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Memories forged: Revisiting some of the most emotional matches in recent esports history

There have been plenty of emotional matches in recent esports history.
Gla1ve and Astralis had won of the most emotional wins in Counter-Strike history. Photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE.

There is a reason I only watch LAN events. The immediacy that’s innate to live tournaments — knowing the players on the screen are experiencing the heights and terrors of competition concordant with you — grounds the drama in a way online leagues can never emulate. Those games by contrast feel slightly detached, like looking through the windshield as your car travels through the wash. Salaries are nice. Prize pools are nice. But once you get into the final, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is victory, the fight to prove you are the best.

And though these games are played on a server, the only place you can be crowned the best is on LAN. Teams must confront the reckless favor of the crowd and the anxiety over stumbling in front of thousands. Depending on the format, there might be pointless series, but never pointless games. This tournament matters, this game matters, and by the end of an event a winner will be crowned. Their achievement is further glorified as all others must necessarily die along the way. At times, it can feel startlingly similar to a religious ceremony.

Even now we are in the midst of an economic boom within esports. The next generation has taken over and esports, once a niche within a niche, is becoming larger. So when we talk about esports, it’s tempting to talk about the viewers, the salaries, the prize pools, whatever you want. But at the end of the day, it is and will always be about competition. It is about players betting their souls that they are the best. It is about the winners and the victims they plowed through to reach the top. Years from now, the marketing stats won’t be burned into our collective memory. We won’t remember exactly how many people were watching any given event. We won’t remember the exact salary amount Player X from Team Y was making, and which companies sponsored which teams. But we will remember the victories of the champions, the charismatic underdogs, the dark horses who defied popular wisdom. We will remember the agony of the losers, the cherished fan favorites who broke our hearts, the gallant fighters who came up short. There are victories we can still look back upon and know history was made, and losses that burn your soul to this very day.

Put on a good enough show and fans will never forget you. Wings Gaming was a dark horses when it arrived at The International 6. Although respected for an earlier win at The Summit, many other teams were picked as favorites to win the event. Many other names were bandied about before people started to talk about the Wings players. It made sense as Wings was composed of overlooked veterans and some upcoming stars from the Chinese scene. Prior to their breakout in 2016, the players were most famous as subs for the all star DK team of 2014, when they stood behind Xu “BurNIng” Zhilei. Despite the lack of results, the players had faith in each other. Not only did they believe they could defeat the best teams in the world, they sought to prove they could win with anything. At TI6, they pulled off a legendary championship run with a drafting style that was impossible to decipher and teamwork surpassing all the veteran teams in attendance. Western fans were enthralled by their balls to the wall play style; Chinese fans embraced them as the bright spot in a disappointing year for their scene; Chinese pros heralded them as saviors. Sadly, their success didn’t indicate great things to come. The team eventually hit multiple roadblocks after their TI6 run, ultimately leading Wings to implode in disarray. Although the ex-members are currently locked in a civil war with each other and ACE, no amount of hardship will ever take away their TI run.

Pivoting from an old identity to a new one can enhance the poignancy of a championship. In the finals of the ELEAGUE Major, Astralis stared down Virtus.Pro in one of the most exhilarating finals in recent memory. It was also a stark confrontation of their legacy. Going back to its days on TSM, the team was disparaged as chokers, a collection of great players who crumbled under pressure when the going got tough. But under the leadership of Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander, Astralis overcame the Polish bears with a combination of grit and incredibly gutsy calls. The losses of the past may still sting a little, but they made the act of raising the trophy all the more special.

This transcendental release Is ubiquitous when it comes to players. And one of the greatest I’ve seen was Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovacs’ win at ESL One New York 2016. Hailing from Slovakia, a country without much CS:GO talent or infrastructure, he sought admittance into the top CIS rosters. It wasn’t hard (he was that talented), but finding a winning formula proved more difficult than anticipated. When he was on Virtus.Pro, it was rumored he would be on the future Polish squad — the legendary roster we know now — but Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas insisted on an all-Polish lineup. In response GuardiaN said he’d go to Natus Vincere and make the Polish remember him in the future. So GuardiaN left for Na’Vi, but in order to make it work, he learned an entirely new language. Nevertheless, he was the star player in its early years of the roster.

