Inside The World Of 'E Sports'

When the best pro-gamers play games like Starcraft II, millions of obsessive fans log on to watch in real time. Is e-sport at last ready to conquer the mainstream as a serious rival to traditional televised team sport?

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In the corner of a convention centre in Jönköping, Sweden, at a computer that has been fenced off from fans who might inch too close, Ilyes "Stephano" Satouri readies for competition.

The 20-year-old Frenchman wears low-hanging jeans and Converse high-tops; these come off.

He isn't tall – two tournament-issued chairs are stacked beneath him – but he has a high pile of curly black hair, temporarily subdued by clamped-on headphones.

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A mouse with a glowing scroll wheel is unfurled and plugged in. Stephano keeps waggling it, compulsive and sceptical, like a goalkeeper testing the springiness in the game ball or a golfer whipping up air.

Stephano is a professional gamer, one of Europe's most successful, and over the last two years he has earned £100,000 in prize money with the canny manipulation of this mouse.

Professional gaming – or eSports, the term borrowed from South Korea – is thriving.

There are seven corporate sponsors represented on Stephano's T-shirt; his fancy glowing mouse is a contractual obligation. Stephano waggles it again while spectators, perfectly still, look on.

I am at Dreamhack, a gaming tournament that has taken over this small town beside the Vättern lake.

A pair of pro-gamers, dressed in personalised kits that announce them as "Panic" and "Chaos", queue politely for breakfast snacks.

In the carpark, teenagers and twentysomethings, male and female, transport office chairs and computer towers and pillows over the tarmac; many carry multi-pack sodas and Pringles, enough to last the three days of the tournament.

Inside, competition is already underway, with the most popular computer games of the moment being contested.

Hundreds of gamers at Dreamhack 

Enduring favourites like Fifa and Street Fighter feature alongside hectic shooters Counterstrike and Call of Duty.

At the arena's far end, where there's tiered seating for thousands of spectators, two brainy, exacting strategy games currently dominate eSports: League of Legends and StarCraft II.

Stephano is a StarCraft II player, one of the favourites to leave Dreamhack clutching an oversized winner's cheque and a share of the £20,000 prize on offer.

No such hope for Jeroen "Weiman" Weimar, 24. The tall Dutchman entered Dreamhack's 128-man tournament as an amateur, and he's already out, defeated by Canadian pro Chris "Huk" Loranger.

Weiman leans against the steel fence that pens in competitors and – a mere spectator now – wears the stricken, incredulous look of someone just thrashed at something he thought he was good at.

"I got over-aggressive," Weiman says. "Who can you blame but yourself?"

Next to him Emily Krumlinde, a 22-year-old Swede with purple-dyed hair and Disney tattoos, commiserates.

Emily goes by "QueenE" when she competes at StarCraft II. A member of Team mYinsanity, one of a dozen or so gaming teams that have formed at the professional end of eSports, Emily has been preparing for Dreamhack for months, practicing her StarCraft for nine to 10 hours a day, whenever she's not at work.

"People ask [sceptical] questions when I describe myself as a semi-professional gamer," she says. "Only when they hear about the prize money do they take it seriously."

Emily has a polyester T-shirt, blue and white and bearing the logo of a business software firm. The team kit. She's been drawn against Stephano in the first round, Emily tells me.

And suddenly her nine-to-10 hours a day don't look nearly enough.

Pro-gaming is on the rise, though plenty of people would point out it has been on the rise for years, even decades.

You'll have read articles or seen news segments, reliable as the seasons, that invite you to revise your opinion that excellence in computer gaming is for squitty loners, left-clicking their lives away in darkened rooms – well, these guys are celebrities now!

They get paid, laid. I've written one or two such articles myself, most recently in 2008, when an international league called the Championship Gaming Series (CGS) launched with bombast: a promise of secure annual wages for its players, and a TV deal with Sky.

"The time has really come where [eSports] can become mainstream," a CGS spokesperson told me.

The organisation didn't last another year. This industry was already notorious for broken promises, failures-to-pay, hurriedly decommissioned studio sets; things looked bleak.

But eSports has clawed back, not by "becoming mainstream", as planned, but by looking inward to a diehard core of fans.

