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Chinese StarCraft 2 player Li Peinan's milestone win breaks foreign monopoly

By Huang Lanlan| Global Times| Updated: March 10, 2023 L M S


Li Peinan Photo: Courtesy of Electronic Sports League

Loud cheers fill the stadium in Poland's Katowice when StarCraft 2 gamer Li Peinan defeated the world No.1 player Cho Seong-ju (nickname "Maru") and became the champion of the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Katowice 2023. 

As the crowd applauded and cheered out "Oliveira," the 22-year-old Chinese professional player's current nickname, Li held up the trophy, which almost no one expected him to win, with tears in his eyes.

Some international media outlets tend to describe Li's victory in February as a "surprise" since no Chinese StarCraft 2 player had won a high-level international competition in the past 25 years, let alone the top-tier IEM. 

Some observers predicted Li only had a 0.37 percent chance at winning, even after he entered the top eight. 

Li was also surprised. 

"I could hardly believe it was true," he told the Global Times in an interview on Monday. "I'd rarely thought about winning this championship."

Miraculous achievement

A military sci-fi real-time ­strategy (RTS) video game, StarCraft is regarded as one of the most difficult games by many due to the relatively high demand for complex problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Li recalled his 6-0 defeat at another event in Atlanta months ago. 

"I flew for 14 hours to the US, and then I soon was out of the competition and had to return home," said Li, who described it a "heart-breaking experience."

Li was unheralded at the beginning of the IEM Katowice 2023. Li's 2-0 loss to his rival Riccardo "Reynor" Romiti of Italy at the beginning of the quarterfinals once left him on the brink of elimination, but he finally pulled through with a 3-2 against him. Later, at the grand finals, Li smoothly beat Maru 4-1. 

"This is insane," US esports ­commentator Nick Plott said after Li cinched a third map win. "This might be the biggest upset finals in StarCraft 2 history."

Li's milestone victory excited numerous Chinese StarCraft enthusiasts, many of which are in their 30s or 40s. They experienced in person the franchise's sweep through China in the early 2000s and its gradual downswing in the Chinese market thereafter.

His win was particularly significant for Chinese fans since StarCraft 2 went offline in the Chinese mainland in January after the game's developer Blizzard announced it was ending cooperation with its Chinese partner NetEase.

"This was a miraculous victory," commented Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily. "[We no longer] have this game, but we have a world champion of the game." 


Li Peinan (behind the trophy) gets emotional after winning the IEM on February 12, 2023 in Katowice, Poland. Photo: Courtesy of Electronic Sports League

Li Peinan (behind the trophy) gets emotional after winning the IEM on February 12, 2023 in Katowice, Poland. Photo: Courtesy of Electronic Sports League

Honor of China

Many Chinese fans regarded Li's win as a good start to show the possibility of Chinese StarCraft 2 players breaking the monopoly of foreign peers. 

"I'm [glad] to have won honor for the country," Li noted.

Having long been dominated by South Korean and Western gamers, StarCraft 2 seldom sees notable achievements from Chinese players. 

While Li is domestically the top player, he only ranked at No.21 globally in the 2022-23 season.

There has long been a wide gap between Chinese and the world's top players. 

The first time Li clearly felt this gap in person was around 2017, when he started to participate in world-level tournaments as the newly crowned Chinese domestic champion. 

"I had thought I could enter the last four or at least last eight, but the fact was that I couldn't even beat the second-tier Western players at that time - much less beat South Korean ­players," Li told the Global Times.

Since Li is China's best player, fans have high expectations for his performance on the international stages. 

Li said that sometimes he feels this pressure, since it feels as if almost all the attentions from people at home are on him, no matter if he wins or loses.

The road to surpass strong foreign rivals and clinch gold has been full of hardship and challenges. 

Li trains for 12 to 15 hours a day during competitions, and about five hours on other days, including on the Chinese New Year holidays. 

"I'm eager to bring China's national flag onto the world stage," he said.

Dream bigger

Entering the esports industry at 14, Li is a veteran player with eight years of professional experience. During his time playing the game, he has witnessed the development of esports in China over the years, as well as the gradual change in Chinese people's perception of the industry.

"I used to be alone," Li said, recalling his early years of bringing his keyboard to contests across the country by himself. 

"A decade ago, the elder generation thought of video games as sort of an 'electronic drug.' Personally, I spent more than a year persuading my parents to support my career, which they thought was 'off the right track.'"

Things got better when, with government support, the industry began growing fast in China. 

Data shows that the total revenue of China's esports industry reached 144.5 billion yuan ($20.82 billion) in 2022. The industry in China "shows strong resilience and good prospects," commented the Report on Chinese Esports Industry in 2022. 

Moreover, the upcoming 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou will feature esports as a medal event for the first time. This has attracted more professional Gen-Z players like Li to dream bigger and want to fight for China on the international stage.

"I'm looking forward to seeing our Chinese esports players at the Asian Games, and even at the Olympic Games in the near feature," Li said.

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