One of the earliest pictures online of professional StarCraft player Jun "TY" Tae Yang is him at the tender age of 12, a smile on his face, wearing sunglasses as his elder teammates on now-defunct South Korean esports organization WeMade Fox pamper him as their young king.
Back then, TY's ID was "BaBy," referencing his young age, even compared to a profession where anyone over 25 is considered ancient.
At 9, TY already was considered a prodigy in the gaming scene in South Korea, placing second in HanbitSoft King of the Star Contest for the game StarCraft: Brood War. After performing at a high level in the Elite School League, the unthinkable happened and the 12-year-old was drafted by WeMade Fox. However, while the amateur scene was difficult, it was nowhere near the level of the professionals, and Brood War at that time at its peak of popularity, a countrywide phenomenon that was built off names like SK Telecom T1's kingpin Lim "Boxer" Yo-hwan and the nicknamed "Genius Terran" Lee "NaDa" Yoon Yeol.
Thirteen years later, only a little over two months into 2017, that kid who made his name embarrassing elders has broken all the prize records for StarCraft II. He has won just over $300,000 and he leads all professional gamers for prize money this year. He has won more prize money of any StarCraft II player in history in a calendar year, and there are 10 months left in 2017. His first-place win at World Electronic Sports Games in China in January, a $200,000 purse, made him the winner of the biggest single-tournament prize in StarCraft II history, and his $100,000 victory at IEM Katowice soon after auto-qualified him for the World Championships at BlizzCon later this year.
Before his current success, it would take a few years for the "BaBy" of StarCraft to find his place in the world. His graduation from middle school sparked his breakthrough into the individual and team leagues, changing the narrative from interesting footnote to actual threat. His coming-out party was the GOMTV Averatec Intel Classic Season 3 in 2009; he made it all the way to the round of 16 before being knocked out by fellow Terran Jo "sKyHigh" Byung-se.
Brood War's prominence didn't last long enough for TY to come into his prime. On WeMade Fox, a mid-table club in StarCraft's Proleague -- the most prestigious Brood War team tournament -- TY probably never reached his full potential in the game, ending with an overall record of 120-107 and just coming into his own in 2012 before clubs switched to StarCraft II full-time.
Being forced to switch to a new game right before he might have become one of the better Terrans in Brood War made it difficult for TY in the first year or two in StarCraft II. But since he joined KT Rolster in late 2013, it has only been a climb to the top for the former prodigy. Behind Lee "Flash" Young-ho -- another prodigy but one who did reach his full potential Brood War, becoming arguably the greatest player the game ever produced -- TY waited in the wings through the Heart of the Swarm patch of StarCraft II. He was a solid player who continued to get better but never outshined his more famous Terran teammate, Joo "Zest" Sung-wook.
It wasn't until the third and final expansion of the game, Legacy of the Void, where TY, then 21, finally broke through. From the beginning of the new expansion, TY was a force, taking the spotlight from the other KT Rolster players, including Zest, who had made a name for himself in Heart of the Swarm. Legacy of the Void was the expansion created for TY, and he showed a quick understanding of the game, becoming adept with the new units and using his now near-decade of experience to push him above the rest of his counterparts.
TY made the finals of the SanDisk SHOUTcraft Invitational II in 2015 before losing to then-Samsung Galaxy Zerg Kang "Solar" Min-soo in the final. TY's first major South Korean final, Brood War or StarCraft II, would come in May of last year, when he made the ultimate stage of the Global StarCraft League and faced his teammate/rival Zest in the final.
Zest, already having established himself in the pantheon of greats, faced TY -- no longer the boy in sunglasses hailed as the next big thing, but a man wanting to fulfill his destiny. When the games were finished and the confetti had dropped, TY was left sitting in his booth, no cheeky grin on his face, but a look of disappointment.
Things only became worse by the end of 2016 for TY. KT Rolster, the club that took him to the next level in his career, dropped its StarCraft II division and TY was now teamless. He didn't qualify for the World Championship, and his peers were seemingly retiring by the day, watching the dwindling future of StarCraft II taking place right in front of them. Long gone were the days of prodigy talk and the cute photos of him being the future of professional gaming in South Korea. He turned 22, a man who had been in the world of esports for over a decade, and all he had to show for it were some close second-place finishes and a bit more than $100,000 in prize money -- a paltry sum compared to some of his less prodigious peers.
