King in the North's trial: Naniwa before the tie-breaker
It is very possible that the hype around tonight's match surpasses any of the Ro16 pairings for the world finals itself. Hours away from the 20:00 CET tie-breaker, every supporter of the Western scene has crossed his fingers for the last remaining foreign hope.
Regardless of where one’s fandom normally lies, tonight it makes all sense to cheer for Naniwa. The Swede’s crusade of martyrdom, which started all the way back in WCS Europe Season 1 with a disappointing Ro16 elimination, has arrived at the final mile – a best of five against Revival to determine whether there'll be a foreign presence at Blizzcon or the world finals of the 2013 circuit will be a total Korean hegemony.
For a long while during the span of WCS, there was the real possibility of Naniwa not making the cut, allowing other non-Koreans to edge him out. The retirement of Stephano in August gave start to the race about who will be the new “best foreigner” and several Western names sprinted ahead, eager to claim the title. In Europe, Mousesports’ Vortix made one WCS playoff after another and was recovering his late 2012 form with admirable quickness. Across the Atlantic, Acer’s Scarlett channeled her talent into unrivaled run, accumulating 1750 points in one season and becoming the fastest climbing non-Korean in the league. As far as WCS tournaments went, Naniwa was not the foreigner everyone was talking about.
But the King in the North did not give up. Understanding his WCS results alone would not be enough to send him to Blizzcon, Alliance’s Swede took flight to other tournament that could aid him in his mission. He reached for every opportunity and every resource of spare WCS points and eventually got to become something he’s often been in his career – the single entity embodying all foreign aspirations.
His first stop was DreamHack Stockholm in April. In front of the roaring compatriotic crowd, Naniwa trampled through ToD, YuGiOh and MC, eliminated fan favorite TLO, crushed fellow Swede SortOf and beheaded a Tyrant, an arduous run that put him within hand’s reach of becoming the first foreign champion for 2013. A neck-and-neck series with Leenock robbed him of the gold but the crowd’s applauds were for him and so were the invaluable 450 WCS points.
Two months later, Naniwa landed on Anaheim soil for the MLG Spring Championship and the story of carrying the torch for the foreign world was repeated. Naniwa’s play was crisp; his opponents got trampled with flawless 2-0’s every time and the Swede gathered avalanche-like momentum. A loss to Polt in Winners Round 5 slowed him just a little and gave him even more Koreans to bulldoze through. His Losers Bracket run took the heads of TheSTC, Jaedong and future back-to-back WCS champion Dear before eventual MLG winner Polt stopped the Swede for a second and final time.
In spite of his miraculous performances outside the WCS, by October Naniwa’s Blizzcon future was still uncertain. A Ro32 ousting in Europe Season 3 threatened his chances at making it past the top sixteen cut off. To keep his hope alive Naniwa took another flight to the United States, this time to attend IEM New York, the last event for 2013 to give out WCS points.
Landing in the Big Apple, Naniwa found a tournament that grew fiercer with every second. ForGG had been replaced by Revival, a player very close to overtaking the Swede in the WCS rankings. Zerg masterminds Life and DongRaeGu had made it into the group stage, becoming possible a hazard to Naniwa’s somewhat unconvincing ZvP. Even if one was to neglect the attendance of players like HerO, HyuN, Flash, Curious and sOs, winning IEM New York was a tall order.
From the very first match played, IEM became Naniwa’s personal torturer and every step of the way the Swede had to fight from a disadvantageous position. The group stage made him go through Hack twice, finally awarding him a playoffs spot after 2-1’ing the decider match. The quarter final placed Naniwa against San and made him recover from a one-game deficit before inviting him into the semi-finals. An even harder struggle waited for him there and the foreign hope had to overcome HyuN’s two-game lead, making for the comeback of the tournament.
StarTale’s Life finally put a halt to Naniwa’s crusade through the New York competition but once again the admiration of the crowd went with the foreigner. His kingly perseverance all throughout the series, the clutch game-turners and the sheer will to succeed against one of the greatest players to ever touch the game left everyone agog. For the second time this year, it was, weirdly, not the champion who was extolled but the one who opposed him and lost.
The end of the short history lesson brings us all the way back to Naniwa’s most important – and possibly his last – WCS trial of this year. Being the lone warrior is a familiar feeling for Mr. Lucchesi, as we established, but this time the burden is heavier than ever before. At this point, it is almost as if it doesn’t matter whether or not Naniwa can win a potential face-off with Soulkey should he qualify for the world finals. It’s the qualification itself that matters and everything beyond that, I believe, will be readily absolved in the eyes of everyone who watches, be it a fan, a critic or a derogator.
Losing tonight, on the other hand, would mean the unsung end of foreigners’ long struggles. Losing would be the yet another affirmation of how non-Koreans are simply not allowed to play with the big boys. It would mean failing to combat the irony of the world finals where all players come from one country and one country only. For Naniwa, succeeding against Revival would mean more to the foreign scene than his past victories over tyrants and champions.
For Naniwa, losing tonight is almost not allowed.
Place your bet
Photos above by: Helena Kristiansson (Naniwa) and Daily Esports (Revival)