Autumntime ascensions: The career story of SouL_Dear
Photo: Kevin Chang for Team Liquid
On the night of October 27th, in front of the exulted crowd of Toronto, Canada, a Protoss player makes the largest leap in his professional career. Skyrocketing like no man before him, in one week Baek “Dear” Dong Jun earns 4500 points WCS points and climbs 116 spots in the WCS rankings. The number one WCS player Soulkey lies defeated after a flawless 4-0. Household names and established champions such as MC, MMA, MVP and Taeja are left trailing behind in points and Dear ensconces himself among the high rollers of professional StarCraft 2. Being a player never really known for his individual results and one always eclipsed by his more famed team-mates, Dear’s rapid ascension leaves the audience agog.
This article follows the career of Baek Dong Jun, from his Brood War days as a practice partner, to the disappointing individual results to becoming the only player to win a regional and a seasonal WCS final.
Dear’s first steps into StarCraft are everything but glamorous. Originally only a practice partner, the young Protoss starts his career with the ranks of eSTRO, a regular bottom three Proleague finisher and one lacking any renowned names at the time.
Joining eSTRO acquaints Dear with future team-mates Hyvaa and Classic as well as StarCraft 2 champion-to-be Bomber but that would be all as his stay with the team is short. In August 2010, the club’s operations are discontinued, the dormitory and practice house are closed and KeSPA takes stewardship. After failing to find a new buyer, the association puts all thirteen of eSTRO’s players on the draft list, who in turn have to hope that the other teams notice their talent lest their careers be over.
To his luck, Dear survives the drafting process and in October 2010 he’s signed by Hwaseung OZ. It’s a palpable step upwards for the sixteen year old Protoss. Compared to the underachieving eSTRO, OZ is a powerhouse with two Proleague grand finals and a gold from the 2007 season. Each of its three line-ups is led by prominent players with the Tyrant Jaedong spearheading the charge, supported by the talents of Hiya and Anytime. It’s a positive environment for a new talent.
Expectedly, Dear’s first televised appearances do not go well. Debuting in the 10-11 Proleague gives him his first in-the-booth loss to Stat, which would contribute to an overall 2-5 record counting his two losses in the Winner’s League. Dear’s individual results are not better. Beating s2 and Sea qualifies him for the 2011 ABC Mart MSL but losses to Grape and CJ veteran Snow become his elimination. A 0-2 record in the next MSL survivor puts a sour end to Dear’s struggles to succeed in individual leagues as well as his stay in Hwaseung.
In September 2011, Dear is forced to find yet another home as Hwaseung discontinues sponsorship of OZ and the team hands its players to KeSPA. Familiar with the process, Dear awaits for the results of the next draft and he eventually ends with STX SouL, Proleague bronze medalists from the 09-10 season.
Dear’s new home manages to combine elements of his past homes and become a place he can easily blend in. Like OZ, SouL is a team with traditions having hosted names like Golden Mouse winner July, the Protoss Dragon Kal and WCG champion Hwasin. Their 2011 is led by the renowned Calm and Shuttle and is also the place where Dear’s ex-eSTRO team-mates Hyvaa and Classic reside. Despite being his third team in two years, Dear considers this an opportunity to evolve, as he would confess in an interview two years later:
“I felt like I was progressing each time I moved between teams. After leaving from Hwaseung, I started playing broadcasted matches and after I started at STX I became a regular in the rotation. Although it's not certain at SouL, I feel like I've grown a lot. It's not a good thing to be moving teams, but I feel like it's been a great help to me.”
- Dear in an interview with This is Game, 19 October 2013
The familiar environment does indeed help Dear and the 11-12 Proleague finds him in great shape. Used mostly as a Terran sniper, Dear finishes the season with a score of 7-2 and victories over Flash, Light, Sea and Firebathero and is awarded the “Rookie of the Year” trophy.
After the break-out performance in the 11-12 Proleague, the next season comes to pull Dear back into obscurity. Juggling BroodWar and StarCraft 2 practice hours for the hybrid Proleague, the results of the young Protoss are dreadful. For the entire season, Dear wins zero BroodWar games and the little momentum accumulated last year is gone.
The hybrid Proleague ends disappointingly for SouL and Dear in particular but like everybody else in the StarCraft community, they discard the memories of the obscene tournament and ready themselves for the new, all-SC2 edition.
Despite STX’s slow start, the brand does attract attention from the viewership but it is no thanks to Dear. The rise of Innovation overshadows every single one of his team-mates and makes him the new poster boy for the team. With the better part of the community interested primarily in individual leagues, the remaining players of the then underperforming roster remain unnoticed.
