Ever since gamers could first go head-to-head in video games like 1962’s Spacewar and 1972’s Pong, gaming has been the stage for an endless competition. That competition began to attract attention—and money—in the United States during the 1980s. Across the globe, electronic contests grew in size and spectacle in the ‘90s, and then exploded in the new millennium.
Many millions of players flocked to the most competitive games—Quake, Street Fighter, StarCraft, Counter-Strike, League of Legends and more—where competition is so organized, popular, and skill-intensive that it has earned the name “esports.”
Esports is global industry supported by sponsors, teams, leagues, fans and, of course, the professionals who compete at the highest levels and make a living from prize winnings and endorsement deals.
Who are the most important players in esports history, and how can we evaluate them? How can the best Street Fighter player from 1992 be put up against the top Dota 2 team in 2013?
Though they made their marks on different games during different eras, these 10 players possess a combination of skill, star power, and influence on esports history that makes them the greatest of all time. They’ve pushed their teams, their games, and all of esports into new territory.
It would be impossible to put these people head to head—but that’s the fun of an all-time top 10 list. It’s meant to start a conversation. Comparing players across different times and games is an invitation to debate.
10) GrubbyFor 10 years, Grubby has been a happy warrior.
Manuel Schenkhuizen, now a 30-year-old Dutch pro gamer, first made his name as one of the best and most famous Warcraft 3 players of all time. At age 17, he won his first tournament (for €200) in his home country. He became the smiling face of 4Kings, one of the iconic esports teams of the mid-2000s, claimed over 30 gold medals in major events—including six world championships—earned an all-time record seven nominations for Esports Awards and, perhaps most incredibly, stood out against the nearly invincible South Korean and Chinese hegemony in strategy games.
Esports is so much a part of Grubby’s life that he proposed to his wife, Cassandra Ng (a talented Warcraft 3 player herself), at the BlizzCon gaming convention in 2009. The notoriously kind, camera-ready couple have been lovingly called the “Posh and Becks of the esports world.”
Grubby, an Orc player, built a Warcraft 3 rivalry with South Korean Jang Jae Hoe (“Moon”) that remains one of the most hard-fought and popular battles in esports history. In the middle of the last decade, they were the undisputed top two players in the world. Any clash between the two became the main event of any tournament, almost without exception.
In 2006, Grubby and Moon met in the semifinals of the World eSports Games in China. Grubby upset Moon, ending Moon’s incredible 28-game win-streak against Orc players. Esports journalist Rod Breslau has called the match one of the greatest moments in pro gaming history. When Grubby finally won the series, diehard Chinese fans rushed the stage.
Grubby’s other major rivalry, with Chinese great Xiaofeng Li (“Sky”), was so compelling and closely watched that it inspired Beyond the Game, a feature-length documentary tracking the lives and games of the two giants.
Schenkhuizen had an incredible Warcraft career, but he’s not the game’s best all-time player. To fully appreciate Grubby’s greatness and his position on this list, consider that he switched games to StarCraft 2 in 2011 and became one of Europe’s most successful players. He quit one of the richest StarCraft 2 teams ever, built his own brand, and attracted numerous sponsors, all the while remaining one of the most popular and beloved gamers of all time.
At 30, he’s considered positively old-school in esports, a wise, happy talent who still contends for titles today.
Highlights:Grubby vs. Moon, WEG 2006, Warcraft 3
Grubby vs. Sky, WCG 2007, Warcraft 3
Grubby vs. Moon, WEM 2009, Warcraft 3
The Life of Grubby, 2011
Enjoyment of the Game, 2012 highlight video, StarCraft 2
Counter-Strike is an iconic game in esports history. It was the most important game in the West for a decade starting in 1999, and boasted more than its fair share of legends. Names such as Heaton, SpawN, elemeNt, and ksharp just scratch the surface of a list of enormous talents who helped change the public perception of pro gaming in America, Europe, and beyond.
Patrik Lindberg (f0rest), now 28, hails from Sweden, one of the most successful gaming nations of all time. F0rest’s greatest accomplishment is likely his monstrous 2009 run on team Fnatic, in which his perfect play pushed the team to become the highest-earning in Counter-Strike history at a time when many observers worried the game was on its deathbed. For a period, Lindberg was perhaps the most celebrated esports figure outside of Asia.
