I Just Want to Say a Couple of Things

Becca Estrella/The Players' Tribune

한국 번역본은 여기에서 보실 수 있습니다.

I want to talk about our summer split. I want to talk about the coaching change. I want to talk about MSI.

But I feel like anytime I try to be transparent — anytime I try to speak directly to our fans around the world, whether it’s an announcement or an apology for something dumb I did — there’s just this … barrier almost. Like I can’t get through to them and say exactly what I mean, say exactly how much I love T1 with all my heart. Some of that is on me, and I acknowledge that.

So I’m here to tell you more about myself — and about why T1 means the world to me.

Becca Estrella/The Players' Tribune

I think it started in a restaurant in Madrid in 2019.

The deal between Comcast Spectacor, the company I had worked for my whole professional life, and SK Telecom had just closed. I had just become the CEO of T1, and I had gone to Madrid for the semis of the world championship. I wanted to take time to just observe, to take in the greatness of T1. And at the center of that greatness was, of course, Faker. I’d known who he was for a long, long time. I’d been in esports for a while, and it’s almost impossible to be in the scene and not know who he is. Even when I was working in Overwatch, Faker’s name had been spoken at many meetings. His presence, his persona — his celebrity — they were something to admire.

So in Madrid, I went for dinner with his family. We found the only Korean restaurant in the city center and got a spot in the back. I had a translator with me, and I did my best to just listen. We spoke about a few things, like the upcoming matches and what he and the team were focusing on.

His grandma was there, and partway through the meal she made me this little dish. It’s called ssamjang, and it’s a sort of spicy soybean paste that can go in a lettuce leaf. It was an acquired Korean taste and my palette was used to, you know … Philly cuisine. But I still really enjoyed it. I said thank you and we continued chatting.

One of the things that stood out that night was how deeply connected Faker was to his family. He’s compassionate beyond his years and the way he interacts with everyone close to him really shows you the type of person he is. Sitting in that restaurant, I knew that all I ever wanted to do with my time at T1 was to allow him and his teammates to flourish — to show the world what they’re capable of in and out of game.

Later on in the meal I was trying all sorts of things, and I really wanted to make myself another little lettuce wrap like the one that Grandma had made me. So I grabbed all the ingredients and put it together, and as I’m eating it, I can see her watching me. She has this big smile on her face, and she nods her head.

Joe Marsh | T1 | I Just Want to Say a Couple of Things | The Players’ Tribune
Becca Estrella/The Players' Tribune

I don’t know exactly what she was thinking at that moment, and we didn't say anything. But I hoped she saw me trying to respect their culture, and to be part of their lives, of their family — if only for a brief few hours.

I think back to that moment all the time. Not just because it was the start of my journey with T1. But because of how it made me feel. T1, for all intents and purposes, is basically the Korean national team. Our players are adored beyond belief. They’re superstars. And for Koreans — they are theirs. And I learned quickly that, as an American, I'd be viewed differently than how a local might. I understood that and everything that came with it. But honestly, the more time I spend in Korea, the more I feel like my values — the way I see our team — aren't different from the passion that all of our staff have in the T1 office.

And I think to explain that, I have to tell you a story about 15-year-old Joe.

I’ve worked since I was in my first couple of years of high school. It’s always been a part of my life. My dad was an insurance underwriter in New York back when I was younger, and he lost his job while I was in middle school. My mom is a first-generation Italian. She came from Vieste, a small town on the coast of Italy, when she was just eight years old. She brought with her the Italian mentality about family. It meant everything to us.

At the time when my dad was out of work, my older brother was playing baseball at a high level and on his way to Penn State, and my sister was too young — so I knew I needed to get a job to help out around the house. I started in a kitchen at a hospital, cleaning dishes, and then I moved up to helping make food for the doctors. Then I got a job at a cheesesteak shop in Jersey.

I’ve always worked. And I’ve always admired a great work ethic.

That’s one of the things my family instilled in me from a young age. That, and loyalty and honesty. Sometimes I might be too honest. I’ve learned that for sure. But it’s part of who I am, who I’ve always been. And it’s something I’ve tried to instill into everyone who works at T1.

Look, I still struggle with being an outsider. I don’t see eye to eye with a lot of the owners in the LCK, and doing business in Korea is not at all like it is in the U.S. But when I said I didn’t feel that different? It’s because I see our staff, our players, and I see their values in me: The desire to work hard, the passion to improve, the loyalty to the team. Let me give you an example.

There’s been a lot of questions about our decision last month to move on from Polt as the head coach and bring up Bengi.

I think it’s important to start with last summer. When we asked Polt to step into a larger role after we let Daeny and Zefa go, he completely reinvigorated the team. He brought this new voice. And he was a big reason we went on the run we did toward the end of the year and ended up one game short of making the final at worlds. And that carried over into spring of this season, when we went undefeated— the first time any team has done that in the history of the LCK. But one thing I always tell my COO, Josh, that winning masks everything.

When the LoL team would do well, the T1 office would be in a good mood. And all of our issues, our warts, were covered. But they couldn’t be hidden forever, and MSI exposed us in a way we didn’t see coming. People can talk about draft and all that until they’re blue in the face — everyone is a draft expert, I get it. But it wasn’t about just that. There were these deficiencies in our process, in our day-to-day, that were holding us back. Losing MSI the way we did wasn’t the end of the world, and neither were the few hiccups at the start of summer. But I saw our team stuttering — and nothing was changing.

