Jaedong fights the end of his career with reckless abandon

Alone in the booth is where Lee "Jaedong" Jae-dong made his legacy. Helena Kristiansson/Dreamhack

"I've been playing for 15 years now. My body is wearing out."

His eyes are bloodshot, his face pained. His tone is subdued, his voice a half-whisper. It feels nothing like a victorious postmatch interview. He almost looks ready to cry.

For most of the past decade, Lee "Jaedong" Jae-dong was a freak of nature who would regularly pull off moves that few had even thought possible. His sheer mechanical superiority -- best exemplified by his inimitable Zergling and Mutalisk micro -- allowed him to play in an absurdly aggressive style without suffering from the inconsistency inherent in such approaches.

But as transcendent as his play was, he could not elude the passage of time. Now, at 27, his body is no longer capable of sustaining the prolonged physical strain of top level StarCraft. It takes only a few games for his eyes to start drying out, his wrists and fingers to start throbbing in agony.

For Jaedong, training has become an act of conscious self-destruction. The best doctors in the country have urged him to quit. They told him that no procedure could undo the damage done to his wrists.

But he can't -- not just yet.

"For today's matches, I practiced as much as I used to during my days as a professional," he says with the faintest tinge of pride.

In his prime, Jaedong was acknowledged as the hardest worker in esports, a machine who put in 16-hour sessions for weeks on end. To have matched those hours in his current medical state is lunacy. But then again, his competitive streak has always bordered on lunacy. He may have lost his cutting edge, but the manic drive that has fueled his entire career remains intact.

And it's killing him as much as it's fueling him.

Due to his unimpressive online form in recent months, many of Jaedong's fans were unsure whether he would perform well in his Afreeca Starleague round of 24 matches. One even went to a traditional fortune teller's house in desperate search of assurance. For Jaedong, the very fact that such concerns had surfaced was infuriating, embarrassing and depressing. He was the best player in the world less than 10 years ago; how wasn't he being considered as a lock-in for a "mere" ASL round of 16?

Jaedong knows why, of course: he wasn't playing well enough. He also knows the simplest solution: playing better. But at this stage of his career (where he has nothing left to prove) with injuries plaguing him (every practice session is causing him irrevocable harm), he's unsure if mindlessly pushing himself to play better is still the best answer.

A small part of Jaedong wants to go all-in again just like the old days -- to break his back trying to win everything or die trying. But that won't really be worth it, and not just because of his health. What he really wants is to be something more than a nostalgic shadow of his former self. And that's something he can't do by playing StarCraft: Remastered a bit better, or even a lot better.

Jaedong will always be the greatest Zerg in StarCraft history, but he will never again be the greatest Zerg in StarCraft history, either. He is still unsure how to process that. He has lost to time; he is lost in time.

"I'm still not accustomed to losing so regularly," he says. "Back in the days, I almost never lost. But now each and every win feels like a struggle. I'm still trying to figure out how to make peace with it."

On the bright side, Jaedong is content with his current life, at least on the whole, largely thanks to continued support from his fans. His physical and existential woes frustrate him at times, but whenever he pulls out a great game, giving his viewers a whiff of prime Jaedong -- those moments of communal bliss, he says, are great enough to sustain him through the darker moments. He also still is pulling positive energy from the memories he made on Evil Geniuses: he says it was one of the happiest periods of his life, and is sad that he can't connect with foreign fans as much anymore.

But Jaedong's playing days are very limited. He will start his mandatory military service sometime next year, and considering his health, it would not be surprising if he lets go of StarCraft a few months before then. There is a high chance that ASL Season 4 will be the Tyrant's last tournament ever.

"I've been pushing myself really hard so far because my fans have high expectations of me, but I probably won't be able to do so for much longer, with my eyes and wrists and stress and all," Jaedong says quietly, dropping his gaze.

"I can't tell you exactly when I'll quit gaming, but it's not that far off."