To read about the other nominees, head to the bottom of the article.
In a single moment, Joona "Serral" Sotala changed history.
When the 20-year-old Finnish phenom finished off Splyce's Kim "Stats" Dae-yeob in Anaheim, California, to win the StarCraft II World Championship at BlizzCon, it was more than just a single trophy. Over the course of StarCraft's almost 20-year history, spanning from the original introduced in 1999 to the current version of its successor StarCraft II in 2018, no non-South Korean player had ever been recognized as the undisputed best player in the world. Although Serral's resume up to that point was worthy of being considered the best, he needed the world championship to cement it.
Oh, he cemented it.
When Serral first started playing the game professionally in 2012, the thought of a "foreigner" (the name given to non-South Korean players) becoming the best StarCraft player in the world seemed ridiculous. Sure, there were times where players such as Chris "HuK" Loranger and Jonathan "Jinro" Walsh cut their way through tournament brackets and threatened the kings of the game, but those Cinderella runs always ended in heartbreak. Even when someone like HuK would win a one-off tournament at an MLG-sponsored event in the United States, the victory was merely brushed aside as a one-off, something that could never be duplicated in South Korea.
Time and time again the best the world had to offer, from the United States to Australia, would embark on a journey to South Korea, training to become the best and test themselves at the Global StarCraft League. And like clockwork, the hopes of the western community would rise as a new hopeful would break through the ranks and then fall just as quickly, the non-South Korean hope getting walloped out of the competition right when their fans began believing.
In 2009, the best female StarCraft pro player in history, Seo "ToSsGirL" Ji-soo, admitted in an interview that she cried following a loss to American player Greg "IdrA" Fields at an international event. South Korean players weren't supposed to lose to foreigners. StarCraft, which quickly became a national phenomenon when it was released, was synonymous with Korean culture, breaking into the mainstream and capturing the youth's attention like no game beforehand.
And although StarCraft II didn't have nearly the same impact as its predecessor did when it was released, the attitude and results were the same: If you were the best player in North America, congratulations; you might be comparable to the 40th best South Korean player.
Serral wasn't satisfied being a large fish in a small pond. While the infrastructure in South Korea dwindled -- all but one team, Jin Air Green Wings, closing its doors, sponsorships leaving the scene, etc. -- it wasn't until this year where a shift happened in the hierarchy of the professional scene. South Korean players were lacking the practice partners and team houses that once fueled their superiority over the competition, but even in 2017, when things seemed to be turning a corner, the ending was more of the same.
Alex "Neeb" Sunderhaft, the foreign hope from the United States, came into the 2017 World Championship with the same kind of momentum as Serral would have one year later. He didn't get out of the opening round, falling in the group stages with a 1-2 scoreline and not even making the main-event stage at BlizzCon. The final was contested between two South Koreans, and it felt like regardless of how much the infrastructure for StarCraft crumbled in South Korea, with pro players in the country even reverting back to the original game, Brood War, no one would ever break through. Until the final South Korean professional retired from StarCraft II, the world championship would always make its way home to Seoul.
Heading into the 2018 version of the world final, there was a clear favorite from South Korea making his way to California. Cho "Maru" Seong-ju, like Serral, grew up with StarCraft II. When he first began competing, the word "prodigy" was thrown around like it was nothing whenever he competed. From his very first games televised at the age of 13, Maru was on the path to greatness. A part of the Jin Air Green Wings team, the only South Korean pro team remaining from the golden days, he was untouched in 2018. There were three GSL tournaments, and he won all three. No one had ever accomplished that feat, and Maru did as it was some sort of afterthought, only being challenged a few times in his complete supremacy over South Korea.
The 2018 world final was expected to be Maru vs. Serral. The bracket was set up perfectly for the unbeaten titans to meet on the grand stage. If things went wrong, Serral would be out early and Maru would cakewalk to another title victory, possibly being upset by another South Korean in the craziest scenario possible.
Maru went out early in the bracket. Serral won his quarterfinal. Serral won his semifinal. And in the final against Stats, he didn't even need to go to the seventh game, closing out Stats in six to complete a journey thousands had attempted over the past decade. Hundreds of non-South Koreans left their homes to practice and train in the Mecca of StarCraft, hoping to one day become the one to change history forever.
