By Jason Waddell
Leading into Providence, Naniwa was the focus of some discussion in the Starcraft 2 community, but none of the buzz was particularly favorable in regards to the Swedish Protoss. Naniwa was on a downward trajectory, and no amount of practice seemed to reverse his descent. 2011 opened with a MLG victory for Naniwa in Dallas, but everything changed with the influx of Korean players that followed the onset of the MLG-GSL exchange program. 1st place in Dallas was followed by 6th in Columbus, 8th in Anaheim, and 12th in Raleigh. His attitude seemed poor as he lost every single Consolation Bracket match he played in 2011, and although he was still regarded as a top foreign player, the results never seemed to go in his favor against top Koreans.
So Naniwa doubled down on his practice regimen. He skipped Orlando in favor of more practice time in Korea as he attempted to break into the ranks of the GSL. Still, he was unable to find any traction. Naniwa was bounced from the first round of GSL August's Code A tournament 2 – 0 by Check. GSL October rolled around, and Naniwa suffered another first round 2- 0 defeat, this time at the hands of Lucky. Naniwa cranked up his practice even further, streaming at all hours of the day and putting in hard work in Korean practice sessions.
His builds were ready, his mechanics were sound, but the payoff never came. The GSL November Code A draw saw Naniwa paired again against Lucky. Naniwa lost Game 2 of that match in heartbreaking fashion, missing a forcefield on his ramp as Lucky's zerglings wrecked havoc on Naniwa's main. There was no “gg” from Naniwa as he left the game dejected, and immediately slipped out of the GOMTV studio. For all his practice, Naniwa just couldn't pull it together.
Naniwa's loss to Lucky occurred just four days prior to the start of MLG Providence and the finals of the MLG Global Invitational. With a four-man tournament lineup consisting of Idra, Naniwa, Nestea and MVP, one would be hard pressed to find someone who favored Naniwa to win the tournament. Undeterred, he loaded up his first round match against MVP and dispatched of the Game-Genie Terran 2 – 1. Although there's no doubting that Naniwa is a skillful player, fans and analysts hardly considered him to be in the same league as the three-time GSL Champion. While some theorized that simply wasn't at his best or was holding his true builds for the main event, the action that followed proved that Naniwa's performance was no fluke.
In the finals of the Global Invitational, Naniwa completed the IM double by defeating Nestea 2 – 1. The match set the tone for the entire weekend, and sent the message to all players that you couldn't get by on reputation and past achievements alone. Naniwa, admittedly hyped from his victory, gave a post-match interview that rubbed fans the wrong way. Most notably, the word “idiot” was used when describing Nestea, and a rivalry was instantly born. That was Friday.
On Saturday, as the Open Bracket whittled down and players advanced to the Championship Bracket, the bracket revealed Nestea to be on a crash course with Naniwa. Nestea wanted revenge, and wasn't about to let Boxer, Select or Slush stand in his way. Three quick rounds and Starcraft 2's hottest rivalry was set to see its second installment in 24 hours.
The rematch did not disappoint. Both players went for their opponent's throats from the onset, and the match took an extremely aggressive pace. The two traded games, setting up a deciding Game 3 on Shakura's Plateau. Naniwa took the game once again, this time on the backs of a well positioned Cannon Rush at Nestea's natural expansion.
With the heat of the rivalry behind him and word of the community response to his interviews, Naniwa set about clearing the air. In a tweet Saturday evening, Naniwa wrote: “I must have formulated myself badly in the interviews. I did not mean to call Nestea bad [or] and idiot.” Later in the weekend, MLG staff members reported Nestea and Naniwa chatting in the player's lounge, so the hatchet appears to be buried, for now at least.
It was upwards and onwards from there for Naniwa, as he defeated Huk and DongRaeGu to reach Providence's Grand Finals. The weekend appeared to be Naniwa's, as he opened to a 1 – 0 lead over Leenock in the final match of the weekend and stood within one game of the National Championship title and a $50,000 check.
Ultimately he dropped the following four games, and despite not being crowned champion, Naniwa has presented one of the most captivating weeks imaginable, both in and out of the game. In the last week, Naniwa has rage quit of of a GSL match, flown half-way around the world, defeated the two most successful Korean Starcraft 2 players back-to-back, sparked a rivalry with Nestea, been the center of controversy in a rematch against Nestea, let a National Championship slip through his fingers and earned a seat in Code S.
Naniwa has always been a prominent figure in the community, but never before has the spotlight shone quite so brightly on the Swedish competitor. After this weekend, fan's are at a bit of a loss as to just what to make of Naniwa. He's a fierce but reserved player. His tournament persona prefers to let his actions speak louder than words, and his post-match interview responses tend towards the monosyllabic. Despite his many-year presence in the competitive RTS community, the degree of celebrity given to the highest tier Starcraft 2 is a new phenomenon for Naniwa.
We know he has the talent; the likes of DongRaeGu, Huk, MVP and Nestea can attest to that. The question is, where does he go from here? Will Providence be seen as a one-time high-water mark in his career? Or will results like Naniwa beating MVP cease to be considered upsets? We'll find out in 2012.