“Unbreakable Heart” Torn Apart: Difficulties in Esports Brand Building
February 14, 2022
By: Jin Wu Nam
Think of the biggest underdog dramas in sports history. For me, the most touching victory was from 2015-2016 English Premier League champion Leicester City, who was predicted to have a 1/5000 chance of winning before the league started (this is a similar probability with the coin landing on its side!). And last winter, as a League of Legends esports fan, I had to add one more ‘miracle run’ to that list: Team DRX’s 2022 LoL World Championship victory. How unlikely were they to win the Championship? If you began with $100 at the beginning of the Worlds Championship (in which 24 teams participate) and kept betting on each match for DRX’s victory, you would have ended the tournament with $4.3 million.
Anyways, the focus is not on how someone in this world seized this opportunity to become a millionaire last winter. Actually, I lost a bunch of in-game rewards in my LoL account by failing numerous Worlds Championship winner predictions. Today, I want to talk about how they effectively added drama to their 2022 Worlds Championship ‘miracle run,’ and how that branding became unsustainable due to the fundamental instability in esports team management.
The winning moment of team DRX in the 2022 LoL Worlds Championship (Courtesy of IGN)
The birth of the “Unbreakable Heart”
“The most important thing is an unbreakable heart.” This was undoubtedly the most viral phrase for South Korean sports fans last year. After their loss in the Group Stage first-round match against Rogue, DRX’s veteran AD Carry player Hyuk-Kyu “Deft” Kim told Kuki News reporter Dae-Chan Kim that they will recover from the defeat, saying “even if we lost today… I think we are able to win if we don’t give way.” Later, Kim rephrased the whole interview into the title that wrote, “DRX Deft, “Defeat against Rogue is okay. The most important thing is an unbreakable heart.”
Regardless of the fact that Deft didn’t say the phrase ‘unbreakable heart’ by himself, this strong-minded nuance aligned so well with DRX’s drama, which resonated so well with all the fans who were rooting for the underdog. This even led to the official Korean League of Legends Esports homepage selecting ‘the most important thing is an unbreakable heart’ as “Today’s Quote,” and Team DRX themselves to adopt it as the official slogan for their Worlds Final merch.
Official Korean League of Legends Esports homepage, with the phrase ‘the most important thing is an unbreakable heart’ (Courtesy of SBS News)
This craze reached further as DRX actually won the Championship and Deft referred to the phrase in his own words. Even the South Korean national soccer team used this phrase after they gained a miraculous victory against Portugal in the 2022 Qatar World Cup Group Stage, which led them to the first round of 16 in 12 years. At that moment, most of the South Korean young generation started to use ‘unbreakable heart’ as a meme, while almost every League of Legends enjoyer acknowledged Deft and Team DRX as the origin of this famous phrase.
(Courtesy of an esports reporter of Korizon Esports, @AshleyKang)
I would like to say DRX and Deft’s ‘unbreakable heart’ was one of the most successful catchphrase marketing in the year 2022, as this slogan synergized so well with DRX’s drama and created their brand image as a strong-hearted underdog. This one slogan gathered a numerous number of the global fanbase for a relatively less-known Korean team DRX; prevented Deft, the most beloved pillar of the team, from retirement; and will surely bring a significant boost to the sales of DRX-customized LoL in-game skins dedicated to Worlds Championship winners.
DRX in the year 2023
With an enormous amount of prize money of $465,000 in their team budget, along with a global fanbase acquired after Worlds 2022, a lot of people were looking forward to DRX’s performance in the new 2023 season. However, after 8 weeks of LoL Champions Korea Spring, DRX is now ranked 9th out of 10 teams in the League, with only 3 wins and 16 losses. Right, they were the underdogs after all. But are they still living up to their strong willpower, characterized by their slogan ‘unbreakable heart?’
Sadly, their slogan right now is #pavetheway, and no hint of ‘unbreakable heart’ is seen after their pre-season sponsorship announcement with Shinhan Bank. Did DRX just throw away all the valuable brands they achieved through a strenuous endeavor, and gave up on the continuation of their legacy and glory?
Screenshot of the official Instagram page of Team DRX, announcing their new roster for the 2023 season (Courtesy of @drxglobal)
Let’s take a look at the screenshot above. We can’t see Deft anymore. He moved to team Dplus Kia before the 2023 season started. It’s not that rare to see an underdog team failing to sustain its roster after unexpected success. However, it’s notable that DRX lost 4 among the 5 starting members of the 2022 Worlds Championship Finals. What about the other LCK teams, who were traditionally strong and also showed success in the 2022 Worlds Championship? Gen. G, who won the 2022 LCK Summer and reached the semi-finals on Worlds, changed 3 players in a 6-man roster including their franchise star Jae-Hyuk “Ruler” Park. Dplus Kia, a quarterfinalist, changed 2 among 5. This drastic roster change was more apparent for the teams located in a lower position in the table. Hanhwa Life Esports, who was ranked last in the 2022 LCK Summer, didn’t extend the contracts with all 5 starting players and began the 2023 season with 5 new faces.