Relatively, the winning moment was anticlimactic. By the time the group stages were over, Serral was already looking like the player to beat. When Maru was eliminated in the bracket, there was no one left to challenge Serral. The Finnish player was no Cinderella. He was no feel-good story. He was the best player in the world, and he played like it.
At that moment Stats tapped out and awarded Serral the world championship, the landscape of StarCraft changed forever. It was easier than ever expected from the outside. For Serral, looking down at the crowd as the credits rolled on the year that had been, it was how he always imagined it.
He always saw himself as the king, and now, finally, he had his crown to prove it.
-- Tyler Erzberger
OG breaks the curse at The International
As Johan "N0tail" Sundstein fought back tears amidst the smoke pumping up from the ground, the crowd showered his team with chants of "O-G." The normally stone-faced leader of the OG organization couldn't help but show a wide smile of pride at his patched-together lineup and their family and friends. They just beat China's greatest hope, and arguably the tournament favorite, PSG.LGD despite all the odds and panels claiming otherwise.
N0tail would be the last to reach for the Aegis and hug it as the confetti and smoke continued to rain down on the immortalized champions.
To say OG was an underdog at The International was the understatement of the year. This was a team that needed a complete overhaul of its roster just months before the actual tournament began. OG lost its biggest star, Roman "Resolut1on" Fominok, and made headlines for all the wrong reasons when team members Gustav "s4" Magnusson and Tal "Fly" Aizik left to join Evil Geniuses. This was a team left for dead. But after a Cinderella run that needed to go through all of OG's former teammates' new teams, it was this same lineup that held up the Aegis.
-- Tim Lee
Cloud9 qualifies for League of Legends World Championship semifinals
No North American team has ever made worlds semifinals.
This was repeated ad nauseum before this year's League of Legends World Championship -- the caveat being that Season 1's World Championship was almost entirely made up of North American and European teams. North America wasn't looking anywhere close to being the strongest region at the event, and only Team Liquid was expected to make it out of the group stage this year.
Despite Cloud9's miraculous history at world championships past, somehow always managing to scrape past groups at least (save 2015), this run was expected to end thanks to their groupmates, Gen.G and Royal Never Give Up, the latter of which was a favorite to take it all.
But Gen.G only won one game total. The volatility of the group and tenacity of C9's lineup propelled them through groups and later over the Afreeca Freecs in quarterfinals. C9 had finally done it. They had made it to semis. Although their worlds run ended in a 3-0 loss to Fnatic, this C9 roster only hit its stride through the back half of the spring split. Making worlds semifinals in the same year would have already been a significant accomplishment.
Given North America's rocky history at worlds, it was made all the sweeter in context.
-- Emily Rand
Leffen wins Melee title at Evolution Championship Series
Prior to August, only four people had won the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournaments at the Evolution Championship Series. Two of them, Adam "Armada" Lindgren and Joseph "Mang0" Marquez, are repeat winners, and in August, Armada looked poised to take it once again.
But then there was William "Leffen" Hjelte, who created one of the most exciting moments in Super Smash Bros. Melee history at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Leffen dominated the upper bracket of the tournament, taking down Joey "Lucky" Aldama, Johnny "S2J" Kim, Hungrybox and Justin "Plup" McGrath. That run culminated in a tense final between Leffen and Armada, two of the few international players who sit in the Super Smash Bros. Melee elite. Leffen ended that final series without much challenge, cementing his status as one of the best to ever play the game after years of vying to earn that title and ushering in a new era of Super Smash Bros. Melee.
-- Jacob Wolf
Cloud9 wins the Boston Major
The ELEAGUE Boston Major in January served up one of the best finals of all time as Cloud9 overcame FaZe Clan in overtime. In conquering the favored FaZe, C9 became the first North American team to win a CS:GO major. The stakes were high, legacies were at stake and it all came down to a thrilling double-overtime on Inferno that will be remembered for many years to come.
Victory seemed certain as FaZe mounted a mighty lead on the final map, but C9 clawed its way to a 15-15 scoreline. Clutches and momentum swings abounded, and the game dragged into a grueling second overtime where C9 edged out its competition in epic fashion.
The excitement was reflected in viewership, as the final for concurrent viewers on a single channel with 1.13 million fans. Serving as both an iconic win for an NA team and an epic final to boot, the Boston Major final was truly a moment to remember.
-- Sam Delorme