In 2016, SM Entertainment launched the idol group project called Neo Culture Technology — otherwise known as NCT. We previously covered the concept here, and now that it’s been a while, let’s take a look at how things have gone. Since the project’s launch, multiple units have had their debut. Just earlier this month WayV made their first comeback with “Take Off”, and just a few days ago NCT 127 made another comeback as well with “Superhuman”.

So, what makes a group NCT? In member Mark’s own words as part of their NCTmentary series, “NCT is a group focused on accessibility and expandability with no limitation on group members, thus allowing various combinations.” This stands true, as of date there are 21 members in total allocated in the debuted four units. Each unit has garnered a certain amount of success both domestically and globally. In theory, all members get freely rotated and added to whichever unit or song is fitting their person. As such, it’s up to management on which members get to promote when and with what concept. There are both rotational and fixed units, with the fixed units also being fully capable of further expansion – making all units be fluid and full of possibilities. This, while perhaps seeming exciting and interesting, has not necessarily proven as full of possibilities as one might’ve thought. It has perhaps proven more limiting.

Since some members are part of more than one unit, schedule conflicts naturally ensue if those units promote at the same time. A prime example of this is Winwin, who is both a member of the Korean based unit NCT 127 and the Chinese based unit WayV – setting him up for conflict. Winwin debuted with the fixed unit NCT 127 back in July 2016 for their original line-up, and has been acting has a Chinese representative for that unit since. Around two and a half years later, SM made him part of WayV’s line-up when the Chinese unit made their debut in January 2019. From that moment, Winwin stopped activities with the Korean unit to join the Chinese unit until further notice — as a result, he was not part of “Superhuman” and the subsequent world tour the unit is currently having: part of both worlds, but unable to attend both. In fact, he remains the only NCT member part of two fixed units.

While NCT U is rotational and NCT Dream is based on the graduation system, both WayV and NCT 127 are fixed — infinitely able to expand, but still maintaining a core. As such, Winwin is the only member set up for definitive schedule conflict. While other units are rotational or graduation based, there are no rules regarding NCT 127 or WayV’s ability to lose members. Winwin will either always be part of both units (providing much conflict and confusion for fans), or SM will have to choose one for him. This same issue could occur for NCT 127’s Japanese member Yuta, if SM were to debut a possible Japanese unit with him providing his familiar face. This goes for all current foreign members of NCT 127. If SM truly want to debut units with bases all over the world, is any foreign member secure in any unit? One by one, foreign members could decrease from NCT 127 and the unit could easily lose its global appeal. The foreign members here are set-up for conflict by the NCT concept that SM has created.

Furthermore, though favouritism is nothing new to SM or the industry at large, members such as Mark, Taeyong, Jaehyun, and Doyoung are consistently chosen since debut for the rotational unit of NCT U. As they are all part of NCT 127, their opportunities to be consistently active are plentiful. The four members are known for having received their share of collaborations and SM stations, etc. If there are a total of 21 members, then should there not be more variety in a rotational unit? Or is that too hard for SM to promote even when it’s supposedly one big group with infinite variations to showcase?

Mark was in contrast to Winwin, part of both NCT U and NCT Dream promotions, but seeing as both units are not fixed and he has made his graduation from Dream, he can focus more on NCT 127. In the future, there is no definitive schedule conflict unless he’s part of an NCT U line-up at the same time as NCT 127 promotions — but seeing as how NCT U can be any combination of members, this would be highly unlikely. In earlier promotions, when Mark was a part of every NCT comeback, many fans expressed concern for him possibly being overworked. This is a real concern for all members of NCT, if they are part of endless units and combinations, that are constantly being switched up. Members will be thrown from unit to unit, from concept to concept, however SM see fit. There are endless possibilities for members to be overworked or have an unstable sense of group.

More schedule conflicts could arise, as Haechan is currently present for the NCT 127 world tour, making NCT Dream unable to make a comeback. With 4 out of 6 current Dream members nearing graduation later this year, it is unclear whether there will be sufficient time and promotion for the group as it is today, before it is changed up significantly. Only two faces the same afterwards, the Dream unit will be forced to be different, new. It is unclear whether fans will want to keep up, or whether their fanbase will go to whichever unit the graduating members will join. It’ll be as if a new rookie group has made its debut; making Dream start almost entirely over to always be able to provide its audience with “youth”.

There is no doubt that Dream with their current/original line-up have done well though. The unit, meant to bring a youthful perspective, The Dream unit is responsible for bringing in the first music show win ever for all of NCT with “My First and Last“. In 2018, Billboard put the Dream unit on its 21 under 21 list – the only NCT unit to achieve this. The same year, the unit was included on TIME’s 25 Most Influential Teens list, where their appeal is described as, “[Dream] connect with teenagers, as teenagers.”

