NaNiwa - the Paradox Protoss
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
-Walt Whitman, American poet
When last weekend's MLG Fall Championship came to a close there was little doubt that once more South Korea had been emphatically represented on American soil, the top 16 placings practically a whitewash of South Korean flags. That is for all but one lone spot on the list. In 9th-12th sat a Swedish flag alongside the name of Johan "NaNiwa" Lucchesi, one of the most controversial and polarising figures in the foreign SC2 community.
At a tournament which had been, deservedly, hyped off the back of the attendance of Korean champions of many varieties, in OSL champion Rain, GSL champion Life and BW six-time individual league champion Flash, a foreigner briefly lit the torch of hope for a non-Korean to break the top eight. A crowd that, understandably, had come eager to see what devastation the Koreans would wreak upon the MLG field held their breath as NaNiwa defeated Flash.
BW's God got his revenge and a lower bracket date with OSL champion Rain finished off the Swede's chances at a higher placing, but NaNiwa had still finished two rounds ahead of the next foreigners. Months removed from his peak of two GSL Code S quarter-final finishes NaNiwa seemed to have dropped into irrelevancy, even amongst foreigners, and yet once more we are pressed to ponder the position and potential of this perplexing and yet persistent Protoss player.
(Photograph: Carlton Beener of ESFI World)
NaNiwa is one of two foreigners to ever reach the quarter-finals of the GSL, Korea's top individual league, at least twice, and yet he can finish outside of the top 16 at a European circuit event, Dreamhack Open Stockholm, in his home country of Sweden. NaNiwa is only too happy to remind everyone that all he cares about is playing and winning, but seemingly puts a foot wrong at every turn in regards to ensuring a stable environment in which he can practice appropriately. NaNiwa is better than his record might suggest, yet also not as good as his rabid fan-base, and the foreign community in general, might project.
In short, NaNiwa is a mass of paradoxes. In this article I'll take a deeper look at the man I call 'The Paradox Protoss', considering NaNiwa from the perspective of his mindset, approach, behaviour, his and the community's expectations and his role in the SC2 world.
The most obvious place to begin when attempting to unravel, or gain insight into, the puzzle of NaNiwa's erratic career is to examine his mindset. Few would deny NaNiwa's skill level, or his capacity to play excellent StarCraft2, but many, including the man himself, have noted the impact his mindset has on his play, his placings and his career on the whole.
The curse of perfect circumstances
NaNiwa's biggest hurdle he has yet to clear runs right through his career if one looks back far enough: that of making excuses. Now it's worth pointing out that most of these excuses do have a degree of validity, from lag issues to being touched while playing to having to play on maps he doesn't like to facing his weakest match-up or the eventual champion of the tournament. In isolation all of these excuses, and others unmentioned, bear considering in seeking the context for individual results in NaNiwa's career.
The problem arises when one notices the sheer amount and variety of these excuses, and how there is seemingly always one on hand when the Swede is eliminated from a tournament. When NaNiwa raises them in interviews it can often as appear as though his eliminations always come with a "but" and then some factor which counter-balances his loss, or explains why he didn't go further.
To his credit he will often add in a qualifier after his excuses, such as saying despite them he should have been more composed or should have played through the problem or will be ready next time. Yet that qualifier ends up seeming like little more than padding to soften the impact of his excuse on the audience. NaNiwa's actual mental fortitude doesn't align with the qualifier, for if it did then we would have seen improvements in those areas and no need for such excuses.
The key factor to note here is that I am not suggesting these excuses are in any way invalid or fictional, instead I'm suggesting that NaNiwa's insistence on using them as a crutch or get-out-of-jail-free card is one of the factors that holds him back from becoming a more mentally strong player. The old adage that "excuses are like assholes, everyone has one and they all stink" seems applicable. That's exactly the point I wish to make in this sub-section: every player has factors negatively affecting his play.
At the same tournaments where NaNiwa has issues there are other players, often times Koreans who we hear nothing from, who also undergo road blocks and distractions, naturally not always the same ones, but nevertheless come through and place highly, and in accordance with their ability level. These players succeed in spite of the difficulties they have endured, not fail because of them. That defines mental fortitude from my perspective, the ability to block out or roll with problems which arise, still delivering a consistent performance.
