Flying Solo: The amazing career of Korea’s greatest FPS player

Oddball 2022-01-11 12:54:11
  "None of us would choose to be Sisyphus; yet in a sense, we all are." ~ Joko Beck We saw a lot at VCT Masters Reykjavik. Suspenseful games, crazy viewing numbers, and cathartic North American victory. It was all exciting. Something else happened—a less discussed but nonetheless monumental change in esports. It was the last great tournament of Kang "Solo" Keun-chul.  After his team finished in third place, NUTURN Gaming's captain announced plans to retire. It was big news. The Korean superstar accomplished more than a surprise-run in VALORANT. For years he led teams in Counter-Strike 1.6 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to incredible results. In many ways he’s the greatest Korean FPS player of all time. Impressive, right? It doesn’t even scratch the surface. At a glance, you’ll see over 15 years of excellence in major tournaments. Look deeper—you’ll find someone that trudged through hell to compete. Someone that overcame countless adversities and heartbreaks for the love of his game. A man so talented, hard-working, and unrelenting in his goal to be the best, he's more than the greatest Korean FPS player. He's one of the greatest competitors esports has ever had. Let’s give him a closer look.  It’s-The-Worst I'm sure you're familiar with the might of South Korea—a country with many of the most talented players in the world, mostly in games popular there. From StarCraft to League of Legends to Overwatch—when Korea gets hooked on a game, it’s Game Over for everyone else. For a long time boasting the best infrastructure, it’s easy to see why. Brilliant coaches, national brands investing, and an enthusiastic fan base waiting to adore them—how could their players not be incredible? Counter-Strike might've had that. In the early 2000s—around the time Solo started playing—the game was popular. Games thrived or died in Korea’s PC Bangs (internet cafes used for gaming). It’s where the majority of people played. Counter-Strike 1.5 was a big hit with PC Bang owners—cheap and easy to run on computers. Word-of-mouth for the game grew, and Counter-Strike was on its way to having a healthy Korean scene. Then the “incident” happened. In 2004 Valve required PC Bangs to pay them a recurring fee. The owners weren’t happy about this, and Counter-Strike disappeared from their computers. Korean game publishers filled the void with their own FPS. If people played Counter-Strike, usually it was the old 1.5 version of the game, or the watered-down Counter-Strike Online.  Most people would’ve switched over to another shooter. Not Solo. “I’ve been in love with Counter-Strike since I was young. I’ve never thought about any other games but Counter-Strike.” The game dying out in Korea didn’t matter, he wanted to keep playing. Not only that, he wanted to be the best—and the best played 1.6. He didn't care that the road was tough—no people to practice with, lower financial incentive, and no adulation from the Korean populace. He would compete no matter what. This wasn’t him being ignorant to the problems, either. He was aware—his love for the game was that strong. One time when asked about the Korean scene, Solo was blunt.  “It’s the worst!” Third-Time’s-The-Charm His first competition was at WEG 2005 S01. Korean teams were not respected. There was a single notable result by a Korean roster—MaveN Crew’s bronze medal at WCG 2004. Solo joined MaveN Crew, albeit with a different roster. A scrappy young team against experienced Western rosters. How did they fare? Horribly. They finished last, without winning a match.  At WEG 2005 S02, he’d start fresh on a new roster: Project kr. The roster was stronger, adding Seon-ho "termi" Pyeon, among the most successful Korean Counter-Strike players of all time. With Solo, they’d form a partnership bringing fantastic results for years. Just not yet. The Korean representatives again dropped out of the group stage winless. Put yourself in that situation. Investing all your time into something, without no sponsors or major financial returns. After months, perhaps years of dedication—not even winning a match. Many would’ve quit. Solo was different.  Project kr were back at WEG 2005 S03. With top international teams present, Solo winning a game looked as unlikely as always. They did more than win a game. They were one game from taking the entire event—narrowly losing the finals. From no wins to almost winning a top tournament. Third time's the charm.   A-Star-is-Born This run didn't put Korea on the map—MaveN did that. Also, MaveN's players later formed Lunatic-hai, another legendary team that had better results than Project kr in 2005. There was already a growing precedent for Korean teams. There wasn’t ever a Korean star. Until Solo.  