This would be an unusual sight for traditional sports fans, where at least one or two ‘aces’ or loyal ‘franchise stars’ are an integral part of the team’s brand image that attracts fans’ support. However, because teams tend to change at least almost half of their roster every offseason, it’s difficult for teams to maintain their brand on certain playstyle, and it’s also painful for fans to keep supporting the same team with half of their favorite players missing. This led to some fans actively switching their support to another team that picked up their favorite player, and not dedicating much effort to helping the team’s revenue streams (such as purchasing team merch). I, too, have the experience of buying one team’s jersey with my favorite player’s name on it and being forced to throw it away after a year when the team declared a full roster rebuild. I’m no longer supporting that team. As an esports fan, it really difficult to build loyalty for a certain team, and teams also have to beat their brains on rebranding and marketing themselves every season.
Deft moved to DWG Kia (now rebranded as Dplus Kia) before season 2023 began. (Courtesy of Dplus Kia Facebook)
What’s the Problem?
The first problem originates from the nature of esports itself. Because online gaming relies so heavily on game patch versions and personal reaction speed, it’s difficult for the teams to get multi-year contracts with their players. Nobody can be sure if one player’s best character is still good in the next patch or next season, nor they can be sure if the same player who added up one more year of age will still dodge enemy skills as quickly as the player does right now. Basically, every year, most of the players become free agents, since it’s best for the teams to only offer one-year contracts in the offseason.
This phenomenon leads to the second problem, the impossibility of nurturing rookies. In traditional sports, there is a term called a ‘tanking season,’ in which a team gives up its outcome this year, spends less money, and focuses on raising potent rookies while it acquires an advantageous position at the next draft (if your rank is lower, you’ll get faster order at the next draft day, which will allow you to pick up better rookies). This leads to finding new franchise stars and the new generation's playstyle, resulting in a new brand strategy for each team. In these seasons, rookies are given the chance to play in less burdensome environments and reach their full skill potential, while not being pressured to win many games and sometimes getting less demanding playtime as substitutes.
However, in esports, ‘tanking’ is impossible. Multi-year contract with an unproven rookie is not likely to happen, while those rookies who were picked up to the A team are pressured to play as a starter since mid-round substitution is unallowed. It’s uncertain for rookies to reach his/her full potential while overcoming the burden of big stages, and it’s also uncertain for teams to promote those rookies as new franchise stars, as he/she might just be free agents and leave the team next year. This was the case for DRX. Seong-Hoon “Kingen” Hwang and Geon-Woo “Zeka” Kim were aspiring rookies who actually overcame the pressure upon them, proving the success of DRX’s scouting. However, since DRX thought it was risky to take a multi-year contract with rookies, Kingen and Zeka were given the opportunity to leave the team as free agents and moved to Hanhwa Life Esports. With an outflux of iconic new talents who attract new fans, building a team brand would be really difficult.
(Courtesy of Esports Talk)
Although the situation is harsh, LoL esports is putting significant effort into guaranteeing sustainable brands for the league and for the teams. LCK adopted the ‘franchise’ system in 2021, which switched the LCK model from European soccer’s relegation model to the American model where 10 franchise teams get secured spots in the league. This helped teams to focus on long-term strategies by solving concerns that they might get relegated to lower-tier leagues. Franchising allowed teams with solid budgets and fanbases, such as T1, to build their nurturing system more solidly and to pick up some rookies from their academy teams. 3 of 5 starting players of the current T1 roster are promoted from their academy team after 2021.
However, for most of the teams who lack the budget to build strong academy facilities and plan long-term strategies, scouting experienced players and rebuilding their roster every year is the most realistic way to aim for a higher place. As a result, they are having a hard time maintaining their legacy, drama, fanbase, and their brand identity. There is no longer an ‘unbreakable heart’ in team DRX. If there is no fundamental change happening, another miraculous underdog drama might just end as a one-hit-wonder.
Jin Wu Nam is a Sophomore at Stern concentrating in Marketing & Management and pursuing minors in BEMT and Japanese. He studies subculture & film critique in his free time and has a lot of interesting takes! Look forward to more content from Jin Wu!