The Toil of Foreign SC2's King Beyond the Wall
(Photograph copyright of Kevin Florenzano - ESL)
"It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them."
On Sunday a familiar scene played out as a foreign StarCraft2 tournament had reached the semi-finals stage with only one foreigner, non-Korean, still in contention for the title. Johan "NaNiwa" Lucchesi, the only foreigner to even reach the top eight of the tournament, had two consecutive Korean opponents standing between him and the elusive first place at an international tournament he had lusted after so fiercely.
The last time NaNiwa had secured such a victory had been over 29 months prior, and, most notably, that victory had come before the never-ending surge of Koreans had entered foreign events. Here was his chance to take the crown. In the semi-final he produced miracles to best recent Dreamhack champion HyuN, the finals saw him paired with GSL champion Life.
In his second finals appearance of 2013 NaNiwa fell, not without incident, to the Korean Zerg prodigy. As Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park had told us: 'Life finds a way'. Once more his dream of a significant international title remained just a burning desire, boiling over underneath an otherwise frosty cool exterior. The foreign scene's would-be king could still not be truly crowned.
(Photograph copyright of Kevin Florenzano - ESL)
When considering the greatness of competitors there is an unfortunately cruel fact lying behind their stories that it's not enough to simply be great, or even very good. No, one must also be lucky. Not lucky in the sense of simple moments of happenstance in one's own matches, but lucky in the opponents one faces and when they face them. Some lesser players have ridden good bracket draws, facing few superior opponents or opponents at a bad period of their careers, to titles. Others have found their path blocked at, seemingly, every turn by the most difficult opponents and in the most blistering form.
NaNiwa's major international title at an event featuring top level Koreans has not yet come, but the story of how he went from online cup sensation to the hardest working and most divisive figure in the foreign StarCraft2 scene is an interesting one nevertheless. At times he is reviled, perhaps even hated, but unlike some of the other more famous foreign SC2 players, NaNiwa can never be ignored. That is the power of results and that is the underlying thread through the story of the foreign scene's King Beyond the Wall.
2010 - Online success and showcasing the power of the 4gate
NaNiwa's career as a professional gamer is often told from his time as a semi-pro WarCraft III player. This is then tainted by the infamous story that he was so badly behaved he was expelled from his own house, having to find shelter with friends, where he could continue to play the game. In reality this period of his career is of little note in the larger context of what came later, and the story of his domestic expulsion has been outright denied by the man himself. Instead, this story will begin with NaNiwa the StarCraft2 player, during the beta of the game.
In early 2010 NaNiwa made his name playing online cups. Over April and May he racked up five victories in Go4SC2 and ZOTAC, including back-to-back-to-back ZOTAC wins. The 20 year old Swede's reputation in the game was being established and he went through a number of team changes in the coming months, starting out with mTw, then moving to Serious Gaming and by August he had reached the once-famed Meet Your Makers organisation. NaNiwa's victories came as a result of his early mastery of the 4 gate strategy, fine-tuning his builds to make them a deadly arsenal of early aggression. He would not remain as just an all-in player though.
Even back then his desire to become more was evident:
"My short term goal is to win a tournament in the foreground, and the ultimate goal is always the same for me: to be the No. 1 player in the world!"
-NaNiwa, speaking in an interview in May of 2010, following his addition to Serious Gaming.
NaNiwa set about, with the release of the game, becoming a macro player. His early efforts in this regard set the tone for how PvT would be played during the first months of the game's release. As part of joining MYM came the opportunity to move to Germany and live with team-mate ClouD. They would participate in the ESL Pro Series (EPS), the biggest domestic league in Germany. That venture would not finish with a happy ending, but first he had his first significant offline tournament on the horizon.
Offline events and team changes confuse matters
Attending IEM V Cologne NaNiwa beat Strelok, but fell to DeMusliM and, eventual finalist, IdrA in the group stage. Online he continued to shine, winning the SK EU Championship Trophy for October and placing second in two cups around this time. His EPS venture ended as he was disqualified from the league, due to having amassed too many penalty points, due to not showing up on time to matches or submitting replays. There are circumstances behind the scenes to account for some of these problems, but it is of little value to detail them here.
(Photograph copyright of lopper)
The significant outcome of the failed German trip was that NaNiwa found himself removed from his team. With a reputation for bad manners, a poor initial offline performance and having been removed from a league for being unable to follow the rules, NaNiwa found himself facing the very real possibility that his StarCraft2 professional gaming career was little more than a brief flare-up.
"When I got kicked out of MYM and EPS league, I didn't know what to do for six months. No team would have him and I thought I should just quit right there. But all the hate really fueled me, seeing all the hate comments on every site. I just felt like I needed to show them and put them in their place."
-NaNiwa, speaking in a Real Talk interview about the lowest moment of his professional career.
Finnish organisation Power Gaming decided to take a chance on the Swede, sending him to Dreamhack Winter in his native Sweden. Again the Protoss player was unable to replicate offline the kind of performances he had been putting in online. Ousted in the group stage he had to watch as another Protoss, MaNa, reached the final. Mere days after the event he left Power Gaming to move over to the Eastern European Team Empire. As the year ended NaNiwa continued to tear up online competition, in the last three months of the year he had been victories in two online cups.
2011 - Becoming an elite offline player
The year began much the same way the previous one had ended, winning online. NaNiwa took down the Teamspeak TL Open 9. The same month of January saw NaNiwa attending the second edition of the HomeStory Cup, in Krefeld, Germany. Here he first showed offline the kind of potential many had expected of him. Defeating a host of Europe's best players, including the Dreamhack Winter finalists MaNa and Naama, NaNiwa finished second, losing only to champion White-Ra in the entire event.
That result saw a bigger team take an interest in him, as he was able to transfer over to Team Dignitas. The very next month he headed to Helsinki for the Finnish Assembly Winter event. Running into the eventual champion Ret in the round of 16 (Ro16) meant NaNiwa's tournament ended painfully early, and without much of a chance to prove his HSC II result was no fluke. Online he continued to be a monster, racking up wins in the Black Dragon League.
