If you’d told me a year ago that I’d soon have the opportunity to introduce Lee ‘Jaedong’ Jae Dong and Kim ‘Bisu’ Taek Yong, two of the greatest StarCraft players of all time, to the wonders of American barbecue, I would have laughed out loud.
But here we are. These two legends are at BlizzCon 2017 to battle in a $25,000 StarCraft: Remastered show match that’s been dubbed the Ultimate Title Fight. They’re both headed to the military next year, a mandatory rite of passage for South Korean men, which makes this one of the last times they’ll likely compete for a major StarCraft prize pool. As a long-time fan, it’s an honor to share a meal with them. So imagine my horror when I fumble an entire BBQ rib, slathered in sauce, onto my lap.
The players are nice about it, of course. They pretend not to notice, and are too respectful even to laugh, which is remarkable, considering Bisu laughs at basically everything else.
Thankfully, the players are more careful than me; their outfits—a sweatshirt from Parisian brand A.P.C. for Jaedong, an artsy top tweaking a popular cartoon mouse for Bisu—remain as crisp and clean as their hairstyles. (Entire odes could be written to Bisu’s jaunty sweep of reddish locks.)
We’re in a humble barbecue restaurant in an Anaheim strip mall, facing plates heaped with brisket, pulled pork, jalapeno mac-and-cheese, corn bread, and racks of fall-off-the-bone ribs. I’m horrified to catch the players digging in without applying sauce first, so I show them how it works. When Jaedong dips some pulled pork in the barbecue sauce and takes a bite, his face lights up.
“Ohhhhhh,” he says.
Five hours from now, they’ll be in the heat of StarCraft battle, competing for an amount of money not insignificant even for champions like these. But if they’ve got any jitters, they don’t show. For these two, it’s just another day at the office. I take the opportunity, on the precipice of such an auspicious moment, to ask them a few questions.
The Next Generation
“Would you teach your children to play StarCraft?” I ask. They both laugh. Jaedong posits that it would build character, and says he would.
“What if your kid insisted on playing Terran?” This gets an even bigger laugh, and vigorous head-shakes indicating “never.” Jaedong and Bisu are synonymous with Zerg and Protoss, respectively; they insist that their children follow in their footsteps, at least when it comes to choosing a StarCraft race.
We talk about the future of the StarCraft: Remastered scene. Both players are guarded but optimistic.
“Esports is growing so fast, there’s always a possibility of great new players,” says Jaedong.
“Do you have any advice for that next generation?” I ask.
“You have to be very realistic about this career choice,” says Bisu. “You have to be talented to succeed in this game. If you don’t have the talent, you should find another career.”
“How do you know if you have the talent?”
Bisu laughs, and thinks about it. After a moment, he shrugs.
“Compare yourself to the people around you,” he says, though it’s clear from his rueful smile that he knows it’s much harder than that.
It’s bittersweet watching Jaedong and Bisu take the stage. No matter who wins, one of their careers will end with a loss. The packed arena crowd roars as famed shoutcaster Tasteless introduces the players. They slip into their booths, adopt stern game faces, and don headsets as they’ve done so many times before.
Just like that, the Ultimate Title Fight has begun.
From where I’m sitting, I can see Jaedong clearly. He looks supremely focused. All I can see of Bisu is the top of his magnificent hair, which protrudes over the monitor. Thankfully, big overhead screens display face-cams of the players, whose eyes flick constantly to every corner of the screen. Their mouths are firm lines. I’m entranced by their small, precise head movements, which look almost servo-driven.
Game one starts out promising for Jaedong, who rebuffs an early Zealot without losing a single Zergling, an impressive feat that’s even more impressive when the person controlling the Zealot is Bisu. But as the game progresses, Jaedong slips behind Bisu’s powerful macro, aka his ability to assemble a huge and powerful army. Bisu overruns Jaedong’s Lurkers and takes control of the map, and that’s that.
Game two looks winnable for Jaedong when he assembles a powerful mid-game Hydralisk push, threatening to end the game then and there—but then a pair of simultaneous hammer blows from Bisu completely redirect the flow of the game.
First, Bisu lands an impeccable psi-storm on the Hydralisk hordes outside his base, turning most of them into steaming red goo. At the same time, a Dark Templar smuggled into Jaedong’s main base kills a host of precious, resource-collecting Drones. With both his army and economy gutted, Jaedong only can hold on for a few more minutes before succumbing to Bisu’s relentless pressure.
The mood in the arena is somber. Not even the most dedicated Bisu fan wants to see Jaedong get 3-0’d in his final major series. But that looks like what’s going to happen. Bisu’s current form is just too good. The show match trophy handler I’ve been sitting with is called backstage, in case Bisu’s third win is a quick one.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Jaedong’s going to win two in a row!”
But I don't really believe it, as much as I want to.
In game three, Jaedong sneaks four Zerglings into Bisu’s base near the start of the game, and the crowd goes bonkers. But here, again, we are confronted with the reality that Jaedong is no longer his most ferocious StarCraft self. In years past, he was known for meticulous Zergling control, and would have won any game from this position by relentlessly harrying his opponent’s workers.
But that level of control takes countless hours of practice to maintain, and Jaedong in 2017 no longer has the endurance he once did. (In the old days, he was legendary for putting in 16-hour days, week after week.) As a result, while his Zerglings get some damage done, Bisu is able to clean them up shortly thereafter.
Then something amazing happens: Jaedong sends more Zerglings, a flood of teeth and claws, leaning on Bisu, gambling that the initial harassment did enough damage to render defense hopeless. Bisu fights valiantly, but the swarm slams against his expansion again and again, and before we know it, Jaedong has taken a game.
2-1. The crowd is alive again. People leap from their seats, shouting and hugging one another. Tasteless and Artosis are ecstatic. Jaedong did it! He took a game!
Riding that momentum—Jaedong always was a crowd-pleaser—in game four, the underdog Zerg executes a picture-perfect Hydralisk bust, punishing Bisu for a risky rush to advanced Dark Templar drop tech.
Suddenly, the question in the air shifts from “Can Jaedong win a game?” to “Can Jaedong actually win the series?” The crowd rumbles, a tidal sound of unbottled anticipation. I watch Jaedong’s face cam for signs of pain and exhaustion. Are his eyes shining more than usual? Is that a dissatisfied twist to his lips?
In the final game of the final major series of his competitive StarCraft career, Jaedong, never afraid to roll the dice, launches an early assault with Zerglings. He goes all-in, leaving no possibility of transitioning to another strategy. It’s a bold move, but ultimately a doomed one: Bisu is prepared. The attack fails, Jaedong calls GG, and the stage erupts with light and sound.
A few images to end on:
There’s Bisu accepting a huge bouquet of flowers, giving them a cursory sniff, and then a second, much-longer sniff, with an expression of pleasant surprise.
There’s Jaedong standing nearby while Bisu gives his winner’s interview, looking so disconsolate that I want to run up and hug him, security be damned.
And then there’s the mob of StarCraft fans, desperate for autographs, that envelops both players when the interview is completed.
But the image that seems most fitting is from earlier in the day, when I sat across from Jaedong and Bisu at a table covered in the remnants of a barbecue feast.
“Before we end the interview, is there anything you want to say?” I ask.
They thank their fans and emphasize how grateful they are to be here, and then the mood gets real. They talk about their looming military service, and the fact that this is likely their last match before leaving. Which, for the fans, means—
“Please support StarCraft: Remastered,” says Jaedong.
“I want StarCraft to be there when we get back,” says Bisu, and nods.