The Greatest Rivalry Never Told: Life vs Taeja
The Battle for the Throne
When KeSPA officially announced their massive transfer over from BW to SC2, one of the biggest stories was the rivalry of Flash vs Jaedong. It wasn't surprising. They were two of the greatest players of the BW era and their rivalry would decide who would become the greatest player to have ever touched BW. Unfortunately for SC2 fans, that rivalry never materialized in this new game. Jaedong left Korea to travel the world under EG and Flash was never able to get out of Korea in 2013. By the end of that year, they had completely missed their chance to play against each other at their peak levels in SC2. Due to circumstance and fluctuating skill, they have never played each other during their SC2 careers.
However for my money, SC2 always had that kind of rivalry. Even though it was perhaps not quite as monumental (as Flash and Jaedong all happened in the Korean leagues), its implications for the legacy and the history of the scene was just as large.
One of their many battles that would decide the strongest player in SC2
That rivalry was Life versus Taeja. It was a great loss for every casual fan that their various battles and series were among the most ignored of every major storyline.
To understand this rivalry, one must realize that both Life and Taeja started their careers learning SC2 through the ESV Weekly (2011 to 2012). It was an online weekly cup for non-GSL Koreans where they could play each other competitively for small amounts of money. It was a consortium of numerous Code B players, all of whom were extraordinarily stylistic, strange and weird. Here is a sampling of the list of players they played week in and week out during that one year where they competed in the league:
- GuMiho, the most stylistic terran player in SC2’s history;
- CranK, a player who debuted as a progamer with a warp prism cannon rush;
- GuineaPig, a player who created void ray/collosus and played random;
- InCa, the sovereign of DTs;
- PuMa, the master of the 1-1-1;
- ByuN, one of the most patient Korean terrans to have ever existed;
- jjakji, one of the stranger terrans to have graced the scene;
- Seal, the first player to have understood the importance of creep tumors;
- Symbol, the Nydus Worm;
- TaSSaDaR, a protoss who couldn’t count past 2 bases;
- Revival, the winner of the biggest thrown game in SC2’s history;
- TAiLS, the MVP team league sniper and owner of SC2's most legendary haircut;
- Hack, another weird terran who used mech vs protoss;
- CoCa another really weird zerg;
- aLive, the most standard of standard terrans;
- and Sage, another odd protoss.
These were the people they played over and over and over again from the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2012. In fact, the player list was larger, but these were just some of the players that won some of the weekly tournaments. Not just in random Bo1s behind barcodes on the ladder, but against each other in Bo3s and Bo5s across nearly an entire year. An important distinction must be made when you realize that many future tournament winning players that played in these weeklies were forced to think about series planning in a way a normal ladder player never could. In this strange hyperbolic time chamber, what came out were players with very strong playstyle identities. It is a strange contrast to the current era where more players are conforming to the standard now that there are no longer any non-premier events in Korea barring Olimoleague. But for now I’ll focus on two players in particular: Life and Taeja. In that time they played multiple times ending in Taeja’s favor 12-1. However, the real rewards for both players would only be witnessed once they ascended into Code S. By the time they had qualified for Korea's premier tournament, they had forged a style that was completely their own.
Life left with a fundamental understanding of zerg which would eventually lead to the tactical revolution he would initiate during his rise to prominence. Most people simplify it as his run-by/counter-attack style, but it is more than that. It is a preternatural understanding of build orders both orthodox and unorthodox and knowing their push out timings and their exact weak points. It is an understanding of the exact moment when a player glances away from his army or glances away from his natural. It is knowing the exact moment when his opponent is preoccupied and striking without hesitation. In those individual seconds, where the mind goes from macro to micro to army control, Life attacks those transitions of thought to action and catches some of the best players off guard again and again and again. While others see luck, Life only sees opportunity. By the time Life had left ESV, he was armed with a multitude of weird builds, had incredible mechanics, was one of the best attackers in the world, had developed into one of the best series players in the world and the best counter attack player in ZvT (until ByuL rose to prominence in 2015). Life is a player who creates initiative; if his opponent resists, he takes it anyway be it through counterattack or deception. He learned all this through the gauntlet that was ESV.