NaNiwa had transformed himself into a practice master, a monk of StarCraft2. Racking up game after game he quickly broke record marks on both the NA and EU servers. This was a determined young Swede, hungry for offline success. Still, as he fly out to MLG Dallas in early April of 2011 there was no reason to imagine he could yet be the best player in Europe. Often times offline success is a long and hard road, with online phenoms finding themselves climbing up a step before falling back. Typically it can take even a skilled player the better part of a year or more to reach the deep stages of offline competition.
The magical MLG run
In Dallas NaNiwa was imperious, running through opponents as if they were made of nothing but the warm Texas wind. From the open bracket to pool play he did not suffer a map loss, tossing aside all who came before him. In the championship bracket he rolled over KiWiKaKi and SeleCT to reach the final. His eventual was the aforementioned KiWiKaKi and, despite suffering two map losses, the Canadian could not stop the force of NaNiwa. The map record for the Swedish Protoss at the end of the tournament was a staggering 26:2, with the only losses being those incurred in the final itself.
Most players would be utterly thrilled, besides themselves with emotion at such a victory and performance. At this moment the world learned that NaNiwa was made of a different kind of material:
"Well, it's ok. My goal is to win the big final of the MLG (MLG Providence). Not this one, but I'll win this one too."
-NaNiwa, speaking on stage, moments after winning MLG Dallas 2011.
Back home he continued to crush online, winning the Black Dragon League with relative ease. On the back of this monster BoX series record he flew to England for the Gadget show live invitational, where he dispatched top European competition with ease to take the $3,300 first prize. In early May he faced his first domestic offline competition, smashing the IOL Season 3.3 tournament with a 7:1 map record.
Eyes set on Korea
NaNiwa's second place in rakaka's The Road to Korea online qualifier might have seemed too significant, but it showed his desire to prove himself against Koreans. The winner of the tournament not only won a trip to South Korea, but stay at the GomTV foreigner house, the option of which of the Summer GSLs to compete in and a Code A spot (the B league of GSL.) In the end it was fellow Swedish Protoss SaSe who took the prize.
"my goal is to be the best and I think Korea is the best way to become the best so to speak. If I can get there and get a chance at code A or code S I'll take it."
-NaNiwa, speaking in an interview in April with rakaka about The Road to Korea qualifier
Four days later NaNiwa was off to the United States of America again, set to play in the final of the TeamLiquid StarLeague 3 (TSL3). His finals opponent would be another Sweden, the relatively unknown Terran ThorZaIN. NaNiwa was heavily favoured, especially in light of his unstoppable MLG Dallas run, and that perception certainly seemed accurate over the first four games, as he ran the Bo7 score up to 3:1. Needing only a single victory out of the remaining three maps NaNiwa looked set to secure another offline title. Instead he collapsed epicly, losing the series 3:4 and setting the stage for a future rivalry with ThorZaIN over who the best Swedish SC2 player was.
The next month's MLG Columbus would be a very different affair from the one in Dallas, this time elite level Koreans had made the trip overseas to take on the foreigners. In pool play NaNiwa was again masterful, going 9:4 in maps and losing only to Slush. His 4-1 series record secured him the top spot in the pool and, thus, a championship bracket spot. His opponent there was the Korean Zerg LosirA, who had won GSL Code A two months prior. Even at this stage PvZ was clearly NaNiwa's weakest match-up and he lost out 0:2 to drop to the lower bracket.
There he found himself matched up with MC, widely regarded as the best Protoss in the world, thanks to two GSL titles in the last six months. Again NaNiwa discovered that the top Koreans were quite another matter from even the best the foreign scene could offer him in competition, he fell out of the tournament 0:2. Still, he had placed the highest of all the foreigners in attendance
(Image copyright of Major League Gaming)On home soil again NaNiwa attended his second Dreamhack, this time the Summer edition. Reaching the playoff portion for the first time he beat Brat_OK to make it into the final eight. His opponent there was Moon, the famed WC3 champion who he had bested in the pool play of the previous MLG. Moon's Zerg eliminated NaNiwa in two games. The message was becoming clear: beat Koreans or forget reaching the final of international events.
A chance to become the best foreigner
Days after Dreamhack the Swede flew in for the third edition of HomeStory Cup. After beating up the Europeans he was able to rack up his first series victory over an elite level Korean, taking down MC 2:1 in the upper bracket. Thoughts that this would spur him on to the title were short-lived, as PvP took with the other hand what it had just given him, seeing him beat HuK in the upper bracket but lose to him in the grand final. HuK had won the aforementioned Dreamhack and so this victory cemented his status as the best foreigner, while NaNiwa was left to wonder how he'd let another final slip away.
The only place NaNiwa could seemingly get the training to reach the absolute top was Korea. Receiving a Code A spot from GSL NaNiwa headed over to South Korea to begin living and practicing amongst the masters of SC2.
July saw another trip overseas, attending MLG Anaheim. Pool play losses to HuK and rising Korean star DongRaeGu meant NaNiwa would face the lower bracket of MLG from the start of post-pool play. Despite victories over foreign Zergs Sheth and IdrA, another elite tier Korean would block his progression in an international tournament. This time it was MMA, runner-up of the GSL Super Tournament shortly before. The SlayerS Terran handled him 2:0 and NaNiwa's run finished in eighth.
The biggest frustration for the Swede was that he had finished as the second highest placed foreigner, showing that again it was inability to beat the big named Koreans which was holding him back.
A week or so later the European Battle.net Invitational was a chance to both qualify for BlizzCon and show that at least NaNiwa was the best player in Europe. The latter goal was immediately threatened as Dutch Zerg Ret took him out in a three map series in the upper bracket. After beating out opponents in the lower bracket, including Swedish rival ThorZaIN, NaNiwa earned a rematch with the man from the Netherlands. The result was even worse, Ret taking the series 0:2.
