MMA - StarCraft 2's persistent overachiever
The career story of Mun 'MMA' Seong Won , the persistent overachiever of StarCraft 2.
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"While I was a MMA fighter, I really liked the phrase 'If I don't sweat again today, I will be crying tears tomorrow'. It's a phrase that rebukes me whenever I play and get lazy and get slowly satisfied thinking 'I'm sure this is good enough'. Because of that I'm never content with where I am and I always push myself little by little"
Mun 'MMA' Seong Won is one of the most accomplished players in the history of competitive StarCraft 2. Not only is the Korean a true champion, having won the titles of numerous organizations (GSL, IEM, MLG, Iron Squid, WCS), but his body of work to his excellence and drive as a competitor, boasting top four finishes in 13 significant offline tournaments. The first man to ever deny Mvp, the greatest player in the game's history, a GSL title in the final, MMA is also one of the most successful team league players in history, winning three GSTL titles with the two teams he has competed with, a record in itself. His total prize winnings sit at over $230,000, putting him in sixth place in SC2 history.
Despite all of the above, MMA is no prodigy, blessed with impossible talent and able to reach great heights with seeming ease. MMA is a player who has fought through the darkness of obscurity, overcome retirements and injury and reached the pinnacle of competitive glory through the virtue of his effort, his drive and his mentality. Much like his oft-praised multi-tasking style, MMA's success is the result of hours of preparation, allowing him to be in the right place at the right time to succeed, rather than overpowering his opponent with sheer talent or untouchable ability.
MMA is not a genius, and as a result he is an inspiration to those who would apply themselves to a path of success in any field of life. Unable to complete his military service, ostracised from the team he had once been the shining light of and propelled into an abysmal slump, MMA has overcome every challenge that lay before him. This is the story of the South Korean Terran who overachieved because he wouldn't give up.
"My dad always used to tell me: 'You have been blessed with the opportunity to live, meaning you are as rich as anyone else.'"
-MMA, speaking in an interview with Razer (2012)
MMA's first dream as a young man was to become a soldier. The youngster from Incheon, South Korea, completed his basic training for the military, but found himself unable to serve due to a knee injury. His inability to serve as an actual solider is something the Terran speaks about with a twinge of regret in his voice and a wistful look in his eye that suggests discontent over a meaningful goal left unaccomplished.
A sporting type, MMA was gripped early with a passion for a number of sports, eventually settling his focus onto Mixed Martial Arts (referred to by practioners by the acronym MMA). A component of that sport is the martial art of Jiu-jitsu, where technique trumps sheer physical ability and so the adept can overcome bigger and stronger opponents. While training MMA the young fighter suffered a severe injury to his pinky finger, which in time became chronic to the extent he could no longer punch a bag.
With a military career no longer a possibility and sidelined from a sporting life, MMA turned to StarCraft: Brood War, a fall back pleasure for the boy from near Incheon. His computer set-up at home had been bad enough that this was one of the few games which would even work on it, and he had begun playing in elementary school. Playing under the in-game ID '1988', MMA managed to pass his first trial for the legendary BW team SK Telecom T1, founded by BoxeR, the most famous champion in the game's history. His trial was judged by the mighty iloveoov, who was serving as a Terran coach and had also been one of the game's titans.
MMA's BW career is of note, except in the sheer lack of success he managed to accomplish there. The life of a professional BW player was incredibly strenuous, with MMA needing to practice the majority of every day simply to maintain his level. Disaster struck again as the Terran player once more found injury preventing him from achieving his goals, as he began to lose sensation in his index finger and experience hand pain if he practiced too many games per day.
"I was in poor health [at SK Telecom T1]. When I played more than 25 games a day, my index finger would start to get paralyzed and my whole hand would hurt. So I only played about 20 games and I spent the rest of the time watching replays and VODS, as well as researching. Back then, the proleague system was a place where I couldn’t do well physically. Somehow, this statement got blown out of proportion and I do not understand this."
-MMA, speaking to ThisIsGame (2012)
Before this injury, coupled with a lack of success, forced his retirement from another field of his life, MMA did compete, in 2008, in the GOM Classic Season 2, a third individual league to go alongside the prestigious OSL and MSL. He was eliminated in the second round by an up and coming Terran player who went by the ID 'Mvp'.
Starting in StarCraft 2
"Back when I was in SKT T1 I knew BoxeR and after that I started playing StarCraft2 for fun, for a bit. I just played on the ladder, without belonging to any team, and I actually received a lot of requests to join teams, but BoxeR actually contacted me and told me to wait a bit. Later he asked me to join [SlayerS] and I joined the team."
-MMA, speaking to WellPlayed.org at MLG Columbus (June 2011)
MMA's StarCraft2 career began without any kind of emphatic quality to it, losing to Zerg player Zenio in the qualifier for the third GSL Open season in the middle of November of 2010. On the 20th of December he joined SlayerS, a team founded and run by BoxeR, the founder of the team MMA had played for in BW and still one of the biggest names in the esports world. At this point in time SlayerS was famous entirely due to the scope of its patriarch's career, with none of the players on the roster known outside of the Korean scene.
