Tracing the triumph of ByuN, StarCraft II's dark horse

One of the game's most storied pros claims a historic title.

Photo credit: Yong Woo 'kenzi' Kim

The professional StarCraft II scene in Korea is a rough environment. The World Championship Series (WCS), StarCraft's counterpart to League of Legends' LCS, introduced a region-locked system for 2016, effectively prohibiting most Korean players from attending events outside their home country. The two Korean individual leagues—the Global StarCraft II League (GSL) and SPOTV Starleague (SSL)—cut down their production to only two seasons each, as opposed to the previous three. This put even the best Korean players at risk of being sidelined from individual competition for half a year should they lose only two matches. This is the exact situation that befell last year’s world champion, Kim ‘sOs’ Yoo Jin.

You would think that only a handful of elite players on big teams would be able to sustain themselves in this environment, and so did everyone in the StarCraft community. Talent was hoarded by KeSPA teams with big sponsors behind them, such as SK Telecom T1, KT Rolster, and Jin Air Green Wings. Multiple smaller teams were forced to shut down due to a lack of funding. International teams like TeamLiquid had little choice but to let their Korean players go, and most of these players have now retired.

By winning season 2 of the GSL, Byun Hyun Woo, known simply as ‘ByuN’, proved everyone wrong. He had been without a team since May of this year, previously spending six months on the Chinese X-Team. He had been considered a strong player since Legacy of the Void’s beta phase, but never stuck out as a potential champion. Eliminated quickly in the first season, he seemed to play himself into a frenzy in the second. After a shaky opening group, he then dominated a stacked round-of-16 and never let up the pace. ByuN’s final opponent was the reigning world champion, sOs, who had to win the season in order to qualify for the WCS Global Finals. But ByuN, without a team to back him up, took the series 4-1 and made it look easy. His victory shows that, through dedication and hard practice, the very top players in the game are not as invulnerable as they may appear, despite their organisations’ support.

In a bizarre fifth game, ByuN’s indecisiveness clearly showed

ByuN’s story goes much further back, however. He was one of the originals, making his debut in the very first GSL in 2010. Before you start thinking that this is an entirely heroic tale, however, stop right there. ByuN was banned from the GSL in 2011 for match-fixing, after convincing another player, CoCa, to lose a map on purpose, resulting in ByuN winning a seed into the GSL. He was allowed to re-enter competition in 2012, but was under scrutiny again very soon.

GSL admins accidentally used a wrong version of the map ‘Metropolis’ in the first game of his quarterfinal series against Nestea in 2012's season 3. ByuN noticed the mistake, but kept quiet and abused the exact strategy that was supposed to be prevented by the official version of the map. Nestea was tilted off the face of the earth, the admins could not reverse the mistake and had to let ByuN’s win count. ByuN went on to sweep the series 3-0. 

His style of play did not help his reputation, either. ByuN was, at the time, known for very abusive strategies. All-in strategies as well as hyper-defensive, drawn out games were his go-to. He was especially known for massing Ghosts against Protoss and Zerg, for which there was very little counterplay at the time. ByuN even changed his ID to ‘GhostKing’ for a while, though he probably soon realized what the community thought of that—it lasted only a few weeks.

Photo credit: ESL/Helena Kristiansson

Season 3 of the GSL in 2012 was the one he should have won. He was by many considered the best player left in the tournament, having already beaten his semifinal opponent Ahn ‘Seed’ Sang Won previously. But it was not to be. What was supposed to be just a stepping stone for ByuN to reach the finals turned into disaster. He appeared nervous in winning situations and, even at 2-1 up in a Best of 5 series, lacked the killer instinct to finish his opponent off.

In a bizarre fifth game, ByuN’s indecisiveness clearly showed. With an all-in strategy that used half his worker supply as attacking units, ByuN was ready to march across the map and finish Seed off. But he didn’t attack. Instead, he nervously postured out on the map, with half his workers not mining at all, and gave Seed the time he needed to recover and win the game. That single defeat is still referenced as the reason why ByuN disappeared from the scene almost entirely.

At this point you may wonder how this player has somehow become a crowd favorite GSL champion. It all started after that series against Seed. ByuN went into obscurity soon after, technically still employed by his team PRIME, but not fielded in Proleague even when they desperately needed him. In early 2014, he began playing in online cups, but never got near offline competition. ByuN became a meme in the community for going MIA. His offline results from 2014-15 are nothing but a blank space. Nobody knows what exactly ByuN was doing, where he was, or if he was still a professional player. Some even questioned if it was ByuN playing on his account.

PRIME later crashed in a match-fixing scandal and disbanded, further fuelling speculation about him. It was announced then that ByuN would join X-Team in China, and he slowly became a regular in online cups. 

This is where ByuN found his stride. To earn his living, ByuN had to be proactive and he had to be good enough to win money. He had to find practice partners and training methods that suited him, all on his own. That process requires discipline, something he appeared to lack before. Leifeng Cup and Olimoleague, the two biggest frequently held online competitions in StarCraft II, became his home turf and he won them more often than not. 

ByuN had to figure out who he was, and how he could function and survive in the professional scene

His style of play changed drastically as well, falling back to more mainstream Terran bio armies. What sets him apart, however, was that his fundamental mechanics needed to stay sharp for him to win consistently. His unit control is among the best in the world as a result. And with a huge number of games played online, he constantly had his strategies tested by different players, allowing him to foster a multitude of tactical responses.

When Legacy of the Void was released ByuN had no other obligations, while the top players were still playing Heart of the Swarm in tournaments. That gave him a massive head start into the new expansion, and he exploded back into the spotlight. ByuN has been one of the best players in StarCraft II ever since, despite being teamless for so long. In hindsight, his success may only be possible because of it. ByuN had to figure out who he was, and how he could function and survive in the professional scene, and he came out a much better player than he ever was before. It’s one thing to have a team create a schedule for you and provide practice partners whenever necessary. But it’s another to know exactly what you need yourself and act accordingly. 

And that’s how ByuN finally won his GSL. At a time when everyone else in Korea was depressed by the lack of opportunities, he had already figured out how to flourish outside the established system. He used that experience and stability to conquer something he was never able to before. ByuN’s road to the GSL championship may have been rocky, but it was the most fitting way for him to achieve his dream. 

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