Full circle: The whirlwind journey of Jaedong

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The year is 2008, and the world is suddenly not what it was.

You are in Seoul, South Korea, in a small television studio, giggling teens play hooky on a weekday afternoon. There's a stage a few feet in front of them with a TV desk framed by two glass-enclosed booths, each large enough to fit a single person sitting down.

The house lights dim, the cameras start rolling, the announcers take their places at the desk, and two quiet-looking young men in racing-style jerseys enter each booth after shaking hands. An enormous screen above the stage comes to life.

The screen shows scenes of an alien landscape, but to those in attendance, it is as familiar as a map of their own neighborhood. It's StarCraft, a popular computer game that has entertained players for years across the world. But here, those who came to fill the studio's stands are not playing right now - they're watching. And the intense faces of the men on stage clearly show that this is not just for fun.

For a first-time observer, the experience would be akin to a casual pickup basketball player watching an NBA game for the first time and being treated to Kobe Bryant or LeBron James' mastery of the ball and the court. Teens gasp and cheer as the announcers in suits shout unabashedly as if calling the blow-by-blow of a title fight.

They won't believe you back at home. But that's OK, because you've just seen the future, and it's going to be the coolest thing ever.

A Tyrant and his kingdom

South Korean esports athlete Jae-dong "Jaedong" Lee, 26, was in one of those booths all the time back in 2006-11, usually winning. He is a particularly gifted and accomplished champion of the competitive computer game franchise StarCraft, a series of titles that became the wellspring for the global esports phenomenon we see today. For hundreds of thousands of fans around the world, his skill has inspired moments of wonder like the one described above.

Jaedong's career, from his debut as a pro StarCraft: Brood War player in 2006 to his StarCraft II retirement in 2016, is in many ways the history of the unprecedented twists and turns of professional video gaming in South Korea, the birthplace of esports.

StarCraft: Brood War was a computer game launched in 1998. It was the hit expansion to the original StarCraft from earlier that year, and Brood War became the best-selling PC game of 1998, immediately hailed as a defining title for the popular "real-time strategy" genre. Ten years later, sales had risen from the initial 1.5 million to 10 million. The game has been taken into space, used to train U.S. military forces, given a star on the floor of the Walk of Game in San Francisco and frequently included in lists of the best video games of all time to this day.

Although Anaheim, California, was home for StarCraft's developer, Blizzard Entertainment, the game found its most passionate audience in South Korea. By 1999, one million of StarCraft's three million total sales were in South Korea. The StarCraft competitive scene there grew so rapidly that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism approved the formation of the Korean eSports Association (KeSPA) to be the governing body for esports in 2000. Two television stations started up televised professional leagues. The world's first esports stadium was built in 2005. By 2007, the industry domestically grossed $81 million and Lim "BoxeR" Yo-hwan had 521,000 fans in his fan club. South Korea became the esports mecca of the world, and StarCraft: Brood War was its king.

It was amid this unbelievable growth that Jaedong rose in the scene, earning Rookie of the Year in 2006 at age 16. He took nine first-place titles in premier individual leagues and tournaments in South Korea between 2007 and 2010. He earned an estimated $393,000 in prize money alone from StarCraft: Brood War. He was nicknamed "The Tyrant" for his dominance.

"Jaedong was the greatest Zerg (one of StarCraft's three playable races) that StarCraft: Brood War ever saw. Even when you discount all of his accolades and simply look at his play, no one else compares," said Dan "Artosis" Stemkoski to ESPN. Artosis is one of the first and most respected professional English-language commentators for the esport. "Jaedong was the epitome of combining the science and art that makes StarCraft so wonderful ... And he had by far the best personality of all the top pros. The guy is basically the perfect pro gamer."

For all of Jaedong's success, he was not the kind of champion that stood lonely at the top. His drive and skill were honed in no small part by someone else -- not a coach, but a worthy adversary: Young-ho "Flash" Lee.

"Of course, Flash has been my [greatest] rival since the Brood War days," said Jaedong to ESPN recently when asked who he considered his most formidable opponent. "For years, and years, and years, it's been 'Jaedong and Flash.'"

"I would not have been as good at StarCraft: Brood War if not for Jaedong," Flash, 24, said via translation to ESPN. "Having a rival is very special. We were friends, but he was also the one I always wanted to beat."

Flash came into the scene a year later than Jaedong but rose just as quickly. As he, too, racked up win after win in premier leagues, Flash was dubbed "The Ultimate Weapon." He had an incredible 70 percent win rate against pro players in every matchup of his Terran race versus Terran, Protoss and Zerg. He's widely considered to be the best StarCraft: Brood War player of all time.