Since breaking into high-level play in 2005, f0rest has always ranked among the most feared and respected players in his game. With over 50 gold medals to his name, no one blinked an eye when former teammate Patrik Sattermon (cArn) called f0rest the game’s greatest player. Any survey of Counter-Strike players and fans finds countless agreement.
Like Grubby, f0rest has a big extra tack on his resume. Not only is he the greatest Counter-Strike player of all time, he’s also moved on to the game’s successor (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) where he has driven his team, Ninjas in Pyjamas, to become, for a time, what was considered the most dominant esports team of all time.
Lindberg’s shyness and aversion to the media means that, at times, his star hasn’t shone quite as brightly as other players of his caliber. You won’t find his name on tabloid blogs, and you’ll rarely see him involved in any drama whatsoever. He avoids the spotlight in favor of focusing on perfecting his game. That strategy seems to have worked out just fine so far.
Highlights:fnatic.f0rest vs SK, IEM III Global Challenge Montreal Grand Final 2008, Counter-Strike 1.6
2009 f0rest highlight film, Counter-Strike 1.6
f0rest's 65-18 run vs fnatic, Copenhagen Games 2013, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
8) VigossOnce upon a time, in a world long forgotten, Defense of the Ancients (Dota) was just a modification of Warcraft 3. It had a large and growing following, sure, but it hadn’t ascended to the level of StarCraft, Warcraft, or any other major esport in 2005.
More than any other single player, the Russian Ivan Shinkarev (Vigoss) helped change that. Vigoss’s competitive career began in 2005 with a number of local victories. In 2006, he made a global star turn with a team called Virtus Pro.
Virtus Pro emerged from nowhere with a hyperaggressive style that cast Vigoss in the lead role. His teammates referred to him as the mastermind behind their strategies, and fans called him “King of Gankers” for his exceptional speed and “powers of prediction,”reported GosuGamers. Only Vigoss’s teammate, ARS-ART, ever rivaled him for this title.
Vigoss was the best and most exciting player in the game when Dota exploded in China. He became the focus of hero worship in the country as the game spread through the most populous nation on earth. Vigoss inspired countless new players and fans to think of Dota as not just a distraction, but a deep discipline worth mastering. As Dota’s player count overtook Warcraft’s and nearly became the most played video game worldwide, Vigoss was the face of the game.
Dota’s eventual evolution into the two most popular games on the planet (Dota 2 and League of Legends) owes an awful lot to its conquest of China. Although Vigoss can’t take all the credit for China’s adoption and love affair with Dota (you can thank the game’s designers and the multiplayer arena Battle.net for that), he undoubtedly led the way.
Highlights:Vigoss highlights, 2008
Dota best player - Vigoss, 2009
7) Tomo OhiraHectic, loud and now barely remembered, California arcades in the 1990s were the delivery rooms where pro gaming was born. While Japan and the east coast had major scenes of their own, California produced some of the most fierce, visible and mythologized competition anywhere.
Tomo Ohira was its first king.
Ohira has been called “the first legend” of Street Fighter, the Mozart of the game, a player whose historic, tournament-winning streaks are still revered today. From 1991 to 1994, Ohira held dominion on-screen and off as the king of Street Fighter in America. He wasn’t a pro gaming star in the way that we picture them today—with sponsorships, salaries, documentaries, and streams to thousands of viewers—but that’s only because the technology had yet to be invented.
Tomo was one of the first competitors to practice his game like it was a full time job, to passionately and dutifully attend tournaments, and to build a reputation so great that he personally helped inspire what would become the first generation of global competitors.
The height of Tomo’s mainstream stardom came thanks to GamePro, a discontinued video game magazine, popular in the ‘90s. They put Ohira’s face in print and made him the star of a commercial and a strategy guide.
Ohira’s unparalleled physical reactions, mental agility, and indefatigable dedication put him atop his game until he retired at the ripe old age of 17 to focus on chasing girls. Gaming held no possibility of a career—or even much money—at the time. There was no real choice to be made. College and real life were waiting.
Legendary Street Fighter players like Mike Watson and Jeff Schaefer have talked at length about how Tomo reigned over the first ever eSports scene in America.