Today, as in 2008, there are eye-catching numbers to be flourished – Stephano's accumulated earnings of £100,000 are made to look paltry, for instance, by a $1m prize given to the winners of a League of Legends tournament last year; and there have been reports of silly-per cent growth at Major League Gaming, one of the big organisers of eSports competition – but it is in its deeper reaches that the industry seems sturdier.

Developments in online streaming have allowed the pro-gaming community to move away from an old conviction that mainstream television coverage was a must.

Instead, any professional worth the tag self-broadcasts, livestreaming footage of their competitive games and even their warm-up bouts. Thousands watch and the gamers get a cut of ad revenue.

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"Not bedroom-dwellers any more!"

That used to be the boast, though in fact much of the loot is made right there, in the bedroom.

Supplementing what they get from tournament pay-outs and come-and-go sponsorship deals, pro-gamers can earn a stable wage (low five figures, usually) playing and streaming in their boxer shorts, divulging the odd strategy tip.

The best players still turn out for big tournaments like Dreamhack because a good showing means a wedge of prize money.

But live appearances also entice new fans, new social media followers. New viewers.

While waiting for Emily's match against Stephano, I squeeze onto the edge of a row of tiered seats.

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A talked-up League of Legends bout is about to start.


Next to me is John from Grästorp, Sweden, 14, dizzy on energy drink. "The two best teams in Europe!" he repeats.

StarCraft II (tough, teamless, its learning curve less an actual curve than a gruelling vertical shinny) is considered the purest eSport; the industry's chess, Weiman tells me.

The more accessible League of Legends, though, has exploded in popularity since its release by publishers Riot three years ago.

A team game, five-on-five, it's free to download and play – fantastical beings with swords and hand-cannons conspire to slay each other over 15- or 20-minute matches – and gamers like John have been eating it up.

On stage, a cameraman moves down a row of 10 competitors and each gets a few seconds to mug, in the manner of Olympic sprinters.

Timid smiles, raised eyebrows, thumbs. Cheers from the stands rise and fall as each new face appears on the big screen.

I ask John: who are we watching? He bounces in his seat. "Team Fnatic versus Team Gambit."

John supports Gambit. "I've always wanted to see them live."

Why do some players get louder cheers than others?

"They're more famous."

Why are they more famous?

"They stream. You don't get famous if you don't stream."

Team Gambit may be famous but they get trounced.

Five disconsolate players quickly pack their keyboards into rucksacks and leave the stage.

Team Fnatic hang around for pictures. One of their number, tubby and delighted, comes to the lip of the stage and spins baseball caps into the crowd.

Something new was happening in pro-gaming in 2012.

It struck me when I walked past my local pub and saw the front room, the one with the roll-down screen for televised sport, packed with young men.

There wasn't a football match scheduled. Hundreds had crammed in to watch a stream of StarCraft II.

I ducked inside and spoke to a pair of spectators at the back.

Londoners Adam and Brett, both professionals in their twenties, explained it was an exhibition match between Britain's two best StarCraft II players, Ben "DeMusliM" Baker and Samayan "BlinG" Kay.

It was a best-of-nine contest and a promoter had put up £1,000 for the winner.

Adam and Brett didn't take their eyes off the screen as they explained StarCraft II to me.

Released in 2010 by Blizzard, a sequel to the publisher's absurdly successful 1998 original, StarCraft II had become, by wide agreement, the most difficult computer game to excel at.

"The mental speed required," said Adam, shaking his head.

"The actions-per-minute!" said Brett.

Players compete as one of three races: Terrans (future-dwelling humans with impressive military tech); Zerg (technology-less but violent aliens); or Protoss (aliens, too, though with access to cool ballistics).

Over games that average 15 minutes, a player expands and marshals an army while trying to massacre his rival's.

Treasure and fuel must be continually mined, attacks launched and repelled.

Glimpse StarCraft II experts mid-match and their fingers move so fast on keyboard (left hand) and mouse (right) it scarcely looks human. They resemble concert pianists.

Adam and Brett spoke in a language of easy slang, "cheesy play" and "rage-quitting", the possibility of DeMusliM or BlinG "five oh-ing" the other.

And they chatted giddily about StarCraft maestros in South Korea, some of whom had recently, explosively mastered the "multiple all-in"…

"StarCraft is an accepted sport in Korea," Adam explained.

