Taking on the World
Ever since BlizzCon, there’s been another shift in the Starcraft scene. All the talk before the year-end event at Anaheim was about how the foreigners were catching up. Neeb’s KeSPA Cup win was a dagger in the heart of Korean supremacists; an unprecedented title stolen from the heartland of the game. BlizzCon too had its moments—Neeb showing his PvP prowess over soon-to-be HSC Champion Patience; ShoWTimE beating Dear and ByuN; the Polish zergs dumping Solar quickly out of the competition.
But come the playoffs, Dark stomped all over foreign dreams. 3-0 Neeb, 3-0 Elazer. Dream dead.
Then came HomeStory Cup; then came WESG. Two events where the cream of the foreign crop went up against Korea; two events where Korea came out on top by a cumulative 110-24 map record, dropping just two matches in the process (Kelazhur 2-0 TY after he had sealed 1st spot in his WESG group; PtitDrogo 3-2 Patience in the HSC groups).
So, we have to ask, is this a return to the past? Are all the undoubted advances made in foreign SC2 since 2015 about to fade away again? It’s been years since we’ve had an event of this size and quality. Not since the days of IPL and MLG have we seen this stacked a tournament, melding the best of the world and Korea together. For the foreign scene, devoid of competition throughout 2017 so far, this is arguably the most important tournament of the year.
One event can be seen as a BlizzCon hangover; doubly so in Krefeld especially. Two can be seen as unlucky; losing out in unfamiliar surroundings. Three would start to stack the evidence a bit too high to ignore. Never before has there been this much to gain. Never before has there been this much to lose.
Words by munch. Rankings by everyone else
Complementary writing by Olli and mizenhauer
With all the hype surrounding the Lilbow-MaNa final from WCS Season 3 2015, everyone seems to have forgotten about Zanster. The Swede defied his history of early Dreamhack exits and losses in WCS Challenger to make the top 4, losing 2-3 to Lilbow. Yet perhaps there’s a reason for that—he’s done little since. Three losses in the first round of HomeStory Cup are all he’s shown in the past year. With barely any games played in 2017—a 2-3 record in NationWars, and an attempted IEM Katowice qualifier run ended by INnoVation—it’s difficult to have too much faith in him here either.
A player probably more well-known for the drama he’s fuelled him more than his tournament results, Guru is nonetheless becoming another dangerous zerg from the Polish factory line. 2016 was a step up for him, with a smattering of offline Ro.32 finishes, alongside a breakout win over Snute at WCS Spring, and if he does crack into the main Ro.24 group stage, expect his ZvZ to be a threat.
The veteran German zerg is back for another year on the circuit. Once known as one of the most consistent players in the foreign scene, TLO’s been rather less so in the age of Legacy of the Void. A promising quarterfinal run at Dreamhack Leipzig in 2016 over Scarlett and Snute proved to be a false dawn as he was eliminated time and again by superior players over the course of the year. Online form has been spotty over the past couple months, but given the love he was shown at HomeStory Cup, there are still plenty of people willing him to make a return to his HotS successes.
Speaking of veteran zergs, Bly too will mark eight years of competitive play in SC2 this year. By this time, we all know what he’ll bring to the table, and so too do his opponents. Still though, it was notable how his results tailed off over the course of 2016 as the new expansion was slowly worked out; his aggressive rushes that drove him to silver at Dreamhack Leipzig probably won’t quite be enough just by themselves, and you feel that an old dog might have to bring some new tricks here.
HeRoMaRinE’s been regarded as the future of European terran play for so long now that it was almost a surprise when he finally realised that promise—his semifinal run at WCS Summer last year was leagues above any other results in his career (EPS titles aside, clearly). He’s been surprisingly inactive so far in 2017, with just 32 games played so far, and it’ll be interesting to see where he’ll go from here.
