On December 5th, 2017, Kim "Bisu" Taek-yong ended his 12-year StarCraft career to begin his compulsory military service. He was widely considered the greatest Protoss in Brood War history.
"So what was better, watching him or not watching him? What, between achievement and potential, do we love more? Seeing a player accomplish something has the thrill of reality in it; but our imaginations are always larger than reality, and seeing a player accomplish something also means he can’t accomplish more than what we see."
Bisu will always be remembered best for that one magical evening ten years ago when he took down Ma "sAviOr" Jae-yoon against all odds: the 3.3 Revolution, the least expected and most significant upset in Brood War history. It is still celebrated in the Korean esports community every year on the third of March. Its context has been chronicled to exhaustion, deservedly so. And as long as StarCraft esports exists, it will live on as folktale, even if the characters fade into Homeric caricatures over time.
Yet looking back on what came after, one cannot help but wonder if his early claim to timeless glory ultimately held him back from achieving all he could have. And that sounds patently ridiculous because Bisu is undoubtedly the greatest Protoss to have played the game; what more could you want from a player who won 3 MSLs, 5 Proleague titles, 3 Proleague MVPs, and was always considered the crown jewel of SK Telecom T1's golden armada? But despite all that, it's undeniable that he had the talent to win so much more, fly so much higher. Anyone with the faintest understanding of the professional game could see it, and was pained by it, until the end.
Last November, roughly two weeks before his leave for the army, Bisu conducted over the phone what would be his final interview with the media. He had always been simultaneously open and reticent in interviews — charming, polite, approachable, willing to share a few funny stories but never giving away much beyond that — so it was expected to be a formality. Largely it was. Yet amidst the cheerful but banal exchange was a theme: acceptance and happiness.
"I think we should just be proud and happy that the game has lived on for so long, and focus on enjoying what time we have left together," he said, regarding the scene's recent decline.
"I would give my career an 80 out of 100," he said, acknowledging both his post-2008 drought in premier singles tournaments and his perennial consistency in Proleague.
"I feel very fortunate and grateful to have had so many fans who liked me as a person, and kept cheering for me regardless of whether I was playing well. I guess I was pretty good when I was a pro," he said, reminiscing his post-KeSPA years as a streamer, during which he continued to disappoint in tournaments but remained ever popular. "I'm a lucky man."
Everything he said was perfectly reasonable. It's unlikely that the game will again become mainstream; 80 is a fair and objective score; and yes, he was pretty damn good as a pro. Yet it also showed the lamentable leniency of his disposition.
Bisu might be the only Brood War legend devoid of the desperate, greedy kind of ambition shared amongst top players. While he always was a practice-room workhorse and a model professional, he had little of the self-destructive drive that every other all-time great possessed. Lee "Jaedong" Jae-dong and Lee "FlaSh" Young-ho, for instance, would never have given themselves an 80 out of 100 had they failed to reach a single OSL/MSL final for 4 straight years.
Bisu admitted to as much. "Compared to Jae-dong or Young-ho, I guess I didn't have that much ambition," he said. "Maybe, back then, a part of me subconsciously thought that I didn't need to try as hard since in Proleague I had already done well enough."
Brian Phillips once wrote that the saddest moment in the career of a great athlete is the one when he's tagged with the word "still", as in "still fast". But this never applied to Bisu, for until the very end he was fast, not still fast. So perhaps there should be an addendum: an equally sad moment is when the athlete tags himself with the word "enough", as in "well enough".
One cannot help but wonder. Had Bisu not attained immortality so early on in his career, had he needed much more glory to secure his place in history — what heights could have he reached?
Somewhere inside of Bisu was the essence of the perfect Protoss*, the Platonic ideal of how the race should be played. It would run through him so very often. The gift was his and his alone.
On one hand, Bisu was a dutiful amalgamation of the finest elements of his predecessors. His early game micro would remind you of Park "Kingdom" Yong-ook's, less infuriating but more strategically meaningful. His builds would remind you of Kang "Nal_rA" Min's, less creative but more efficient and refined. His resource management would remind you of Park "Reach" Jeong-seok's, less methodical but more flexible. And his mid-combat production would remind you of Park "PuSan" Ji-ho's, less relentless but more compositionally balanced.
At the same time, Bisu was a gross violation of the game's principles of thermodynamics. His staggering demonstrations, particularly in PvZ, ripped apart the historic logic of Brood War. His scout unit retention, small-scale micro, army movement, multitasking, and expansion timings were unparalleled and inimitable. It would make no sense, remind you of no one. It would lead every single other Protoss player to enviously mimic and inevitably fail.