“If Tomo played, he’s going to win,” said Schaefer. “The kid was way better than me, way better than anyone else. He was the best.”
Was Tomo better than the person many consider to be the best Street Fighter player of all time, the man they call “the beast,” Daigo Umehara?
“I’ve played Daigo,” Schaefer, who famously beat Daigo with a perfect round, said. “Daigo is good. Daigo is no Tomo.”
Highlights:Tribute to Tomo Ohira, First King of Street Fighter, Part 1 and Part 2
Legend of Tomo Ohira, 2009
Tomo interviewed by Mike Watson at Evo, 2009
6) FlashFrom 1998 to 2010, South Korean StarCraft was the most highly competitive gaming scene on the planet. StarCraft had the money and status to create and maintain a vibrant ecosystem for over a decade. Television broadcasts and net cafes wove the game into the fabric of South Korean life. While other games gingerly stepped into the spotlight, StarCraft hit the ground running and never stopped.
The most dominant, highest-earning StarCraft player of all time is Lee Young Ho (Flash), with over $400,000 in tournament wins and hundreds of thousands in contracts and endorsements. In the most widely watched, closely scrutinized, high pressure game on the planet, Flash reigned above all.
Flash owns an absurd 70 percent win rate against the world’s top competition, holds the record for highest rating of all time, shares the record for longest tenure as the #1 ranked player in the world, and is tied for most Starleague wins in a single year, reports Liquipedia. For many modern esports fans, Flash embodies both genius and dominance.
Lee Young Ho once went by nicknames such as “Final Boss” and “The Ultimate Weapon,” but as his list of accomplishments grew, fans started calling him something more simple and to-the-point: God.
Highlights:Flash vs Jaedong, WCG Korea 2010
The Ultimate Weapon, 2009 highlights
Flash vs. Best, Proleague 2011
5) MoonJang Jae-Ho (Moon) is the greatest Warcraft 3 player of all time.
While Grubby won events around the world, Moon won championships in South Korea, the Mecca of eSports. From near the beginning of Warcraft 3’s competitive scene, Moon consistently won against the best competition available anywhere. No one else could make that claim. He became a global icon in the process. In a game that gives players control over four possible races, Moon became known as the 5th Race.
Some Grubby and Sky fans may still challenge Moon’s claim as the most skilled player of all time, but he is certainly the most important Warcraft player ever, bar none. On top of his competitive success, Moon belongs in the history books because of the record-breaking contract he received in 2009. He had been the best player in the world for nearly seven years, and was rewarded with a $500,000 contract with the Korean team WeMade FOX. This salary reflected his global success and status and, most of all, his immense popularity in Asia.
Moon’s salary only makes sense in the context of a series of enormous investments into esports during 2008 and 2009. Newer, more mainstream titles such as Guitar Hero 2, Fight Night 3, Counter-Strike: Source and World of Warcraft were pushing their way into major esports competitions, often with help from the bank accounts of major media corporations. When mountains of money did not equal high viewership and attendance, sponsors soured on the esports industry as a whole.
Entire teams and leagues collapsed. Warcraft 3 suffered a particularly gruesome fate thanks to the artificial inflation of player salaries, of which Moon’s was the highest by far. His salary and, moreover, the environment in which it grew, helped destroy much of the old world of esports and create the landscape in which pro gaming exists today.
However, while misguided investments led to the downfall of Warcraft 3’s competitive scene, Moon himself carried on for several years by winning several major tournaments to shore up his title as Warcraft’s best of all time.
Highlights:Moon vs. Grubby, MBCGame WarCraft 3 World War 2007
Moon vs. Sky, IEF final 2008
4) DaigoTomo Ohira became the first king of Street Fighter by dominating the game during the birth of esports in California, but the biggest unanswered question of Tomo’s career has always concerned the player widely considered to be Street Fighter’s all-time greatest: Could Tomo beat Daigo?
Japan’s Daigo Umehara was one of esports’ first global stars. His 1998 trip to America to defeat Alex Valle in Street Fighter Alpha 3 marked the beginning of a storied international rivalry that would define the most important fighting game franchise ever.
Known as The Beast, Umehara’s arcade obsession began in 1991 and continued through his teenage years as he began to pile up the wins. Daigo became Japan’s Street Fighter national champion in 1997.