Much like HeRoMaRinE, SortOf too had the best year of his career in 2016. A top 4 finish was likewise his greatest offline result so far, but it was his top 8 run at HomeStory Cup that proved that that single result was perhaps no flash in the pan. After many of the big names in the foreigner contingent at HSC crashed and burned early on, SortOf remained as their final hope in the quarterfinals (albeit after progressing from two groups with a single Korean representative), where he narrowly fell 2-3 to eventual winner Patience. With one of the easier open bracket groups on offer, we could well see some of the same here if he progresses.
Serral’s been a hot up-and-comer for as long as anyone can remember. Every now and then there’ll be flickers of that talent, be the tantalising promise of his 3-0 over Team Korea in NationWars III (albeit before a 3-4 INnoVation reverse all-kill), or an all-too-rare display of offline potential with a top 8 at Dreamhack Leipzig. But then come the long absences from international competition; the Ro.32 exits. As ever, Serral’s been hotly tipped as one to watch on ladder, but as ever, that’s all meaningless if he can’t put it together come the big day. Qualifying as one of only three non-Koreans in the main stage is a big deal for him, and sharing it with Zest and TRUE means that, with some open bracket luck, a playoffs run isn't completely out of the question.
Only 8 months have passed since Homestory Cup 13 and the most successful 3 months of Harstem’s career, but that land of milk and honey must feel a million miles away right now. 8 months after he became the first (and only) foreigner to become a dual champion in 2016, the promise of the Year of Harstem still seems far away. With his departure from Invasion following yet more accusations of unpaid tournament winnings, and his declining form in the second half of 2016, it almost seems like 2017 is a hard reset for him; the work starts all over again.
PtitDrogo's rise over the past year has been one of the stories which has gone most under the radar. From being a player failing to qualify for WCS Challenger, to putting on a solid showing at the Global Finals in Anaheim is a rise to match anyone's in the foreign scene. While his championship win at Dreamhack Leipzig was perhaps a little fortunate given the nosedive in his form during the next patch, the fact that he was able to post consistent results throughout the year is encouraging. Emerging victorious from a tough open bracket would be a great start to 2017.
2016 was, without a doubt, a breakout year for Elazer. From being ‘that other Polish zerg’; from being a player on the fringes of WCS Premier; Elazer is now firmly established as one of the biggest threats in Europe. A whole host of top 8 / top 16 finishes marked him as one of the most consistent EU zergs, while his unprecedented top 4 finish at BlizzCon showed that he’s got the talent to dance with the best. The big question though is where he goes from here. Is he happy to merely be a challenger; to aim to upset? Or is he looking for more?
Unsurprisingly, the departure of KeSPA from Korean Starcraft has thrown the whole scene into turmoil. Some players have seemingly dropped off the face of the earth, while others previously unheralded have stepped up their games. Bunny was practically invisible on CJ Entus, save for that game against sOs, and his rise up the ranks is an example to the rest of the pack. He’s openly admitted to practicing three times as much since his departure, and despite the potential for creative mathematics there it seems like the hard work is paying off. His online results have been genuinely top tier—68% and 71% winrates in TvP and TvZ respectively—with only a weakness in TvT letting him down. After a disappointingly one-sided exit from GSL to Maru and KeeN in the Ro.16, he’ll be looking to bounce back here.
It’s doubtful that Impact will ever be something other than ‘that zerg’. You know the one; State of Play, Jaedong, 10 times the player… . Dreamhack Bucharest will likely define Impact’s career; perhaps inevitably so given the confluence of events which led to that storyline playing out. For years, it’s probably inflated both our opinions and expectations of the ex-Axiom zerg; a player, let’s not forget, who only debuted in Code S at the end of 2016 after years of losses in the Code A qualifiers. Are we meant to take heed from his consistent mediocrity? Or take heart from his one glittering success? As time goes on, it’s likely that those in the latter camp will slowly seep into the former; time is running out for Impact to give us a repeat showing.
