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5 defining career moments from Idra, America's one-time 'StarCraft' king

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Everything Greg “Idra” Fields did during his career as a professional StarCraft 2 player left people talking. And not necessarily for his in-game performances. In 2011, an animated GIF starring Fields briefly took over the Internet. It showed him unfurling his middle finger towards  Chris “Huk” Loranger, to whom he had just lost.

In the 2011 Team Liquid Starleague, Fields was slated to play Abdulaziz "CrunCher" Abed. He started the game with an insult, mocking Abed for being a gimmicky player with a shallow understanding of the game.

“It must suck for you when skill is involved."

Abed won a 2-1 upset over Fields in front of tens of thousands of fans. He left the game by typing a simple :) into the chat field. The smiley face became iconic, the game was immortalized, and Abed is remembered years later for the one crowning achievement of his StarCraft 2 career: Beating Idra.

After emerging almost out of the blue in 2007 to win a contract on a Korean pro team, Fields became the cause célèbre of the global StarCraft universe. As the only non-Korean competing in Seoul, Fields had the hopes of thousands of players on his shoulders. It was for good reason: In 2009, he won almost every non-Korean tournament in the world. But he also lost to almost every Korean he played. That massive contradiction between perceived potential and actual results is the crux of the drama that drove Idra’s story. For six years, few esports fans could look away.

At the release of StarCraft 2 in 2010, Fields might have been the most popular esports player in the world. Even long after he stopped winning any games of actual importance, his popularity barely faded thanks to his one-of-a-kind personality. Many fans loved the aggressive attitude, others found him needlessly angry and disrespectful. Few could look away.

On Feb. 4, 2014, Fields said he'd be leaving StarCraft for good.

His departure marks the end of an era for StarCraft. Here, we take a look at the five moments that defined one of the most iconic careers in esports history.

1) Winning eSTRO’s StarCraft SuperStars tournament, 2007

The StarCraft tournament that changed Greg “Idra” Fields’ life ended at 5am on a Monday morning. An hour after the final game concluded, the 18-year-old Fields stumbled in a daze toward his morning high school classes in New Jersey.

Within a few months, Fields would be on a plane to Korea to compete with the best StarCraft players in the world. But early that morning, all he wanted was sleep.

In 2007, Korean team eSTRO came out of the blue to offer $1,000 and a spot on the team to the top North American player of StarCraft: Brood War, at the time the biggest esport in the world.

Most of the competitors invited to the eSTRO StarCraft SuperStars tournament didn’t even play StarCraft regularly anymore. That was just the way StarCraft worked back then.

Fields, who started playing competitively two years prior and never thought he’d end up in Korea, won the SuperStars tournament convincingly, dropping only a single game.

“It’'s likely that whoever goes to Korea will accomplish nothing,” wrote Tyler “Nony” Wasieleski, who would lose to Fields in the quarterfinals.

But after a few phone calls back and forth, Fields was convinced that his trip to Korea wasn’t just a publicity stunt so South Korean teams could gain American fans. Instead, eSTRO, one of the worst teams in Korea at the time, extended him an invitation to officially join the team and stay as long as he played well.

By 2007, Fields was already one of the best StarCraft players outside of Korea. By moving to Seoul, he could potentially secure the throne for years to come.

2) The American Civil War: Idra vs. Nony, TSL 2009

In 2009, Idra was the king outside Korea. He took six gold medals on the year, an extremely impressive number when you consider that made up about 75 percent of the year’s major non-Korean competitions. Most of the events barely paid off: All six first places netted Fields less than $7,000.

The biggest event of the year, the Team Liquid Starleague, was going to be the greatest and final Brood War tournament before most of the world switched over to StarCraft 2. The $10,000 first place prize made it the most lucrative competition non-Koreans had seen in a decade, richer than every other tournament Idra had won all year.

After breezing through the preliminaries to a number one seed, Fields met his old American rival Tyler “Nony” Wasieleski in the quarterfinals. Wasieleski hadn’t played StarCraft in a year since he hastily left Korea, citing clinical depression. And Fields had already beaten him handily early in the competition. Idra’s confidence and cockiness was sky high.

“Only emo or falsely modest Europeans predict that they're going to lose games,” Fields said in the pre-game interview. He predicted a 3-0 sweep.

The series between the two American heavyweights featured short, furious games of utter weirdness and skill. Both players knew each other extremely well and planned accordingly.

In the second game, Fields lost when Wasieleski’s early harassment led him to accidentally cancel the construction of a building, something that never happens in top games. There was no coming back from that point.

The deciding fifth game was a punch in the jaw to Fields, delivered via a Dragoon bumrush he didn’t see coming.

“Idra has to hang on!” commentator Nick “Tasteless” Plott screamed. “He’s supposed to be the one who wins. He’s supposed to be the one who has been in Korea this whole time and therefore is more experienced and can handle any situation, training all day with pro gamers!”

Fields fought hard in that last game. But the rush worked, and early on it was obvious Fields had lost. Wasieleski would eventually win the $10,000 first place prize. Fans wondered out loud if Fields’ stay in Korea was worth it after all those years.

3) Big city, bright lights: Idra’s TV debut at TG Sambo-Intel Classic, 2009

Seoul knows vice. In old school StarCraft circles, the Korean capital’s abyssal nightlife has inspired a certain mythology.

After the first generation of foreign StarCraft players left the game, many moved on to poker. Players naturally gravitated towards people they knew, which pulled them to backroom poker games and bottle-service at the nightclubs, far away from the screens and keyboards where they practiced. StarCraft legends like Patry and Grospellier were able to thrive in Seoul despite not putting in the marathon hours that Korean professionals did.

From the beginning of his stay in April 2008, Fields knew he would not fall into the same trap.

