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E-Sporting Chance: Hacking Dreams

Splendid E-Sports News

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Last week we took a look back at Major League Gaming Providence, the final event for North America’s largest e-sports circuit. This time, we’ll look at last week’s big event: Dreamhack Winter 2011. See ESFI World’s on-site coverage of the event here.
Dreamhack has earned the title of Europe’s top e-sports event in recent years. They still are not Europe’s premiere e-sports league; the Electronic Sports League (ESL), with their years of experience running massive online amateur events and a professional tournament series, the Intel Extreme Masters, is still tops. But Dreamhack has built a reputation for hosting the best single events, thanks to impressive production values on their broadcasts and ambitious settings. Dreamhack Winter hosted matches in Kinnarps Arena, the home of HV71, Jönköping’s Swedish Elite League hockey team.

Like MLG, Dreamhack is an organization with humble roots, starting as a simple gathering of friends who liked to get together and play video games. Dreamhack debuted in the mid 90s in an elementary school basement but grew to the largest LAN party in the world over fifteen plus years, holding the current world record with 12,754 computers and 13,608 visitors.


(Source: DreamHack)

Thanks to Sweden’s history as a hotbed of e-sports, Dreamhack has always had a relationship with the competitive side of multiplayer gaming. Recently they’ve opted to adopt an invitational model for their e-sports tournaments, inviting a broad range of players from across the globe to create tournaments with the highest level of competition. They don’t host the hectic open bracket tournaments you see at MLG. They don’t schedule hundreds of matches into a single weekend. But their events are renowned for prime production quality and innovation on their broadcasts, along with a list of top quality players.

It’s the little things that often make Dreamhack so interesting. They added an interesting little gimmick to their broadcast in the most recent tournament – a real-time heartrate monitor for each Starcraft 2 player. You could watch players’ heart rates jump during big action and intense micro battles, or during the moment they thought they’d win a game. Some players would maintain a relatively mild 100 beats per minute throughout most of a match, but others would jump to 150 at the start of a game, perhaps due to their nerves. It’s hard to read too much into the data, but it’s a nifty little addition for both spectators and casters and certainly helps build a bit of a story around big matches. Looking at the “widely used” Fox and Haskell formula for estimating people’s heart rates, the numbers averaged by the majority of Starcraft gamers at Dreamhack fit in the “Weight Control” to “Aerobic” range. Even the calmest players are amped up at events like this.

The final Dreamhack of 2011 featured Starcraft 2, Counter-Strike 1.6, Quake Live, Dota 2, and even a little Street Fighter and Bloodline Champions, awarding over $100,000 in prize money.

Like last week I’m going to focus on Starcraft 2, but I’ll talk a bit about each of the other major tournaments (except Street Fighter). Sorry Bloodline Champions fans. And sorry Street Fighter fans – I know there was a bit of controversy over your treatment by the event’s emcee!

Starcraft 2

Protoss fans were singing this gem during the Summer when their win rates started dropping. Aggressive Terran builds like the 1-1-1, an aggressive, all-in rush that was nearly unstoppable on smaller maps, were obliterating Protoss players, and their win rates against Zerg players, who had finally learned how to utilize units like the infestor, had plummeted as well. Protoss representation in the Global Starcraft League in Korea, the toughest league in the world, suffered a similar decline.

Hyeon-Deok “HerO” Song was supposed to be that white knight on a fiery steed for Protoss fans suffering through a dark age during the summer. A new wave of talent was going to change things for Aiur. Players like HerO and Kyung-Chul “Sage” Woo headlined a list of up-and-comers showcasing creative strategies, impressive micro, and a new take on how the race was supposed to be played.

HerO wasn’t just the savior of Protoss; Team Liquid, the largest Starcraft community on the internet and one of the most successful teams outside of Korea, tabbed him to revive their slumping lineup and replace Chris “HuK” Loranger, the most successful non-Korean Starcraft pro, who cashed in by leaving Liquid joining rival Evil Geniuses for a lucrative deal.

But while Protoss mostly recovered in the Fall, HerO struggled to produce the results his form in practice suggested he was capable of.

It’s a common problem in any sport – realizing your potential, and utilizing your full talent in all situations. There are dozens of baseball players with all the tools who show flashes of putting them together on the practice field, but when they’re in the batters box, faced down by an ace accustomed to mowing down rookies, they somehow can’t do what often comes naturally to them in a lower pressure situation. Some people overcome this through practice and perseverance, and others fade into obscurity.

Like many Korean professional gamers and gamers worldwide, HerO admitted to suffering from nerve problems in major tournaments. He’d show off amazing, world-class play during practice, but on the big stage, he just couldn’t execute the same way.

