Flash of greatness: StarCraft pro-gaming explored

Rich McCormick

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This article originally appeared in issue 243 of PC Gamer UK.

Lee Young Ho sits in the lobby of the Anaheim Hilton hotel. He's five feet ten, wearing a black and white jacket, and armed with an easy, toothy smile. He flashes it at his friends as they chat among themselves. Around them swarm suited Japanese businessmen trailing wheeled suitcases; American families clad in various-sized versions of the same khaki-coloured shorts on their way to Disneyland; and transplanted Texans in stetsons and buttoned-up dress shirts, their faces pink and swollen from the Californian heat outside. Few eyes flick toward Lee Young Ho.

Five hundred metres down the road and two hours later, and Lee Young Ho is waiting to come on stage. He's still with his friends – off to the left of the dais and shrouded in darkness – but his smile has dropped. He talks behind his hand. His eyes scan a space so massive it could comfortably house a few Boeing 747s.

He's called by a bellowing announcer – the syllables extended longer with each phase of his Korean name – and he steps out in front of the crowd assembled for Major League Gaming's Anaheim Spring Championship. Eight thousand people roar in unison. All eyes are locked directly on Lee Young Ho.

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DongRaeGu, the MLG Championship winner.

Lee Young Ho is better known as Flash, at least outside of his native South Korea. As Flash, he's been playing StarCraft: Brood War professionally for five years. More importantly, he's been winning. Flash's record is superlative: since joining the Korean StarCraft scene in 2007, he's notched up 17 first place finishes in major tournaments, and broken StarCraft's Elo record (a measure of relative skill level devised for chess players) a staggering six times – all previous records having been set by Lee himself.

His appearance at MLG Anaheim is a major coup for Blizzard, the developer of both the original StarCraft and its sequel. It's this newer game that Flash and friends are here to play – for the first time in front of a crowd, all eight of them will play StarCraft II.

StarCraft: Brood War still clings to dominance in South Korea. Teams are established entities with mad, corporate names: CJ Entus, KT Rolster. The country's army and airforce both have teams, made up from ex-professionals drafted in by virtue of the country's mandatory military service. All are overseen by established Korean e-sports bodies, monolithic organisations such as KeSPA: the Korean e-Sports Association.

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Flash: imperious, skilled, excellently coiffed.

KeSPA appear almost comically inflexible – a player once faced disqualification in a tournament for requesting a pause with the letters 'pp'. The tournament's decided code was 'ppp'. KeSPA has been cool on the concept of StarCraft II since its launch in 2010. Understandably so, to some – as an organisation built around one core game, to jettison that title is to risk losing a decade's worth of fans. But corporate wranglings have also halted the organisation's switchover to a newer, prettier, e-sport. The rise of StarCraft in South Korea was such a freak occurrence that developers Blizzard never built the financial infrastructure to allow other companies to rebroadcast footage. With StarCraft II, the developer decided they wouldn't make the same mistake. Blizzard were unable to reach broadcast terms with KeSPA before the launch of StarCraft II, meaning the Korean company were unable to show the game on TV or online. The smaller, nimbler GomTV stepped into the void, and became South Korea's only licenced e-sports broadcaster. KeSPA – with its stable of preternaturally gifted pro-gamers – stayed rooted in the last century.

Until now, that is. A softening of hearts – or a cold recalculation of economic factors, depending on your world view – led KeSPA back into talks with Blizzard. Behind closed doors, the companies acquiesced to each other's demands, and the Korean group agreed to start showing StarCraft II. But most importantly, they agreed to bring their star players across to the newer game. MLG Anaheim was chosen to be the venue for their unveiling, as eight of the world's best Brood War players – Flash being one of them – were to play in a knockout tournament.

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Queues to get stuff signed were huge all weekend.

