There was a time in StarCraft: Brood War when all the strategic intricacies of the game still were shrouded in darkness. It was a time when professional play was as much festive cooperation as it was cutthroat competition. StarCraft was a communal riddle; televised tournaments were where our shrewdest would flaunt their latest leads. With every breakthrough, we would clap and cheer in awe, just like children on Christmas morning.
Lee "Shine" Young-han's revolutionary creativity takes us back to those days of yore. Due to much of his gameplay revolving around mind games and trickery, his style is labeled by some as evil, by others as cheap. But at the core of his approach lies a pure, boyish wonder for the infinite possibilities that the game's canvas provides -- a spark of joy that most of us, perhaps, lost too long ago.
Brood War fans around the world were collectively shocked last Saturday when Shine took out the greatest Protoss of all time -- Kim "Bisu" Taek-yong -- in the Afreeca Starleague Season 3 semifinals. Busting out a series of bygone builds in brilliantly premeditated order, Shine managed to topple Bisu and reach a Starleague finals for the first time in his career. His opponent? The legendary Lee "Flash" Young-ho.
The Typhoon Zerg
Violent atmospheric disturbances have always been associated with Zerg players. The tradition started when the race's first legend, Hong "YellOw" Jin-ho, was christened "Storm Zerg" for his trademark scrappy, turbulent aggression. Shine shares many stylistic traits with YellOw, though his game features an additional nuance.
"One word is enough to describe my style of play: typhoon." Shine
"Usually when we speak of Zerg aggression, hungriness is implied," Shine said. "But mine often incorporates an early investment into economy that will set me up to overwhelm through sheer numbers at a specific point [in the future]."
It's fitting. A storm is a number 10 on the Beaufort wind force scale. A typhoon is 12.
Shine's approach to the game is a part of why he was so successful with ZvZ and ZvPs during his KeSPA career; history proves that aggressive players, who are more than happy to pull the trigger on timing rushes and cheesy all-ins, tend to do much better in those match-ups. Such is not the case for ZvT, however. There is no chronically favored approach. The list of top ZvT players consists of as many offensive ones (Lee "Jaedong" Jae-dong, Kim "EffOrt" Jung-woo, and YellOw) as defensive (Kim "SoulKey" Min-chul, Park "GoRush" Tae-min, and Shin "RorO" No-Yeol), with no bias toward either end.
ZvT has always been Shine's main weakness. Although he defeated Yoon "Mong" Chan-hee in this season's quarterfinals, many fans are still convinced that it remains his Achilles' heel. He views the finals as an opportunity to put an end to such doubt.
"What better stage than the grand finals, and what better opponent than the Ultimate Weapon, to prove my ZvT once and for all?"
The Ultimate Weapon
Flash has a ruthless history of putting an end to Cinderella runs; past victims include Kim "Zero" Myung-woon (2011 ABC Mart MSL finals) and Jin "Movie" Young-hwa (2009 EVER Starleague finals). Universally considered the best player to have ever played Brood War, Flash has carried over his KeSPA-era preeminence in full to the Afreecan continent. Since finding his stride in Season 2, his ASL record stands at a whopping 21W-6L (77.8% WR).
A huge part of why Flash is the greatest player of all time is his game sense -- gam, he calls it -- that lets him to sniff out his opponents' intentions with the tiniest slivers of information. It was what allowed him to land the miraculous Scanner Sweep in Game 5 against SoulKey, a move that single-handedly won him the semifinals.
"Guardians were completely [outside of] my calculations; I probably would have lost if I had not discovered the [Cocoons]," he said. "I just threw out the [Scanner Sweep] because [SoulKey] had produced a few more Mutalisks after the first batch, and that confused me." It smacks of omniscience. Most other players would not even have been confused, let alone correctly surmising in one go the exact location of SoulKey's ace in the hole.
"[Shine] is doing very well right now, but I always play with full faith in my skill. Whatever he comes prepared with, I'll win." Flash
How Shine could hope to stop Flash, when even SoulKey could not, is a difficult question to answer. To be clear, this is due to how the two players' styles match up against Flash's, not Shine being the worse ZvT player overall (though this is true as well).
Flash declared as much himself: "[Shine]'s style completely differs from [SoulKey]'s. [Shine] is slanted heavily towards strategy. I'm good at defending against those [kinds of plays], so I feel confident about the finals."
