We've decided that it's time for the hivemind to turn its unblinking gaze on the world of e-sports, and to do that we've recruited our chums over at ESFI World to give us a weekly taste of what's happening on the various competitive and pro-gaming circuits around the world. Introducing this new column is the story of the recent MLG finals in Providence. E-sports drama, it turns out, can be years in the making... [Photos in this article by Zhang Jingna.]
I'm here to talk about e-sports. Who am I? I'm Samuel Lingle, Senior Editor at www.ESFIWorld.com, one of the few independently operated e-sports news and e-sports coverage websites out there (independent meaning not affiliated with a team or league). We are going to be producing a weekly article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun with the goal of introducing e-sports to a broader audience.
Some of you won't be interested, and that's fine. Some of you are already die hard fans, watching your game every day, cheering for your favorite players and teams, listening to all the e-sports talk shows, wearing your Team Liquid shirt to work each day. Some of you will have heard about e-sports, but have yet to take the leap and find out what it's all about. Some of you don't know what e-sports is at all. So let's enlighten you, in the simplest way possible.
E-sports is competitive video games. Playing at your local LAN tournament to win a $50 Best Buy gift card and bragging rights over your little gaming domain. That's e-sports. Playing with a team in some online league or ladder like Gamebattles.com or ESEA.net? E-sports. Attending a major tournament, complete with professional players, live crowds, cameras, interviews, and more? Most definitely e-sports.
Sports aren't necessarily about grunting and sweating, they're about competition. They're about beating the other guy. They're about being the best you can be at something. And that's the essence of e-sports and what makes it so great.
I won't preach about why everyone should love e-sports. That gets tiresome fast and is somewhat insulting to people who simply don't enjoy it. Just like anything else, e-sports isn't for some people. But it's clearly a phenomenon for many others, and crucially important to PC gamers – that's a fact that can't be ignored.
Right now, the current king title of e-sports is indubitably StarCraft 2, in large part due to its accessibility to spectators. The methodical pacing and build-up in the early game allows commentators to present the events unfolding onscreen, even to a lay audience. It’s visually pleasing, and you can understand some of the action without deep knowledge of the game. You don't need to know two hundred different spells and items and their effects like you do in the popular Action RTS titles League of Legends and Dota 2. You don't need deep knowledge of the map architecture and an appreciation for just how hard it is to aim a mouse or joystick like you might for Quake, Counter-Strike, or Call of Duty. All of these games, and many others, including fighting games like Street Fighter and many others from various multiplayer genres, make good e-sports, but some are better to watch than others.
What's important, however, is the people taking part. Heck, I used to play Firearms Half-Life Mod in the Cyberathelete Amateur League (CAL) with my team, Irresistible Six (and we /were/ irresistible – in more ways than one). There were maybe twenty or so other squads, and the competition there was fierce. We had rivalries and trash talk and controversy and Nations Cups and everything that makes e-sports exciting and fun, without all the money and cameras and sponsors. It was about the thrill of competition. And that's what e-sports is all about.
Much like "real" sports, e-sports is a thing of stories. It's about the hard-working underdog who exceeds his talent, toppling the unbeatable champion. It's about the former champion struggling to regain their past glory. It's about the people who chased their ambitions, giving up their time to pursue that elusive goal of being the "best", whatever that might mean.
So I'm going to introduce you to e-sports by telling a story. It's a story you can read many ways, with an unlikely hero and despicable villain, or as a tale of redemption. It's the story of the two finalists at Major League Gaming's final tournament of 2011, the National Championships of the 2011 MLG Pro Circuit.
The Pro Circuit ended in Providence, capitol of the nation's smallest state. The venue itself was unassuming, a small convention center, significantly smaller than any other MLG event this season. For those unfamiliar with the event scene, MLG tournaments are conventions where thousands of StarCraft 2, Halo, Call of Duty, and League of Legends players and fans pack into a hall filled with rows of consoles and computers and three big stages where the fans end up fighting for seating because fire codes prevent MLG from meeting the massive demand!
