As the action from the skirmish fades, so does the keyboard gunfire, dimming from a furious clatter to a pitter-patter. The practice room lulls to a temporary quiet. All enemies have retreated to the fog of war.
Then Lee ‘Rich’ Jae-won breaks the silence. "They should still be here," he says, pinging a nearby area. "Wanna go?"
The rest of MVP Black wordlessly spread out, and Rich cracks a mischevious smile. He loves taking his opponents by surprise. As soon as his teammates are in position for the proposed ambush, he dives forward without a second thought. "Let's go, let's go, let's go!" he yells at the top of his lungs.
Indeed his enemies are there, and a dogfight breaks loose. It's just as he wanted. In the ensuing chaos, Rich darts across the battlefield with inhuman prescience, sidestepping almost every enemy ability while landing all of his, as if by unseen magnetic repulsion and attraction.
Standing behind his star player's monitor, Coach Chae ‘Noblesse’ Do-joon watches the bloody ballet unfold, mouth agape. He shakes his head once combat is over. It's a daily occurrence, Rich’s virtuoso choreography, but he still can't help but feel baffled whenever he witnesses it.
It's a clean ace, another win for MVP Black. They rush to the enemy base to formalize their victory. Rich bounces up and down in his seat, smiling like a boy on Christmas morning, and whoops:
A Pro Is Born
You've probably heard this one before: It all started when his dad installed StarCraft on the family computer. It's the origin story of most South Korean gamers, and Rich is no exception. But how many can tell you that their mom encouraged them to pursue their dreams of being a pro gamer?
"When I was still in her womb, my mother had a dream. She dreamt that I would become a star," Rich said. "Not necessarily a gamer, but someone famous, someone on a stage. I think that's why when I showed enough promise, she suggested that I . . . go pro."
Heroes wasn't the first game Rich played competitively. At one point, he was ranked eighth on the Korean ladder of another MOBA and getting offers from various pro teams. He was good enough to make it, but something about the game didn’t connect with him fully. After a while, he found himself looking for something new, something different. When the Heroes of the Storm Technical Alpha was announced, he signed up right away. Soon he realized that this was the game he wanted to play.
They say that in Heroes, you can't carry games by yourself. Maybe for ordinary players that's true. Not so much for freaks of nature like Rich. From the very beginning, his game sense and mechanical skill stood out, even when compared to other top players. Few were surprised when he won Korea's first large-scale Heroes event, the AfreecaTV Heroes Big League, with a pickup team. And that was just the beginning.
As the game's pro scene took off, so did Rich's career. In 2015, he joined Team Asia StarDust, and made it to the finals of four tournaments, winning two of them. In 2016, he moved to MVP Black, and won every tournament he played in for the next six months. Star players from all over the world started touting him as the game's best player. Over time, he became so respected that even when his team lost, his individual reputation was barely tarnished.
Rich enjoyed his growing prestige, and didn’t let it go to his head. He remained professional, and practiced hard. But a nagging doubt grew within him: had he chosen the right game? After all, he had enough natural talent to go pro in almost any esports title—for example, he was once fifth on Overwatch's Korean ladder.
At the end of last year, Rich announced he would take a break from Heroes. "I wanted to find out what I really wanted to do,” he said. “Which game I really wanted to play."
A Body in Motion
Rich is like a roving ball of energy. Both in person and in game, a restlessness surrounds him; you never know his next move. Talk to him, and you get the sense he could lose interest at any moment—not because he’s rude, or bored; that’s just how he’s wired.
That’s why he took a sabbatical from Heroes. He wanted to see if there was something better out there.
The question took him several months to answer. He started out by picking back up those other games, discovering he still was very good at them. But for some reason, they weren't fulfilling. Thinking about the material benefits didn't change anything. Playing those games all day long just wasn't that . . . fun.
So he tried streaming, which was actually fun, and helped assuage his loneliness, which he’d battled since being a none-too-social child. You wouldn’t guess it, though, from how much he enjoys himself while streaming. The medium lets him be himself in a way no other outlet can; he's completely at home in front of a webcam. And when he's playing a game he truly loves—oh boy, you should see it—he becomes a bubbling bundle of joy, wild and carefree, laughing his heart out whenever he makes a cool play.
So guess what game he ended up playing all day.
Just One More Question
Are you still the best player in the world?
“Well, I know many people think of me in that way, but I have a lot of room to improve."
You didn't really answer my question. Are you still the best player in the world?
"Well, I think on some off-tanks like Arthas and Dehaka, other European players are better."
Come on. Are you still the best player in the world?
"Well . . ." he says slowly, mulling over his real answer, unsure if he's allowed to be that confident. Then he breaks into something between a sheepish smile and a playful smirk. "Yeah, I guess?"
