16-year-old Reynor quickly ascending ranks in StarCraft

Riccardo "Reynor" Romiti has quickly made a name for himself in Starcraft, becoming the youngest player to ever reach Grandmaster rank at the age of 12. September Dawn Bottoms

LOS ANGELES -- Fifteen minutes into one of his first Korean BBQ experiences, Riccardo "Reynor" Romiti -- the freshly minted StarCraft II World Championship Series Winter: Europe champion -- uttered a phrase he's rarely used, on or off the StarCraft stage.

"I give up!" he said with a sigh, shaking his head.

A piece of beef slipped out of its rice-paper wrapping and onto his plate. Despite his exasperation, once he finished eating the wayward beef, he picked up another piece, placed it on the rice paper and tried again.

To Reynor's right, his WCS trophy gleamed through the smoke rising from the grill. To his left, one of his team managers, GamersOrigin esports director Yann-Cedric Mainguy, laughed. Mainguy wrapped his cut of pork belly with the rice paper and quickly popped it into his mouth. The next attempt nearly succeeded for a determined Reynor, until the rice paper slipped from his chopsticks and fell open.

"You can win WCS at 16, but you cannot eat Korean BBQ," Mainguy said with a laugh.

The dining experience has oddly become a universal esports experience, thanks in large part to South Korea's dominion over most professional esports. It's a shared meal with teammates, friends and staff, regardless of if a player is in Seoul to train against the best or in Los Angeles to compete, as Reynor was the weekend of April 7. Reynor competed in South Korea for the Global StarCraft II League (GSL) and even celebrated his 16th birthday there, but the day of his WCS victory was only his second time eating Korean BBQ.

"I ordered a lot of chicken," Reynor said of his time in South Korea.

Hotel training rooms, tables filled with computers and littered with empty boxes of fried chicken are also a universal esports experience. And so is the game of StarCraft itself. Anyone involved in esports past a certain age will almost always cite StarCraft: Brood War as their first brush with esports and talk excitedly about watching the grandeur of OnGameNet Starleague or bemoan their individual failures on the tough competitive ladder. Nearly everyone in esports has their StarCraft story, whether they played it themselves or were simply inspired and affected by the game.

Above all other things, StarCraft requires finesse.

Patience, cunning and decisiveness are all valued in the real-time strategy game, along with myriad other traits. There's a delicate beauty to the game, a subtlety that requires peerless mechanical skill and the ability to manipulate micro units while keeping an eye on the macro picture.

No other competitive video game tries to split the senses or test mechanics quite like StarCraft. Among all games, even with the rise of more popular offerings and multiple iterations since StarCraft's Brood War heyday, this Blizzard title still has the reputation of being the most difficult esport.

But a game that once brought thousands of fans to the beaches of Busan, South Korea, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money, is aging out of relevance in the esports scene. StarCraft's first edition was released in March 1998, four years before Reynor was born. Its popular expansion pack, Brood War, was released in November that year. By the time his father took Riccardo Romiti on his eighth birthday in 2010 to the store to purchase the game, competitive StarCraft was still reeling from recently uncovered match-fixing scandals in South Korea.

As a wide-eyed Reynor began to play StarCraft, the game itself was at a precipice, before falling, gracelessly and slowly, out of favor for the next several years.

Regardless of StarCraft's trajectory, the game Reynor's father bought him that day in 2010 changed the direction of his life forever.

"I actually have no idea why StarCraft," Reynor said, laughing. "I just saw StarCraft and was like, 'I want this one.' And my dad was like, 'It's the difficult one.' But then I convinced him, and we started together."

Reynor immediately leapt into competitive play, bypassing the game's campaign entirely. He picked Zerg because he liked the micro units, and Zerg has a lot of units. These choices made the game infinitely more difficult for his young mind, but he was having fun. It was a game that he and his father, an amateur StarCraft player in Italy, played together.

When Reynor was 9, he beat his father for the first time. When he was 12 years and 40 days old, he became the youngest player in the history of StarCraft to reach Grandmaster rank, which is the highest ranking for players in a given region of the world.

"I just kept playing and got somewhat good," Reynor said. "And I just played for fun. I climbed the ladder, and it just happened."

The first person he called was his father.

"He was so happy. I remember, I called him at 3 a.m. because I was in Switzerland at the gaming house, and he was so happy," Reynor said. He paused, thinking for a moment before smiling brightly. "Actually, he was worried at first because I called him at 3 a.m., and he was like, 'What happened?' I was like, 'Oh, I got GM!' And he was like, 'That's amazing!'"

As Reynor began to rise through the ranks, competing at various tournaments, StarCraft became even more of a family affair. Reynor's father chaperoned him at his earliest tournaments because Reynor was far too young to go to competitions on his own. His brother also plays; Reynor said with a wide grin that even though his 13-year-old sibling is at Master rank now, he'll never be able to beat Reynor.