(Photograph copyright of Battle.net)
NaNiwa was visibly upset with his loss, unable to take any solace in the $5,000 cheque for second and BlizzCon spot he had earned. For NaNiwa all that mattered was proving he was the best and that meant winning.
"It’s always the same, it’s like, you come to the semifinal of MLG or whatever, and you think, 'wow, that’s pretty good.' And then you lose, you’re like, 'f***, I could have done so much better. Why did I get satisfied?'"
-NaNiwa, speaking in an interview with Team Liquid in 2012.
Entering the GSL for the first time
The first GSL adventure was a short one, losing in the first round of Code A to Zerg Check 0:2. NaNiwa was able to at least get a small victory under his belt the following day, playing for F.United in the GSTL, the biggest Korean team league, and beating Code S Protoss Genius in the ace match to win his team the game. The next week had him taking losses to Korean Terrans in the team league, proving that Korea would be an uphill struggle across the board.
In late August NaNiwa visited his fourth MLG event, this time in Raleigh. Despite beating HuK in pool play the Swede was unable to beat the Koreans yet, losing to CoCa and Rain. When he hit bracket play he fell against fellow Sweden, and IEM European champion at the time, SjoW. The worst MLG yet for NaNiwa had one small bright spot: it granted him reseeding into Code A for the following GSL.
Online the Dignitas Protoss won the MLG Global Invitational European qualifier, earning an all-expenses paid trip to the Global Finals, which would be held at MLG Providence in November. NaNiwa had lost in the first round of the upper bracket to SaSe, but ripped through the rest of the competition, including Ret and SaSe, in the lower bracket, finally settling another old score as he beat White-Ra for first.
As one of the biggest names in foreign SC2, thanks to consistency as much as titles, NaNiwa was invited to the eight player Dreamhack Valencia Invitational, but a first round loss to Korean Terran Rain, a GSL finalist many months prior, saw that tournament over before it had barely begun. Days later it was announced that NaNiwa's team, Dignitas, would not extend his contract when it expired at the end of the month. The very next day American team compLexity announced that they had acquired the Swedish Protoss' services, moving him to the MVP team house in Korea.
That day also marked NaNiwa's next GSL Code A match, once more a Korean Zerg halted him at the first try, as Lucky beat him 2:0. Playing in the GSL's online tournament Arena of Legends also saw disappointing results, beating the legendary old school BW champion BoxeR but losing to another BW legend in July.
October was time for BlizzCon and the world had sent representatives to Blizzard's would-be olympics of StarCraft2. En route to the upper bracket semi-final NaNiwa dispatched Taiwan's SEn 2:0, but there would face NesTea. NesTea was a three time GSL champion, winning two of those titles in the last six months no less, and was crucially also a Korean Zerg, NaNiwa's ultimate weakness. The match-up on paper proved to be the match-up in the server, NesTea defeating him in a three map series to send him down. In the lower bracket he beat DIMAGA but found himself the victim of revenge, as SEn ensured his tournament finished in fourth place.
(Photograph copyright of jdelator)
For the third time NaNiwa returned to Korea for a GSL Code A match and for the third time a Korean Zerg ousted him at the first hurdle, again it was Lucky sending him packing 0:2. Less than seven days later NaNiwa flew to Providence, Rhode Island, for both the MLG Global Invitational and MLG Providence, the year ending super championship of the brand. The former featured the winners of the other region's qualifiers and the latter was stacked with all the best foreigners and Koreans. It should have been a bad sign for NaNiwa that he had not practiced at all prior to the event.
Making it at MLG
"I didn't practice anything for the event. I practiced literally zero days and one week before the event I went out drinking every day straight"
-NaNiwa, speaking in a Grilled interview about his preparation for MLG Providence.
First up was the MLG Global Invitational. NaNiwa was the European representative, IdrA the North American and Mvp the Korean. Since Mvp had also won BlizzCon the spot which would have gone to the champion there went to NesTea. In the semi-final NaNiwa did the seemingly impossible and beat Mvp 2:1, admittedly in the god tier Terran's worst match-up. Still, Mvp was a two time GSL champion, and had been in the last two GSL finals in a row.
Such an upset win would have been enough to have caused a stir for any foreign player, but now NaNiwa had to face his own worst match-up in the final, where NesTea awaited. Facing another multiple time GSL champion NaNiwa again repeated the feat, winning 2:1 to take the title. Sadly, for NaNiwa, this specialist event was strong on paper, thanks to the pedigree of the champions in the small field, but it was a mere sideshow in the fact of the MLG championship set to begin the next day. Today was not the right day to beat GSL champions
NaNiwa had also stirred the ire of many fans with his ill-thought out phrasing in a post-match interview about NesTea's decision to do a drone pull in the deciding match:
"I thought that he would do some smart shit, [...], I thought he was that genius but apparently he's just an idiot. What he did made no sense."
-NaNiwa, speaking post-final at the MLG Global Invitational.
The next day's MLG Providence event had NaNiwa into the upper bracket at round 4, by virtue of his consistent placing in MLG events over the year. As fate would have it his first opponent was the very same NesTea he had beaten the previous day. Now was the soil on which to prove himself capable of beating elite tier Koreans, and NaNiwa did. Again winning 2:1 NaNiwa guaranteed himself at worst a top 6 finish in Providence. The matches again were tainted with some controversy, this time inside the server, as NaNiwa began the deciding map and then paused, seemingly inexplicably. The game was eventually unpaused and he went on to win the series.
The Swede later revealed that an admin had told him the map was cross-position, with opponents only capable of spawning opposite each other, and that he had paused when he scouted the opposite position and found it empty. NaNiwa claims the admin then denied the original statement, likely due to being in front of colleagues and embarrassed. Having won the series, NaNiwa took time in an interview to clarify his comments about NesTea from the day prior:
"He showed he is a very smart player, obviously, since he won 3 GSLs. He can't be stupid."
-NaNiwa, speaking post-NesTea match at MLG Providence.