I think any leader, myself included, reaches a point when their voice just stops being heard.

Before summer playoffs, Josh called me and said that the players wanted to speak to me as a collective, as one. Josh spends almost every day with them. He sees them when they let their guards down and play FIFA after hours in the facility. He’s there with them when they eat and when they crack jokes with one another. And his relationship with them made them feel comfortable coming to me.

So, in their practice room, Josh called me on a video meeting, and one by one I heard from each player.

This call was important to me because people forget that our players, for the most part, they’re just kids. And it’s hard to be honest, to be really truthful, in a situation like that. But they were frustrated with the way things were going and there was a desire to return to some of the systems we had in place in the past that we had gotten away from. And I have trust in these kids because we’ve built it up over time. From my dinner with Faker in Madrid, to meeting Keria and his family at MSI — we know one another. And I heard them loud and clear.

Joe Marsh | T1 | I Just Want to Say a Couple of Things | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Joe Marsh

There wasn’t one thing that we needed to change, or one reason why we made Bengi head coach. But one thing Faker spoke about was the way the team operated when it won the three world championships. Of course the game is much different now then it was then, but just the way our coaches gave feedback, the way we constructed drafts — stuff like that was more effective back then, he said. And I believed him.

A couple of things we’re working on for worlds is making sure Keria’s voice is heard in draft. He’s one of the smartest players in the game, and during spring he had a larger role in champ select. For some reason we got away from that in MSI and in summer. He plays the game three steps ahead of everyone else, and when you have someone like that you need to lean on him. He’s got the same innate understanding of the game that Faker does.

Man, I remember when we were doing some testing at Nike in January 2020, Faker did some of the reaction and memorization tests that Nike has all its athletes do. He placed in the 98th percentile of every athlete who had done those tests, and I just remember right after he finished he looked at me and he went, “Did I beat Uzi???”

He’s talented, of course. But his desire to win?

That’s what I felt when I spoke to all of our players. I saw him in them.

They want to win so badly.

(And, yes, he did beat Uzi’s score.)

That conversation we all had, it meant a lot to me because I felt like I had earned their trust. And I saw some of the values I’ve tried to add to T1 in the way they spoke about the future.

But at the end of the day, it was my decision to move on from Polt. I didn’t want some soulless corporate message. No. It was my decision. And if it gives us a 4% better chance to win worlds, then that’s all I care about. It’s what we all care about. 

Joe Marsh | T1 | I Just Want to Say a Couple of Things | The Players’ Tribune
Becca Estrella/The Players' Tribune

Right now, as I’m writing this, Bengi, and a group of our players, former players, coaches and staff are meeting at Faker’s house to work on different ways to succeed at worlds.

I know that the vast majority of our fans know how hard our team works, and how badly we want to win.

That’s why when I see the trucks and all that stuff — my reaction is a little different than most people’s. Yes, I find it frustrating and counterproductive to what we’re trying to do. But honestly? When I see Western fans laugh and say, “Oh those crazy Korean fans! They’re like that with BTS and T1 and everything, they’re insane!”

It’s just not true at all. Yes, there are some outliers for sure. That’s just the nature of being as popular as T1. We have all types of fans. But this idea that Korean fans are unhinged and have a negative impact on the team, it’s just nonsense.

I mean, I’m from Philly, alright.

There’s a Wikipedia page with the title “Philadelphia Eagles Santa Claus Incident.”

If you know, you know.

All I’ll say is that passion shows itself in weird ways.

I wish I could show those fans — the ones that send our players and coaches horrible messages online — how hard our team works. The product you see on match days, the way our guys play, that’s a small part of what we do. Yes, it’s the most important part. But running a LoL team is like an iceberg. The majority of what we are is under the water.

There’s a place for criticism, for frustration. I get that. If you’re mad at T1 — be mad at me. I can take it. But I look at someone like Gumayusi, who’s 20 years old. (Twenty!) He’s carrying so much on his shoulders and is so hard on himself that when people come after him, he can’t help but feel down. He knows he had a tough split. And he’s one of the most confident young men I’ve ever met in my life. But I know some of the messages he’s received have hurt him. 

It’s my job to protect our guys.

It’s one of the things I’m still working hard on. 

Joe Marsh | T1 | I Just Want to Say a Couple of Things | The Players’ Tribune

Because I get to see how hard they work every day — how desperately they want to be in San Francisco in the finals in November. That’s what motivates me to work as hard as I possibly can. They push me, and they push our whole organization.

I love T1. It’s hard for me to put into words how much it means to me. And my job as CEO is to give us the best chance to succeed right now, while making sure we’re still here in 15 years — that LoL is still here in 15 years. I want to see Faker, with some gray in his hair, with a few more world championships, holding down midlane like he always has. I want to take our team places we never thought we could go. I want our org to be the shining example of what’s possible in esports.

I hope people understand that’s why I am the way I am.

And I know that no matter what happens this fall, we’ll keep fighting — together as one.

Because that’s who we are.