Fingers, don't fail me now
Swearing aloud in frustration at his stubborn hands -- the very ones that had once upon a time crowned him a StarCraft: Brood War champion -- Kim "Garimto" Dong-soo fights against time tooth-and-nail, making mistakes with every click, painfully aware of every single miss.
Instead of a huge venue with hundreds of roaring fans, he plays alone in his studio apartment, a battered metal laundry rack clearly visible to viewers on his cheap webcam. Instead of a futuristic jumpsuit uniform with corporate logos splashed across his chest, Garimto wears a faded wrinkled T-shirt. There is no product in his receding hairline, no makeup on his aging face, and his room's poor fluorescent lighting is doing him no favors.
Sixteen years ago, Garimto was one of the best StarCraft players in the world. Only four players in the game's history -- Lee "NaDa" Yoon-yeol, Park "July" Sung-joon, Lee "Jaedong" Jae-dong, and Lee "Flash" Young-ho -- have lifted more OnGameNet StarLeague trophies. Only 19 other names have been etched beside his in KeSPA's official Brood War Hall of Fame.
Now, at 37, Garimto regularly struggles against nameless online competitors in Rank F -- the lowest rung of Brood War's ranked ladder -- and loses, too; as much as he wills things to be otherwise, his hands stay slow and his thoughts dull.
In this match on stream, for instance, it's becoming clear that he's overmatched.
As the bloodbath of 43 minutes, 41 seconds draws to a close, he lets out a deep sigh. GG, he types, conceding his defeat. Clasping his hands behind his head, he gazes sheepishly at his webcam, not really knowing what to say to his few dozen viewers. Most of them are his old fans.
During his playing days Garimto had quite a reputation for turning fiery and violent after a loss: He was reported to regularly smash keyboards in anger. On this day, however, no such outbursts take place, not even for show. Even though he knows exactly how bad he has become, and even though it has been happening for weeks, the former champion cannot help but feel embarrassed each time this happens.
He continues to mull over the loss in silence, hands frozen in position. Then a donation message of 50,000 KRW (about $47) appears on his screen.
Great effort, Dong-soo.
He stares at the notification, stunned. Then he covers his face, droops his head, and weeps.
As a StarCraft streamer, Garimto has little to no traction within AfreecaTV, the South Korean platform which houses the nation's rejuvenated Brood War scene. It is largely because he hails from an era too ancient; he is among the forgotten first generation of superstars whose prime came right before the scene fully took off.
Disheartening as the neglect might be, there is little he can do. Glory through combat is not an option, as his level of play is downright pitiful compared to that of his younger successors, whose fingers are still limber enough to dart across peripherals with lightning speed and accuracy. Neither is groveling for attention, obviously, for after all, what more does he have left but pride?
It is not difficult to see why he would choke up at a small bit of recognition.
After rubbing tears away from his eyes, Garimto eventually collects himself enough to acknowledge the next message -- a gibe fully intended to be humorous. He bursts into boisterous laughter.
"Thanks, man! Now that one definitely cheered me out of it," he says, a smile inching across his face as he brings his hands back to his mouse and keyboard to load up another match.
As the next game starts, he gives himself an old-fashioned pep talk, nodding energetically: "Sometimes losses happen, and it's OK! You played well. You made the best out of your current level of skill."
Then he raises both of his hands to face level, shaking them in the air vigorously.
"Fingers, don't fail me now," he prays aloud. "Help me out here, just a little."
During Garimto's glory years, prize pools in esports were modest. Salaries were minuscule. Only the most successful competitors could hope to financially break even over their playing career, let alone prepare for retirement.
But then the world changed. In a cruel twist of personal fate, as Garimto's descent into irrelevance began, South Korean esports started blowing up at light speed. Within just a few years, star players were receiving six-figure salaries and shooting prime-time TV commercials.
Garimto missed out on all of it. He stays in esports to this day, working a variety of gigs in scenes big and small but has never quite taken off huge in any. He works a day job at a small startup company, where he edits and creates video content.
"I'm only up for a short chat, not a full interview. I'm no longer a person worth interviewing. Maybe if I work hard one day I will become one again. But not now. I'm free tomorrow if that's OK with you," Garimto says.
It's a warm and breezy early summer evening. We agreed to meet at Exit 3 of Gangnam-gu Office Station, one of Seoul's most affluent and urban areas: Around are expensive apartments, sleek office buildings, highbrow dessert shops and single malt whiskey bars. He shows up in a blank white T-shirt, shorts, and a carefree grin. Under the golden beams of sunset, they look like beachwear.
We head downstairs to a tiny café next to the subway entrance. I order coffee; he orders plain yogurt. Once we get our drinks, I tell him that I've been enjoying his recent broadcasts.
"I don't think they were that touching. I'd hate to come across as someone more than I am," he says, laughing. "Just to be clear, though, it isn't a cash grab -- I don't even stream that much on weekdays because I'm too tired from work. It's really just me having so much fun playing StarCraft again."
He's asked if he has ever feel regret or jealousy at how the esports payday came right after he retired.
He immediately says no. "Back in my day, the concept of professional gaming itself was controversial," Garimto says. "Whether it even deserved to be called a profession was being hotly debated. It all was a sacrifice of love, a choice made out of pure passion -- none of us went into it dreaming of material gain.
"So I have no regrets, no jealousy. I'm happy with my current place in the world. I'm not that young, but I'm not that old, either, so my journey through life is very much ongoing. It's exciting to work every day to catch up to my old self; to strive to achieve something I could be equally proud of."
He regards with fondness the attention he received in the prime of his youth, but he understands it was and could be only that. He has no intention to clutch onto that past glory.
"I cherish the fact that once upon a time in my life, there was something I devoted all of my passion, talent, and effort towards," he says, "and that I was, if only for a short while, the best at it. That's enough for me."