But the story of Flash vs. Jaedong was greater than each individual's achievements. They had essentially grown up together in a small, competitive world -- Jaedong was 16 in his 2006 debut, and Flash was 14 when he turned pro in 2007. They faced off in the grand finals of no fewer than five premier South Korean tournaments between 2008 and 2010, plus many other high-profile head-to-heads. South Koreans even coined a term for the duo, "LeeSsang," which means "two Lees" -- they had the same last name. Flash was the Roger Federer to Jaedong's Rafael Nadal, and their rivalry lit up the esports world.

By 2010, four years into his astonishing career, Jaedong had essentially conquered the golden era of the most competitive esport in the world, and he had become a household name in South Korea and in the international esports scene.

StarCraft II: Beyond South Korea

In July of 2010, one of the most anticipated PC games of all time was finally released -- StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. It was an immediate hit worldwide, and the game seemed prime to be the heir to Brood War's esports throne.

Naturally, all eyes were on the South Korean StarCraft scene and the star power of its top players.

The transition wasn't easy for South Korea or Jaedong, however. There were issues between KeSPA and Blizzard that prevented the best South Korean pro gamers from switching to StarCraft II in 2010 while others had no such restrictions.

At the KeSPA StarCraft II Exhibition at the Major League Gaming Pro Circuit 2012 Spring Championship in Anaheim, California, the crossover finally happened on the international stage. Jaedong was one of the eight players in attendance.

"One of the most defining moments, or certainly one of the biggest moments for me and probably the community at large, was that one MLG event, right, where they walked out all the [StarCraft: Brood War] gods, and all the top KeSPA pros that were transferring over [to StarCraft II] onstage," said Kelby May, VP of Accounts and Talent at Evil Geniuses, one of the longest-running, most successful esports organizations in North America.

Jaedong decided he wasn't interested in competing in domestic StarCraft II tournaments in which other players had two years' experience on him already. StarCraft II had also not taken off in South Korea the way it had internationally; meanwhile the Brood War professional scene was dying out. He took an unprecedented leap and signed with Evil Geniuses in December 2012.

Jaedong, just like professional StarCraft, was going global.

A legend, but not quite a champion

"Jaedong definitely got like the infectious bug where he really, really wanted to be exposed more to Western audiences ... [and] take the next step of his career," May said. "Like, he'd already conquered [South] Korea. He wanted to become bigger internationally and go to a bunch of international tournaments, which is what he did as soon as he joined the team."

And travel he did. He went from Sweden to Spain to Germany to the U.S. and more, making the top 4 in 15 premier tournaments from 2013 to 2015. While he only took first at two of these events, he was celebrated as a bona fide superstar wherever he went.

Nathan "Nathanias" Fabrikant, a well-known, 23-year-old professional StarCraft II commentator, didn't start following the competitive StarCraft scene until late 2011, when Brood War was in decline. Still, he understood Jaedong's draw.

"I really didn't know a whole lot about [Jaedong and other Brood War pro gamers]. Obviously, you hear the legends, and that was probably the one thing when they came over, it was like, 'OK, well, everyone's always talking [about] Jaedong,'" Nathanias said to ESPN. "I basically knew he was insanely good, obviously a very handsome guy, once I saw pictures of him, and coming over to StarCraft II, I just expected him to be really good."

Jaedong was undeniably a fan favorite and excited about the game, but he wasn't as dominant as he had been in Brood War. His StarCraft II career highlight was the World Championship Series Global Finals at BlizzCon in 2013, where in the Round of 8 he defeated Dong-jun "Dear" Baek, who was fresh off of a first-place finish at the WCS Season 3 finals. He ultimately took second to Yoo-jin "sOs" Kim.

By late summer of 2015, Jaedong was slipping. He returned to South Korea to compete in the first season of the 2016 Global StarCraft II League, South Korea's premier individual StarCraft II league, but he didn't qualify for the main event. After February, he more or less stopped playing in tournaments. The writing was on the wall.

"We knew for a good chunk of time that it was coming, like, probably like six months or something [beforehand] we knew that Jaedong wasn't going to be playing anymore, and it was just ... the passion for the game [was] not there like it was with Brood War," May said.

A plausible ending

On Nov. 1, 2016, Evil Geniuses announced Jaedong's retirement. The announcement on his personal Twitter account immediately had hundreds of replies from esports professionals and fans alike expressing sadness and wishing him luck.

It felt like the last straw in a traumatic year for StarCraft II. Other esports like Counter-Strike, League of Legends and Dota 2 had become far more popular globally, which had pushed StarCraft II to the sidelines at international multi-game esports events like Intel Extreme Masters and DreamHack. The huge match fixing scandal of Seung-hyun "Life" Lee had tarnished the game's reputation. The august KeSPA Proleague, a foundational pillar of the Brood War and then StarCraft II scene, had been shut down after 14 years, and most of its teams disbanded their StarCraft II rosters. This left many top South Korean players teamless in a system which was founded on the ability of teams to provide for, manage and develop their players.

At BlizzCon 2016 last November, once again host to StarCraft II's annual capstone championship, Jaedong spoke to ESPN in an interview about his decision.