At the three MLG tournaments he attended, HerO ranked 6th, 13th, and 10th. Solid results, but there are dozens of players who can say the same. Of course, HerO’s 10th place at Providence saw him losing to only HuK and MVP, champions of multiple events, but those are the kind of players HerO needs to beat to take the next step.

He may not be a streetwise Hercules, but Hyeon-Deok “HerO” Song finally lived up to the promise of his alias and the promise of his wonderful playstyle. It just took him a few months longer than anticipated as he earned his first major championship at Dreamhack Winter 2011.

HerO’s run to the finals in Dreamhack was impressive, but almost expected for a player of his caliber: he swept the first group stage against Seiplo, TLO, and StjarNaN, and advanced in the second by beating IEM Gangzhou finalist Elfi and the Taiwanese superstar SEn despite a loss against the Korean Zerg DongRaeGu.

In bracket play, HerO was forced to slay two of his teammates, the Zergs Sheth and Ret, before landing in the match that defined his tournament: the finals against a fellow Korean who shared a story similar to HerO’s, Ho-Joon “PuMa” Lee, the Korean Terran from EG.


(Source: ESFI World)

The parallels between PuMa and HerO are stunning. Both of them joined teams outside of Korea, but on different sides of the biggest rivalry in Starcraft, EG vs. Liquid. Both admit to crippling nerve problems hindering performance in big stage matches. Both were considered up-and-coming players in Korea, but struggled to qualify for the GSL. While HerO did finally qualify for the GSL, gaining Code A status in July and October, PuMa has not. But PuMa has something more important in his list of achievements: a championship.

That one difference looked like a stark one when the finals began and HerO’s heart rate raced to a high 160. The stone-cold PuMa sat at 100, belying the experience he’d gained succeeding on stage before. When PuMa crushed HerO’s opening push with a well-timed flank, securing a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, it looked like the Liquid man might crumble under the pressure.

But that wouldn’t have made this a good story, would it?


(Source: DreamHack)

HerO dazzled over the next three maps, jumping to a 3-1 lead in the series on the back of creative builds, impressive micro, and lots of aggression, no build more impressive than his game three choice on the map Dual Sight. Before the match, PuMa called his version of the feared 1-1-1 build (1 barracks, 1 factory, 1 starport) “unbeatable” against Protoss, and no map is better for a 1-1-1 than Dual Sight. Apparently, all it took was a heroic effort to stop it. HerO used an unorthodox stargate and amazing observer timing to shut down PuMa’s banshee to gain a huge lead before crushing the hapless Terran.

With his first title just one map away, it seemed like HerO had it in the bag, but PuMa was a champion for a reason. He tied the series with an impressive flank in game five and a smart and sneaky aggressive all-in build in game six. With everything on the line in a decisive final battle, how would HerO perform?

The final map was the best of the series, and the most closely contested. Both players pulled out every trick in the book in a lengthy game, eschewing the early-game aggression that dominated most of the other maps in the series for more solid styles. It was HerO who came out on top in the end.


(Source: DreamHack)

Few moments in the 2011 e-sports year were as emotional as HerO’s victory. He took the stage, holding his hands to his face to hide his emotions and show his relief, his joy. His Liquid teammates rushed the stage and mobbed the champion, a meaningful moment for a squad that struggled to produce results after starting the year on top of the world.

The difference between winning a tournament and dropping out early is shockingly slim, and it’s one reason why consistent champions like MVP, NesTea, MC, or HuK are so impressive. The fact that so many players have multiple championships, despite how difficult it is to win one, shows that there are just some people who have the ability to perform under pressure.

Will HerO become one of those elites, or is he destined to be a flash in the pan, a player who may be able to win a tournament if the conditions are right, but never a consistent threat?

He’s already followed up his breakout performance with what might be an even better one, absolutely dominating the playoffs of the North American Star League’s second season. Tonight, he will face a familiar foe in the finals: PuMa, the defending NASL champion. The match will have special meaning for the EG Terran as he both seeks revenge and hopes to repeat on the same stage he won his first championship.

You can watch that match at NASL.tv at around 7:00 PM PST Sunday night.

DreamHack Winter 2011 StarCraft 2 Results – Top 4
1. HerO (28,500)
2. PuMa ($12,800)
3/4. NightEnd ($4989)
3/4. Ret ($4989)

Counter-Strike

Ah. There’s nothing so fun as a revenge, in a sporting context. And while Patrik “cArn” Sättermon didn’t take revenge directly on his former teammates, SK Gaming, he proved quite a bit when Fnatic won their third title of the year, securing his place among the Counter-Strike greats.