With NaNiwa it feels as though he's waiting for the perfect tournament where the heating is just right, the seats are comfortable, his bracket draw is perfectly equal to the others, all of his games are on time according to the schedule, there are no lag/computer issues, he isn't jet-lagged and he has practiced enough for all of his match-ups. As should be obvious by my purposely lengthy listing of factors that perfect tournament is never likely to occur for NaNiwa.
So either none of the tournaments he plays in, outside of GSL, should count towards his true level, or most, if not all, should be considered an accurate display of his ability level from which to draw an aggregate. What good is potential, talent or ability if it can't be displayed except in very limited and rare circumstances? In this life it counts what you do, not what you could or believe you should have done.
Making the best of the moment
The best analogy I can draw for this subsection is from the world of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) competition. There are many fighters who, upon losing, will bring up an injury sustained in their camp preparing for a fight. If the opponent says nothing then it's easy for the casual observer to mistakenly assume the injury was a major factor in why the fighter lost, since presumably the opponent went into the fight 100% healthy.
In fact, as has been revealed by a number of high level fighters, there are a lot of fighters who go into professional fights with some degree of injury. This is both because the training for MMA comes very close to actual fighting, which can obviously see participants injured, and because most fighters cannot afford to cancel a fight at short notice and waste the time and money that has been put into preparing for their fight. Most fighters cannot afford to wait three months for another fight, with a lot of money already spent on preparation for the original fight.
So most fighters will in fact fight at less than 100%, in fact the case could be made that the majority of fighters have some less-than-perfect set of circumstances going into a fight, from current injuries to lingering past injures. The difference is how these fighters deal with their circumstances in the actual ring and after-wards. The most successful and mentally strong fighters can fight through injuries that would amaze the common man.
Rather than obsessively worry about the disadvantage of the injury these fighters simply accept the level they are able to compete at and from that position push forward to go for victory regardless. Others have the excuse of the injury in their back pocket, ready to be whipped out in a post-fight interview, if they lose.
Not only does NaNiwa seem to rely on the crutch of excuses but he also seems incapable of acknowledging that many of the players who out-placed him at the same event may have had their own difficult circumstances to deal with. Until he can do the latter, and thus accept that overcoming difficulty beyond just facing the opponent is a key component of a champion's mindset, it seems likely NaNiwa will continue to be cursed with placings which don't consistently reflect his ability. The perfect tournament for NaNiwa is likely never coming, but the perfect mindset is achievable.
Putting it all on the line and winning by any means necessary
Another aspect of NaNiwa's mindset will has seemingly plagued him throughout his SC2 career as a top foreign player is that of his insistence of winning on his terms. NaNiwa's persona is that he is a player who "will do anything to win", since he is so dedicated to practice and willing to seemingly sacrifice anything and everything in his quest for SC2 excellence. In actual tournaments though we find a player who is repeatedly his own worst enemy, playing predictably and being read by his opponents at key moments.
In interviews one can get the perception that NaNiwa isn't intimidated by any opponent, and truly believes he can beat anyone, but in his in-game decisions will take unnecessary risks, trying to get an early game advantage over his opponent, which end up costing him his tournament life. This persistent feeling of having to take such a risk to get ahead, or being unwilling to pull the trigger on a standard or aggressive early play, suggests that deep down he feels the other player is superior, at the very least in some senses, and thus he must use an abusive playing style and simply hope for the opponent to choose a build which doesn't counter him.
For an underdog or inferior player that is an option which can yield success where otherwise there may be none, but the elite level players know when a risk is too costly for the reward it brings. Such cards are to be played sparingly and at times when the opponent is unlikely to be able to predict them. This is why I say NaNiwa wants to win on his terms. Much like the previous subsection, where NaNiwa is waiting for the perfect tournament circumstances, it feels as though NaNiwa wants to play the way he has chosen and then simply hopes the opponent complies and gives him a chance to win. For elite players the mindset seems quite different.