"The best players turn pro at 15, 16. They move into special training houses where they have maids, cooks – everything taken care of so that they can practice StarCraft all day."

I must have said something like, "Oh, Korea!" but Adam and Brett explained similar operations were being established in the West. One of the biggest eSports teams, Team Evil Geniuses, had set up a base in Arizona.

The famous Stephano trained there. While the match on the screen banged on - explosions, blood, blips, whirs – Adam and Brett mused on the latest gossip.

Nottingham-born Ben "DeMusliM" Baker, was about to become the first Brit to be invited to move in to the Arizona hot-house.


Inside the press room at Dreamhack, a gaming team are arranged in V-formation by a photographer, and told to cross their arms like boxers.

Without hesitation they point out that they may not cover up the sponsor logo on their T-shirts.

Beyond, in a gangway that leads from press room to the competition arena, an abandoned monitor lies broken on the floor.

Gamers and spectators walk around it, nobody paying any mind. Probably somebody upgraded on the fly – there's a shop on site where players can buy speed-enhancing motherboards, finer-tuned peripherals.

Or maybe somebody lost a match –  and their temper.

"You see a lot of the same conditions in eSports as in other professional sports," Jeroen Weimar assures me.

"The amount of time and practice you have to put in, it's equal if not more."

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Participation numbers  are creeping up, too. Paul Tassi, an industry watcher at Forbes who has followed eSports closely for the last three years, points out that League of Legends currently boasts 32m monthly players.

Tassi tells me he's watched eSports grow "at a pretty rapid clip. In 2012, I sat in on the League of Legends World Championship and watched 8,000 live fans scream about a video game while a million more watched online. Last year, the same event was at the Staples Center, home to the LA Lakers. It seats 18,000."

As interest has increased, so has pressure on those playing at the top end.

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"There are mind games," says Weiman, "players wind each other up. Some see sports psychologists. And you need endurance. At events like this, competition starts at 10am and some players won't play until 11 at night."


Emily "QueenE" Krumlinde's match against Stephano was late at night.

It did not go well.

When I find her afterwards, she can hardly look at me.

Against Stephano, she says, she expected to get beaten horribly.

"But I made mistakes I normally wouldn't. My nerves got the better of me."

Did Stephano perform well?

Emily glares.

"I don't think that question needs to be asked of such a calibre of player."

I find Stephano resting between bouts in Dreamhack's players' lounge.

Reserved for the elite, it has a ping-pong table and free crisps. Stephano is low in a chair watching a StarCraft stream with a small entourage.

He is polite and taciturn.

Who does he see as his big rival at Dreamhack?


Have his matches been difficult so far?

"I haven't played any proper matches yet." (I wince for Emily.)

Is it hard to play so much StarCraft II over a three-day tournament?

"At the end of the day, if you've played many games you get a bit down, I guess."

A crowd waits for a live League of Legends team match 

Among the most common outfits worn by fans at Dreamhack is a T-shirt stamped with the words "EAT, SLEEP, GAME". "Some of them do forget to drink," a tournament medic admits.

He wanders the arena with an earpiece, ready to administer first aid.

Are there common injuries?

"Computers dropped on feet. Dry eyes."

He points out special spectacles players can buy, yellow-tinted and engineered to reduce the problem.

I recognise the face modelling these specs on a nearby poster.

It is Geoff "InControl" Robinson, 27, from Seattle, a scene veteran and member of Dreamhack's commentary team.

He also captains Team Evil Geniuses (or Team EG).

I find Geoff offering support in the StarCraft area.

He watches Chris "Huk" Loranger, who beat Jeroen Weimar in the first round, battle a Korean player, Kim "Violet" Dong Hwan.

Violet sits with a blanket over his knees.

Rewarding himself between games with a square of dark chocolate, he quietly decimates Huk.

When it's over Geoff, loyal to his team, says he still expects an Evil Genius to win overall. "They're looking good."

The competition develops; so, too, does a certain aroma. Contestants have been instructed by Dreamhack's organisers to bring deodorant, but nonetheless the arena takes on an unmistakable tang.

Play goes on all night. In the morning, Stephano storms round two, squeaks through round three, and when the last 16 players are drawn, he's paired against another member of Team EG. A Korean.

