After an exciting season of GSL, the first in 2017, we are left with one of the most intriguing Grand Finals in a long time. Incredibly, soO has reached his 5th GSL Finals, still looking for that first GSL trophy. Stats, the best Protoss in the world, shares a similar fate. He too has not been able to capitalize on his tremendous skill. Neither can afford to lose here.
The Crossroads of Destiny
Stats is the best player in the world. No other competitor has shown the high-level consistency necessary to claim that title. While no other Protoss has figured out the key to success, Stats has. He is leagues above his compatriots from Aiur. And yet, for various reasons, he remains overshadowed by those he has supposedly surpassed.
KT Rolster was an organization filled to the brim with superstars. Flash, Zest, TY, Life and Stats are among the most recognizable names in StarCraft II history. Zest and Life took turns sweeping tournaments and even Flash claimed his gold at IEM Toronto in 2014. TY, a talented player who never capitalized on said promise for most of his career, has gone on to win over $300,000 in the span of just a few weeks. He finally found his ability to stay calm when the stakes rose.
Stats was always the odd one out. He was the one who everyone knew was good, the reliable anchor in Proleague, but never tipped to win a tournament. And Stats never proved his doubters wrong. He appeared satisfied with his role as a regular in the Proleague roster. Stats rarely took on the responsibility of an ace match—that honor was reserved for Zest, Flash or Life—and went about his day without causing a fuss.
His place in the Protoss Hall of Fame is similar. Zest rules the post-KeSPA-switch era with sOs trailing close behind. Rain cemented his legacy as one of the greats by winning GSL after years of acclaim. Classic, the only player to win both Korean Starleagues, has escaped his unjust image of being a flash in the pan. herO is synonymous with IEM and also found success with a Starleague win in Korea. When the time came for them to become champions, they pressed on through any remaining adversity. Stats is the obvious absentee on this list. While other Protoss were building their legacy, establishing themselves among the best players in the history of StarCraft, Stats fell short again and again. Despite his unquestioned ability, he has never completed a tournament run.
At the peak of their skill, the best players stamp their identity on the game. We associate certain time frames in history with those who dominated the scene. Mvp's 2011, TaeJa's summers in 2012 and 2013, INnoVation's early rule of Heart of the Swarm, Dear's brilliance at the end of 2013, Zest's dominant 2014 were all periods when said players become the protagonists of the scene. When recalling those times, we naturally remember their games and the tournaments they won. They are etched into our memories.
While all the players above carved their legacy in stone by winning titles, Stats has failed to do that. He never made the leap out of the shadow of his team-mates and Protoss companions. But now, in 2017, he is finally about to. He is undoubtedly the best Protoss in the world and there are no players on his team to take away the spotlight. This is his moment to shine. For all his skill and victories over the best players in the world, Stats has no trophies to underline his status. If StarCraft II was to end right now, he would be only remembered as a good player. Since ascending to the upper echelon of the Korean scene, Stats has incrementally come closer to that defining title. Yet he’s fallen short every single time, most recently at IEM Katowice where he was one map away from his first championship. It’s fitting that TY of all people took away the gold from Stats. TY had learned how to win on the big stage, Stats had not. As it stands, that is his story.
This is Stats' moment of truth. It comes at a risk, one that his opponent exemplifies like no other. When soO reaches the crossroads of destiny, where only one way leads to the promised land, he gets lost. Self-doubt and nervosity cloud his mind and he turns the wrong way without fail. The shame and humiliation carries soO down another path—one of defeat, of perennial second places, and an image that haunts him at every turn. Despite his KeSPA Cup victory, soO remains in the history books as the man who lost four GSL finals in a row. Stats cannot allow himself to become soO. It is a hallmark of greats in every sport that they deliver when the challenges are greatest. That is where the wheat is sorted from the chaff. That is how champions emerge. Now Stats must respond.
Stats has reached the crossroads. His fate rests in his own hands. If he wins this one series, all his previous shortcomings will be reframed as the buildup to his ascension. If he loses he goes down in history as a Kong, a serial loser. One path leads to eternal glory, the other to shame. Such is the nature of competition, and Stats has walked its road too far to go back now. The only way is forward, to victory or defeat, to glory or shame.
Passion is inseparable from dedication. As much a curse as it is a gift, this fact eludes no one that has ever been truly dedicated to the mastery of something. And for a select few, it is so intense that it seems to alter your life – it makes fighters of the weak, compulsive competitors of the talented. Once the dice have been thrown, as the saying goes, there is no going back. The dedication to the betterment of oneself becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that enables the hard-headed to struggle on even when they cannot articulate even remotely what it is that keeps them engaged, keeps them so dedicated, when that same dedication seems to bring nothing but soreness and bitter stumbles.
