TaeJa - The second Summer (part 2)

Part two of the story of TaeJa follows the HotS portion of his career, winning five offline tournaments over 2013.

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In part one the story of Yun 'TaeJa' Young Seo's rise from practice hall player to foreign tournament champion was told. Now, in the second and final part, the Heart of the Swarm portion of TaeJa's career is told. Leaving WoL at the heights of GSL Code S semi-finals, TaeJa finds himself pushed back in the new expansion, only to then burst out with a Summer of incredible success, reminding fans of the three month run he had displayed in 2012. Over the span of five months, TaeJa would win five foreign offline tournaments.

New game, new rules

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Wings of Liberty had seen TaeJa in peak career form as it came to a close. The star Terran of Team Liquid had followed up his foreign tournament championships with two GSL Code S semi-finals runs in the span of the last three held before the switch to Heart of the Swarm. With the arrival of the new expansion, TaeJa flew out to Dallas for the MLG Winter Championship in the middle of March. After defeating SaSe, a foreign Protoss who had been a bane of his in WoL, 3:1 in the Ro32, TaeJa was ruthlessly eliminated in a 3:0 sweep by fellow Korean Terran Bomber.

Team league success had been TaeJa's initial method of proving himself as a professional StarCraft2 player and he could fall back on it briefly, all-killing ROOT Gaming in the Acer TeamStory Cup online competition. The first ever WCS Korea season, hosted by the GSL, saw TaeJa progress to the Ro16 group for the fifth time in his SC2 career. There he beat Shine, but lost to a rising sOs and found himself meeting Bomber in the deciding final match. Bomber had also been enjoying foreign tournament success in late 2012, but had not been able to reach the Ro8 of GSL Code S for over 20 months, while TaeJa had reached the final eight or better in four of the last five seasons.

Bomber won the deciding match 2:0, to go 5:0 in maps against TaeJa offline in their last two meetings. Eliminated from the Ro16, TaeJa faced the prospect of having to battle through Code A to earn another Code S spot. Drawn against Squirtle, he would never play another GSL match.

Coming to America

It was announced that TaeJa had decided to forfeit his Code A spot and transfer to the American region of WCS. Considered a weaker region and offering TaeJa a chance to be an outright favourite for the title every season, the move was understandable for the Team Liquid player, especially with his history of foreign tournament success. There was also the issue of his persistent wrist problems.

"I can't fully put strength into my fingers. It got worse after it got slightly better in season one. I'll go to the hospital tomorrow to get a detailed examination."

-TaeJa, on his wrist issues (TeamLiquid, 2013)

Playing in the Challenger league, secondary division, of WCS America, TaeJa beat Heart and Illusion in three map series, but fell to Polt 0:2 in the game which would have earned him a Premier League spot for the following season. The structure of the tournament meant he would now be placed into a Challenger group, to battle again for a Premier spot. Before this could take place, TaeJa was to return to Sweden for the first time in HotS, looking to win his first Dreamhack seasonal event.

The first rays of Summer

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At Dreamhack Summer, in mid June of 2013, TaeJa progressed through the three group stages, as expected, but not without suffering a loss, falling to Finnish Protoss enigma elfi 1:2 in the third group stage. Easily dispatching foreign pros ToD and TLO, TaeJa reached the third Dreamhack semi-final of his career, having progressed to the final the previous two times. His opponent would be Jaedong, all-time great BW legend. Jaedong had accomplished his first finish of note at the previous Dreamhack tournament, reaching the semi-final of the Stockholm event and losing out there to NaNiwa. This time Jaedong was not to be denied at the same phase of the tournament, beating out TaeJa 2:0 and going on to the final.

A couple of days after Dreamhack Summer, TaeJa played his WCS American Challenger group, beating hellokitty and Neeb without difficulty, earning a Premier League spot for Season 2. Less than a week later and it was time for TaeJa to board a plane for Germany, to play at HomeStory Cup VII. Rampaging through the two group stages, TaeJa reached the Ro8 with only a single map loss against him. Thrashing former GSL champion Seed in the Ro8 earned him a semi-final series against team-mate TLO. Having just beaten TLO 2:0 in Sweden, many would have predicted the monster Terran would roll over the Zerg on his team-mate's home soil. Instead, TLO would weather the assault of TaeJa going up 2:0 to claw back to 2:2 and a deciding game. TaeJa won the deciding map and moved on to his first final of HotS.