As Brood War perpetuated, StarCraft II built its own scene, and germinated its own stars. Some came from the older game, B-teamers or young players who saw their future in the sequel; others rose fresh, straight from schools and colleges and into the growing global e-sports limelight. Throughout the weekend, they mill around the Anaheim Convention Center, easy to spot with the trained eye. There's Jang Min Chul – MC by nickname – cocky, slightly tubby, walking purposefully with arms wide. Lee Dong Nyung stands among groups of his friends looking vaguely nervy, the winner of a previous MLG Championship at only 16. They're heroes to the 20,000 people present in the cavernous room. As the Spring Championships rage around them, they're signing autographs, taking pictures, and having gangs of wide-eyed fans ushered away from them so they can play their allocated games. They hop between PCs, whirling centres of jetlagged motion with gruelling match schedules, getting knocked out or progressing through the ranks to the overall final on the Sunday afternoon. They're there for business, to win an oversized cheque that'll let them keep their team in communal food and brand new uniforms for another few months.

But when Flash steps out from the backstage curtain, past the black, metal barrier that stops fans – kids and grown men – from pressing too close to the soundproof playing booth, they all stop. Kang Dong Hyun – Symbol, famed for beating an entire team including two Global StarCraft II League champions – sits behind me. His eyes are glassy as he wriggles in his seat, trying to catch a glimpse of the KeSPA players.

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MLG Anaheim also played host to a League of Legends tournament.

Flash is one of the last out on stage. His friends from the hotel are his rivals: Korean StarCraft players who've made a career out of playing 1998's Brood War expansion pack. At home, they're all as close to household names as e-sports has yet produced. Each has a second nickname on top of their chosen one, gifted by fans and divined from their play-style. Out in the confines of the real world, these names are oddly incongruous, but in front of a monitor, they make sense. Kim Yoon Hwan's player id is Calm; here, he looks anything but.

Announcer Clutch suggests that the braying crowd may know him as the 'Brain Zerg', able to coldly calculate several moves ahead of his foe. Kim Taek Yong is Bisu, or 'the Revolutionist', known for his unique tactics in Protoss versus Zerg matches that later filtered out to wider use. Lee Jae Dong is called Jaedong in his team, and 'the Tyrant' to his foes, a name earned from the Zerg player's ruthless style. Jung Myung Hoon – Fantasy – is known as the 'Crown Prince'.

Korean crowds, legend goes, are milder and meeker than their Western counterparts. Tournaments in the East are held at exotic locations – waterparks, beaches, and theme parks – but the fans are quieter in their appreciation. In Anaheim, a camera on a giant boom swings out across the crowd. People leap out of their seats, flailing their arms and screaming in an attempt to be noticed. One aims an exuberant punch at the device as it dangles perilously low. During Korean tournaments, fans cover their face if lit up on the roving camera's big screen; here, the subject invariably starts dancing.

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StarCraft II crowd pleaser MarineKingPrime in action.

It's a cultural difference that's not lost on the players on stage. After the tournament, all eight are asked what the biggest difference is between Korean and Western StarCraft. All answer the same: the crowd. They're louder, more passionate, more willing to wear their emotions on their sleeves. Later in the weekend, at a closing party in a repurposed ballroom back at my hotel, I see two male fans take things to the next level, stripping off their shirts and cavorting around in a near-naked gambit to win a spot in a 2v2 StarCraft II match alongside pro-gamers.

Back at MLG, the noise coming from the crowd increases with each player's entrance. Figures after the event show that 20,000 people packed Anaheim Convention Centre over the Championship weekend. From my seat, it feels like most of them are arranged behind me: seated, standing, sprawling on the floor. The first player on stage – Kim Seul Ki, Soulkey – shuffles out in front of the crowd, waving politely. He's called over to the microphone, and the cacophony quietens for a moment.

“Hello.”

The noise is redoubled. The KeSPA players quickly realise the power of their faltering English. Everything they say is greeted with a torrent of cheers. Fantasy is called up, his body jittery as he stalks the length of the sizeable stage. Grasping the mic, he calls the crowd to attention and exclaims, in breathy English, “I will dominate!”

