Monday, March 4, 2019

The Kong Off His Back: Triumph and Inspiration

Sometimes there are stories in life that just grab us, our fundamental human nature, and affect us in ways we can’t easily explain. Seeming to transcend existence, many of these stories find their way into interesting biographies or historical pieces, and some fall by the wayside, known and appreciated only by a select few. Searching for Sugar Man and Unbroken are two unbelievable stories that defy belief. And yet they happened, stirring feelings deep within us watching them unfold on the screen. There are lesser known but equally affecting stories like that of Zhang Dan’s—her fall, courage to continue, and reward for perseverance. Touching rarely visited places within us, these real-life stories give rise to complex, gratifying emotions, even though we are not the ones who had the experiences directly. This is one such story.

For that thimbleful of readers who regularly make their way to this blog, they will notice the occasional, odd post on an esport known as Starcraft 2. For the unaware, it is chess3. Not only do players move pieces around on a “board” and defend and attack, economies must be managed to even produce pieces, all the pieces can be upgraded, there is limited visibility where the opponent’s pieces are, and all decisions and movement are done real-time. Unlike chess, there is no stoppage after a move so the opponent can think about their riposte. Everything is fluid—action, reaction, strategy, tactics, advance, retreat, attack, defend. The number of mental balls a player must juggle at one time makes it the most difficult esport on the planet, and something only an extreme-extreme minority of people, master.

It is therefore extremely difficult to be successful—to win one of the few premiere tournaments run each year. It is ten-fold more difficult to repeat that success. Winning streaks a rarity, consistency in Starcraft 2 is measured differently than other competitions as only a handful of Starcraft 2 players have achieved the highest of heights more than once. And yet there is one player who has made it to the final match of seven premiere tournaments. Unfortunately for him, he has lost every time. He goes by the id soO.

soO’s success or failure, depending how you want to frame it, is unprecedented. Rising to prominence toward the end of 2013, he has strove and fought through the world’s thickest competition and played the world’s toughest competitive esport with all his heart, only to have fallen just short on the grandest stage so many times. Accordingly, soO has generated a fair amount of publicity in the Starcraft 2 world. While some of it is derisive (second place is first loser—har har), it’s fair to say the majority has been sympathetic, and a fan group has sprung up. The group of people who love the underdog in other sports also grow to love the underdog in Starcraft 2 and cheer soO on, waiting and hoping for that moment of triumph.

After six years, hundreds of professional matches, dozens of premiere tournaments, and so many penultimate finishes under the brightest lights, soO’s moment came yesterday on the world’s biggest stage at IEM Katowice. Hope realized, soO captured his long-awaited championship in dramatic fashion. Very nearly not qualifying for the event and considered a non-contender by analysts, he battled from the bottom of the brackets, through players who have prevented him from taking the top spot in the past, through bad luck, through the consensus number one player in the world, through losing the first two games of the grand final to storm back and win the next four to take the set 4-2, and most importantly, through the demons in his own head, to achieve his goal.

Like Sugar Man’s, like Louis Zamperini’s, like Zhang Dan’s, soO’s story is one that suffuses warmth inside us. For all the crap in the world, seeing a guy who failed so many times, evolve through personal obstacles to accomplish what he so long wanted, spreads positive feelings of redemption and satisfaction. soO got emotional on stage after winning, and it was difficult to not also get a little wet in the eyes knowing the unique road he took finally getting to the podium—even Smix, the consummate professional who was interviewing him on stage, had trouble keeping her emotions under control seeing the genuineness of his response. The fact soO seems an admirable human being beyond the game (humble in defeat, deprecating in manner, friends to most everyone, including his fans), not to mention knowing this is likely his last year as a professional gamer with mandatory Korean military service looming, makes it seem as though it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person at a better time.

Looking online today, practically the whole Starcraft 2 community is cheering and congratulating soO. A community that by and large is kinder and nicer than that of a lot of the more popular games, even those rare, toxic Starcraft 2 fans are admitting kind words, making the whole community feel united for a moment. Even soO’s biggest competitors are pitching in. As a sign of respect, all the Korean progamers at the tournament took him out for a celebratory meal after the victory, something which in all my years of watching Starcraft 2 I’ve never seen. Indeed, some things go beyond ego or competition and deserve recognition. Regardless who you were cheering for in the matches leading up to the finals, or soO’s opponent in the Grand Final, a person has to be a true hater not to pause and appreciate the fortitude and persistence soO has displayed in his career to continually pick himself up second place after second place, to finally realize his dreams. The monkey—the gorilla, the Kong—off his back for the rest of his life, feel good stories don’t come any better.

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