The journey back - the Life career story (Part 2)
The second part of the career story of StarCraft2 champion Life sees him fighting to return to relevance.
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In part one of the Life career story, the StarCraft2 prodigy went from 14 year old rookie to GSL and MLG champion and beyond. Just over a month after winning his second MLG Championship, though, the StarTale Zerg found himself sliding into a slump that removed him from relevancy as one of the world's best players entirely. This, the second part of the Life career story, picks up at the beginning of that slump and follows Life's career path through to his return to his title winning days.
Entering the group of death
"I’m happy with the group. As long as I’m not playing against Zerg I will make it out of any group."
-Life on his WCS S1 Ro16 group (2013)
The first World Championship Series (WCS) season in Korea, hosted by the GSL, began well enough for Lee 'Life' Seung Hyun. Losing to Leenock didn't end up costing him a spot in the Ro16, as he beat Last and then Leenock by 2:0 scores to escape in second place. The Ro16 group draw saw Life ending up in the now infamous Group of Death, Group B. With INnoVation, considered the scariest rising star in the world; Flash, the greatest Brood War player of all time; and PartinG, famed Zerg killer from Wings of Liberty, all in the same group, the StarTale youth would face one of the toughest GSL tests ever simply to reach the quarter-final.
After beating PartinG 2:0 in the opening series, Life had to go up against INnoVation, the STX Soul Terran who had been making his name for fearsome TvZ play in Heart of the Swarm. INnoVation made life another victim on his list of slain Zergs, moving into yet another GSL Ro8. In the final match of the group Life again faced the player he had begun the group facing, as PartinG would now battle him for the last spot in the quarter-finals. PartinG did what Life had done in the previous group, reversing the scoreline of the first match and winning 2:0 to eliminate Life from that season of GSL.
Down in WCS Challenger league Life was able to take advantage of ailing veteran MarineKing, a player who had always suffered at the hands of the youngster, beating him cleanly to requalify for the next WCS season. After winning his debut GSL season, Life had been unable to progress past the Ro16 for three straight seasons, so his unbeaten Bo5 record could do him little help as long as he languished in the Bo3 world of the group stages.
Team league struggles and a debut at Dreamhack
After putting together a three kill to defeat Prime GSTL S1, Life would lose all his remaining games that season. StarTale's inability to rely on their young ace was to foreshadow some of the problems he would face over the next few months. In mid June Life flew out to Sweden for Dreamhack Summer, his debut at that particular tournament circuit. The young Zerg seemed to be in fine form through the first three group stages, winning all of his series and giving up a total of two maps out of 20 along the way. In the Ro16 he easily pushed aside Polish Zerg Tefel and moved on to the quarter-finals.
The opponent in the quarter-final should have been easy for Life, Swedish Terran SjoW had been irrelevant in European StarCraft2 for more than a year. Indeed, the Swede had failed to progress past the Ro8 of a significant individual league tournament in more than 28 months. It was easy for spectators to look past the match-up and anticipate a potential meeting between Life and HyuN or StarDust in the semi-final. Life took the opening map, as expected, and then disaster struck. Inexplicably SjoW produced the game of his life to take the following two maps and the series.
Falling in Korea's oldest and most prestigious individual league
Life had been a monster in foreign tournaments, slaying even the best Koreans, but now he had been eliminated from a seemingly sure-fire top four finish at Dreamhack by a European Terran, that most rare of creatures. Back in Korea it was time for the second season of WCS, this time hosted by the OSL. The OnGameNet StarLeague had been BW's most prestigious and coveted individual league title, indeed its history, stretching back over a decade, had spawned the term 'royal roader' which had later been applied to Life's run to the GSL title in his debut season. The GSL, MLG and Iron Squid champion would now try his hand at a new league, albeit under the WCS banner still.
In his group Life found himself joined by KangHo (formerly known as LosirA), one time top tier Zerg; FanTaSy, all time great BW Terran and five time OSL finalist in that game; and JangBi, winner of the last two BW OSL titles. KangHo was coming off a quarter-finals appear in the previous WCS season, but the two BW legends had never progressed from a Ro32 group in their SC2 careers. In line with the BW OSLs of old, the format was to be single maps for each game, as opposed to the Bo3 fans were accustomed to from GSL tournaments. Life found himself eliminated after only two maps of play, losing to FanTaSy and then KangHo.
