The moments after a closely-contested sportsmatch always find me feeling shipwrecked. Like a spell has been broken, the fever-pitch intensity melts away. A place that was invested with meaning and excitement turns back into a large arena full of empty seats, stage lighting, and discarded cups of beer and coffee.
Walking back through the crowd at the WCS Finals at Blizzcon, moments after Lee Jae Dong had just beaten a strongly-favored Baek "Dear" Dong Jun, I couldn’t stop pondering the meaning of what I’d just seen. It wasn’t the end of the tournament, there were two semifinals and a final left to play. But I also knew that, barring a miracle, their five game series was the best and most important thing I’d see at Blizzcon.
Looking around the thinning crowd at the people waving their arms as they tried to describe the motions of the Protoss and Zerg in the air in front of them, nothing audible except the occasional, “JAEDONG” and fits of laughter, I couldn’t get over how profoundly personal a moment it had been. At the highest level of any major competition, you see different human qualities blown into enormous proportions. Sports are like cutaway glimpses into hearts and minds, and for the StarCraft fans who had followed Blizzard’s WCS throughout the year, there was far more happening in that series than just Zerg vs. Protoss.
If I had to explain to my parents what I saw last Friday in the WCS quarterfinals, I’d tell them about how Jaedong was one of the very best players at a game that effectively no longer exists. How he was forced to take skills painfully earned over years of training and competition, and adapt them to a very different sort of game, where other players had a long head start on him. How he looked washed up when he started, another Brood War master being shunted into obsolescence along with the game he’d mastered.
Sports stars figures have to deal with mortality more immediately than most of us do. Few of us have the things we love taken from us by the time we’re thirty or thirty-five. But in a lot of sports, skills become outmoded at a shockingly young age, and players are thrown out of the lives they’ve chosen. Eventually, they are all told that it’s time to move on, and for most of them, that moment comes far sooner than they wish.
Players like Jaedong battle inevitability every time they step onto a stage. The narratives are always waiting in the wings: The disappointments that turn into slumps that end with irrelevance and retirement. Esports careers, in particular, tend to end with ellipses rather than exclamation points.
Watching Jaedong take on Dear the Protoss player who had won the last Korean WCS season as well as the Season 3 Finals, was watching determination and experience personified. Just to get there, Jaedong had had to go through a very public struggle to learn a new game and then adapt to competing against its top players. To survive in his battle against Dear, Jaedong needed to have complete faith in his own judgment.
Because at first, he had every reason to question it. The series took on a nightmarish cast as Jaedong jumped out to an early lead, then lost the second and third games despite seeming to have commanding positions in both of them. For all Jaedong’s skill and understanding of the game, Dear was finding ways to defeat the Zerg legend.
Comebacks are tough to pull off in a StarCraft series. The leading player can afford to waste a game on a high-risk “cheese” strategy that will almost guarantee a victory if the trailing player doesn’t discover it. Yet just guarding against these kinds of maneuvers incurs an opportunity cost. You can brace yourself for an early attack, and then fall behind simply because the other player was able to start building up for a longer game. Once you’re on match point, as Jaedong was, there are a multitude of ways to lose.
But somehow he tied the series in the fourth game, and then played one of the most tense deciding matches in StarCraft 2 history.