In the upper semi-final NaNiwa met HuK and again served up some revenge for HSC, beating the Canadian Protoss 2:1 to reach the upper final. With the opponent there being DongRaeGu, who had beaten him in pool play at MLG Anaheim, NaNiwa would need to once again beat one of Korea's best in his weakest match-up.
(Photograph copyright of Kelly "Xensin" Bracha)
Miraculously the out-of-practice Protoss did just that, winning cleanly 2:0 to reach the final. With DRG facing Leenock in the lower final NaNiwa was praying for another match with DRG, but instead it was Leenock who emerged a 4:3 winner from the extended series he began 0:2 down in, thanks to having lost by that score in the second round of the upper bracket.
MLG rules meant that the final would begin as a Bo3, but as NaNiwa lost 1:2 it turned into a Bo7. Losing the next two maps NaNiwa was forced to settle for second, as the 15 year old Leenock took the title and the trophy. What could have been the crowning moment of NaNiwa's career, and under less than ideal circumstances, ended up in the most bitter moment imaginable. What's worse is that the Swede could never believe that he had been beaten outright:
"I think in Providence the one that lost it was me, he didn't win it"
-NaNiwa, speaking in a Grilled interview
A disappointing close to the year
The following week saw another Dreamhack and NaNiwa was once more in the hunt for a crown on home soil. Despite advancing to the bracket stage, along the way beating European Zerg phenom Stephano, a 1:2 loss to DongRaeGu, the man he had beaten in Providence, saw the Swede eliminated in the Ro16. DRG had been NaNiwa's house-mate in the MVP house, but they would not be for much longer.
Just over a week or so later NaNiwa was subject to yet another team chance, his third of the year, as he found his contract traded from compLexity to Quantic, on the basis of NaNiwa demanding a raise due to his MLG performance. That move also meant a switch of Korean team houses, with him changing from MVP to StarTale. There was one event left for the year: the GSL Blizzard Cup. This was an exhibition event featuring top ranked players from around the world. As the runner-up of MLG Providence NaNiwa received an invitation.
Played from the GOM studios NaNiwa was placed into Group B along with a line-up of MMA, Leenock, Polt and NesTea. Facing such a fearsome line-up of Koreans NaNiwa quickly found himself 0:3 down and eliminated from the competition, but with a game remaining against NesTea. Due to his the controversy surrounding their matches at MLG many were looking forward to another game between the two, but that was not to be as NaNiwa rushed his probes to suicide at the hands of NesTea.
The Swede rationalised that the game meant nothing, since neither could advance at that point, and didn't want to give away strategies or a legitimate win to his opponent. The Koreans behind GomTV were outraged, and the Code S seed which NaNiwa had earned from his MLG run suddenly disappeared as they claimed their rules had changed and it had never been intended in the first place. NaNiwa's chance to play in the top tier of Korean StarCraft2 had been snatched out from under him, all due to one faux pas in a meaningless group stage game. For all the highs of 2011, and there were a number, the year ended on a sour note.
2012 - Breakthroughs in the GSL
The year's competition began back in Europe, with NaNiwa attending his second IEM event in the form of IEM VI Kiev. Despite facing computer issues, causing in-game lag, NaNiwa recovered to advance from his group. In the quarter-finals he faced off against Zenio, Korean long-time Code S Zerg and new member of Team Liquid. Zenio overcame NaNiwa's 1:0 lead to take the series in four games.
February was the first MLG of 2012, MLG Winter Arena. After losing to eventual champion MarineKing in the second round of the upper bracket NaNiwa showed a surprising aptitude for PvZ, traditionally his worst match-up, as he beat out Sheth, NesTea and Leenock back-to-back-to-back in three map series. The latter must particularly have felt encouraging, as he defeated the man who had denied him the MLG Providence crown.
The next match saw yet another Zerg opponent, but yet again NaNiwa would suffer a loss and elimination at the hands of DongRaeGu, who would go on to place second here and win GSL Code S weeks later. Despite only losing to the two eventual finalists NaNiwa found himself out in 7th-8th place, ranked as the second best foreigner at the event. The highest placed foreigner was HuK, who had walked a charmed bracket of foreigners, defeating only a single Korean (Oz) before bowing out in third place, losing to the same two players NaNiwa had. A prime example of the impact fortune can play on the outcome of the careers of different players.
In March NaNiwa attended the first Red Bull LAN, beating Swedish rival ThorZaIN, but losing to Ret, who had beaten him in the European BlizzCon qualifier final, in the semi-final. Mere days later, and still in the USA, it was the MLG Winter Championship. The structure this time saw a return to pool play, and losses to DRG and HayprO, the latter a shock even for NaNiwa's PvZ, meant he would begin the bracket stage in the lower portion. After beating MC, NaNiwa found himself beaten by HuK to end his run with another top 8 finish, but no more. He would finish as the second highest foreigner again, and again behind the same player.
The virgin GSL Code S run
Back in Korea NaNiwa's past sins had seemingly been forgiven, as he received a GSL Code S seed for the second season of the year. The Swede claimed, later, to only be aiming to win a single map, having struggled to even do that in his Code A efforts prior. Instead he hit the Korean scene with a shock, winning two series to progress from his April 13th Ro32 group. The opponents had been the Korean Protoss Puzzle, who had made the Ro8 of the last two GSLs, and Terran Ryung. Fans could perhaps have been disappointed that Mvp losing to Ryung in their first match meant NaNiwa wouldn't rematch the multiple-time GSL champion he had slain in Providence.
Despite earning a seed for the first MLG Spring Arena, NaNiwa chose to instead attend Dreamhack Stockholm on Swedish soil. In the second group stage he fell to Korean Zerg HuN 0:2, but still survived. In the third group stage he defeated Genius but fell to sLivko and Nerchio, rising European Zergs. The result was no surprise to NaNiwa, who claimed to have not practiced a single PvZ prior to the event.
