A New Age
There is a 2017 WCS season.
For many fans, the very phrase brings a sigh of relief. The possibility, however slight, that there would be no WCS season in Korea hung over the offseason. Let's not mince words. 2016 was not kind to a scene that many assumed to be indefatigable. Proleague, an institution that have been around since the nascent days of professional gaming, is now gone. The team house infrastructure that ensured a continuous stream of top-tier pros has collapsed with nothing to replace it. Scandals erupted, sponsors evaporated, and the viability of a standard career fell into doubt.
Despite our worst fears about the future, StarCraft 2 in Korea preserves. We have a guaranteed season this year and hints of 2018 being covered as well. Some pros have elected to switch to new games or return to Brood War, but the majority have chosen to stick with it. They will have to get acquainted to a world without team houses or coaches. We, the viewers, will have to adjust to certain realities too. The 'Korean vs foreigner' skill gap may not last for much longer; the size and scope of the scene may never return to pre-LotV levels; patch 3.8 may bring back mech or introduce new overall strategies. For better or worse, Gyeonggi is the start of a radically new era. But other things remain the same. We still have games to watch, players to cheer on, and moments that will remind us why we love this game.
IEM Gyeonngi's schedule is rather odd, with all four Ro.16 groups played out on Wednesday across the ESL A and B streams, with the quarterfinals following on Thursday. On Friday, we finally move to the stadium and the main stage for Semifinal #1; Semifinal #2 following on Saturday, before we wrap things up with the Grand Finals on Sunday. See Liquipedia for the full schedule.
Ro.16 starts in
What better way to start IEM than with a headline match worthy of a final? If early games on the patch are any indication, INnoVation is primed to reclaim his position as the best Terran in Korea. He has looked strong over the last few weeks and earned his spot here with relative ease. Woe betide anyone who wants to challenge him in the mirror matchup; his TvT has been frankly terrifying (thanks reworked cyclones!) and he has not lost in it since the patch dropped. All that momentum should not distract from the flaws he has failed to weed out though. TvP continues to be a thorn in his side, exemplified by his lone qualifier loss against herO and a 0-3 beatdown versus Classic. Whether Stats can exploit this weakness depends on his form. Like his opponent, his PvT occasionally wavers between being exemplary and less than impressive. In particular he has struggled to maintain consistency against the very best Terrans, turning out both stellar and uninspired showings against the likes of ByuN and Maru. Currently InnoVation is a big obstacle to overcome, so it'll be interesting to see just how Stats approaches the matchup.
Speaking of form, herO is here to remind you that he's not just a teamleague workhorse. Yes, he seems unable to break through the quarterfinals wall that has confounded many a great player. Yes his play has looked uninspiring at worst, as if he decided he could bruteforce his way through LotV without actually learning a new style. The latter concern is rapidly diminishing and while the former has plagued him since he started playing SC2, it has only applied to his runs in GSL. IEM is where he shines and three championships are a reminder that he can turn it on in this venue. He faces Losira, whose presence here is frankly unexpected. Dark's sheer dominance throughout the last year makes it easy to forget that other Zergs have accomplished things too. Notably Losira is one of the few Zergs besides Dark to remain a constant presence in WCS, being a quarterfinalist back in GSL Season 1 and participating in both leagues in Season 2. He will be relying on that consistency as he has a very poor lifetime record versus herO.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Gyeonggi is whether Korean Zergs will rediscover their footing. Legacy of the Void was a bleak period for the race: Dark may have shone with his pristine play and braggadocio, but he stood at the peak of a very stratified scene. His brethren were either befuddled by the dynamics of the expansion or too inconsistent to ever look like title contenders. The 3.8 patch promises tools that could give Zerg initiative in the midgame instead of making hive rushes look like the best option.
The first match of this group will serve as a welcome test case. If there's one aggressive Zerg player looking for a resurgence, it's Leenock. Ever since his quarterfinals run at Dreamhack Stockholm last year, Leenock has been a non-factor in the Korean scene. The move to KT Rolster may have bolstered his presence but it didn't translate into results. Both of his GSL showings were flops, he failed to qualify for SSL, and he was barely used in Proleague. Similarly to soO, Gyeonggi seems to coincide with a return to form. His two runs in the qualifiers were his best showing in years, and it's likely that he'll be able to accumulate more momentum with a win over Zest. Such a task won't be easy considering Zest remains a world-class player; even his recent stumbles have been against the best. Yet it's clear he hasn't recaptured the magic that made him the undisputed best protoss back in 2014. For a player accustomed to dominance whenever he's on form, HomeStory Cup had too many close calls and too many instances of mediocrity. Someone like Zest wouldn't be satisfied with second place if it came in such a manner, and he certainly won't forgive himself if he repeated such a performance here.
