Heir apparent: The career story of Taeja
The article follows Taeja's journey from his early days at NEX and SlayerS to becoming the most accomplished Terran of 2013.
They call it the “year of Taeja” for a reason. By December, Yun Young Seo of Team Liquid is the most accomplished Terran player of 2013. He has accumulated more than $105,000 in earnings this year alone and has brought home five championships. He is the second most accomplished StarCraft 2 player of all time in terms of medals won. He is the smiling, clapping poster boy of 2013, one of year’s greatest stories.
This article goes all the way back to the first days of Taeja as a progamer and follows his journey to becoming the single most valuable possession of the blue horseheads. From his 2010 struggles to having his talent spotted by the Emperor himself; from his first GSTL all-kills to the “Summer of Taeja” in 2012 and to the mad winning streak that established his 2013 dominance.
Taeja’s first days as a professional gamer date back to 2010. A member of the lower-tiered Korean team NEX, the 15 year old Yun Young Seo starts playing StarCraft 2 without any previous progaming background.
Taeja’s debut is humble at best. He’s one of the 64 participants in the first ever GSL Open but a walk-over win in the first round and a 0-2 loss to FruitDealer in the next make for his entire experience. He fails to qualify for the next seasons, loses the tie-breakers for the first ever Code A of 2011 and his chances for exposure are cut to none. For the first eight months after he took part in GSL Open 1, Taeja’s existence goes by unspotted.
In May 2011, Taeja joins SlayerS, the team founded by Lim “BoxeR” Yo Hwan himself. The acquisition happens quietly but it’s enough to get the attention of those more familiar with the StarCraft scene. Although only established in January and in need of more players to deepen the roster, SlayerS does not look like a team that will just welcome anybody.
There is a good reason to suspect that Taeja’s signing is not a random acquisition. For years, BoxeR has been known to have a great eye for talent and his track record with finding and tutoring champions speaks volumes. He created SK Telecom and turned it into the most successful StarCraft team to date. His first protégée, the legendary Choi “iloveoov” Yun Sung, grew to become a BroodWar bonjwa and a macromanagement revolutionist. To be signed by someone like him that yearly in your career is rarely a coincidence, as it’d later turn out.
By signing with SlayerS, Taeja joins the perfect place for every young and up-and-coming Terran player. The roster has great Terran talent-in-training in MMA, Ryung and Ganzi, boasts a GSTL championship title and is in busy preparations for the next season of the team league.
It doesn’t take long before Taeja pays off the trust invested in him. In what would become an act of cruel mockery, SlayerS call the 16 year old Terran to open the quarter final match against his former team-mates of ZeNEX. Puzzle, Coca, ByuN and Kyrix fall as Taeja kills ZeNEX man by man, a final parting gift to his first progaming home. He pulls out a paper gauss rifle to perform a victory ceremony. He wasn't doing the Taeja clap back then.
Despite the all-kill, Taeja is called just one more time in the opening set against fOu where a loss to Leenock becomes his last GSTL game for that season. SlayerS go out to win the championship eventually and although he doesn’t take part in the grand final, Taeja finishes the tournament as the third most successful player and the only one to achieve an all-kill. An old GosuGamers editorial titled “Heroes of the GSTL” lists him alongside Seed, DRG, Losira, MMA and Squirtle: an illustrious class of players all of whom would grow into champions and grand finalists.
Taeja’s GSTL break-out is followed by improved but still unspectacular individual success. He finishes top four in Code A August as he goes 6-1 against Tails, sC and JYP before the 0-3 loss to Ganzi – a good enough run to bring him up to Code S. He stays there for two season but he never gets past the Ro32 and eventually falls down to Code A again.
“TaeJa was an obvious pick up for Liquid. […]He is a player with limitless potential, and I've never been more confident in a player's future.”
- Liquid`Nazgul, March 29th
Taeja stays with SlayerS for less than a year. Following a wave of departures that started with Sleep in October and continued with Clide, Golden, Dragon and Ganzi Taeja, too, decides to say goodbye to BoxeR’s team and follow the example of many compatriots by seeking a foreign home.
