Rapidly rising - the Life story (part 1)

The first part of the career story of StarCraft2 prodigy Life, from rookie to multiple time champion.

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This article was originally published on GameSpot's sister site onGamers.com, which was dedicated to esports coverage.

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Lee 'Life' Seung Hyun is a true StarCraft2 prodigy. The highly competitive and crowded nature of the Korean esports scene ensures that it's overflowing with youthful talent that hints at the potential for greatness, but Life rose from a 14 year old rookie to the champion of Korea's most difficult individual league in a 19 month span. The Zerg phenom achieved that highest of accomplishments by deposing Mvp, the greatest player in the game's history, at the moment he was expected to be crowned a five time GSL champion. The former ZeNEX teen is the youngest player in SC2 history to win a GSL or MLG championship.

Most young talents are inherently streaky, unable to compose their blazing talent in the way a veteran player is adept to doing. Life showed an incredible consistency in putting together an unbelievable streak of 19 straight series wins without a loss in offline Bo5 series or better. His talent alone is not merely what marks this younth for greatness, he has been moulded for more than mere momentary magic. After winning over $140,000 in a six month span, few could question the force that Life presented in the server.

As rapid as Life's rise has been, and as stunning as the light of its brilliance may be, the story of the young man fwho helped revive the StarTale Zerg tradition July established can be traced through his progression from online tournaments to the offline individual leagues of the day, to the heights of Korean StarCraft2 and then overseas into the much different realm of foreign tournaments. This article will tell the story of Life's rise from rookie to champion.

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Born from a wish

Lee 'Life' Seung Hyun was born less than 15 months before StarCraft was officially released. The game which built the Korean esports scene to the zenith it reached with BW was at its prime before Life had reached a double digit age in years. StarCraft2 itself had been out for around 10 months when Life first appeared on the scene in Korea. In March of 2011, with Mvp in the early stages of his reign over the GSL, the game's highest level of competition and most prestigious league, the young Zerg came into the ZeNEX team at the fragile age of 14.

Like many rookies, Life began in the online realm of competition, competing more than once a week in online cups in Korea. Playing primarily in the iCCup Korean Weekly, later renamed from iCCup to ESV TV, the ZeNEX rookie finished in the top eight or better of nine such online tournaments in his first seven months of competition. Four of those occasions saw him reaching the final, winning twice.

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The first win came only a month after beginning to compete in online tournaments, slaying eventual GSL champion jjakji in the final of the ESV TV Korean Weekly Season 1 #6. Another early moment of note came competing in the FXOpen KotH #9, where Life put together a six win streak before finally being beaten. While a few players would typically get the better of the lad, it was TaeJa who stood out as the true nemesis for him, losing in all five of his ESV TV Korean Weekly matches against the future Terran star. Had the world known what TaeJa would become, perhaps Life's rise would have been identified earlier on, instead TaeJa prevented him from even reaching the semi-finals in four of those five instances.

Despite playing more for the fun of the game than training in a fully professional manner, Life was able to begin to make a name in the team leagues, another area where the less well known have opportunities to grab headlines. In Round 1 of the 2012 GSTL, Life all-killed TeamLiquid and put up three kills on SlayerS-EG in the following round. In July he received a spot in the TeamLiquid StarLeague 4 (TSL4), thanks to his placing on the Korean server, and was transfered over to StarTale along with the rest of his team, part of a merger between the teams. In StarTale Life would have receive a level of coaching and attention he had not experienced previously.

"He's solid, and extremely good. I'm not sure I can beat him in the finals. So I plan to face him with a calm state of mind."

-Life, speaking on facing Creator in the TSL4 final (TeamLiquid, 2012)

Qualifying for the GSL still proved too difficult, making it to a match against Leenock in July's Code A before falling. Over the next six weeks Life began his TSL4 run, beating names like elfi, Kas, Curious and KeeN. Reaching the final pit him against fellow rising star Creator. This first opportunity for a real title, albeit an online one, passed the StarTale boy by, Creator taking it in six games to spark his own run of big tournament success. The world had begun to take notice of Life though, and his own rise to the top tier was soon to follow.

