eSports history was made on Monday morning when American Alex "Neeb" Sunderhaft won the KeSPA Cup and became the first non-Korean to ever win a premier South Korean StarCraft II tournament.
18-year-old Neeb, a Protoss player, came out on top of a highly competitive roster of 15 pro gamers over a 6-day event. Neeb played consistently well throughout and crushed his final opponent, Jin Air's Cho "Trap" Sung Ho, 4-nil in a Protoss v Protoss match up.
Watch the moment that clinches Neeb's historic victory below:
So, what's the deal with Korea?
Every country has some sports that they take much more seriously than others. It's safe to say, for example, that in the USA people are more excited about baseball or football than soccer or cricket. In South Korea, a fast clicking finger and perfect build order strategy will get you more prestige than throwing a ball or swinging a bat.
South Korea's StarCraft obsession actually dates back to the late 90s, when the original game came out at the same time that internet gaming cafes really took off as a recreational phenomenon in the country. The first StarCraft was a landmark RTS in terms of replay value, with well-balanced factions and deep gameplay mechanics that rewarded both base and army building strategy (the 'macro' game) and skillful control over individual units and their abilities (the 'micro level).
Over the years South Korea's StarCaft love-affair grew to epic proportions. Nearly 50% of all copies of StarCraft (4.5 million out of 9.5 million) were sold in South Korea, and top players in professional teams earned six-figure salaries, corporate sponsorships, and the adoration of followers and groupies. Professional StarCraft is big, big money, and pulls a huge number of fans, with audiences for important tournaments numbering over a hundred thousand.
With a level of cultural support and enthusiasm for the game, it's no surprise that South Korean champions absolutely dominated the multiplayer game and even heavily influenced the gaming culture and slang in English-speaking countries. Myself and other teens struggling helplessly against Korean players in multiplayer StarCraft in the early years of the new millennium learned to dread the classic taunt 'Zerg rush kekekeke' ('keke' being the 'haha' equivalent in Korean).
16 years ago, a non-Korean did manage to win on South Korean soil. Canadian Guillaume "Grrrr..." Patry won the Hanaro Ongamenet Starleague in 2000, beating South Korea's Kang "H.O.T-Forever" Doh Gyung. But they were playing StarCraft: Brood War, the first in the series (plus expansion). Neeb, who was two years old at the time, is the first non-Korean to win a major tournament of the latest StarCraft game.
Like many westerners with pro-StarCraft ambitions, Patry moved to Korea at age 18 to train and pursue his ambitions. He entered the StarCraft II in his late 20s but was considered a slow, hoary old-timer at that age. It's a youngster's game, and rising stars like Neeb generally have just a few years of prime gaming ahead before they're inevitably usurped by the next generation.
What happens now?
After the KeSPA Cup the pro scene is quiet until the world championship in Anaheim, California at BlizzCon 2016.
Come November 4-5, Neeb has a second chance to make history, this time he has a shot at winning the World Championship Series on home soil. The WCS has so far never had a non-Korean champion, but if anyone has the skills to break the trend, it's Neeb.