He was different from those who came before him, Fields told Korean media, because he was not distracted by Seoul. He came half-way around the world against his father’s wishes for one reason only: StarCraft.

Arriving in early 2008, Fields trained for months in seclusion. As the rookie, his daily schedule included scrubbing the floors and cleaning the house. He practiced from noon to midnight with breaks for meals and an hour of exercise, tallying up around ten hours of StarCraft per day.

“He is clearly different from Bertrand [Elky] and Guillaume [Grrr….],” Jiho Lee, eSTRO’s coach, said in June 2008, comparing Fields to older generations of players.

“I don’t recall seeing Greg really leave the training facility. In the training room he is receiving the same intensive training as everyone else.”

Fields said he aimed to make the starting lineup in the team league faster than new Korean players do and then to compete for individual titles. He said he’d train harder—”much harder”—than other pros to walk the golden road as quickly as possible.

“Greg is deficient in many areas of his game,” Coach Lee said, unconvinced. “But he is especially lacking in his ability to read the game and produce units”—which, for what it’s worth, has always been exactly the area of Field’s game where he thought he was strongest.

Despite being given a pro gaming license, many of Fields’ ambitions did not come to pass.

After winning his first ever professional game against the Zerg player Kang “Symbol” Dong Hyun, he quickly lost the next two games and ceded the series. Fields played one televised series which he lost 1-2 in March 2009. This marked the first time a non-Korean had played on Korean television since the Australian Peter “Legionnaire” Neat retired in 2005.

For the next two years, Fields lost every single series he played in Korean professional leagues—except one, in the first round of the losers bracket of an Ongamenet Starleague qualifying tournament in Aug. 2010.

Even so, he was still on a level that no non-Korean had reached in a half decade. Was he a failure or a success?

4) A challenger appears: Idra vs. Jinro, 2011

By 2011, Fields was, at the very least, an institution in StarCraft.

He’d been the best in the West for years. In Brood War, he was the only non-Korean playing in Seoul. But once StarCraft 2 hit, Americans and Europeans made the trek to the Mecca of esports to play in the most prestigious league in the world: The Global StarCraft 2 League (GSL). Code S, the division at the top of the GSL pyramid, sported the best talent in the game.

Fields’ early StarCraft 2 success was considerable. He dominated the ladder, had one of the most popular streams on Twitch, and won the King of the Beta tournament to be crowned the best player leading up to the game’s official release.

But the competitive height of Fields’ StarCraft 2 career came in late 2010 and early 2011. In the  2011 Code S season, Fields went undefeated in group stages and found himself in the playoffs facing Jonathan "Jinro" Walsh, a Swedish fan favorite.

Walsh’s ascendance was impossible not to love. A long-time StarCraft: Brood War community member and poker shark, he dedicated himself to a pro StarCraft 2 career early on and achieved fantastic results. And while Fields was finally seeing favorable results in Korea after all these years, Walsh waltzed in and competed against Fields at the top levels almost immediately. All of a sudden, Fields had a real “foreigner” challenger in Seoul for the first time in his career.

Walsh was known at the time for his solid, conservative play. Like Fields, he often eschewed aggression or gimmicks to allow his superior skill to shine. When the two Western hopes finally met, everyone expected long slugfests.

Instead, Walsh adapted his style successfully, while Fields mostly stayed still.

After losing game 1, Walsh pushed forward with an all-out bunker rush, winning the second game and taking the momentum to sweep through the rest of the series 3-1.

That loss, along with his profound dissatisfaction with the game itself, led Fields to leave Korea and return to the United States to play full time.

5) “You’re all fucks”

Fields once said that the funniest moment in his career was making a female pro gamer cry after he defeated her at the Esports World Cup France.

All along, Fields had cultivated a reputation as either disturbingly angry or refreshingly frank. By the time StarCraft 2 began to explode in popularity, Fields was warping into something like a pro wrestling character—albeit one with real talent—who played up his villain status to gain more popularity.

He was banned dozens of times from community sites like Team Liquid  for repeatedly cursing out other users, dropping slurs like "faggot," and generally trolling StarCraft websites in what moderators repeatedly called an abuse of the seniority he’d gained over the years. Despite that, Liquid tried to sign him to a contract in 2010. They lost out to Evil Geniuses.

When WeRRa, a Korean StarCraft team, disbanded due to accusation that the coach had sexually molested underage players, Idra stopped by the news post to make fun of the kids. He made light of the alleged rape by using a common StarCraft with an obvious double-meaning: they were “all-in’d,” he said.

As a result, Fields was given a brief two day ban from posting on Team Liquid’s community forum, his 15th slap on the wrist of what would become dozens. His brand-new, high-profile American team, Evil Geniuses, did nothing about the incident.

Fields publicly called competitors wastes of life and wished cancer on them.  When he toned it down to only insult a player’s actual StarCraft 2 ability, it felt like a relief.

The World Wrestling Federation’s Vince McMahon rarely calls wrestling a sport. It’s “sports entertainment,” where the spectacle matters more than the supposedly competitive event. It’s theater above all else.

To Fields, the "e" in esports might as well stand for entertainment.

Viewers “don’t reward results,” he told fans in 2013.

“Winning is at best tangentially related to making money in this industry solely because of what you and the rest of this community chooses to watch. We work in an entertainment industry.”

“I am sure he is a nice fellow,” a fan responded, “who is pained and crying inside by his enforced facade for entertainment whenever he streams.”

“Nope you're all a bunch of fucks,” Fields wrote back. “it just so happens i get paid to treat you like it. It's fucking awesome.”

Years past his winning days and with his popularity finally waning, Fields was released from Evil Geniuses as a result of those comments.

Photo via Cody R S/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)