Facing Snute in the final meant another team-kill scenario for TaeJa. The man who had cited unfamiliarity with team-kill situations being a factor in his Dreamhack Winter finals loss to HerO, would now face a second consecutive moment in which he had to dispatch a team-mate to win the tournament. The series was a Bo7 and would go the entire distance. Snute was the champion of the previous HomeStory Cup, winning the final one held in WoL, and managed to put himself up 3:2 after the first five games. TaeJa was too much in the clutch though, winning out the final two maps and the series 4:3 to add the HSC crown to his collection of Dreamhack, ASUS ROG and MLG titles.

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Déjà vu for you know who

When TaeJa had gone on his epic run in 2012, winning three tournaments in two months and placing at least top four in four over that time span, the first result had come in the latter part of July. With a semi-final at Dreamhack in mid June and now a HSC title before the month had ended, it seemed as though the Summer of TaeJa had come early this year. As the SC2 world would soon find out, they had seen nothing yet.

Over July TaeJa worked his way through the online Ro32 of WCS America S2, including a key 2:1 win over Polt, to gain revenge over the man who had denied him a Code S spot initially the previous season. In the offline Ro16 he beat American Protoss minigun 2:0 and former IPL champion Korean Terran aLive 2:0 to move into the Ro8 undefeated in a series for the season. Before he could play out the bracket phase, TaeJa was off to Finland for ASUS ROG Summer, the event he was the reigning champion of from the previous year.

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Early August in Finland had been good to TaeJa a year prior and the time of year combined with the structure, which meant Bo5 series at every stage of the tournament, saw TaeJa going undefeated in series after the group stage, giving up four map losses in total to go 12:4. Beating American Zerg Gowswer 3:1 in the Ro8 earned TaeJa his third straight offline semi-final in a row. The semi-final was a rematch of the MLG Summer Arena which had been TaeJa's first offline tournament victory in 2012, facing Korean Protoss Alicia. This time around, Alicia had TaeJa in trouble, leading 2:1 after the first three maps, but TaeJa would rally to win the final two and the series.

The opponent in the final was another Korean Protoss: San. San was a name from the past of Korean SC2, having made semi-final runs in the 2011 GSL March Code S and the GSL World Championship. In those instances only the eventual champions, MC and Mvp, had been able to stop him. Since that time, though, San had completely dropped off the competitive radar, failing to make the Ro8 of a single tournament over the last 27 months. His run through this ASUS ROG tournament suggested the AZUBU Protoss might be in for trouble with TaeJa, as he had lost to Russian Terran Happy 2:3 in the second group stage and then faced only Zergs in the playoffs.

TaeJa went up 2:0 and San was only able to win one map before TaeJa took the series and title with a 3:1 final score. TaeJa had repeated as champion of ASUS ROG Summer and added a second title in 2013, bringing his career total up to five foreign offline tournament titles. The Summer of TaeJa was well underway and the forecast was hot and sweltering from here on out.

Top four all the time

In the quarter-finals of WCS American, TaeJa was paired with MacSed, a Chinese Zerg. Though not particularly known by Western audiences, MacSed had history playing Korean players. In domestic tournaments he had played Koreans a number of times, though often lower tier calibre opponents. He had upset YongHwa in the group stage of the WCG in 2012, so he was a player one might be able to look to for a potential upset here, where most expected TaeJa to crush him without regard for his skills. After two maps played, MacSed had the series tied at 1:1. From there TaeJa took over and closed out the series with two straight map wins, moving on to the semi-final stage of a fourth straight offline tournament in a row.

TaeJa's opponent in the semi-final was Polt, the man he had been battling with throughout the Challenger and Premier league portions of WCS AM. Polt had defeated a Ro16 group full of Protoss and Korean Protoss Oz in the Ro8, so there will little to go off in terms of PvT form for the former GSL champion. Polt was far from the sparkling form that had seen him lift the GSL Super Tournament trophy over two years prior, or even the resilient TvZ run that had finished out 2012.

This Polt had been eliminated in the third group stage of Dreamhack Stockholm, by foreigners, and lost out to aLive and Ryung in the previous WCS AM season. If the latter two could slay Polt, surely TaeJa was about to reach his first WCS final? The series proved to be Polt's return though, as he went up 2:1 and then won the deciding map after TaeJa had leveled the series. Polt would go on to take the title in the final against Jaedong. TaeJa had been forced to settle for another semi-final finish, but clearly only players in peak form were capable of stopping him now, having hit his own peak again.