It's understandable why players don't like to play standard against the world's best players, or try overly aggressive maneuver at key moments: if things go wrong you can end up looking silly. Yet consider a player like Mvp, even before his injury, when he was one of the world's best standard play macro players, Mvp had seemingly no fear of looking silly in key moments. Even in deciding games he would play a risky all-in or early aggression if he felt like it was the right play for the moment. If he lost he might have looked silly to the crowd, it didn't matter though as he was willing to stand by that decision.
With NaNiwa's elimination games one feels as though he is so often left regretting the approach he took, or ruing the fact the opponent correctly guessed how to counter it, rather than being able to stand behind his decisions and accept the outcome.
Speaking about the notion of "doing anything to win" or "winning by any means necessary" I am reminded of the style of play of former American tennis professional Brad Gilbert, and how it helped transform the game of the legendary Andre Agassi. Prior to being coached by Gilbert Agassi was a perennial underachiever, toiling away for the first eight years of his Grand Slam career with only a single Grand Slam title to his name.
Despite four Grand Slam final appearances Agassi had only managed to take down the title once, leading many to consider him a failed prodigy. A player who had seemingly endless talent, and was one of the most incredible returners of the ball ever seen, Agassi fell to lesser opponents over and over again. In his first four Grand Slam finals he was favoured to win the first three times, losing all of them, and only finally, when the underdog, managed to come through. Clearly talent was not the factor holding him back, his approach to the game was.
For 1994 in came Brad Gilbert, a recently retired professional who had only managed a fairly meagre career during his time. In 1994 Gilbert published a book entitled "Winning Ugly : Mental Warfare in Tennis" and in it he explained the mental approach to tennis he had taken. Possessed of none of the incredible skills of an Andre Agassi or any other top 10 player, Gilbert had been able to grind out wins against superior players time and time again due to his "by any means necessary" approach.
Rather than simply playing to his own strengths he would analyse his opponents and figure out which of their weaknesses he could potentially exploit, thus increasing his overall chances of winning points off them or causing them to lose points through mistakes. Here was the doctor Agassi needed to patch his game up. Over the next 12 years of his career Agassi would deliver on the promise of his potential and talent, reaching 11 Grand Slam finals and winning seven of them.
From being one of the game's most exciting but inconsistent stars, seemingly incapable of coming up big when it really mattered, he retired tied seventh for the most Grand Slam titles of all time, with eight. This was the effect a change of mindset could have on an already very talented player, in learning to win ugly he effectively simply learned how to win. Rather than hope his talent aligned with the moment he was shaping his skills to meet the challenge ahead.
If NaNiwa is to win when it matters in StarCraft2 he must be willing to do it by aligning his mindset with the terms of the moment, not his own.
Carrying over from the last section's analysis of NaNiwa's "will do anything to win" persona and the reality of his performances yields another area in which the Swede is seemingly not so willing to do "anything": dealing with others. Success inside the server is not enough to provide a player with the ideal circumstances to practice and compete in. A player must be able to juggle relationships with team-mates, who he will need to help him with focused practice, as well as those running his organisation, who help provide him with food, money and a place to live.
Just as there are plenty of individually valid excuses behind NaNiwa's problems at tournaments, so there are for his departure from organisations after a few months. Since his SC2 career began NaNiwa has been in at least eight different organisations, and has had reasons for leaving or being removed from all of them. Again though, the sheer number of times he has had to leave, or has been removed, begs the question of how much NaNiwa has actually done to try and remain at these organisations.
With his popularity amongst fans, ability in the server and his best results, NaNiwa should be one of the highest paid foreign SC2 players in the world, with a good team of players around him and a consistent living environment. Instead his reputation for being a difficult player to handle, and one prone to erratic behaviour, has left him currently orphaned from top tier organisations.
One gets the sense that at this point he is like a talented NBA player with behavioural problems, sure there are going to be a bunch of GMs (General Managers) who will give him a chance, to see if he can help their organisation with his skills, but after enough of those chances have gone by the wayside others will become more and more wary of taking the plunge.