These events can be a bit chaotic, with matches showcased on a number of feature stations and screens, commentators excitedly chattering on the loudspeakers, and people milling about, watching matches, cheering, swarming players for autographs, spilling out from the stage seating into the surrounding area and generally enjoying themselves.
Despite serving as the 2011 National Championships, Providence was your typical MLG event, save for two important details: a prize pool ten times bigger than any of their tournaments this year and the amazing field of talent that money attracted. Providence would be a story of talent, but that’s just the overarching plotline.
The NaNiwa Story
Our story begins in Dallas, with the controversial Swede, Johan "NaNiwa" Lucchesi. The twenty-one year old Protoss player began his StarCraft 2 career with a reputation for "bm", or "bad manner", an alias born in Korea referring to unsportsmanlike activities like trash talk and rage, a taboo in the StarCraft community. NaNiwa was emotionless after a win, but violent after a loss. He is one of those intense competitors who simply hates losing and isn't afraid to let everyone else know it. He was honest in the media, often getting him into trouble but also winning him fans for his sometimes refreshing views. He often struggled with authority, failing to follow protocol and eventually getting disqualified from the Electronic Sports League Pro Series, a major league in Germany. His attitude problems and inconsistent play prevented him from finding a stable professional team until the U.K.-based Team Dignitas finally gave him a chance after recognizing his potential.
At MLG Dallas early in April, NaNiwa took full advantage of the opportunity Dignitas afforded him. He swept the entire tournament, molding his competitiveness into a play style that was varied and notoriously mistake free, because he simply would not accept anything less than playing perfect. And near-perfect he was, with a 22-2 map win-to-loss ratio and zero lost matches on his way to the championship. The competitive Swede barely cracked a smile after the win, saying he felt "okay" after taking the tournament. He expected nothing less than winning from himself, and it was about to become a habit.
NaNiwa quickly became a sensation, vaulting himself into prominence as arguably the top StarCraft player outside of Korea, one of maybe four or five players capable of challenging Korean dominance, and showing that his attitude issues were largely a thing of the past. He proceeded to win the Gadget Show Live Invitational later that month and continued his success over the next quarter of the year, placing highly in the Team Liquid StarLeague, Homestory Cup III, the European Battle.net Invitational and MLG Columbus and Anaheim.
Eventually, he decided he needed a new challenge: Korea.
"I have nothing left to prove here," said NaNiwa at the Homestory Cup, and so the Scandinavian traveled halfway across the world to compete in the top league, the Global StarCraft 2 League, early in August.
In StarCraft, Korea has been the gold standard of competition since Yo-Hwan "BoxeR" Lim, the “Emperor”, kick-started the e-sports revolution there in the early 2000s. Six figure contracts. Endorsement deals. Professional team houses replete with coaches and strict training regimens. Korea had it all, and they brought much of the same with them when StarCraft 2 was released – including the Emperor himself.
But in Korea, things did not go as planned for NaNiwa.
NaNiwa struggled desperately even while fellow non-Korean players had at least some success in the harsh competitive environment. Players like Chris "HuK" Loranger and fellow Swede Kim "SaSe" Hammar seemed to thrive in the tougher practice environment, but NaNiwa simply couldn't put together any results. His impressive mistake-free playstyle seemed to deteriorate under the pressure of Korean play, and it seemed like the older NaNiwa, brooding, rowdy and uncontrollable, was returning.
His troubles weren't limited to in-game, either. While by all accounts NaNiwa seemed to enjoy his new life in Korea, avoiding the homesickness that plagues many other players, he suffered through a love triangle, his girlfriend stealing a kiss from a visiting teammate. He struggled to maintain the same practice schedule as his Korean counterparts, struggling to fit in at the Korean team houses where he was often the only person fluent in English. He ended up leaving his team, Dignitas, spending some time as a free agent before joining up with Complexity Gaming. It was a turbulent time in his career, and it seemed like his star was waning.
