When the IPL2 Grand Finals weekend featuring Idra, White-Ra, and Nerchio ended up being a gigantic flop, I experienced a sense of dread as my fears were confirmed. Yes, there were a number of other factors, such as the lack of hype and the rise of the live event as an ESPORTS standard. But I felt that I knew the true reason: It was the Koreans.
Or, the lack thereof. We can't solely attribute the low stream numbers for IPL2 or the more recent NASL2 to the lack of Koreans. But you must admit, it did kill a lot of the excitement. Tournament legitimacy and success relies a great deal on having players who fans perceive as the best players in the world (often unrelated to which ones are actually the best in the world), and we spent the entire summer of 2011 beating ourselves up over how much we suck in comparison to Koreans.
While the trio of victories attained by HuK, IdrA, and Stephano were certainly wonderful for our perplexing and sometimes poorly defined sense of foreigner pride, there was a hidden benefit that outweighed all others: It won back our right to enjoy.
Imagine this ASUS ROG tournament with the very same players, being played in an alternate universe where MC had won MLG Orlando, Puma had won IEM Guangzhou, and Lucky had taken the gold at IPL3. Despite its star studded line up, I don't think it's very much of a stretch to say many of the fans in that universe would not have cared.
Certainly, this tournament could be a success for other reasons. Players were essentially picked for their popularity alone, and a notable enough cast will always get you some amount of viewership. And it's true that they did try to bring in a Korean in MC, but that was due to his popularity more than his recent prowess.
In the end, it's clear. This tournament is NOT relying on Koreans to succeed. That ghastly specter of "there's no Koreans so it doesn't really matter" has been removed. It's not just championship matches where Stephano beat Lucky 4-0 or HuK beat MC 2-0. It's Ret trampling all over aLive, it's Gatored beating DRG and 3-0'ing TOP, it's DIMAGA crushing Rain and JYP, it's Idra beating Boxer, HongUn, and MOTHERF***ING BOMBER.
Our guys matter again. We can sit back and watch ASUS ROG this weekend, thinking "These guys can go anywhere in the world, play anyone, and win a championship." And that makes all of it so. much, better.
So thanks guys, you've earned it. Our appreciation, our gratitude, and our unconditional support.
Things are fun again.
HuK: Was HuK actually any worse during his months long slump? Even before his major breakout onto the scene earlier this year, his ex-teammates at the oGs-TL house would have argued that HuK was always good, and just didn't have the tournament luck to follow.
In any case, HuK has returned to form – or at least to prominence, going to MLG Orlando and relegating many a Korean player to a supporting role in his glorious maybe-comeback victory. And of course, with the championship, he regained the unofficial yet prestigious title of "Best Foreign Player."
And for this huge success at MLG, HuK now has much to lose at ASUS ROG. Life is precarious at the summit, and one needs to watch his footing to make sure he keeps his place.
Elfi: Quietly, Elfi has made his presence felt in the ESPORTS world, putting Finland back on the Starcraft II map in the process. Let's take a look at this achievements, starting in August:
Top 8 ASUS ROG Assembly Summer
2nd place MSI Millenium Pro Cup #2
2nd place IEM Global Challenge Guangzhou
Top 8 IEM Global Challenge New York
Top 32 ESWC 2011
Ranked #13 in TLPD international ELO (minus Koreans) at the time of writing
As it is, it seems like Elfi fits a somewhat overgeneralized, but still relevant archetype of Starcraft II pros: The low profile, unspectacular but consistent, totally ignored by Americans, Protoss player from Europe. These are the Sockes, HasuObs's, and NightEnds of the world, and they will beat your Idras, White-Ras, and DongRaeGu's, so let's get used it already.*
*Sorry European fans, for a rant targeted mostly at our American audience.
Head to Head: HuK – 0 : 0 – Elfi
On one hand, HuK just won MLG Orlando on the back of an impressive 9-3 PvP performance. On the other hand, Elfi is 27-9 in PvP since July, with a 72% win rate in the match-up for his career. So it may seem pretty even at first... However, those stats don't show that HuK has a history of being absolutely in clutch important PvP games, whether it's in the finals of MLGs, HomeStoryCup, or facing elimination in GSL. I'm not sure about how highly this tournament ranks for HuK in his hectic schedule, but if he treats it like an important match then he should be a strong favorite to win.
I would love it if there was a Hometown advantage factor that complicated things, but alas I haven't been able to detect much of that in ESPORTS so far. Elfi's at home, but he's got only himself to rely on.
Prediction: Huk 3 – 2 Elfi
DIMAGA: Ukraine’s top Zerg player finally won his first championship at another ASUS ROG event held in Finland, back at Assembly Summer 2011 in August. For DIMAGA it's never been a question of whether he had the skill. Even for a top-tier progamer, one has to keep top condition for four days, and have a not-inconsequential amount of luck go ones way (match-ups, opponents, builds, maps) on top of having a prodigious amount of skill to achieve a major tournament win. Perhaps DIMAGA underperformed somewhat relative to his skill until then, but it's tough to blame him given those conditions.
DIMAGA has been going strong as usual after Assembly Summer. He placed high in multiple smaller tournaments, though success at major tournaments like IEM Guangzhou and Blizzcon evaded him. So it's on to the next one, and the next one, until all of the conditions for a championship come together again.
SeleCT: In regard to their tournament careers, SeleCT is the North American scene's own DIMAGA. They had both been two of the most popular, highly-regarded foreign players in the Starcraft II scene, despite their lack of a major championship. Similar to DIMAGA, SeleCT finally resolved this situation in August of 2011, defeating Sheth to become the champion of the North American Battle.net Invitational.