Dark has dominated the hierarchy of Korean zergs for so much of Legacy of the Void that it’s sometimes hard to remember that others have been quietly consistent too. Losira has been one of the few with the ability to stick it out in Code S throughout, with a quarterfinal appearance in Season 1 last year his best effort. Online results this year have been impressive too, especially his deep runs in the IEM qualifiers last month. It’s hard to see him making a run to the playoffs here though, and making the initial group stage itself would be a decent achievement given his Korean-stacked qualifier bracket.
It’s still difficult to tell whether TRUE has enhanced his standing since leaving Korea for America and PSISTORM Gaming. Before he left, he was an inconsistent, entertainingly aggressive zerg capable of peaks in gameplay that drove him to the GSL semifinals. After he left, he’s been an inconsistent, entertainingly aggressive zerg capable of peaks in gameplay that have driven him to taste glory at WCS Summer. Given his late entry into the WCS scene last year, he’s a player who’s been neither here nor there; difficult to benchmark against either the Korean elite or the foreigners he’s now going to be competing with. Still, it’s hard to entirely dismiss his batshit crazy style, and given the quality of his qualifying run for this event (a lower bracket run including: 2-0 Dear, 2-0 Stats, 2-1 Scarlett, 2-0 Losira, 3-1 Zest), he should be considered a threat.
A few months back, it would have been natural to expect Patience to kick on after his debut win at HomeStory Cup. Since then, though, he’s been practically invisible, relegated to online competitions. His GSL campaign was over before it began; dumped out of the qualifiers by two 1-2 losses to Bunny. It was the same story for the IEM Gyeonggi qualifiers—losing once to Losira, and twice to jjakji. It must be painful for a player to follow up the taste of success to be blanked out of offline competition in the following months. Still, he’s been working away online—he’s one of the only players who’s even dented INnoVation in GSLTV’s The Loser Strikes Back event (a tight 5-6 loss)—and given the enormity of Patience’s 2016—dual SSL semifinals alongside that HSC win, lest we forget—he shouldn't be taken too lightly.
For years, jjakji has been the most maligned of all GSL champions. Ignore the fact that his GSL November victory run was incredible; ignore the fact that that final against Leenock still stands as the best GSL final in history (and arguably SC2’s best too); the fact that he fell away means that we have to mock him. For years, his achievements in the past have been dismissed for the sins of the present, and yet, six years on, jjakji remains an ever-present in the Korean Starcraft world. His emergence from hibernation to qualify for IEM Gyeonggi was impressive, even if his time on stage was immediately cut short by swift losses to Dark and ByuL, and a similar run in his open qualifier bracket here would be a welcome result for the newly minted Team RevolutioN man.
2016 was a year of near-misses for Snute. 2nd at WCS Winter to Polt; 2nd at GSI to Harstem; top 4 finishes at DH Austin, HSC 13, and DH Valencia. A year of good performances, and yet he had nothing to show for it. That he finally put it all together at Copa Intercontinental was a fitting way to end his WCS Circuit year, blasting past Has, Neeb, and ShoWTimE to finally claim the title he’d been aiming for all year long. Strangely though, he hasn’t kicked on since. Elimination at BlizzCon was an ugly affair; out-mindgaming himself against PtitDrogo and throwing away a huge advantage in a critical game. HomeStory Cup wasn’t much better either; thoroughly beaten in the mirror matchup by Rogue and Solar. Since then, he’s gone through the same thing as everyone else outside Korea—relegated to online play due to a lack of tournaments. With the LAN circuit approaching, it’s time for the real Snute to stand up.
uThermal was undoubtedly one of the big success stories of 2016. Finally cracking the issues that had plagued him in earlier years, the self-styled streamer finally found a way to make his aggressive playstyle work offline. It took him all the way to IEM gold in Shanghai; a last minute replacement for PiLiPiLi, and within 15 painful points of making it to BlizzCon. HomeStory Cup might have been somewhat of a blip—a tight 2-3 loss to Zest, followed by a rather more dominant 0-3 loss to TY—but uThermal's here to make up lost time. His bracket in the open qualifiers is one of the most eminently doable in the competition, and it'll be a serious disappointment if he fails to make the group stages.