Birth of a team league star
In January MMA beat foreign players TorcH and Ret to reach the Ro16 of the GSL March Code A tournament, but fell there in three maps to SangHo (a.k.a. Killer). It wasn't until the next month that the world became truly aware of MMA the player. In the quarter-finals of GSTL February, the Korean SC2 team league, MMA racked up three match wins in a series for SlayerS against ZeNEX. In the following month's GSTL MMA emerged as a team league star, helping secure the title for his team.
In the quarter-finals he had won the Ace match against oGs to put his team into the semi-final. There, he had recorded another three kill, this time against StarTale. In the final the opponent was Incredible Miracle, lead by GSL champions Mvp and NesTea. The series came down to an Ace match to decide a champion, with MMA facing IM ace Mvp. Mvp was not just the man who had beaten MMA in their GOM Classic series back in BW, he was the best player in the world, having won the GSL January Code S title. More dauntingly, Mvp was on a 15-0 winning stream in GSL/GSTL TvT matches. MMA prevailed to bring the title home to SlayerS. No longer was this merely BoxeR's team, a new star was being birthed there.
The latter half of April through to the first half of May were focused around individual league competition, with MMA again braving the treacherous waters of GSL Code A. Losing in the quarter-final to Bomber he secured an Up/Down spot, but lost there to MarineKing and HuK. Thwarted from making any individual progress, MMA once more excelled in team league competition.
In GSTL May he rescued SlayerS in the semi-final against fOu, called up with the team down 3:4 and winning two straight, including the Ace match against sC, to put them into their second consecutive GSTL final. The final this time was against team MVP and MMA repeated his feat from the previous season, winning an Ace match to bring home the trophy, beating the up and coming Zerg DongRaeGu when it mattered most. The clutch nature of his performances over these two GSTL seasons had not only made MMA a team league champion, he was also awarded the Most Valuable Player Gold Card both times.
"In terms of fun, GSTL is the most fun, mostly because everyone gets to play and it's like a group activity. Because of that the main focus is to do well in the GSTL and after that I'll focus on Code S and the GSL league."
-MMA, speaking to WellPlayed at MLG Columbus (June 2011)
Emerging from the shadow of BoxeR
MMA was selected as one four players (along with Moon, MC and LosirA) to attend MLG Columbus as part of the GSL-MLG Exchange Program, an initiative set-up to allow Koreans to compete in the North American tournament. Taking place in early June, the event would be MMA's first test in the spotlight as an individual league player. His pool play was impeccable, losing only a single map as he defeated all of his opponents there. In the Championship bracket semi-final he faced IdrA, the most famous Western SC2 professional and a fellow former KeSPA Brood War B team player.
The match is infamous for a scene in which MMA mistakenly, due to his attention being focused elsewhere, attacked and destroyed his one of his own command centers, which happened to be at a more valuable gold base, only for IdrA to type out of the game and surrender moments later. The American had no been aware of MMA's blunder, and calculating what he thought was the challenge facing him had decided that delaying an inevitable loss any further was a waste of his time and focus. MMA ended up taking the next game to secure a spot in the final of the Championship bracket. Playing up to the Columbus crowd MMA performed a ceremony by mimicking the 'Hadoken' fireball attack famous from the beat-em-up arcade game Street Fighter II.
The Championship bracket was an all-Korean affair, as he defeated IM Zerg player LosirA 2:1 to book a finals spot. The opponent in the final would be LosirA again and this time MMA won 2:0 to make for a 4:1 result overall, under the extended series ruleset. MMA was the champion of his first ever foreign SC2 tournament and had succeeded in an individual league for the first time. Thrust into the spotlight by this win, fans took note of the Terran's smooth multi-tasking style, slow but very precise, and its manifestation as an approach of repeated multi-pronged drop play, attempting to overwhelm his opponent's economy surgically.
"My medivac play is something any Terran could do if they played with more finesse, but because the SC II interface is so convenient, players don't exploit that aspect of the game. I think thats why my harass play works."
-MMA, speaking to TeamLiquid after MLG Columbus (2011)
Back in South Korea, MMA's individual league success seemed to have followed him, as he made a run through the GSL Super Tournament all the way to the semi-final. Having beaten team-mate and TvT specialist Ryung 3:1 in the quarter-final, MMA was a heavy underdog facing MarineKing in the semi-final. The Prime Terran had featured in three GSLs to that point in time, a record for finals appearance then, and seemed only beaten by Mvp, the best Terran in the world, in the TvT match-up over a Bo5.
The series began terribly, as MarineKing won the first two maps. Faced with elimination MMA delivered a performance under pressure that reminded one of his team league play. Battering back MarineKing he won three straight games to take the series and a spot in the final. Having beaten the favourite for the tournament, from the semi-final stage, the path looked open for MMA to secure a domestic title. His opponent would be Polt, another Prime Terran. Both players would go into the match with team-mates to avenge, Polt having witnessed MarineKing's devastating loss to MMA and MMA seeing Polt brutalise Alicia.
"Semifinals was really tough for me and I know a lot of people considered the semifinals to be the actual final. I personally think the final will be easier because MKP is better than Polt."
-MMA, speaking before the GSL Super Tournament final (June 2011)
With the MarineKing series win behind him most were expecting MMA to deliver on the expectation of winning the title, making him a true Terran heir to the throne of his team's founder, BoxeR. The young Terran faced the greatest pressure of his career.
