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Why SonicFox is ESPN's player of the year

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ESPN Esports 2018 player of the year (2:24)

He's dominant, genuine, authentic, and above all else, himself. Meet SonicFox, our player of the year. (2:24)

Dominique McLean is done with college. There are better ways to learn.

After two years at the New York Institute of Technology, the former computer science major is switching gears. McLean hasn't attended class in weeks, uninterested in the tedium and expense of a modern American university. If your goal is to create original video games, learning from the internet can be a doable (and cheaper) alternative.

"I want to figure out what I want to do without having to use college," McLean said. "I eventually want to make my own games, but the computer science isn't helping me a lot, so I want to do it on my own.

"It'll definitely be a fighting game. Probably a versus game. I already have a lot of characters and move sets created, but we'll see how it goes when I actually get the time."

Of course it will be a fighting game. For SonicFox, McLean's iconic fursona that looms over the global fighting game community, there have only ever been fighting games. In the beginning it was Mortal Kombat, the first NetherRealm Studios title Sonic fell in love with. By age 13 he was already humbling older players at informal locals. When he was 16, Sonic took home his first trophy at Evolution, the Super Bowl of competitive fighting games.

Now 20, the four-time Evo champion has branched out into Injustice, Skullgirls, Dragon Ball FighterZ and beyond. SonicFox's breakout 2018 has made him a household name in the wider esports landscape, his undeniable talent vivid even underneath the blue fursuit. With over $525,000 in career prize money, Sonic remains the winningest fighting game player ever (not that he cares about the money). It helps that he masters new games at an astonishing clip, actively seeking out accomplished players in order to learn and grow.

"[Sonic] loves to surround himself with people who can beat him," said Curtis "Rewind" McCall, a fellow NetherRealm player. "He seems way closer with people that have given him trouble in past tournaments."

Rewind would know; he beat Sonic at Evo this year on the way to his own Injustice 2 crown. The two then trained relentlessly together in preparation for the 2018 Injustice 2 Pro Series Grand Finals, allowing Sonic to refine the Joker play that would eventually prevail in Chicago. It was Rewind's help that re-energized Sonic's passion for Injustice after he publicly claimed the game had gone stale.

"I'm kinda like Goku," SonicFox said, referencing the famous Dragon Ball protagonist. "I like fighting people who can destroy me, and then I also like becoming friends with them.

"I need players that can push me to the limit, who are capable of making me think outside the box. Every single time I'm capable of thinking outside the box, I know I can get stronger. And because I know they're the type of players who are able to beat me, I know they'll get stronger too."

Thinking outside the box has become SonicFox's calling card, a monument to his unorthodox excellence. It isn't enough to win at every game he touches; he has to do it with characters no one expects. The IPS grand finals run with Joker was classic SonicFox, who brought his all-time favorite character back into competitive play by identifying its superiority in the neutral.

"I enjoy playing characters nobody else uses because I like adding my own little flair to them," SonicFox said. "I keep using characters that aren't really used a lot, and people start seeing that the character is a lot better than they're given credit for."

Sonic's knack for elevating lower-tier characters paralleled his success in (relatively) unpopular games. He could dominate the titles nobody played, but what if he tried his luck in a bigger pond? The world found out at this year's Evo, when Sonic took home his first non-NetherRealm Evo trophy in Dragon Ball FighterZ, the hottest game at the event. Sonic's two sets with Goichi "GO1" Kishida are the stuff of legend; overcoming a Shenron summon in winners finals and then his momentum-shifting side switch in the grand finals after GO1 reset the bracket.

Apart from GO1's set with William "Leffen" Hjelte at Community Effort Orlando this summer, SonicFox's win on the Mandalay Bay stage was the high water mark for DBFZ this year, and one of the best esports moments of 2018 for its drama, level of play, and reverberations across the ecosystem. If you didn't know who SonicFox was before, you did now.

"This year, I think that was my most significant win," SonicFox said of his DBFZ triumph. "It meant a lot to me because of the way I grinded for it, the amount of time I put into it, the amount of friends that helped me along the way. It was very powerful, definitely a big moment for me."

Bored of the stale NetherRealm metas, Sonic intends to continue his adventures in other games. At Dreamhack Atlanta last month, he finished in the top six for Soul Caliber VI, suffering a defeat in the winner's bracket to eventual champion Michael "Party Wolf" Stabile.

And then there's Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a game that legions will try when it releases in early December. Sonic already has a shortlist of intriguing characters (Isabelle, Incineroar, Snake, Bayonetta and Wolf, if you were wondering), and he's got a teacher close at hand: New York roommate and fellow Echo Fox teammate Jon "dekillsage" Coello, who originally came from the Smash scene.