Behind Innovation’s luminous curtain, however, Dear is forged into one of the most crucial players for his team. Partnering up with Mini, Trap and Classic (who switches to Protoss after his initial losing streak), Dear forms the dreaded STX SouL quartet, the very core of the team that often sets the stage for SouL’s aces.
During those days, Dear finds a style that works well for him. Implementing aggression in his play allows him to capitalize on the flaws of his opponents – most of who are still getting accustomed to the new game – and the results are remarkable. Round two is particularly successful for the future champion and though his team is overall struggling, his two triple kills against Proleague leaders Woongjin Stars and the joint roster of EG-TL are enough to impress.
“I realized that when I play aggressively, I can always utilize my opponent's mistakes and work them in my favor. This is also a reason as to why my aggression plays often work out well.”
- Dear in an interview with Daily Esports, 27 January 2013
The release of Heart of the Swarm in March further aids Dear’s Proleague performances. After losing his first HotS game to Jangbi, the SouL Protoss goes on a seven-game win streak and enjoys a whole month without suffering a loss. His streak helps bring STX SouL to the top of rounds four and six and keep the team in the top three during round five. Stomping their disappointing WoL results into the ground, Dear and his team-mates finish third in the overall rankings and enter the playoffs. Two weeks later, the Proleague trophy is theirs and Dear pins a personal 26-19 overall record as the second most important player for SouL.
Four days after the end of Proleague season, Dear flies to California for his first international appearance. The tournament is MLG Anaheim and is a chance for Dear to shine: the player pool is beatable despite the presence of several household names, the playing field has been leveled with the launch of Heart of the Swarm, there are no KeSPA legends to steal attention from him and he’s also the only SouL representative of the event. It’s the golden opportunity for a break-out performance.
Unsurprisingly, the winner’s bracket is no challenge for Dear and he bulldozes into the top twelve. The aggressive playstyle from the early Proleague days is now solidified even further with a great synergy between macro openings and lacerating timing attacks. In winner’s round five, a patient and confident Dear strikes down Jaedong with meticulous control and the Protoss is three matches away from becoming champion.
His next two opponents, however, make sure Dear never reaches the grand final. Eventual champion and StarCraft 2 veteran Polt shuts down Dear's warp prims, Zealot run-bys and Archon/Immortal compositions and sends him to the losers bracket where foreign hope Naniwa treats him to elimination. The final reckoning is a “mere” 5th/6th place finish, $1,000 in the bank and the right to carry the title “best KeSPA player at MLG Anaheim”.
Though it’s a decent showing for Dear, it does little to aid his popularity. History only remembers the victors and that weekend it is Polt that robs the cheers of crowd. Dear has yet to truly break-out on the StarCraft 2 scene.
On August 14th, Dear steps in the GSL booth for the Season 3 up and down matches. The odds are not too favorable on first sight. Dear’s Group E harbors the talents of Terran legend MarineKing, former GSL champion RorO and multiple high-place finisher Curious. Winning means climbing to the upper cliques of Korea. Losing means waiting for 2014 or hoping for another international opportunity to come up.
Before the day is over, Dear makes it out of the group with a perfect 3-0 score, the only person after DongRaeGu to do it. Curious, MarineKing and Swagger are his victims, the former becoming pinned down in Challenger League, a place they’re not used to residing at.
Dear’s first Code S match of his career is two weeks after his up-down triumph, on August 30th. The retirement of Jangbi has reduced the group to just three players but luck is not entirely on Dear’s side that day. SouL’s Protoss ends up playing full three matches and it is his pristine PvT that brings him success. As the aggregate 4-0 against Supernova takes shape, the GSL audience is treated to a solid playstyle, almost ridiculing Terran’s attempts to utilize his famous multitasking.
On the very next day, Dear tears off the “STX” letters off his uniform as the company discontinues SouL’s sponsorship. The aspiring player is in for the strangest move of his career as his entire organization parts ways with KeSPA and moves on to the eSF neighborhood.
The transfer itself brings mixed effects. The retirement of Mini, the departures of Innovation and Classic for Acer and SKT, respectively, as well as the enlistment of Calm and Coach Park chew away at SouL’s strength. Having lost their ace player and half of its Protoss quartey, the former Proleague champions became fodder for the GSTL teams.
While a disaster for his team, for Dear this fallout is a bizarre convenience. With the eclipsing presence of the big names gone, it is up to him, Hyvaa and Trap to represent the SouL brand and Dear sinks his teeth in this opportunity. On September 23rd, he becomes the first player to advance to the Korea Season 3 playoffs as he eliminates DongRaeGu and Sleep from the competition. Dear’s characteristic timing attacks are blended with elegant preemptive thinking and his opponents often find that the counters to their tech are already on the field.