"Other players sometimes take a break to take their mind off the game for a bit but MMA always pratices hard. When he is not playing he watches the game VODs and analyzes his opponent thoroughly. He doesn’t have any interest in other things and only takes his time off to work out. His strength is also his weakness because thanks to his characteristics, pleasing the community is a little hard."
-Cella, coach of SlayerS, speaking about MMA's strengths, before the GSL Super Tournament final (June 2011)
The score of the final looks as shocking on paper as it must have been as an experience for MMA, losing 0:4 to Polt. Watching his opponent lift the trophy and take home a cheque worth $93,000, the SlayerS man must have felt a deep sense of regret similar the day his dream of military service died. In the big moment of an individual league, the pressure had gotten to MMA and his opponent had overwhelmed him along with it.
"A lot of the people around me expected me to win and that kind of made me uncomfortable playing and practicing for the [final]"
-MMA, speaking about the GSL Super Tournament final (January 2012)
At the end of the month MMA lost to Protoss player Puzzle in GSL July Code A, failing to reach Code S, the highest division of Korean individual league competitive play, yet again. Something was still missing from MMA's mentality in the individual leagues. As his team's star, in all respects, he now carried not only his own dreams in his hands every time he sat in the booth.
"BoxeR-hyung once told me that he wanted to produce an e-Sports player that will bring the world together as one. I want to become this player."
-MMA, speaking to TeamLiquid before MLG Anaheim (July 2011)
A return to success overseas provides an unexpected benefit back home
"Out of the [Korean] players, I want to meet DongRaeGu, Park Soo Ho. He said in an interview that he didn't lose due to skill back in the GSTL finals, and there's also the pain from him coming back and defeating us 3:4 during this GSTL Season 1. Since our head to head record is 1:1, I want to take this opportunity to see who wins ^^"
-MMA, speaking to TeamLiquid prior to MLG Anaheim (July 2011)
Attending late July's MLG Anaheim as the reigning champion, MMA was not able to top pool play this time, losing to Korean Terran Rain. Starting out in the lower bracket he ran through early opponents to reach a series against DongRaeGu, the Zerg he had beaten in the Ace match of the GSTL May final. MMA again slayed the MVP ace and moved on into the final four. Beating team-mate GanZi meant MMA was matched up in the next round against BoxeR, the man whose name still represented the SlayerS brand in most people's eyes.
Afforded the chance to prove himself the literal successor of BoxeR, MMA defeated his team's found in three maps and returned to the MLG final as the first ever player to reach consecutive finals in the tournament. The opponent in the final, coming from the Championship bracket, was Mvp. Mvp was a two time GSL champion, but appeared to be in a slump for the first time in his career. The IM Terran had failed to make any impact on the GSL Super Tournament and fallen in the Ro32 of that month's GSL Code S, after only having spent the previous season in Code A. If Mvp was ever going to lose a big final then this was the opportunity to strike.
The final did go three maps, but MMA was on the wrong side of the last, losing 1:2. Mvp took the MLG title but MMA did not leave empty-handed, along with his prize money for second came entry into GSL Code S, as the winner of the tournament received a spot and Mvp was already qualified for the next season. For the first time MMA would play in Korea's highest competitive individual league division.
Battling to prove himself in Korea
MMA's GSL Code S debut season immediately looked promising, as one of his GSL August Ro32 group saw him snapping NesTea's incredible 20-0 Code S winning streak. NesTea was a three time GSL champion and MMA's TvZ again proved a powerful weapon for the SlayerS man. In the Ro16 MMA would be granted an opportunity to gain some revenge, facing Polt, the man who had humiliated him in the GSL Super Tournament final. Instead Polt once more prevailed, this time in a three map Bo3 series.
In online competition MMA competed in the online GeForce Pro/Am tournament, winning the tournament outright and beating Mvp 3:1 in the final. Also online was the GSL's Arena of Legends, where he impressed in the group stage, recording wins over multiple time GSL champions NesTea and MC. In the semi-final it was MMA who suffered a revenge loss, beating beaten by MarineKing 2:0.
In GSL October Code S MMA progressed to the Ro16 and beat asd there to secure his first ever top eight finish in a Code S season. He then flew to America for a third time, competing in IPL3. Pool play looked to be a nightmare, losing to White-Ra and TheStC, but the Terran put together a string of series wins in the playoffs to hit the semi-finals, beating NASL champion PuMa in the quarter-final. For a player with heavy-hitting TvZ it was expected that MMA could defeat semi-final opponent Lucky, but instead the Zerg swept the series 3:0 to halt the SlayerS' ace's run.
Killing the king of Korea
A narrow 3:2 quarter-final win over Clide put MMA into the semi-finals, where he there beat Happy 3:1 to reach the GSL Code S final. Having beaten three Terran opponents in three consecutive playoff series, MMA nevertheless faced a seemingly impossible TvT task in the final: beating Mvp. Just over three years prior they had faced in the GOM Classic S2 second round, now Mvp had moved far beyond being a fellow up and coming player trying to reach the big leagues. Mvp was a three time GSL champion and the reigning champion of the previous GSL Code S season.
The storyline for this final was not if MMA could beat Mvp, but that Mvp would win the title and repeat as champion, securing his fourth title and moving past NesTea into first all time in GSL titles. One difference of note from previous GSL finals was that this one would be held at BlizzCon, in front of an American crowd. In fact, the location would be Anaheim, California, the home of the MLG final the two had contested and Mvp had won. All omens seemed to point to another victory for the king of StarCraft2, another coronation all but prepared by fans.