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A week and a bit later, TaeJa went to Germany for WCS Season 2 finals. A group of INnoVation, one of the scariest players in Korean SC2; duckdeok, the Protoss who had shocked WCS Europe S2; and NaNiwa, the top foreign player with two top four finishes under his belt already that year, should have been a worrying prospect for the Liquid man. Instead, TaeJa beat out the monster Terran INnoVation 2:1 and then cleaned out duckdeok 2:0 to progress to the quarter-finals. The schedule didn't get any easier there, as he faced OSL runner-up Rain. TaeJa rolled over the talented Protoss 3:0 to remain without a map loss against Protoss in the tournament.

In the semi-final it was time for TaeJa to be reacquainted with a rival from that year, meeting Bomber there. The man who had put him out at the MLG Winter Championship and eliminated him from his last GSL would now block his path to the final. For the fourth straight time in a semi-final, TaeJa would play out a full five game series. At the end of the fifth map it was Bomber who would move on, beating TaeJa again to eliminate him from an offline tournament. Bomber would go on to take the title in the final, meaning TaeJa had finished top four in five straight offline tournaments, losing out to the eventual champion on two occasions along the way.

Another Dreamhack, another title

In September TaeJa flew out to Romania for Dreamhack Bucharest. His Dreamhack form had seen him win Dreamhack Valencia the previous year, finish runner-up at Dreamhack Winter and then reach the semi-final of 2013's Dreamhack Summer. This Dreamhack event was to be one of the most stacked foreign tournaments of the year, filled with big Korean names. The first two group stages were a flawless run of series wins for TaeJa. The playoff bracket began with a 2:0 win over Korean Zerg YuGiOh.

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In the Ro8 he faced sOs, the Protoss who had beaten him in the Ro16 of the first WCS Korean Season that April. With a semi-final finish in that season and then a runner-up placing in the WCS S1 finals, sOs had proven himself to be among the elite Korean players. TaeJa continued to trample over Protoss players, winning 2:0 and moving to the sixth straight semi-final appearance of his 2013 run.

Former GSL champion Life would have had many Terran players worried, but more concerning for TaeJa was that Life had beaten him in all of their only offline meetings. In online competition, as Code A and B level players, TaeJa had always held over the young StarTale Zerg, but once their rivalry had transitioned into the offline phase the Korean Zerg had beaten him in three straight series, going 7:0 in maps against Liquid's champion Terran. Another scary opponent proved to be little more than a shadow of a tree on a wall, as TaeJa continued his undefeated playoff run with a 2:0 series win to reach the final.

If the theme of monster Korean names lining the path to the championship had seemed overdone to this point it was only to become more even more laboured for the final, as INnoVation sat on the other side of the stage. INnoVation had been the player of the year to that point in time, with five straight top eight finished, the latter four being top four and above finishes. Team Acer's newly acquired Terran had put together a string of results that had seen him finished third at the MLG Winter Championship, runner-up in WCS KR S1, 1st at the WCS S1 finals and 3rd-4th at WCS KR S2.

The light for TaeJa was that he had contributed to INnoVation's only poor placing of the year, defeating him in the group stage of the WCS S2 finals. What's more, he had been able to score a victory over INnoVation only the previous day, beating him in the Grand Final of the Acer TeamStory Cup, helping Team Liquid along the way to the title. Little did the world know it, but TaeJa was to prove to be INnoVation's enduring kryptonite.

In the final the Liquid Terran won 3:0 to take the title without a single series loss. Winning 10 straight series, TaeJa had gone 21:4 in maps for a staggering 84% map win-rate. Having won his third offline title of the year, the Summer of TaeJa had again leaked over into the months following that season, but it yet to come to an end.

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Cooling off

Just as TaeJa had seen his impossibly high level of form in offline tournaments finally cool a little in the latter months of 2012, so the former SlayerS man would see a similar phenomenon overtake him in the next two months. Moving through the WCS AM S3 Ro32, overcoming a series loss to MajOr to defeat the same player in the deciding game and progress to the Ro16. That Ro16 saw a win over SEn in three maps followed up with a 1:2 loss to Jaedong. The final series was against Heart and the Korean Terran swept him 2:0 to oust him from an offline phase of a tournament prior to the semi-finals for the first time in seven tournaments, the run had come to an end.