Days later NaNiwa was back in Korea for his Ro16 group. Only three foreigners had ever reached the Ro8 of a GSL, and only HuK had accomplished the feat in the last 12 months. Beating out Genius, who the Swede was proving quite the foil for, he then took down Terran Virus to move on from the group and into the bracket stage. Not only had NaNiwa not lost a series so far in this GSL, but he had managed to steer clear of his kryptonite: Korean Zergs. When the Ro8 was set with only Protoss and Terran one could see how the Swede felt confident he could go all the way.
(Image copyright of GomTV)
"my skill was [Top 10 in the world] at that point. Because in the StarTale house I beat everyone when I practiced. [...] Back then I really felt like my skill was good enough to win a GSL."
-NaNiwa, speaking in a Grilled interview about the 2012 GSL S2.
In the Ro8 NaNiwa found himself drawn again the very same Mvp he had avoided in the Ro32 group. This Mvp was not the Mvp of old, the emperor-like crowned king of the GSL. This Mvp was broken down, often citing his spinal injury as a problem to practicing and playing long games. This Mvp had only reached the Ro16 of the previous GSL, and had fallen out of the MLG Winter Arena in a staggeringly poor 19th-24th place. This was an Mvp who looked beatable, especially in his worst match-up of TvP and against a player whose best match-up was PvT. Now was NaNiwa's chance to really rip the StarCraft2 world apart, defeating the best player in the game's history and reaching the semi-finals. Instead NaNiwa learned the power of Mvp's mind for series planning and psychological warfare.
The Korean Terran master took the series 3:1, the one map loss coming when he was 2:0 up. NaNiwa was crushed. Not only had he lost to a player many imagined broken down, but his opponents in the semi-final would have been PartinG and Squirtle, StarTale players he had history of practicing and beating. His moment to potentially win the biggest and hardest tournament in the world had seemingly passed him by.
As it happened, Mvp went on to out-game both of the aforementioned StarTale players, seizing a fourth GSL crown, but the 'what if's would linger for NaNiwa nonetheless. In the past he could have blamed lack of real practice, but now he was investing time into practice against Koreans around the clock. Seemingly there was little more he could do, the rest lay in issues of mentality and self-confidence.
"It was the first time I played that many games, played like 12 hours a day. Every time I was going to bed I couldn't sleep for like two hours, becuase I was thinking about the game so much. Like really, I was laying there and I just couldn't fall asleep because I was thinking about the units in the game and what I was going to do with them. It was actually an awesome experience, I've never felt that into the game before."
-NaNiwa, speaking in an interview with CSN following his GSL loss.
Still, the affair did leave NaNiwa feeling that Koreans were mortal, both in practice and in tournaments:
"I just got owned by Koreans, and everyone else did too, and it was just like 'maybe they're just so much better it's impossible to catch up'. But I don't feel that way anymore, I feel that if I just keep going that I can eventually get there."
-NaNiwa, speaking in an interview with CSN about the change in his perspective due to practicing in Korea.
Returning to the GSL mountain
The following month NaNiwa began his second GSL Code S campaign, his playoff finish seeing him seeded into the Ro32 again. His group contained NesTea, Creator and TheStc. Losing to Creator in the opening game NaNiwa then beat TheStC and got revenge on Creator to progress from the group. Again he had avoided a match-up with a crowd favourite GSL champion, as NesTea won in two straight series to progress before him. NaNiwa had yet to face a Zerg in Code S.
Before the Ro16 NaNiwa went back to Sweden for Dreamhack Summer. Losing to HerO in the second group stage wasn't enough to stop him reaching the third and final group stage. There he beat Korean Terran KeeN, lost to LiveZerg and beat Adelscott, facing all three match-ups, to reach the Ro16. Beating sLivko 2:0 saw a quarter-final date with DIMAGA. The Ukrainian Zerg beat him 2:1, despite NaNiwa winning the first map, and went on to win the event.
In Korea NaNiwa played in the first SC2 OSL season's non-KeSPA preliminaries. A loss to San 1:2 halted any progress he might have made into what was once the most prestigious individual tournament in Korean esports. Two days later NaNiwa's Ro16 group in GSL rolled around. As Americans celebrated their independence NaNiwa again progressed from his group in second place. This time he fell to Genius 1:2, beat KeeN 2:0 and got the better of Genius 2:1 in the decider. For the second straight season NaNiwa had reached the GSL Code S Ro8, no other foreign player in history had accomplished such a feat. Back when Jinro had made his back-to-back GSL semi-finals the first of those tournaments had been an Open event, not a Code S.
This time NaNiwa's talent for avoiding Korean Zergs was nowhere to be found. His Ro8 opponent would be the same DongRaeGu who had been house-matches with him at MVP. The same DRG who had beaten him at MLG Anaheim, Dreamhack Winter, MLG Winter Arena and the MLG Winter Championship. NaNiwa had taken DRG out in the upper bracket final of MLG Providence, but he had suffered three of his losses to the Korean Zerg since that time. If NaNiwa was to make his first ever Code S semi-final it would require his PvZ to overcome any problems it had previously faced.
(Photograph copyright of ThisisGame)
Things looked positive as NaNiwa took the opening match, but then DRG struck back with two wins. The Swedish Protoss took the fourth to send the series to a final deciding map. On Antiga Shipyard DRG took the map and the series, waving goodbye to NaNiwa's dreams of a GSL championship.
"If I just micro'd properly against DRG in game 5 I would have taken the game, but I just felt like 'God, I'm going to win! I'm going to be in the round of 4! Oh God!'. It's something I've done a lot of times."
-NaNiwa, speaking in a Real Talk interview about his GSL games vs. DRG.
Failure at home leaves him homeless for a while
Heading back to Sweden for the first ever WCS SWedish national tournament, which would seed three players into the European Championship, NaNiwa could surely at least rely on being the best Swede, if not the best foreigner period, right? Beating StarNaN and SortOf 2:0 each he fell to ThorZaIN 0:2 in the upper bracket. In the lower he would later be eliminated by SortOf, Zerg again causing the throbbing pain in his side
(Photograph copyright of Helena Kristiansson)
NaNiwa would later mention that his contract running out mere days after the event played on his mind, causing him to worry that if he couldn't place top three then other teams would not be interested in picking him up. His fears turned out to be true, as a number lost interest and he spent the rest of the year without a team.