Where they go from here, however, might be greatly different. SeleCT has gone to Korea to train with the FXO team for the time being, and past experience shows us that Korean training can produce some prodigious results. This tournament will tell us if these results have had time to manifest.
Head to Head: DIMAGA – 5 : 5 – SeleCT
On the whole, the two represent each other's respective 'weak' race match-up, at least compared to their ability to wreck face against the other races.
Conveniently, we got to see how the two players matched up against each other at the recent Blizzcon Invitational, in one of the marquee games Blizzard actually chose to show (You catch check the VOD here, under Starcraft II Match 2). While the results say SeleCT 2, DIMAGA 0, the actual games were very close macro-games where DIMAGA played well until the very end. Considering that the games were played on the Terran favored Xel'Naga Caverns and Shakuras Plateau, and SeleCT using his map advantages to the fullest (gold base and center control on Xel'Naga, half-map defensive style on Shakuras), DIMAGA definitely showed that the games could have easily gone the other way with different maps or a slew of other changed circumstances.
On the whole, DIMAGA seems like a slightly safer bet. As early as last July, SeleCT's TvZ was considered the hole in his game, and DIMAGA has been slightly better against top level Terrans than SeleCT has against Zerg. Add in a favorable jet-lag situation for DIMAGA, and it's enough to give him the edge here.
Prediction: DIMAGA 3 – 2 SeleCT
IdrA: It was easy – if boring – to write about IdrA in the past, by simply repeating the broken-record sentiment of the Starcraft II community at large: He's got all the tools, but he's just got to get his head together. Now that he's won IEM Guangzhou and won six months of immunity from such evaluations, it's going to be hard to find a contrived narrative that's as convenient and compelling to fill the gap in between (assuming he doesn't win henceforth).
What can we say now? Idra himself said on the talk show Live on Three that he didn't feel that it was some increase in skill that allowed him to win IEM Guangzhou. Instead, it was some unspecific mental revelation, gained through some mysterious talks with EG owner Alex Garfield.
So far it looks like it's a long lasting buff for Idra, as he's continued to show more resiliency while putting up strong performances in tournaments ever since.
SjoW: This tournament must feel quite odd for SjoW. Just after winning the easiest $13,000 in Starcraft II history at IeSF (his path: sYz, Pandatank, Escapist, Moutas, DeathAngel and Grubby), he's going onto ASUS ROG where the prize money is halved and the level of competition is several times higher.
Could you really blame SjoW if he just phoned this one in? $13k's a nice haul for a month, and what's really left of $6k after Scandinavian taxes, anyway? That money would probably go further in Korea or Ukraine. At least the tourney would be a nice trip to next door Finland (which is looking beautiful this time of year I hear), and there's a $1,000, 1v1 showmatch in it too boot.
Or dunno, maybe he'll just continue to add to his stack of money.
Head to Head: Idra – 2 : 3 – Sjow
It's funny that 'make IdrA tilt' was a semi-viable strategy at one point in time, but it's not something he would have worried about too much against SjoW, a methodical and safe Terran player. Taking into account that he was in Korea for about month, there's a very good chance that he'll go for the King of boring Korean macro builds in every game: Reactor Hellions into triple Orbitals.
This isn't good for SjoW, since methodical and safe is IdrA's game as well, and Idra's been really damn good at that as of late. Additionally, while SjoW hasn't had to play many Zergs as of late, he just hasn't had much momentum going for him in general. So while SjoW might be ahead in stats against not-reaching-his-potential Idra, this pick is pretty clear.
Prediction: Idra 3 – 1 SjoW
Ret: I'm not sure if any other player inspires the sentiment of "Yeah, I think he can win, but I'm not going to say he is" than Ret. There are already two Zerg players in this tournament who are capable of incredible highs and abyssal lows in IdrA and DIMAGA, but Ret truly outdoes them both. Arguably, you could say for his much greater volatility, he is capable of the best play of the three.
The probability of him stringing together enough good back-to-back good performances to win a tournament seems low, but here he stands as champion of Assembly Winter and the Battle.net EU Invitational. There's not much to expect here; we can only wait and see.
White-Ra: On more than one occasion have I heard a Korean pro ask "So how does White-Ra win tournaments? He doesn't seem so good." The answer is always, WE DON'T KNOW EITHER.
The phrase "Special Tectics" sums up White-Ra's play style quite nicely: It vaguely makes sense, but not really. No one else could use it without looking like an idiot. It's definitely not American, West European, or Korean.
I could waste some time talking about how his PvT is iffy, or how his Warp Prism tactics are weaker now as they've become more common and Zergs are getting used to them. But in the end, White-Ra is White-Ra, and he'll find ways to win when he wants, doing whatever he wants.
Head to Head: Ret – 0 : 2 – White-Ra
Ret has been shaky in the past about getting sufficient defenses up in time after his trademark drone production, and he even lost a recent series to White-Ra in the MLG Invitational to two well timed attacks. However, in more recent games he looked much better about his drone-unit balance. In particular, his 4-2 win in the Battle for Berlin preliminaries over another skilled, warp-prism happy Protoss in mouz.MaNa suggested that he is prepared to take down White-Ra this time around.
However, trying to make predictions about White-Ra is like trying to make predictions about Brood War Boxer in 2005. You know he's not top, absolute top level anymore, but you're afraid to predict against him in a big game because God knows what kind of magic he's going to pull out of nowhere for the win.
Prediction: Ret 3 – 1 White-Ra