How StarCraft 2 made Olympic history in PyeongChang, before the opening ceremonies
Canada has claimed Olympic gold in StarCraft 2! Well, sort of.
Sasha ‘Scarlett’ Hostyn, a Canadian Zerg player and perennial fan favourite, conquered the competition at Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) PyeongChang to claim her first ever premier tournament title. Intel Extreme Masters is a benchmark brand in the world of esports, but what made this event particularly special, was its collaboration with the International Olympic Committee.
Esports is a huge and ever-growing industry, with more and more attention being thrust upon it every day. We finally seem to have reached an age where traditional sports personalities and businesses are ready to dip their toes into the world of professional gaming. Though esports scholarships and even multi-million dollar OWL/LCS franchise buyins are perhaps expected at this point in the industry’s path, a collaboration with the Olympics took many fans by surprise. The IOC has had its eyes on esports for quite some time though. A cursory search for ‘esports Olympics’ on Google will show you how far back the debate surrounding gaming in the Olympics goes. Most gamers would say that they don’t care though, and a status quo has been maintained until the Olympics Council of Asia made an esports announcement in 2017.
In September of last year, the 2017 Asian Indoor-Martial Arts Games found itself playing host to competitors in DOTA 2, King of Fighters, Hearthstone, and StarCraft 2. Players from the Asian and Oceanic regions travelled to Ashbagat Turkmenistan to compete, not for prize money, but for medals and pride. Although the event was linked to the Olympic Council of Asia rather than the IOC, the AIMAG esports competitions undoubtedly helped to poke the decision makers higher in the Olympic food chain towards accepting esports.
IEM PyeongChang was then announced in November, just after StarCraft’s developer Blizzard’s annual convention and fan celebration, Blizzcon. Although it was not to be an official Olympic sport, StarCraft 2 was to have an exhibition competition in the lead up to the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Games were to be broadcast on the official Olympic channel, and regional qualifiers would bring the best players in the world to PyeongChang. It’s the first real step that the IOC had taken towards esports.
Almost everything about IEM PyeongChang has been perfect. The production quality was truly worthy of an Olympic broadcast. Each player brought their A-game and their emotions were palpable through the whole week. The talent lineup was exceptional, as one would expect from a StarCraft 2 event, the esport with perhaps the deepest pool of talent one could pull from. The set was fantastic, perfectly fitting into the Winter Olympic motif. It was exactly what I expect to see when I turn on my television tomorrow to watch the opening ceremonies. Even the cuts to and from commercial were amazing, with fiery demonstrations of artists sculpting familiar StarCraft logos and units out of ice.
Perhaps the most perfect part of IEM PyeongChang though, was the truly Olympic moment that was Scarlett’s victory over the Korean Protoss, sOs.
Rise of the Queen of Blades
To understand the enormity of Scarlett’s success in PyeongChang, we must look back in time to her humble beginnings.
Scarlett started her StarCraft journey in 2011, competing in ESL’s women only tournament ‘Iron Lady’. After experiencing some success in these competitions, Scarlett won a tournament organized by Playhem in 2012. Her prize? A trip to IGN ProLeague (IPL) 4. It was here where Scarlett’s performance first put her on the SC2 esports map. She had an unusually deep run for an unknown player, defeating fan favourite and then top foreign (a term used to describe non-Korean professional StarCraft players) Terran Demuslim before finally being eliminated by the Korean Zerg, Golden. Although the biggest storyline for the foreign SC2 scene at IPL 4 was Stephano’s top 8 finish, fans’ curiosity was peaked by the shy Canadian girl who’s Zerg gameplay had brought her so deep in the brackets.
After IPL 4, it wasn’t long until Scarlett became a household name in the SC2 scene. She was recruited to Team Acer in the summer of 2012, and immediately began showing how much potential she had. Shortly after joining Team Acer, Scarlett was crowned Champion at WCS Canada, and later WCS North America. This was a time when WCS held national championships for many countries and continents across the world, and Canada was considered one of toughest grounds for competition. Running up against some of the best foreigners in the world such as HuK, Vibe, and Drewbie, Scarlett took the title of best SC2 player in North America.
With an air of shyness surrounding her, on stage and during interviews, the community’s curiosity for the Canadian Zerg couldn’t have been higher. She was a female competitor who was excelling in a male dominated field, and an LGBT competitor in a culture that was just beginning to become accustomed to progressive culture.