"I knew that everyone expected Mvp to win, so it was kind of a motivation for me to practice a lot more. I wanted to show everyone I could win vs. Mvp."
-MMA (January 2012)
When MMA defeated Mvp to win the GSL October Code S final, handing Mvp his first ever GSL finals loss, the shock was of magnitudes greater than the loss he himself had suffered at the hands of Polt. The king of Korean StarCraft2 had been slain and the crowd heralded the birth of a new king, chanting "MMA! MMA! MMA!". Injuries had halted MMA three times already in his life from attaining his goals, now he stood at the pinnacle of competitive StarCraft2 success and at that moment could call himself the best in the world.
"I never imagined that the score difference would be so big. I thought that even if I won, the score would be at least a 4:2 or a 4:3. A 4:1 score is something I did not even think of. The key to winning this series was to clinch the win in the first game. The tournament was delayed because of soundproofing issues, and I had prepared a special strategy for the first game. All these made me feel extremely stressed, but Coach Ryu Won told me that I should believe in the results of my practice, and told me to proceed with that strategy. As a result, I was very confident when I used the special strategy in the first game."
-MMA, speaking after his GSL October Code S win (October 2011)
Feeling the weight of the crown
Back in Korea the first order of business was taking care of the online MLG Korean Invitational, which would send its winner to the MLG Global Invitational as the representative of South Korea. TvT again proved to be the rock upon which MMA's play stood, winning series over BoxeR and Bomber to reach the final. In the final Mvp forced their now burgeoning rivalry to revert back to its former ways, winning 4:2 to take the Global Invitational spot.
Coming into GSL November Code S as the reigning champion, MMA had every player out there gunning for his scalp and the recognition that would come with a win over him. Despite this he emerged from the two group stages unscathed. Before he could play the quarter-final it was time for another trip to the United States of America, this time for MLG Providence. As the year end championship of the MLG circuit the event had a hefty $50,000 for first place, in comparison to the $5,000 for first at the usual MLG circuit events, and a stacked field of the world's best players.
DongRaeGu had fallen to MMA in key match-ups previously, but this time the MVP Zerg beaten him outright 2:0, dropping MMA to the lower bracket. Another Zerg eliminated him entirely there, as eventual champion Leenock took him down in three maps. Both of his opponents finished top three, meaning MMA could have felt a little hard done by with a 9th place finish, but a prime opportunity to win big money overseas and cement his spot at the top of the scene had passed him by.
On November 23rd he faced the Protoss player Oz in the GSL Code S quarter-final and lost a narrow five map series to relinquish the GSL crown. Fans could now start to wonder if MMA's GSL win over Mvp had been a one off, something never to be repeated. The middle of December brought about the final tournament of the year: the GSL Blizzard Cup. Featuring a collection of GSL champions, top Koreans and the world's best foreigners, the event was a murderer's row of competition.
MMA showed early strength in group play, beating NesTea, Leenock and NaNiwa, but once more found himself wounded by Polt. A tie-breaker allowed for another win over Leenock and some revenge over Polt. In the semi-finals MMA helped establish the legitimacy of his GSL October finals win, beating Mvp in another offline Bo5, this time in a clean sweep. The opponent he found facing him from the other side of the bracket was DongRaeGu. Having eliminated Polt and now beaten Mvp again, MMA was practically the star of a revenge movie, now facing the man who had beaten him at MLG Providence.
That final is still remembered vividly by StarCraft2 fans as perhaps the best final series in the history of the game. MMA went up 3:0 and was one map from securing the title, but DRG rallied to win three straight and tie up the series at 3:3. A single map would decide the champion and that seventh game proved to be one of the most thrilling single games of SC2 ever played. In a 42 minute long TvZ epic MMA won with his trademark style of drop after drop. DRG did what DRG could, but ultimately could not compete the storybook comeback and saw the title taken by MMA.
"I was almost sure I will win when it came to 3-0, but probably not a 4-0 clean sheet. Because the map of Set 4 is better for the Zerg, and DRG is very good on that map, so I was quite tight in that game. It turns out that my strategies did not work at all and lose 3 in a row. At 3-3 I was very very nervous but my coach and teammates were telling me to relax and stable my mind, what I mainly did then was calm down."
-MMA, speaking after his GSL Blizzard Cup final win (December 2011)
Earlier in the year the SlayerS Terran had risen to the moment of high pressure team league games only to stall each time he competed in the Korean individual leagues. Succeeding overseas first MMA had established himself as a top tier player in the individual leagues, but still seemed far from the top of Code S. Having eventually climbed the Code S mountain and seen the view from the top, he had now scaled similar heights, beating out the best Korean players to win the final trophy of 2011. In a year in which Mvp had won three GSL titles, an MLG and a BlizzCon, proceedings would end with MMA as the world's best player.
Consistently top tier
2012 began, in competitive terms, with a trip to Europe, for the first time. MMA flew to Ukraine for the IEM VI Global Challenge Kiev. After sweeping the group with three series wins MMA moved into the playoffs and the top eight. The opening round opponent was the rookie Feast, playing in his first big offline tournament, and despite losing the opener and looking initially shaky in the second, MMA took over the series to win 3:1.