If NaNiwa wants to improve his ability to consistently compete at the top then one area he can immediately improve in, probably overnight, would be his relations with his organisations and team-mates. That will mean compromise, something he has seemingly been incapable of at times, but it would provide a stability and support network that his career has sorely lacked. For a player as emotional and sensitive as NaNiwa this kind of backing is even more crucial than for other players, and yet his very nature seems to push it away.
A player as good as NaNiwa should be able to build up a solid network of practice partners who will help him, in particular Koreans. Considering the kind of hierarchy Korean StarCraft players are used to, strict and with a strong emphasis on respect, it hardly a surprise if NaNiwa has not been able to maximise his stay in Korea in terms of building up such a network. It is too much to ask NaNiwa to win people over with an out-going personality, that's not his strength, but there does seem to be room for him to make in-roads in this area. Again, this comes down to how much one is willing to do to win.
The perfectionist's curse
As alluded to in the section on mindset, NaNiwa's quest for perfection is the curse that haunts his career. While his desire to play at a high level and practice heavily is the fuel that drives him, so it is also the fire that destroys him. NaNiwa has sacrificed more than practically anyone in foreign StarCraft to become the best he can be, putting in monster sessions alone in an alien environment to seek a higher level of performance. Practice is not what is holding NaNiwa back, with the previous section of perhaps not having the perfect network of custom partners in place. Yet practice is the rod he uses to beat his own back.
When NaNiwa is eliminated from a tournament, sometimes even when he finishes runner-up, he can often be heard saying that he needs to practice more in some specific regard, or will begin practicing again as soon as he returns to South Korea. The mantra of "I need to practice more" becomes almost a flagellatory imperative, that he'll beat better habits/approach into himself in the practice server. For a player whose problems seem largely to stem from mental fortitude and intuitive approach his answer seems to be focusing on the one area he already exceeds practically every other foreigner in: sheer amount of practice against the best players.
"It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential."
-Bruce Lee, legendary martial artist
Perfection will never come, it is a futile quest if one desires only the end goal. Perfection of what is before one in a given moment is the approach which will yield the most success. If an athletic basketball player practices more then it is possible he might increase his speed or strength a little, thus improving his overall performance a little in turn. If, however, he already practices close to the maximum amount required then not only can he burn himself out but he will also be ignoring the more obvious change of addressing his mental game. Decision-making and efficiency seem more apt areas for him to place his focus.
If NaNiwa wants to win on his own terms and get by on his own terms then it's also the case that he wants to be accepted on his own terms. The often fickle fan-base of the foreign community are drawn to NaNiwa for his talent and performance level, but they judge him on his personability and his interactions with others. Great performances can be wiped away in an instant if he is perceived as rude, ungrateful or insensitive by the community.
To be entirely accepted by the community NaNiwa would need to make strides towards being more fun, more friendly and rarely BMing opponents. That's a tall order to ask of the Swede, being as those are not his natural inclinations, and has, for most of his career, seemed like a path he has actively disregarded. As a player who has given up everything to pursue excellence he holds others to the standard he holds himself, expecting that they should also respect a player only for his ability in the server.
The terms on which NaNiwa wishes to be accepted are purely for his play as a StarCraft2 professional. Unfortunately for him that is never going to be the case for fans or organisations, there will always be other factors which count heavily against sheer performance. The biggest crime in a society can sometimes be to stand out from the crowd and openly reject their ideals, those are the individuals who are destroyed by the masses.
(Photograph: Carlton Beener of ESFI World)
We can see NaNiwa's inability to compromise in the infamous NesTea probe rush at the 2011 Blizzard Cup. NaNiwa is entirely correct in that the game did not matter, from a competitive stand-point, and that a probe rush is a valid move, in the sense that it is not outlawed in the game. Yet such a move also ignores all of the social context of being invited to play in a tournament, playing an anticipated match-up against someone the public views as a rival and playing ball with the structure of a tournament he has willingly participated in.