Carn captained one of the most dominant teams in Counter-Strike history, winning multiple championships throughout the middle of the decade, but in 2010, the Ukrainain upstarts Na’Vi were top dogs. Star players f0rest and GeT_RiGhT blamed their captain, claiming he was past his prime, and delivered an ultimatum to Fnatic management: him or us. Fnatic decided to stick with cArn, the backbone of every Fnatic lineup and man who built the team into a perrenial winner, trusting him to build one again.


(Source: DreamHack)

Picking up a number of up-and-coming players, Fnatic surprised at their first tournament, winning the Intel Extreme Masters V European Championship, but struggled to replicate that success throughout much of the year.

The addition of Michael “Friis” Jørgensen in September seemed to turn things around, as the Norwegian’s big AWP seemed to be the missing component of the team. Fnatic closed out the year by taking 1st at IEM Gangzhou, 2nd at BEAT IT Russia, and finally 1st at Dreamhack.

Carn has become one of Counter-Strike’s most recognizable stars in recent years, not because of his individual skill but because of his ability to lead a team. Despite the amazing success he’s had in past years, 2011 may go down as his greatest accomplishment.

DreamHack Winter 2011 Counter-Strike 1.6 Results – Top 4
1. Fnatic ($14,250)
2. Lions ($7,125)
3. Natus Vincere ($4,275)
4. Mousesports ($2,850)

Dota 2

Hosting a tournament for a game in beta is a bit of an oddity, but then Dota 2 has the potential to be an e-sports phenomenon. The tournament itself was an exciting one.

Wild Honey Badgers, a team without a sponsor and without an invite to the tournament, managed to qualify through Dreamhack’s BYOC tournament and proceeded to blitz through some of Europe’s best Dota teams, including Fnatic and the favorite, SK Gaming.

Led by Troels “syndereN” Nielsen, a commentator turned player, WHB was quite the cinderella story, but for people in the know, the result wasn’t a big surprise. In practice, WHB has produced these kind of results. They just have not had a chance to show it yet.

DreamHack Winter 2011 Dota 2 Results – Top 4
1. Wild Honey Badgers ($7,340)
2. Fnatic ($3,670)
3. SK Gaming ($2,220)
4. Team Shakira ($1,500)

Quake Live

Dreamhack deserves some credit for hosting perhaps the last Quake major ever.

Despite its lengthy history in the e-sports scene, 1v1 duelling may be a thing of the past. In fact, the entire genre may be dead; while e-sports stalwarts like Starcraft, Counter-Strike, and DotA all received new versions this year, is there even a duelling game in development right now? Unreal Tournament 3 flopped. ID seems to have given up on Quake Live despite never really trying.

As someone who loves these types of games, I don’t think the genre is dead, but there’s not much hope on the horizon. That’s also a discussion for a different time, and a different blog post.

It was only fitting in The Last Quake Tournament Ever, Maybe that we’d see the two greatest Quake Livers battle it out: Shane “Rapha” Hendrixson and Alexei “Cypher” Yanushevsky, the dominant American famed for his cerebral style, impeccable positioning, and clutch play, against the Belarussian who had all the talent in the world, but rarely seemed to be the sum of his parts.


(Source: DreamHack)

For most of Quake Live’s history, Rapha dominated the game, but it was Cypher’s turn last weekend. The Belarussian swept the American, taking him out in a 3-0 game that was disappointing for some. As a biased American homer, it was painful to watch Rapha flounder against Cypher, attacking at poor times and missing shots he’d hit under different circumstances. Part of that was Cypher’s impeccable play: he became a superstar in Quake 4, and at Dreamhack it finally seemed like he had gotten used to Quake Live’s quirks.

It’s a shame we may never get to see his skill again.

DreamHack Winter 2011 Quake Live Results – Top 4
1. Cypher ($4,275)
2. Rapha ($2,137)
3. av3k ($1,425)
4. k1llsen ($0)

Conclusion!

With MLG and Dreamhack out of the picture, there’s just a few big e-sports events left this year. The GSL November finals happened this weekend, with the surprising jjakji taking down Leenock, the MLG Providence champion. The North American Star League finishes its second season tonight, starting with Heroes of Newerth at 1PM EST and ending with Starcraft 2. ESFI World’s on-site coverage of the event can be found here.

The World Cyber Games, a long-running e-sports event run similar to the Olympics, with participants representing nations from across the globe in a plethora of games, will run in Korea next week, Dec 8th-11th.

To close out the year, the GSL will bring us one final Starcraft 2 competition: the Blizzard Cup, pitting ten champions from events throughout the year against each other in a battle that could decide who the best Starcraft 2 player of 2011 really was.

Lots to look forward to!

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