March 15, 2008.
Before a roaring crowd of 8,000 fans, a baby-faced Lee "FlaSh" Young-ho triumphantly lifts both arms in victory. He unplugs his earphones, throws himself into his backrest, and gazes upward in a mix of disbelief, relief and bliss. His lips break into a proud goofy smile. He has just become the youngest player in StarCraft: Brood War history to win a StarLeague title.
Fast-forward nine years and three months, and FlaSh is again crowned a champion before a roaring crowd of 8,000 people. He again unplugs his earphones, lifts his arms, collapses into his chair, and gazes upward. His complexion is no longer teenage, but his expression -- and his hunger and drive and awe and glee -- has not aged a single day.
StarCraft: Brood War is making a slow but sure return in South Korea, and so is its best player. On Sunday, FlaSh swept underdog Lee "Shine" Young-han to claim his second consecutive ASL title, making him the first player to win more than one major post-2012 Brood War tournament. Whether he's 15 or 24, rookie sensation or the greatest of all time, KeSPA professional or Afreeca streamer -- FlaSh, it seems, is still FlaSh, and always will be.
"I just kept up my usual regimen."
Taking a seat in one of the gray plastic chairs at the venue's makeshift outdoors press tent, FlaSh starts to tell me about how he prepped for the finals. His face is less flushed than it was on stage just a moment ago, but his voice still rings bright with joy.
"Eat, sleep, train, repeat -- I prepared just like I did in [the KeSPA era]," he says in a matter-of-fact tone. "The routine was maintained throughout the season, starting all the way from the round of 16. I practiced between eight to 10 hours every day."
Many viewers hold the opinion that Brood War's current level of play is lower than what it used to be, but FlaSh emphatically disagrees. While it is true some players -- particularly the older ones -- have given up on recovering and maintaining their skills, a good number have not. A few, in fact, have become far better than they ever were as a contracted professional.
"Everyone is training hard nowadays... so hard, in fact, that I'd say it would be actually impossible for us to have gotten worse," he says. "We practice crazy hours."
"So it's not only you," I say. "Everyone is going all in on this together right now."
"Yes! Yes, yes, yes," he blurts out rapidly, nodding with conviction.
He adds that the pool is not at all limited to TaekBangLeeSsang; plenty of other players, such as Kim "EffOrt" Jung-woo and Kim "Last" Sung-hyun, have been playing very well and are continuing to improve.
The insane hours being put in by competitors is merely half of FlaSh's reasoning, however. Equally important is the fact that everyone is playing on a much higher level of game knowledge compared to the past. Brood War has tactically advanced by leaps and bounds over the last five years. The gap is so wide, he argues, that most of today's top players would easily stomp their KeSPA-era selves.
"I honestly think I'm better than I was in 2010," he says. "The difference between how much we know now and how much we knew then is massive. New discoveries are being made every month -- every day, even. The [tactical side of the game] never stops evolving."
"Yes, you've recently been going more for the early double Starport in TvZ," I add.
He bobs his head.
"Yes. To be honest, back when Brood War 'ended' in 2012, I believed that there was nothing left to learn about the game. But since coming back, I've realized that the game still holds an infinite number of [discoveries] waiting to be made. If I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now, I'm sure that I would win every single tournament."
I feel compelled to point out that he won most of those events anyway, but then I realize "most of" would mean absolutely nothing to a true winner. I instead decide to wrap things up by asking which of his two nicknames -- "God" and "the Ultimate Weapon" -- he prefers to be called by.
FlaSh's lips curl upward into a small, proud smile. "I'm more attached to 'God' because it's a really hard nickname to attain," he says. "But I haven't put up too many performances deserving of that title since I've returned. I feel I should work much harder going forward."
"So even now you think you still have a lot left to show, a lot left to go."
He answers instantly, his voice filled with conviction.