When on top of his game, Bisu was mesmerizing, untouchable, and outrageously confident. His Corsairs would twirl across enemy skies, flirting death by the skin of their golden hulls, defying inertia, defying imagination, spinning through the air like throwing knives. His Dragoons would dance across battlegrounds in a muscular ballet, detonating mines with baffling precision and prescience, trotting back and forth with the airy nimbleness of marionettes. He would be Bisu the Revolutionist, and we would love him; for only he could ever make Protoss as lithe, as sharp, as beautiful, as perfect.
* Some will argue that Heo "JangBi" Yeong-moo was closer to the perfect Protoss, not Bisu; but what JangBi embodied was completeness, not perfection. JangBi was never transcendent, only triumphant. As much as pundits tried to portray JangBi as the Archon of Bisu and Song "Stork" Byeong-gu's styles, in truth, JangBi had nothing whatsoever to do with Bisu, as he was simply the final form of the classic Protoss; the player that Stork could have been if only his hands were faster and his eyes were sharper.
Somewhere inside of Bisu was the essence of the perfect Protoss, the Platonic ideal of how the race should be played. But until the very end, he could not seize it and make it his own.
As breathtaking as his approach was, it was overly reliant on his multitasking capabilities at peak condition; its ambitions were too lofty, its internal logic too stretched, and his adherence to it made him very predictable. In this way, he was much like Jaedong, whose entire game was built around his superhuman combat micro and the openings he could force with it. But unlike Jaedong, Bisu could never reach the level of mechanical and mental consistency needed to win premier tournaments once his style was dissected by the competition.
On those days when he wasn't capable of channeling the divine (which were rare, but not nearly rare enough), Bisu would look nothing like his usual brilliant self; he would be clumsy, rigid, and slow. And on particularly bad days (even rarer, but still, not nearly rare enough), it would look as if a completely different person was playing in his stead. He would fly his first four Corsairs straight into Scourges; he would send all his Carriers into waiting swaths of Goliaths; he would somehow manage to produce fewer units from his 4 Gateways than his opponent's 2 Gateways; he would fat-finger basic Reaver micro enough times in a row to lose an entire game. This bumbling clown was named "Yong-taek", in equal parts, ridicule and exasperation, for whatever Yong-taek did was the exact opposite of what was expected of Taek-yong.
Had Bisu always played a risky and inconsistent style, perhaps such fluctuations would not have been too maddening. Yet when he first broke onto the scene in 2005, he was a disciple of the traditional power game, a straightforward player whose strengths lay in army production. Not a single element of his play suggested that a year and a half later, he would suddenly reimagine and redefine the race itself, but then slowly lock himself into an Icarian obsession of trying to do too much, too well, too quickly. It would doom him to lose many important matches, particularly best-of series, which demand longer periods of top focus.
Bisu was aware of the downsides of his approach, even if he never altered it. With the help of his many colleagues, who used less effective but more reliable styles, he attempted to reinforce himself many times over his career. Many times he succeeded, and it would be easily noticeable; such updates were dubbed "Bisu 2.0" and "Bisu 3.0". Yet each time, even though his game had become sturdier, his primary risk factor would remain. He would still try to do too much, too well, too quickly — just with more game knowledge and safer build choices — and again, his stylistic stubbornness would prove to be his bane. Even into the Afreeca era, this problem persisted up until his very last tournament match, the ASL Season 4 semifinals. Which he lost.
"One of the best things I did was naming myself Bisu. It turned out to fit perfectly with my style of play, which was really awesome. That, and the Revolutionist, are my favorite titles."
Indeed, Bisu, which means dagger in Korean, captures his stylistic leanings all the way from the micro level (the bleeding incisiveness of his Corsairs and Dark Templars) to the macro level (the presto vivace flurry of daggers he forced his opponents to keep up with). But the evolution of his style over his career suggests that he fit himself to the name, not the other way around. Whether it was a net positive for his competitive chances will remain forever unknown. It's impossible to confirm whether he could have been more consistent had he been more desperate for success.
Countless players bless and curse themselves by embracing a nickname or handle that suggests a certain style of play or creates certain expectations. While some eventually break free of theirs, most never do, and only partly because personal style is difficult to change. Once you fall in love with a name, you will always want to live up to it. And so it will define you forever.
By embracing himself as Bisu, perhaps he unwittingly chose to be more fashionable but less victorious. By embracing himself as the Revolutionist, perhaps he unwittingly chose to forever fight against but never become a Tyrant or a God. But regardless of what he could have been, he will always be loved for what he was, Bisu the Revolutionist; for only he ever made Protoss as lithe, as sharp, as beautiful, as perfect. "What, between achievement and potential, do we love more?" By loving him, we loved both equally.