Other Korean players were good—and did well to serve the needs of their team. Solo was fantastic every way you looked at it. His aim was excellent. Every weapon—AWP, rifles, pistols—he was a master. He was highly confident, and could transition seamlessly from aggression to defense.  This was a problem—his teammates couldn’t keep up. Many players with his talent would scorn being in that position, and demand roster changes. Solo couldn’t do that—he made it work anyway. Anything the team needed—deadbolt CT spot coverage, a confident AWPer, or someone to lead them in fights—Solo plug-and-played in. Others players settled into clear-defined roles because of the skill of their teammates. Solo spread himself as thin as possible to put his team in a winning position. No matter how frustrating his teammates could be, he trudged on and did his best. Shadow-Boxing That's not to say his team didn't grind—Korean teams are known for intensive practice regimens. It was no different for Solo. He reportedly played more than 10 hours a day, every day. Sounds intense, doesn’t it? Wrong. It was way, way more extreme. Counter-Strike analyst Duncan “Thorin” Shields once wrote “The practice conditions for solo are the worst I've ever heard of for an elite tier player, even beyond those of players like cogu or AdreN, who come from countries with either poor internet connections or not many teams to practice against.” A StarCraft player, an Overwatch or League of Legends team—though different games, these people usually had similar practice. Wake up, scrim against other teams, play public games, sleep, repeat. Solo’s team didn’t have this “luxury”. There were crumbs of players—a fraction of them competent. Any good players could also disappear to the military at any second. There were no Korean teams to practice against. Lunatic-hai existed, but the rivalry between them prevented any practice with them. Because most teams resided in Europe, they had no way of playing them, without high-ping making the game a slideshow.  They did have intense boot camps at places like Inferno Online before bigger tournaments. A week of grinding to get up to speed could only do so much, though. Even if they wanted to be the best, how could they get there? Many would give up, come to terms with the inferior practice. Solo and his team wouldn’t accept that—they wanted to get better. It couldn’t be through traditional means. They’d do it on their own—in one of the most brilliant (and grueling) ways possible.  These men joined empty servers, and dry-ran tactics on different maps. Over and over and over again. No doubt this was boring—imagine performing repetitive drills for ten hours a day, not even competing against an a real opponent. Grueling. 
The results speak for themselves. It’s flawless—the flashbangs perfectly gliding in together, every player moving with one mind, and everything's timed-well to their advantage. They reached a level of tactical excellence no team—not even those in Europe—could match. It was through those means Solo leveled the playing field. No matter the obstacle, his love of the game overcame it.  Staying-Silver After his breakout performance at WEG 2005 S03, Solo wanted to make a name for himself. 2006 started hot—placing third at the stacked WEG Masters 2006. He'd finish 2006 and 2007 with respectable results—nothing as earth-shattering as those initial victories. 2008 he came loaded.  Playing with E-STRO, Solo (and a revamped roster) won almost $100,000—the most successful year by a Korean roster. With top finishes at all the major competitions, it's one of the best years by a single team in history. It’s also one of the most heartbreaking.  At all majors they made at least the semifinals. For the two biggest, they made the finals. They didn’t win a single one. All year Solo got pelted with bronze and silver medals—even more saddening if you look at the situations. Some of their tournament exits were nail biters—finals decided by a few rounds. Many matches were completely stacked against them. Even with their radical training regimen and bootcamps, they played standard. At events like ESCW 2008, they had to play on maps they had virtually no experience on.  It looked so promising. Solo had experience, decent teammates, and a cohesive roster. For whatever reason, whenever it was time to win a big international event, it wasn’t meant to be. Another team had a miracle performance or something else got in the way. Hell, his color-blindness forced E-STRO to use special communication schemes, just to play some maps.  Some of the roster's members left as the year ended. With that, and the frustration of never being a real champion—no one would blame Solo for retiring. As I’m sure you can tell, that wasn't his style.  In 2009 Solo joined WeMade FOX, a team also including Lunatic-hai’s best player Kim "glow" Min-soo. With another clutch, top Korean player in tow, Solo tried to correct the mistakes of the previous year. There were even more.