His complete opposite was Taeja. During his time playing in the weekly, Taeja won 9 ESV TV tournaments, 2 of which were ESV Finals. At the time, Taeja was an nonsalaried player on SlayerS who later went teamless. In order to make money and keep his skills up, he played these ESV TV Weeklies to win. And he did it by taking a completely different approach from Life. While Life was a tactical genius at reading the game and breaking his opponent, Taeja was a tactical genius at reading the game and denying all advantage from his opponent. For some, this is difficult to see because Taeja took generally passive positions in the game. Yet one must not mistake his passivity for inaction; he never just sat there. He would always poke and prod at the edges, reading and reacting to what his opponent was doing. When he saw the prime opportunity to attack, he’d strike fast and hard without leaving any openings. Taeja was the ultimate defensive player who could take anyone of any race to the late game and win, regardless of whether he was going against BL/infestor or if he was playing against endgame protoss from 2013-2014 (Fun fact: for nearly the entirety of that time Taeja was one of three players to never use the SCV pull along with Maru and Polt). And all of this was based solely on Taeja’s incredible game sense and decision making. With his game sense he seemed to know exactly what would happen, when it would happen and why it would happen and the exact answer to the problem before it ever happened. Taeja let his opponent play his game and then he’d swat it away with such utter and contemptuous ease that one would have wondered why the other player even bothered at all.
If Life was the strongest aggressive player in the world, then Taeja was the strongest passive player in the world. And in a strange twist of fate whenever the two of them played against lesser players, it almost always ended in terrible games. Life would instantly crush them before anything happened with what looked like simple attacks. Taeja would let them try, counter it and then end the game leaving the other player with no answer. If there was ever any proof to the strategic and tactical depth of SC2 it would be the existence of Life and Taeja. Both of them played in completely opposite styles and yet both would become two of the three greatest players to have ever played the game.
After the death of ESV weekly, it would not be until the first Summer of Taeja that the two would meet online again. In IPL TAC3, Life was slaughtered along with the rest of his team while Taeja carried his on his back. Yet Life didn’t let it end there. In his royal road run, Life defeated Taeja 3-0 on his way to his GSL title. Then, he did it twice again during his MLG Fall Championship winning 2-0 twice. At that point in time everyone thought the new age would be written by Life.
Yet in 2013, in two of the biggest LANs of the year with GSL level competition, Taeja met Life at IEM Bucharest and DH Winter. In both tournaments, Taeja destroyed Life 2-0 and then 2-0 and 4-2 again. Life at the time had a revival in skill where he had looked as good as his royal road run, but against the height of Taeja it was nothing. Like every other player in the world he was rolled over in Taeja’s march to the top. The Taeja victory train continued as he then destroyed Life at IEM WC 2014 and then again at IEM Shenzhen 2014 where he won 3-1 and 2-1 respectively.
All of this led to Life’s resurrection to his second peak at the very end of 2014. There he destroyed BizzCon which would have been a forgettable event (in terms of game quality) if not for his series against Taeja. He just barely edged out the victory 3-2 in what was one of the best TvZs of the year. At the end of the year at DH Winter, he would again squeak out a victory against Taeja after knocking him into the lower bracket, winning 2-0 in the earlier series and then 3-2 in the decider—before losing to ForGG.
In the overall context of their careers we can see a general trend. Most people rate Life as the second greatest player in SC2’s history. According to my criteria, I argued that Taeja was the third greatest player in SC2’s history. Now look at that head-to-head record in map score: it has been Taeja 27-20 Life. Take out the ESV TV matches and the score is 15-19 and 5-6 in series.
Now simplify that again to only include knock-out games and the score is 4-3 in Taeja's favor. The seven tournaments were seven of the largest and most competitive in SC2’s history: GSL Season 4 2012, DH Open Bucharest 2013, DH Winter 2013, IEM WC 2014, IEM Shenzhen 2014, BlizzCon 2014, DH Winter 2014. All seven tournaments were of the highest caliber possible with a majority of the best players during those time periods in attendance. The winner of their series went on to win 5 of the 7 tournaments, with Taeja winning 3 and Life claiming 2. In the two tournaments they didn't win, they placed 3rd/4th and 2nd. If Taeja had made it to the GSL Season 4 finals, he’d have been favored against Mvp (though technically anyone in the Ro8 should have been favored against Mvp given his wrist issues). If one of these two players had not existed, the other would have likely superseded Mvp as the greatest player of all time by winning 2-3 more of the greatest premier tournaments we've ever had.
This wasn’t just a rivalry of two of the best players in the game, it was a rivalry for the very legacy and history of SC2. At the very height of the game Life and Taeja battled for the very throne of the world and almost none of the casters or production noticed. While everyone was waiting futilely for the Flash vs Jaedong matchup, we saw the fate of SC2 be decided time and time again each time Taeja and Life met in some of the biggest tournaments in SC2’s history.
One of the last times the two would meet at the peak of their skills
Photo Credits: Brita Jonsson, Kevin "silverfire" Chang,
Frederike “Wolf” Schmitt and Carl Oscar “kalaspuff” Aaro