Larva keeps StarCraft scene alive by channeling McGregor

Im "Larva" Hong-gyu started out his StarCraft career as second-string fodder. How is he embracing his new celebrity? Channeling Conor McGregor. Provided by kenzi/FOMOS

Leaving the cheering arena behind, Im "Larva" Hong-gyu -- 6 feet and 250 pounds -- lumbers into the media room, which seems too small for his size. His hair is dyed reddish-brown, slicked back with a side part. His beard is thick but sharp, a full Garibaldi. And he's wearing mirrored sunglasses. Sure, it's 9 p.m. and it's indoors, but he wants to wear those shades. It completes the look.

The Conor McGregor look.

"He's my role model," Larva says.

It's difficult to remember the last time a professional StarCraft player cited a UFC fighter as his or her idol, but Larva isn't your usual Brood War ex-pro. Unlike most of his current competitors, who can boast decorated esports careers, Larva doesn't have a single bygone achievement to speak of. He was but a "dishwasher" -- a derogatory term for underpaid second-string trainees kept by organizations as sparring partners. Dishwashers rarely if ever would be promoted to the first team. After all, there usually was a good reason they became dishwashers in the first place.

There has been very little upward mobility in Brood War since its professional scene closed in 2012. Save for the ancient ones whose fingers and wrists can't keep up anymore, very few retired players have moved that far from their playing-days ranking in the pecking order. Most who used to be great are still great. Most who used to be good are still good. And most who weren't, still aren't.

"Once a dishwasher, always a dishwasher," or so the saying goes.

For the longest time, Larva was an example. Even though he never stopped playing the game, his play never really seemed to improve, at least not by that much. He was capable of going toe-to-toe against older middling ex-pros, but, against former ace players, he would lose in humiliating fashion most of the time, particularly in offline tournaments, where his chronic stage fright would choke him lifeless.

But in the past few months, as if by magic, something clicked. Perhaps the sixth year was the charm. Perhaps all his years of practice finally started to pay off. Whatever the reason might have been (even Larva isn't sure), he suddenly started to regularly take matches off of the game's best players, sometimes even dominating them in style. Fans couldn't believe it at first. Even his colleagues couldn't believe it at first. Once it was established he wasn't having a fluke month, however, Larva was re-evaluated, re-established, in everyone's eyes. For the first time in his career, he was no longer an example of the Dishwasher Rule; he had become an exception.

To complete his metamorphosis into a legitimate new star, however, one final, critical step remained -- proving his new level of skill in an offline tournament. And to do that, he would have to overcome his nerves once and for all. That's where the McGregor worship comes in.

Larva assumes that McGregor also feels queasy sometimes -- "McGregor is human, too, right?" -- but he's enchanted by how the fighter always expresses the maximum amount of confidence imaginable.

He believes that's how McGregor conquers his nerves. "He always ends up proving his words," Larva says. "I think it's awesome. I want to be like him."

Larva's attempt to channel his inner McGregor (via his outer McGregor) seems to have worked; his Afreeca Starleague Season 4 matches that September night went exactly the way he needed them to. With two upset victories over veteran Lee "Light" Jae-ho, one of the most respected TvZ players of all time, Larva advanced to the round of 16. There is a long way left to go, of course -- if he wants to ascend to superstardom, the minimum requirement would be a semifinals finish -- but for now, he is just delighted that he has made real strides in overcoming his longtime stage nerves.

"I feel like I've just won the entire tournament!" he says, then smiles at how silly it sounds.

There is something curious, at once admirable and adorable, about the way Larva imitates McGregor. In many ways, it feels like a very earnest preschooler wearing a top-quality Superman outfit. His professional stylist did a fantastic job -- the hair and the beard are absolutely on point -- and being a big guy by South Korean standards, his build fits great, as well. Even more impressive is how his intonation and body language were modified to express a noticeably higher level of confidence.

But when he flips off his sunglasses for uninhibited vision before a game, revealing a pair of round-rimmed spectacles that make him look very much like the nerdy 23-year-old he is, the juxtaposition is hilarious. And whenever he makes fun of his own getup -- sometimes he'll yell "F--- Mayweather!" on stream for pure comedy -- his boyish jubilance makes it all feel like a cool Halloween costume more than anything.

StarCraft: Remastered has been doing somewhat well in South Korea since its recent release, but the game hasn't brought in anywhere near as much fresh blood as some fans had hoped. And with many of the scene's most popular stars slated to leave for mandatory military service next year, the rise of a new superstar is desperately needed to retain fans. This is why Larva's emergence -- as a player and as a personality -- is particularly welcome at this point in time. For old viewers, the possibility of someone dethroning Lee "FlaSh" Young-ho is enthralling; for new and potential viewers, the McGregor gimmick is exactly the kind of entertainment that's easy to casually latch onto.

Fortunately for the game, Larva is more than willing to play his new persona up with cocky zingers on air. After locking his spot in the next round, he gave fans plenty to look forward to, talking big about his skill ("I'm a mechanical monster at home -- I showed less than a quarter of that today") and ramping up the hype for future matches ("I'm going to upgrade my ZvZ and sweep all the ex-pros").

Of course, in the end, what matters most is whether he will be able to take down the Ultimate Weapon. Larva McGregor understands this better than anyone, and he has no intention to shy away from it.

"I do want to meet [FlaSh], but somewhere up high in the tournament, like in the semis or the finals," he says, nodding slowly. "I'll need to work on getting rid of my nervousness some more before that."