Leveling up rapidly

Shortly before the final of TSL4, Life had managed to qualify for his debut season of GSL Code S. The StarTale Zerg defeated veteran Code S player and three time GSL champion NesTea en route to progressing from his Ro32 group. Closing out the month the youngster again won two straight series in the Ro16, this time adding reigning GSL champion Seed to his list of high profile scalps.

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In the quarter-finals of the tournament, Life would face MarineKing, a four time GSL finalist who was playing in his sixth quarter-finals. Many a player has put together a Cinderella run in group stages or over Bo3, but now Life needed to integrate the longer form nature of Bo5, with the accompanying mindgames and increased attention to composure between matches. It would have been more than reasonable to expect the young Zerg to fall here, yielding to veteran experience and taking an already good rookie GSL season run as a positive going forwards. Instead Life proved to be the one displaying cool under pressure, winning in the fifth game of their series to advance to the semi-finals.

"I thought I would win 3:0 but was caught off-guard by an unexpected strategy in the first set."

-Life, on his quarter-final match vs. MarineKing (ThisIsGame, 2012)

Elsewhere in October of 2012 Life secured qualification into two significant offline tournaments, making it to through the Korean Invite-Only qualifier for the MLG Fall Championship and reaching the final of the Korean Qualifier for the Iron Squid: Chapter II. The latter highlighted the additional problems facing a young player that veterans could easily forget about, as Korean law dictated that students under the age of 16 had a mandatory "forced shutdown" of their online games access, essentially a government curfew, between the hours of 12am and 6pm. This meant that upon reaching the final of the Iron Squid II qualifier, he had been forced to shutdown, luckily second still granted him a spot in the competition.

Making a rivalry

"I'm worried because now I have to go back to school and won't get to practise much.

[...]

I am a bit worried but with enough practice, a win is possible. I saw his Ro8 match prior to my own and seriously, Leenock didn't play poorly at all and it was more Taeja having superior strategies. I think I need to be on my toes."

-Life, on facing TaeJa in their GSL semi-final (ThisIsGame, 2012)

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The semi-final opponent for Life in the GSL would be TaeJa, who had repeatedly handed him losses in online competition over the last year and a half of play. Life had yet to record a victory over TeamLiquid's talented Terran, but he had also never faced him offline. TaeJa came into the series blazing hot, coming off three foreign tournament wins (MLG Summer Arena, ASUS ROG Summer and Dreamhack Valencia) in only the last four months of play.

In the previous round of the GSL TaeJa had slain Leenock, one of the elite Zergs of the time, having himself won an MLG tournament that Summer. Life would face a daunting prospect in the TL Terran, the context of his own tight battle against MarineKing making victory here seem the stuff of fairy tales. The result would be exactly such, with Life astonishing spectators by sweeping TaeJa 3:0 to secure a spot in the final. Life was now on the brink of "walking the royal road", Korean terminology for a player who wins a major individual league title in his debut season. His problem was that the opponent on the other side of the finals stage would be Mvp, greatest player in the game's history and its greatest ever winner.

Killing the god-king

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The days of Mvp winning big titles thanks to talent and technique were long since past, as the legend was now consigned to relying almost entirely on the winning instincts and decision-making which had bolstered that arsenal of talent in previous campaigns gone by. Mvp could no longer beat the best simply by playing his game, he had to beat them by out-smarting them, not allowing them to engage their own style effectively.

As treacherous a path as that may seem to tread, the god-king of Korean SC2 had done exactly that two seasons prior, defeating elite Protoss after elite Protoss, in his worst match-up no less, en route to his fourth GSL title, all by virtue of brilliant use of mind-games and a no hesitation approach to high risk high reward player. The Terran mastermind had not only reached the final of the GSL this season with such play, he had navigated a field of Zergs at IEM Cologne to win out a time when Terran Bo5 series wins over Zergs seeming required godlike predictive ability or impeccable micro-management.