The very day he’s supposed to play his first Code S match for the year, Taeja is announced to have joined foreign powerhouse Team Liquid, a move that would be the first step towards forging a champion.
Granted Taeja’s team history, the community had no trouble believing Nazgul’s statement about Taeja’s potential. If being signed by SlayerS is an apostille for one’s skill, to be scouted by a leading foreign team meant not only that but one’s marketability as well, a necessary quality for a champion that can ignite the fans.
Photo: Carl Oscar Aaro
Donning the blue does magic for Taeja as he gets ready for Code S Season 2. Empowered by the horsehead insignia and the army of Liquid fans behind him, Taeja starts accumulating avalanche-like momentum. In the Ro32 he goes 2-0 against DongRaeGu and Jjakji, GSL champions both. The Ro16 meets him with more worthy opponents but Taeja performs well, 2-0’ing TheSTC as well as the legendary MarineKingPrime. Hopes are high for the Liquid Terran as he enters the playoffs, especially after he admits he played his last matches after a few very tough days.
“I am so happy. Since yesterday til this morning, I was in a state of mental breakdown. Games were turning out bad and my arm had suddenly started to hurt. Then this morning, I saw messages from clan mates cheering me on. I was able to rally myself thanks to that. “
- Taeja after beating the Ro16 in an interview for ThisIsGame
The quarter finals pair Taeja with Squirtle and despite boasting a monstrous 67% TvP at the time, the man in blue gets trampled by the would-be finalist, a pattern that will repeat a few more times in Taeja’s career.
Finishing top eight qualifies Taeja for the next Code S season and gives him another shot at bringing a major gold medal for Liquid. His run starts with a familiar pattern: in the Ro32 he goes through Leenock, an MLG champion and Code S finalist, and AcE, a Protoss out of his prime but an IEM Worlds champion still. The second group stage brings him the heads of rising star Violet and the Game Genie Terran Mvp himself. The hyper surrounding Liquid’s recruit is great and grows stronger yet after he gets paired with old-time fan favorite MC in the quarter finals.
The series goes set for set but the young Terran is always in the catch-up position and ultimately fails to win the race. The scoreboard reads 3-2 for MC and Taeja is eliminated after another fight against a Protoss that would go on to play in the finals. His feat is nevertheless acknowledged, though: to make back-to-back Code S top eights at 17 is no easy task and Nazgul’s investment proves a smart one.
While his results on Korean soil gradually improve, Taeja’s first trips overseas are unsatisfactory as a combination of facing tough opponents and playing the unforgiving TvT mirror bar him from a high finish. At Assembly Winter, he is stopped in the Ro16 by eventual champion Polt after a 1-2. At IPL 4, GSL champion Jjakji takes revenge on Taeja for Code S Season 2 and stops him with 2-0 at the very end of the open bracket. Finally, at DreamHack Summer, Taeja is team-killed by fellow Liquid player HerO with another 2-0. By the end of spring, Taeja’s resolution reads rapid improvement, growing fanbase and “limitless potential” but zero top four finishes.
On July 20th, Taeja flies to the United States for what would be his baptism into the world of StarCraft 2 champions. The occasion is MLG Summer Arena, a pre-championship event but one that features a stacked bracket, good money and the MLG esteem nonetheless.
To his fans’ delight, Taeja finally unleashes his full potential. His ability to play well in weekend-long tournaments – a skill he’d later hone to perfection – cuts through Koreans and foreigners alike. He enters the grand final with a map score of 8-2 and is considered the favorite even though his opponent is Alicia, an MLG and NASL finalist and also a player enjoying his best days.
After six games, Alicia is handed his third silver medal in a row and Taeja celebrates his first championship, a check for $10,000 in hand. He likely has no idea that he’s about to become one of the sensations of 2012.
Two weeks later, Assembly Summer gives Taeja another chance for a good pay day and the Liquid Terran takes it. His flight to Finland reunites him with former rivals of his and this time Taeja is ruthless. He 3-1’s HerO in the quarter finals to get back at him for DreamHack Summer. He beats ForGG with the same score and moves on to the finals where MC is waiting. In a rematch from the Code S Season 3 quarter finals, Taeja destroys the Protoss veteran, giving him only one game. Taeja’s winnings go up to $23,000 for two weekends’ worth of work.
