It's time to head back to the past. Meet NaDa, a legendary esports player who knows his stuff when it comes to StarCraft. This superstar sat down with us for an interview many, many years ago to discuss his history in the game and how he rose to the top as a professional player despite some major hurdles. (TW: Death)
(Editor's note: We recognize the outdated capitalization of "eSports", but have left it as originally written for nostalgia's sake.)
It is a rare sight to see an active athlete become a legend; you have to be a Wayne Gretzky or a Michael Jordan to do that. They transform the game, take it into a new age and they scoop up titles along the way. In eSports we have Lee Yun Yeol, otherwise known as NaDa. In the most competitive eSports scene in the world, the South Korean StarCraft: Brood War community, NaDa has retained a top 30 status for 87 consecutive months. That is over seven years as a top eSports athlete, in a game where top players usually fade after two to three.
It wasn't written in the stars that NaDa would become a living legend in eSports, but it is a destiny that he’s created for himself through hard work and perseverance. Born in the Gangwon-do province on the 20th of November 1984, NaDa was the latecomer to his family with his brother and sister being ten and eight years old respectively.
"My mom had me really late, my big brother is ten years older than me and my sister is eight years older. I got a lot of love from them however, and they always took really good care of me, NaDa says when asked about his childhood."
When he was a kid NaDa's family was always on the move, as his father would always be on the lookout for a new job to keep the family fed. Being a kid, NaDa was oblivious to the family's financial status and says that he "was a very happy child" with his sister caring for him.
"My sister took really good care of me, because my parents always had to work till late in the evening. I was very young so I didn't really know that my parents had a tough time earning money."
The lack of money was however visible in other areas. To play video games, NaDa had to resolve to gambling dens for a quick fix of Street Fighter or visiting friends who had gaming consoles. He however never really considered it a problem that he didn't have those opportunities at home, as he was active in school- and sports activities.
During my elementary school I played soft-tennis, a very popular sport in Asia, which is similar to Tennis. I played and practiced almost in a professional way untill I reached highschool. At that point my astmha got so bad that my doctor told me to stop playing if I didn't want to put my life at risk.
"I stopped with the real sport and started spending a lot of time in PC-bangs (red. South Korean PC Cafe). Back then the PC-bangs were becoming really popular and the first game that I played was StarCraft: Brood War I."
When his mother saw how much time and money NaDa spent in the PC-bangs, she managed to scrape enough money together to buy a PC, so the teenager could play the game he loved from home. Arguments soon ensued. NaDa's father wasn't fond of his youngest son lingering in front of the computer, but NaDa says, "he just couldn't stop playing".
As a boy NaDa had dreamed of working with Space Science, exploring the secrets of outer space, while his father wanted him to study law and become a judge. Both of those plans were dismissed when the computer was installed in the home.
"My Father wanted me to become a judge and both of my parents wanted me to use more time on my books than in front of the PC. But I had so much fun playing StarCraft: Brood War I that I couldn't stop. Despite a lot of arguments with my parents I kept playing StarCraft: Brood War I."
Winning It For His Father
On a November evening in 2006 came NaDa's biggest moment in his eSport career. With a victory over Oh Yeong 'Anytime' Yong in the Grand Final of the Shinhan Bank 2006 StarLeague Season 2, he became the first to reach three Ongamenet StarLeague victories and consequently win the "Golden Mouse".
A feat unprecedennted at that time, it marked the comeback from the darkest period of NaDa's life. A year before, in July 2005, his father was killed in a driving accident when an intoxicated driver had made an illegal U-turn and collided with his father's vehicle.
"I wanted to dedicate the victory to my father who couldn't be there, and for my mother who still supported me with all her love."
"To win that Golden Mouse was a very long road, NaDa says when asked about how he managed to keep his focus after his father's death. Back then I was not doing very well because my father had passed away. It was a big shock for me and I was in very bad condition, which caused me to play very bad. A lot of people said that I wouldn't be good again."
"In the tournament itself, I had to start at the bottom of the players list, but I fought my way to the top and won the tournament. I wanted to dedicate the victory to my father who couldn't be there, and for my mother who still supported me with all her love."
"It was definitely the biggest title that I have ever won."