The biggest threat may come from an unexpected source. It sounds obtuse to say a four-time GSL finalist could possibly win this group, but let's be real: it's been a long time since soO has been relevant in that way. After his KeSPA Cup victory and second place at Gamescom back in summer 2015, soO conclusively stopped being the best Zerg in the world (ironically, the other KeSPA Cup finalist that year would take up the mantle). Like many other Zergs he struggled to figure out the “proper way” to approach LotV. He never dropped off into irrelevance and remained a solid contributor in Proleague, but his days as a title contender seemed at an end. At least that was the case until a month ago. Since the end of October soO has looked rejuvenated. Once again his gameplay is assured and complete; he is regularly beating great players and looking like their peer outside of team leagues. No one knows what changed to kick off this transformation, but it's a welcome sight for anyone who grieved for his decline.
Unfortunately he must face Trust, a man who specializes in being an inconvenient menace. He is the odd type of player who is mediocre in 80% of circumstances and frustratingly good during the other 20%. As it turns out, the latter always involves players he has no right in beating. Remember that one time in Proleague he beat InnoVation in what should've been a stomp? Remember when he defeated Rogue and Classic to qualify into SSL Season 1, or when he inexplicably beat sOs and tied everyone else in his group for Season 2? Most fans would've preferred to see TY get into this tournament, but Trust was there to kill his dreams too. Such a player defies the usual heuristics we use to judge players. Whether you are judging by history or current form, Trust is the underdog in this group. But does that matter when winning at the most inappropriate times is his forte?
It's a given that Dark is the favorite in this group. How could you argue against the man who singlehandedly propped up his race during its time of need? Over the last year Dark has showed that while Zerg as a whole couldn't find a foothold in Korea, it didn't mean that the race itself was too weak to win. Using amazing mechanics, impeccable defense and great tactics Dark rose to become the top representative of his race. A person so assured in his skill will likely regard jjakji as a minor obstacle to the championship. As much as jjakji would love to defy expectations, his record doesn't support that hope. It's hard to tell whether his TvZ is up to the task: he hasn't played Zergs near Dark's caliber since SSL Season 2, when he lost to Rogue in group stages. Otherwise jjakji has comfortably situated himself in that middle tier of the Korean hierarchy. Occasionally he takes series off great players and builds up a small run, but little suggests this will be close.
Someone like Classic presents a greater threat to Dark's hegemony. Along with Zest, Stats and herO, Classic belongs to that select group of Korean Protosses that periodically rotate between periods of dominance; when they are not on top of the world, they remain a constant threat to anyone who faces them. Classic may not be at his 2015 peak but never fell off hard either. If the strength of his qualifier run carries over in the main event, he will be a prime dark horse. I imagine he has fond memories of IEM; after all, IEM Shenzhen was his last premier victory. He faces a similar opponent in ByuL, who is best remembered for entering the Kong line with 3 second place finishes in 2015. ByuL's fortunes in 2016 have been slightly disappointing if only because he never followed them up with actual titles. His qualifier path was similarly impressive except the competition was hardly worth mentioning, making him more of an enigma. ByuL at his best is comparable to Dark, so let's cross our fingers and hope he shows up in ideal conditions.
Korean qualifiers are infamous for the concentration of quality and frequency of upsets, which make them all but impregnable for foreigners who participate. The fact that a Chinese player advanced, and with a clean run to boot, adds a lot of excitement to this matchup. Most viewers aren't familiar with iAsonu, and frankly I have a hard time anticipating what he will do here. He is a fixture in online leagues but lacks experience in premier tournaments. His qualifier run reflects a prowess at defeating mid-tier Koreans; when and how he summons that fortitude remains a total mystery. Traditionally we wouldn't give lesser-known challengers a ghost of a chance against a BlizzCon winner, yet ByuN is not assured victory here. His ability to steamroll any opponent excelled when a single instance of calculated pressure could end the game, but he has shown signs of weakness in trying to replicate that style in the new patch; in particular, the resurgence of muta play in ZvT is playing havoc with his relatively straightforward pushes. Such problems ought to be minor ones. ByuN is still the favorite here and boasts a sterling record against iAsonu. It would be a major accomplishment if iAsonu took a game.
The second match promises to be more than a one-sided shellacking. As always, Maru is a fan favorite by dint of his entertaining style and irascible attitude. Gyeonggi promises to be a welcome reprise from the pressures of the standard WCS system, which emphasizes preparation about all else. Additionally Maru is fairly underrated when it comes to weekend tournaments. Beyond the obvious talent his playstyle can overwhelm opponents who are not used to thinking on their feet. It will probably grant a minimal advantage against Solar, who is historically successful in these events. The Splyce Zerg is just coming off of a memorable appearance at HomeStory Cup where he served as both translator and personality. Thanks to his jovial demeanor and relatability, he will have his own contingent of fans as well as a new team cheering him on. As many players are facing uncertainty over their future, Solar will be able to enter this series completely focused.