On Tuesday night, just before I closed my laptop and switched off the lights, a Tweet caught my eye: Scarlett is up 3-0 over sOs in the grand finals of IEM Pyeongchang.
Wait, that Scarlett?
Scarlett – the nom du guerre of Canadian StarCraft II pro Sasha Hostyn – was always something of an enigma in professional StarCraft II. A woman from rural Ontario didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a StarCraft II player, but she was, in her prime several years ago, widely recognized as one of the best players in the world. If she was “back” – and in the grand finals of a major tournament against a top Korean no less – I wanted to see it for myself.
I tuned in, hoping for a tense game between two evenly-matched players. But it was instantly obvious that Scarlett already had the deciding map in hand. Kim “sOs” Joo Yin had played greedy, investing too much in his economy, whereas Scarlett had built up a tide of Zerglings – the perfect counter. Wave after wave of ‘lings crashed against sOs’s outmatched army, which gave up a little more ground with each successive attack. Eventually, his defenses were overrun and Scarlett’s army rampaged unchecked through sOs’s base. GG Gratz, he typed in defeat, and it was over.
“I almost don’t really believe it right now,” Scarlett said in a post-game interview. “I just felt like if I kept playing aggressively, he’d be nervous, and I’ll win from there.”
My Twitter timeline was instantly alight. Fans and non-fans alike were celebrating Scarlett’s championship, a rare moment of harmony in the acrimonious world of esports Twitter. Scarlett, for her part, tweeted that it “Wouldn't be the Winter Olympics without a Canadian victory \ o /.” (IEM Pyeongchang isn’t technically part of the Winter Olympics taking place nearby, but the tournament being operated with the official blessing of the International Olympic Committee. Whatever else it did, IEM Pyeongchang and its reception made a good case for StarCraft II’s inclusion in 2022).
The significance of Scarlett’s achievement was lost on nobody. It was only the second championship by a North American StarCraft II player in South Korea, but also the first premier StarCraft II championship to be won by a woman. And while Scarlett has always been emphatic about her disinterest in being recognized for anything but her in-game skill (and, given the generally awful treatment of women in esports, it’s hard not to blame her for doing so), her championship is a milestone in breaking esports’ well-earned reputation as a boy’s club.
But Scarlett’s championship is also a much-needed win for StarCraft II. On Tuesday, as news of her victory echoed across Twitter and onto websites that haven’t mentioned the game in years, I couldn’t help but think that I was back in 2012, when StarCraft II was one of the most popular games in the world. Today, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, like so many, I stopped following StarCraft II in 2013, when some unfortunate design choices and mismanagement of the game’s professional circuit led many to conclude that the scene had stagnated. Whether or not that was true, the perception of stagnation quickly turned to a rout, and both the viewer and player-base collapsed, even as esports was elsewhere on the rise. Classic tournaments folded, and most of the professional scene retired, became streamers, or moved on to other games, leaving behind a ruin.
And yet StarCraft II never really went away. Sports historian Bill James once argued that if the MLB’s profits were to someday dry up (which doesn’t seem impossible, given that its average viewer is now pushing 60), baseball wouldn’t die with it. The game would simply reconstitute itself to fit the contours of its new situation. Fairweather fans like myself might have moved on to other esports, but a dedicated community of players and viewers remained committed to the StarCraft II no matter how low viewership fell. Expectations were adjusted accordingly, and, across the world, but especially in South Korea, StarCraft II was kept alive by a small cadre of elite players, who competed not for money (because there really isn’t much to be had) but passion and pride alone.
But for a long time, Scarlett wasn’t among them. In early 2015, after months of middling results, she tweeted that she’d lost interest in the game and would be moving on to Dota 2. When she returned to StarCraft II, it wasn’t long before she uprooted her life in rural Ontario and moved to South Korea to train for GSL, the most prestigious StarCraft II league in the world. By 2016, South Korea was the only place left where it was still possible to really play StarCraft II seriously, and, more importantly, where the quality of play never faltered. 2017 brought disappointment for Scarlett (in three attempts, she never made it past GSL’s first round), meaning that her victory at IEM Pyeongchang was as unexpected as it was resounding, casting not just Scarlett, but her game, back into the international spotlight.
In fact, that’s something of a character trait for Scarlett. It’s easy to forget that before she was one of the few foreigners capable of besting top South Korean talent, she was something of a latecomer to professional StarCraft II, emerging in the spring of 2012, a full two years after the game was launched. When she first came to public visibility after taking a game off of Kim “Oz” Hak Soo at IPL 4, the StarCraft II community embraced Scarlett as a prodigy who “came out of nowhere.”
The story wasn’t that simple of course. Scarlett initially came up through the now-defunct scene of women’s StarCraft II tournaments. Though the practice is not without its critics, who contend that gender-segregated competitions betray esports’ unique promise as a venue for competition between men and women without differences in size or physical strength, Scarlett’s initial rise to prominence is a testament to how such tournaments are supposed to work under ideal conditions. Tournaments like the NESL Iron lady (which Scarlett won twice) are intended to offer a stepping stone for talented female players, while also normalizing the image of women competing in serious, if not always especially visible, tournaments. The fact that Scarlett was perceived as coming from “nowhere” is a sign of how easily these competitions were ignored.
In 2018, it’s hard not to recall Scarlett’s origin story, and the more complex reality it concealed. To those paying close attention, her “unexpected” victory at IEM Pyeongchang was not so surprising at all – she had, of course, been toiling away in South Korea, practicing with some of the best players in the world (herself among them, we now know).
It would be foolish to suggest that a single victory, no matter how historic, will somehow return to StarCraft II the audiences that its competitors siphoned off amid its multi-year decline. Scarlett’s win is not a herald of some vibrant future for StarCraft II that’s soon to come, but a reminder of the life that has been there all along. Tear down the cheap scaffolding of hype, and you’ll find the heart of what remains. Whatever else it is, Scarlett’s championship is a reminder that, all too often, what’s“new” is only what we’ve neglected to see.