His record in Korea currently sits at 0-4, losing every series in which he’s played. Instead of carrying the torch and lighting the way for fellow non-Korean players in Korea, as many expected him to do, NaNiwa has dropped it. He even performed worse at the few tournaments outside of Korea in which he attended, placing disappointingly low at MLG Anaheim. He finally hit his low point in early November, when he was eliminated in the first round of the GSL for the second straight time.
"Fuck everything, fuck my life," tweeted the Swede, "gonna practice twice as hard for everything in the future and not give a shit about anything else."
MLG Providence: The National Championships
The story heading into Providence was a simple one: it was the toughest tournament of the year outside of Korea. The National Championships were the culmination of Major League Gaming's 2011 Pro Circuit, featuring ten times the prize money compared to any of their other stops: a whopping $50,000 for the StarCraft 2 champion. That, along with MLG's reputation as one of the premier tournaments worldwide and one of the best in terms of live fan support, attracted the A-list of StarCraft 2 players.
Players like NaNiwa and the aforementioned HuK entered with top seeds thanks to their performance in previous events, placing them near the top of the tournament bracket, needing to win only a few matches to reach the finals.
That didn't mean they were favorites, though; all eyes were on the Korean princes, the king of Zerg, Jae-Duk "NesTea" Lim and Jong-Hyeon "MVP" Jeong, the world's strongest Terran. The two teammates on Incredible Miracle are StarCraft 2's premier players. They are both three-time GSL champions and have each bagged over $200,000 in prize money since the release of StarCraft 2. If you ask a StarCraft analyst who the best player in the game is, most will say MVP. (The rest will choose NesTea.)
Neither had a seed for Providence because they did not attend enough regular MLG events to earn one. The prize pots at regular events were not worth their time. That meant they had to brave the dreaded Open Bracket at this one, a gruelling portion of the tournament where 128 gamers go in and 16 come out after a marathon of six three-game series.
Before that, MLG put on a little sideshow: the MLG Global Invitational, a $12,000 tournament that pit the top four players ranked in online qualifiers from Europe, North America, and Korea against each other in a spectacle on Providence's opening night. The two qualifying players from Korea were MVP and NesTea, with NaNiwa as Europe's representative.
After NesTea dispatched America's entrant, Greg "IdrA" Fields, NaNiwa would meet MVP and, to the surprise of the crowd, slayed him in a close three game series. The last time MVP had played in America, he looked untouchable, winning BlizzCon. The way NaNiwa beat him was impressive. He didn't use "cheesy" tactics, risky strategies that try to surprise an opponent or exploit a specific weakness to get a quick win. NaNiwa beat MVP, the player many label as perfect, in two straight-up games, showcasing the impressive decision making that catapulted NaNiwa to elite status during his impressive string of victories earlier in the year.
Next up for NaNiwa was NesTea, and he proceeded to take revenge on the player who bested him earlier this year at BlizzCon. A stunned crowd cheered as NaNiwa awkwardly took the stage, unsure as always of how to receive such attention.
In a post-game interview, in typical NaNiwa fashion, he frankly answered a question regarding a choice NesTea made in the last game of their series, calling him an "idiot" for making a poor decision. When the Korean heard about it, he vowed to take revenge of his own, saying that he "knew he could beat him" and that he was tired from his flight. A rivalry was born.
That rivalry was born out on the second day of the tournament. As NaNiwa awaited in the championship bracket thanks to his lofty seed, NesTea plodded through opponent after opponent, sweeping his six open bracket foes to land him in the championship bracket position he was hoping for: three wins away from a rematch with NaNiwa. Naturally, those three more foes never stood a chance.
NesTea fought through nine players to earn a rematch with NaNiwa, only to be slapped down like a fly. The Swede strode onto the stage with an awkward gait, walked over to his rival's booth, and gave him a bit of traditional Korean trash talk – a thumbs down. Mild, I know, compared to some of the antics we see in the NFL every week, but the move endeared NaNiwa to some and angered others. The Swedish terror was back.
