Veni, Vidi, Vici? The International Era (Part 1)Written by Mizenhauer
This article is part of a cooperation between ESL and TeamLiquid.net for the IEM World Championship event coming up in Katowice. ESL has provided images, information and financial support for us to produce this article and others.
Read Part 2 here!
It’s only February, but the journey to the WCS Global Finals is well underway. WCS Leipzig was everything the community could have wanted from 2018’s inaugural event. When the dust settled, heralded prodigy Serral stood victorious as he supplanted three time WCS champion Neeb to become king of the foreigner scene. However, he did not have long to rest on his laurels. Two weeks later, perennial fan favorite Scarlett captured her first major championship at IEM Pyeongchang.
The IEM World Championship represents the next stop on the journey. An almost unfathomable 76 players will battle for one of the most prestigious titles in the game as well as a coveted spot in the WCS Global Finals. In the past, hopes for a foreigner victory would have been met with a despondent shrug: Koreans per usual dominated every iteration with insouciance. Scarlett’s recent triumph offered the first tantalizing glimpse at what what some are hoping will be a year similar to 2016, when an outsider marched into Seoul and did the inconceivable.
The manner in which Neeb dominated KeSPA Cup was so unprecedented, it instantly catapulted him to the echelon reserved for legends like Stephano and NaNiwa. Never mind the well-documented apathy of Korean pros at that point in StarCraft history, or Neeb’s intimate familiarity with all aspects of PvP. The symbolic significance surpassed any asterisk you could place on his achievement. Not even Dark’s bulldozer victory over him at BlizzCon could quell the feverish anticipation surrounding Neeb’s potential.
A year later and his breakout victory is almost an afterthought. That’s how spectacular Neeb was in 2017. In the span of roughly one year, Neeb went from a newly proven force to establishing near-total hegemony over the foreign scene. Despite contentious victories at WCS Austin and Jönköping, he put to rest any misgivings regarding his skill level and pedestrian style. Neeb quickly superseded a disappointing quarterfinals finish at WCS Valencia with an ostentatious display at WCS Montreal: his 17-2 record was reminiscent of performances we had seen from the best Koreans. The year ended on a sour note—Neeb failed to exit his group at BlizzCon—but he remains the top dog in the foreign scene.
If only matches could be played on paper. Perhaps Neeb is merely a big fish in a rapidly expanding pond. For the first time in nearly a year, cracks appeared in Neeb’s flawless facade at WCS Leipzig. His semifinals opponent was a Protoss, the type of easy prey he had effortlessly brushed aside in his championship runs. He surged ahead 2-1 but when the dust settled, to the shock of many, Neeb ended up the loser.
As Neeb fell, ShoWTimE was back in the finals for the first time in a year and a half. The German Protoss had his big breakthrough back in 2016, where he topped the WCS Spring Championship before performing impressively at IEM Shanghai and WCS Copa Intercontinental. He did so with a methodical playstyle that appeared plodding to the uninitiated, though complimented by a keen sense of awareness that allowed him to seize critical moments. The combination made him one of Europe’s brightest stars heading into 2017.
Unfortunately, the past year has to be considered an unmitigated disaster. ShoWTimE only reached the quarterfinals once across four WCS events, and he couldn’t even manage those results outside of the circuit. There was something fundamentally wrong with his play: critical errors, born of nerves or even lack of focus, marred his losses. ShoWTimE was capable of far more but no obvious solution was forthcoming.
ShoWTimE’s image as an elite player may have been sullied over the course of 2017, but he surged back to the forefront at Leipzig. Sadly, the tournament didn’t end there to preserve his triumph. It took him five games to announce his return—it only took six for him to be dashed back to Earth. His loss to Serral aside, ShoWTimE’s recent success marks him as one of the foreigners most likely to make a deep run amid the Korean ridden field at the World Championships.
Expectations are not as high for another of 2016’s wunderkinds, uThermal. The Dutch Terran’s career has begged us to consider if flashes of high level play can overshadow a dearth of results. For two months in 2016 he escaped the monkey’s paw that accosts all international Terran players. It would have been easy to dismiss his Top 4 finish at Dreamhack Leipzig as luck, the product of a metagame in upheaval. Naysayers would not have such an easy time come July, when uThermal took the next step by winning IEM Shanghai. He lost to Neeb in a rematch of that final in the semifinals of the WCS Copa Intercontinental, but at that point he was established as the elite foreign Terran.
