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Bang “JJoNak” Sung-hyun had just turned eighteen when he played in the Overwatch League for the first time.

Back then, nobody knew what he would become. It was unclear how he might fit into the roster of well-known players that the New York Excelsior had assembled. Until the team began posting photos on social media, few people even knew what he looked like.

But, when the 2018 season started, everyone realized that this kid was the real deal.

The now 21-year-old JJoNak has accomplished a great deal in the past three years. He played a crucial role in the NYXL’s back-to-back stage championships in 2018. In that same season, he was voted league MVP; an achievement immortalized in-game through an octopus-themed Zenyatta skin. (His username is short for “jjomullak nakji.” This means “fumbling octopus.”) Moreover, he’s regarded as the player who forever changed the way flex support was played.

NYXL’s JJoNak was the inaugural league MVP. | Photo by Robert Paul. Provided by Overwatch League

That wealth of JJoNak’s experience is going to have to carry him through now. In 2021, he has found himself in an unusual position. He’s still part of the NYXL for its fourth season, but the same can’t be said for any of his old teammates. The NYXL did a drastic overhaul of its roster this past offseason. They parted ways with every player except JJoNak and flex tank Kim “BiaNcA” Dong-wook, and brought in a squad of mostly fresh-faced rookies to take their place.

JJoNak isn’t the oldest player in this new roster; that honor goes to Lee “Ivy” Seung-hyun, by six months. But he’s certainly the most experienced. He’s the de facto leader figure given how long he’s been on the NYXL.

“To be honest, I’m not the perfect type of person to lead,” said JJoNak. “But I’m trying my best to adapt to what’s required of me.”

He may not think of himself as a leader but he’s familiar with how to lead. Founding NYXL member Park “Saebyeolbe” Jeong-ryeol had led the NYXL for three years before transferring to the Seoul Dynasty. JJoNak says that he takes inspiration from how Saebyeolbe had guided the team.

“Up until last year, I was the person being led, not leading,” JJoNak said. “I think I’ve been influenced by Saebyeolbe a lot. I’m trying to lead like how he led us in the past few years.”

JJoNak learned to lead from former NYXL teammate Saebyeolbe. | Photo by Robert Paul. Provided by Overwatch League

Solid leadership will be crucial for the relatively inexperienced NYXL roster, especially after a rough start to their season. The team had a 1-3 match record in the May Melee. They finished second to last in the East Division and missed knockouts.

As a result, expectations weren’t high for the team coming into the June Joust. The NYXL’s first match was against the Philadelphia Fusion; then undefeated in the regular season. The league even produced a hype video for the match that took stylistic cues from OGN APEX. This included a classic trash talk segment; something that JJoNak had never done.

“It was really fun,” he said. “I want more of it. I haven’t had a chance to do APEX-style trash talk; just the kind that Overwatch League production asked me to do. I actually tried to be less provocative because last year, when I did any kind of trash talk, we usually lost. So this time I tried to keep it down a little and we won.”

The NYXL’s victory over the Fusion was unexpected but, more importantly, it was convincing. Perhaps the Fusion was struggling to adapt to the new hero pool. Or, perhaps the NYXL were just incredibly determined to bounce back. Either way, the NYXL proved themselves to be the better team of the day.

JJoNak hopes to lead NYXL to victory this season. | Photo by Stewart Volland. Provided by Overwatch League

It was a heartening match for NYXL’s players and fans alike. For JJoNak, the victory had personal significance as well.

“I was really happy because the Fusion fielded Mano and Hotba, who were my former teammates,” JJoNak said. “I’m also personally very close with Carpe and Alarm, so I really wanted to beat them. It was probably the happiest point of the season for me.”

When he talks about the reason they won, though, it’s with full respect to his teammates.

“They basically carried,” he said. “They were doing really well.”

The NYXL may have had a rough May Melee, but the June Joust is shaping up to be a much better tournament for them. JJoNak believes that the team is finally adapting to what’s required of them. And he hopes that, by the end of the season, both he and the NYXL will have changed for the better.

“I want to lead this team to victory, to winning the season with all my teammates,” JJoNak said. “And through that, at the end of the season, I think I want to see myself as an improved JJoNak who has the leadership abilities of a captain as well.”