TY was a good -- at points even a very good -- professional gamer. But for someone who at 9 years old was dazzling audiences with his genius and drafted three years later by a professional club in the boom period of esports in South Korea, being very good was not enough. If he had retired at the end of 2016 when KT Rolster and all but one professional South Korean club (Jin Air Green Wings) dropped their StarCraft II divisions, TY would be remembered as "the boy who almost could." The kid who maybe, if Brood War lasted a few more years, could have become one of the greatest. The man who maybe, if StarCraft II continued in popularity a few more years, could have become a legend. TY's career would be defined by what-ifs.
But TY didn't quit. Without a team, he ventured into the unknown world of StarCraft II in 2017, and made a point to not become simply an answer to a trivia question for being the youngest professional gamer in South Korean esports. He qualified for the WESG in China in January after surviving a contentious South Korean qualifier. There, he made it to the finals of the overall tournament, going up against Cho "Maru" Seong-Ju in the finals. Maru was the StarCraft II version of TY; he was a Terran player, started his career at 13, and was called a prodigy as well from the beginning. Unlike TY, though, Maru had succeeded individually in StarCraft II, having won two individual tournaments in his career compared to TY's decade of futility.
In the biggest games of his life, TY didn't falter. The years of praise and waiting culminated in TY winning the $200,000 grand prize in China, defeating the more successful (at that time) past version of himself in a thrilling 4-3 victory.
"I've played as a pro gamer for over 10 years, but this was one of the most important tournaments in my life," he told the media following his win with his reward, a golden trophy, sitting in front of him at the news conference. The trophy, maybe just a hunk of metal to some, was the hard work of years put into two different games. It was confirmation that TY would never go down as a what-if. Regardless of how the StarCraft II scene shifted and shrunk, he would stick it out until the end.
Two months after winning $200,000, TY would travel to Katowice, Poland, for the IEM World Championships. There he would face an even more stacked field of all the top players of the game, South Korean and international, to try and win the $100,000 grand prize in Europe.
"I've played as a pro gamer for over 10 years, but this was one of the most important tournaments in my life." Jun "TY" Tae Yang on winning the World Electronic Sports Games in China in January
The tournament was a summarization of TY's career. He came in as a heavy favorite, predicted to finish at least in the top four, and came out cold in the group stages. He was nearly eliminated before he could even make the knockout stages, coming in third of his group of six, barely edging out Jung "jjakji" Ji-hoon to make it through.
In first round of the bracket stage, it would be Zest, now no longer his teammate, awaiting him. This time TY did not lose his cool against his Protoss rival, beating him in four games and moving onto the quarterfinals. After edging out two straight Terran vs. Terran matches by a scoreline of 3-2, he scratched his way to the final where he met another former Protoss teammate from KT Rolster, Kim "Stats" Dae-yeob, now on Splyce.
It was another drawn-out series, going all the way to the seventh set, but TY prevailed, rushing out to center stage to lift the silver chalice as world champion of the Intel Extreme Masters. The crowd snapped pictures and cheered for his success, TY smiling like the old days on WeMade Fox, this time without a team or teammates at his side. He had accomplished it all by himself. When others would have retired and called it a career, a good one at that, TY fought on and won.
When you read stories of kids like TY, 9 years old and already humiliating adults at their craft, they always succeed sooner rather than later. They become the heroes that others depend on. They burst onto the professional scene, garner millions of fans, and become icons before you know it, like Flash and even Maru.
The story of TY is nothing like the others. Whenever he started to gain traction, something would go wrong. His team would disband. The game or patch he was excelling on would stop. He would come across a rival that was just too strong. But he fought. He kept going, and he kept trudging forward, in spite of every shortcoming and challenge thrown his way.
That's not to say TY is unbeatable. Recently he failed to qualify for the StarCraft Starleague Series, losing to Maru in the final qualifier to make it into the main tournament. Another setback right when he was starting to be considered the best player in the world.
But, like so many times before, he will continue on. Not as a prodigy. Not as the boy who almost made, it or the boy who made it right away. He'll be remembered as the infant who turned into a man in front of our eyes over the past 11 years. A man who, no matter the circumstances, will never stop fighting.