If that nightmare affair on domestic ground had messed with his confidence then an online loss to unknown UK Zerg JonnyREcco in TSL4 had to have rocked him further. More than a month went by before he was seen in action again, with the Ro32 of the next GSL season having arrived. He lost to Heart 1:2 and Sniper 0:2 to drop out of his first Code S tournament, there would be no playoff run this season. In Code A, two weeks later, his chances of returning to Code S the following season disappeared as he lost to Protoss mini 0:2. Had he reached the next round his opponent would have been Flash, the God of Brood War.
Placing poorly and well at the same time
Again NaNiwa was nowhere to be seen for months, this time it was the MLG Fall Championship that drew him out of hiding. The structure was groups which used brackets. In Group B NaNiwa showed early form beating Ret and BabyKnight. Then came a match-up with Flash, the greatest player in BW history, who had only switched over to SC2 full-time months prior. NaNiwa used cheese to defeat the Korean legend, but in the final of the group he would find himself facing the same player again.
(Photograph copyright of Kevin Chang)
Starting 2:1 up, thanks to extended series, NaNiwa went 1:1 over the first two maps. The series was now 3:2 in his favour, a single win would give him the series victory. Flash took the next map, to knot things up and send them to seventh and final game. With NaNiwa attempting a greedy opener he found himself crushed by an unscouted 2-rax all-in from Flash.
In the lower bracket his draw saw him facing Rain, a Korean Protoss who had won the OSL and finished top four in the GSL. Many considered the SKT man the best Protoss player in the world. NaNiwa was eliminated in two maps, dropping out in 9th-12th. Despite the number beside his name NaNiwa's win over Flash and his accomplishment of being the only foreigner to crack the top 16 meant the foreign world was abuzz with talk about him. Still, he had yet to find a team to represent, attending tournaments thanks to the efforts of personal sponsorship from Mionix.
Towards the end of the month NaNiwa was attempting another Dreamhack event in Sweden, having never reached top four at one yet. In the group stage he overcame losses to ThorZaIN, ForGG and NightEnD to prevail and reach the bracket stage, albeit it via a three-way tie for third place. The loss to NightEnD had been a warning sign that his PvP was vulnerable, something which became very clear in his Ro12 match with Belgian Protoss Feast. Losing the first two maps NaNiwa rallied to win the last three and take the series 3:2. The Ro8 would be another PvP, facing Austrian monchi. Again the series was a 3:2 affair, but this time NaNiwa was on the wrong end of it, eliminated in 5th-8th place once more.
The final event of 2012 for NaNiwa was IPL5, an American event stacked to the rafters with Koreans. Losing to Canadian Zerg Scarlett 1:2 in the upper bracket immediately set the tone that a good placing here would be very difficult. Despite a nice 2:1 win over Nerchio, one of the best European Zergs at the time, the very next round brought elimination, at the hands of Korean Terran Sea. Finishing in 33rd-40th place was quite a disappointing way to end the year. While his GSL Code S Ro8 rouns were marvels in themselves, NaNiwa had not placed above top eight at a single event all year long.
2013 - The Revival to tournament contention
The first three months of 2013 saw the end of Wings of Liberty, as Heart of the Swarm awaited. NaNiwa was nowhere to be seen, sitting out any and all LAN tournaments. In April he attended the Svenska E-sportcupen 2013: Norrkoping tournament, beating StarNaN and MorroW each 3:0 to take the small Swedish cup, worth a hefty $4,500+ in prize money. Less than a weak later his new team was announced, it was the all-Swedish Alliance squad.
(Photograph copyright of Helena Kristiansson)
NaNiwa's first event for his new team would be Dreamhack Stockholm. Having failed to ever make the top four of a Dreamhack in his home country NaNiwa had a chance to break new group, with a new game and a new team. In the second group stage things looked worrying as he beat ToD 2:1, lost to Korean Terran Center 0:2 and narrowly escaped unknown Swedish player Buffy 2:1. In the second group stage the Swede again sailed a rocky sea, losing to HyuN 1:2, beating MC 2:1 and clinching a spot in the playoffs by defeating YugiOh. Wins over two Koreans must have boosted his spirits a little.
Taking out TLO and SortOf in the playoffs NaNiwa reached the semi-finals, where his opponent was Jaedong. Much like Flash, Jaedong was best known as one of the greatest winners in the history of BW, boasting every kind of title imaginable in SC2's predecessor. Even more intimidating was that, as a member of Alliance, NaNiwa had been training in the EG-TL house, with Alliance being covertly linked to Evil Geniuses' organisation. There he had faced Jaedong and lost to him.
The tournament was another matter altogether though, NaNiwa shocked his Korean quasi-team-mate by coming back from one map down to defeat him 2:1, the final map being more cheese to defeat a Korean legend. Jaedong had underestimated the Protoss from abroad.
"Honestly, I knew that Jaedong underestimated me because of what he said before the match. He said something incredibly cocky like 'I just want to get this over with so I can get to the final'."
-NaNiwa, speaking in an interview with Alliance following Dreamhack Stockholm.
The opponent in NaNiwa's first Dreamhack final was a familiar face: Leenock. The now 16 year old had cost NaNiwa an MLG championship a year and a half prior, now he stood between NaNiwa and a crown on Swedish soil. The final was a Bo5 and despite valiant efforts NaNiwa fell once more to the Zerg from FXO, 2:3. Unlike his MLG Providence loss, this time NaNiwa could accept he had been the lesser player in the final.
"at this dreamhack I felt like I played the way I wanted to, I just didn't have enough prepared to go into a final like that. I think I was outplayed in that final, to be honest."
-NaNiwa, speaking in a Grilled interview about his Dreamhack final vs. Leenock.
Despite the frustrations of failing to win the tournament NaNiwa still remained committed to the dream of winning a significant international title against Koreans. His victory in Dallas in 2011 had teased him, now he wanted the real thing.