The young Zerg had never failed to progress to the Ro16 in all his previous campaigns in Korea's top leagues, now he would face the Challenger league format earlier than expected. Winning his first two Challenger series, taking down the unknown Kop and faded former GSL champion jjakji, Life arrived back at the point he had entered the previous WCS season's Challenger league: the Ro24. Losing here in three games to hyvaa, Life had questions to be asked of his ZvZ, which had let him down on a number of occasions recently. Failing to win in the Ro24 meant he would have to brave the waters of the Up/Down group to requalify for WCS Code S for the third season.
Beginning the rise
There had been some positive results online, as Life had spent most of July winning matches in the online Russian RSL tournament. The Korean Zerg had gone past opponents like HerO, SuperNova, MMA and Scarlett to reach the final. There he had beaten Bomber to claim $4,000. There had been some full five map series, but StarTale's favourite son had continued to show his aptitude for such circumstances, always emerging unscathed from the deciding game. Any hopes this would translate back over into offline play were short-lived, as Life lost his opening two Up/Down games, to soO and ByuN, so that even winning over herO and Bang meant he could not qualify for next season's Code S.
In early September Life attempted the online qualifier Korean and Taiwanese qualifier for the IEM VIII New York event, losing immediately to the unknown eMotion without winning a map. Mere days later Life was flying out to his second Dreamhack event, this time in Bucharest, Romania. After storming through the second group stage, he fell only to StarDust while progressing from the third. A Ro16 three map win over former elite European Zerg Nerchio put Life into the position he had been in at the previous Dreamhack: a quarter-final match. Facing SuperNova here, the Korean Terran he had bested in RSL not so long ago, he again went to a third game but again survived, moving on to his first ever Dreamhack semi-final.
The opponent opposite Life for the semi-final was TaeJa, the Team Liquid Terran who had tortured him early in their careers in online play, but since been beaten by him time and again in offline play. This was not the era of Life's peak though, while TaeJa had reentered his own peak form. The Terran took the series in a sweep, going on to win the title from the final. Their offline rivalry was finally becoming established, as opposed to being a one-sided affair in the Zerg's favour. A top four finish, especially losing to the eventual champion, was a very positive sign for Life, showing that outside of Korea, at least, he was still a force to be reckoned with.
Another chance for glory in the USA
Less than a mont later Life flew out to America to attend IEM VIII New York after all, daring to try his hand at the open bracket qualifiers. A loss to DongRaeGu in the upper portion of the bracket initially put Life in danger of not making it into the main tournament, but a win over NA Zerg Sasquatch saw him through into the group stage. Beating Protoss Zest in the opening series 2:1, Life then lost to fellow Korean Zerg HyuN 1:2 but finished up the group repeating his feat against Zest, winning 2:1. A close group stage which could have gone many different directions had been successfully navigated to lead Life through to the quarter-finals.
The Ro8 opponent was Team Liquid's other star, Protoss HerO. Life was merciless as he dispatched his countryman in a brutal 3:0 sweep. In the semi-final the shaky ZvZ which had let him down so often domestically, and even caused him a little trouble earlier in the tournament, seemed positively revitalised, smashing former GSL Code S semi-finalist Curious in another 3:0 sweep. In the final of his first ever IEM event Life looked imperious, having not dropped a map during his playoff run. His opponent would prove to be NaNiwa, Swedish Protoss and widely considered the best foreign player in the world.
NaNiwa had just pulled through a miraculous PvZ series against HyuN, returning from two maps down and winning the last three, the decider seeing him pull out a ballsy proxy in the Zerg's base and the gamble paying off. If the Swede had shown so much trouble against HyuN, then Life, who had deleted HerO from existence already, seemed sure to overwhelm the foreign hope. That certainly seemed to be the case early on in their Bo7 series.
StarTale's pride took the opening two maps, the patented NaNiwa style of playing conservatively early on to feel out the opponent allowing Life chances to poke for holes. Somehow the young Zerg would find just the right moment to sneak lings into the Protoss player's base and NaNiwa would be playing from behind again and again. NaNiwa struck back in the third game, making a series of the final afterall. In the fourth, though, Life reasserted himself, taking the series to match point for him.
With the luxury of only needing one more map out of a potential remaining three, Life found himself unable to close out the series early. A near max supply battle saw Zerg units melting to an army of Colossus, Stalker and Archon. Hope was still alive for the Swedish Protoss, who would now look to complete his feat against HyuN: winning the final three maps of a series to take the title. The series meant more than just first place for NaNiwa, by winning he could ensure himself a better chance at grabbing one of the last spots for the WCS Global Finals tournament at BlizzCon, so pressure was on his shoulders from numerous directions.