"Hopefully I'll become his protege," SonicFox said.

Unsurprisingly, SonicFox sees SSBU as a learning opportunity, a chance to test his limits again in a year he's surpassed them.

"I'm mainly interested in seeing what fighting styles I can take away from Smash, if anything," SonicFox said. "If I can learn some new ideas from Smash that can translate into other fighting games, that's all I want to do. That's success for me."

Nominees

Serral

For the first time in the history of StarCraft, spanning from the original released in 1999 to the current Legacy of the Void version of StarCraft II in 2018, the best player to end the year is not from the country of South Korea. Joona "Serral" Sotala, 20, has transformed himself from an up-and-coming talent over the years to the world's best player. After winning every WCS event in 2018, he established himself as the best non-South Korean StarCraft II player in the game's history by winning the world championship at Blizzcon. Some players on this list had career years or won numerous championships, but no one accomplished what Serral did in 2018 -- completely reshaping the hierarchy of a game close to entering its 10th year of competitive play.

--Tyler Erzberger

Rookie

It has been a long odyssey for Song "Rookie" Eui-jin to get where he is today. When he first began playing as a pro at the end of 2013, the comparisons with world champion mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok were endless. Even with a domestic championship of his own, it was impossible for Rookie to step out from his senior's shadow. After leaving his home country of South Korea to compete in China, he began his own legacy in the growing region, becoming one of the faces of China's domestic league and adopting his new country as home. Four years after joining Invictus Gaming in China, Rookie finally completed his dream, lifting the Summoner's Cup in South Korea to win his and China's first League of Legends world championship. At this moment in time, there is no better League of Legends player in the world than the man who dually represents South Korea and China, finally in a spotlight of his own.

--Tyler Erzberger

Jjonak

The most striking thing about Bang "Jjonak" Seong-hyun isn't the amount of awards he racked up - Overwatch League Season 1 Most Valuable Player, 2018 Overwatch World Cup Most Valuable Player. Nor is it the OWL success of the former Luxury Watch Blue core as the New York Excelsior, who faltered at the end of the year but had complete dominion over most of the season. Instead, it's how Jjonak's aggressive playstyle on Zenyatta shaped the way that fans, analysts, teams, and other OWL players looked at the support role. He and the NYXL forced other teams to adapt to him and his play rather than the other way around, setting the tone for support players all over the world. Jjonak has said that, like many support players, his role model is former Lunatic Hai, current Seoul Dynasty support Ryu "Ryujehong" Je-hong. Now, for a new crop of up-and-coming support talent, it's Jjonak himself who has become one of the top player icons in competitive Overwatch.

--Emily Rand

7ckngMad

S├ębastien "7ckngMad" Debs doesn't immediately come to mind as a player of the year candidate.

He was a career journeyman, a hard-luck loser and a commentator for Dota 2 in need of a burst of life. After multiple stints on transitional teams, he handed in his mouse and keyboard for a headset and notebook and rejuvenated his career as a coach for OG. 7ckngMad remained just a player that never won the big tournament. But under improbable circumstances, that changed in 2018.

7ckngMad's nigh-impossible year started after the departure of OG's star player, Roman "Resolut1on" Fominok, and forced the coach to stand in and complete the team. With his help, OG marched on to The International with a little momentum in the form of a pair of fifth-place finishes at premier tournaments. Behind the individual skill and versatility of 7ckngMad's hero pool, OG made it to the main event, then put together a Cinderella run.

OG would run into Resolut1on's new team, VGJ.Storm, a fight with former teammates in a clash with Evil Geniuses and China's best team in PSG.LGD for the grand finals. All throughout the tournament, it was the play and synergy of 7ckngMad that kept the team glued together. His leadership from years of playing with different teammates kept the inexperience of OG from showing. And in the end, OG broke its curse and took The International title. The victory was the jolt that popped 7ckngMad's name into the greater public. It was a whirlwind year of positivity that added the best title to his long list of labels: The International champion.

--Timothy Lee

s1mple

In many ways, 2018 has pushed the level of competition in Counter-Strike to new heights. Astralis showed what was possible to achieve with teamwork, and Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev made us reconsider what was possible to achieve through sheer individual strength. A virtuoso in every aspect of the game, s1mple was able to frag at a level we'll probably never see again in Counter-Strike. On the back of his excellence, Na`vi has been able to win four trophies in 2018, with a Major final to boot. His play has earned him universal acclaim as one of, if not the best CS:GO player to ever touch the game, and his form in 2018 will be seen as his crowning achievement. Incredible consistency, along with the highest peak of individual play over 12 months makes s1mple more than worthy of being called the player of the year.

--Sam Delorme