Less than a month from now, at Red Bull Battle Grounds, Choi “Bomber” Ji Sung will embark on what is perhaps the final major tournament of his career. Like many other Korean progamers, he must perform his mandatory military service. South Korea has one of the longest military service periods in the world – right behind Israel and Singapore. The Military Manpower Administration (MMA) ensures that every able-bodied South Korean man spends at least 21 months in the army or other public services, and failure to do so often results in jail time.
It’s a disruptive event from which few pros are ever able to return. Bomber is only 25 years old, but he’s almost a senior citizen by the mayfly standards of Korean eSports. After all, he is competing with players like teammate Lee "Life" Seung Hyung, who won his first GSL title at the age of 15, or Cho "Maru" Sung Choo, the current 16 year-old Star League champion. Ender’s Game does not look like such a science fiction from the perspective of elite eSports.
On the eve of his service, Bomber is uncertain about what his future holds.
I am worried that I could fall behind other gamers since I am not able to practice SC that much while serving in the military,” he told Red Bull eSports. “I may facing a physical difficulty after the military because I will be much older than other young progamers.
It’s not just a question of age. After all, Bomber is at the peak of his powers, and has had the kind of year that many of his younger colleagues could only envy. Lim "NesTea" Jae Duk is one of the biggest names in StarCraft at 30 years of age, and started playing StarCraft 2 in his late twenties. Jos “Ret” de Kroon may be a better player right now, at 27, than at any point in his career thus far. While some pros do talk about the problem of declining reaction time and playing speed, it’s not physical decline that brings most careers to an end. It’s Korea’s mandatory military service, and the difficulty of keeping up with a game that is constantly in motion.
While a player might be able to continue competing into his thirties physically, Korea’s mandatory conscription means that eventually they must step away not only from competition, but also all the developments driving high-level play. A player like NesTea was fortunate in that the advent of StarCraft 2 let him get a clean slate alongside everyone else, but that will not be possible for Bomber. The builds and playstyles he has mastered will likely be outmoded two or three times over by the time he is able to compete again, and there will be dozens of great players who have been able to work on those modern techniques without distractions.
Lim "BoxeR" Yo Hwan, one of the most successful players in Brood War, leveraged his fame and reputation to start to an Air Force progaming team that competed in Proleague until relative recently. But the Air Force Challenge E-Sports team dissolved last year, and BoxeR himself never came close to reproducing the feats of his pre-draft notice career.
That’s not to say it’s a career death-sentence. One of the Air Force squad’s former players, Son "StarDust" Seok Hee, has been having a good year following his discharge. But he is also fairly young, and his sole major victory was at DreamHack Summer. For Bomber, attempting to come back after service will likely be even harder.
Bomber isn’t throwing in the towel just yet.
I will give a shot after the military service,” he promised. “If it doesn't work out well, I still want to do my career in the related field.
It’s possible that after the military, Bomber will make the transition to being a coach or an analyst, using his insight and experience to help other players. On the other hand, Bomber has been counted out before. Until this year, there was a sense that his best days might be behind him and he had never quite fulfilled his potential. Then he took the WCS Season 2 Finals over a star-studded lineup of players.
But there is no denying the fact that the Global Finals and Red Bull Battle Grounds might be the last great competitions of Bomber’s career, the last chances to add to his legacy as one of StarCraft 2’s best players. He’ll want to go out a winner.