In the semi-finals he stamped over Zenio, the man who had beaten him in his first ever GSL qualifier, by 3:0 to progress to the final. He had defeated the new Team Liquid player 2:0 in the Ro32 of GSL Code S only days earlier and once more ensured the Zerg knew who was the better of the two at this point in time. Now the final awaited.
MMA was used to foreign crowds being on his side, from his MLG wins to his victory over Mvp. In Kiev it would be quite the opposite scenario, as his opponent was the Ukraine native Zerg DIMAGA. When the Zerg won the opening map the crowd erupted with a boisterous wall of noise. It's easy to see how that could have rattled the soft-spoken Korean.
"Yeah, at first when I heard all the fans screaming I was a little bit scared. Then I just thought about the game I really wanted to win the finals so I focused on that."
-MMA, speaking after IEM VI Kiev (January 2011)
Much as with his series against Feast, MMA locked in and elevated his game to a degree his opponent could not match. Winning three maps in a row secured him the title and the first ever "triple crown" in SC2 history, having won big tournaments in all three of the game's major regions (North America, Europe and South Korea). Fans and spectators alike could easily praise MMA as the world's premiere SC2 star.
Less than a week after that IEM win, MMA provided more team league theatrics, winning three games, including the Ace match, to defeat FXO in GSTL 2012 S1. Nevertheless, the team would not make the playoffs that season, beginning a troubled period in their history. In the first Code S season of the GSL that year, MMA had reached the Ro16 with ease. There, he decided to prove a point regarding criticisms of his TvP, selecting Oz, the man who had knocked him out of GSL November, to a group which would also feature team-mate and Protoss Puzzle. MMA beat Oz 2:1, lost to Puzzle 1:2 and beat Oz 2:1 in the decider, progressing on with his fellow SlayerS player.
"I've heard a lot of people say my TvP was too weak, so I deliberately picked Oz in the group pickings. I wanted to show everyone my change and improvement. However, it was really tough during practice, and I regretted my choice of picking a Protoss."
-MMA, speaking after his GSL Code S S1 2012 Ro16 group (February 2012)
In the quarter-final the opponent facing him was aLive, a fellow quarter-finalist from the previous Code S season. aLive scored some shine from MMA's fame, defeating him in a 3:1 win. Next up would be another trip overseas, this time for another IEM event: the IEM VI World Championship.
In the group stage MMA was a monster, crushing every player 2:0 and going 10-0 in maps. In the quarter-final he once more met Zenio and once more wiped him off his boot before moving on, making it 3:0 and a total of 8-0 in maps in their past three tournament meetings. In the semi-final MMA faced PuMa, who he had beaten back at IPL3. Starting out 1:0 up MMA fell to the EG Terran 1:3 to be denied a finals spot. In the third place decider he rematched against Feast, the Belgian Protoss desperate for redemption from their Kiev quarter-final match, and dispatched him with ease 3:0.
In early April it was off to the USA again and another crack at an IPL title, with IPL4 taking place in Las Vegas, Nevada. Despite beating GSL November champion jjakji in group play MMA fell to Bomber at the same phase. In the upper bracket a loss to MarineKing sent him down to face elimination in the lower bracket. Following the order of matches in the GSL Super Tournament, he of course played Polt next. Beating Polt 2:1 secured a top six finish and a date with Stephano, the player he would have faced in the final of IPL3, had MMA not lost to Lucky in the semi-final.
Eliminating the reigning IPL champion with signature MMA style TvZ, the SlayerS Terran next found a Protoss facing him, as StarTale's Squirtle awaited. It had been around 10 months since the Protoss player had placed anywhere of note in an individual tournament, but the StarTale player was in the midst of an inspired Cinderella run. MMA would not be the player to stop that, losing 0:2.
The second season of GSL Code S for 2012 saw MMA again losing to Squirtle, beating NaDa and being eliminated from the Ro32 group by Leenock.
Chomping on squid in France
Back in South Korea, MMA defeated PuMa, his IEM semi-final foil, in the quarter-final of the Iron Squid tournament's online portion. This victory, and progression into the final four, secured MMA a spot at the offline finals in Paris, France. At those finals, and in front of raucous Parisian throng, MMA faced aLive in the semi-final. aLive had not only eliminated him from the previous GSL Code S playoffs, but also just won IPL4. MMA prevailed this time, winning 3:2 to reach the final.
The opponent for the final was Symbol, a Zerg player from TSL. MMA never looked in true danger in the series, up 2:1 and then 3:2, before winning out 4:2. With another foreign crowd applauding, MMA draped himself in the South Korean flag and accepted his prize, which included a custom made metal helmet. His second European title brought him up to a total of five significant offline titles. MMA's legend was continuing to grow.
"I don't think I'm naturally gifted, I'm more the 'practice and trust your skills' type of person"
-MMA, speaking in an interview following the GSL Super Tournament (July 2011)
The descent into an all-consuming darkness
Iron Squid should have been MMA's return to the elite group of SC2 champions, if the storytellers shaped a smooth trajectory, but it in fact stood as the last moment he would stand atop a podium in a long while. Down in GSL Code A he made it to the Ro24 before losing to KeeN there. After so much success in the USA, MMA flew out for the MLG Spring Arena 2 and found himself elimianted in two straight series loss. The first, to MC in three maps, was acceptable, as MC was a two time GSL champion and had already won HomeStory Cup IV and the IEM VI World Championship that year.