Certainly, soO above all others is familiar with what I am describing. A respectable player in Brood War who caught fire in StarCraft II, there is no more than at most a handful players with careers as… tragic as his. Perhaps tragic is unfair to both soO and his peers, for it implies that we have derived enjoyment from watching his struggles. While this might hold true for the fans most prone to schadenfreude (you know who you are), the general sentiment with regards to soO has often been befuddlement, disappointment, and long-lasting confusion. Time and again has he stricken down carefully constructed narratives, leapt off the pedestals he has been placed on when he has astonished crowds and players alike with his unerring ability to be the best… except in that fateful very last match. For every time soO has been presented with the opportunity to cement his legacy as a champion rather than an almost-but-not-quite, he has faltered. As Robert Frost would have put it, soO has taken the road less travelled by, and it has made all the difference. In almost every other case, players of such high calibre eventually get their chance. Even Marineking, remember, got his spotlight. In another world, he is the Mvp that never was, absurdly successful in Korea and a force to be reckoned with abroad, whose multitude of GSL finals end in magical victories, whose body does not break under the strain.
But no. soO has had all the opportunities, without the clearly visible restraints, yet he has blundered or been bludgeoned at every turn. The sheer number of repetitions preclude me from truly naming him a tragedy, because a tragedy would imply sadness, and the time for feeling sad for soO has since passed. At this point, more than anything, it would dishonour soO to simply give him our condolences. He does not strike me as a man who would place much value in pity, and the magnitude of this achievement – his fifth GSL final, a feat mirrored only by one other player – demands respect more than anything, besides. Tonight it does not matter that he has lost at each of those four previous opportunities. Nor does it matter that what soO has managed up until this point will be overshadowed by doubt in his abilities. If four finals was not enough for him to finally raise the trophy, what is to say the fifth will be the charm?
It is naïve to think that soO simply does not have it in him to win. He does, and he always has. Perhaps no fundamental change has occurred to transform him from an eternal loser into an infallible winner, but infallibility is rarely – if ever – what inspires us in the very best. It is the struggle that we admire, and who better to personify the struggle, the perpetual fight, than soO? More than all of the opponents he has laid waste to this season, and certainly more than his opponent in the upcoming finals, soO has fought from impossible positions, engaged in an unlikely chain of struggles that has lasted more than three years. Pick a year, any year, since soO’s transition from the game he was good at to the game in which he is legendary, and you will find it paved with both domination and disappointment. There is no player better acquainted with what it means to break down, rebuild and return to the top than soO. Stats might be a more complete player, a player closer to the infallible ideal most players strive for, but he has neither the burning passion nor the experience soO has in these scenarios. Stats, like soO, has fallen short when he seemed poised to elevate himself before. But unlike soO, Stats is not clearly defined by that status. He is unenthusiastic and methodical, clean but oftentimes uninspiring. Respected for the strengths he possesses, not clearly defined by what he lacks.
It is undoubtedly cliché to raise soO to the heavens for his ability to come back, but the weight of his accomplishments cannot be understated. Players have been knocked down for much less, yet soO rebounds each time, no matter the time it takes or the transformations that change the world around him. Now that he has been distanced from all the things that surrounded him during his previous four runs to the GSL finals. Not everyone could withstand having their feet swept out from under them, with Proleague collapsing and previous support structures all but vanishing. For soO, it has been a rejuvenation, and he has found his new chance in his new world.
Make no mistake, Stats is a formidable opponent. In the last weeks, soO has faced a plethora of those, and had to concede defeat on multiple occasion. But in a time of Terran dominance, he edged past TY, and in a time where he seemed more likely to lose than not, he found his footing against sOs. Sometimes soO has dragged himself beaten to the victory line with more strength of will than in-game skill, found the cracks and chinks to exploit when all standard strategies fail and witty gambits fall short. He will need to be sharper than ever to face this opponent, because Stats is a step above any Protoss -- perhaps any player -- soO has faced so far. But unlike his opponent, soO is a true fighter. Defeats pile on, but in the GSL soO stands his ground.
This road is one soO has travelled before. He knows its pitfalls, its every twist and turn. It is not his first rodeo, as they say, but it might be the one we least expected to see. This is his golden opportunity, at the crossroads where he has stood four times before. He can take his own beaten path, proceed the way he has agonizingly gone before, or he can take the path that he has not yet travelled. More than ever before, soO should burn for this victory. More than ever before, after the transformations and humbling changes that have altered the landscape of his career, it seems a victory could truly crown him. It might be dramatic to say that soO needs this victory, but passion is indistinguishable from dedication, and he has proven that dedication is without equal. To endure as he has, and keep that fire burning, he has accepted that the life of the competitor is bitter work.
Above all else, he accepts what he has had to endure because he knows what could await him at the end of the night. The reward for years of strife, and the validation of his efforts. Not only does he have the necessary skillset to take on Stats, he has the experience and drive to make use of what he has, and pull himself up when it isn’t enough. Tonight is the culmination of the nineteen-month buildup since he faced Innovation in the IEM Gamescom finals and lost. The finals drought comes to a close, and soO moves to end another more significant drought along with it.
And the bitterness will have been worth it in the end.