"One of my biggest desires is, obviously, to have that one tournament win. Cos I remember, even when I played MLG Dallas 2011, when I won that the feeling was like 10x as good as coming second anywhere else. Even if I only beat like shitty European and American players, the feeling was like 'I won', what more to do right? But now it's like I come second, I go home and I think 'Fuck that guy! Why?!". And I analyse my play, I try to improve, and I don't have that satisfying feeling that you get from a win. So I guess it's still [...] drives me."
-NaNiwa, speaking in a Grilled interview.
The beginning of the WCS adventure
The trouble for NaNiwa was that the implementation of WCS in 2013, making GSL into the Korean edition, meant that his days of practicing hard to try and win GSL were no more. In that scenario he had been hoping to one day take down a GSL and in one fell swoop make up for all of his previous losses, winning the hardest competition in the world against Koreans. Now he would be limited to foreign tournaments, which, due to their short time spans, did not play into his approach of practicing heavily for specific opponents. This year would require a new kind of adaptation from NaNiwa, if he were to succeed.
Qualifying for the offline stage of the first WCS Europe season NaNiwa drew a group of VortiX, Happy and BabyKnight. Consecutive 0:2 losses to BabyKnight and VortiX eliminated him without any fanfare at all, beyond the minor furor created by him refusing to shake the latter's hand.
A month later NaNiwa played another domestic tournament in Sweden. The E-Sport SM 2012-2013: Finals allowed him to make up for the abject failure of 2012's WCS qualifier, as he won over the event and the $11,000+ first prize. On the way he lost to ThorZaIN 1:2 in group play, but beat the EG Terran 3:1 in the final. The event was held at Dreamhack, so the main tournament was to be played also. Despite the success of the past event NaNiwa this time could not navigate his way out of trouble in the group stage, losses to Suppy and Korean Protoss Squirtle costing him a spot in the third.
The month concluded with NaNiwa's first trip to America for the year, attending the MLG Spring Championship. Bulldozing the first three opponents in the bracket 2:0 each NaNiwa added HuK to the list. Korean Terran and 2011 GSL champion Polt stopped him 2:0 in the next match, but in the lower NaNiwa immediately returned to winning ways. Beating TheStC set-up an elimination match against Jaedong, with a chance for each to prove if the Dreamhack semi-final had been any kind of fluke. NaNiwa beat 'The Tyrant' 2:0 to progress. Next up was Dear, a Korean Protoss who had formerly been a BW pro. Facing an opponent NaNiwa actually considered better than himself he was able to overcome him nonetheless, winning 2:0.
(Photograph copyright of Kevin Chang)
Having reached the semi-finals NaNiwa was faced once more by Polt, the Terran who had knocked him out of the winners bracket. Starting 0:2 down NaNiwa was only able to win a single map en route to a 1:4 total series loss to the ex-Prime and TSL man. Once more NaNiwa had finished an event as the highest placed foreigner, with a 3rd-4th placing in the event overall. Most staggering of all was his revelation after the event that he had not wanted to attending, due to a lingering cold. The Swede said he had only gone there since his managers had booked the trip anyway, forcing him into it. Once more he had come to an American event under ill circumstances and prevailed with a top tier performance.
"I think my play was not as smooth as it could have been. You don't get pushed the same way by European players as you do by Korean players. If you have a weak build or a weakness in your build, they will exploit it. So you can refine your builds in Korea in a different way than in Europe. So I think if I was in Korea my builds would have been more smooth, and I could have played a bit stronger, I guess."
-NaNiwa, speaking a Grilled interview on the problems of not having been in Korea to practice for the Summer's events.
WCS events abound
After MLG NaNiwa flew to Korea to stay at the EG-TL house again, having been in Sweden beforehand for a while. Getting back to the grind of laddering in Korea he quickly reinstated his confidence with many hours of practice. The next event was August's WCS S2 European final, once more qualified for the Ro16. Defeating Tefel and MMA, a GSL champion who had since fallen a number of competitive tiers, NaNiwa reached his first WCS playoff bracket of the year. His opponent was the Korean Protoss duckdeok. Mind-gamed in PvP NaNiwa fell 1:3 to the man who went on to become the eventual champion of the tournament. Still, a win over VortiX, in a placement match, secured him a spot at the Season Two finals.
At that event, two weeks later, NaNiwa once more found himself matched with duckdeok. Losing the opener to the WCS S2 EU champion seemed to have all but eliminated NaNiwa, as the next opponent would be INnoVation, GSL monster and champion of WCS S1. NaNiwa erupted on the Korean Terran for a 2:0 win, lighting the foreign flame across the realm. When he defeated duckdeok 2:0 the following day, to reach the playoffs, many were wondering if he was a contender for the title.
In the quarter-final NaNiwa's opponent was drawn as Jaedong, marking the third time that year the two had met. Crucially, this meeting would be a Bo5. Winning only one of four maps NaNiwa was eliminated and Jaedong went on to reach the final. That 5th-8th placing was still good enough to put him tied for the best foreigner in attendance, though it was little consolation after losing to someone he was beaten twice prior.
The online Ro32 phase of the third WCS EU season saw NaNiwa stung and eliminated before the offline phase. His year was beginning to lose some steam, and his chances of getting to the WCS Grand Finals at BlizzCon seemed slim, as he would not be able to gain points from WCS EU or WCS S3 finals. When he decided to skip the next Dreamhack, this one held in Bucharest, it seemed all but a done deal that he would not be able to make it to BlizzCon.
The showdown in New York
Having qualified online, NaNiwa headed out to October's IEM VIII New York Challenge. This would be NaNiwa's final chance to grab a BlizzCon spot, a victory would make it likely he'd be at the WCS Finals, anything else would put things much more up in the air. In the group stage his first opponent was Hack, a StarTale Terran he had practiced against back during his GSL runs. Beating Hack 2:1 set-up a PvP with HerO, who bested him 2:0. The deciding match of the group was a rematch with Hack, who he again defeated 2:1. As the only foreigner in the playoffs bracket of eight NaNiwa was faced with a familiar scenario. This one had a twist though.