In parallel with his successes on the individual front, Taeja also becomes the most invaluable member of Liquid team league-wise. The 17 year old single-handedly carriers his team through IPTL TAC, finishes with the unrivaled 23-3 score, all-kills the eventual champions IM in the first series and almost wins the finals for Liquid. Fans half-jokingly rename TL to “Team Taeja” and rightfully so: in times when neither the foreigners, nor HerO or Zenio were in their best shape, Taeja truly was Liquid’s most prized possession.
Several top four finishes at other major events further increase Taeja’s esteem. His return to Code S sees him go through Mana, Mvp, Polt, DongRaeGu and Leenock before rising Zerg prodigy Life stops him at the semi-final. At MLG Summer Championship, Taeja takes an early loss and drops down to the lower bracket where he fights against elimination before he meets and loses to HerO in what is their third encounter.
At the end of September, Taeja travels to Valencia, Spain for another DreamHack event. The set-up is familiar: $10,000 first place prize and two days to win them.
Taeja is all too acquainted with how the process works. He surprisingly loses to NightEnd in the first group stage but goes on undefeated after that. He’s flawless through the first three rounds of playoffs and enters the grand final with a force that not even ForGG’s two-game lead can’t stop. It’s another international event, another display of power and another trophy for Taeja and Team Liquid. As the last months of competition approach, Taeja’s hot streak becomes a good candidate for story of the year.
The Ro32 Code S ousting that Taeja suffers after DreamHack Valencia is not enough to tarnish the reputation of the young Terran. On the contrary, as the last week of November approaches, more and more eyes turn to the Liquid ace as he’s about to play in the biggest international challenge of his career – DreamHack Winter.
The tournament is rich on high-profile names but for many fans there’s only one logical grand final pair. The Liquid team-mates Taeja and HerO are placed in Groups 1 and 4, respectively, which means that given they both finish first, they’ll start at the opposite ends of the bracket, too. And so it happens.
By the end of day one, Taeja and HerO are the only two to defeat all of their opponents. Those hoping for an all-Liquid grand final salivate at the outcome, their excitement continuing to grow as the blue-shirted powerhouses drill through the bracket. Taeja takes a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Thorzain in the quarter-final and blanks Nerchio convincingly in the semi. HerO, on the other hand, cruises through Snute and Monchi as if they’re nobody. The Liquid team-kill takes shape and StarCraft 2 fans glue themselves to the monitors – they’re about to get what they’ve been waiting for for several days.
While the grand final pairing is more or less expected, nobody can give a clear prediction as to how it will end. Taeja’s hot streak through the summer is the talk of the office but he’s playing a HerO that’s been known to perform exceptionally in the winter months and on DreamHack: Winter ground to that, the tournament that gave the Protoss his first championship. The head-to-head score between the two is dead even in maps 4-4 but with a series advantage to Taeja 2-1. The upcoming match looks as even as they come.
The reality of the grand final turns out nothing like the expectations. The series is short, brutal and one-sided. The Terran that won three gold medals in a row and who’s an MLG and GSL top four finisher is beaten bloody by his own team-mate who stops Taeja’s streak and defends his title, becoming the first player to win back-to-back DreamHack titles.
Taeja attempts to finish the year with a gold medal but he fails to do so at several events. At NASL 4, he’s once again stopped by HerO who deals him another blanking loss. He finishes top ten at MLG Fall and exits Iron Squid II and IPL 5 way too early to make a splash. Taeja doesn’t manage to conquer the winter time, finishes the year with the memories of his great summer and lets StarTale’s Life collect the final ovations of 2013.
After blazing international success, Taeja’s individual and team league duties fly him back to Korea. His team has partnered up with Evil Geniuses to participate in KeSPA’s Proleague and the Terran prodigy is summoned as the backbone of the unholy alliance. Furthermore, the first GSL for the new year is also about to start and Taeja’s Code S seed lures him back to his home country.
