When a competitor enters their chosen field, they will eventually ask themselves, “How far do I want to go?” The instantaneous answer is always to be the best, to be the greatest. The follow-up question, rarely asked, is “What does it take to become the best?”
Most players hit an insurmountable wall early in their careers, a barrier of entry they cannot break with their current amount of effort. They make excuses as to why they can’t continue progress: lack of time, paltry salaries, crappy infrastructure, disapproving culture, the limitations of the game, boneheaded teammates, a high level of competition, innate talent. They are all valid reasons in their own way. Many great players never reached their true peak due to circumstances beyond their control. But those are not the greatest players, and teams do not succeed because they dodge obstacles, but rather in spite of them. To overcome adversity, greatness cultivates a set of attributes in those who strive for it. It requires resolution, composure, grit, reflection, sacrifice, boldness and innovation.
In order to be great, you need to be bold. The very desire to excel is audacious and will appear pompous to those who don’t share the same urge. The boldest thing I ever saw was Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao’s declaration to the internet that he was going pro. He had no experience and no one knew his name, but he didn’t care. EE was a man with a mission and a man with a plan. Although admittedly his aspirations wouldn’t put him out on the street (he could return to university), he invested his focus as if Dota 2 was a matter of life and death. Today he is celebrated as one of the best players the game has to offer. Greatness demanded boldness, and EternaLEnVy decided to pursue opportunities instead of waiting for his chances.
EE’s road was hard but comfortable compared to others. Going through the history of esports, some of the stories would be prime material for the Horatio Alger tradition. The Brazilian lineup originally known as KaBuM.TD (which eventually became SK Gaming) slogged through hell and high water to reach the pinnacle of Counter-Strike. After their international debut at MLG Aspen X Games, the squad faced obstacle after obstacle and overcame them all with fearless abandon. When they were stranded nowhere and needed money to get to the Major Qualifiers, they ran a donation stream rather than quit. When they decided to compete in ESL Pro League, they left behind their home, family and friends to settle in North America. When teammates — some of the best players in the world — lagged behind in motivation and refused to change for the greater good, they were kicked for fresh blood. Through those sacrifices, SK became the best team of 2016 and ranks among the best teams right now. Greatness demanded sacrifice, and SK made them.
When I talk about grit, the two players I associate most with this are Jung “Mvp” Jong Hyun and Eo “soO” Yoon Su: StarCraft 2’s greatest winner and StarCraft 2’s greatest loser. Mvp is a player who never played himself out of a game or series. He is the most miraculous player in the game’s history. He had crippling injuries that caused him pain when he practiced, and he could not feel his fingers when he clicked on the keyboard or mouse. He played in some of the worst disadvantages, whether that was playing his worst matchup (T-v-P) during a period where it was favored for Protoss or playing against BL/infestor. Yet, he was a player who found impossible ways to win that depended on his intelligence, psychology, creativity and grit to win. In the eight years of watching SC2, no one has ever matched Mvp in miracle games. The other player is soO, who will go down as one of the best players to ever touch SC2. He is Starcraft’s greatest runner-up. He has found himself in 10 finals, six of them being the GSL, the hardest and most prestigious SC2 tournament. He has lost all of them except one. Losing one final is soul crushing, as you are so close to the trophy that has driven you to insane lengths to get. soO has faced that soul crushing failure nine times. And he refuses to stop when others of incredible resolve stopped long before he did. Greatness demanded that Mvp create miracles against adversity. Greatness demanded that soO never stopped despite the failure. Mvp made those miracles, and soO continues to challenge for the GSL title he seeks.
Eulogizing the virtues of endurance is tunnel-visioning too much on a single trait, though. Reflection is a key aspect in the journey to become the greatest. Until you understand who you are as a person — your strengths and weaknesses — improvement becomes a scattershot and meandering path. Talk about Street Fighter, and Lee “Infiltration” Seon-Woo stands far above the rest in that respect. Despite having a sparse background in fighting games prior to SF4, he is among the greatest players to ever touch the game. What makes him stand out among the pantheon of great FGC players was how he climbed to the top. Infiltration hails from Korea, a region that had no FGC scene beyond small proficient cliques for Tekken and King of Fighters, no online scene, and no legacy of seasoned veterans from which to learn. With a dearth of culture and expertise to imitate, few Korean players would take a shot at a career in Street Fighter (or at the very least aim low).