Almost the entire two years of WeMade FOX were disappointing. They again lost in the finals of majors. Only this time, they weren’t as consistent. For all their finals there were two 5th-6th placements. Many times they didn’t advance past groups! It was as if Solo was back to his years on Project kr. His Counter-Strike career was coming to an end. From constant top placements to every tournament a slot machine—a kick-in-the-teeth for anyone. As 2010 closed, he’d effectively compete in his last Counter-Strike tournament.  What a way to end it.  WEM 2010—where his career began. He’d finally have his day. They got the maps they wanted, everyone was playing well, and they showed fortitude in the hot-seat. They played well in the bracket until dominated by SK Gaming in Winners Finals. Solo didn’t let it get to him. He led his team to a quick Losers Final win, to then comeback and sweep SK 2-0. With that, Solo was a champion. The winner of a top event. Though not as prestigious as IEM or ESCW, it was an impressive and poetic end to his Counter-Strike career (besides one tournament later with a revamped team). He didn’t fizzle out, it was a firework.  Even crazier—he wasn’t retiring on his own accord. As being Korean threw obstacles at him throughout his careers, it also brought the end. In 2011 Solo announced his retirement—called to serve his military duty.  Keep-Going Solo didn't compete during his military service. Even when it concluded, him returning was dubious. There weren’t provisions to have kept him sharp like Air Force ACE. To start competing again, he’d have to go in rusty. Few Koreans in any game make a successful return to competitive play after serving. Solo was one of them.  Along with some old teammates, he began competing in the Korean Counter-Strike Online. The competition wasn’t as fierce as Europe's, but it was the perfect competitive outlet. For three years he competed at the Counter-Strike Online World Championship, winning in 2015.  After that, he and his friends made the plunge into CS:GO. Valve again failed in promoting the game in Korea—the player base miniscule. According to one his teammates, there were again no reliable ways to practice. Improvement came only from analyzing top teams and through simulations. Solo went in anyway.  Although he never had the magic he showed in 1.6, he posted solid results for more than three years—winning CS:GO Asia Summit and eXTREMESLAND ZOWIE Asia CS:GO 2018.  And-Going His endurance didn’t end there: time for VALORANT. Playing for NUTURN, it was a challenge unlike anything he’d faced before. For this game, there was no lack of strong players to practice against. His claim as the best in the region wouldn’t be as easy. A swath of strong teams waited to knock him down. The strongest of them all was Vision Strikers, led by Solo’s former teammate and rival, glow.  In the beginning of 2021, Solo looked the weakest of his career. NUTURN at times weren’t even performing well domestically. VS, though, were making a name for themselves. Not only the best team in Korea, but one of the strongest teams in the world, boasting a 102-series win streak. Even as Solo found his footing, it seemed glow understood VALORANT better. VS placed higher at VCT 2021: Korea Stage 1 Challengers 2, and beat NUTURN at VCT 2021: Korea Stage 1 Masters in a five-game series. Solo realized his playing days were over. He didn’t adapt well to the new tactical FPS, and couldn’t overcome VS. It was a new age for Korean FPS players, as he sadly retired from VALORANT without any big results. Just kidding. Despite how formidable VS were, Solo wouldn’t end his career on a flat note. VCT 2021: Korea Stage 2 Challengers was the Korean qualifier for Reyjkavic. Solo fired at all cylinders. NUTURN not only beat VS, they demolished them 3-0, and then demolished DAMWON Gaming 3-0 in the finals. When it mattered, Solo helped his team to the top of Korean VALORANT. Of course, it wasn’t his closer. 
At Masters: Reykjavik, he came into the tournament like his breakout event almost two decades ago: an underdog. I’m sure he was used to it. NUTURN gave an incredible performance— upsetting teams in clutch fashion, narrowly missing out on the finals. Fittingly, Solo also exited his last tournament just like his first: a star.  It's heartbreaking we'll never see Solo play again. He was never the very best and never reached the pinnacle of competition. To have overcome so many tribulations for the sake of his passion—to have accomplished so much—it's undeniably inspiring. He retires a beautiful example of what's possible with enough hard work and love for your passion, no matter what obstacles stand in your way. Solo didn't choose to be Sisyphus, but he kept pushing the boulder. The rest of us should follow him. 


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