Neeb was a player of contradictions in 2016. A player who fell, time and again, when the going got tough in the latter rounds of foreign tournaments, and yet drove his way to effortless KeSPA Cup glory; a player adored by the foreign scene, yet one who out-Koreans the Koreans in the emotional stakes. Neeb is, and always will be, the first foreigner to win a Starcraft 2 tournament on Korean soil. The only question now is whether that's a blessing or a curse. Will he be encouraged by his landmark triumph, or will he be weighed down by the expectations following him? His emphatic BlizzCon loss to Dark can be put down to the zerg's utter dominance in 2016; his elimination from HomeStory Cup by PtitDrogo and SortOf rather less so. An impressive performance in the qualifiers has landed him in a tough group alongside TY and aLive; Neeb will have to be on his best to avoid making it three early exits in a row.
Of all the players present in the open bracket here, GuMiho is one of the most intriguing. He was one of the most unfortunate participants in the Korean qualifiers, eliminated by a triple-threat team of Korean terran talent in INnoVation, Maru, and ByuN, and Katowice will represent his first trip abroad since Dreamhack Valencia back in 2015. His offline opportunities have been limited, dumped out of Code S by Maru’s TvT and NightMare’s DT antics, but online he’s been as strong as ever (65% winrate over 169 games this year so far), and he should be regarded as a favourite to announce from his bracket.
Who would have ever thought that Ryung was going to double up on his GSL semifinal appearances? That battle with Stats is yet to come, but it’s undoubtable that the veteran terran is back in form. His run so far has been impressive, with wins over ByuN, Trap, Leenock and Maru, and with a very doable bracket in the open qualifiers, he should be expected to progress to the group stages. GSL success; farming money abroad; what could possibly be more SlayerS than that?
Throughout 2016, Nerchio had the hopes of the foreign scene on him. Entering with a lofty reputation, he was almost expected to win every tournament he attended. And if it’s impossible to say that 2016 was a failure for him, it’s equally difficult to name it an unqualified success either. Time after time he made it deep in a tournament; time after time he failed to emerge with the trophy. Dreamhack Valencia was his sole tournament victory, but given the reduced stature of that event compared with some of the others held that year, it must have felt somewhat bittersweet. Losses at the end of the year amplified that feeling of missing out on the fun; upstaged by Neeb at KeSPA Cup, Elazer at BlizzCon, and Neeb once more at WESG. One year on, he’s no longer the only big fish in the pond.
Ever since his landmark SSL title last year, Solar’s been somewhat of a disappointment. Failure at KeSPA Cup and at BlizzCon; more known for his translations than games at HSC; falling out early at IEM Gyeonggi and GSL this year. His online form too has been inconsistent, with his mirror matchup a particular weakness, while his ZvT is hardly great right now either. He enters Katowice having one of the shortest qualifications paths possible (2-1 herO, 2-1 ByuN, 3-1 ByuL), and while he’s still banked plenty of credit following his successes in 2016, it’s starting to run a bit dry. He will regard progress to the playoff stage as a mandatory requirement.
Every Protoss in Europe looks up to ShoWTimE. At recent offline events, his 7000+ MMR across multiple accounts is almost a running gag, considering how difficult it is for most other players to reach that level with just one account. ShoWTimE appears confident in every one of his match-ups and, whenever a Global Event comes around, is considered one of only few non-Koreans that could keep up with the very best. ShoWTimE appears to have found his place in the StarCraft II world for the moment—above other foreigners, and just below the top Koreans. He's been consistently better than almost every foreigner, with only Neeb and Nerchio reaching a similar level. That's why ShoWTimE ranks in our top ten.
Emboldened by his successes at HomeStory Cup, both in-game and sartorial, aLive returns to only his second foreign event since the days of WCS America. While his improvement has yet to register offline, eliminated from the GSL in quick fashion by TY and ByuL, online he is developing a reputation as a monster. He’s been racking up money from event after event, with nearly 320 maps played this year so far, and should he fix his TvZ (55%), his TvT (63%) and TvP (70%) will mean that he should be regarded as a significant threat. Hopefully he’ll make it to the main stage so that we get a chance to see those glorious trackies again.
