MLG Providence in review: the story of Leenock
Somewhere in a wastepaper bin inside Disney's headquarters, there's a discarded script. It tells the story of a sixteen year old kid who flew far away from his homeland to compete against the world's best. This kid – just out of childhood and cast with gratuitously youthful chubby cheeks – is pitted against fully grown adults twice his height and nearly double his age. He makes it through open pool play: a fiercely competitive vipers' nest full of hopefuls he's never seen play. He steps out into the searing heat of the tournament spotlight, and wins his first few games. Then the kid falters, dropping down to the losers' brackets of the competition. He's jetlagged, he's inexperienced. It seems his moment in the sun is over. But then the crowd take him to their collective heart, and begin cheering his name. The kid lifts his chin up.
He wins his next game, and his next, and his next, until he's won thirty eight bouts of his chosen sport across a handful of days. He's at the final. He's sixteen years old, at the final of one of his sport's biggest events, placed against a Scandinavian star whose robotically perfect performance so far would be the story of the tournament. Would be the story of the tournament, were it not for the kid. The kid's played thirty eight games already. If he wins game thirty nine, he's won the entire tournament and joined an elite number of the planet's best.
Somewhere, that script lays crumpled. The Disney executive who read it scoffed. Too unbelievable, he thought, too unrealistic.
Lee 'Leenock' Dong Nyung is that kid. Leenock plays StarCraft II, is sixteen years old, and yesterday, Leenock won Major League Gaming's Providence SCII finals. He left Rhode Island $50,000 richer, having beaten Johan “NaNiWa” Lucchesi in a best of seven match. Half-way through his teens, Leenock has risen to the peak of his chosen discipline. It doesn't matter your take on professional gaming – be you a fan of esports, a PC gamer, or someone who's ever trained for anything – Leenock's story is gloriously human
It wasn't meant to be like this. MLG Providence played host to the scariest StarCraft II professionals currently stalking the globe. Throughout the the tournament, they were in fine form. Lim 'Nestea' Jae Duck retained his imperious stature as 'Professor Tea', crushing opponents with flawless play and coming from behind to render himself seemingly unkillable. Both MMA and MVP, fresh from their showings in the Global StarCraft II League's Blizzcon finals – the 'battle of the alphabet' – were in attendance, MVP's litany of build orders carrying him far into the tournament.
But Providence also marked one of the first tournaments contested on a equal-footing by 'foreigners' – non-Korean professional players. Aside from the near-flawless NaNiWa (who was able to smash Nestea out of the competition), pro team Evil Geniuses' Chris 'HuK' Loranger and Greg 'IdrA' Fields streaked far into the tournament, earning spots in the top 8. Those final few were a markedly even split for a discipline dominated by South Korea: four Koreans, two Swedes, an American and a Canadian. Of that final eight, only two lacked experience on a stage as imposing as MLG's. Swede Hayder 'HayprO' Hussein battled bravely, but crashed out to MVP in his first set in the top eight. Leenock kept going.
He surgically sliced through two of the west's greatest players: Zerg macro-monster IdrA and the Protoss winner of two previous MLG championships, HuK. He was left to face MVP, South Korea's most consistently perfect Terran player.
Prior to MLG, Leenock wasn't a total unknown. In his homeland, he was a regular fixture in the top two tiers of the GSL. Long-time viewers will recognise him as one of the authors of some of that league's most breathless, enduring games – his matches versus Clide particular highlights. But little Leenock was also known for terrible luck, drawing the game's biggest beasts out of their cages early on in the GSL tournament. He fell down to the GSL's second division for a time, his reward for daring to step against players older and wiser. Players like MVP.
MVP has a brain like a storeroom. In each of his countless mental filing cabinet, he has hundreds of build orders. His encyclopaedic knowledge is only compounded by his complete mastery of game timing: not only is he able to pull out the exact combination of units to bat his enemy's force down, but he has an innate ability to shove them under his foe's nose when they're least able to deal with them. Against Leenock on one of the game's smaller maps, Xel'Naga Caverns, MVP queued up StarCraft II's version of a haymaker punch: a two base siege tank push.
It was designed to sock Leenock square in his adorable cheeks. Somehow, Leenock absorbed the blow. As MVP came closer, Leenock marshalled his troops backwards, halting them just outside the tanks' range. For a moment, he held the line, buying time to reinforce, before swelling forward as a mass of chitin and legs. It was a knife-edge battle, but Leenock's Zerg army were able to close the distance and chew through MVP's Terran forces thanks to some masterful micromanagement: at one point, Leenock deliberately moved one of his static defence spine crawlers out of position. Leaving the horrible bladed tentacle unable to attack seems like a mistake, until the crowd realised Leenock was using its greater hit-points to absorb tank strikes, leaving his units free to scurry into melee range.
The games against MVP were over quickly. Leenock had taken the match 2-0. Up next was fellow Zerg DongRaeGu.
Leenock was winning, but he'd taken a blow earlier in the competition. The MLG championships are organised into winners and losers brackets, the final contested by the players who've risen to the top on both sides of the fence. DRG had knocked Leenock down to the losers' side of the draw six games before. Now he would face him again.
