The word ‘GOAT’ stands for ‘The Greatest Of All Time’. This word refers to someone who’s undisputedly the best at what they do; in the world of Tekken, everyone agrees that Bae “Knee” Jae-Min, the Tekken player that represents DRX, is the GOAT of Tekken. With countless 1st place trophies under his belt already, Knee recently traveled to Las Vegas and came back as EVO 2022 champion, cementing another milestone into his legacy.
After he returned to Korea, Inven had a chance to catch up with Knee. He looked very much at peace; perhaps due to finally winning EVO, a tournament that he wanted to win for a long time. The following is an interview with a man who’s been sitting at the top of the competitive Tekken world.
Congratulations on winning EVO 2022. This EVO title must’ve been something that you’ve been gunning for a long time, so you must feel very relieved.
Ever since Tekken 7 was introduced into EVO in 2015, the title kept slipping away from me. I finally won EVO, and I’m incredibly relieved.
From winning the EVO Tag 2 Tournament in EVO 2013 to EVO Japan in 2018, you actually have two more EVO titles under your belt before this championship. but this championship victory definitely holds more meaning.
In my opinion, Tekken really started to be considered an esport after the release of Tekken 7. Also, EVO started in the States, so from the size of the tournament to the production value, it’s definitely different from EVO Japan. Winning EVO this year is definitely a bigger victory than my other EVO titles.
EVO finally returned with a live audience after three years. With so many attendees, how did it feel to play in such a large crowd?
From the large stage, the various loud noises that you hear, the roars from the crowd, to just the fact that everyone at the venue had their eyes only on my matches… It’s almost like a drug. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that energy. The audience seemed to love the show as well, as it was their first EVO in three years.
I’ve heard that you weren’t feeling the best during your top 8 bracket. How did you foresee your chances of winning that day?
Because I play a lot of tournaments, I usually don’t get nervous. However, when I qualified for top 8 at EVO this year, I had a lot of lingering thoughts in my mind, so I couldn’t sleep. I’d close my eyes and I’d just simulate how I’d play against my opponents… Doing so made me realize just the weight of the tournament, and I didn’t get much sleep the day before. However, I got good practice before the matches and I felt ready, so I played well.
You beat Khan both in Winners Finals and Grands. Was there a specific game plan against Khan?
When I saw the top 8 bracket, I prepared myself to play against a lot of Geese players. I also did play against a lot of Geese players throughout the tournament, so I was confident. Geese is a character that becomes very explosive once he gets one or two hits in. Any other cast may need two or three opportunities, but Geese just needs that one window of opportunity to win. That’s why the game plan was to never make that mistake to give my opponents to take over the game.
Were you disappointed that you didn’t get to play your rematch against Arslan Ash, the player that beat you in Grands during EVO 2019?
Definitely. Winning EVO is one thing, but a personal objective that I have left in my career is to beat Arslan. I hope that Arslan will come out on top in Loser’s Finals this year, because I was the one that won my Loser’s Finals set three years ago. I thought to myself, “You better win to face me in Grands this year”, but in the end, he lost that set.
How did traveling to Pakistan in 2019 to play affect your EVO 2022 victory?
It definitely helped. I learned from my trip that there are different ways to play the game. The Pakistani players play the game completely differently compared to Korean-Japanese-American-European players. From beating Arslan and many other Pakistani players back then, I learned quite a bit; over the past three years, I added what I learned into my own gameplay. Understanding their playstyle really helped.
You must feel very grateful for your teammates on DRX, Chanel and Infested, for helping you practice and keep your form as well.
I started to do well in tournaments outside of Korea when Chanel joined the team. He helps me compose my thoughts and focus only on the game quite peacefully. Infested has a very wide character pool; he’s able to analyze my next opponents’ gameplay, find their characteristics, and mimic it. He helped me tremendously during practice; without both of those gus, I would’ve never won EVO this year. I’m eternally grateful.
I heard that players from Pakistan sometimes avoid friendlies.
