The life of Life: Chronicling the rise and fall of Lee "Life" Seung Hyun

In 2016, global champion Lee "Life" Seung-hyun was banned from South Korean esports for life and imprisoned for match-fixing. Provided by Helena Kristiansson/ESL

He was supposed to become one of the greatest to ever play the game. At age 14, he joined Team Zenex and started competing. A year later he walked the Royal Road and won the Global StarCraft League (GSL) on his first try to become the youngest GSL champion ever.

He has won the second most Premier tournaments in SCII's history. He has accumulated the second most prize money of any SCII player, with total earnings just north of $475,000. As a player, he was masterful and fearless in the face of immense pressure. He quickly rose to prominence, only to fall into slumps, only to rise again. He was adored and respected.

By the time he turned 19 years old, Lee "Life" Seung Hyun had become a fixture in StarCraft II as the greatest Zerg player in its entire history.

But it wasn't enough. On April 21, the Changwon Regional Prosecution Service's special investigations division released a report confirming that Life had been convicted of match fixing in two games for 70,000,000 Won (approximately 62,000 USD).

The matches were fixed in the KeSPA Cup. Life intentionally lost matches to Ha "Terminator" Jae-sang and Cho "Dream" Joong-hyuk. He is now the second high-profile superstar player to be convicted of match fixing. The first was Ma "Savior" Jae Yoon in 2010.

The news was met with shock, anger, disappointment, rage and sadness.

Early career and the Royal Road

Life started out practicing casually on Team Zenex in March 2011 and made his name in the ESV weekly. That was a series of online tournaments that gave competitive structure and small prizes to players outside of Code S. Famously, Life had multiple run-ins with Yun "Taeja" Young Seo. Their meetings in the ESV weekly became a precursor to their careers, in which Taeja would become Life's biggest rival.

Life continued to show promise in the Global StarCraft Team League. He defeated Team Liquid's five-man roster one by one in what is known in StarCraft as an All-Kill.

In 2012, Zenex merged with StarTale. Zenex was more a group of friends playing together; StarTale was an actual team. Within the established infrastructure, Life quickly started to show impressive results. In a span of five months, he moved to second place in the Team Liquid StarLeague and lost only to Jang "Creator" Hyun Woo in the finals. Immediately following, Life walked the Royal Road in GSL Season 4 in 2012.

The Royal Road is a term used when a player makes his first debut in a StarLeague and makes it to the finals. Only the most legendary players in Starcraft's history have walked the Royal Road. Names like Lim "Boxer" Yo-Hwan, Lee "Jaedong" Jae Dong and Ma "Savior" Jae Yoon.

"It is an auspicious event when a new player walks the Royal Road, and players who traverse it add their names to a rare pantheon."

Boxer is, to this day, South Korea's biggest StarCraft star. Jaedong is loved the world over as the best Zerg of all time in Brood War, the precursor to StarCraft II. Savior's career was so dominant that the Koreans created the term "bonjwa," which means "He who stands above all others," to describe him. It is an auspicious event when a new player walks the Royal Road, and players who traverse it add their names to a rare pantheon.

Life's Royal Road was a sensational effort. He beat legends such as Lim "Nestea" Jae Duk, who won 3 GSLs by the age of 30, Ahn "Seed" Sang Wong, regarded as a top player in the world at the time, Lee "Marineking" Jung Hoon, who earned multiple international tournament victories, and Taeja, his rival, to get to the finals. Life beat them all with a completely new approach that focused on extreme aggression, counter-aggression, timing and control of eye movement.

The control of eye movement was a unique talent of Life's. Because StarCraft is played at 200-500 actions per minute, players work eight to 14 hours a day to practice a flow chart of priorities in any given game and scenario. But no matter how fast you are, you have only one set of eyes. Life was a master of knowing where his opponent was looking and attacking, where he wasn't paying attention and, conversely, forcing a player to look at the wrong side of the map as he laid down devastating damage on the other side. Consider it the equivalent of a magician's sleight-of-hand. Life could make you look in one direction, but the real trick was happening somewhere else.

In the grand finals of that Royal Road run, Life met one of the greatest StarCraft II players of all time, Jung "Mvp" Jong Hyun. Mvp has won the third most Premier tournaments in SCII, after Taeja and Life. He has been to six GSL Finals appearances and won four of them. In sheer dominance, no player but Life has had a stronger peak of dominance, but Life's runs lasted three to six months before he hit a slump. Mvp stayed dominant for about two years. His strategies are the very bedrock on which Terran is founded; four years later, they are still employed.

Most importantly, Mvp came to represent something more. No matter how terrible the conditions, he found a way to win. He accumulated what many consider the most "miracle victories" of any player in SCII. His name became a tautological symbol for victory and courage against all odds. This was Life's opponent.

On paper, Life looked to be the favorite. All his matches had been stomps, and he was coming in with a fresh, paradigm-shifting tactical approach. The meta (how the game was being played, optimally) was on his side; in fact, this era of the game was considered the most wildly unbalanced in SCII's history. In short, Life was free to be aggressive as well as economical as he built toward a pair of powerful units called the Infestor and the Brood Lord.

Life showed great dominance early in the best-of-seven series by taking the first two games. Mvp rallied back to win three, which put Life in the biggest pressure situation of his young career. Life showed incredible poise and, with the power of the Brood Lord and Infestor, eventually defeated Mvp's Terran mech strategy 4-3 to clinch his first championship.

He had conquered the Royal Road.