The Proleague endeavor doesn’t go well for Taeja. Although strong on paper, the EG-TL partnership struggles against the KeSPA teams on their own turf. The good round one run in the last days of 2012 is never repeated: Taeja is rarely called to fight and when he is he loses. By the end of round three, Taeja has scored four losses in four games as his team suffers one crushing defeat after another.
In spite of the Proleague disappointment, Taeja keeps his individual league form in good shape. The new Code S has welcomed a new wave of fresh KeSPA talent, supposedly making the tournament harder, but that doesn’t stop Taeja. Though he faces the rising talents of Soulkey and Innovation, both of who will go on to become serious player of the year contenders, Taeja survives the group stages, triumphs over Soulkey in the quarter finals and is only stopped by eventual champion RorO.
This, however, is Taeja’s last good finish before the summer. His travel to MLG Winter Championship and first competitive clash with Heart of the Swarm brings him only a top sixteen finish. The same result repeats in the first WCS Korea to make for a disappointing spring performance.
After the completion of WCS Korea 1, Taeja decides to switch to the American circuit and transfer his talent entirely overseas. Summertime is also upon the StarCraft 2 scene and many eyes turn to the Liquid Terran, eager to see of the paradigm from last year will be repeated.
The second half of the 2013 brings a heavy saturation on tournaments. With two WCS seasons to go, several DreamHack and IEM stops, one Assembly and two HomeStory Cups still left to be played, there’re a lot of trophies for the taking.
The competition for attention has grown larger, too. The scene is a mix of rising talents like sOs and RorO and SC2 old-timers like Mvp, HerO and Leenock. KeSPA superstars like Soulkey and Innovation rule the rankings despite scarcely playing outside Korea. BroodWar legends like the EG-employed Jaedong get the chance to travel abroad and compete in foreign tournaments while player of 2012 Life continues to show good games despite being considered in a slump. The talent pool and its skill level are growing by the day and there are no more easy events, not even those where the foreigners have the number advantage.
Taeja gets to experience that first hand at the very start of the summer. In June, the Liquid ace attends the circuit that brought him the most success in 2012 – DreamHack.
Having missed the Stockholm stop, DreamHack Summer is Taeja’s first chance to take a championship on European soil. He cruises through the Ro64 effortlessly and graduates from the Ro32 with a high seed after his 1-2 loss to Elfi isn’t enough to topple him from the first spot in his group. The first rounds of playoffs offer him a couple of non-Korean heads and Taeja gladly takes them as ToD and TLO are eliminated with 2-0 each.
Taeja comes to a rough stop at the semi-finals after he faces EG’s star player Jaedong. Though he plays his second best match-up next to TvP and faces a player who’s yet to prove himself in StarCraft 2, Taeja is obliterated. “Jaedong is playing some of the best SC2 we’ve seen from him so far,” exclaims Apollo and that is indeed true. Zerg’s macro overwhelms the Terran on Polar Night, his mutalisks terrorize every inch of the map. Taeja GG’s out and spawns on Whirlwind for the second game, only to see his CC first – a build usually befitting the map – crushed by a two-base baneling bust. Taeja has to go home without a gold.
Taeja doesn’t have to wait long for another chance and in the last week of June he’s invited to Take’s house in Krefeld for HomeStory Cup VII. In Germany, the fans see Taeja in his best shape: he loses just one map during the group stages and 3-0’s GSL champion Seed in the quarter finals.
Bar Taeja, the round of four of HSC VII turns out an all-Zerg affair and with just one match-up to play, one that is at 70% for the Liquid Terran at the time, the odds are in Taeja’s favor. Nobody suspects that his road to the trophy will be that difficult.
In the semi finals, Taeja meets fellow Liquid team-mate TLO who turns out tough nut to crack. Taeja takes a two-game lead in the series but the German is unflinching and sets the score back to equal with his own back-to-back wins. Taking a page out of Jaedong’s play at DreamHack Summer, TLO puts down a baneling nest on two bases and goes for a bust but this time Taeja has hellbats to protect him.
