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Alma Mater: a Leenock Retrospective

Leenock retired earlier this month
Leenock (Dong-Nyoung) had one of the more fascinating StarCraft 2 careers. Photo courtesy of DreamHack.

Lee “Leenock” Dong-Nyoung announced his retirement Sept. 14 following the GSL Super Tournament. It was to be his last StarCraft 2 run before entering military service, one last hurrah before it all came to an end.

If this was a fairy tale, perhaps we could look forward to one last miracle run into the finals. But this is competition. Leenock’s form and skill had slid for the last two years, and he was quietly eliminated from the qualifiers. Thus Leenock’s journey ended, not with a bang but with a whimper. His seven year professional career is over, and as a member of the original class of players who defined SC2 in its inception, it is only fitting that we send him off in tribute.

The first time we saw Leenock was in 2010 GSL Season 2 Open. The most memorable match from his run was against Lee “NaDa” Yoon-Yeol, a Brood War legend. The series ended up being a compass to the rest of his career. Going into it, everyone had NaDa pegged as the favorite. His name still carried enormous weight at the time, and though he had fallen off, he still had veteran experience and savvy in his favor. By contrast Leenock had won over two lackluster opponents and was all of 15 years old. On the big stage, against one of the most legendary names Starcraft had to offer, he should have been shook.

Instead, Leenock stole the first map with a ballsy 6 pool. NaDa then took off his jacket and the real series started. Leenock had proven he had the guts to take risks, but now he needed to prove his skill. The two of them fought in pure macro games where Leenock met NaDa blow for blow. In the end, NaDa won the day, but we were left with a newfound respect for Leenock. At 15, he had the cojones to cheese a legend and the skill to fight him head-to-head without backing down. “Perhaps Leenock could grow into something memorable,” we thought.

The next year had Leenock relegated to Code A as he tried to fight his way into GSL Code S, the most prestigious league in the world. He eventually made it by the end of 2011, when he made a deep run into the finals while simultaneously winning his first tournament at MLG Providence. Although many disparage international LAN events despite having comparable or even greater competitive talent than others, the truth is that they test a different set of skills. They are marathons that measure one’s endurance, nerves, raw skill, and composure against the unknown. GSL has always claimed the title of most prestigious tournament, but the international LANs have always boasted the loudest crowds, the biggest audiences. Even great players like “ByuN” Hyun-Woo has yet to win a single international LAN. One of the all-time greats, Lee “INnoVation” Shin-Hyung, has attended 12 international LANs in his career and only won two, one of which in an incredibly weak field.

The lineup arrayed at MLG Providence would have been the pride of any GSL season that year. After being knocked out from the winners side by Park “DongRaeGu” Soo-Ho, Leenock went on a tear as he killed every top player in his path. He beat Mun “MMA” Seong-Won, Greg “Idra” Fields, Chris “HuK” Loranger, Jung “Mvp” Jong-Hyun, DRG in a rematch and finally Johan “Naniwa” Lucchesi to take Providence. For those counting, he beat the two of the top five Zergs, two of the top five Protoss players, and the two best Terrans in the world at that point in SC2 history. It remains one of the all-time great runs by any single player since the game’s launch.

At the same time, he was in the midst of his memorable GSL run. Leenock’s notable opponents along his journey included Choi “Polt” Seong-Hun, HuK, Han “aLive” Lee-Seok and Mvp. By the time he reached the finals, he had won the right to call himself the best Z-v-T player in the world. Many called him the best player in the world and someone destined to win the entire event. Perhaps their yearning would have ended in jubilation if Leenock faced a recognizable opponent. Unfortunately for him, he was not the only one on the rise as he met breakout foe Jung “jjakji” Ji-Hoon. That GSL final is fondly remembered as one of the all-time greats. Both were at the peaks of their careers, and their stylistic differences didn’t result in a lopsided affair. Jjakji played the single best series of his entire career. Leenock played one of the best series of his own career, but it wasn’t enough as Jjakji won the series 4-2.

Despite the loss, it was clear Leenock was going to be a force to be reckoned with — or so we thought. Soon afterward, Leenock dipped in form and though dilettantes still ranked him among the best Zerg players, he was no longer ascendant compared to the rest. He only reached that level again, briefly, near the last quarter of 2012.

The resurgence coincided with the broodlord/infestor era, a period that rejuvenated Leenock as he could use the style with incredible flair and exploit his opponents’ fear of it to do more unconventional tactics. At the same time, that era brought the rise of the greatest prodigy SC2 ever saw (and Leenock’s bitter rival): Lee “Life” Seung Hyun. Among Life’s rivals in 2012, Leenock was the biggest thorn in his side. Prior to Life’s emergence, Leenock had eliminated Life from GSL Season 3, delaying his arrival to the top. The next time the two of them met was in the finals of the MLG Fall Championship. It was a tournament on the same level as Providence, and both used everything they had to take each other. But this time, Life came out ahead.

Then we come to IPL 5, Leenock’s magnum opus. During the time, IGN was burning millions of dollars for no particular reason and part of that budget went to creating this tournament. The gist was to get every single player that could conceivably do well into one tournament, and it has remained arguably the toughest tournament in SC2 history. In a field of 72 players, Leenock came out on top, defeating Life and beating Kim “viOLet” Dong Hwan in the finals. His last deep run in WoL was at the 2012 GSL Blizz Cup, when Life defeated him in the semifinals.

Soon after, Heart of the Swarm came out and the version eventually broke his style. By that point, Leenock had a wide variety of unique all-ins that could be converted into a normal macro game. But they all revolved around the fact that the infestor was the single strongest unit in the game. Once it was nerfed into oblivion and anti-cheese measures (like the mothership core), came into being, it drastically undercut his approach.

His last championship came at DreamHack Stockholm 2013. He beat multiple fan favorites to take the gold. It would be Leenock’s last trophy: when the meta of HotS came into play, it crippled his style of play forever. He later became a shade of his former self. In fitting and ironic manner, his last two great series came against Life in GSL Season 1 2013, where the two of them engaged in an intense micro battle between muta/ling/bling armies.

In time Leenock became a spent force. He stopped being dangerous and reverted into just another mediocre player with enough flair to upset his betters, who could make an odd run every once in awhile. His last good result came in the beginning of 2015 when he got to the playoffs of SSL Season 1. For all intents and purposes, he has been a non-factor in the scene for the last three years.

As they say, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Leenock has spent the majority of his youth from the age of 15 to 22, playing StarCraft 2. He was an up-and-coming player in the beginning and for moments, he had conquered the world. Although the latter part of his career was overwhelmingly silent, that is not how he should be remembered. This is not his legacy. When we look back at Leenock’s career, we won’t remember the twilight years. When we reminisce, it will be about the boy who dedicated his life to becoming the best he could be in Starcraft 2. He fought against some of the greatest Starcraft 2 had to offer and came out victorious. He was a player who gave us some of the most memorable games in SC2 history.

But all things come to an end. For Leenock, it’s time to put away his SC2 career. He came into the game a middle school student; he graduates as one of its longest tenured players ever. It’s been a long journey and this is how it ends. Farewell, Leenock.


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