2016 ESPN Esports Awards: Biggest Disappointment

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

It was a noteworthy year for esports in 2016. There were big team investments, miracle runs and record-breaking prize pools -- but there also were letdowns in competitions and wild organizational issues. In the third installment of our ESPN esports end-of-the-year acknowledgements, we look at the most disappointing moments in the booming industry.


The death of Proleague

The Proleague was tops in South Korean esports for over a decade. StarCraft: Brood War teams would prioritize Proleague over individual results, sometimes forcing players who were making deep runs in tournaments -- with life-changing money on the line -- to put that aside to focus on an important matchup against a team rival. It was always about the team before the player. The team would back the player in practicing and preparing for the individual leagues, but nothing came before the Proleague championship and the prestige of being the best team in the world.

Over the years, teams like KT Rolster would spend obscene amounts of money to conquer foes, buying the best players in the world to form the best team to win Proleague. It was a battle between the giants, the talent breeders and the minnows, such as Air Force ACE, a team that was created for retired pro gamers during their mandatory stints in the military.

This year, the Proleague came to a close after 14 seasons -- the transition from Brood War to successor StarCraft II never rivaled the mid-2000s -- and almost every professional club in South Korea, sans final champion Jin Air Green Wings, closed its SCII divisions. It is an end of an era, and one that can be bandaged but not be healed with more individual tournaments or weeklong makeshift team competitions.

Proleague was the gold standard of South Korean esports, once even bringing mythical attendance numbers of 50,000 plus to watch the finals on the beaches of Busan. Good night, Proleague -- League Champions Korea, the premier League of Legends league, has taken your place, but it has not nearly filled it.

-- Tyler Erzberger

Immortals' rough 2016

Immortals had a good rookie year, but it could have been so much better for the fledgling organization. There were instances in 2016 when it appeared like either its League of Legends or Counter-Strike team could contend for a premier championship, and neither lived up to expectations when the pressure was highest.

For the League team, Immortals put together a record-breaking 17-1 split in the spring -- and yet, when the playoffs hit, everything fell to smithereens, with Team SoloMid upsetting them in a quick 3-0 sweep to knock them out in the semifinals.

Come qualification for Worlds, it was the same story once more: Immortals got third place in the summer split after falling to a lower seed in the semifinals (this time to Cloud9) and needed a single best-of-five win in the North American Regionals to advance. That was another meeting against Cloud9, and Immortals couldn't get over the hump, failing to make the World Championships and having its starting five disbanded in the offseason.

On the Counter-Strike side of things, things weren't much different. The Brazilian side of Immortals, signed from Tempo Storm, did well in minor events and even in some bigger competitions, taking home $50,000 at the Northern Arena. But it has continually failed to advance to the biggest events, like its League of Legends team. Immortals failed to make it to the final CS:GO major of 2016, ESL Cologne, and after appearing like favorites to make it out of the qualifications for the first major of 2017, the ELeague Major, it tripped up in a do-or-die matchup against French G2 Esports in a thrilling overtime game.

The 2016 year for Immortals will be one of positive memories, but also one that -- had a few things gone differently -- could have been extraordinary.

-- Tyler Erzberger

Renegades and Riot

After its first split in the League of Legends Championship Series, Riot Games revoked the slot of Renegades due to various alleged violations.

From Riot's side, a precedent-setting ruling was accompanied by a massive lack of transparency when explaining its decision, causing a team to miss out on potentially millions of dollars. Without evidence, it's difficult to fully place faith in what Riot was saying at the time, and a two-month investigation led us to believe that everything that happened should not have warranted such a harsh punishment.

This shows why the recently enacted third party to arbitrate disputed rulings in the League Championship Series is necessary. In the end, this case leaves a sour taste in our mouths. Esports' biggest and most popular league should not have this kind of controversy.

-- Jacob Wolf

Life is banned for life

Lee "Life" Seung-hyun, 19, is one of the greatest players in the history of StarCraft II, and the best player of the game's second expansion, Heart of the Swarm. He will never be allowed to play professional esports again in South Korea after receiving a lifetime ban in 2016 for match-fixing in 2015. Life was arrested at the beginning of the year and charged a few days later for throwing professional matches.

He was sentenced by a South Korean court to 18 months' imprisonment, suspended for three years, as well as a KRW70,000,000 (about USD$58,000) fine. He was also stripped of his 2014 World Championship Series BlizzCon gold medal and his name was removed from the list of winners on the commemorative trophy.

He threw two matches, and that was all it took to ruin his career, future and any possibility of being in the world of esports again.

A true prodigy, Life sprung up in the scene in the early days of StarCraft II as a confident 15-year-old who carried a minnow pro team, ZeNex, to relevance in team leagues through his overwhelming Zerg play. From there, Life would go on to become one of the greatest individual players, winning various tournaments and even winning his first Global StarCraft League against the game's greatest of all time, Jung "Mvp" Jong-hyun, in a series that was seen as a passing of the torch between the crafty four-time GSL champion and the upcoming teenager.

And we'll never see him compete again.

-- Tyler Erzberger

Luminosity and SK Gaming contract disputes

In May, ESPN reported on contract disputes between SK Gaming and Luminosity Gaming, two esports organizations that were fighting over the world's best Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team. The players of Luminosity Gaming had signed letters of intent in December 2015 with the Luminosity organization to continue playing for it in 2016. Meanwhile, SK Gaming approached the players directly and eventually signed them right before MLG Columbus, contradicting those letters of intent.

Although SK did not comment to ESPN, they did speak with Duncan "Thorin" Shields and explained their side, stating the letters of intent were broken since no contracts from Luminosity were presented to the players within the agreed time frame of two weeks of signing.

While SK Gaming and Luminosity were the orgs taking the hits, the players also have to shoulder a lot of the blame. There was a massive lack of communication between the players and Luminosity regarding what was going on with SK; then they publicly came out against SK Gaming and attempted to go back on legal contracts they signed. The situation, while resolved, became a messy scenario, and looking back, appears very childish.

-- Jacob Wolf

And the unfortunate winner is: Life

The Life scandal not only tainted various large moments in the history of SCII, it began the final downturn of the game in South Korea, with the last nail in the coffin coming at the end of the year when Proleague was announced to be defunct.

Life was one of the best players in the world and was arrested for his crimes. Even a midlevel player might have been the biggest disappointment of the year, considering the ramifications, but we're talking about someone who could have been a hero in a scene that desperately needed them.

For Life, a player who had the innate mechanical ability to possibly be a master at any game he picked up, it will always be a question of "what if?" At the age of 19, rather than wondering if he could become the greatest SCII player of all time or about which game he could conquer next, he'll sit, a genius unable to compete, forever.

-- Tyler Erzberger