Where the Stars of Tomorrow are forged: Spotlight on the Alpha X Junior Championships
Fostering young talents is a big part of any sport. Without fresh faces reinforcing the rows of established stars, any sport simply is not sustainable in the long term. Everyone knows the stories of superstars like TY and Maru, who have begun playing professionally at very young ages. Pictures of them sitting in oversized player booths in front of hundreds of people and cameras still awaken a sense of awe in us. But with the professional framework of KeSPA not being in place any more, no more dedicated talent scouts looking for young prodigies on the ladder, and with the popularity of StarCraft 2 waning compared to other games, young Korean talents have become a rare sight.
Instead, the West, especially Europe, has recently been more famous for young players coming out of the woodwork and performing well. Not due to any infrastructure built to foster youthful talents, however. Serral and Reynor are exceptions, not the norm. HeRoMaRinE and Clem benefitted from national competitions being in place (‘ESL Meisterschaft’ and ‘Underdogs’, respectively), which had been started to foster home grown talent, but not necessarily to help young players start out. In fact, HeRoMaRinE couldn’t even play ‘ESL Meisterschaft’ until he was 16 years old, due to German law. The same set of laws locked Reynor out of WCS for so long. So while these four had the necessary support and the determination to continue their careers up to a point where they were allowed to finally compete on the big stage, how many more talents have we lost in the same timeframe, because they couldn’t hold out as long?
That’s Maru in 2010, playing in the GSL Open as a 13-year old.
We may not be able to recover these lost talents. But what we can do is try to assure that future young prodigies have a place to hone their skills, gain confidence and experience in a competitive environment, and have something to show their parents—something to reassure them, that this is a viable path for their child. All the youngsters successful at the game at the moment have something in common: their parents support them wholeheartedly in what they have set out to achieve. So re-assuring them is certainly a key aspect of what talent promotion is supposed to do in StarCraft 2. Anecdotally, my own father got me into PC gaming at a young age, but this whole esports thing I got into was something he simply didn’t really understand. Until, one day, I took a two-hour train ride to Munich in the morning and came back after midnight with a bunch of stuff I had won at an amateur SC2 tournament I attended that day. I showed him the medal I got, and it finally clicked for him—this wasn’t actually so different from his own beloved hobby, football. And you could really win money and make friends there? Amazing!
The thing is—no one was really able to create such an infrastructure until now. Sure, some teams have tried to build up academy teams for young players, but this approach lacks some of the features listed above, and the commitment to it and thus the results have varied—Alpha X’s very own Astrea is a positive example, having ‘graduated’ from ROOT Gaming’s academy team. But again, he is very much an exception, not the norm.
Enter the Alpha X Junior Championships. A regular tournament, which provides young players with a stable, competitive, and motivating environment, gives them the chance to communicate and network with their peers, and enables them to win some money early on in their career, possibly re-assuring their parents about this path they want to step on. It’s such a good idea, one wonders why it hasn’t really been done before in this manner, but it takes an investment of resources and a certain amount of commitment to it to execute in earnest. It takes long-term vision and patience, something which the quick-lived world of esports and progaming often seems short on, or simply cannot afford at a grassroots level. But especially a scene such as ours, which prides itself on its organic growth and is celebrating its tenth birthday this year, must be thinking about fostering talents for the future. After all, even grassroots spring from a seed, and those require light and water.
The Player’s Perspective
For Zerg player Ghosti, a 13-year old German, who won the 1st edition of the Alpha X Junior Championships only a year after making it to Grandmaster, the event was a first glimpse into the workings of the professional scene, an introduction to many of the proceedings of competitive play—and of being a media personality. In fact, being interviewed at the end of a successful day of StarCraft still makes him much more nervous than actually competing, though he told me ‘I think I’m getting a bit better and better each time :D’. Progress is clearly the name of the game. It’s also what Ghosti thinks of as the biggest strength of the tournament series.
French Protoss Arrogfire, part of Alpha X’s own academy team, who celebrated his 13th birthday this May, gave a similar answer, responding that even though the young players aren’t quite as good as the highest level pros yet, they could get there in two to three years time, and it would be awesome if people could follow their progress all the way there. Arrogfire, who narrowly lost to Ghosti in the 1st editions’ Grand Finals after an intense series involving some very intelligent burrowed Roach play by the German to secure his victory, still remembers that tournament very fondly, ‘because it was cool to see all these young players like me, even if I didn't win it.’