I'd met Stephano once before, Geoff too, when I travelled to the training house in Phoenix, Arizona, that Adam and Brett had spoken about.

Most of the hotels nearby were booked out by professional baseball teams, in town for their pre-season training.

The gamers sequestered in Team Evil Geniuses' base were oblivious, locked in to punishing training schedules of their own.

Ben "DeMusliM" Baker, a slight 23-year-old with spiked hair, outfitted in team kit and Muppets slippers, showed me in.

The house was established in July 2011, roughly following the Korean model: dorms, catered meals, fast computers, day and night StarCraft.

In Korea, such houses are protected by guards, to keep out fans, but in Phoenix, only desert scrubland and cacti surrounded the house.

Still, the players' schedule was strict, Korean-like, around 12 hours of gaming practice expected a day. "It's literally a boot camp," Ben told me.

He showed me the living room where there were games consoles and beanbags, a box set of Nineties sitcom Boy Meets World on a shelf above trophies from various tournaments.

Plates, medals, vases, cups, a cube.

It was the early afternoon and, in the garden outside, Stephano sunbathed by a swimming pool.

The rest of the team were in the large front room, a space that hummed with the sounds of air-conditioning and motherboard cooling fans.

The house dog, named after a character in Game of Thrones, roamed between chairs.

Every monitor showed StarCraft II.

Ben began his pro-gaming career at 15, in his bedroom at home in Nottingham, mastering a strategy game called Warcraft III.

Not a Muslim, his playing name came from a liking for Muhammad Ali.

He missed school to travel to tournaments; there was an assembly in his honour ("We have a boy here who represents the UK at…").

When interest in Warcraft III dwindled, he switched to StarCraft II and established himself as one of the non-Korean elite.

He chose not to go to university, moving to join a pro team in Germany instead.

He was 19 when, at a tournament in China, a woman first asked him to autograph her breasts.

Team EG poached him in early 2011.

An easy move, Ben told me, EG being the Manchester United or Yankees of eSports, known as canny marketers as well as winners.

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"Team EG attract new sponsors that we haven't really had in the game before. Intel, Monster energy drink. Big names you've heard of in real life," he says.

By now, Stephano had wandered in, ready for his first match of the day. It would be a warm-up encounter against Ben, streamed to any fans who felt like watching.

While they sat down at their computers, configuring their mice, I spoke to Geoff Robinson and his wife Anna, a former beauty queen from Oregon.

They'd moved to the training house together when Geoff quit his job as an English teacher.

Though his very best playing days were behind him, Geoff had found a position for himself as a StarCraft pundit.

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"You could compare him to Shaquille O'Neal [the American basketball star]," Anna said, "now a commentator, a personality... a respected former player known to viewers."

Work had been steady; it had been a while since she and Geoff last asked each other, "What if eSports died tomorrow?"

Can the boom last this time? Forbes' Paul Tassi wouldn't be surprised.

"Best case, you want to say in two years, big events will have stream numbers to routinely rival what's on TV that night. In 10 years, maybe 18,000 people for a live event at the Staples Center becomes normal.

The worst-case scenario would be eSports has hit or is approaching its ceiling – there are simply only so many people who'll ever see it as legitimate.

But there are probably a lot of kids growing up right now who are coming home to play three hours of League of Legends rather than basketball or baseball.

There's no telling if their interest will hold until adulthood, but it might, and that's one way eSports could eventually grow to become a major pastime in the US or Europe like it is in Asia."

"GL, HF babe," Stephano types to Ben, an in-game message that translates as "Good luck, have fun, babe".

Their screens are separated by a few metres but Stephano and Ben – now in frowning DeMusliM mode – do not speak. They might be playing in different continents.

I drift between their gaming stations, with the dog, trying to follow what's going on.

DeMusliM, playing as the human-like Terrans, builds barracks, factories and command centres.

During skirmishes he deals in rockets, walking robots and landmines.

He sends a lone scout into Stephano's territory who is set upon and murdered.

Stephano, playing as the alien Zerg, cultivates an army in hatcheries.

He has squadrons of giant insects and reptiles.

There's a big fight on a ramp. Some fighting lizards are blown up… Suddenly Ben's rubbing his wrist, trying to hide his clear delight. "I played pretty good," he says.

Stephano, at his desk, doesn't look over to acknowledge the defeat.

