It’s learning how to put out fires quickly and staying calm as you do it,” she explains. Her past experience as an educator, having to “wrangle 25 kids in a classroom” was good preparation. “It’s similar, except you’re a lot more involved in their lives,” Kim says. “You see them a lot more often. It’s just being really attuned to your players.”
Kim is spending the Overwatch League’s opening week with the London Spitfire to help them transition from her management to Lee’s. The London players meander through the hallways on their way to the arena stage and Kim gently chastises them for walking too slow. Once we all reach the backstage hallway, the last bastion of peace before the glaring lights of the Blizzard Arena, the nerves start to settle in. Kim leaves to take a private moment, talking to the players before they walk out among the fans.
When fans picture a general manager, they likely think of someone lurking behind the scenes. Kim could not be further from this assumption. She waits to take pictures of her players as they walk out, cheering for them as they sit down on stage to play. Once the players are seated and preparing themselves to begin, Kim takes me back to the London Spitfire dugout, a small room where coaches have access to live feeds and can listen in to the conversations between their players on stage.
“This is where we stress,” Kim explains, waving to a couch where we sit and begin watching the game. We’re joined in the small room by Lee and two of the Spitfire’s newest players, Younghoon “Krillin” Jeong and Heedong “Guard” Lee. With a cacophony of lightning-fast directions in Korean echoing around the room, Kim and Lee jump off the couch and swear at every lost team fight. They cheer every time a Spitfire player eliminates an Eternal player. London loses the first map to Paris, and after their loss to Philadelphia earlier in the week, doubt fills the room.
A long road through the esports industry
Kim had her own moments of doubt on her journey through esports. In 2010, she took a few years off to pursue higher education. “I was turning 30. I thought, maybe this esports thing was a nice hobby,” she said. She thought she should focus more on her career in education. But Kim missed the scene. In 2013, after being invited to do a last-minute casting event in China (where she met her husband, analyst Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles) she began covering League of Legends with the same bilingual skills she’d used for StarCraft, which eventually led her on the path towards Overwatch. Seeing her in the London Spitfire dugout—sitting on the edge of her chair, hands clasped in what looks like prayer—it’s obvious that her passion for esports led her to this moment.
Her dedication to the team is an example of the unwritten job duties of being a team manager. As Guard leaves to join the Spitfire on stage for map two (which they win, due in part to his Sombra skills), I ask how they deal with this level of stress on a weekly basis. “I have no idea,” Kim says, and Lee echoes her response. She explains that, at this point in the team’s games, a manager has done all they can do. “You watch, hope, and send good energy,” Kim says. As London takes Paris to a second go-round of King’s Row, she clutches my arm; in exasperation, she says they just need to push the cart. They take the map and she beams.
Kim’s weathered trials and stress in many games over the years, not just Overwatch. Very few people last as long as she has in the esports world, including women who contend with discrimination and a sometimes contentious community. But Kim is insistent on making that delineation very clear in our interview. “Often times, people equate esports and gaming as the same thing. It is not. Absolutely not,” she explains. The gaming community—rude people on voice chat, naysayers on social media—are not representative of the professional esports community, Kim says.
In fact, Kim says, the professional community may teach people to be more open. “Where else, what other league, can you find this much diversity together in one place?” she asks, sweeping her hand across the room. People of different genders, ethnicities, and sexualities sit in the small dugout room. Beyond those walls, fans of all creeds cheer for the teams on stage. Kim continues, “being in esports kind of forces you to be more sensitive towards other people’s cultures because you’re around them all the time.”
Based on recent news, such as the allegations of harassment at companies like Riot Games, it may seem like discrimination is a foregone conclusion for women in esports. Kim insists that, in her own personal experience—at companies like Cloud9, Twitch, and Blizzard—she’s never faced discrimination for being a woman. “On the professional front, I want to say that I think it’s come a very long way. That people are, in fact, treated with that respect of their individuality,” she says. “I think I truly did get to where I am because of the hard work I put in and on my own merit.”
For women who want to work in esports, Kim has some advice. She suggests aspiring professionals carve out a place in the community. “Find what is missing, find what you’re good at,” Kim says. “You just work hard and be confident in what you do.”
“People will try to tear you down because that’s the way that the world works in any job that you do. One day you’ll rise up.”
As we watch the last map of the game, something in London’s communication breaks down, and they’re denied any map progress by the Paris Eternal. Despite taking one map earlier in the four-map series, the London Spitfire leave with a loss. The 3-1 scoreline is a resounding defeat, and it hits Kim, but she perks up on our way back to the press room. She tells me, as we climb the stairs, that you can’t let defeat get to you. She hopes to pass that on to her players. She pushes through it, and so will they.
That mindset echoes the advice she gives to anyone who is pursuing a career in esports and facing adversity. “You either decide, ‘This is too hard, I don’t want to do it,’ or you say, ‘No, I’m up for the challenge, I’m fucking good at this, I’m gonna do it,’” she explains, holding her two hands outstretched as if she is offering two options. “It’s either one or the other. You do or you don’t. If you’re scared, be scared. But if you want it, then do it.”
Earlier in the day, before the London Spitfire walked out into the bright lights and wild cheers of the Blizzard Arena, Kim put her arms around one of her players. She told him something quietly, bolstering his confidence, reminding him that someone believed in him. After the loss to the Paris Eternal, she did the same thing to the rest of the team. Kim may be passing the mantle of GM to a successor, but like the Spitfire banner in the arena, the reminder of her presence remains.