The eliminating blow came from GoOdy, a German Terran often derisively mocked with the nickname 'the Supply block Terran' due to his at times funky macro, despite being a player who essentially only played for the late game. MMA fell in two straight games to his unlikely better on that day. Elimination without a single series victory and only one map won in five was a low point for MMA, a man who had been lifting the MLG trophy a year prior.
In his next GSL campaign MMA lost his Up/Down matches to Ace, BBoongBBoong and MarineKing. Having reached the final four of the Chinese StarsWar 7 tournament, MMA was flown out to Shanghai, China, to play out the rest of the event. Losing to Taiwanese Zerg SEn and beating Grubby in the third place decider was more disappointment for the Korean Terran, at an event where he was the sole Korean attending the LAN final of, and thus a heavy favourite to win the title.
There was more disappointment awaiting him back home, as he failed to get through the Non-KeSPA preliminaries for the first ever Ongamnet StarLeague (OSL). The OSL had been the premiere individual league of BW, so qualification could have done a lot for MMA's ailing spirits. Invited to attend the IPL Fight Club at Hot Import Nights in LA, he lost twice to DRG to finish third out of four. The WCS Korea preliminaries went no better, losing to inori to fail to qualify.
There was a brief parting of the rain clouds, tough, as a good run through Code A brought him back to the promised land of Code S.
"I really missed the Code S scene and was envious of it. I was able to realize just how precious being in Code S was. While I was preparing for my Code A games today, I had the desire to make it to back into Code S no matter what. Even though I was being genuine about what I wanted, I kept losing during my practice games and I had a ton of stress on me, but I was still able to advance like this so I feel even happier than I would after winning a major tournament. I feel like I just found an opening to something that was blocking me."
-MMA, speaking after winning his Code A bracket (July 2012)
The month ended with SlayerS reaching the GSTL S2 final. Facing fOu there the series began with MMA facing GuMiho, the same Terran he had beaten in the final of the GSTL May final he had helped SlayerS win. The past stayed the past and the present the present, as MMA's form continued to be at an all-time low, his opponent not only beating him, but going on to all-kill his team and take the title. These results, in all leagues, were indicative of more than just poor play, MMA was suffering in the team environement too, having been demoted to the B team.
"It was right before the GSTL match. After the aforementioned events, I needed to clear my mind so I went out on Saturday. I cleared my mind and returned. the game was coming up, so the only thing I was thinking was about winning. Jessica stated that I did not return to the team house, but this is false. I did all my tasks, then left on Saturday night and returned on Sunday morning.
After returning, ryung told me what boxer said: ‘mma is like a cancer cell, so I have to quarantine you from him’. After hearing this, I lost all passion for preparing for the GSTL and the team. The thought that ran through my mind was ‘I'm trying so hard for my team, but this is what they think of me’ and I despaired."
-MMA, speaking about his demotion to the B team in July of 2012 (late 2012)
Exiled from the palace
MMA's return to Code S was short-lived. In his Ro32 group he lost to Mvp, beat MaNa and lost again to Mvp. In Code A he was immediatly eliminated by the unknown Sirius 0:2. SlayerS officially disbanded in early November, leaving MMA without a team. Even worse, the rumours surrounding the team had been that SlayerS had initially asked exorbitant amounts of foreign teams looking to sign their former ace, then had changed their story and claimed they would send him on a free transfer.
On a community talk show it was stated that only a team like Evil Geniuses, with vast finances could afford MMA. With his reputation so poor in Korea, and a ban on KeSPA teams signing eSF players, MMA's career looked to be severely threatened. Would he be forced into retirement?
A new home in a foreign land
On the 20th of November it was announced that MMA had signed with Team Acer, a foreign team that had been gradually growing in exposure over the year, thanks largely to success of its Zerg line.
"I feel like I've been given the best offer out of every single Korean player so far."
-MMA, speaking to ThisIsGame about joining Team Acer (November 2012)
Form in Korea did not change with the colours on MMA's shirt, losing in the Ro48 of Code A and falling to TaeJa 0:3 in the last online phase of NASL S4, missing the offline final. Traveling to Las Vegas for IPL5 was no better, as losses to Shine and Squirtle put him out before reaching the top 32, a win over ByuN barely worth mentioning.
"I am not sure whether to use the word 'slump', it's just that a lot of things happened in the past few months that meant I wasn't able to focus on my game. Now that that's all solved I want to focus on the game and do well."
-MMA, speaking after IPL5 (December 2012)
The final event of 2012 for MMA was HomeStory Cup VI. In the second group stage he was upset by German Zerg Xlord, beat BabyKnight and then lost a deciding match against Stephano. In these latter days of Wings of Liberty it was hardly a surprise to see a Terran losing to a Zerg, but those losses seemed to also highlight how far MMA had fallen, now capable of losing to a number of foreigners too.
Where 2011 had ended so brightly, and in such emphatic fashion, with that GSL Blizzard Cup win, 2012 ended with MMA seemingly exiled from Korean SC2 and hoping to grind out results in foreign tournaments for his new team.
Beginning the climb back up
"As long as I go back to my mindset when I first started playing, keep practicing and practicing and give my fullest to the game, then I'll become a champion again."