In the sixth game Life got NaNiwa on the backfoot and never let up, pushing his advantage over and over until the Swede fell and was forced to exit the game. Just under four months prior Life had fallen to Swede SjoW unexpectedly in the Dreamhack Ro8, now he had just beaten the best Swedish pro player and the best foreign player in the game. Winning the tournament added an IEM title to his trophy cabinet, to go along with the GSL, MLG and Iron Squid spoils already housed there. Life, it would seem, was back.
Domestic business to be handled before another crack at a Dreamhack
Less than a week after returning home, Life had to begin his quest to requalify for WCS, starting his Code A journey from the Ro48. After beating little known players Trust and Aria, he again reached the Ro24 that would define his fate. The opponent was Protoss player Super and this time Life pulled through to requalify for Korea's top league. StarTale's young champion was even able to begin to turn his form around in the team leagues. In the GSTL S2 he had been losing key games for most of the season, including two big ace matches, but in November he was able to compile some wins to give his team a chance at the playoffs, even though they would end up losing all the same and having to settle for third place.
Late December had a return to Sweden on the cards, competing at Dreamhack Winter. The event was stacked with talent and the group stage began well for the recent IEM champion, beat Polt, StarDust, JYP and MMA to reach an upper bracket start in the playoffs. In the opener Life found the IEM win on his mind, facing NaNiwa in a rematch of that final. Again NaNiwa would give him some trouble, but again Life would prevail, winning in three games this time.
Next up was INnoVation, the Terran who had denied him a GSL quarter-final spot all the way back in the first WCS season, and who he would have faced in the Dreamhack Bucharest final if he'd won his semi-final. Sweeping the Team Acer Terran brought Life to the next chapter of his offline rivalry against TaeJa, now finally spirited and alive, by virtue of TaeJa being the hottest Korean in the world in foreign tournaments at that time. TaeJa continued to reverse the history of their offline battles, winning another series 2:0
In the lower bracket Life ended the Cinderella run of Protoss Patience, but only after allowing it almost become the reality of a finals spot. In the fifth and deciding game Life remained unbeatable, by anyone, and moved up to the final. The opponent would be TaeJa and Life would now need to overcome the Terran to claim his first ever Dreamhack title. In the Bo7 final TaeJa again just had too much for the StarTale Zerg, winning in six games and taking yet another foreign crown. For the first time in his career Life had been bested in a Bo5/Bo7 series, his record had been put to the sword along with his hopes of winning Dreamhack.
More records falling
The last event of 2013 was to be in Germany, at the ASUS ROG NorthCon event. The format meant Bo5 series, Life's speciality throughout his SC2 career, surely seeing him favoured to make a deep run. Beating INnoVation in a full five map opening series, he then went to another five game affair with Finnish Protoss Welmu, but both series ended in the favour of the master of Bo5. In the Ro8 Spanish Zerg VortiX could do nothing more than take a single map, falling 1:3. The semi-finals would see Life facing the other top foreigner in the SC2 world: Scarlett.
Six times Life had faced Zerg players in Bo5/Bo7 series, all six times he had come through in the end. Another record, albeit it a race match-up one this time, was to come to an end, with Scarlett shockingly sweeping the Korean Zerg and denying him a third straight foreign tournament finals appearance. Despite the disappointment of losing before the final, Life had finished 2013 in much better shape than the hole he had slid into earlier had suggested he would. The four foreign tournaments that had ended the year had seen him reaching the semi-finals or better all four times.
2014 has not seen the opportunity for Life to compete in any events yet, but there have been some promising signs continuing on from the end of 2013 all the same. Last week the StarTale Zerg was able to navigate his Code A group, beating ParalyzE, losing to former team-mate Squirtle and best ParalyzE a second time to to reach Code S again. Tomorrow Life will compete in Finland at ASUS ROG, where he seeks add his first ASUS title to an already overflowing list of career accomplishments.
"It feels like it’s been six months since I was last in Code S. I had a feeling that I was going to lose in the final match because I did so terribly in the winners’ match. But I think I was able to win because I got lucky with the map pick for game one of the final match."
-Life on qualifying for Code S (2014)
The young man who began his SC2 success becoming the youngest ever GSL and MLG champion, now looks to continue his success overseas and finally return to the elite tier within Korea, seeking his first ever GSL top eight finish since his debut victorious season. The story of Life, as ever, goes on.
Photo Credits: Brita Jonsson, Helena Kristiansson, eslphotos, Kevin Florenzano
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