The Bag of Builds
"I have a number of ZvT builds from my [KeSPA] days -- those I decided not to use on other Terran players -- because I wanted to use them against [Flash]," Shine pointed out.
Brood War is to an extent cyclical, and no player has been better at resurrecting forgotten builds from the past than Shine. In Games 2, 3 and 4 of his semifinals against Bisu, Shine busted out tactics from 2010, 2005 and 1999, respectively, to snatch a 3-1 victory.
Flash is undoubtedly the most impregnable player to have ever played the game, but if anyone could unearth a dusty old tactic obscure enough to bypass his game, it would be Shine. It has been said by both himself and his colleagues that he is aware of every single Zerg build in history, and surely somewhere within the twenty-year annals of Brood War will lie at least one such trump card. The real problem is that he has to find at least four.
With not much time left until next Sunday, Shine has made the unprecedented move of calling for build suggestions from amateurs; his email address is up on his Afreeca channel. The logic is that even if those builds in their submitted forms are unrealistic, he might be able to edit the more outlandish-but-promising ideas up to tournament viability.
Some skeptics have responded to the announcement with scorn, questioning if Shine has even a single secret prepared. In response to such doubts, Shine revealed that while he might not have in hand an entire host of decade-old surprises, he does have "one -- exactly one -- that's a guaranteed win."
Its reveal should be one of the most exciting moments of the grand finals.
The Second Coming
"How I feel about my play right now reminds me of 2010," Flash said.
2010 was the year of deification: Flash made it to the finals of every single Starleague held (winning four out of the six) that season, while also carrying KT Rolster single-handedly to the organization's first Proleague championship. No other Brood War player had ever shown such categorical dominance over such an extended period of time. The community was swift to conclude that no word apart from "God" would be sufficiently panegyrical.
From a purely mechanical standpoint, it could be easily argued that Flash's current form fades in comparison to his of 2010. But physical dexterity is only half of what the highest level of StarCraft consists of. Mentally speaking, he might have become even tougher.
"I'd be lying if I said that I'm entirely free of the pressure that comes from being [the one] with everything to lose," Flash mused, "but I'm dealing with it very well. I guess part of it is because I've recently returned to a level of play that is satisfactory for me, [but it's also] because I've become more mature over the years."
It would be misleading to argue that all of Shine's strengths as a player come from his liberal use of smokes and mirrors, but it is true that he has always benefited from his opponents' second-guessing themselves by virtue of his reputation. A self-confident Flash, however, will be virtually immune to such passive intimidation. If Shine fails to account for it properly, the finals might be even more one-sided than expected.
The Single Father
Shine, 25, is a father of two young boys. Yet to enter grade school, both were occasionally seen in the background of his streams. After he made it through to this season's round of 16, he promised on air that he would "be going home to the boys with hands full of chicken." Hearts melted around the nation. Fans affectionately called him the "Dad Zerg."
Less than two weeks later, he and his wife separated due to undisclosed personal reasons.
For a while, the children stayed with Shine. They waddled into the stream more often, as their mother could no longer keep them occupied elsewhere in the house. Sometimes they would yell out loud for their mother, asking her what she was doing, while Shine streamed.
As Shine advanced further in the tournament, he needed more and more time for practice. It was decided that the kids would need to stay with their mom for a while. Now his streams are silent save for his voice, some music and the sounds of the game.
"Both the hardest event of my life and the happiest event of my life occurred this season," Shine said, "so I really want to end it with a championship."
His voice was calm, stoic, but trembling.
"For me, StarCraft was my one beam of hope," he recalled. "The moments when I could simply focus on the game ... they brought me immeasurable joy during my toughest times."
The very night of his semifinals victory, he logged on for an outdoors stream to unwind and celebrate with his fans. An hour and half into the broadcast, a viewer mentioned his boys.
"I should bring Ju-wan and Ju-young to the finals. They should get to see me on stage."
Shine smiled with misty eyes.
"My Ju-wan and Ju-young," he repeated.
The typhoon approaches flash point. The ASL Season 3 finals will take place Sunday at 6 p.m. Korea Standard Time / 5 a.m. Eastern Time at the Seoul Children's Grand Park Outdoor Concert Hall.