-MMA (December 2012)
An early success, albeit a minor one, for MMA in his new team was an all-kill of team inF-dtG in the Contender Division of IPTL S1. A week later he fell to Stephano, again, this time in the online Ro16 segment of the second Iron Squid tournament, meaning MMA would not get the chance to defend his crown (or helmet) in Paris. A third place in the online Russian league RSL, losing to Belarussian Zerg LoWeLy, wasn't exactly much of a pick-me-up.
The new year had brought some significant changes to life as an SC2 pro. March had seen the release of Heart of the Swarm, the new expansion for StarCraft2. What's more, there was a new tournament structure in place for WCS, and MMA chose to compete in the European region. This meant competing online initially, where he progressed from the first group stage to reach the offline Ro16. In May he was in Germany for his Ro16, which was composed of Ukrainian Terran Strelok, Korean Terran ForGG and German Zerg TLO. Losing to both Strelok and ForGG 0:2 ended MMA's first WCS EU season with a groan.
A component noticably missing from MMA's preparation had been his coaching situation back in SlayerS. During the peak of his career MMA had received attention from Won Ryu, who had served as almost a personal coach. Won helped MMA with scouting his opponent's tendencies and preparing specific builds. In May of 2012 the Terran coach had been hired by KeSPA team Woongjin Stars. This plays a role in our story at this point in 2013, as Won reached out to MMA to help him with his Zerg star Soulkey in the Woongjin team.
MMA's TvZ had been weak in the latter days of WoL, but he had once been amongst the best in the entire world in the match-up. With HotS bringing back the importance and power of medivac drop play in TvZ, Won sought MMA out as a practice partner for Soulkey. Soulkey had displayed some of the best ZvT in the game, but in the final of the first WCS Korea GSL season he was facing INnoVation in the final, a Terran whose TvZ was the scariest match-up in the entire SC2 world.
It was not enough to merely have Flash practicing against Soulkey, Won brought in MMA to practice and offer advise. Soulkey shocked the world in the WCS Korea final, coming back from 0-3 to win 4:3, something DRG had famously failed to do against MMA in the Blizzard Cup final.
"I invited MMA to help Soulkey prepare But MMA said his strength declined, so he refused to help. I said just come and help, even it's only 1%. [...] The SPL game that Soulkey lost to Innovation a few days before finals, that actually helped a lot. MMA told Soulkey the solution. There are many details of the solution that even I didn't notice. But MMA covered all of it. [...] MMA even watched Innovation's VOD, and tried to play as similar as Innovation."
-Won Ryu, Woongjin stars coach and MMA's former SlayerS Terran coach (2013)
July ended with MMA playing the Ace match for Axiom-Acer, the hybrid team created to compete in the GSTL, and losing to jjakji there. MMA's team league form was at an all-time low and he would rarely be used.
Approaching the summit once more
"I was really disappointed about my WCS EU S1 results, because I went out too early. I always remember the time when I won in Anaheim against Mvp, when all the crowd cheered 'MMA! MMA!'. It's one of the things which keeps me going to practice hard, so I really wanna go to BlizzCon again and play and win in front of such a crowd again."
-MMA (June 2013)
In the second season of WCS Europe, MMA once more moved past the online phase. In the offline Ro16 he beat Happy, lost to NaNiwa and beat Happy again to reach his first WCS quarter-final. Beating German Protoss HasuObs 3:1 put MMA through to the semi-finals and a match-up with MC. The only time the two had ever played in an offline individual league playoff series had been MMA's loss in the first round of MLG Spring Arena 2 in May of 2012. They shared similar history to MMA and Mvp though, as MMA had lost to MC in an OSL preliminary in May of 2009, when both were struggling B teamers hoping to attract the attention of their peers.
MC had been similarly plagued with a long slump, having only made the top four of a significant offline tournament once in the past nine or so months. The Korean Protoss would be favoured for this match though, boasting significantly more consistency over that time span than MMA had managed, including a Ro8 finish in the first GSL of 2013 and a 4th place finish at the MLG Winter Championship. MC did prove the better player, winning 3:1 and denying MMA a spot in the final. Still, a top four finish in WCS Europe had been a significant result for MMA, providing hope to his fans that the dark days had perhaps come to an end.
A week later and MMA traveled to the offline finals of the Acer TeamStory Cup, a team league sponsored by his team's head sponsor. At the offline final MMA shined as he had not since the old days of SlayerS. In the opening match against Team Liquid he recorded an all-kill, with TL Protoss star HerO included twice on the list of victims. Losing to rival DRG in the MVP game saw Acer knocked to the lower bracket.
Against Millenium MMA again came in blazing, recording a four kill to win the match and reach the final. The final was against MVP and again MMA and Acer lost, this time Terran Dream being the MVP player to beat him. Despite failing to capture the league title, MMA's form had impressed and hinted at an overall return for the troubled Korean Terran. The welcome home party amongst elite players was put on hold when MMA fell in two straight 0:2 series losses in the Ro16 of the WCS Season 2 final, a week later.
Consistency before conquest
MMA's ATC team league success was soon forgotten in the SC2L, as he lost in every single playoff round without a win. That included two losses to TaeJa, with one at the offline final. The latter was held at Dreamhack Bucharest, where MMA would be competing in the main tournament too. Winning his first two group stages with only one map dropped from six series, and a win over BW god Flash, MMA was moving on to the Ro16 bracket.