NaDa's life could have turned out very differently if he hadn't started playing StarCraft: Brood War. However, when he started going to tournaments around the city and winning most of them, his parents realized that the hours spent in front of the computer weren't a fruitless waste. Asked about what exactly made his parents change their opinion about his aspirations to become a pro gamer, NaDa quotes the money he brought home was one of the persuading factors.
"StarCraft: Brood War became bigger and I started going to tournaments around my city; of which I won alot of. Thus when my parents saw that I brought money home, they realized that I had potential. Later they even saw me on TV which made them very proud."
There was no real pro gaming scene in South Korea at that time. NaDa attended small tournaments around the city, and brought home prizes much smaller than the ones in the game today. Yet he got a taste of the competition and when StarCraft: Brood War blew up in the country, he signed up for participation in one of the most popular gaming programs where amateur players were pitted against professionals on live TV. The rest is history. Since the 2001 match against Choi In 'Chrh' Kyu, which NaDa won in style, he has never looked back. He won his first professional solo tournament a year later in 2002, and within three years he had won seven of the eight solo tournaments he had participated in.
To NaDa however, it all comes down to the first tournament he participated in. That's where his journey started.
"When Pro-gaming started to be shown on TV I became interested in it. There was a show called 'Beat the Pro' and I was one of the amateurs who beat a pro; and then it all started at an age of 17."
From then on the professional life grew on him. With mores games being aired, he was soon raised to fame and NaDa concedes that the added attention was one of the reasons he chose to become a pro gamer.
"I had a lot of fun playing StarCraft: Brood War and it was the most famous game in Korea. I liked the attention that I got; after winning a tournament, people just knew about it and would come up to me and congratulate me on my win. It was something that you could only receive through StarCraft: Brood War and not through any other game."
Sacrifices and the Future
It is often said in the eSports community that the South Korean national sport is StarCraft: Brood War. That isn't entirely true, but it is estimated that around 40% of the total South Korean population of 48 million people play online games regularly. The country has had two dedicated channels showing StarCraft: Brood War games and the Grand Finals in the biggest solo leagues are played in front of live audiences of more than 10.000 people. In this country, where online games are culturally embedded in everyday life, the stars are hailed as normal sport stars and seeing six figure yearly salaries isn't unusual. It does however also means that it is the most fierce competition in the world. Thousands after thousands of young men fail every year, as they try to be drafted toone of the professional teams and make their way up the ranks.
And it isn't all fun and games for the young men who actually end up on one of the only 10 professional teams in the Korean team leagues. First they have to earn their rites of passage, going through a grueling tournament called "Courage Tournament", where only 1 in a 100 will get a pro players license. Then if they are lucky enough to get picked by a team, they will have to move into a training facility called a "Team House".
"The hardest part was to be in a professional gaming house, because you don't have a private life anymore..."
Usually they are large apartments, where up to twenty players live and train together. They sleep in bunkbeds, with 5-10 roommates, and are required to do all of their own chores. The players' salaries can be anything from $500 to $20.000 a month depending on their team status.
As a teenager, this was what NaDa faced. Eight hours of team practice each day, 13 days straight every two weeks, and then several hours of self training to keep up with the competitors. For NaDa however, the practice wasn't the hardest part of being a professional gamer – it was the lack of having a private personal life.
"The hardest part was to be in a professional gaming house, because you don't have a private life anymore, you can't do normal things like other young people."
"I couldn't meet my friends when I wanted and it was really hard to make new friends in the gaming house. I missed the time being surrounded by people with other interests and going to a school. I was very far from my family which made it very tough for me because I missed them a lot."
Another thing that a lot of professional South Korean gamers miss out on is the compulsory military service that all male citizens in the country must take part in. At age 26 NaDa would like to "do something business related" in terms of studying after his professional gaming career, but with a two year compulsory military service ahead of him, he concedes that "at the moment its really hard for me to focus on anything else because I still have to go to the military."
Turning the Page On StarCraft: Brood War
When NaDa's reported $200.000 a year contract with the South Korean professional gaming team WeMadeFox ran out in August 2010 he decided to do something drastic. While his face value would still net him a fantastic contract with another team, he had less and less play time in the team- and solo leagues. Instead of signing a contract somewhere else, NaDa turned to Blizzard's successor to StarCraft: Brood War, namely StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. He wanted a new challenge.