"I can't lose. Confidence alone has won me games so far. That's why I know that the finals is mine."

-Life, prior to facing Mvp in the GSL 2012 S4 final (ThisIsGame, 2012)

After such a stellar rookie run, all would acknowledge Life was youthful talent fully manifest in the moment, easily the most skilled player entering the server that final. The question was whether or not he could match up to the mindgames of the veteran champion, whether he would struggled if he fell behind or was unable to forsee the guile of the IM Terran's plans. When the series opened with two wins for Life it seemed all of the pre-finals hype around those narratives had been little more than exuberant speculation, the youngster needed two map wins out of a potential five remaining games to secure the title.

Facing a legend young players will often be forced to learn the hard way the reason such legends have acquired their reputations. Mvp was a player who might have been hurting from his physical ailments, but in his mind he knew how to win and would ruthlessly exercise that formula. The Korean Terran began his comeback and soon the crowd were looking at Mvp on the brink of his fifth championship, up 3:2 over Life. In this moment many had tried but failed against the might of Mvp, left to reconcile a moment seized upon by the man who had yet to be deposed as the game's greatest.

Where others had fallen before, Life succeeded. Questions of Zerg imbalance aside, Life would rise to the moment before him, securing the necessary two games needed to send victory over to his side. The 15 year old was the champion of GSL Code S and had walked the royal road. The youngest ever player to win a GSL, his victory evoked memories of Flash, BW's greatest ever player, winning an OSL title, the BW equivalent to the GSL, at the age of 15. Life was given a custom made sword to commemorate his royal road success. Flukes have been known to occur, even in the GSL, but this run spoke to such intuitive brilliance that many looked to Life to lead a new generation of great players, as the previous generation continued to decay and lose ground.

"I wasn't sure that I would win, but I'm glad that I was able to take the championship like this. I felt some extra pressure because I was playing in front of my parents. I thought that as long as I didn't believe in the StarTale jinx and played the way I always did, I would be able to win. Being the first Royal Roader on my team makes me unbelievably happy.

[...]

Because of school, I didn't have much time to practice, but when I practiced on Friday, I was strangely able to do really well. I was able to win because of Friday's practice session."

-Life, on his GSL victory (ThisIsGame, 2012)

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Rampaging abroad

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Less than a month later, Life was off to his first offline tournament overseas, the MLG Fall Championship. The structure meant players would play through a small bracket, labelled a group, to determine where they entered the main bracket. In his group Life began quickly, a key win over fellow Korean Zerg viOLet suggesting he would make noise in Dallas. In the upper bracket final and overall final of the group Life again faced off against TaeJa, crushing the Terran once more, not conceding a single map. From losing every online encounter, Life had now still yet to lose a map offline to his once nemesis.

In the main bracket Life would meet the man his GSL victory had reminded fans of, facing the BW master still emitting an aura of divinity: Flash. Flash seized the match, winning in two maps to put Life down into the lower bracket. After beating Heart there 2:0, Life earned a rematch with the KT Rolster Terran. This time Life was unstoppable, winning four straight maps to eliminate Flash entirely, despite starting two maps down due to the extended series nature taking into account their previous match's scoreline.

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In the final Life meet Leenock in a mirror match for the ages. Leenock had also played the role of youthful conqueror, winning the MLG Providence year end championship in late 2011, also at the young age of 16. The FXO Zerg had then made it all the way to a GSL final, but had fallen there in his chance to become one of the youngest champions. Setting in place a future rivalry between the two youngsters, the series went to seven games before Life was able to clinch the crucial fourth map win. Life had added the feat of becoming the youngest ever MLG Championship winner to being the youngest ever GSL champion.

Seemingly nothing could halt the onward march of the player some were citing as the possible first SC2 bonjwa, the player who rules over all with no equals. Such speculation lasted little time, as Life arrived back on Korea soil and had been elimianted from the next GSL within two weeks. Reaching the Ro16, he had there faced an all-Zerg group and seen fellow rising Zerg talents Soulkey and Symbol slay him there. There would be no return to the bracket stage of GSL to continue his Bo5 and beyond series streak.