Beating Avenge and ForGG both by 2:1 scorees put MMA into the final four of one of the most stacked foreign events of the year. His problem was that he was there facing INnoVation, fellow Korean and new Team Acer team-mate. The two provided some spirited but friendly trash talk before the game, with MMA suggesting this match would decide who was the best player in the team, but INnoVation was the better in the actual games, winning a three map series. Again MMA had made a deep run in an offline tournament, again he had failed to make the final. Good results, of course, but something was still lacking from the two time GSL champion.
For the third straight time in 2013, MMA reached the offline Ro16 of WCS Europe. Winning his group in two series he moved on to a second consecutive quarter-final appearance at the tournament. Another team-kill loomed, as he faced Acer Zerg Nerchio, but this one would be scored for MMA, crushing Nerchio 3:0. In the semi-final yet another Zerg awaited, this time Spaniard VortiX. Beating him by another comprehensive 3:0, MMA moved into the WCS Europe S3 final having only lost a single map out of 11 played in the offline portion.
The storybook first individual league final of 2013 for MMA, his first offline individual league final in 17 months, came with the requisite storybook final boss: MC. The Protoss who had beaten him back in their BW B team days and denied him a finals spot in the previous WCS Europe season, would now battle him in a Bo7 to see who would be crowned champion, both sorely lacking championship for over a year and a half. Which GSL champion would emerge on top?
That answer soon became startlingly obvious, as MMA rushed out to a 3:0 lead in the series. MC struck back twice to make it competitive, but MMA closed out his fellow Korean to win the series 4:2 and his first title of 2013. The struggle had been ceaseless, but the exiled prince of Korean SC2, once called the 'son of BoxeR', had been crowned a champion once more.
Closing out 2013
The WCS Season 3 final had MMA progressing from the group stage, losing to Trap, beating Jaedong and squeezing past Genius. He would go no further than the quarter-finals though, as young Korean Terran prodigy Maru bested him in four maps there. Ranked 10th in WCS circuit points, MMA had secured a spot at the WCS Global Finals. He would lose the opener to Bomber in five maps, meaning elimination.
Late November saw Axiom-Acer reaching the final of GSTL S2, largely off the back of the monstrous play of INnoVation. The team had lost to Azubu in the first series, with MMA not getting sent out. The second series had him beating RagnaroK, but losing to BBoongBBoong. The series ended up going to an Ace match and INnoVation was able to beat SuperNoVa there to force a Super Ace match for the entire championship. MMA's Terran team-mate repeated his feat, winning a truly thrilling TvT to take home the title for Axiom-Acer. It marked MMA's third GSTL title, a record amongst players that he shared with some of his ex-SlayerS and now Axiom team-mates.
Dreamhack Winter was primed to be another stacked Dreamhack event overseas, this time in Sweden. In group play MMA lost to JYP, beat StarDust, beat old rival Polt and lost to Life. After beating Protoss player Patience in the upper bracket, MMA was assured a top six finish at worst. His next match was against TaeJa, who had been killing MMA in team league matches in recent times. MMA took the opener but could not deliver the series, losing 1:2. A rematch with Patience, who was the revelation of the tournament, saw MMA eliminated in 5th-6th overall.
The last individual league of 2013 was ASUS ROG NorthCon. MMA fell in the group stage, losing two crucial Bo5 series vs. San and VortiX. Now was not the time to leave Germany though, as Team Acer had the offline final of ATC Season 2 to attend. MMA once more proved masterful in an ATC final, this time surpassing even the performance of the previous season. All-killing Team Liquid in the opening round, recording two wins over TaeJa in the process, put Team Acer up against their GSTL partners, and MMA's ex-SlayerS team-mates, Axiom. MMA scored a two kill as Acer won the series to reach the finals.
Their finals opponents ended up being a rematch with Axiom. MMA put three kills on the board as Acer rolled to a 5:1 win an the title. After being carried by INnoVation in the GSTL campaign, MMA could legitimately claim to have been the team's MVP at the ATC S2 finals. Winning a second offline team league title also helped add to a now fully stocked trophy cabinet for the Terran from near Incheon.
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."
MMA's career, nay life, story is one of unwavering persistence. Even when he has fallen and lost his way, he is persistent in picking himself and persevering until he can find the path to success again. His accomplishments are no mere product of unstoppable talent, the grace of good fortune or an accident of circumstance. MMA's victories are victories of the mind and spirit. Once the mindset of a champion is in place then the actuality of victory can follow. That MMA has time and time again returned to become a champion, establishing himself as one of the all time greats of SC2, is a triumph of will over skill.
He tried to be a military man but his body betrayed him. He tried to be an MMA fighter but his body deserted him. He tried to be a professional Brood War player and his body failed him. Armed with a fourth dream and the name MMA, this man overcame the best StarCraft2 players in the world, including ex-BW professionals, to become the best player in the world. Many battles were lost but in the end the war was won. Congratulations and undying respect to one of the great overachievers in esports history. MMA, we salute you!
"Whenever I start something, I do it fully, until the end."
-MMA (January 2013)
Photo credits: Dreamhack, fenrysk, Jeroen Weimar, ESFI, GOMtv, Zhang Jingna, MLG, Team Acer
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