They tell each other "GG" – "good game" – through the messaging system, and that is enough.

"GG is the equivalent of a handshake," Ben says.

"Any actual handshake would be rubbing it in."

Afterwards, he shows me the match statistics, one for actions-per-minute, Ben's 317, Stephano's 440.

I was more intrigued by a different stat: 5,000 people had tuned in to watch.

A drowsy warm-up!

I ask Ben, why watch others play a computer game instead of playing yourself?

Ben thinks about it.

"I can paint a picture, right? But if I can watch someone doing the same thing, only 10 times better than me, would I still want to spend hours trying to do my own thing? Or would I want to spend the time watching a guy doing a masterpiece?"

Stephano has his headphones plugged in to practice for the next four hours.

Ben is about to join him. "I like to think of every stream as the opportunity to watch an artist perform," he says. "You either find that entertaining or you don't."


The Dreamhack crowd is rabid.

This is the bout of the tournament so far and the commentators – one of them Geoff – won't stint it.

"Hailing from France… Stephano!... And the man who once cited Stephano as one of his inspirations… Jaedong!"

It's an unfortunate draw for Stephano.

His opponent is one of his Evil Geniuses teammates and a Korean – Lee "Jaedong" Jae Dong, also nicknamed "The Tyrant" for his bullying play.

The first game in their best-of-three ends with Stephano being chased, hopelessly, by a pack of armoured locusts.

Game two does not go much better.

"That's a lot of speedlings," point out the breathless commentators.

"Stephano's going for a lair?... That's one of the worst things we could possibly see… Stephano is facing elimination… Should he lose here he will be out of Dreamhack!"

The inevitable comes.

Stephano, suffering what the commentators call a "drone deficit", tries to make a stand with a cluster of spiked, snake-like sentries but they fall.

"Stephano, you fought bravely, you fought well but you, sir, are gone."

Stephano is patted on the back by Jaedong.

Putting on a brave face, Stephano congratulates his rival, pulls on a hooded top, and plods out of the arena.

Jaedong is interviewed after his victory. "I feel bad about kicking out one of my teammates," he says, speaking through a translator.

"But we're both pros. That's how it is."

Two matches later, Jaedong is in the final. Another 23-year-old, Son "StarDust" Seok, wins through to face him there.

The tournament's 128 players have been reduced to two.

It will be Korea versus Korea.


Stephano is the best foreign StarCraft player there is," Ben Baker told me; he doesn't mean that he's French.

Such is the dominance of Korean players in this industry that DeMusliM, Stephano, QueenE and Weiman refer to themselves comfortably as "foreigners".

Ben told me: "Korea's the place, the Mecca. Think about baseball. You can play it professionally all over but if you play in the US, you've made it. That's the way it is for Korea and eSports. I hope to play there one day."

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Why are the Koreans so good at StarCraft II in particular?

The game has been by far the most popular in the country since the original launched in 1998.

By 2010, one-in-10 Koreans owned a copy of StarCraft or its sequel. League of Legends, StarCraft's great rival, is on the rise in the East as it is in the West but StarCraft remains on top.

The military has a team.

There are TV channels that show nothing else.

Lee Jae Dong has his own calendar.

Jeroen Weimar puts it down to the national work ethic. "StarCraft training houses exist in the US and Europe but it's not the same, Western culture is more laid-back.

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Western gamers simply do not put as much time into practice. They have a life."

Stephano moved to Korea briefly, one of the rare "foreigners" to try his luck there.

"Gaming-wise, it was very positive," he commented. "Socially? Non-existent."

A new documentary, State of Play, which premiered in Korea and toured documentary festivals last year, explores some of the pressures on Korean pro-gamers.

The unsparing coaching, the short career spans.

The film's central subject is Jaedong.

Trailed by a camera team, the 23-year-old is shown being asked by an elder Korean: "What kind of industry on Earth makes you retire when you're only 28?"

Jaedong frowns and nods and can't find an answer.

It's in the minds of pro-gamers: what next?

Weiman said he didn't know of any top-end StarCraft players over 30: "What they gain in big-game experience they lose in mental quickness, physical speed."

Geoff Robinson told me he expected to move behind the scenes in eSports, to try to find a position in the larger industry.