In 2015, Na’Vi became one of the best teams in the world. In any other era, the prestige would have guaranteed at least one title, but the CIS squad had inadvertently risen into a shark tank, with prime Fnatic, EnvyUs, sporadic VP, TSM and other dangerous teams snapping at everything that moved, Na’Vi could never channel its amalgamated skill into a tournament win. The constant failure haunted GuardiaN, and eventually his form fell off after an injury.

But for one night all of that changed. In the ESL New York finals against Virtus.Pro, GuardiaN looked like GuardiaN, the specter rivaled only by Kenny “kennyS” in his prime, and refused to renege on his old promise. He made the Poles remember his name as Na`Vi took the title. At the sight of the trophy in his grasp, GuardiaN broke down in tears, overcome by the moment he had been working for years to achieve.

For the accursed few, victory is a mere reprieve from a depressing reality. Look no further than Eo “soO” Yoon Su, StarCraft 2’s greatest loser. He has lost six GSL finals and has lost the most Korean Starleagues in both Brood War and SC2’s history. In total, he has played in 10 finals and lost nine of them. But he and his fans can recall one KeSPA Cup he won for consolation. For one tournament, soO performed at the incredible level we know he can reach throughout every game. He played under pressure and even when he fell behind, he didn’t fall apart. soO won that final 4-1 and for one night, Sisyphus’ boulder didn’t come crashing down the hill.

Like soO, BurNIng is one of the greatest players to ever touch his game. Despite that, he still has yet to get the biggest trophy in Dota history, the Aegis. That’s where the analogy falls apart. soO has had multiple opportunities to grab the brass ring, while BurNIng has never passed the semifinals. TI3 in particular was a painful showing. Dropping down into the losers bracket, BurNIng and fan favorites DK were eliminated by the SEA prodigies Orange. The team was completely devastated. They looked lethargic on camera, as if all of their energy had been sucked out of them. BurNIng himself covered his face trying to blink away the tears that wouldn’t stop.

To understand the sheer pain of what soO went through with each loss at a final, I will retell the story of one player’s greatest loss. One loss that broke his career. In the GSL Season 2 finals of 2012, Park “Squirtle” Hyun Woo played against Jung Mvp Jong Hyun. It was an incredible final, likely the best in SC2 history. What made it remarkable was how incredibly skilled and clutch Squirtle was under pressure. While many consider Squirtle part of the Kong line now, I will contend that he did not choke under pressure. Rather he seemed to excel under it. Mvp took the early lead with a 3-0 head start, but Squirtle brought it back to ultimately tie up the score. In the final game, he even scouted and stopped the all-in, but Mvp secured his fourth GSL title with a brilliant tactical move that exploited Squirtle’s correct counterattack across the map. A month later, he admitted he had yet to watch any replays of the match against Mvp. Squirtle never reached that level again and the loss seemed to haunt him.

Then there are the bitter regrets, losses that were inexplicable but happened anyway. At ESL Cologne 2015, EnVyUs was supposed to crown itself master of the CS:GO world. The team’s main rival, Fnatic, was in the midst of decline while EnVyUs looked like one of the hottest teams at the tournament. In the first map of the grand final, EnVyUs led Fnatic 14-7 on Dust 2 and only needed two more to close out the map. Fnatic called the infamous pause and then slowly grinded its way back into the game. Off the back of Freddy “KRiMZ” Johansson’s stalwart performance, Fnatic came back to steal the map 19-15. After the finals ended, KennyS was heartbroken. He couldn’t hold back the tears as he agonized over one of the worst performances of his career.

Years from now, we will remember those moments as we gaze into the hot summer sky. The great victories will cross our minds as we drift into daydreams; the losses will torment us in the dead of night. When an event is emotionally charged, it is ripe for these moments and becomes something more than winning—especially when everything is on the line. That’s why the big events, your TIs/Majors/GSLs, mean so much. That is why you cannot miss out on watching the Kraków Major.

Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE

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