Last night, Mun “MMA” Seong Won announced that he was moving forward in his esports career as he joined the Seoul Dynasty Contender’s team to become their coach. There is little that I can say about him as a coach as I’ve never seen him in such a capacity before. But there is much that I can say about him as a player. To give context, I’ve been watching esports since the end of 2010 up till today. In that eight year span, I’ve seen players, teams, and games rise and fall. During that time I’ve written thousands of articles, watched countless games, hundreds of tournaments, and among all of that, there are certain stories or players that will remain with me through all of my days, regardless of what the future holds. MMA is one such player. There is much that can be said about him. He was a legendary Terran player in the earlier phases of SC2, a multi-tournament Champion, and someone who won tournaments across all three regions (Asia, Europe, and NA). But more than that, I believe that all he achieved and all he was, as corny as it sounds, was through the strength of his heart.
MMA started his career as a Brood War B-teamer on KeSPA. He was recruited by Lim “BoxeR” Yo Hwan to become the crown jewel of his new Starcraft 2 team SlayerS. Boxer is an idol for nearly all aspiring esports players in career and so he heeded the call. He joined the team and he played with SlayerS in their first GSTL season in February 2011. SlayerS played against ZeNEX in the first round and went down 0-3. SlayerS were down to their last player and they sent out MMA who was able to take out three players and force the ace match before finally going down. In the GSTL after that, he won two ace matches for SlayerS at the verge of elimination against two of the all-time greats: Jang “MC” Min Chul and Jung “Mvp” Jong Hyun. In the third season of the GSTL in May, he fought against his greatest rival Park “DongRaeGu” Soo Ho in the ace match of the finals and won the GSTL title for SlayerS.
Those three tournaments were a prologue and a foreshadowing of MMA’s career. A player down on his luck, with everything on the line, against ridiculous odds and fighting to the bitter end. At that time, he was nothing but a rookie. But in those ace matches, he had the spirit of a champion. Someone who refused to buckle under the pressure and put everything he had on the line to try to win those games. I’ve always wondered if that was always part of him or if that was forged from his past. After all, before MMA ever became a Brood War player, he dreamed of becoming a soldier. However he injured himself practicing MMA so he decided to become an esports player. It is hard to say, but when I learned of that particular anecdote of why he became a Starcraft player, everything came into focus.
Before MMA ever joined the competitive world, he had already lost his dream. However from that broken dream, he stood back up and continued on his path, reaching and fighting for more. That was how he conducted his life, that was how he conducted his career, and that was how he conducted his game.
Among all of the greats in the SC2 pantheon, MMA may arguably have the least talent of them all. He never had the best mechanics, but what he did have he made count. From 2011-2012 he had a stylistic multitasking style that used multitasking, drop-ship micro, and game sense to break down opponents. He never had the raw speed of someone like Cho “Maru” Seong Ju, but he never needed it. He was efficient with his moves and he understood the game at a deep enough level to understand how an opponent would react to his different moves depending on how successfully or badly it went. Even should one of his drops fail, he used that to create space to get ahead in terms of economy or army, but if he was behind, he could use the failed drop to create room for a different drop that could do enough damage to equalize the game.
This style of play was taken from in 2012 and the ensuing expansion Heart of the Swarm. In 2012, MMA hit a slump. Part of it was due to a meta shift as brood-lord/infestor had been introduced and it is to this day the most imbalanced meta I’ve seen in any esports. The other part was due to internal conflicts he had with SlayerS. It was a terrible moment in MMA’s career. Soon after he was left teamless In the end, he was playing in the worst patch in SC2 history, and he was in a slump.
If this was almost any other player, they likely would have called it quits. However he wouldn’t be MMA, if he had. Even in the midst of all of that year, MMA still had moments of brilliance that shine even now. He played against Koh “Gumiho” Byung Jae in the GSTL Finals and it was a brilliant game, and in my estimation the second greatest game to have been played in the entirety of SC2 history. Both MMA and Gumiho used the drop heavy multi-task style, but had a slightly different view of it. MMA’s was more calculated and intellectual, whereas Gumiho preferred creating more chaos in the belief that if there were seven trades on the map, he could win out in three or four of them and come out ahead. It was a brilliant exhibition of both players and to this day I contend it is still amongst the highest level of SC2 ever played.