Becoming one of the greats

That was only the start. One week later, Life won the MLG 2012 Fall Championship over Lee "Leenock" Dong Nyoung, a top-three Zerg of the year. Down 0-3, Life beat Park "DRG" Soo Ho at Iron Squid 2 a few weeks later by rallying a comeback win of 4-3. In December, he won the Blizzard Cup Finals over Won "Parting" Lee Sak, a top-three Protoss that year.

Life slowed as Wings of Liberty, the current expansion for StarCraft II, was phased out for the newest iteration, Heart of the Swarm. He briefly surged forward with his victory, as he won MLG Winter over Lee "Flash" Young Ho. That was the first Heart of the Swarm tournament, and Life showed Zerg players that not only was a Mutalisk, Zergling and Baneling composition viable, but also, it was likely the best answer to the new Terran Marine/Mediviac/Marauder/Widow Mine composition. This strategy came to define the Swarm expansion, as it was super aggressive, put tons of pressure on the Zerg and allowed Terran to take the game to an arena of tactical execution.

At DreamHack Summer in 2013, Life was upset by Jeffrey "Sjow" Brusi after he was the favorite to win by a landslide. Many considered him in a slump, which coincided with his lack of rigor, as he stopped practicing as much. By the end of the 2013, he regained his ambition and had multiple top placings in DreamHack Bucharest, IEM NY, DreamHack Winter and ASUS Northcon.

Two of the biggest events of that year -- DreamHack Bucharest in September and DreamHack Winter in November -- had top-tier GSL-level competition, but Life was stopped short by his eternal rival, Taeja. He briefly continued his resurgence going into 2014, as he made the first GSL Code S semifinals, but he lost to the best Zerg of the year, Eo "soO" Yoon Su. Again, Life lost interest and stopped practicing for a while.

By the end of the year, Life revived. He realized he had accumulated enough World Championship Points points to attend BlizzCon, where the world championship for StarCraft is played. He started to practice seriously again, and in a matter of weeks, he went from a good player to the best player in the world. He beat Mun "MMA" Seong Won and won BlizzCon in November 2014.

From this period until the end of the first half of 2015, Life had the greatest run of his career. After winning BlizzCon, he took second at DreamHack Winter against Park "ForGG" Ji Soo. Both at BlizzCon and DreamHack, he beat Taeja to get to the finals. The winning ways continued as he beat Cho "Maru" Seong Ju, widely considered the best Terran player at the time, to win IEM Taipei in January. He then beat Parting for the first 2015 GSL season. Life topped it all off with two top-four finishes at SSL 1 and Kespa Cup 1 and another top eight at SSL 2. Notably, both his SSL runs ended at the hands of Dream.

Again, Life then lost interest in the game, but he had accrued enough points to attend BlizzCon. He rose up again and made it to the finals of Blizzcon against Kim "sOs" Yoo Jin. There he lost a close series 3-4.

The mighty fall

At 19 years old, Life was already the second greatest StarCraft II player to have touched the game. In terms of wins in the history of SCII, only Taeja and Mvp have equivalent records. In terms of South Korean and global success, only Mvp is on the same level.

The problem was that he was a gambler, both inside and outside the game.

While he was rewarded for this in SCII because of his natural talent to predict what his opponent would do, he wasn't so lucky outside the game. In 2016, rumors started to pop up that Life had a gambling problem. There was talk that he had lost $20,000 in a single night. His old manager from Zenex, Yun Hee-Won, said Life had these problems during their time together, but the manger had taken steps to stop the player.

Once Life moved to the KT Rolster in February 2015, this was no longer the case. He was a 19-year-old who had $400,000 dollars and very little sense of responsibility and oversight. Then the match-fixing case came, with Life at the heart of it.

In late January 2016, Life moved to a new team, the Afreeca Freecs. Shortly after, he was arrested while he was being investigated for match fixing. On April 21, a report came out that indicted Life, Jung "Bbyong" Woo Yong and 11 other financial backers and brokers. Sung "Enough" Jun Mo, one of those indicted, was already involved in a 2015 match-fixing scandal with Prime.

"Even with all that, it wasn't enough to supplant Mvp. Life needed more time -- time he will no longer get."

The problem, coupled with Life's gambling tendencies, is how lucrative match fixing is. For throwing two games, Life earned $62,000 -- seven times the amount for first place at the Kespa Cup. The current climate has shown that SCII, and esports in general, have been ineffective or negligent regarding the effects of gambling on youth. In the 2010 match-fixing scandal, 11 pro gamers were caught throwing matches for money.

Based on incidents such as the ones in 2010, Life will likely be fined the amount he match fixed for, be put on probation and be banned from professional gaming for life. KeSPA, the Korean eSports Association, an esports governing body in South Korea, might try to litigate further, as they have done with other match fixers.

When looking at Life's SCII career, there are a lot of things we can say. He was a prodigy who climbed the heights of the SCII pantheon. He was a player who seemed destined to one day take over Mvp's throne as the greatest there ever was. He was a player who changed the way Zergs played the game.

He fell not because of in-game changes in the meta or his form or lack of rigor, but because of his greed and gambling addiction. Life was the boy prince who had everything Mvp did not: God-given talent, a perfect mindset for competition, KeSPA training and salary, youth and the love of fans around the world.

Even with all that, it wasn't enough to supplant Mvp. Life needed more time -- time he will no longer get.

This is how Life's story ends: abruptly, with little fanfare. His career has been cut short before he can overtake the greatest ever. His legacy and achievements have been tarnished by his crimes. His potential has been ruined by his greed and personal failings.

It is a terrible end for one of StarCraft II's most storied players, an end that will haunt his esports achievements for life.