Zerg on Zerg matches are one of StarCraft II's most volatile pairings. Players rely on melee units like zerglings and banelings for much of the first ten minutes. Should a game go on longer – and it rarely does – the Zerg arsenal allows as close to a 'hard counter' as StarCraft II allows. The decision to go for flying mutalisks, for example, renders an opponent's entirely ground-based roach army near obsolete. DRG had been playing at an untouchable level earlier in the tournament. Indeed, he'd brushed Leenock himself off with a 2-0 victory. And thanks to MLG's arcane rule set, not only would Leenock have to win to get through to the next round – he'd have to win four games. DRG would only have to win two.
Leenock began well, knocking DRG for three games in a row. Down a game, DRG began construction of an incredibly early baneling nest. The shuffling bug-grenades would arrive at Leenock's base way before any sane human would have expected them, and would – if they were marshalled properly – wreak havoc on Leenock's vital workers. The banelings began their inexorable march toward the sixteen year old's base, bypassing the hasty defences an economic-focused Leenock was able to throw up in time. His workers seemed sure to die, melted under a torrent of acidic gak. Commentators Tasteless and Artosis performed their eulogy. But they weren't counting on Leenock.
When StarCraft II's worker units are under threat, most players draw a box over them and click away in panic. They then form a line, scooting along in neat little rows that ensure that any splash attack that would kill one, kills them all. The best players are able to attempt rudimentary 'splits', sending a handful of workers in one direction and a handful in the other, halving casualties. Against DRG's banelings, Leenock was able to, in the space of a few seconds, isolate every single one of his workers in its own separate corner of the base. DRG's banelings snuffled sadly around a few of them in turn, looking to exploit those few standing too close to their peers. Eventually, their explosive welcome defused, they popped together, taking down exactly two of Leenock's previous drones.
That game went to DRG, the constant pressure finally unseating Leenock, but the damage had been done. In the corner of the stream, DRG was clearly shaken, running his hands through his hair and rocking back and forth. Leenock, on the other side of the screen, had an air of calm utterly at odds with his age. The final game of the best of seven series went to Leenock, in control from the start.
Thirty four games in, that left Leenock one player to face. Clawing his way from the losers' bracket, he'd been drawn against NaNiWa. The Swedish player is no physical Dolph Lundgren, but at MLG he shared his countryman's perfection in his most famous role: NaNiWa was a StarCrafting Ivan Drago, seemingly a machine built to pound pro-gamers into the ground. The Swedish player's run through MLG Providence was lethal. He eviscerated MVP and Nestea early on, his Protoss builds timed out to the millisecond to extract as much advantage from the game's maps as possible, while simultaneously punishing any minor misstep from his opponents with a stalker slap to the face. NaNiWa has been a threat since StarCraft II's launch, having won an MLG championship earlier in the year at MLG Dallas. But having spent time in South Korea - living in the MVP (no relation to the player) team house for a few months – reignited his abilities.
To beat Leenock, NaNiWa would have to win a single best of three. Should he fail, the series would become a best of seven, making either player notch up four victories before taking home the oversized cheque.
NaNiWa started strong. Leenock composed a quick attack from the shaky economic foundations one Zerg base offered on the map Shakuras Plateau. His roach advance spotted by Protoss zealots, Leenock dallied too long in the middle of the map, letting NaNiWa finish construction of a set of photon cannon defences. The subsequent Leenock aggression was repelled with ease, and the Korean conceded the loss. One more game, and the championship would be NaNiWa's.
But Leenock wouldn't give up without an honest scrap. The series' second game was a tumultuous back and forth experience, both sides trading armies in the middle of the map. At times, Leenock extended himself too far, leaving his soft organic bases open to hard, robotic pokes from a mixed Protoss force. But just as NaNiWa seemed to have the win sewn up, Leenock was able to surround him, his Zerg forces swollen so large they left none alive. NaNiWa had been relying on his giant colossi to pin Leenock back in his base; as his opponent's forces waddled across the map, Leenock had built a gang of flying corrupters, their aerial position leaving them free to whack away at the colossi untouched. His army's heart excised, NaNiWa was forced to concede.
At one apiece, Leenock went for a daring early spawning pool. His early force of zerglings was rebuffed, but his choice didn't cripple him economically. The result was a wary NaNiWa, leaving Leenock free to expand his economy and gain the edge – and the win.
The series expanded into a best of seven, Leenock began playing mind games with his elder opponent. After scouting his foe's base, NaNiWa began preparations for a lengthy economic game. Little did he know, as soon as Leenock had ushered him to the door, he'd cancelled his expansion base and began massing troops. Their arrival at NaNiWa's own base was preceded with little warning, and despite a valiant effort, the Swede was quickly overwhelmed in roach bile.
And then there was one. Leenock had to win a single game to take the match, and the Providence MLG title. His previous game was won with a risky manoeuvre, one that depended on his youthful brain anticipating the reaction of the calculating NaNiWa and executing a killing blow at exactly the right moment. Naturally, Leenock pulled exactly the same move again. As his early roaches streamed down the map and it became apparent the Swedish player lacked the requisite defences, NaNiWa tapped out a set of letters on his keyboard. From inside his playing booth, it looked like he was hotkeying a new army. On the screen outside, a word appeared.
Major League Gaming takes much from the American sports model, so it's only fitting there's a story in the statistics: Leenock is the very first person ever to come to win the championships from the losers' bracket. But Leenock's achievement can't be defined by figures. The story of the kid who came half the world to play and wound up winning is a tale that transcends esports, something that engages people no matter their cultural tastes. In a programmed game where clusters of numbers battle other clusters of numbers, Leenock's achievement remains resolutely human.