That game is one of the few games that can unmasks a player’s character. Everyone understands that competition can be an incredibly emotional experience as player’s put their all into winning. Because of that, it is possible to see the emotions and beliefs a player in how the play their game. In the case of MMA, it screamed of a man who refused to yield. Someone who constantly put himself back into the game, constantly finding and creating new paths to try to win the game. In the end, Gumiho won, but the titanic struggle that MMA put up was worthy of an epic in and of itself.
Struggle was to be the hallmark of the rest of MMA’s career. Soon after, MMA joined Acer and the game moved into Heart of the Swarm. This expansion broke his style of play. While Terrans were given the turbo boost for medivacs, Zergs and Protosses in turn were given far better tools to deal with the drop. MMA’s calculative style of dropping therefore became easily thwarted, both due to the game change, and due to the fact that his style of play became far easier to execute for other Terrans and so opposing players became better at dealing with it.
That did not dissuade MMA at all as he continued to fight as he had always done. He moved to WCS EU to rebuild his career, a good move in retrospect as he could play in a fresh environment without the stigma of the SlayerS drama surrounding him. There he slowly built himself back up. He once again built himself from the team leagues, this time the Acer Team Story Cup. He started slowly in WCS EU, but by the end of 2013, he had won the third season. He was nowhere near the top level in the world, but he was a good player and had found some level of consistency once again.
During that time, Duncan “Thorin” Shields did an interview with MMA in his Grilled series. In the final words of that interview, he told Thorin, “I always remembered the time I won in Anaheim against Mvp, when all the crowd cheered ‘MMA!’ ‘MMA!’ It’s one of the things that keeps me going to practise hard. So I want to go back to Blizzcon, play and win in front of that crowd again.”
That was a beautiful sentiment, but at the time it was a pipe dream. The KeSPA teams had moved into SC2 full time and it was the height of competitive SC2. From 2013-2015, there were more Koreans playing and a majority of them were playing in the KeSPA houses. In MMA’s case, his prime had past him by years ago, so the chances were dismal.
However one year later, he did it. Through 2014, he slowly gained in strength playing in WCS EU. He got 2nd in the first season of WCS EU and won the third season of WCS EU. After qualifying for Blizzcon, he made an inspired run to the finals and got to the finals where he got to play in front of the crowd he was dreaming about. Unfortunately for him, his opponent was Lee “Life” Seung Hyun. The single most talented player to ever touch SC2 and he was about to hit the highest peak ever seen in SC2 history.
Even then, MMA’s ability to get back to the Blizzcon finals was remarkable. He had peaked years before, his style of play had been rote and figured out, he didn’t have awe-inspiring talent, he had gone through a slump, he wasn’t part of the KeSPA system, and through all of that, he was able to force himself back. He then followed that run up with the last great run of his career with a top four in GSL Season 1 of 2016.
When I recall all of this now, years later, it feels surreal. From the years of 2011-2015, I suspect the amount of people to have studied as much Starcraft 2 as me could probably be counted on one hand. I watched every match and have watched and rewatched the critical matches multiple times throughout history. When I reviewed MMA’s games, he wasn’t doing anything special during that resurgence. He was just playing incredibly fundamental and smart Starcraft. He had solid builds, solid strategies, and most importantly of all, he refused to play himself out of a game. It was like watching a world-weary boxer make one last blazing comeback off the strength of his smarts and grit.
The Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus, once said that “Your character is your fate.” It isn’t that all of the actions we do are predestined, but that our character will define how we deal with all circumstances that come to us. In the case of MMA, he refused to stay down. Every single time. He lost his dream to become a soldier and became a Starcraft player. His team went down in the Team League matches, but he’d save them in the ace. He went into a slump, but years later found himself fighting for the top at Blizzcon. He even retired to join the military, but swore that he’d come back after he was done and he did.
If your character is your fate, then your fate can define your character. In MMA’s case then, his character is heart. Every time he was knocked down he got back up. Every time he looked like he was going to fail, he worked harder. So even now, when he transitions from Starcraft 2 to Overwatch coaching, I know he will bring to it the same intensity and heart that he has brought to everything else. One of my fondest MMA lines was his personal motto he picked up from his MMA days which says, “It is better to shed sweat today, than tears tomorrow.”
MMA’s career was filled with ups and downs, titles and failures. Through it all though, I can say with conviction that he left it all on the table. He is a legendary Starcraft 2 player, one of the greatest to ever do it, and the defining characteristic of his career, his path, and his titles, was his heart above all else.