Down and back up again

IPL5 was one of the most stacked tournaments of 2012, coming in late November and featuring a flood of Korean names washing over the bracket draw. Life suffered early in his bid to replicate his previous success on American soil, losing a rematch with Leenock 0:2 in the upper bracket. If his ZvZ had been questioned in the GSL Ro16 against Soulkey and Symbol, then being eliminated in three maps by Norwegian Zerg Snute only intensified such scrutiny. The StarTale star would not leave Las Vegas without having a chance to show his talents off on the big stage though, as he took part in the GSL World Championship exhibition series of matches, representing team Korea against team World.

In the opening round, played in the single entry format famous from ProLeague, he beat out Swedish Protoss NaNiwa, as Korea cruised to victory. The next series would be played using the all-kill, winner stays on, format, and Life was irrepressible, entering first for Korea and kill four of the five foreign players (LucifroN, Scarlett, VortiX and Nerchio) in a row, putting Korea at match point without having fielded a second player yet. The nature of Stephano winning that fifth map and going on his own four kill run, means many often forget the Korean who had put his country at match point in that game.

The final tournament of the year, and chance for Life to regain his form, came with the GSL Blizzard Cup in late December. The tournament pitted the best players from the Korean league, over the year as whole, in a single offline competition. Life defeated GSL champions Seed and Sniper in the group stage, along with new Protoss phenom Rain, but fell to viOLet. A single loss would not prevent him from progressing from the group and his first match-up in the bracket phase would be against DongRaeGu, once considered the best Zerg in Korea way back during the early portion of the year.

Life proved his composure under pressure in yet another full length series in his young career, winning the crucial game five to eliminate the winner of the first GSL of 2012. Meeting Leenock in the semi-final was too perfect, not only had their rivalry truly been set in place by recent matches, but Life would need to perform in ZvZ on a big stage to progress to the final. with Leenock having only lost their MLG final by a single map in a Bo7, and beating Life outright at IPL5, the odds seemed in favour of the FXO player. The series had more in common with their MLG encounter than the latter, as it went again to a deciding game and again Life proved not only the victory, but to thusfar be unbeatable in Bo5 or Bo7 series.

"If my teammate PartinG-hyung rises up, I think I can win much more easily (laughs). It's because I think I am unbeatable in the non-mirror matchups."

-Life, on his finals match-up vs. PartinG (ThisIsGame, 2012)

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The finals opponent was StarTale team-mate PartinG, a Protoss star who was the WCS World Champion and fan favourite of Protoss players the world over for beating out Zergs with his wonwonwon all-in build. As if to conjure up images of Muhammed Ali's trash talking, PartinG would openly boast to his Zerg opponents that he utilise the build and beat them with it, only to go into their series and do just that. At a time when PvZ was considered at its hardest, PartinG was killing Zergs left and right. Two weeks prior, in the online MLG tournaments of Champions, PartinG had made Life one of his victims as he had wonwonwon'd his way to the final of the tournament and won.

The GSL Blizzard Cup looked set to be another nashing of teeth for a Zerg in the face of well executed all-ins, as PartinG leapt out to a two map lead. From there on Life engaged the fierce and flawless executory mode he seemed capable of summoning at will in Bo5 or Bo7 series. Winning four maps in a row, leaving PartinG powerless and demoralised, he closed out the series to take the last title of the year. A short slump towards the end of the year had been seen off with a high profile finsh.

"I felt strange when I was losing 0:2. Those games weren't mine to lose, and I became mentally shaky after I made odd engagements and lost. But afterwards, I was able to regain my mental composure and focus on the match in order to win. I do feel good about taking the championship, but I feel slightly bad about beating a teammate to do it. But still, I'm happy.

[...]

I played mind games with PartinG-hyung by saying on Twitter that it was impossible for me to beat him. I barely practiced, and what practice I did do was mainly through ladder. I understand that PartinG-hyung prepared the same way."