Both players really like the community aspect of the event, with Ghosti explaining: ‘I think it’s nice to make friends there, so we are a little bit like the pro scene with Lambo, Serral, Reynor and all the other guys that have some fun with each other :D’. His French counterpart greatly values the equal competitive environment the tournament provides to the young players, saying that even though he had played in other events before, he never had the feeling that he could actually come out as the winner there—in the Junior Championships, however, there is opportunity for everyone to succeed. An aspect, he emphasizes, that’s more important than the prize money. Ghosti agrees with the Protoss, naming ‘motivation’ the most important aspect about the event for him personally. Seeing who’s the best amongst the group, claiming the glory of victory at the very end—that is what they strive for, competitive as they all are. One of the most prominent players in the tournament, BabyMarine, already well-known due to his brotherly connection with a certain Reynor, echoes that sentiment: ‘[...] I'm really competitive and playing against players that have my same age is really great and motivational to continue practicing.’
Russian Protoss Exostriker, one of the ‘old’ guard in the tournament with his 15 years, shares their views, but emphasizes the importance of the young players having a stage to get their name out into the world: ‘[...] the greatest for me is media-support. I’m pretty sure that at least ¼ of my Twitter followers started following me after the Junior Championships, although prize money and cool games are also meaning something :3’. Part of Alpha X’s academy team, Exostriker won editions #2 and #5 of the Junior Championships, beating out Italian Terran Mirtillo (another player who had named Exostriker as his chief target, by the way—success does seemingly breed rivals!) and Arrogfire respectively in his two Grand Finals appearances. His PvP streak against Arrogfire was especially impressive, as the Russian came back from a 0-2 deficit to take the series 4-2. He still showed great respect for his opponent, telling me that both ‘WannaBeByuN and Arrogfire [...] are the youngest of all and already playing on the same level, or even better, than Reynor or Clem, for example, played at their age.’
For Exostriker, the Alpha X Junior Championships helped him a lot to develop his mindset and confidence: ‘I've become much more confident while playing tourneys: half a year ago my mindset was "oh no, I'm facing 6200 MMR player, gg", now it's more like "well, it's gonna be hard but I'll try to do my best" and the Junior Championships surely helped me a lot with that.’ To him, the coolest moments are those thrilling moments when everything is on the line, ‘when you play the last game of the finals being in the lead and understand that everything is going just like you wanted to, truly amazing feeling.’
While everyone is very friendly and respectful towards each other, the Junior Championships have already built up some exciting rivalries over time: Ghosti and Arrogfire are frequent opponents in the tournament, with the Zerg leading the head-to-head record between them 13-8 in maps—however, their two most recent clashes have gone in the Protoss player’s favour, so it seems Arrogfire finally has Ghosti’s number. The German is clearly out for revenge, naming Arrogfire (and Exostriker; it’s always Exostriker) as the two names he really wants to beat, while he kind of flies under the radar for the other players: Arrogfire stated that Exostriker is his target number one, and the Russian is just glad to have seen the last of his previous nemesis YoungYakov, who recently celebrated his 16th birthday and has become ineligible to participate. Before his departure his countryman YoungYakov, another Zerg player, had won editions #3 and #4, beating Ghosti in two consecutive ZvZ finals. He had shown dominant performances throughout both the group stages and the playoffs during his runs. Oh, and can you guess who’s on BabyMarine’s hit list? Yeah, it’s Exostriker again (and also Arrogfire), with the Italian reasoning ‘just because i want the revenge.’ Asked about his, uh, popularity amongst his colleagues, Exostriker told me: ‘I don't consider myself the best player of the tourney so I don’t know why everybody really wants to defeat me, but I'm the defending champion right now so that probably makes sense. I'll try not to let their wishes come true ^__^’.
With his consistency of always reaching at least the top 4—you can clearly see why Serral of all people is his idol—Ghosti is leading the point ranking, which will determine the participants of the Global Finals at the end of the year, just like in the professional EPT circuit. YoungYakov, despite turning 16, will still be able to play in that event, should the 21 points he accrued so far be enough to remain in the top 8 when the time comes. For now, he sits at a secure third place behind Exostriker on #2, with Arrogfire poised to overtake him soon.
Behind this top 4 duo, the race for the rest of the Global Finals spots is going to be very exciting and probably very close: Belarusian Terran WannaBeByuN, a mere twelve years of age, but playing ever since he was five, has been getting better and better results recently, catching up to his peers very quickly. Not only Exostriker has had lauding words for him, renowned caster and GM-player RotterdaM, in whose stream community many of the young players have found another home giving them motivation and advice, has also praised the young player on his stream. You don’t really need to ask who the young Terran’s idol is—it’s both in his name, and his game.
Season 6 is fully up and running, and the next Top 4 has been formed.
People’s eyes are, naturally, also on BabyMarine, the brother of Reynor and thus part of what we could call an ‘established’ SC2 family. Of course he’s not playing the game as much as his brother yet, but with two very solid top 4 placements the Italian Terran has shown his promise already. Asked if being Reynor’s brother is a burden on him, because people might expect him to quickly match his famous brother, BabyMarine told me that there is not much additional pressure on him during tournaments, ‘but it puts pressure on how fast I get better to beat him and to get better as fast as I can, so I'd say it's not a negative thing.’ Clearly, for him it’s merely a point of extra motivation.
