Number one for 17 consecutive months in the Korean eSports Player Association rankings. A salary pushing $400,000. The adoration of over a million diehard fans. All he needs now is his own line of gaming sneakers: Air BoxeRs.
Lim Yo-Hwan, aka SlayerS_’BoxeR’, is synonymous with StarCraft in South Korea. He arrived on the pro-gaming scene like a dropship from the fog, startling opponents and electrifying fans. And while his dominance has waned since his peak in the early 2000s, his contributions to both the game of StarCraft and eSports as a whole can still be felt even a decade later.
Lim’s introduction to StarCraft came unbidden and unexpected. He spent most of his youth playing soccer at the expense of his grades, a trade-off he made willingly until low scores threatened his chances of getting into college. As afraid of failure as he was of his parents, Lim called on an old friend to help him as his study partner. Had it been any other summer, Lim might have salvaged his academic career and gone on to live an average life. Instead, his education at his “tutor’s” house introduced Vespene gas to the periodic table and “Zealot” to the list of required English vocabulary.
Although his path into StarCraft was paved with pylons, Lim abruptly switched course when a patch made his bread-and-butter strategies nearly unusable. The Zerg star was still rising throughout the pro leagues, but never content to ride on coattails, Lim instead chose the Terran underdogs. Aside from the allure of forging ahead on a path rarely trodden by pro players, the basic humanity of the Terrans appealed to him. As he reasons in his autobiography, “Are not the humans the ultimate victors in [sci-fi] movies?” That decision, along with a tireless commitment to innovating and perfecting new strategies, proved enough to carry him into the annals of StarCraft history.
Lim entered the Terran Academy in the summer of 1997 and graduated cum laude as pro-gamer SlayerS_’BoxeR’ in the fall of 1999. He spent the intervening years not only climbing the Battle.net ladder but also battling the social stigma of being the local “net café bum.” Lacking the money to purchase his own computer, BoxeR practically lived in smoke-filled PC Baangs – Korean net cafes – for most of his amateur career. Unable to earn his parents’ approval of his chosen vocation, BoxeR settled instead for their resignation. Many might consider this period the dark chapter of BoxeR’s story, but he recalls it fondly. Free from the shackles of school and not yet burdened with the expectations of his fans, he savored the years he was simply able to do the one thing all gamers love: play.
After he secured his first tournament victory at the SBS Multi-Game Championship in December 1999, however, his carefree days became a thing of the past. Once a tiny speck on eSports radar, BoxeR exploded into the pro-gaming scene, coasting on a tide of victory that has yet to be rivaled. He won over a dozen tournaments during his reign from 2000 to 2004, assembled his own team and became the first Korean pro-gamer to earn a six-figure salary. He even stole the title “Terran Emperor” from one of the StarCraft universe’s antagonists, Arcturus Mengsk, a moniker created by his adoring fan base.
The secret to BoxeR’s success was not simply that he was a better player, though in many ways he was. More importantly, he was a different player. Many league players had fallen into comfortable, predictable strategies; if a certain tactic bore fruit, pros were quick to add it to their arsenals, tweaking details to make it their own without making any major changes. BoxeR, however, vowed to borrow as little as possible from other players, instead opting to invent entirely new techniques that pro-gamers had never before encountered. Since many of the plans he created were unorthodox and untried, he relied on his teammates and practice partners to help him polish his maneuvers to a deadly sheen. Nowhere do the results speak louder than his hundreds of victories.
BoxeR did not stop at baffling his opponents with unconventional maneuvers, however; he also set out to awe his fans. In any given year, a pro-gamer participates not only in official tournaments but also in exhibition matches. In StarCraft‘s heyday, there were four broadcast TV stations exclusively dedicated to airing StarCraft matches; thus, there existed a huge demand for players to stay active even in their off-time. For most pros, these matches were a chance to relax a little and enjoy their success, but BoxeR saw them as an opportunity to pay back his fans for their unwavering support. His aim was never just to win, but to “win brilliantly” – or not at all.
Tens of thousands of fans at live events and millions more at home once witnessed this philosophy in action. but thanks to YouTube you can still admire BoxeR’s performances today. Take, for example, his counter to an enormous Carrier fleet. With the overwhelming Protoss army bearing down on his base, the Terran Emperor deploys a tiny strike force of … medics. It looks like preparation to heal his soon-to-be bruised ego, since medics cannot deal any damage, let alone to a force of that magnitude. But BoxeR realizes the Protoss Carrier fleet is accompanied by a dispatch of Observers, invisible detecting units that would put the kibosh on any attempts to counter with his own cloaked Wraiths. In an instant, the medics blind the Observers, paving the way for a guerrilla air force to pull a David on his opponent’s Goliath.
Although both BoxeR and his fans have reaped amazing rewards over the course of his career, the entire industry of eSports benefitted most of all. Pro-gaming existed before BoxeR’s first contact with StarCraft, but in a form wholly different from what it’s evolved into today. Pro-gamers pre-BoxeR earned money solely from sponsors and tournaments, squeezing practice time in whenever they weren’t preoccupied with arranging their own schedules and accommodations. In many ways they were like up-and-coming bands, tasked with honing their talent while shouldering all the responsibilities of a manager. Being able to game for a living may have been the Holy Grail they all strove for, but few actually managed to achieve that goal.
BoxeR was one of the first pro-gamers to command enough mainstream attention to justify a salaried contract and all the perks that came with it. He looked at his career as a series of goals, one of which was to clear the path for future gamers. That included justifying the vocation of pro-gaming as a viable career choice. Even today, there is still, in Korea and elsewhere, a stigma attached to those who game as anything more than a hobby. But by presenting the world of professional gaming as a genuine avenue of employment that requires discipline and a strong public persona, BoxeR dismantled unflattering stereotypes of gamers one victory at a time.
Once an unstoppable force, BoxeR now rarely qualifies for tournaments to which he is not invited. Although many lamented his abrupt departure from the pro-gaming stage when he was called into mandatory military service in 2006, BoxeR’s manager could not have orchestrated a better exit. Questions of whether or not he had lost his touch by the time he left the pro-gaming scene were left unanswered, allowing his legacy to stand on its own in the public consciousness, free from the niggling doubts of a string of late-career defeats.
But BoxeR’s influence did not simply vanish when he entered the armed forces. Because 27 months of service is required of all able Korean males, the government has special army leagues in place to enable professional players of “real” sports – soccer, baseball, etc. – to continue practicing while they serve. BoxeR played a key role in convincing the military to form an equivalent special air force team to play StarCraft in the Proleagues, helping to validate eSports in the eyes of the Korean government. That he only managed to lift his team from last to 11th place in a 12-team league is of little consequence next to the improbable reality of the team’s existence at all.
BoxeR reentered the pro-gaming scene after his service concluded in late 2008, but rather than trying to reclaim the crown for himself, he now seeks to play the role of kingmaker. He already trained an equally dominant successor years ago in Choi Yeon-Sung, aka iloveoov, who shocked the pro-gaming world when he beat his friend and coach three to two in 2004. But whether or not the Terran Emperor grooms a new heir, BoxeR’s legendary status is secured. Net café bum, Terran Emperor, team captain, gaming ambassador, military conscript, twilight hero and, throughout it all, diehard gamer, Lim Yo-Hwan is an inspiration to all players.
Brett Staebell once won a match of Defense of the Ancients in a Korean PC baang, but now wishes it had been StarCraft instead.