In South Korea, every man is required to serve two years of mandatory military service and at the age of 27, I knew I couldn’t postpone it any longer. My time had come.
Most men usually serve in the military at age 18 or 19, but under special circumstances, like competing professionally in StarCraft, there is the option to delay it. By the point I signed up, I had already been competing for seven years, which is much longer than the average professional StarCraft career.
Many pro players consider joining the military as a de facto retirement. At the time, I felt like my hands didn’t move as well after not playing for a week, so I couldn’t imagine not playing for two years, especially when competing had been a part of my identity for so long.
But being in the military changed me, in many ways for the better. I noticed that I became healthier and I had the opportunity to progress ranks and become a commander, which was an opportunity to learn valuable leadership skills. The lifestyle was very different from what I had been used to when I was a pro gamer.
During my time in the military, I would still watch professional StarCraft tournaments. I would wonder to myself if I would still be able to keep up with the new players. Even before I started my military service, there were people doubting me because of my age. They say 27 is ancient for a pro gamer.
Looking back, I realise I have already accomplished so much, but it hasn’t always been easy. Early on in my career, I moved to Germany and truthfully, it was a tough time for me. I was so far from my family, from home and in a country where barely anyone spoke Korean.
I felt fortunate to have some teammates alongside me who were also from Korea, so I at least had some people to communicate with.
Being in Germany, I felt like I had no personal time. I was living in a house with other gamers, spending the majority of my time playing StarCraft. If I did go out, it was my teammates, especially the ones who spoke Korean as well, but I didn’t spend much time alone at all. Time to myself was something I needed, it was something I missed.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful. StarCraft has changed my life in ways I could have never imagined and my career has been amazing.
This year, I am to be featured in a documentary: Gamechangers: Dreams of BlizzCon, I’m so excited for it. In Korea, cameras only follow celebrities; I had no idea that I was capable of being the subject of a documentary.
I will always remember winning the Blizzard Cup at BlizzCon 2011. After I won, I rose from my seat to see 25,000 fans cheering: “MMA! MMA!”. That moment was incredible, I wanted to cry but no tears would come out. It was the first time I really felt like I made the right decision to become a pro gamer.
Ultimately, I think I always knew that I wanted to come back to playing StarCraft so it was an easy decision to announce my return toward the end of my military service. Even though I have accomplished a lot as a player, there is still more I want to achieve.
I have dreams of winning again on the stage at BlizzCon – losing 4-1 to Life in the 2014 WCS Global Finals is a nightmare that still haunts me to this day.
My first game back after military service was special. I was feeling a lot of emotions: I was extremely nervous and I wasn’t focused on winning but improving, so I wasn’t disappointed when I lost. I didn’t think that winning was a reasonable expectation since I had spent so much time away from the game.
Even now, my only objective is to get better. I can admit that my skill isn’t where it used to be and I know I still have a long way to go. I’m going to work hard until I get back to where I was.
StarCraft is my only focus. I think it’s important to only be focused on one thing at a time since this is how I’m going to become the best. Spending time thinking about anything else only detracts from my focus and I need to be fully committed to playing if I’m going to accomplish my goals.
Although retirement is a subject that others have brought up to me a lot, it is not something I like to think of. Right now I am competing – why would I waste my time worrying about something that isn’t here yet?
I don’t think my retirement will be for a while anyway. Age is just a number. I am going to play until I physically cannot do it anymore; I’ll play until my fingers fall off and I am forced to retire! I am confident when the time comes to retire, the right opportunity will present itself, so there’s no reason to worry about it much right now.
I feel so grateful for everything that competitive StarCraft has done for me. That is why I am going to continue to work as hard as I can, so that when I do eventually retire, I have no regrets.
I don’t want to think about a life without StarCraft. It’s who I am. It’s what I live for.
Image Credit: Helena Kristiansson for Dreamhack / Team Expert