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Swede SaSe had a stonking run in the weekend's championship.

He doesn't, though. Seven of the eight pro-gamers on stage give way to Lee Young Ho. Flash has arrived, and the gale of applause is causing the floor to vibrate slightly. He's visibly buoyed by the reaction of the crowd, and grabs the microphone.

“If you know me... ”

He looks up for a second, confident in his shaky English, left arm flung skywards.

“...make some NOISE!”

The roar is never louder across the weekend. The crowd starts to chant his nickname, leading to the odd phenomenon of many thousands of people chanting “FLASH!” in unison at a young Asian man.

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The StarCraft II main stage dominated the Convention Center.

Sports commentators in America have an excruciating word for people like Flash: 'winningest'. It means the most successful, the biggest and the best. It's used with a straight face, to describe coaches and quarterbacks who consistently win trophies and titles in other sports. In America, winningest feels like the greatest thing a competitor can be – above noble or brave or magnanimous. The word's easy adoption perhaps explains why, as a country and a crowd, they take to Flash so well at MLG's Anaheim Championship.

Among them is StarCraft II's lead designer, Dustin Browder. Browder is broad-shouldered, with a shaved head and a neatly trimmed beard. I had interviewed him earlier in the day. There, he spoke with practised Californian confidence. Now, he's screaming and whooping louder than most for a man who was two years old when Browder joined the industry in 1995. There's a momentary lull in the noise as Flash speaks, and I hear Browder muttering under his breath: “Wow, that's Flash.”

Despite his untouchable Brood War record, Flash is still a relative newbie in StarCraft II terms. He only played his first game a year ago, as other progamers perfected StarCraft II strategies honed over a year-and-ahalf of nightmarishly difficult tournament play. It doesn't seem to matter, though. Inevitably, Flash wins his first game. He does it strangely, using an 'all-in' tactic: building up a small force using the income from one base and supporting it with worker units to provide a meat-shield. In StarCraft circles, it's something of a cheap tactic, a 'cheese' play deployed by novice or unskilled players. There's palpable worry in the crowd – perhaps this StarCraft superhuman is mortal after all? Has his myth been dispelled? Naturally, this isn't the case: he resorted to the play after his keyboard stopped functioning. Playing only with the mouse – something like boxing with one arm tied behind your back in sporting analogies – he still manages to conquer his opponent.

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Narrative foreshadowing in action.

He bludgeons his way further through the tournament, knocking Soulkey out on his way to the final, where he faces Bisu. Flash plays the Terran race in StarCraft II as he did in Brood War. Bisu is his Protoss mirror image, the player in the ascendancy for the mouthless, energy-absorbing spacemen.

Flash crushes him in straight sets. Compared with a player like DongRaeGu – MLG Anaheim's eventual Spring Championship winner – Flash's play isn't pretty: he banks too many resources, he takes needless losses. But in three consecutive best-of-three matches, he's beaten the world's most successful pro-gamers without losing a game Then, in his soundproof booth, he packages up his keyboard and mouse. Through the perspex screen, I can see the same toothy smile I spotted in the hotel lobby.

Everything here is new for Lee Young Ho: a new game – StarCraft II is an ongoing concern for Blizzard, updated with constant patches, balance tweaks, and the shadow of expansion packs, where Brood War was left to fester for years; a new world – the West has enthusiastically embraced e-sports in the last two years, a charge led by StarCraft II; and a new crowd.

I spot Lee Young Ho back at the Anaheim Hilton hotel after the tournament. Were he a football player, he'd be hidden from view and flanked by security. Here, he's back with his friends, sat on a plush sofa in the lobby – visibly exhausted, but flashing that same smile. Further out, MLG attendees snatch glances at their StarCraft idol, leagues above in skill, metres away in person. All eyes in the room are on Flash.

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