In order to rise to the top, Infiltration had to create his own way of learning and improvement. The fruit of his labors was a method that emphasized unconscious competence and detailed preparation. Through training mode, he played multiple overcomes of a scenario until he could ingrain all the proper responses to all potential situations; when it came to facing the big boys, Infiltration shadowboxed them by studying all their available matches. He theory-crafted the best ways to exploit their tendencies and which pocket characters could neutralize their styles. He kept notes so he had a reference point whenever the “right” choice fell into doubt. That is the key to his victories, how he won his EVOs, and why he has continued to win major titles Greatness demanded that Infiltration find an unexplored path so he didn’t have to rely on the destitute resources of his scene. In response, he turned inward and flourished.
To create a new way of understanding one’s domain, a new criteria for success is perhaps the greatest achievement on the road of expertise. Every great competitor earns their reputation by redefining the parameters of the game and establishing new standards for what is possible. We saw an unforgettable meeting of such players 10 years ago in the GOMTV MSL Season 1 Finals.
By the beginning of 2007, Brood War had run for nearly eight years, and certain matchups were getting stale. The P-v-Z metagame had stagnated to the point that a majority of players agreed the matchup was strictly Zerg-favored. While Protoss players could win, the Zerg race had the definitive edge on almost all maps. The Zerg player to stand above all others at the time was Ma “sAviOr” Jae Yoon. One of the all-time great Zerg players and unstoppable in ZvP, he clawed his way to the top by turning the Z-v-T matchup upside down. During 2005-2006, he defied all expectations by dominating Z-v-T in an era characterized by uniformly high win rates among the top-tier Terrans. With a combination of tactical genius, new build orders, and frenzied determination to stay ahead of the players and coaches dissecting his every move, sAviOr revolutionized the way the matchup was played. His attitudes toward movement, positioning, and tech timings are still used to this day.
But the greatest must eventually make way for the future. sAviOr must be in turn be overthrown, this time by another revolutionary. Upstart Kim “Bisu” Taek Yong had a plan going into the finals that caught his opponent completely off guard. Bisu unveiled an older strategy, the DT/Corsair follow-up after fast expansion, which had found new form under his superior mechanics. The series forever changed the way P-v-Z was played. In one night, Bisu swept sAviOr 3-0 and upended eight years of history in the process. Greatness demanded that a player rise and change the way everyone perceived the game, and Bisu answered the call. To this day, he’s still remembered as the revolutionist.
It is the semifinals of the ESL One Cologne Major in 2015. Fnatic is playing Virtus.Pro and trails 1-0 in the best-of-three series. It is the second map and Virtus.Pro is in peak form, the form people call the Virtus.Plow. The score is 13-8 with Virtus.Pro on the T-side and Fnatic has yet to win a single CT round. The pressure is mounting as Fnatic is three rounds from elimination, three rounds from losing the Major. At the same time, thousands are screaming in the stands and many more are watching online, many of them praying for Fnatic’s downfall. Fnatic calls a pause and in three minutes must come with a plan to stop the plow. If it was a movie, this would be the time for the Any Given Sunday speech. Fnatic says nothing. The players only recompose themselves and remember that they are the greatest. They will win. Composure regained, they go back into the game and force a comeback victory winning the map 16-14. They go on to win the Major and crown themselves as the greatest CS:GO lineup of all time. Greatness demanded composure, the ability to stay calm under the worst conditions, against the most difficult opponents, and Fnatic delivered.
When a player says they wish to be the greatest, ask them what they are willing to sacrifice. Many will say “anything” but few will back up the words with action. “Anything” isn’t enough on itself. Greatness needs no words. It demands action. It demands the ability to revolutionize the way a game is played. It demands composure under the worst situations, the possible sacrifice of home and friendship, the boldness to take action regardless of criticism. It takes an unyielding will, calmness and confidence in the highest pressure situations, the reflection to understand yourself and your opponent, and the grit to see it all through. It demands more than the imagination can conceive — and when it’s reached, the demand was always worthwhile.
“I demand greatness and greatness demands everything.” – Kobe Bryant
Cover photo courtesy of ESL and Turner Sports/ELEAGUE, illustration by Slingshot