The GSL quarter finals pit him against fellow SouL team-mate Trap. The experts predict Trap’s aggression to prevail over the safe style of Dear but the story turns out to be a completely different one. Dear proves that he not only knows how to defend against Trap’s heavy punches but go on the offensive himself and in game two the crowd is ignited by a phenomenal blink micromanagement display. One game later, Dear makes the first semi-finals of his career. To the question if he prefers Maru and Jjakji in the next round, the new face of SouL replies with confidence:
“It doesn’t matter who I’m playing. I am confident this season. I will make sure to take the trophy.”
- Dear for an interview with This is Game, 3 October 2013
The bold statement rings true. In the semi-final match on October 9th, Dear delivers a 3-1 beating to defending Korea champion Maru with inspiring psi storm control and solid defense against Terran’s 11/11 proxy rax in the fourth game. The post-game interview is ripe with the same tenacity as his quarter-final one: “I don’t care who makes it to the finals. If it’s Soulkey, I will drill through the steel wall”.
This particular threat doesn’t come to fruition as soO stops Soulkey with a crushing 3-0 but drilling through the wall there would be. Timing attacks, zealot drops and air toss plays break the spine of the SK Telecom Zerg and Dear exits the booth as the second royal roader in Code S history and the third Protoss player after MC and Seed to win the crown. The line of GSL Zerg champions is broken. The long-craved gold is finally in Dear’s hands.
The hectic WCS schedule leaves the newly-crowned champion little time to rest, however. In a week’s time, Dear packs his luggage and flies to Toronto, Canada to take part in the Season 3 finals, his last chance to gain ranking points and break the 3200 barrier that can send him to Blizzcon. Nothing less than a top two finish is allowed.
The group stage sees a shakier Dear compared to his showing at WCS Korea. The opening match against HerO is a 2-1 victory but the winner’s match against Oz goes south for the champion. Allowing the EG Protoss to come back from a one game deficit sends Dear to the group’s decider, one Bo3 loss away from tournament elimination. It would be another 2-1 against HerO before Dear could make his way to the playoffs.
The SouL Protoss is given only a few hours to collect his thoughts before he’s thrown into yet another PvP, his opponent being SK’s MC. It’s a perfect game for Dear this time around and a 3-0 pushes him to the semi-finals, where Maru is already waiting for the rematch from WCS Korea.
What follows is arguably the most entertaining series of the entire tournament, as both players bring amplified versions of their best traits. Maru’s multi-pronged aggression hits everywhere, his multi-tasking spikes up the APM counter. The mobile bio composition produces an unstopping barage of shells. The youngster fights tooth and nail for his revenge and the thundering crowd in the Toronto Congress Center is pulled to the edge of their seats.
Impressive as Maru’s play might be, Dear proves to be the better player once again. His ability to predict his opponent’s moves is magnified tenfold and every drop play is shut down without allowing critical damage. After four games and one particularly breath-taking game on Bel’Shir Vestige, Dear prevails in this series of nonstop action. Certain to take home at least 2000 points, the Blizzcon spot for Dear is secured, but there’s still a trophy to be won.
Willing to test the “drilling through the steel wall” threat from a week earlier, Soulkey powers through Trap and moves on to face Dear in the Season 3 grand final, packing a 6-0 ZvP record in the Season 3 playoffs. The stake for both is who will be the first player to win a regional and a seasonal championship in one year. The Woongjin Ace comes into the match-up craving to crush the insolent Protoss and teach him some humility.
Dear's stick in Soulkey's wheels turn Zerg's plan upside-down. Compared to the semi-final round against Maru, the culling of Soulkey comes out as anticlimactic. The variety of strategies used helps Soulkey not even slightl. The KR Season 1 champion is pushed in the corner and beaten bloody in four games. The world had a new best Protoss player to worship.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Dear and the legendary son of Daedalus. Like Icarus, Dear went to tremendous lengths to escape shadows cast by the legacies of his renowned team-mates and gain his freedom in this regard. His ascension from a nobody to the sixth best player in the WCS rankings was majestic, his striving backed up with unfaltering confidence which at times bordered hubris. He defied odds, set new records and achieved what few (or none) before him could do.
What must not be forgotten, however, is that Dear’s journey is not over yet. The scene still remembers the evanescent stories of players like Seed, Creator and Alicia who, willingly or otherwise, set a bar that every Protoss has to pass lest be forgotten. Winning back-to-back WCS trophies has skyrocketed Dear higher than any of his Protoss comrades but this has only put him closer to seeing his wings melted by high expectations.
Making Blizzcon on the back of unprecedented success might be enough for 2013, but 2014 will reboot the competition with the start of the new season and just past triumphs will not be enough to keep community’s attention. This is where the Icarus myth turns upside down for SouL’s champion. In Dear’s case, it’s either flying higher and winning bigger or plummeting down into engulfing obscurity.