Realistically speaking, Dark’s 2016 was a miracle year, up there with any that’s been put together by an SC2 professional. 1st and 2nd in two SSL campaigns; top 16 in both GSLs; 2nd at BlizzCon and top 4 at IEM Gyeonggi. Barring his absurd continual GSL quarterfinal barrier, it’s a truly remarkable display of consistency and staying power at the top end of the scene. To do that, especially in a year with a rapidly developing meta and repeated significant patches, is laudable. Still, it doesn’t excuse the fact that 2017 has been a little lacklustre. You could blame it once more on his GSL mindblock, or his hilariously karmic decision to pick an all-SKT group of death, but Dark hasn’t quite looked the same Dark. A triplet of big name terrans have marked themselves out as the ones to watch; Stats has established himself as first among equals for the protoss throne; but that one place of stability in LotV, the zerg throne, is wavering. Time for Dark to shore it up.
The year has not been great for Zest so far. He was eliminated from Code S by two Terrans, the race he had dominated just a year ago. With KT disbanding, a lot of Korea's greatest have begun streaming occasionally, but not Zest. Instead, he played in just about every online tournament there was after his Code S exit. That gave us intriguing insight into his progress. Struggling at first to defeat the same opposition that forced him out of the GSL, namely Keen and Bunny, Zest gradually improved all three of his match-ups and began reaching the later stages of the cups he played in, defeating much bigger names such as ByuN, INnoVation and herO in the process. For two weeks or so, however, Zest has not featured in any of them. In a recent streaming session, Stats confirmed that Zest's absence was due to him preparing extensively for Katowice, the tournament he won two years ago.
This is perhaps why we've ranked him so highly. We've seen Zest improve towards his usual standards, and even though we don't know exactly how good he is right this second, his previous level and the fact that he appears to be highly motivated for this event should make him one of the strongest players in the tournament.
Is there a player more tied into a cycle of losses than TY? Sure, you can go on about how WESG was the big win he’s been gunning for over this past decade, but let’s be honest about what that was; a tournament where Maru and TY were so hopelessly dominant over the rest of the field that it was always going to come down to a best of 7 showmatch for $200k. When the final pair rack up a total 30-4 scoreline over the rest of the field, it’s hard to really see your tournament as all that competitive. Hell, Dream was still regularly being mocked in 2015 by his compatriots during group selections as a ‘bubble’ for lucking his way to a pair of SSL silvers; do you really think WESG will have sated TY’s urge? Back in his return to Korean SC2, all but guaranteed to advance to the semifinals of Code S, TY was swept away yet again. The more things change, the more things stay the same. TY’s monetary status may certainly be different to what it was a few months back, but he’ll still be looking for that win.
2015 was a great year for herO. He won an SSL and topped the WCS standings. An early Blizzcon ended HotS on a sour note, but there was no reason to think the success wouldn’t continue.
Despite getting very little press in the first year of LotV, herO quietly reached the quarterfinals in both seasons of GSL. He impressed in Proleague, but Stats, sOs and Zest were the Korean Protosses that got all the attention. It wasn’t an unsuccessful year, but not what we had come to expect of him. As the calendar turned to 2017 something changed in herO. Improved form enabled him to lead the charge for Korean Protoss against Terran during a period in which many deemed the matchup hopeless. A loss to Maru proved to be the only hiccup in an otherwise impressive performance in the group stages of GSL. Unfortunately an old nemesis was waiting for him in the quarterfinals.
Despite losing 3-2, sOs might have brought the best out in herO. herO showed unusually daring series planning, something he had lacked in the past. herO has always been somewhat of a blunt instrument, so only time will tell if he reverts to old habits or continues to evolve. With his GSL run completed, herO can turn his full attention to Katowice.
herO’s greatest defeat took place in Katowice and although he cannot erase the past, he can write a different tale this time around. IEM will be a return to the weekender format, something herO has always excelled at. With no sOs to crush his dreams his dreams, herO has to be considered one of the favorites to life the trophy on Sunday.