The reason, I conclude, as to why NaNiwa actually attempted the probe rush was because he wanted to play on his terms, and on his terms there is no point playing if one can't win. That means there would be no gain for him to play and win, showing his strategies and going head-to-head with NesTea. Likewise he has, from his perspective, everything to lose if he half-heartedly tries, for the sake of the tournament, and then loses the match, with some fans assuming he tried his hardest. How can he comply with playing the game, while not wasting effort and simultaneously showing people that he wasn't trying, and thus the outcome is irrelevant? You saw how.
Playing the game
Two sports analogies spring to mind in terms of NaNiwa's erratic behaviour, which ultimately isn't erratic when one considers it is consistent with his internal guiding principles, and the difficulties they have led to with others in the SC2 world. Firstly there is that of Dennis Rodman, five time NBA champion and one of the best rebounders of all time. On the court Rodman was unparalleled, in his era, for his unselfish ability to hustle and get rebounds for his team. Yet he found himself time and time again in situations which threatened his time on the floor, and eventually saw him run out of the league entirely.
All Rodman wanted to do was run up and down the court and grab rebounds, he didn't feel as though he should be judged on his ability to communicate and bond with team-mates, or follow rules like when practice began. If he did his part on the court, which was unique and indispensable, then why should he follow the rules he didn't think made sense? A phenomenal natural athlete Rodman could go out drinking and partying all night, turn up with little practice and go all game long hustling hard.
Rodman's problem was that when rules are set in place then authority figures will enforce them no matter what, even if just to ensure others, who might need such rigidity, don't step out of line. Rodman flourished under two coaches who were able to find a way to accommodate him within their system, creating separate rules for Rodman and the others. Few athletes are blessed to find such circumstances, which will bend to them in that manner.
Another sporting example is the Stockton bad-boy Nick Diaz of the UFC. An incredibly insular and conflicted character, Diaz wants to fight at the highest level and yet has persistently shown himself incapable of "playing the game" when it comes to company politics and doing all the small things, which can seem like an inconvenience to a fighter preparing to give his all in the octogon. His career has been repeatedly derailed by this inability to fall in line, which seems systemic to his way of life at this point.
A strange smell
To tie together this section on behaviour I have a perhaps strange analogy to draw. In a lecture I once heard of a theory that schizophrenic people might give off a certain unique pheromone, and thus the people around them would subconsciously detect this unusual smell and at some level know this person was different from other people. That would cause the people around the schizophrenic to then treat the person differently, which meant the schizophrenic would find the people around him behaving differently and trigger a feedback loop of then behaving erratically in response.
Obviously the analogue with NaNiwa and the community is far less extreme, but as long as the community makes specific demands of NaNiwa to behave in a manner counter to his nature then it seems to provoke some of his more unusual responses, which then also triggers the community to behave more extremely and hysterically to his responses. The feedback loop goes around and around until broken.
NaNiwa and the community's expectations of NaNiwa the player
Ever since his 26:2 triumph at MLG Dallas in April of 2011 NaNiwa has been billed as one of the best foreigners, and potentially one of the world's elite players. His performances since then have seen his actual ranking rise and fall, yet the expectation has remained, both from himself and the community, that he should live up to the destiny of being one of the very best foreigners, capable of contending with the elite Koreans.
Yet, as confusing as this may sound, I've come to the conclusion that NaNiwa is both better than his placings suggest, and yet also not as good as his most optimistic fans might imagine.
NaNiwa is better than his record and placings
Aside from his finest moments, such as winning MLG Dallas, taking down Mvp and NesTea in the MLG Global Invitational, finishing runner-up at MLG providence and back-to-back GSL Code S quarter-final finishes, the rest of NaNiwa's record actually suggests he is better than his tournament placings might make it appear. Interestingly I came into my research thinking a different conclusion would be the outcome, that he would prove to be exactly as good, or a little worse, than his resume.
Beaten by the champion or the runner-up
A look across NaNiwa's tournament run from 2011 to the present finds a staggering eight cases of him being eliminated from an offline tournament by the eventual champion. Taking out the times this was in the final we arrive at three tournaments (Assembly Winter 2011, GSL 2012 Code S Season 2, and Red Bull LAN 1) where he was put out by the champion.
