In 2017, Lunatic Hai narrowly beat out their opponent in the APEX Season 3 finals. Just like them, their opponents are now legends of the game.
The 2017 squad of Kongdoo Panthera were two fights short of immortalizing themselves in Overwatch history in the finals of APEX Season 3 against Lunatic Hai. Almost three years after this fateful moment, their careers are still alive and well while the light of their opponents is flaming out. Forged in the fires of defeat, the once heirs to the Kong-line have broken the curse.
Born to the Kong-line
As a topic of cultural discourse and collective memory, we rarely focus on the stories of second-place finishers. Who got the silver medal behind the living sprinting legend Usain Bolt in the Men’s 100m race at the 2016 Rio Olympics? Can you name any of the five silver medalists that lost to Michael Phelps during the same event? It’s not fair, but it is how it is.
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The phrase “second place is the first loser” which was popularized by late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt has served as much as a pattern to Western media coverage around great finalists as it has as a description of how those names stick in our memories. While the performance difference may come down to a fraction of a second which may easily be explainable by variance, the room we make for the first losers in our hearts and minds could not be more asymmetric.
Yet there are patterns and players in esports history which defy this betrayal of achievement and have themselves become a topic of legends. Take for instance the case of pro player Hong "YellOw" Jin who in the early 2000s became a Starcraft: Broodwar legend known for nothing else but finishing second. Over six of the most prestigious tournaments in the OSL and MSL, the South Korean managed to reliably get to the final and lose every single one of them. Fans coined the term “Kong-line” (Kong meaning bean or pea in Korean), an endearing play on words of Hong’s last name as well as his height. Years later, players like Song "Stork" Byung Goo joined the lineage and lost 8 major finals between 2007 and 2009. Fans recognised, getting to a final is one thing, being able to consistently get there was an achievement of its own. Empathetic to what it takes to get knocked out repeatedly, but to consistently be able to get back up and keep chasing the trophy, fans began admiring these professionals, feverishly following each consecutive final these two would lose.
After his retirement from professional play, YellOw co-founded an esports company aptly named “Kongdoo”, investing early into Overwatch among other games, fielding two teams in Uncia and Panthera. While the organisation ceased operations in early 2019, it still became one of the most prolific talent forges, to this day having helped 14 players the likes of DDing and Decay to reach the Overwatch League. Seemingly cursed by the name, one roster iteration in particular seemed to follow into their owner’s footsteps.
The Kongdoo Panthera class of 2017
Having run with two teams, in the third season of OGN’s APEX the management of Kongdoo decided to shuffle a couple of players around. EVERMORE and Bling retired and were exchanged for rookie Void and Uncia’s star player Birdring. Fans were excited for the prospect of having Birdring and Rascal, two monster DPS players in APEX Season 2, join forces and potentially form a team that could rival the APEX Season 2 finals teams RunAway and Lunatic Hai. What they didn’t know at the time was that the roster of Birdring, Rascal, Void, Fissure, Wakawaka and Luffy would not only send 5 out of its 6 players to the Overwatch League but that four of them would go on to become star players that would still be shining so brightly three years after the fact. All those fans saw were young players at the start of their careers in whacky sailor uniforms that initially gathered more attention than their play.
Fighting through the bracket of APEX Season 3, Panthera narrowly got out of the group of death against Rogue, Mighty AOD around players like ErsTer, KariV & Fate, as well as defending APEX champions Lunatic Hai only on map score. In the second group stage, KDP took up steam and both favourites Lunatic Hai and notably Luxury Watch Blue which would later become the core of the New York Excelsior.
Smashing Team EnVyUs in the semifinal, KDP would meet Lunatic Hai a third time. Having won their last match in the second group stage, KDP and Lunatic Hai came into the final at eye-level. The Best of 7 series turned into a drawn-out 4-hour-long match with nine maps total due to two tied maps in the middle of the series.
On Numbani, it seemed like their opponent wanted to hand it to them, leaving the payload free to be shoved into third point for one of the most notorious “C9s” of Overwatch history. With both teams having completed the map and now having to go for a second round trip, Lunatic Hai around the players Miro, Ryujehong, Gido, Zunba, Tobi and team captain EscA would hold firm on their defence, not allowing KDP to score a single blip on the point. Now only having to win one out of two or three fights over their 2-minute timebank, Lunatic Hai smashed the backline of KDP under the roaring chants of the live audience. Kongdoo Panthera had honoured the lineage and finished second by a mere fight or two.
Eventually, Lunatic Hai would also send five of their players to the Overwatch League, with only EscA deciding to retire from professional Overwatch. However, the career trajectory of the members of Kongdoo Panthera and Lunatic Hai went opposite ways.
History would once again mirror the fate of the final’s opponents with both teams falling short of reaching the final of APEX season 4, being dismantled by the royal roaders GC Busan around the outstanding rookies Gesture and Profit. With the downsign of both teams in their campaigns, the similarities between Kongdoo Panthera and Lunatic Hai would only give each other an inch stopped here. In fact - unbeknownst to us at the time - they couldn’t be more different.
The Kings of Kong
Nearly three years after the fateful APEX Season 3 finals, there’s no doubt which roster has held up better to the test of time. Birdring and Rascal are not only two of the best players in their position in the Overwatch League, both of them have broken the Kong-line curse and have won season 1 and season 2 of the Overwatch League respectively. The often underappreciated Void has been a consistent top performer on his role and earned a starting spot on one of the favourites to win the season 3 title, the Shanghai Dragons, with teammate Luffy being a backup flex support of the time.
For Lunatic Hai, the only remaining player in Overwatch League is Tobi, on a rather inconsistent Seoul Dynasty that looked to be promising but has since had abysmal performances at the start of season 3. It appears that all that is left for the former Lunatic Hai roster is to take pride in their past achievements, while the new generation replaces them. On the flipside, Kongdoo Panthera’s members are arguably in their prime.
Sports history might not look kindly on those that have lost at the finish line, but this is not the story of the great roster of 2017 for Kongdoo Panthera. As they continue to deliver elite performances in 2020, they have defied the odds and have in turn moved into a permanent estate in our memories and hearts, being direct neighbours to the legendary Lunatic Hai.
Images courtesy of OGN