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 looked at the most disappointing moments in the booming industry.
Today we celebrate the good in competitive gaming -- miracles happened, Cinderellas stayed out past midnight and underdogs found a way. These are ESPN's best moments of 2016 in esports.
SKT's misfortune at the hands of ROX's Miss Fortune
The ROX Tigers needed an ace up their sleeve to topple constant tormentor SKT T1, and her name was Miss Fortune. After falling down the first set in the last major duel between the two rivals in the semifinals of the 2016 World Championships, the Tigers pulled a fast one on the usually assured SKT, locking in the offensive gunslinger Miss Fortune as a support to push the tempo to a breakneck pace. The move was an attempt to disrupt the defending world champions' rhythm, and it worked, the Tigers not only using it once but twice to take a 2-1 lead over SKT T1 in New York City. SKT T1, not having an answer to the fast-push strategy, decided to ban Miss Fortune the next two games, ultimately winning the series 3-2. Still, no one will forget the night when a well-executed Hail Mary almost took down the unflappable dynasty.
-- Tyler Erzberger
Hungrybox resets the bracket at Evo
The beginning of 2016 was the year of Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma. The 23-year-old Argentinian-American Super Smash Bros. Melee player had already won tournaments like Battle of the Five Gods, Pound and Community Effort Orlando coming into the grand finale at Evo in Las Vegas, where he'd end up in a rematch from last year against fellow Smash god Adam "Armada" Lindgren.
But unlike 2015, Hungrybox won the most important set of his life in 2016. Making a losers' bracket run at the Mandalay Bay Events Center put him at a giant disadvantage -- he'd have to win two sets in the finals to take home the Evo trophy. Yet he did it for the first time in his career in a close, jaw-dropping and emotional series.
-- Jacob Wolf
The wild cards break history
Albus Nox Luna weren't even supposed to win more than a game; hell, even then, one win would have been considered an accomplishment for a team that wasn't shy to disclose how unprepared it was entering the tournament. The players were playing World of WarCraft and scrimming semipro teams from minnow nations when better opponents were available. No one would have held it against them if ANX went a quick 0-6 and enjoyed a well-earned vacation in the United States after controlling the CIS region throughout the year.
Surprising, while fitting, might be too dull of a word to describe ANX's run at the World Championships. Inspiring? Uplifting? Magical? The team went an unthinkable 4-2 in the group stages, including a win over the ROX Tigers, a game that now sits in the pantheon of biggest upsets in the history of League of Legends. While it's easy to look past the group stages and see how the story ended unceremoniously -- I would not recommend watching H2K's 3-0 manhandling of ANX in the quarterfinals -- it would take away from all that ANX accomplished. A team that won through a style it mastered in an unscouted region, a squad that should be the poster child for never taking a team for granted. Albus Nox Luna entered as an unbreakable unit of five, and even in defeat, the unexpected heroes left the same way they entered.
-- Tyler Erzberger
Digital Chaos' Cinderella story
Of all the North American teams predicted to make a run at The International 6 in August, Digital Chaos was not at the top of the list. The team, which only rebuilt five months earlier, got knocked down to the losers' bracket by eventual winner Wings Gaming. And while that would deter most teams, Digital Chaos rallied together and made it to the grand finals against the odds. From victories over LGD Gaming, TNC, EHOME, Fnatic and even North American rival Evil Geniuses, Digital Chaos' run at the KeyArena made the Seattle crowd wild.
-- Jacob Wolf
A new rivalry emerges in Street Fighter V
Street Fighter has been Japan's game for over two decades. Street Fighter V, however, at least in its first season, belonged to two Americans in the final. The main rivalry for the first half of the year was between two Asian Street Fighter legends, South Korea's Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo and Japan's Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi. At the last hurdle, though, the first World Championship of Street Fighter V offered an unexpected meeting between two Americans in the ultimate match, Team Liquid's Du "NuckleDu" Dang facing off with Evil Geniuses' Ricki Ortiz for a first-place purse of over $200,000.
NuckleDu, the best player at the tail end of the year, exited the victor, defeating Ortiz's Chun Li with his R.Mika to win the biggest prize in fighting game history. Come next year, Japan's best will return to make sure an all-American final never happens again, but for one night in Southern California, Street Fighter was the USA's game.
-- Tyler Erzberger
Cloud9 ends a 10-year drought at ESL Pro League Season 4
In 2016, North American Counter-Strike teams came so close to winning it all. Team Liquid, in particular, had done so twice at the Columbus and Cologne majors. No North American Counter-Strike team had won a premier international event since 2006. Yet Cloud9 changed that in Sao Paulo in October. The North Americans took home $200,000 and a lot of pride for such a monumental feat after victories over SK Gaming, mousesports and OpTic Gaming. The ESL Pro League Season 4 finals will always be remembered as the time a North American team made it happen.
-- Jacob Wolf
And the winner is: Hungrybox
"HUNGRYBOX!" said an excited Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton during his time at Evo. It's hard to name any other option moment of the year, as the buildup and anticipation for this win was unparalleled. The emotion shown after the win -- as Hungrybox broke down into tears of joy and celebrated onstage -- made it even more worthwhile.
It really was a "you needed to be there" moment, and it rivaled, if not totally surpassed, the hype of the Street Fighter V finals that came after it. The Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas was ridiculously loud and near capacity as Hungrybox reset the bracket, set his controller down in disbelief for a moment ... then snapped back to reality to string together another set for total victory over Armada. All in all, this quote from Vince Lombardi sums up the moment:
"I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle -- victorious."