During the Heart of the Swarm years, Scarlett was often the definitive foreign hope in any given tournament. She was seen by many as the best chance for a championship title to be awarded to a player who wasn’t from Korea, and she consistently came painstakingly close. There were many tournaments where Scarlett would defeat an incredibly talented Korean pro, building the hope of foreign fans, only to fall later, on the cusp of victory.
In WCS NA season 2 in 2013 she defeated Alive 3-0 only to finish in 3rd place after falling to JaeDong. At IEM Singapore, she defeated Bomber twice in groups only to fall to Hydra in the Quarterfinals. At ASUSROG NorthCon 2013, she fell to JaeDong once again, this time in the event’s finals. These tournaments were quite the rollercoaster of emotions for Scarlett fans.
Then there were tournaments where although she lost in the end, she still managed to solidify her place in StarCraft 2 and esports history. Her final game vs Bomber at RedBull Battlegrounds New York is widely considered to be the greatest SC2 game of all time. Similarly, she decided to play off race as Protoss vs DongRaeGu at MLG Anaheim. These are incredible moments of SC2 history and immediate must-watch games for any esport fans who haven’t yet seen them.
Scarlett eventually went toe to toe vs the Swedish Protoss Naniwa for the title of ‘best foreigner’. The two each had ardent fanbases who were thirsty for their favourite to definitively hold such a title, and a showmatch was organized by Totalbiscuit, with the two playing not for money, but for Bitcoin. The prize pool was 14 Bitcoin. At the time, the crypto currency was worth approximately $8000 USD. Now, even after the Bitcoin crash we’ve experienced in recent weeks, it would be worth over $100k USD. Naniwa walked away the victor of the showmatch, though he would later leave the scene in shame.
A Brief Lull
Scarlett hasn’t maintained her dominance in the foreign scene, though. In 2015 she briefly attempted to switch to DOTA 2, returning after she didn’t meet her goal of reaching 6.5k MMR within one month (she topped out at 6.2k).
Since the release of Legacy of the Void and the revamped WCS format, Scarlett has been relatively quiet. Other foreign players have risen to contend for the title of ‘best SC2 pro outside of Korea’, namely the American Protoss Neeb, who became the first professional gamer to win a Korean esports tournament since Canadian Guillaume ‘Grrr’ Patry in 1999. She has remained a player to be feared in any given tournament bracket or group, but not to the extent seen in 2013-14. She currently practices in a Korean house of foreign SC2 professionals from around the world, affectionately dubbed the ‘on fire house’ by fans and players alike after a meme that started with Ukranian Zerg Bly.
Scarlett very nearly missed out entirely on IEM PyeongChang, being one of a number of North American competitors who were initially disqualified from the tournament’s qualifiers due to scheduling conflicts with another event, the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG). After community outrage though, tournament organizers for IEM and WESG both came together to organize a solution, and another round of qualifiers were organized, allowing the DQed players a chance to compete.
2018 is treating Scarlett well though, overall. She’s the first foreigner to reach the Round of 16 in GSL, the most prestigious SC2 league in the world, in years. And now she’s claimed her first premier tournament victory, having defeated sOs, one of the greatest Korean progamers of all time. The fact that this is an Olympic story is simply icing on the cake.
As esports grows, there will be many keystone moments. In recent years, we seem to be experiencing more and more. Major investors are funneling money into teams and organizations, championships are being held in full fledged stadiums across the world, and viewer counts are soaring higher and higher.
Wrapping up the Canadian Gold
Scarlett’s victory at IEM PyeongChang is another keystone moment in history. An incredibly important one. She is the first esports competitor to win an event that has direct links to the Olympic games. She is one of the first woman to claim a major esports title.
And one of the all time greatest non-Koreans in SC2 has finally claimed a championship.
Any player’s victory at IEM PyeongChang would have been momentous. The match between Scarlett and sOs couldn’t really have been a better advertisement for esports, though. Two familiar faces fought head to head with all their might, and the unbelievable underdog came out the victor.
As a Scarlett fan, her victory brought out many emotions. As a proud Canadian, I felt overwhelming joy that my nation has been represented so well on the IEM-Olympic stage. Seeing Scarlett hoist the IEM PyeongChang trophy made me realize how this moment will surely inspire/encourage a younger generation of women gamers to take their passion to the pro scene.
IEM PyeongChang represents so many things. There are tremendous things in store for esports, for StarCraft 2, for Scarlett, and for the Olympics.
Congratulations to Scarlett, the Canadian Zerg from Kingston, Ontario.
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Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment's press portal.