At this point, the Japanese and American fighting game scenes rarely interacted. As when Tomo Ohira reigned only a few years earlier, each scene was something of a question mark to the other. Major international tournaments had not been firmly established, and competition between the two continents was extremely limited.
The 1998 world championship marked the beginning of a globally competitive era that had big implications beyond Street Fighter. Umehara’s victory in what was then the most highly anticipated match in fighting game history kicked off a long career of dominance.
Daigo has competed at the highest levels in over a dozen games, from Vampire Hunter to Street Fighter 5. He moved from merely the greatest Street Fighter player in the world and catalyst for global esports competitions to a genuine international celebrity when a he won 2004 match against Justin Wong in thrilling style.
Maybe you’ve seen the video: With Daigo down to his last hit points, Wong is ready to win. But through a surreal series of blocks, Daigo claims victory from the jaws of defeat. Capcom’s Seth Killian told Rod Breslau that the video of Daigo’s comeback has been viewed well over 20 million times.
The American publication GamePro has compared the 2004 Daigo/Wong moment to Willie Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series, a spectacular act that has come to define not just a game, but an entire era in the sport.
The preceding accomplishments alone would likely be enough to land Daigo on this list, but there’s so much more. He has continued his high level of play for more than 15 years, winning world championships as recently as his famed repeat performance at Evo 2009 and 2010. He's got two Topanga A League titles and two Topanga World League titles and placed second at Capcom Cup 2015 (then donated his $60k prize to a scholarship fund).
Very few players can match Daigo’s résumé, and there is simply no one else with the inhuman longevity that The Beast possesses.
Highlights:Daigo vs Justin Wong, Evo 2009 Finals, Street Fighter 4
Daigo vs Ricky Ortiz, Evo 2010 Finals, Street Fighter 4
Daigo vs Alex Valle, 1998 Capcom World Championships, Street Fighter Alpha 3
3) Fatal1tyJonathan Wendel (Fatal1ty) is the most important player that the United States has ever produced. In terms of prize money, he’s the single highest earner in esports history. America’s first true celebrity gamer, the height of his fame in the early 2000s remains beyond the reach of any American to this day.
Wendel’s competitive career began in 1999 with a $500 tournament win in Quake 3. The next few months saw him take home $4,000 in Dallas and then $15,000 in Sweden, where an 18-game winning streak made him the best-known Quake star at the time.
Behind the passion and pleasure of play, Fatal1ty always saw gaming as a job. He practiced longer and smarter than any of his rivals, and the results bore that out as he won tournament after tournament—including five total world championships in 1999, 2000 (in which he won two), 2001 and 2005. Wendel actively sought out and secured major sponsorship deals for himself and built the Fatal1ty brand to heights that no eSports individual, team, or league had reached before.
Wendel appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, 60 Minutes, Time and, most memorably, MTV’s True Life series, which followed his first place Unreal Tournament 2003 run at Winter CPL 2002 as part of an hour-long episode on gamers.
Wendel was a catalyst for the first wave of truly professional eSports in the West. As games like Quake and Counter-Strike and leagues such as CPL conquered Europe and America in the 2000s, even your parents might have recognized Fatal1ty’s face.
Highlights:Fatal1ty vs makaveli, CPL 2000 Finals, Quake 3 Arena
Fatal1ty vs Vo0, CPL 2005 Finals, Painkiller
Fatal1ty vs PC Gamer staff, 2007
2) BoxerAt one point, Lim Yo Hwan (SlayerS_BoxeR) was the greatest player in esports history.
From its 1998 release through 2010, StarCraft was the greatest esport on the planet. While other games struggled to hold regular tournaments and had to beg for sponsors, South Koreans packed stadiums and held StarCraft competitions with more than 100,000 screaming fans in the audience. No other game on earth could compare. Fans of Counter-Strike and Quake spoke about Korean StarCraft like the stuff of legend because, for them, it was. Much of what today’s most successful esports have accomplished was done first in South Korea.
With the world’s fastest growing economy for much of the 1990s, South Korea’s tech-savvy youth embraced professional gaming and enabled its evolution into a major sport with legitimate superstars. Although many of the players became celebrities, Boxer stands out as something like a Michael Jordan of esports.
