In the early 1990s, a favorite place to escape my troubles was the arcade in the Student Union Building at the University of British Columbia. Every lunch hour and every afternoon, when I should have been studying, I would head inside and lose myself in the darkness, the flickering colors, and the sounds.
Sometimes I would throw away a few quarters and play a game or two, but most of the time I would lurk in the shadows, watching people with more disposable quarters than I had work through their own frustrations against an unfeeling computer opponent. I wasn't the only one. When someone was playing an amazing game, a small crowd would form silently around him, mentally cheering him on as he reached hitherto-unknown levels of skill and achievement.
I was thinking back to those long-vanished days recently as I stepped on the plane to Anaheim, California. My destination was the Major League Gaming (MLG) Pro Circuit, brainchild of Sundance DiGiovanni. MLG started its life in 2002 featuring primarily console games, but experienced unexpectedly large growth with the release of Blizzard's StarCraft II in 2010 (read our review). After arriving in Anaheim, I experienced this growth myself as I found my way to the end of a gigantic line stretching all the way to the end of the Anaheim Convention Center and into the adjacent parking lot. Passing tourists with their Mickey Mouse ears would sometimes turn and stare at us, and I could see them thinking: who were these people and what exactly were they lining up for?
I wondered that myself after making my way inside and past the registration desk, receiving my paper orange wristband, and finally wandering into the main hall. I had never been to an event like this before and wasn't sure what to expect. Three large banners hung from the ceiling and divided the gigantic room into its respective game sections. On the left was Halo: Reach, the latest incarnation of Microsoft's sci-fi shooter for the Xbox 360. On the right was Call of Duty: Black Ops, a team-based military shooter played on the PlayStation 3. But it was the center area, leading all the way up to the main stage, that I was primarily interested in. This was StarCraft II territory.
The original StarCraft appeared in 1998, with its expansion pack Brood War coming out a year later. Professional Brood War tournaments became massively popular in South Korea, to the point where they were recognized by politicians as part of that country's unique culture. The much-anticipated StarCraft II was also expected to be a hit in Korea, but instead it wound up igniting the electronic sports scene in the rest of the world. Thanks to new technologies like live video streaming over the Internet, the game became popular with a whole new generation of fans.
As the international e-sports scene grew, some of the Korean Brood War players switched to StarCraft II and increasingly began competing in foreign tournaments. The tournament organizers welcomed these new arrivals, some of them celebrities in Korea but relatively unknown outside their home country except to fans. The greatest of these players was Lim Yo Hwan, also known by his gaming tag "SlayerS Boxer."
Imagine, if you will, that you are an obsessed basketball fan who lives outside the United States. You have followed the game for years, with your biggest idol being Michael Jordan. One day you hear that Jordan has come out of retirement and will be playing in a tournament in a city on the same continent as you, so you rush to buy a plane ticket and fly over to the stadium. While walking around the lobby, you notice a tall man practicing with a basketball. You stop and stare. It's him! You are right there—you are close enough to touch him!
That's the level of respect pro gaming fans have for Boxer, so it came as something of a shock when I wandered through the large array of computers set up for the upcoming Open Bracket competition. I turned around, and there he was. When he got up to leave, another fan shouted out "Lim Yo Hwan Fighting!" Boxer turned back, somewhat surprised, and gave a hint of a smile.
The Emperor's legacy
It's difficult to overstate the impact that Boxer has had, not only on the professional StarCraft scene, but on e-sports itself. He was the first "bonjwa"—a player who dominates all others for an extended period of time—winning almost every tournament he entered between 2000 and 2002, and he gained the nickname "The Emperor" for his skillful command of the Terran race. But it was his will, charm, and personality that carried the game to a new level. He personally formed the first professional Brood War team and found corporate sponsors, setting the stage for what would become a self-sustaining industry. His team, which became known as SK Telecom T1, won the first Proleague title and to this day has the most championships of any team in Brood War history.
Back in 2004, Boxer had fallen from bonjwa status as newer and younger players overtook him. However, after an amazing run in the OnGame Star League (OSL) championship, Boxer once again reached the finals. His opponent was his teammate and protege, Choi Yun Sung, who went by the handle "iloveoov." Iloveoov had taken Boxer's tutelage a step further by emphasizing the relentless construction of more buildings and units, never letting up for a second. (At the time, iloveoov's nickname was "The Cheater Terran" because he could produce more tanks and marines than anyone else.) This "macro" play would forever define how Brood War would be played in Korea.
In the championship, Boxer played brilliantly, utilizing every trick in his arsenal to hold off iloveoov's assault, but ultimately he lost the series three games to two. When Boxer went over to congratulate iloveoov, it was the protege who broke down in tears; defeating a teammate, a legend, and an inspiration proved too much for him. Iloveoov would go on to become the second great bonjwa before he too was surpassed by younger and hungrier players.
Flash forward to 2011 at the MLG event held in Columbus, Ohio. Boxer, after a triumphant return to the world of StarCraft, had yet again created a top-ranked team of StarCraft 2 players, called "SlayerS" after his old clan name. However, Boxer himself was struggling, his shoulder wrecked with the pain of tendonitis that doctors admit usually affects men twice his age. Boxer was invited to Columbus but wasn't in good enough shape to compete, so he gave his invitation to teammate Moon "MMA" Sung Won. Boxer's fiancee, actress Kim Ga Yeon, told MMA half-jokingly: "Go and win MLG or don't come back." Inspired, MMA won the entire event.
Now, in Anaheim, MMA was back to defend his title and Boxer at last felt he was worthy enough to challenge the competition. As luck or fate would have it, the two were destined to meet in battle. First, however, they would have to survive a gauntlet of North American and European players.
This news has been published by title “For The Swarm!” Inside The World Of Professional StarCraft Players
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