NaNiwa's dream of a winning a GSL had died when the new WCS format had been introduced, yet here was a stacked bracket which would ensure he faced top Koreans at every turn. His opening match was against San, who had made the Ro4 of two GSLs in 2011. The semi-finals would be against either HyuN, a GSL finalist in 2012, or DongRaeGu, GSL champion the same year. In the final he would either face HerO, GSL semi-finalist in 2012; Life, GSL champion in 2012; sOs, GSL semi-finalist in 2013 or Curious, GSL semi-finalist in 2013.
In many ways this could be NaNiwa's GSL, his chance to win a tournament stacked with only Koreans and with elite level competition barring him from an individual league crown. The chance that his elimination from Code A and inability to enter WCS Korea had seemingly taken from him now sat before him, if he could but seize it.
(Photograph copyright of Kevin Florenzano - ESL)
The opening match against San looked worrisome enough on its own. San's GSL past was of less concern than his runner-up finish at ASUS ROG Summer, months prior, and the Korean Protoss rolling over sOs, thought to be one of the very best Korean Protoss. If sOs had been pushed aside what chance did NaNiwa face? It seemed quite a high one, as the Swede recovered from losing the first map to win three in a row and eliminate San. Next up was HyuN, who had slain DongRaeGu in ZvZ.
HyuN's history with NaNiwa wasn't in the front of most people's minds, having come in the group stages of the 2012 and 2013 Dreamhack Stockholm events, but NaNiwa knew he had lost to the one-time GSL finalist there each time. As the series opened with HyuN going up 2:0, and NaNiwa's approach failing entirely, the Korean looked set to sweep the last foreigner out of the tournament. NaNiwa produced stellar play to stave off elimination twice and reach a deciding fifth map. With all the pressure in the world on his shoulders, the only one who could prevent an all-Korean final, the Swedish Protoss showed balls that could set off metal detectors at airports, proxying two gateways into HyuN's base, in a spot where the Korean neglected to scout, going for a greedy three hatch opening.
(Photograph copyright of Kevin Florenzano - ESL)
As the units came out of the gateway and decimated the drones of HyuN the Korean knew his semi-final had been turned back on him, NaNiwa had triumphed! After that improbable chapter in the story-line NaNiwa was set for the final, where he would face the mighty Life. Life had not produced big results in some time, falling from the top flight of GSL and even failing at a Dreamhack event, but he was still a player to be feared. At his peak Life had been a prodigy who had shown off the true power of the Zerg race, winning a catalogue of events. From a GSL title over Mvp to two MLG titles, one in HotS, and an Iron Squid title.
(Photograph copyright of Kevin Florenzano - ESL)
Even if the past months had let him down, Life had been a monster in the playoffs, defeating HerO 3:0 and Curious 3:0, failing to drop a map in his playoff run. Now NaNiwa had to do what HerO had been unable to, and more, as he faced the task of trying to win four of a potential seven maps against the Korean Zerg. The series immediately showed the level Life could bring, with the Korean taking the first two maps and frustrating NaNiwa. The Swede's decision-making was not able to keep up with Life's ability to read weaknesses in his build.
In the third map NaNiwa summoned untold strength to survive and prevent the series from slipping to 3:0, striking back with a win of his own. Life continued on to go up 3:1. Another knife-edge decision brought NaNiwa a map win in the fifth game, giving him life at 2:3, but knowing he was still one loss from elimination. In the sixth map Life was too much and took the crown. Despite the best efforts of the Swedish Protoss he had been unable to go the final step and win the tournament victory he had been seeking for more than two years.
The king without a crown
In a sense one could see NaNiwa's fate as cruel one, tormented by eliminations deep in tournaments by some of the best Korean players. Other foreigners have ridden easier brackets to titles and big sponsorships, while NaNiwa had been denied in the finals and semi-finals so many times, and been forced to move from team to team, unable to find a lasting home for his prickly personality. Yet one can't help but find a kind of calm logic to this story.
This is a man who stomped a foreign tournament in the most vicious form imaginable, yet could not take full satisfaction from it in as much as he knew there were better players out there in the world, who he had yet to prove himself against. This is a man who didn't settle for a life where Koreans had to be better, hoping to somehow upset them at foreign tournaments, he moved to Korea and practiced night and day in the belief he could one day become equals with them and beat them on even ground. This is a man who has reached numerous finals and semi-finals, yet two quarter-finals finishes in the hardest league in the world haunt him perhaps the most.
Life is hard, but NaNiwa wouldn't have it any other way. For NaNiwa his goal was set out there right at the beginning: to become the best he can be. To win a foreign tournament would be nice, but if it doesn't come against the best opponents and in circumstances where NaNiwa knows he outplayed those he faced, then one feels as though he'll never find even a moment's true peace.
It's not enough to simply, in passing, mention that NaNiwa has had some ludicrously stacked bracket draws. This is a man who has been eliminated in the bracket stage of offline tournaments 12 times by the eventual champion and six times by the eventual runner-up, totaling 16 eliminations at the hand of an eventual finalist. For all the good fortune some may highlight of his GSL group stage runs avoiding Zergs, NaNiwa has faced masters of their race in each of his Ro8 draws. NaNiwa has not had it easy, but NaNiwa is not looking for easy.
When the last chapter of NaNiwa's story is written he may or may not have secured for himself that elusive major international victory, but one can rest assured that if he does it will have come after years of hard toil and exertion. The alchemical goal of turning lead into gold was symbolic of the internal path of transforming the gross spirit into a more enlightened one. Refining the lesser parts of oneself until one is attuned to the highest aspects of the self.
NaNiwa's quest may never end, but he is not poorer for having followed it. One may remember the striking line in Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, regarding the titular mythological Greek king, who was punished by being set the task of pushing a boulder up a hill which would roll back down again, forever, as Camus concludes:
"one must imagine Sisyphus happy [...] The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."
(Photograph copyright of Helena Kristiansson)