“I don’t believe in superstitions. But I did feel that there was something special about the nickname ‘Emperor of Terran’ that was given to me. Though I regularly practice over 10 hours and my body feels like it will melt down, I hold myself up thinking. I should live up to that name.” – Lim “Boxer” Yo-Hwan
Identity is both an infinitely complex and simple concept to understand. It is the culmination of culture, ideas, thoughts, experiences, skills, relationships, personality and quirks built up over a long period of time. That is what we call the self. It can also be as simple as a tautology. I am my name. My name is me.
In the arena of esports, however, the scope of identity is quite specific. Others like to point out things like a person’s personality, their family and nation as important personal characteristics. For me, that’s all background information and is only used in reflection of what is actually important in competition, and that is what you can do in the game on the server. In esports competition that is who and what you are. It doesn’t matter how great or terrible of a person you are, how social or unsocial or where you come from. It is what can you do now? What part of you can you show me in the game?
Now run enough tournaments over a long period of time, and if the game has a high enough skill ceiling, eventually you will start seeing the same names rise up over and over again. This also develops a metagame, the game above the game: The standard way to play and a game above that where players try to figure out a way to beat the current meta and get an advantage over their opponents.
In this level of abstraction exists a very specific kind of metagame, one that can only be developed by players who have won repeatedly. Players who have attached to themselves such feats of acclaim and skill that they’ve won a psychological battle before they’ve even stepped into the server.
This is the realm that can be entered by the greats. This is the realm where Brood War players like Choi “iloveoov” Yun Sung and Park “July” Sung Joon lived. Yes, both players were incredibly skilled in the server and were a menace to face against. They were also players who understood the powers of psychological mental warfare and used their own presence to gain advantages over their opponents. Iloveoov convinced the world he was an indomitable invincible player with no doubts. July convinced players that nothing they could do could prepare them for the rush.
The power of a name is such that it precedes itself. Think back onto the primes of Counter-Strike players like Kenny “kennyS” Schrub, Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer or Richard “shox” Papillon. kennyS was so feared on his AWP that some of the greatest AWPers in the world actively avoided duels with him in his prime before even one exchange had been traded. When olofmeister was the best in the world, there was an almost tacit agreement that he could do anything and be anywhere. When shox was in form and the opponents knew it, they’d huddle into a corner and hide in 4-v-1 retakes in hopes he wouldn’t find and kill them.
There are good or great players who at the peak of their powers could do this on maybe one day or one map. The power of superstars is that they’ve done it over and over again across a period of months or years to the extent that you were no longer playing just a player, you were playing a month. This happened when Lee “Infiltration” Seon-woo played Daigo Umehara in Street Fighter after the latter had publicly stated he had prepared for months to take Infiltration down. This was the first time in his history he had faced a legend that had specifically prepared for him. He got into his own head and when the game started Daigo did nothing differently, but Infiltration had completely changed his game and lost. On reflection he realized, Daigo wasn’t a god. He wasn’t a myth. He was just a man and in the grand finals of Tokyo Game Show and defeated Daigo.
Another example is Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the consensus best player to have ever touched League of Legends. His fame is so great that when he loads onto a server now, everyone remembers his highlight reels and don’t want to become a victim, so they stop playing their own game. They get more defensive, thinking to themselves “Faker won’t do something stupid and overly aggressive.” They have effectively beat themselves because they feared Faker’s name before they had started the match. So long as you do not fear, you have a chance, which is why Afreeca Freecs mid player Son “Mickey” Young-min is Faker’s worst matchup. Faker is still much more likely to win, but Mickey does not fear his name and plays the exact same game against Faker as he would against anyone else.
What Mickey did is more special than you’d think. Players at the top level of competition can’t help but admire great play and great players when they see them. In some senses they can be more fallible to this mindset than fans because their knowledge runs deeper. They can understand what rules are being broken and how far a player is pushing the boundaries of their game, their art.
Perhaps the greatest player to have ever exploited their name was StarCraft II player Jung “Mvp” Jong Hyun. But he did it in a completely different manner. By the time 2012 rolled around, Mvp was broken. He had back and wrist problems and could no longer feel his hands when he played. The pain was excruciating enough that he could no longer practice for long periods of a time in SC2 where the norm was between 8-12 hours a day. He was in a time when he was playing against his worst matchup in Protoss at the prime of the metagame strength, against Zergs in the era of BL/infestor.
Yet time and time again, he’d pull out miraculous victory after victory because he played against his image. If the opponent thought he’d cheese, he’d macro. If he thought he’d macro, he’d cheese. At some point, Mvp understood the concepts of psychological warfare and series play and took it to extremes, which, combined with his intelligence and experience, made him one of the most dangerous players in the world despite crippling disadvantages. It got to the point that players were warned before hand to never underestimate Mvp in a best-of-five despite having overwhelming winning records against him in practice.
When you watch a famed player play, there is always something special. It is because they are building on a story, a history, a legacy. You can find players who are playing at a better level, but they can’t create the same aura of mystic or fear that a player of fame has. At least not yet. Because they haven’t built their careers over the broken dreams of their competitors. It is why when Virtus.Pro played Ninjas in Pyjamas in ELEAGUE, the entire CS:GO community went mad when Filip “NEO“ Kubski turned in a superstar performance on the first map. Because all-time great players like that have more weight to their actions. A player like Janusz “Snax“ Pogorzelski could muster the exact same accomplishments, but it can’t trigger the same kind of excitement and fear of NEO because NEO has built a legend for himself spanning over a decade. Even competitors who watch may be frustrated in the loss, but they can’t help but stand in awe of what NEO does.
That is what it means to have a history, a legacy. That is the weight of a name.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games.