Like ShoWTimE, 2017 was brutal to the Team Liquid Terran. But while ShoWTimE wilted only to be revived, uThermal almost completely vanished. uThermal reached the IEM World Championships on the back of an impressive qualifying campaign, but it is a poor consolation prize given everything surrounding those results. He reached the Round of 8 only once in 2017, at WCS Jönköping, and failed to even match that finish in the first event of 2018. To label it as a fall from grace would be a disservice to its magnitude. In this sense, uThermal’s fortunes reflect the depressing tale of international Terran potency: while Korea is famous for routinely churning out top-tier performers such as Mvp, INnoVation and Maru with prosperous careers, foreign champions inevitably burn out and fade away after brief flares of success. If he is truly a victim of fate rather than circumstance, the former champion will have to work overtime to keep the spark of hope alight.
With uThermal’s decline, the community briefly fancied an underdog from Brazil as the next Terran hope. Kelazhur’s first noteworthy result came back in 2014 at IEM Sao Paulo, although he failed to break through for three more years. It was only at WCS Jönköping last year where he staked his claim as head of the foreign space cowboys, sweeping uThermal in the quarterfinals. Consistent Top 8 finishes in the other three WCS events earned him a spot in the WCS Global Finals, making him only one of two foreign Terrans at BlizzCon.
Kelazhur’s unlikely origins and representation of a traditionally disregarded region make him a darling of the passionate fanbase. Unfortunately his rise has recently stalled and it doesn’t appear to be a temporary bump. He pleasantly stole a rare game from Dark at BlizzCon, but was bounced from the tournament promptly thereafter. He couldn’t get past the third group stage at Leipzig and only managed a win over HeRoMaRinE at IEM Pyeongchang. Though he momentarily inspired hope as a worthy successor, all signs point that expectations were misplaced. Like a plethora of past prodigies Kelazhur has regressed back to the mean. Now he finds himself firmly entrenched among the second tier of foreign pros, searching to claw his way back to the top.
And yet, for all those mired waist deep in the mud, SpeCial managed to break free in 2017. The Artist Formerly Known as MajOr (and WinDy and Princess and CuteAngel and 10 other names lost to antiquity) has finally found a foothold in his perpetual search for reinvention. A strong practice partner with natural aptitude, harboring a regrettable tendency to choke at LANs, SpeCial shed the nerves that made him dismissable in the past. His pseudo-rivalry with Neeb over 2017 became the premier clash in the foreign scene: he lost to the American Protoss in Austin and Jönköping, only to get his revenge in Valencia (Neeb’s only loss in the playoff portion of the WCS Circuit all year). And then...he bombed out to Snute immediately afterwards.
If confidence in his skill was the great barrier that limited SpeCial in the past, vertigo is the daunting obstacle he faces now. No matter how often he can showcase his talent on a regular basis, SpeCial has shown a disconcerting tendency to freeze at inopportune times. SpeCial bombed out in Montreal right after giving Stats everything he could handle at GSL vs The World. He tore through the opening weekend of the WCS Global Finals, toppling presumed favorites Stats and TY with ease, and continued his run into the semifinals, just to get routed by soO as if he didn’t belong on the same stage. His recent history resembled a roller coaster more than a steady upwards slope. SpeCial didn’t reach a single finals in 2017 and failed to qualify for GSL Season 1 2018. He bounced back with a strong showing at Leipzig, though it came to an abrupt end at Serral’s hands. He reached the semifinals again at IEM Pyeongchang, stumbling for the second time at that stage in a matter of week, this time to sOs.
Such dismay is, counterintuitively, a step forward for him. For someone who had done so little for so long, it is a tremendous sign of respect that people remark on how SpeCial isn’t living up to expectations. We all know SpeCial is (pun intended) special. He has catapulted himself to the elite tier of competition, a laughable proposition only a few years beforehand. After a huge leap forward in 2017, the Mexican Terran has shown he can hang with the very best in the world. He is only missing the consistency required of a champion. With IEM Katowice coming up, SpeCial is one of the most promising international talents to look out for. The task before him is to convert on that promise and become what so many thought he should, but never would be.
Read Part 2 here!