The Dream unit, however, hasyet to release a full studio album and have to date only 15 songs in their discography (excluding Chinese versions), despite nearing 3 years since debut. For fans who prefer this unit compared to others, these conditions are not ideal. Due to their ever-changing line-up and limited discography, it may become an issue in terms of holding concerts or going on tour. For international fans, this proves especially limiting. For this, an online presence has been set up. Despite it being 9 months since the unit’s last comeback, the members are still active in the form of vlogs and appearances here and there. Just a little over a month ago, they were the first NCT unit to appear on the show Immortal Songs 2. The question remains though, will the unit provide enough musical content to satisfy its independent fanbase? Since old members won’t return, there will consistently be new faces in the group. Maintaining hype and the same image will prove hard to do.

In terms of what appears NCT’s main project – though originally a Korean base unit — NCT 127 has moved beyond Seoul. The multicultural group has made both a Japanese and English debut since 2016. Clearly, there is no limit for even the unit based in Seoul. The unit consists of Mark from Canada, Johnny from the US, Yuta from Japan, Winwin from China, and remaining members are Korean. After the unit made their debut in 2016, they proceeded to receive quite a few rookie awards, the Best New Artist award for both Golden Disc and Gaon to name one. Notably, for “Regular-Irregular“, the unit earned its first Billboard 200 entry. Seeing as their premise of global domination, their start of achievements on Billboard charts proves significant. The unit has no problem providing sold-out shows, with the start of their world tour in Seoul doing just that.

Is it the language they speak that makes them appealing or is it the members’ backgrounds? NCT 127 however has been promoting two of their recent comebacks in the US (one of which even being in English), which perhaps makes sense considering their current tour. Members able to speak fluent English have been in the lead for this, namely Mark, Johnny, and Jaehyun. Whether their regular promotion in the US leads to making the path easier to step on for a future North American unit or whether it’s simply for NCT 127’s global gain, they are surely gaining something. In the meantime, the Chinese unit has finally presented itself.

In January 2019, WayV made their debut with a Chinese version of Regular – just in case anyone questioned whether they were part of NCT as a whole or not. With the unit’s debut song, WayV managed to chart on Billboard’s Social 50, and with their first comeback “Take Off”, they made their debut on World Albums Chart. This shows promise for the unit’s music to be recognised by the public (abroad), but it remains to be seen whether they will receive amble opportunities when schedule conflicts with other units may inevitably be in the way. There is still the matter of whether Winwin will eventually return to NCT 127 or stay with the Chinese unit for good. That much, SM has made no statement on. Will WayV be recognised as a unit of NCT or as an independent group? All this will depend on SM’s promotion as well. The unit has not been seen interacting with the rest of NCT since debut, but have been uploading various videos to WayV’s independent YouTube channel.

For WayV, all members got to experience being part of a fixed unit for the first time. WayV contains members from not just mainland China, but Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Thailand as well. The Thai member being a face NCTzens knew from the start—Ten. Part of the first line-up of NCT members to debut back in April 2016 with NCT U, Ten only got to be part of a fixed unit with WayV’s debut in January 2019. That is nearly three years of being part of rotational units, doing various smaller solo promotions, but otherwise essentially being in hibernation until being of further use. This again is a downside to Lee Soo-man’s project, as there is zero stability for any member unless being favourited – and then overworking can become an issue.

Additionally, Ten is notable for being the only member from a non-Chinese speaking country, and so one could perhaps wonder if he was only just meant to fill a spot meant for a “foreigner” so that WayV too could be more than just “the Chinese unit” — to have the potential to become multicultural like NCT 127. This is arguably their strong point, and if SM were to promote WayV effectively, the unit may win over all of East Asia while NCT 127 is off promoting in the US. This is ultimately flawed as well, if SM decide to have a Thai unit they need Ten to be a member of.

All units have undoubtedly had their share of success, but whether that’s due to being ‘NCT’ or just being an SM artist with that same level of production value etc, is hard to determine fully. All units get SM training, perform the songs SM has produced, promote with SM’s expertise and management. Perhaps what will stand in the way for NCT in the future is actually the concept of NCT itself. The schedule conflicts, the inevitable instability of each member’s place, and more will no doubt frustrate fans until the end. All that aside, there is a difference between the group overall being successful and the concept itself. Is success measured by the execution of a concept or awards both domestic and abroad? Is it to maintain a fanbase? For now, the NCT 127 unit seems to at least have more than enough fans interested in showing up for their shows around the world.

(Billboard [1][2][3][4], TIME, YouTube. Korean Herald. Kpop Herald [1][2]. Images via SM entertainment and Label V.)