With the nature of bracket draws this means there are four occasions on which it is possible NaNiwa could have been the second best player in the tournament, yet couldn't finish second due to the draw he received. Obviously this is only conjecture, as it is possible another player eliminated by the champion could also be the second best, but it is a small point which will be added to further as we expand the scope of our analysis.
Considering tournaments in which NaNiwa was eliminated by the player who finished runner-up we find four instances (Dreamhack Summer 2011, MLG Anaheim 2011, MLG Winter Arena 2012 and Dreamhack Summer 2012). Combining the two concepts we have a total of 12 instances of NaNiwa being eliminated by one of the top two finishers at a tournament, and removing finals we have seven instances of him being knocked out by one of the top two finishers. Five of those 12 times it was a Korean who eliminated him.
Obviously we can't just pencil NaNiwa in for higher placings, but one can certainly see plenty of circumstances in which the Swede would have higher placings on his resume but for the bracket draw.
Ousted by his worst match-up
Looking at times NaNiwa has been eliminated in PvZ, his self-confessed worst match-up, we find this has happened seven of the 12 times he was beaten by the champion or runner-up of the tournament. Expanding the scope again, to all eliminations, we find that the decisive blow was struck by a Zerg in 11 of his 21 offline tournament campaign eliminations, over half.
The Zergs eliminating him are hardly a joke either, four times it has been an elite Korean Zerg ( DongRaeGu 3x and Leenock once), five times a top foreign Zerg ( Ret 3x, SEn once and DIMAGA once) and two times other Korean Zergs ( Zenio and Moon). These range from very good to good to at least decent Zergs eliminating NaNiwa in his worst match-up. Again, one must consider that bracket draw has played a role in his placings as well as his play.
The NesTea rivalry
Plus it's not as though NaNiwa has been incapable of beating top Zergs, he holds a very impressive 7:6 map record (including the probe rush) vs. three time GSL champion NesTea, the greatest Zerg in SC2 history. After four series played against the IM master of Zerg NaNiwa leads 3:1. NesTea has had few problems pushing aside Protoss players throughout his numerous top eight GSL runs, yet NaNiwa has done what others could not, confounding him.
While NaNiwa has been able to hold it over NesTea, elite Korean Zerg for the majority of their encounters, there has been one Korean Zerg who has been his nemesis and stopped him in his tracks almost every time: DongRaeGu. NaNiwa's career has suffered heavily from the rise of DongRaeGu, as the Zerg has beaten him in six of the seven series the two have played. Yet in maps NaNiwa is only facing a deficit of 5:11, so it's not as though even DongRaeGu sweeps him cleanly every time they face-off.
NaNiwa's losses to DongRaeGu have been at key tournaments: MLG Anaheim 2011, Dreamhack Winter 2011, MLG Winter Arena 2012, MLG Winter Championship 2012 and GSL 2012 Code S Season 3. Of all the times to face the player who causes him the most problems in the Swede's worst match-up, he could hardly have scripted a worse set of meetings.
Best amongst the foreigners
At tournaments NaNiwa has not won, but in which there are at least a few Koreans, NaNiwa has frequently finished among the top four foreigners, even if his overall tournament placing has not been that impressive always. At 11 tournaments which met those requirements NaNiwa has been in the top three foreigners, or tied for top three, 10 times. Five of those times he has been a top two foreigner and twice he has outright been the best foreigner.
The best foreigner: MLG Providence Championship and MLG Fall Championship
2nd best foreigner: Dreamhack Summer 2011 (tied), MLG Anaheim 2011, BlizzCon 2011, MLG Winter Arena 2012 and MLG Winter Championship 2012
3rd best foreigner: MLG Columbus 2011, IEM VI Kiev (tied) and Red Bull LAN 1.
So even when we have taken NaNiwa's finest moments aside, and it should go without saying I ignored all Korean tournaments for this part of the analysis, we have a whole host of tournaments where NaNiwa actually performed among the best non-Koreans in attendance, regardless of his final placing. So amongst his peers outside of Korea NaNiwa has very much been keeping up with, and in fact exceeding, the pack.
NaNiwa is not as good as some people imagine he is, or can be.