Common, says Weiman. "Once they quit, a lot of pro-gamers loop back in at a management level. Otherwise, they go back to university. They're generally smart with high IQs."

Ben Baker - eight years into a career that began when he was 15 – had already seen Warcraft III, a game in which he excelled, decline.

The same could happen to StarCraft II.

"If you're handy with a mouse and keyboard, you're handy with a mouse and keyboard. But can you necessarily switch to another game, just like that? No."

He tells me he's been eyeing the rise of League of Legends nervously.

"If viewership was to rapidly fade away from StarCraft, I guess it would mean less money coming in from sponsors, and players like me not being worth as much to Team EG. You're only as good as the amount of viewers you're getting."

He spoke of "transitioning" into commentary one day, maybe management.

Last year, a well-liked, mid-ranking StarCraft player from Sweden, Tim "Merz" Olsson, attracted attention when he posted an essay online.

Merz speculated on what might happen should StarCraft's popularity decline – "a lot of organisations focus on what's 'in' and once your game is not 'in', you're shit out of luck" – and told of his regret at delaying his university studies to turn pro.

His post amounted to a 3,700-word resignation letter.

"My competitive career with eSports is done," Merz wrote, calling his recent months of StarCraft II competition "the most stressful, mentally draining and painful time of my life."

StarCraft was a game, Merz said, that was no longer fun to play.

There were echoes of this when Stephano shocked the gaming community, some months later, by announcing his plan to retire from eSports by the end of 2013.

"Going professional, you don't feel the fun of the game itself," he said in a video released by Team EG (one they were editing, in fact, during my visit to the Arizona training house, a couple of computers over from Stephano as he lost that afternoon warm-up to Ben).

"Maybe it's not my time anymore," Stephano said.

"It's a good thing to know when to stop."

The last I heard, he was planning to spend his StarCraft earnings on getting a degree at medical college.

If the fans in attendance at Dreamhack are disappointed by the lack of Europeans in the final, they don't show it.

An excited murmur builds to a roar.

Commentator Geoff informs fans that more than 100,000 are watching streams at home.

The final is even being broadcast on Swedish TV – just like in Korea.

Finalists Jaedong and StarDust sit in illuminated booths on the stage, facing the audience and separated by a big screen to display their best-of-five encounter.

Jaedong is the favourite.

StarDust, unknown before the tournament, has been hastily tagged "The Miracle Maker" by pundits, so unexpected is his success.

He has square glasses, a prominent chin and flops about with exasperation as he plays.

Jaedong sits stiffly.

Only his lips move – unhappily.

"StarDust's doing critical damage to the remaining economy of Jaedong!" The commentators seem hardly able to believe it. "And there's the GG! StarDust opens 1–0!"

Dance music plays.

Jaedong cracks his knuckles.

StarDust's Team mYinsanity cohorts dash inside the booth to offer tactics and support, like cornermen.

I can see Emily "QueenE" Krumlinde among them.

It does no good: Jaedong overpowers StarDust in game two.

The commentators go hoarse, such is the excitement of a lengthy game three ("Oh my gosh, StarDust wins again!")

Game four goes quickly to Jaedong. "Now they're on even footing once again… we will have a champion within the hour."

It takes 14 minutes. "If he can eliminate all the structures, he'll win… There's so many zealots, though, he could try to bum-rush this!… He's gonna fight the army! The zealots with this upgrade advantage! The drone! The drone is gone! No drones left on the map! He kills it – and he wins! StarDuuuuuuust!"

Son "StarDust" Seok emerges from his booth in a daze.

He is set upon, immediately, by teammates who hug him and toss him in the air.

Stan 'StarDust' Seok emerges victorious in the StarCraft II final 

Emily is there, a small part of the final after all.

"I felt pure happiness," she tells me afterwards.

The audience, Jeroen Weimar among them, gives a standing ovation.

Robinson emerges from the commentary booth to interview the victor.

"You've made a lot of fans today," he tells him.

"You have the attention of the world. Do you have any words for everyone listening right now?"

The Korean, in broken English, says he'd like a thousand more Twitter followers.

Geoff nods. "You've just completed a Cinderella story. People were counting you out before this tournament. They will know your name from this day forward, my friend."

StarDust grins but won't milk it. "I just played to the last drone," he says.

Image credit: David Ryle

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