"I've been a pro for over 10 years. I've come to a turning point in my life where I feel like I need to take a break from the professional scene," he said. "It's not that I'm not a gamer anymore, it's the fact that I'm now retiring from the pro end and I feel that it's that point in my life."

It sounded cut and dry -- a perfectly reasonable story for a legend. After 10 years of constant competitive play in arguably the most difficult esports in the world, he wanted to relax and finally enjoy the lighter side of life. His legacy was already guaranteed.

But when asked what was next for him, Jaedong said he planned to go back to playing Brood War. That didn't exactly sound like he was going to take it easy.

Back to the future

Meanwhile, something mysterious was going on in South Korea. At the start of 2016, StarCraft II was the 15th-most popular game in South Korea's omnipresent PC bangs -- high-occupancy, high-speed internet cafes -- with 49,021 total hours spent on the title in the first week of January. StarCraft: Brood War, essentially the same game as it was in 1998, was fourth. It was played for 192,663 hours, almost four times as many as its graphically updated, fully featured, continually tweaked sequel.

South Korean gamers just weren't over Brood War. With the worldwide decline of StarCraft II, its predecessor was making an unprecedented comeback in the country it had won over so many years ago. And while the professional team system had been irrevocably disrupted for StarCraft with the end of Proleague, the growing trend of pro gamers supporting themselves independently via revenues from online streaming platforms meant that the teams were no longer necessary financially. Or in other ways.

"Overall, [StarCraft] is an individual game, right, because now there's no Proleague ... but it's already apparent that you have to practice and you need to put in that work," said Jaedong. "So, the pro gaming system has already been created, and so even without a team you know what you have to do to come out on top."

Less than a week after his retirement-themed interview at BlizzCon in November of 2016, the South Korean streaming platform and StarCraft esports organizer AfreecaTV announced that Jaedong would be joining the site as a full-time Brood War BJ (broadcasting jockey). That didn't mean playing professionally, although rumors abounded.

What it meant, though, was that Jaedong was a giant step closer to reigniting one of esports' biggest storylines: his rivalry with Flash.

Together again

Like Jaedong, Flash switched over to StarCraft II in 2012. However, he was largely competing at home while Jaedong was flying around the world. Flash cheered his friend on from afar, but they weren't really rivals anymore. He missed the old days, he said.

Flash retired from StarCraft II in December of 2015, about a year before Jaedong. He spoke of conferring with his close friend and greatest challenger about his decision.

"When I told [Jaedong] about my retirement, he didn't give much of a reaction. We talked about the glory days of the past rather than about an uneasy future," Flash said in an interview with South Korean news site Naver when he announced his retirement.

For both, Brood War was the glorious past, when they had been worshipped for being the best of the best. StarCraft II had not turned out the way they had hoped. When Flash started competing professionally in Brood War again in mid-2016 alongside other old Brood War elites who had tried StarCraft II and then "retired," it was no wonder that Jaedong started to lose his taste for StarCraft II. He saw that it was possible to return to an esport he had dominated alongside the pro gamers he knew and respected the most.

On Nov. 19, two and a half weeks after Jaedong's StarCraft II retirement announcement, all pretenses crumbled. The 2016 KT GiGA Legends Match III Brood War exhibition tournament in Busan, South Korea, didn't have an enormous prize pool -- or any prizes at all -- but it didn't need to. The draw of the event for its players and fans alike was the reuniting of Brood War's all-time best pros, including Flash and Jaedong. The two rivals did not end up facing each other in the single-elimination tournament, but their presence and participation were enough to make waves in the global esports community.

After four long years, the glory days were back.

On Nov. 26, a new televised Brood War league in South Korea called the AfreecaTV StarCraft League started its second season. The production quality is crisp, the broadcasts hit 100,000 online concurrent viewers and the level of play is just as high as it was in 2010. Artosis is an official commentator, and the English VODs on YouTube regularly pick up over 20,000 views apiece.

Jaedong, Flash and other legends like Byung-goo "Stork" Song have already advanced from the 24-person group stage to the semifinals. On January 17, we will see Flash and Jaedong in their first official Brood War match since 2010-2011.

There is no disguising the anticipation.

"We haven't played an official or unofficial match yet; we are building up the fans' excitement. It will be great for the fans when we play," Flash he said. "I think the rivalry will be the same as it used to be."

The ghosts of Brood War past have emerged from the corn to play the field once more; however, this is no movie. To be clear, this is a completely unprecedented development in sports or esports. There has never been a case where a game had a thriving professional scene on this scale that was thoroughly extinguished, only to spring up again with the same star players and fan excitement four years later.

We do not know how long the Brood War renaissance will last -- it could continue for decades or fizzle out with the next new esport. And yet, there is something dazzling about this phenomenon. Even if this particular revival might be unique to South Korea, it proves that esports is only starting to awaken to its possibilities.

The world is suddenly not what we all thought it was once again.

And we are far better for it.

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