With half a year’s worth of Alpha X Junior Championships seasons to go, everything is still possible in the ranking. A surprise title run could catapult any player into the top 8, and perhaps some new faces are going to successfully enter the race at a later stage. Competition here is as fierce as in the big leagues, and the stories developing aren’t any less exciting, so there’s plenty of reasons to watch—but I’ll let the players convince you why you should watch the tournament (I also asked them to convince you to cheer for them specifically, but they have already mastered the progamer’s art of humbly dodging a question like that, so I foresee a very bright future for all of them).
Ghosti: ‘I think if they [he means YOU!] want to see some new talents and how they grow up and get better and better, they should come watch the Alpha X Junior Championships!’
Arrogfire: ‘I think that people should tune into the Alpha X Junior Championships, because even if we're not as good as the pros that we see in the big tournaments like the EPT, we can become that good in 2 or 3 years, so I think it is nice for them to see the progression of all the players in this tournament until we become as strong as the pro players.’
Exostriker: ‘It's quite interesting for any fan to take a look at next generation of SC2 players, in my opinion. Obviously no need to cheer only for me, just support all the young players and cheer for anybody you find ambitious, good-mannered, or for any other reason.’
BabyMarine: ‘I think people should tune in because you discover another world of young players that compete that maybe you didn't know even existed.’
The Visionary Gardener: an Interview with Tournament Admin αX.Migwel
No one can give us better insight into the history and vision behind the Alpha X Junior Championships, and no one knows the players better than the man interviewing them after every day of matches: Migwel is the tournament admin and broadcast host, and has accompanied the players from the inception of the event until now.
How did the Alpha X Junior Championship come to be? Whose idea was it, and what's the goal behind it?
αX.Migwel: So at first we had Arrogfire and Exostriker on our team, Alpha X, who were under 16, who were really strong and rising, and who were a bit frustrated not to be able to play in the big tournaments—especially Arrogfire. I was surprised, when I was scouting for them, to see they were not the only players under 16 who were really good. I also knew of Ghosti, but Exostriker knew even more players. αX.Sushi recommended me to host an invitational tournament for them, which became the Younglings Tourney, and since it worked out really well, I decided to make it a monthly event, and to introduce a ranking system in order to make Global Finals. My point was to create some kind of really small ‘Pro Tour’ for those who can not play in EPT yet. The goal is to help the youngest players improve and most of all help them to keep their motivation. I think it's really rewarding for them to see that they are the best under 16.
How did you find all these talents—or how did they find you? Did you just get the word out there about a tournament for young players, and all of them suddenly showed up, just waiting for the opportunity?
αX.Migwel: Some players were on our team already—Arrogfire and Exostriker and we also had CuKu and Optimistc for a while. I myself know Arrogfire for a long time now, ever since he was in Diamond League. I also knew Fireplay from a LAN. But most of them, at least at first, were known by the other young players. Arrogfire talked about Ghosti, Exostriker suggested SlyCrab, and to be honest I don't remember who, but someone recommended BabyMarine. Now, most of the new players find us through our advertisement of the tournament. I think we now have most of the European competitive players under 16 participating, but each season we have new NA guys coming in, especially because the first one—EndlessTV—talked about the tournament to others. Those young players are amazing, because they could just play the tournament with less competition, and have a better chance to win, but a lot of them talk about the tournament with other people instead, inviting them to join.
Sometimes, I also just find players on Twitter, like YoungYakov. I saw ‘Young’ in his nickname, I looked at his bio and he was 15, so I asked him if he wanted to join. Most of the players, who participated once participate almost every season. They are really looking for competitive events and it's a bit hard for them not to be able to play in the biggest tournaments. I know some of them still signed-up to Xel’Naga Finest, for example, even if they knew they wouldn’t win and despite being technically too young to play, but they are really starving for competitive events. Arrogfire and CuKu, who is 16 now, are playing in a lot of online tournament whenever they can.
What do you think is the most important aspect about the tournament for these young players? In what way does it help them most?
αX.Migwel: I think it really depends on the players. For some of them, who are not playing that much StarCraft 2 like BabyMarine, it provides them an objective every month, and a regular circuit to come back to. For others, who play a lot anyway like Arrogfire, it's most of all a way to confront the other young players. There are some rivalries, which were born because of this tournament, for example Arrogfire vs. Ghosti. I think for those players, the tournament is a bit less important than for the first kind, but they still love it—well, most of it—especially because it's really rewarding to have viewership, which comes in just for them. We also really focus on the interviews with them and telling their stories, on who they are, so people can discover them. I think the fact this tournament is on a regular basis is really nice, because when they lose to one of their rivals one season, they practice hard against him to be able to beat him the next season. It’s what happened with Arrogfire, who practiced a lot to be able to beat Ghosti after being defeated in a Grand Finals by him.