Some people were looking forward to my games against Arslan, so if they wanted to play after EVO, I was down to play them. However, I couldn’t get in contact with them. I thought they’d want to play to shake off their loss… Maybe they were scared of losing again, or they wanted to hide their patterns in the next tournament.
The fundamental concept of ‘downloading’ a player’s pattern in Tekken was explained. Do all Tekken 7 players have a pattern unique to them?
That’s right. Even I have a pattern. Developing patterns is inevitable. Every player has their own attack/defense routes, and if they work against their opponents, then there’s no need to use the same patterns. That’s why you can somewhat figure those patterns out by watching gameplay VODs. Things like what that player does in the starting seconds of a game, what he does after a certain input, during the final seconds of a game… If that player shows the same patterns, then it’s easy to beat them.
Then how come a lot of people say that Knee doesn’t have specific habits or patterns?
I first assume that my opponents will study my VODs. And they do. If it feels like they formulated a game plan based on my patterns, then I lock myself up, study their patterns, then adjust to how they play. For my opponents, it’ll feel like they found a question in an exam they didn’t anticipate. Even if they study my habits, I just switch my gameplay, so I think that’s why people tend to say that I don’t have any patterns.
At the highest level of Tekken, it feels like you have to be ready for all sorts of scenarios. How do you balance the calculation aspect vs instinct?
It depends on the character. For high risk-high return characters like the fujins, the players sometimes throw out moves, not knowing whether or not they’ll land. On the flip side, there are characters that require players to create unique attack patterns, and they have to utilize a lot of them. In the end, it comes down to how much experience you have in the game to figure out just how much is premeditated and how much is instinctive.
Mechanics vs game plan: Which do you think is more important in Tekken?
Right now, I think it’s mechanics. In the end, good players use smaller moves over the bigger ones. The damage might be small, but less end lag, and overall just annoying your opponent. It’s important to whiff punish your opponents in those windows, and that relies a lot on your mechanics. I think being able to whiff punish relies a lot on mechanics.
Details on the 2022 Tekken World Tour have been announced. Unlike before, you now have to play regional qualifiers, and only two representatives from Korea can qualify. How do you feel about those changes?
The league usually starts right after EVO finals. But if I only receive points to qualify for the 8-man bracket qualifier, then what’s the point of TWT? Realistically, Tekken 7 is at the end of its road, and people are anticipating Tekken 8, so I believe these system changes just demotivate the players.
You placed third in 2018 & 2019 TWT. How badly do you want to win TWT 2022?
After winning various iterations of EVO, the only thing left is TWT finals. I have a strong feeling that Tekken 8 will take over after TWT 2022, so I really want to finish my Tekken 7 era with a TWT Finals victory.
Some people say that the reason why you’ve been so dominant for a long time is due to the lack of new players in Tekken. Thoughts?
I’ve heard that for a long time. However, whoever’s great at the craft is very hard to replace. Tennis players like Nadal and Federer, and football players like Messi and Ronaldo are prime examples of figures who have been performing at the highest level in their field for a long time. Esports is the same. To be honest, if there were more new players in Tekken, I would've played better than I do now. If there were more talent that can challenge me, I would've been more motivated to get better.
You also have to look at things on a global scale. Globally, a lot of old school players quit the game, and the new generation have taken over. The average level of this new generation is pretty high at the moment.
It must feel surreal to watch other OG players like Moon continue to dominate.
I played a lot of Warcraft 3 in my teenage years. He was at the top then, and he's still at the top now. Watching him made me think, "It's awesome to watch someone I used to watch back in the day still play."
What are your thoughts on the aging curve?
It definitely exists. I was able to visually check that I dodge the enemy’s move and punish, I can’t do that as well as before. By practicing, I’m able to overcome that. My thoughts about the game changed quite a bit after I traveled to Pakistan to play those players.