TaeJa forfeit his Challenger league match against Minigun, thinking that uncertainty over the future of WCS, vis-a-vis region-locking, meant he might have to compete in WCS KR the following year. This decision was to some degree reversed as he decided to play out the Challenger group his loss had seen him placed into. Beating JonSnow and Revival 2:0 each, TaeJa secured a Premier League spot for the next WCS AM, assuming Koreans would be allowed to play in it. The year's results had put TaeJa at 11th on the WCS points list, meaning he qualified for the WCS Global Finals, as one of the top 16.

In the Ro16 he would face easily the scariest prospect of anyone in the entire tournament: Dear. The Korean Protoss was the hottest performer in the entire world going into their series, having won WCS Korean S3 and the WCS S3 final in the span of the last two months or so. En route to this huge victories, Dear had twice beaten Maru, considered the best Korean Terran, by 3:1 scores in the semi-finals. Where TaeJa's own run of incredible form had finally cooled off, he now faced someone still in the midst of their own epic run. Dear's form was to survive another series, as he won 3:1 over TaeJa to eliminate him outside of the top four for a second straight event.

Closing strong

A week after the Global Finals, TaeJa was flying to Germany to attempt to defend his HSC crown. Winning four straight series, he moved into the Ro8. Facing HerO in a playoff series had been a problem for TaeJa in the end of 2012, when he'd lost 0:4 in the Dreamhack Winter final and 0:3 in the NASL S4 Ro8. This time it was TaeJa handing out the team-kill sweep, winning 3:0 over his Protoss friend. In the semi-final he faced off against Symbol, the Zerg he had beaten 2:1 in the second group stage. The series would again be close, as TaeJa played the fifth semi-final of the year to a fifth and deciding map. This time TaeJa would put himself at 3:2 in those kinds of series by making the result of this series that result, moving on to the final.

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The finalist opposite him for the HSC VIII title was another Korean Zerg, HyuN, and someone else who had been on his own run of impressive form in 2013. HyuN had finished top four in five foreign offline tournaments, winning Dreamhack Valencia and making it to the final of the MLG Spring Championship. The Bo7 final was devastating to HyuN's dreams of a second title that year, as TaeJa steamrolled 4:0 and locked up a fourth title for 2013, beating his mark from the previous year.

As only TaeJa could, he complained after the win about only winning tournaments worth at most $10,000 (though technically his ASUS ROG win that year had been worth $13,000). Phrasing aside, it was clear that TaeJa felt some level of frustration that his best form had seemingly always been on display in the medium-sized tournaments, never at the biggest events or in GSL Code S. No amount of foreign tournament wins could stack up to the prestige of winning events like GSL, WCS Global Finals and such. After years of top level play and sustained wrist damage, TaeJa was clearly reflecting on opportunities gone to waste in his career.

"My games the previous day had ended late, so I was tired from lack of sleep and didn't feel much at that time. All I could think about was going back to the hotel and sleeping. But when I lay down, it hit me that I had won it all and I had trouble going to sleep."

-TaeJa, after winning HomeStory Cup VIII (TeamLiquid, 2013)

Breaking the $10,000 curse

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The final event of 2012 for TaeJa would be Dreamhack Winter, the event he had finished runner-up at the previous year, winning the most money of his career at a single event ($15,000). The group stage saw TaeJa continue his HSC form, beating out INnoVation, sOs, ForGG and SjoW in four series, going 8:3 in maps. In the bracket portion he again inflicted some revenge on HerO, winning 2:1, and then defeated MMA by the same scoreline. In the upper bracket final he faced Life, beating the ST Zerg 2:0. That win had brought their lifetime offline record to 3:2 in series to the Zerg and 7:4 in maps, but with TaeJa winning the last two series and the last four maps. A once one-sided offline rivalry had begun to head in the right direction for Team Liquid's star.

In the Grand Final of the tournament, TaeJa faced the same Life he had been torturing in their past two meetings. The format was a Bo7 with no advantage for the finalist from the winner bracket. TaeJa continued to be an unbeatable foe for Life in HotS, winning 4:2. That result brought their series record to 3:3 and put TaeJa down only 8:9 in maps played offline against his one-time kryptonite. More importantly, the fifth and final title of 2013 for TaeJa had seen him win a huge $30,000 payday. His complaints after the HSC VIII win had seemingly been heard somewhere out there and an appropriate end to the year afforded him by the fates.