-Life, on his victory over PartinG in the GSL Blizzard Cup final (ThisIsGame, 2012)

Ironing out his ZvZ

Early 2013 saw Life running through the bracket of the Iron Squid Chapter II online, but not without numerous tests. With the structure seeing all series Bo5, Life had to escape two straight series where he was at elimination point, beating Leenock in five games from 1:2 down and Goswser from 0:2 down. Clearly this youngster from the StarTale house had some innate sense for how to win out in Bo5 series, often only fully engaged once the threat of elimination focused his mind and senses to the task.

That bracket run to the semi-finals had booked Life another trip over the ocean, this time to Europe. At the Paris final for Iron Squid Chapter II, a familiar opponent awaited in the series: MarineKing. The Prime Terran had the same luck as the last time they had faced in their GSL series, losing 1:3 to the Zergling puppet-master. In the final Life met DongRaeGu and their Blizzard Cup series immediately sprang to mind, where he'd narrowly edged his Zerg elder. This time DRG was in full force, winning game after game to hit elimination point up 3:0. Life's 9:0 offline Bo5 or beyond series streak was about to be shattered, no player having ever returned from such a deficit in offline competition. Life faced not only DongRaeGu but history itself.

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As had happened so many times before in Bo5/Bo7 series, Life came alive at the point of a potential demise. The ZvZ which had failed him in the previous GSL season was gone, the ZvZ which had carried him to the Blizzard Cup title was engaged in Paris. Life would pull the series back level and then again prove unbeatable in deciding games, dealing DRG one of the harshest blows imaginable and taking the title and a new record in the history books. Awarded $12,500 in prize money, the young Zerg headed back to Korea seemingly fully recovered from his momentary slump of late 2012. He had won four high profile tournaments in the span of less than five months, perhaps the bonjwa talk had been warranted after all.

Exit Wings of Liberty, enter Heart of the Swarm

The final tournament in Wings of Liberty, the standard version of StarCraft2, would be the first GSL season of 2013. Beating Symbol and Creator in straight sets in the Ro32 put Life through to his third straight Ro16 group stage appearance. Here he defeated Blizzard Cup finals partner PartinG in his opening series. From there it all went wrong, losing to RorO in three games and then PartinG by the same margin. For the second straight season he had been eliminated in the Ro16, unable to get the chance to engage his clutch Bo5/Bo7 skills in the bracket phase.

In March the scene switched over to the Heart of the Swarm expansion and early on Zergs were out in force complaining about imbalance. That the first event in the game, the IEM VII World Championship, had seen no Zerg reach the semi-finals, certainly added fuel to their fire. In mid March Life attended his second MLG, flying out for the MLG Winter Championship, again in Dallas. After escaping two full Bo5 series against Polt and Last, he had reached the semi-finals and a match with two time GSL champion MC. Crushing the former champion three to nothing earned Life a spot in the final opposite Flash.

Beating Flash in emphatic fashion in the previous MLG in their final series had been one thing, but now Flash's Terran seemed primed to win him a significant title, medivac play seemingly unstoppable for the elite Terrans. Life faced a challenge akin to Mvp's battle to defeat top Zergs at IEM Cologne and against Life himself in their GSL final. Much like the great Terran, Life showed that there is always a way. Flash took him to six games, but again the youngster would not be beaten in a Bo7 series. Yet more ink was scribbled into the history books, as Life became the first player to win back-to-back MLG Championship events.

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In April the Korean preliminary qualifiers for the Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games took place, with Life again beating Flash en route to a finals spot. Losing to sOs there, he had qualified for the event itself, but would not attend due to initially forfeiting the spot for a chance to attend the next MLG. Life would not only never reach that MLG, he was about to enter a true slump, falling far from contendership for the big titles in the game. After one of the most stellar nine month spans in SC2's history, it's youngest champion was about to be tested and beaten down by the kind of slump that has forced many a veteran out through the door marked irrelevance.

The remaining portion of the story of Life's career will be told in a follow-up article here at OnGamers.

Photo credits: Liquipedia, Silverfire, ESFI, GOMtv, NC, Redbull, ThisIsGame

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