"In StarCraft: Brood War I didn't get the chance to play a lot of official matches anymore and as a professional like me it is all about the game."
"I wanted to show the community that I am still a good player, but in StarCraft: Brood War it was hard to do that with the amount of playing time I got, so I switched to StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty because I knew that in that game I would get more opportunities to prove myself."
And he certainly did. With NaDa switching to the new version of Blizzard's award winning Real Time Strategy (RTS) classic, a whole wave of other Korean players turned to it as well. Along with fellow superstar Lim-Yo 'BoxeR' Hwan, NaDa competed in the GomTV StarCraft League, the hardest and most watched solo league in StarCraft II. The iconic duo have one of the most wellknown rivalries in Brood War and both boast enormous fan clubs both inside and outside of South Korea. Thus it was no surprise that their Quarter Final game in the 2nd Global Starcraft 2 League Season was reportedly watched by more than 700.000 viewers in South Korea.
To most people it would probably be uneasy to give up a certain career and big monthly salary for a challenge but not to NaDa.
"I wasn't afraid at all [that I would fail]; I played StarCraft: Brood War for about 10 years and I was kind of ready for something new."
"I miss the time of my StarCraft: Brood War career where I really wanted to be the best, and I think with StarCraft II I have gotten a new opportunity to get that passion back and show that I am still up there. It is the same feeling that I had when I started with StarCraft: Brood War – that I want to be the best."
Judging by his results NaDa isn't there yet, he is still to record any solo tournament wins, but there are only two players in the world who have retained their GSL top player status called "Code S", namely Clide and NaDa. That is a feat of consistency that none of the winners of South Korean or International tournaments have yet to show, and that is why NaDa is sure that he will come through as a success.
"Till now there is only Clide and me who are that consistent in Code S and I think it is just a matter of time till I will make my breakthrough in Code S and win it, NaDa says before going on to talk about him struggling with players from outside of South Korea."
"I played a few online tournaments against foreign players and I have only taken part in one foreign LAN event at Assembly Summer in Helsinkii . I think the reason for my bad result in Helsinkii is that I need some time to adjust and to get used to foreign events."
"The style that some foreign players have, is very different to the play style that I am used to on the Korean ladder. I know that I will do better in the near future when I have become used to traveling and playing in foreign tournaments."
And he will travel to foreign events. Unlike most other South Korean pro gamers, NaDa will actually have the chance to participate in the International tournaments he wants. His current team, oGs, struck a deal with the German eSport giant, SK Gaming, which will see NaDa and his team mate MC represent SK in International events. In Korean events he will represent oGs and wear their uniforms, but with a SK Gaming patch on it. In International events however, NaDa will be suiting up in SK's iconic shirts and represent them and their sponsors.
"Even when I was young, if I wanted to be good at something I would only focused on that one thing and nothing else."
With most South Korean StarCraft II teams having small budgets, NaDa is actually lucky to be able to participate in US and European events, and he knows that.
"It is a very big opportunity for me and I am very thankful to SK Gaming which gave me the opportunity. In my career I want to participate in as many tournaments as possible and SK is giving me the chance to do so."
"SK's and my ambitions are the same; we both want to be the best in what we do, and I want to represent SK as good as I can in foreign events. StarCraft II is giving me the chance to see the world outside of South Korea which wasn't possible in Brood War, because there weren't any major tournaments outside of South Korea. Now in StarCraft II I can however see many of the countries which I have always wanted to see."
When you think about that it is eleven years since NaDa first joined a professional gaming tournament, one has to wonder how, is he still in the game? When we asked the question NaDa confessed that it's actually pretty simple; he enjoys what he's doing.
"I think that it’s my focus on something that I enjoy. Even when I was young, if I wanted to be good at something I would only focused on that one thing and nothing else. I think that is why I became a professional gamer as well, because if I focus on my game there is not much which can distract me."
For now NaDa can keep that focus on his Korean opponents, as he will compete in his 10th consecutive GSL tournament, which sees him in the same inaugural group as the former winner NesTea and the wonderkid MMA. In terms of International events, the StarCraft: Brood War legend might still have some tuning in to do when facing foreign players; don’t count the Golden Mouse winner out just yet.
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