This weekend at the Intel Extreme Masters esports tournament in Katowice, Poland dozens of professional StarCraft players from all over the world competed for $100,000 in front of a stadium-sized crowd. But now that the tournament is over, there’s only one moment that anyone will remember.
We saw the final match of a legend in StarCraft 2, Johan “Naniwa” Luchessi. And he went out in the worst way possible. He quit.
He claimed it was because poor soundproofing in the player booths had allowed the crowd’s reaction to tip off his opponent, but even if he believes that it’s plain to see he was wrong. He lost fair and square, and he lost his temper.
It’s that temper that has got him into trouble over the years, and now this will be his legacy: A great player hobbled by repeated displays of disrespect.
I remember the moment I became a fan of Naniwa. It was November 5, 2012 at a Major League Gaming tournament in Dallas.
He had advanced deep into the bracket and was now squaring off against the ultimate legend of StarCraft, Lee “Flash” Young Ho. Naniwa has always been perhaps the best player in the world outside of South Korea, but being the No. 1 non-South Korean in StarCraft 2 is roughly analogous to being the No. 1 basketball player outside of the USA. Keeping with the same analogy, Flash was Michael Jordan.
But the thing about Naniwa that makes him so incredible is that he’s a fierce competitor, unlike any player I’ve ever seen. He thrives on pressure, and always seems to rise to the occasion. No matter who he plays, Naniwa is just as good as his opponent. That means he can be sloppy and lose to people he shouldn’t. But it also means he can rise to the occasion and take on the best of the best.
I remember watching him play Flash, and thinking, “My God, they’re playing like fencers.” It was a beautiful duel of parry, parry, thrust, riposte. Back and forth they went in one of the best series of StarCraft I’ve ever seen.
Naniwa ultimately lost in an extremely close series, but it solidified him as one of the best in the world.
There were other great moments. I’ll never forget him playing another legend, Lee Jae Dong in the semi-finals of Dreamhack Stockholm in April 2013. The crowd went nuts cheering for their hometown hero. Naniwa just barely pulled out a victory against yet another one of the best players in history. And he showed grace in victory in front of a loving crowd.
But there are two sides to Naniwa.
In December 2011, he quit a highly anticipated match. Both he and his opponent had performed poorly that day, and neither had any chance of advancing in the tournament. In response, his invite to compete in South Korea’s Global StarCraft 2 League, the most prestigious league in the world, was revoked.
“We gave the seed to Quantic Gaming’s protoss pro-gamer NaNiwa, not the Swedish youth Johan Lucchesi who plays the game well,” said Chae Jung Won, the league’s manager about why they ditched Naniwa. In other words, they hired the professional, and they weren’t interested in him if he couldn’t act professional.
I was pretty friendly with Naniwa, I liked him a lot IRL, but I hope he retires now for good after this shameful display
— TotalBiscuit (@Totalbiscuit) March 14, 2014
The Swedish youth
Won correctly observed that there’s more to being a professional competitor than being good in your field. An athlete is a performer whose job is to put on a show.
Naniwa has had one of the most successful careers of any non-Korean StarCraft player in history, but he’s been plagued by brief moments of weakness which have tarnished his legacy since the beginning. Every time we think Naniwa has grown up he lets us down again. He allows himself to be overwhelmed with emotion, and loses his better judgment.
He walked off the stage on Friday, forfeiting his last public match before a hiatus that players of his age (24) rarely recover from. And that’s the image of Naniwa that we’ll all be left with. He’ll be remembered as a David who slayed Goliaths, but also as a pouter. All it takes is two big mistakes to put an asterisk next to an entire career of work.
We’ll remember him standing proud in front of a wild Swedish crowd at Dreamhack. But we’ll also remember the image below: Back turned, bag packed, raging off the stage.