His hesitation is telling. When you look at Rich’s match highlights and hear of his scrim exploits, it seems obvious that, yes, he still is still the best player in the world. But once you remember that he hasn't won anything in over a year and a half, the notion starts sounding nonsensical. What kind of best-player-in-the-world goes so long without gold?
This is the next big question Rich must answer. Make no mistake: he may have returned to Heroes due to his childlike love for the game, but that doesn't mean he came back to play Murky and Gazlowe whenever he feels like it. His competitive drive is stronger than ever, fueled by his burning desire to reclaim his pride.
"A lot of people think that I'm the best," he said, "and maybe it's true. But I won't allow myself to buy into it until I win on the biggest stage, the biggest tournament there is. That's BlizzCon. I still haven't won it yet."
At last year's BlizzCon, MVP Black were eliminated in the semifinals with a 1-3 defeat at the hands of European powerhouse Fnatic. It was one of the greatest upsets in Heroes history.
"We hadn't even thought about losing to a non-Korean team back then," he said, furrowing his brows. "But it wasn't even close. They just stomped us outright. It was shocking and painful."
Things are different now. Europe is acknowledged as the strongest region in the HGC, and Fnatic are reigning world champions. This time, it's MVP Black who are the underdogs with something to prove.
And as bracket fate will have it, if the two teams face off again this year, it will only be in the grand finals. Neither have an easy path, but both are favored to get there.
It's just as Rich wanted:
"I want to meet them in the finals this time. I want revenge."
Two Sides to Every Story
When the Korean teams won every single event for what felt like an eternity, did you ever feel discouraged from playing competitively?
“What does ‘discouraged’ mean?”
Evidently the word does not translate well from English to Swedish.
dis·cour·aged: (adjective) having lost confidence or enthusiasm
Thus defined, the question clicked for Fnatic team captain Dob ‘Quackniix’ Engström. He nodded his head and mulled over his answer.
“Rather than ‘discouraging,’ it was actually fuel for me, because there is something to fight for,” he said. “You're never going to reach perfection, but as long as there is somebody ahead of you, you will have the fuel to get better and improve.”
“It's like the carrot and the stick,” he added. “You have to have something you're chasing. Staying at the top is way harder, [because] it's difficult to improve once you're there. You have to consistently come up with new ideas and be innovative.”
Technically, Fnatic is on top currently, after winning the last clash of international talent at the Mid-Season Brawl. But Quackniix will be the first to tell you otherwise, though: the team needs an encore. The weight of the great expectation placed upon this leader of the West is written in the lines of his face.
“When we beat MVP Black last year in the semifinals of the Fall Championship it was [our] single biggest achievement,” he said. “At that time, they were straight-up the strongest team. We didn't know what to expect from ourselves—we were simply pleased with how far we had come—so we went up there with no pressure. When we won, and looked out into the crowd, everyone was standing up. They were chanting our team name. It was the best feeling.”
At BlizzCon 2017, we have come full circle. Quackniix said, “Going into this tournament I would rate MVP Black as the strongest team, again.”
The results of Fnatic’s pre-HGC Finals boot camp in Korean were ample evidence that the European meta was no longer leading the world. “We got smashed,” Quackniix said. “We tried to play our meta and they played their meta. We got run over.”
Contents Under Pressure
“Best Team in the World”: what a title! It’s hard to imagine how it would feel to have secured a place in history like that—especially when you’re tasked with unlearning the approach that earned you that title in the first place (all while being super jetlagged in a far-off land).
After their boot-camp trouncing in Korea, Fnatic had to go back to the drawing board, and reexamine how they were even approaching the game. Their slow-paced style couldn’t hold a candle to the Koreans’ fast and aggressive playstyle. But how they responded is what ultimately may separate the team from the rest of the world: they don’t respond to defeat with a loss of confidence, with a slow leak of enthusiasm—with avskräckt, as the Swedish has it.
Instead Fnatic picked up their enemies’ own weapons, in an effort to learn how to use them.
“We started doing a lot of what they were doing, just to get a picture and an understanding of why they were doing it, why it works, what it works into, and so on,” said Quackniix. “We have our own meta and our own understanding of the game, and then we try to combine it with what we've learned from Korea.”
The end result, as their performance thus far during the HGC Finals at BlizzCon has proven, is the best of both worlds, and it is wielded by one of the sharpest strategical minds in Heroes esports. While all signs from Opening Week may point to Rich and MVP Black as the ultimate champions, for Quackniix and his team, having a strong game plan is enough to offer a glimmer of hope.
“I know we have a good understanding of at least how we want to play this game,” he said. “So long as we get what we want and we find the momentum.”