A Champion At Last

It’s still hard to believe things turned out this way. When I left for IEM Katowice I thought I had what it took to make a deep run, but I never expected I’d win the whole thing.

Things started off well. I managed to navigate the qualifiers and earn a spot in the main event for the first time in my career. I was feeling pretty good about myself, but whatever excitement or bravado I’d felt upon qualifying was quickly replaced by embarrassment and disappointment as  I started 0-3, virtually eliminating me from the tournament.

I kept having thoughts like, “This is as far as I’ll get” or “Maybe I was meant to be knocked out.” It’s hard to keep fighting in moments like that when everything seems hopeless. I didn’t think I’d make it to the next round, but I did the only thing I could. I grit my teeth and kept playing.

That’s when the impossible happened.

After winning my last two matches, I somehow wound up in a four-way tie for third place in my group. Only one of us would move on to the next stage, but the fact that I’d scrapped back and ended the day with four straight wins gave me the best tiebreakers. Just a few hours earlier I’d been ready to give up, but I think coming back from such a dark place made advancing even sweeter than it normally would have been.

As I went back to my hotel that night I couldn’t help feeling like maybe luck was on my side.

Luck only accounts for so much, though. I’d played terribly against Protoss during the group stage, so I didn’t think there was any way I was getting past Zest. A part of me found it fitting since I already should have been eliminated, but at the same time, I felt like I had nothing to lose.

As I sat down to play the match I kept repeating this mantra, “Just relax. Just relax.” I don’t know how many times I said it that weekend, but I guess it helped.

I knew I needed to be bold if I planned on winning the series, so I kicked things off with an all-in. Zest managed to hold, but I wiped him out when he overextended on the counterattack. The rest of the series was more of the same. Before I knew it the score was 3-0 and I was on to the Round of 8.

I never would have guessed I’d win so decisively, but all beating Zest bought me was a showdown with Serral. Just playing against Serral at such a late stage in the tournament is an achievement. For the second match in a row, I felt like I was playing with house money.

Serral caught me off guard in the first couple games, but he reverted to old tendencies once he got ahead. That change in tactics actually worked in my favour since I was well versed with his traditional playstyle. I’d researched Serral extensively before a tournament in 2018, and it paid off this time, just as it had then. Serral may be the BlizzCon champion, but when it comes to a standard ZvZ, I’m confident against anyone.

I wouldn’t have been jumping for joy, but I would have been satisfied with how the tournament had gone if I’d lost to Serral. Now that he was out of the way and I’d reached the semifinals I started feeling a little hopeful. I knew I had a real shot against herO, and the players on the other side of the bracket were far from unbeatable. With the finals creeping closer the familiar pressure started settling in. But as I’d been doing since the Round of 12, I told myself to relax and focus on the match at hand.

The match against herO ended as swiftly as the one I’d played against Zest the day before. Suddenly I was in the finals for the 11th time in my 11 year career. I’d lost all but one of those and the thing I wanted least in the world was to experience the agony of coming so close again.

I was confident going into the match against Stats, but I think that confidence made me complacent. He jumped out to a 2-0 lead, playing far better than he had during our meetings on ladder prior to the tournament. This was the point in the past where doubt and fear came over me. I’d start thinking about the final before, and the one before that. Suddenly I wasn’t just playing against my opponent, I was battling all my past failures.

This time was different, however. I forced myself to focus on the match. Stats was on fire, so I gave him the credit he deserved and went for the greediest builds in my arsenal. From there he struggled to keep up. Three games later I was up 3-2. He went for an all-in in game six in an attempt to snatch back momentum, but he was playing off the cuff and the timing wasn’t sharp. I defended easily and…

For a second I thought that was game five and I was still up 3-2, but when I looked up and saw the screaming crowd and fireworks shooting up around the stage it finally sank in.

I came to my feet and, while I was aware of what was happening, I felt as if I was in a dream. I just couldn’t believe it was actually happening. After years of chasing a championship, and all the desperation and sadness I’d experienced, I’d finally arrived.

I was a champion at last.

Even now it feels so surreal. Even though I’ve had some time to reflect, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to properly describe the sense of relief and joy I felt in that moment.

Winning IEM Katowice has changed so much. Before it felt like all my second-place finishes were meaningless. But now that I’ve won a championship they’re cast in a new light. It’s almost as if all my sorrow and regret has been put to rest. I’m finally able to put the past behind me.

I don’t know how many times I thought to myself, maybe this is the tournament. Maybe this is the time I finally became a champion. Well this time, it was the tournament. And I’m just so, so happy.

Image Credit: ESL

This is a translation. Find the original Korean article here

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