Over 2013 TaeJa had racked up five offline titles and nine top four finishes. Added to his results from the previous year, that brought him to eight offline titles and mind-boggling 14 top four finishes. Yet in this moment TaeJa wasn't looking to 2014 and the possibility of continuining his incredible StarCraft2 career, no, he was considering bringing it to a close entirely. His success had meant he could not bow out of competition, despite his wrist pain. Where his parents had initially opposed his abandoning school in favour of professional StarCraft, now they pressured him to continue competing.

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"I really wanted to retire, but my family opposed it strongly so I don't think I can. I haven't made any goals yet, but I think maybe I want to win more tournaments than I did in 2013?"

-TaeJa, on his goals for 2014 (TeamLiquid, 2014)

The final chapter?

At the end of February TaeJa went to Finland for yet another ASUS ROG tournament. In the first group stage he was upset by Swedish Zerg SorOf 3:2, but beat Finnish Zerg Serral 3:2 to escape the group. The second group stage began with another upset, this time losing out 0:3 to Korean Protoss StarDust. Reaching another deciding match, TaeJa rematched Dear, who had beaten him 3:1 in the WCS Global Finals Ro16. Dear's blistering WCS form had long since passed and yet he still proved to have enough to best TaeJa, winning 3:2 to eliminate the Liquid man from the tournament in 9th-16th place.

TaeJa's Ro32 group for WCS AM S1 was reminiscent of the one he had played in S3, losing to MajOr in the opening series, reaching a rematch in the deciding series and winning it to progress. Before the Ro16 offline phase could be played it was off for another trip to Europe, this time Poland. Invited directly, TaeJa was to compete in the IEM VIII World Championship. The tournament had an unusual twist, in that it was to be winner takes all, with the entire $100,000 prize pool going to the eventual champion. If TaeJa had been bothered by winning tournaments worth no more than $10,000, here was a chance to well and truly put that "curse" out of mind for a lifetime.

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The Ro16 opponent drawn was StarDust and immediately all could think back to the 3:0 beating the Korean Protoss had given TaeJa at ASUS ROG Winter a month and a half earlier. It looked to be the same story all over again after the first two maps, with StarDust going up 2:0, but the play of StarDust was less the topic of conversation than TaeJa's GG timing. The first game had been puzzling to spectators, with TaeJa typing out of the game at equal supply to his opponent (around 130 each) due to losing a single medivac and deciding that he was unlikely to win.

In the second game TaeJa typed out at 6:15 or so, having had his extra barracks cheese scouted. The commentators joked that TaeJa had been spending time with IdrA, the American Zerg famed for giving up at the earliest possible moment in games he considered lost. Despite concerns about his mental frame, TaeJa pulled out the next two maps to move to a decider for the series. Winning the deciding game, TaeJa moved onto the Ro8 and put StarDust out of his mind.

The Ro8 opponent was TaeJa's back-and-forth rival: Life. The first offline three series they'd played, all in WoL, had gone to Life. Now, in HotS, the last three had gone to TaeJa. Their previous meeting, the Dreamhack Winter final, had been the first time one had managed to win a map in a series the other had won, with Life taking two maps before falling 2:4. This time around Life would again secure a map in a losing series, falling 1:3 and TaeJa taking the lead in all categories in their offline rivalry.

Another familiar face awaited TaeJa in his first semi-final of 2014, as he met sOs. Having beaten sOs in the Dreamhack Winter group stage, he could feel like one of the few players perhaps favoured against the powerful Protoss who had taken the WCS Global Finals crown that year. This sOs was in similar form to the one who took that huge title though, beating TaeJa 3:1 and going on to take the entire event and the $100,000 first place. For the fourth time in his career, TaeJa had lost in the semi-final to a player who went on to take the title in the final.

Following his elimination from the event, TaeJa tweeted "I will retire soon. btw thx for cheering me at iem and good luck sOs". Fans around the world await an official announcement from his team on whether TaeJa has in fact retired. Does the story of TaeJa finish with eight offline titles and 15 semi-finals or better finishes, or is there more yet to be written?

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Photo credits: Frederike Schmitt, Brita Jonsson, Silverfire, TaKeTV, Photours.net (Tuomas), Helena Kristiansson

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