"Even when my mom watches the game, she looks at the supply and everything," Reynor said. "It makes it really fun."

Fun is what has kept Reynor playing StarCraft for eight years now rather than switching to another competitive esport. Although Reynor wouldn't call himself a prodigy, he is, by definition and accomplishment at such a young age, prodigious. Most European players with his level of mechanical skill would have sought out a more lucrative and popular esport like League of Legends to stake their future careers on, but the thought of leaving StarCraft has never occurred to Reynor.

That said, the thought of making a career out of StarCraft also never occured to Reynor, either.

"There was not like a turning point for me," he said. "I just started to realize time by time, and so I wasn't like, 'Oh, I'm a pro gamer now!'"

Only after defeating Joona "Serral" Sotala -- the 21-year-old Finnish star and fellow Zerg who was BlizzCon 2018 champion -- to win the WCS Winter: Europe title did Reynor accept that StarCraft could be a potential career. He admitted this, like most things, with a shrug and a beaming smile. If he wasn't making money at StarCraft, he said, he'd likely be doing the same things other kids his age do; as it is, he's still studying computer programming and doing other "normal stuff" when he's not tearing down the biggest stars in StarCraft.

Halfway through the meal, Reynor momentarily abandoned his ill-fated attempts with the slippery rice paper to cook the meat and feed everyone at the table while the group shared StarCraft stories.

For the entirety of his victory dinner, the WCS trophy sat on the table, a proud reminder. Were it any other player, the trophy's place at dinner might have seemed an arrogant display, but paired with Reynor's buoyant, happy nature, it became a genuine celebration of StarCraft itself.

Reynor's existence, not only his personality but his status as a rising European star in the esport, is also a testament to the game. Along with Serral, who's established himself as one of the best players in the world and became the first non-South Korean player to win the WCS Grand Finals, Reynor offers hope for a revival of the real-time strategy (RTS) title's pro scene.

In a world where StarCraft has seen itself outpaced in popularity and marketing by games like League of Legends or Blizzard Entertainment's own Overwatch and the Overwatch League, Reynor's outlook on the game is overwhelmingly positive.

"I think it's because the game always changes," Reynor said of StarCraft's ability to stubbornly stick around as a competitive esport despite many trying years. "Even now, for example, Ling Lurker is a new thing. Even after nine years, you always discover new things. It's also just really fun to watch."

And as for StarCraft being a "dead game"?

"I think it became a joke more than anything else," Reynor said. "This year and last year StarCraft views have been higher than ever, so how can you say it's dead if you're increasing the viewership?"

The same stubbornness that drove Reynor to grind for a year at age 8 in order to beat his father guides his opinion of StarCraft's future and also informs his play in game. In Game 3 of the WCS finals, he used a Ling Lurker strategy that was criticized by other professionals and punished by Serral, giving Serral his first win of the series. Despite losing that game, Reynor resolutely stuck to his strategy, saying that if he had played the matchup a bit better, it would have worked out.

"They keep saying it's bad, but I've never lost with it. This is the first loss," Reynor said, laughing. "I'm like 20-0 until now. It wasn't supposed to get scouted. That's why I lost."

His smile hints that fans might not have seen the last of him trying out this strategy onstage, despite with it being near universally panned by his friends and peers.

Reynor is very familiar with Serral, first as a player in the scene to look up to, then as an occasional practice partner and now as the strongest opponent standing between him and the title of best StarCraft player in Europe. Reynor avoids playing against Serral too often now in practice because he will most likely face him in most competitions.

Their recent bout in WCS went Reynor's way, but it was a rematch of a similarly close 2018 WCS Montreal final that ended with a 4-3 Serral victory that kept Reynor out of the WCS Global Finals at BlizzCon in November 2018. Serral went on to win that entire tournament, beating Kim "Stats" Dae-yeob in the final match in Anaheim, California, and making StarCraft history by becoming the first non-South Korean player to win a global finals.

Despite Reynor's victory over his celebrated opponent in early April, he still isn't ready to call himself the best European player. He'll claim that title only if he wins at BlizzCon.

"I still think in a standard game, Serral is better," Reynor said. "I prepared better for this match, but it's probably 50-50."

With BlizzCon taking place in fall 2019, Reynor's test as a true professional StarCraft player now begins. Before, he was a remarkably young, prodigious talent, taking maps and series off of his presumed betters. Now he's a WCS champion, and his next few results will determine whether this trophy is an outlier or the beginning of a strong career.

Signs point to the latter, and at 16 years old, he likely has a lot more trophies, Korean BBQ victory dinners and rice paper ahead of him, too.