The grand final meets Taeja with another team-mate of his, Norwegian Zerg player and defending HomeStory Cup champion Snute. The series starts even but Snute’s two-win streak in games four and five threaten Taeja with elimination.
Taeja manages to tie the score and pushes the series into a final set. Snute abuses the macro-friendly Derelict Watcher to get maxed quickly by Taeja’s 4M march and control are unparalleled. At the 22nd minute, after numerous battles fought with supply disadvantage, Taeja accepts Snute’s last GG and takes his first trophy for 2013.
HSC VII becomes the little rock that sets off Taeja's gold-laden 2013 avalanche. In the first week of August, Taeja goes to Helsinki to successfully defend his Assembly Summer crown without losing a single series. He bulldozes through WCS America Season 2 and finishes fourth, defeated by eventual champion Polt. He accomplishes another dominant run through DreamHack Bucharest, where he loses four maps in total while having a flawless run through the entire playoffs, defeating YuGiOh, sOs, Life and Innovation.
Even with the coming of the winter months Taeja's momentum doesn't slow down. In mid-November, Taeja destroys HomeStory Cup VIII after he once again loses just four maps. He's crowned the only two-times HomeStory Cup champion and becomes the only player of 2013 to win four premier gold medals. There's just one final test to be taken before the year is over.
With November comes the most stacked DreamHack Winter to date and Taeja readies himself for his biggest challenge of 2013. The tournament has gathered many of the names that kept Taeja from championships in the past like Jaedong, HerO and Polt. There are a lot of bones to pick.
The sheer amount of talent at Jonkoping makes it impossible to predict the event. Tournament favorites like Jaedong, HerO, Innovation, Life and MMA expectedly triumph on day one but there’re underdogs factors like Patience and JYP that distort the natural order of things. Somehow, the end of the group stages creates more questions than it answers.
Day two is different. As the playoffs develop, Taeja quickly emerges as the heavy favorite. He 1-2’s his old rival HerO in round one, beats Europe’s champion MMA with the same score and decimates Life 2-0 in the winner’s final. All three match-ups are played perfect, leaving no doubt that Taeja will be well prepared to play whoever comes from the losers’ bracket.
This player turns out Life who 3-1’s Patience to climb back and gives the fans what’s supposed to be a legendary rematch between two of the greatest StarCraft players of the last two years. Although the 0-2 loss from the winners final is still fresh in everyone’s head, Life swears the grand final will be nothing of the sort.
The Zerg champion holds to his words but that’s far from enough. Although Life takes a couple of games with a proxy hatchery cheese on Polar Night and by punishing Taeja’s anti timing on Derelict Watcher, the Terran looks better composed and more solid than his opponent. After six games, Taeja coats his silver medal from 2012 with gold. With five trophies (the most of all players in 2013), four top four finishes and with more than $105,000 in the bank, his year is complete.
Photo: Frederike Schmitt
At the end of 2013, Taeja is the living embodiment of his alias as he proved that he was not picked by BoxeR randomly. Through his unparalleled championship streak he’s inherited the StarCraft 2 throne from Mvp and Life who ruled 2011 and 2012, respectively. He’s on top of every ranking system, from GosuGamers’ to Aligulac’s. He’s the only player to have won two HomeStory Cups and three DreamHacks, making him the undisputed ruler of those brands. He’s not only the best contender for the new king of Terran but for the title of most accomplished SC2 player of all time as well. His regality cannot be questioned.
What Taeja did in the last two years also won him another thing that few young talents possess: the right to never be questioned by the community. Winning that consistently at this tender age frees Taeja from the doubt that has often haunted aspiring progamers who win a lot only to fall by the wayside come next tournament. He's beaten everybody, excelled at every match-up and has become the emblem of the brand that has been associated with the game for a decade. He's sitting on several thrones and is challenging a few more with the confidence and determination that make one believe in Taeja, regardless of fan status.
Taeja still has work to do before he surpasses the legendary Mvp but if his 2013 form is any indication, we won’t have to wait for much longer. There will be a summer in 2014 after all.