Last year was a triumph for ByuN. After a career of disappointments, a career on the sidelines, it’s hard to begrudge him his dual GSL / BlizzCon triumphs. Still, after reaching the pinnacle of SC2, there’s nothing that quite re-focuses a player’s attention like a quick bump back down to earth, and his elimination at the first hurdle of his GSL title defence would have certainly done that. In retrospect, it wasn’t quite the calamity that it first seemed—Stats is in an inspired run of form, while Ryung TvT skills are evidently still sharp enough. Still though, a loss is a loss, and ByuN will be desperate now for a second chance to set things straight on LAN. His online numbers are as eye-boggling as ever (a casual 77% winrate in matches against Korean opposition, only dented by an ‘average’ 60% winrate in TvT), and it’ll be a brave man who bets against him going deep in Katowice. Should he emerge victorious, he will be the current holder of the GSL, BlizzCon and IEM World Championship titles. Reigning Triple Crown, anyone?
Stats’ career is the perfect example in upward trajectory. In 2014 he was a promising Proleague A-Teamer with KT Rolster. He took his game to a new level in 2015, establishing himself as an elite Protoss. 2016 came and with it even more progress. Before we knew it Stats had evolved into a full blown Proleague monster, notching the most wins during the final campaign. Even more impressively, however, was the fact that he went from round of 4 stepping stone to legitimate contender. His lost to Dark marked his first final in a premier event, with his subsequent triumph at the inaugural Cross Finals his first win. After that it was an unfortunate return to the familiar semifinal exit, but placing 2nd at Gyeonggi proved that Stats still has what it takes to cross that threshold.
Stats is looking indomitable in every matchup and, as one of the only players present to have had success against INnoVation as of late, Stats has no reason to fear anyone. He will have to navigate through the open bracket to join his former teammates Zest and TY in the main event, but one would figure advancing is a formality.
Stats has never had the most distinct play, but it’s incredibly effective. It’s gotten better year after year until Stats finds himself as the best of his race. Gyeonggi was Stats’ first ever IEM and he will be keen to improve on that finish. After all, he has reached the pinnacle of Protoss by always getting better. Finals at Gyeonggi, 100,000 dollars at Katowice. After that, all that will be left to ask is if Stats will ever lose again.
And so we come to our final player. It had to be INnoVation, didn’t it? Obviously it is. He’s a player who’s ruled over SC2 ever since he deigned to practice the game again; a player who’s seemed almost invincible in the past three months. Since BlizzCon, INnoVation has knocked his usual absurd numbers one notch up. With 70%+ winrates in all three matchups, and an overall series winrate of 83%, the Machine is flying high right now. It’s a dominance most clearly seen in GSLTV’s short-run “The Loser Strikes Back” events, an 11 game King of the Hill weekly event. Not only did INnoVation remain unbeaten, he straight up flattened pretty much everyone he went against. 9-2 soO, 6-5 herO, 8-3 Classic, 11-0 Leenock, 10-1 Scarlett, 6-5 Patience, 7-4 Dark. Most of those were done as pairs of back to back series; knocking off a casual 22 game run with all the technical precision that we’ve come to know him for.
Stats may have beaten him in the GSL, but let’s be honest; would you bet on the same result should the two come face to face at Katowice? INnoVation has shown such dominance over terran and zerg alike that, even with this selection of players, it’s difficult to see who might stop him. You can bring up the fact that historically, INnoVation hasn’t travelled particularly well—his sole foreign win came at IEM Gamescom over a weak field—but at that point you’re clutching at straws. Gameplay-wise, there are few reasons why he shouldn’t be the favourite to make it two IEMs in a row this week. INnoVation is the de facto number one heading into this week of Starcraft at Katowice, and it’s going to take one hell of an effort to knock him down.