In the past, there were plays that can only be pulled off by those that had the highest level of reflexes, and I just thought, “This guy just has the mechanics”, and moved on. However, Pakistani players practice repeatedly to be able to respond to certain situations. I mimicked such a training method in practice mode, and I was able to do things I wasn't able to do before. I realized that I just didn’t know the methods, so I learned that whenever I feel like I got worse, it’s important to find other methods of training to improve on things that I lack.
Lim ‘Ulsan’ Soo-hoon returned from military service. Is there anything you’d like to say to him?
I know that you wanted to get back to the grind with Tekken 8. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out the way you hoped, as we’re still on Tekken 7. Let’s grind some ranked matches.
Whether it’s for the growth of the Tekken scene or for the growth of your own popularity, are there plans for you to be more proactive in doing things outside of Tekken?
It’d be nice to make Tekken be more known through such activities, but since the game’s really old, it’s hard to do things outside of the given format. Right now, I’m solely focused on tournaments. I think more influencers would be more interested in Tekken if Tekken 8 came out, so I hope by then that I’d make appearances here and there and kick things off right for the game.
Pro gamers are more prone to wrist, neck and back injuries. How’s your physical health right now?
My wrist aches a bit. I was able to play more Fujin characters all night in the past, but if I do that now, I can feel the wrist pain, so I can’t play the game for that long. However, this doesn’t mean that I feel at risk of some serious injuries. As long as I’m not playing characters that don't use the lever aggressively, it’s okay. If there ever comes a day where my wrists get damaged quite heavily, I’ll probably end up finding other ways to play. However, if things get really bad, then I’ll retire.
There was a time in your life where you struggled financially to the point where you struggled to live, and even went through slumps. What’s the secret behind continuing to walk down the Tekken path?
All pro gamers start playing because of their love for their game. However, I feel that there’s a massive difference between becoming a pro player to make money vs naturally becoming pro. I never once got bored of Tekken, and I find more value in that feeling of winning a tournament over making lots of money. Because I’m very competitive by nature, I think I was able to make it this far from beating my opponents, as well as my love for Tekken.
Have you ever regretted once over the last 28 years while playing Tekken?
No one can live without regrets. Back in my late 20s, when things like streaming and Youtube weren't so active as they are now, I was good at Tekken, but it was hard to make a living off just that. I left everything behind but Tekken, and as my friends found jobs and their place in society, I couldn’t do anything. When I couldn’t see what the future looked like, and felt life was frustrating, I thought, “Why did I keep playing Tekken”?
I had regrets while playing Tekken 7 as well. When characters from other franchises were released in Tekken as DLC, they were absolutely broken, and their character mechanics were very different from the traditional way of things. I thought, “Why do I have to play against characters like this when I’m playing Tekken”? But perhaps it’s because I have played the game since Tekken 1, when the characters were just boxes and polygons.
After your life as a pro gamer, how do you foresee the next chapter in your life?
I think that people who play a lot of games can’t really move away from this space. I think I’ll probably end up staying in esports one way or another. For me, since I made it this far playing fighting games, I’ll work towards making fighting games more mainstream.
You already earned the title as the GOAT of Tekken, and you’re well on your way to getting your 100th championship victory. What are your goals?
When I was on a talk show called “You Quiz on the Block”, I had about 60 tournament wins, so that’s why I said that getting 100 is the goal. I felt I had a very long way to go to achieve that goal, and I didn’t anticipate myself getting here this fast. Whether in mainstream game titles or in smaller titles, no one has achieved a 100 championship wins, so I worked hard to make my mark in esports history to be the first one to do so. After that… I’ll continue to work to be the oldest active esports player in history.
Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say in this interview?
There’s something that really emotionally moved me at EVO, and that’s to see so much support from the fans at home and at the venue. The tournament was really hard, but I wanted to live up to that fan support. So many fans have congratulated me for my great results, and that really motivates me to continue playing Tekken. Since I’m also a very old pro gamer, people around my age tell me that they get really motivated. That makes me very happy. I’ll continue to work hard in the future as a Tekken pro, so please continue to support me and the game.
Striving for perfection to achieve excellence in esports