At the end of the second day of the tournament, it looked like NaNiwa might be unstoppable. He wasn't just winning games against the two best players in the world, he was soundly dominating them, controlling the pace of the match with sound scouting, decision making and tactics. He looked in control in all of his games, until he met an opponent no one would suspect.
A new challenger
After an early loss in the championship bracket, it looked like Dong-Nyung "Leenock" Lee, a sixteen-year-old Zerg playing in his debut tournament outside of Korea, would do what was expected of him: place well, but behind many of his outstanding countryman. The chubby and unassuming kid was humble but determined as he decided to flip the script with the most impressive single-day performance in StarCraft 2 history.
A fan favorite due to his cute nature and unrealized potential, the youngster had recently put up the best results of his career, going his deepest ever in the GSL. That didn't put him on the same level as MVP, the defending GSL champion, Sung-Won "MMA" Moon, or the man who knocked Leenock into the lower bracket on Saturday, Soo-Ho "DongRaeGu" Park.
But Leenock would beat all three of them on his way to the finals, exacting vengeance on DongRaeGu in a classic seven-game series and notching two MLG champions, IdrA and HuK, to his belt.
That landed him in the final match against NaNiwa, a seven-game series with $25,000 on the line. As the upper bracket winner, NaNiwa could close the series out quickly by winning two of the first three games, and with the way he had played up to this point, it almost seemed like a foregone conclusion, despite Leenock's amazing run. The kid from Korea wouldn't let that happen; he implemented an amazingly aggressive strategy, an early roach rush, in every game of the series, and NaNiwa struggled to find an answer. His favored forge fast-expand build order crumbled against the pressure. Someone finally found a way to make the Swede uncomfortable in a tournament where he had always played calm, collected and under control.
The Korean jumped to a 3-1 lead and went for the early assault a fifth time in the final game. A flustered NaNiwa simply couldn't defend, but he ended the series by showing just how much he'd grown since his early days as a player: he typed out "congratulations" and exited the game.
Little Leenock was all smiles as he took the stage, embarrassed to bask in a crowd chanting his name. The trophy MLG handed him was bigger than he was.
Like many Korean players, Leenock was humble and shy after his victory. He plans to help his parents out with the $50,000 soon to be added to his bank account. He thanked his teammates for helping him practice, and his team for giving him the opportunity to attend such an amazing tournament. And of course, he thanked the fans.
Leenock beat five MLG champions and two GSL champions on Sunday to win the championship. His age makes his accomplishment all the more impressive. The players he beat may have the same amount of StarCraft 2 experience as he does, but many of them have been professional gamers for years longer. He himself believes that no other gamer his age could do what he does, due to the challenges inherit with playing professionally at his age. Heck, the only reason MLG Providence was Leenock's first tournament in America was that the IGN Pro League hosted their huge IPL3 event at Bally's Casino in Atlantic City, and he wasn't allowed to attend due to his age.
MLG Providence Conclusion
These were just a couple of the stories from the gamers competing at MLG Providence, and they are just a few among the many. Every competitor has their own story. These are people who pour their heart and soul into their craft, give up their lives, their friends, their family, to chase a dream. Those stories, the drive to compete, the fact that anyone can win, if they try hard enough, is what makes sports, and e-sports, so great.
MLG Providence had everything you could want from an e-sports tournament, save a full fledged stadium packed with 60,000 people and 2,000 beer vendors and a massive jumbotron blasting Bon Jovi during breaks in play. The event brought in around $1 million to the local economy, according to the WPRI. Yep. E-sports is serious business.
Oh, and that stadium? DreamHack, Sweden’s largest e-sports event organizer, actually booked a hockey arena this weekend for their winter tournament. But more on that soon.
[For a bunch of video interviews with Providence competitors and general “from the floor” videos, please visit to our YouTube channel]
So I ended up getting a bit long-winded there, but I don't plan to next time. We're still trying to figure out what this column will look like each week, and we may favor a more structured format in the future, relaying what's happened in a variety of e-sports communities, what's coming up, and where you can go to watch all the action. If there's something you guys would like to see or learn about e-sports, please let us know!