After the lengths I've gone to above to build a case, piece-by-piece, for NaNiwa being a better player than his tournament record suggests I now have to change perspective and explain why he is not as good a player as his most ardent fans and supporters may imagine, at least based on his play to this point in time. While it's true that NaNiwa has a number of solid points backing up that he is better than his placings alone suggest, which is certainly not the case for a number of "top" players in the foreign world, it also seems that NaNiwa's ceiling is often over-rated by many.
The GSL runs
With GSL being considered the pinnacle of elite SC2 competition it is understandable that many will point to his back-to-back quarter-final finishes as a stellar example of NaNiwa's potential to be one of the world's very best players, nevermind just best amongst foreigners. The only foreigner to achieve similar results was Jinro, and that was so early in the game's history it hardly seems fair to hold that over NaNiwa's accomplishment.
The big problem with the two GSL runs, as has been pointed out by others, is that NaNiwa miraculously managed to avoid playing a single Zerg in his first run (GSL 2012 Code S Season 2) and was eliminated by the only Zerg he faced in his second (GSL 2012 Code S Season 3). While it's true that he was beaten by the champion in the first instance, one has to consider that these runs are almost the best possible case scenario NaNiwa could have encountered.
The first run saw him playing his best match-up, PvT, against an injured Mvp, whose weakest match-up is TvP, and yet he was still eliminated before the semi-final. In the second run he narrowly lost to DongRaeGu in their quarter-final match, but then even amongst Zergs DongRaeGu became famous first for his ZvT, so it's not as though he was playing the best ZvP player in the world. These two runs had their own moments of excellence, but were also gifted by much fortune along the way, as far as group and bracket draws go.
Finally it should be stated that few foreigners have actually had the opportunities NaNiwa has had to compete in Korea in the GSL. Aside from HuK there hasn't really been a top foreigner who has put in a sustained stretch of months in Korea, with the intended goal of placing highly in GSL. There have been good players, or players who once were good, but it's not the case that the European and North American elite have ever agreed to give up half a year and try for every GSL season.
NaNiwa's first two GSL eliminations, in the Ro32 and Ro48 of Code A, were the worst start to his Korean adventure possible. After messing up his Code S seed with the NesTea probe rush it wasn't until he was seeded in once more than he got to see some Code S action and make his successful runs. It seems unfair to compare only the highlights of his Korean campaigns to the typical foreigner outcome of going to Korea for one or two months and likewise bombing out of GSL, either from a direct Code S seed or inability to qualify from Code A.
That troublesome third match-up
The killer component NaNiwa lacks, as far as becoming one of the world's elite players goes, is the ability to overcome his weakest match-up. With practically every player in the world it is possible to point to one of their match-ups and find weaknesses, relative to their others. Yet what sets the truly elite players, and thus the champions, apart is their ability to find a way to win even when that match-up is the one standing in the way of them and success.
In BW it was said that the truly great players transcended racial balance, and so it appears to be the case in StarCraft2. A prime example would naturally be Mvp, now four time GSL champion and six time GSL finalist. Mvp's victory over NaNiwa in the quarter-final of the GSL saw him playing his worst match-up against NaNiwa's best, and yet the Korean veteran found a way to turn the series to his favour. He would then go on to defeat two of Korea's best Protoss players en route to the crown.
A foreign example, though obviously not in the category of "truly great player" at this point in time, would be Nerchio. Nerchio's form has been amongst the best in Europe for 2012 and that has been in part due to his ability to overcome problems against Protoss, his self-described worst match-up. At HomeStory Cup V the Pole found himself facing Protoss players at every turn, and racked up a ludicrous 22:5 map record vP for the tournament, 10:2 for the playoffs, and crushed defending champion MC 3:1 along the way.
At his next big tournament performance, finishing runner-up at IEM VII Cologne, the Polish Zerg managed to sweep MC, reigning IEM World Champion, 3:0 in the playoffs. So much for one's weakest match-up being the automatic cause of one's demise.
