On Oct. 19, 2003, esports was all over the news in my home country of Bulgaria. Usually a cautionary tale of how video games are harmful to the bright youth of the country, this story was different. We had switched from warnings to celebrations because for the first time in video game history, Bulgaria was on top of the world.
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World Cyber Games 2003 was the third edition of the franchise, at the time the most prestigious podium for video game competition. Dubbed the “Olympics of video games”, WCG was also the world championship of its age, where so many esports didn’t have crown events of their own. These were the years before the franchise leagues and the $40M prize pools and while some games like StarCraft: BroodWar had other ways to determine the best in the world — namely, who won the prestigious OSL/MSL leagues in South Korea — for everyone else, WCG was the tournament to win.
This was even more true for young esports who had had no time to develop their own circuits and in 2003, there was one particular discipline that everyone was excited to see: Blizzard’s Warcraft 3. Released in the summer of 2002, the RTS masterpiece couldn’t make it to that year’s edition of WCG so 2003 was its debut.
Until WCG 2003, most Warcraft 3 competitions were local, although developing with great speed, as one would expect from the hyped-up Blizzard title.South Korea had run its inaugural OnGameNet League, ending in a grand final sweep of Jeon Ji "Medusa" Yoon (who retired not half a year later) over Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, the legendary Frenchman who later left esports to become one of the best poker players in the world. Also in Korea in 2003, OGN’s competitors of MBC Game started running their own Warcraft 3 tournaments, which gave us the first flashes of brilliance of one Jang "Moon" Jae Ho — the visionary Night Elf who would later go on to become the best Warcraft 3 player of all time.
Across the world, the European scene also started to pick up and soon rivaled that of South Korea. In July 2003, Poitiers, France hosted ESWC 2003, one of the first international tournaments for Warcraft 3, and offered $20,000 prize pool to the winner, but while major, the tournament wasn’t “truly” international. Of the 36 participants, Europe represented the majority. Only three Korean, one Chinese, and one American players made it. And while Swede Alborz "HeMaN" Haidarian won it all in EU-dominated playoffs bracket, few saw him as a true world champion.
The true test was going to be WCG 2003 in just a few months’ time.
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74 players Warcraft 3 players gathered in Seoul, South Korea for the $35,000 prize pool of WCG 2003 finals — to this day, one of the highest prize pools in the game (seven years later, the official Blizzcon WC3 champions would still offer only $40,000 in prize pool). The tournament was a true reflection of Warcraft 3’s scene. Blizzard’s RTS had really gone global at this point. While Korea had taken over StarCraft completely and there was little thrill in following international competition, WC3 was wide open. North America, Europe, Korea, and China all had dogs in the race and there was no telling who was on top. Europe was still the prevalent region, but China had sent Guo "ChinaHuman" Bin and Zhou "MagicYang" Chen, two players who had already starting making names of themselves in the incredibly stacked Chinese scene, and, of course, one could never count out Korea in strategy games. Little did anyone know that the future world champion wouldn’t be the East, as many expected, or someone like to-be WC3 legend Manual “Grubby” Shenkhuizen, who also made his debut at WCG 2003.
No. The future world champion was one Zdravko “Insomnia” Georgiev of SK Gaming — a human player who had finished only 8th in ESWC 2003. This brings us back to where this article started: the Balkan Beginnings of Warcraft 3.
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When I look back at my 13 years of working in esports, I pinpoint the beginning of it all to this moment. I remember watching the news and reading the papers about how this one video game player from my own country had conquered the world. In the heart of esports, in Seoul, South Korea, Insomnia had gone on 14-3 run, including a grueling bracket that had him beat not just Grubby — who’d become the greatest European WC3 player of all time — but also ChinaHuman, the scary Chinese player, who was on a similar win streak.
There were no live streams 18 years ago. I couldn’t watch the games live. It took me weeks of searching on gaming forums and FTP’s to find footage of the games, and when I eventually did, it was goddamn magical.
I didn’t know it then, but this Human mirror match was a cornerstone of the game for several reasons. It crowned the first official world champion of the game, yes, but it was so much more than that. Insomnia vs. ChinaHuman defined how the Human race was played for a long time, up until the rise of Li "Sky" Xiaofeng. The Thunderclap/Blizzard combo that Insomnia used to wreck enemy casters became a defining characteristic of Human playstyle, as did the fast expansion and using Militia to farm neutral camps. I watched time and time again how Insomnia caught ChinaHuman out of position by navigating the battlefield better and zoning him with Blizzard and crowd control effects.
To this day, this first-ever WCG final remains one of the tensest finals in Warcraft 3. For me as a Bulgarian, it was a moment of national pride and a true inspiration to pursue esports as a hobby and later — a career. For everyone else, it was a defining moment in WC3 history. I look back at it and see it as the last western bastion of extraordinary Human play before the rise of the Chinese trio of Sky, Wang "Infi" Xuwen, and Huang "TH000" Xiang.
The truth is, Insomnia never became a legend of the game. Between Moon, Sky, Infi, Park "Lyn" Joon, and Lu "Fly100%" Weiliang, the East ended up dominating Warcraft 3, with Grubby the one exception. What never changed, however, was Warcraft 3’s mainstay on the WCG stage, with 13 appearances — every year since its release with no exception.
I don’t know if WC3 will return in the next World Cyber Games, but I hope it does. Because at the end of the day, it’s the one RTS that truly celebrated parity and global excellence and it all started with one player from one little Bulgaria.
Here’s to WC3 and its absolute immortality.
Esports editor and journalist of 10+ years. Lives on black tea and corgi love.