What's been your favourite moment in the tournament so far?
αX.Migwel: It's hard to say, but maybe it was the run of CuKu in Season 2. He was definitely not the favourite, but he took first place in the qualifiers, finished second in his group and then took two games off of a player 1k MMR points above him, Mirtillo, in the semi-finals. It was an insane run, because this surprise was not simply because of mere luck from CuKu, he definitely practiced hard, and he had one specific build order for every map against every opponent. More generally, I love the interviews of the players, they are not used to it (except Exostriker who is like... really good, and has perfect English, even if he is a 15-year old Russian player), so there are some really funny moments.
You've seen these guys play since the beginning: who's made the most progress so far? Is there any aspect in which all of them developed since the series started, in your opinion?
αX.Migwel: It's hard to tell and I'm maybe not objective. Also, some players didn't play a lot of events, as they reached 16 years of age, so they can't play anymore. But if they are in the top 8 of the rankings, they will still be invited to the Global Finals in December, and then we will see if they improved a lot in that time. However, I think Arrogfire and Cuku are the two players who improved the most. In six months Arrogfire advanced from 5.2k to 5.8k MMR, and a few weeks ago he took a 2-0 series against Skillous in an ESL open Cup, a 2-0 against Uzikoti in an Underdogs qualifier and some more notable wins. CuKu was 4.8k, he is now 5.3k MMR.
I think all these players have the same strength and the same weakness. They have insane mechanics, so really good micro and macro. However, they are still relatively easy to read, a bit too cheesy, and sometimes do not read the game really well themselves. I think that makes sense, as they do not have the experience of playing for a very long amount of time on such a high level. I'm not really sure where they improved the most. I would say Arrogfire’s micro is even better than it used to be, Exostriker makes less big mistakes, such as forgetting to hold position on his wall, but it's obviously different for every player.
Give me a selling point: Why should people tune in to the Alpha X Junior Championships?
αX.Migwel: Reynor reached GM at the age of 12, so did Arrogfire, or WannaBeByuN, or Ghosti. Those players are strong and young, and improving really fast and they will become top tier players in the future. Watching this tournament is a way to see the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Also, if people think the storytelling is not interesting, because it's not a top tier tournament, it's definitely not the case. On the contrary, there are some amazing stories in this tournament. Some players create a big surprise, like CuKu in Season 2, some players finally manage to overcome players they were not ever able to beat before, there are some rivalries that we see every season, or almost every season, and which lead to insane games every time. Ghosti and Exostriker, for example, always clash and it’s super close every time, with another one coming out on top of each meeting. Finally, we really work on giving out as much information as possible about the players, on how they started playing, on how they practice, why they became so strong etc. so it's a good way to learn more about them—the stars of tomorrow.
If some young, ambitious Platinum League player reads this, or one of their friends tells them about it, and asks himself if he should also try to participate, what would you tell them?
αX.Migwel: They really should give it a try! When I met Arrogfire for the first time, he was in Diamond League. But when he started, like everyone else, he was in really low leagues, and then he improved. So players should not be ashamed of playing and trying their best, even if they feel they are not good enough. They might even get some advice from the higher tier competitors. This season for example, we had two Platinum League brothers in the qualifier. EndlessTV, who’s Diamond, qualified twice for the Main Event and for the first time took a game during the Main Event this season, and he could not have done so three seasons ago: he definitely improved.
We are looking at explosive playoffs, with the potential for the tournament’s first ever TvT finals, but former finalists Ghosti and Arrogfire won’t easily let that happen.
Watch the Alpha X Junior Championships live on Twitch and join the discussion in the TL LR thread. The Season 6 Playoffs happen on May 29th at 19:00 CEST!
Alpha X would like to thank a number of awesome supporters for their help: Junior Championships main sponsor GlobalClanRTS, Patreon supporters Team eXon, Daemonumcamo, and Marek Slabicki, as well as regular Matcherino contributor Rowrin, and Craig from BattlePants.GG! Without them, the Alpha X Junior Championships would not be possible!
Catch up on the Alpha X Junior Championships via YouTube.
If you would like to support the Alpha X Junior Championships and all the young players participating in it, you can do so directly via Patreon!
I would like to thank Alpha X for organizing this awesome tournament, and for giving me the opportunity to delve into this topic with an article like this. I’d also like to express my thanks to Migwel, Ghosti, Arrogfire, Exostriker, and BabyMarine for answering my questions and lending me some of their precious time.
Disclaimer: All interviews have been slightly edited and condensed for clarity and the purpose of publishing. This article does not reflect the views or opinions of TL.net or any of its’ staff in any official capacity.
Writing, Interviews & Editing: Marco Wutz
Pictures: Alpha X, GOMTV, Liquipedia