One senses that drawing Zerg feeds into NaNiwa's innate desire to produce excuses, where other top players still find a way to win in their most strained match-up enough to make it not the deciding factor of their success. NaNiwa must develop a level of consistency that can at least see him beating most of the Zergs, even if the top examples of the race overpower him at times. The most egregious examples of his problems vZ were his two Code A eliminations prior to the Ro16, to Check and Lucky, in his first GSL seasons in 2011.
NaNiwa's role in the foreign community
The shadow king
Thanks to the timing of his ups and downs NaNiwa has never really been acknowledged as the best foreigner in the world, except perhaps for the most tenuous of reasons. Purely taken by the numbers his GSL quarter-finals back-to-back granted him that status for a few months, or at least in the minds of some, but with all of the above taken into consideration it's tough to say that those two performances made him the clear-cut best foreigner in the world.
Earlier his MLG Dallas win wowed the foreign crowd, but Jinro's back-to-back GSL semi-final finishes still echoed in their minds. Then in the middle of 2011 HuK's tournament wins and GSL quarter-final finish put NaNiwa into his shadow. The MLG Global Invitational victories over the IM legends coupled with reaching the MLG Providence final had him soaring high, but that was all in the space of a couple of days and the Blizzard Cup soon brought his approval ratings plumeting down.
Yet NaNiwa is the foreigner who holds out the most hope for the foreign community. Reddit might have worn this quote out but it seems to apply here that NaNiwa is "the hero [the foreign community] deserves, but not the one [it] needs right now." While everyone praises Stephano, justifiably so, for his incredible ability to win tournaments and down Koreans, it's worth noting that Stephano doesn't take the steps that would be needed for him to prove himself the best player in the world, even if he's the best foreigner.
Based on past history and interview answers it seems unlikely we'll ever see Stephano put in a solid block of months competing in the GSL system. As long as that is the case it will always be difficult to proclaim him the world's best SC2 player, regardless of his foreign tournament success. Likewise, until he is willing to dedicate his life to the game, sacificing much in the quest to become the absolute best player he can be, then it seems unlikely he will exceed the elite level Koreans, who are able to win at home and abroad.
NaNiwa is the one top foreigner who has proven himself willing to match the iron price of the elite Korean players, forgoing everything in order to become better. One can argue just how much of a sacrifice giving up girls and friends is for NaNiwa, in comparison to Stephano, but nevertheless he has done it, and grinds away in a country of people who speak an alien language and inhabit a culture he is still likely acclimbatising to.
Where Stephano make the logical point that he can earn much more money playing foreign tournaments, with their more forgiving fields and more spread out prize money, NaNiwa has, on a number of occasions, turned down chances to compete at easier tournaments in favour of either bigger foreign events or his GSL campaigns. That is a level of dedication and sacrifice I'm not sure really goes appreciated. Stephano may well be the best foreigner in the world, and perhaps even the best SC2 player, but until he proves it in the arena of GSL it seems unfair to grant him the title outright.
To close this article out it's worth even comparing Stephano's public persona to NaNiwa's in terms of how it is received by the community. Until he joined EG Stephano could practically get away with doing or saying anything and still be almost universally loved by the community. His charismatic persona covered seemingly all sins, and high tournament placings caught up any left-overs.
It's no exaggeration to say that Stephano and NaNiwa could say and do the same things, and often Stephano has done much worse, and the Frenchman would be criticised far less, while NaNiwa has been the target of many a witch-hunt. To draw a final analogy, once more from professional basketball, Charles Barkley, all time great power forward and NBA star of the 80s and 90s, could get away with saying and doing things which were far more shocking and inappropriate than Dennis Rodman could.
That is because Barkley was such a charismatic and amiable man that his sins were soon forgiven, while Rodman came in with the disadvantages of being considered a trouble-maker and uncooperative, so the reaction to his antics was over-the-top. Reputation and relationships go a long way in getting an individual granted leniency, or having the book thrown at them.
So raise a glass to NaNiwa, the best placing foreigner in a sea of South Koreans in Dallas, and here's to a more balanced and complex understanding of his seemingly paradoxical nature.
(Photograph: Carlton Beener of ESFI World)
(All photographs courtesy of their respective owners)