Boxer won his first major tournament in 1999. He turned the game on its head, pushing the underpowered Terran race to its biggest successes ever. His first nickname was “The Hope of Terran.”
South Korea’s Starleague, the most difficult and important esports tournament of its time, was Boxer’s stomping ground. He beat his greatest rival, “The Storm Zerg” Yellow, to earn the first of two Starleague titles in a row, a feat that wasn’t matched until Jaedong did it in 2009. He conquered the World Cyber Games in 2001 and 2002, cementing his international fame. He continued to win and contend for championships until 2004. Boxer’s rivalries with players such as Nada and iloveoov rank among the most memorable in esports history. He went on to sign a $180,000 contract— a record at the time —and had a global fan club of 500,000 members.
Beyond his considerable genius for StarCraft, Boxer was a symbol. Imagination, artistry, charisma, and skill allowed him to comfortably slip out of the simple box of “gamer” and into the expansive idea of greatness. His success and, even more important, the flair with which he succeeded, were proof to millions that some games possessed a depth, richness and future that could not be denied.
"In the NBA, Michael Jordan was but one athlete, but had the influencing power beyond that of a mere basketball player,” wrote PGR21.com’s Seiji. “It is safe to say that because of his presence, the NBA grew rapidly and basketball was no longer the American game, but an international sport. Would it be an overstatement if one were to say that Lim Yohwan has a value like Michael Jordan? The greatest significance Lim Yohwan has towards e-sports is that he has transformed it from a festival of mere maniacs to a mainstream culture that is now broadcasted by the media. His value can be seen as he raised the understanding of what was once considered as a mere childish game to the dignified acceptance by all as part of the mainstream culture."
More than Tomo, Fatal1ty, Daigo, Moon, or anyone else in history, Boxer made the leap from player to genuine cultural icon, and drove the global success of esports.
The Greatest Starcraft match ever - SlayerS Boxer vs Joyo, Round of 16, OnGamenet Starleague 2003
1) FakerIf Boxer was the Michael Jordan of esports in his role as an ambassador for the game, then Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok is the Michael Jordan of esports on the playing field.
The League of Legends superstar is the best player ever in the largest and most competitive esport in history, reigning over a scene that has truly reached professional sporting levels of competition. Not only is Faker a true outlier, supremely talented at a level above his peers, he’s seeing unprecedented success in a game that mitigates the impact of the individual player.
In League of Legends, teamwork, strategy, and coordination matter above all. Unless you’re playing against Faker.
The then-17 year old Faker burst onto the scene in 2013, a youngster scouted by the biggest esports team in Korea, SK Telecom, and tabbed to push them to relevance in League of Legends. In the Spring season, Faker led SKT to a third place finish while garnering respect as potentially the best mid laner in the world as only a rookie. In the Summer, SKT took the title and ran that success all the way to winning the World Championship at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Since then, Faker is synonymous with success. He’s one of only two League of Legends players to win two World titles, the other being his teammate. Faker has won six of eight domestic titles since entering the scene, including the last four. He’s won every international tournament in League of Legends, including IEM, All-Stars, the Midseason Invitational, and the World Championship.
He’s the only esports player to grace the cover of ESPN’s Magazine. He’s earned more prize money than any other League of Legends player by far, his $554,000 nearly $100,000 more than the next earner. When EDward Gaming beat SK Telecom T1 at the Midseason Invitational last year, the only blemish on Faker’s resume since the 2014 World Championship, it was legendary not because SKT lost, but because they lost while fielding Faker’s Leblanc, at the time undefeated in 12 professional games.
The fact that a player like Faker exists in a game like League of Legends shows the skill inherent in the endeavor, why fans enjoy watching it, why they revere it as a sport. While Boxer was a phenomenon within Korea, leading the esports revolution in what is now the greatest esports nation in the world, Faker is serving that role on a global scale.
Highlights:Faker duels KT Ryu, The best League of Legends play ever?
SK Telecom T1 vs. Royal Club, 2013 World Championship
Faker Highlights Worlds Montage, 2015 World Championship highlights
Update Aug. 23, 2016: This story has been updated to reflected changes in the esports scene since it was first published in 2013.
Illustration by Max Fleishman