WCS Winter 2019: Opening WeekBy: Soularion and Wax
Headed into the first season of the 2019 WCS Circuit, Blizzard have unveiled a new format which actually feels quite old. For a special 'Winter' season, the WCS Circuit has been split up into 32-player tournaments for the European and 'American' (more like "everywhere that's not Europe or Korea") regions, with much of the competition taking place in GSL-style groups online.
Doesn't that sound familiar? Yup, it's a brief return to the old WCS 2013-2014 system, which provided us with a steady drip of foreigner StarCraft II over the course of several months. That will have to sustain us for the time being, as Blizzard has been conspicuously closed-mouthed as to what the plan is for the WCS Circuit going forward.
Considering the growth of the non-Korean scene over the past few years, it will be interesting to see how WCS Winter plays out. Foreigner stars have popped up to give these tournaments a gravitas they previously lacked—but will they be reason enough for viewers to tune in four days of the week? Let's take quick look over the first week of round-of-32 matches and focus on some of the star players who have emerged in the region-locked WCS era.
WCS Europe RO32: Groups A to DBroadcast: 15:00 GMT (+00:00) @ Twitch.tv/starcraft
uThermal - 2018 Final Circuit Ranking: #9
Supporters of region lock can point to 2016 as a crucial year, when many of our current top-tier foreigners made their breakthrough. ShoWTimE, Neeb, and Elazer are the most notable (and to an extent, Serral), but you'd be remiss to forget WCS Shanghai 2016 champion uThermal. The Dutch Terran had been around since 2013, but his IEM victory in 2016 put him in the spotlight as a rare foreigner Terran who had championship potential.
Unfortunately, we've yet to see that potential fully realized again. If you watched a collection of uThermal's best games, you'd think he'd be a shoe-in to make BlizzCon from the WCS Circuit. Alas, he's often his own worst enemy (and notably hard on himself after losses), and he's spent the good part of the last two years trying to break through the quarterfinal wall in WCS. The deep field of talent in WCS Europe will provide a good test for uThermal—we already know he can upset the likes of INnoVation and Rogue when he's at his best, but he needs to reliably triumph against players we expect him to beat to make a deep run.
HeRoMarinE - 2018 Final Circuit Ranking: #5
Compared to uThermal, HeRoMarinE represents pure consistency without any of highs or lows. His playstyle is quite intelligent and stylish, but he rarely surpasses expectations. Of Serral's many Circuit victims in 2018, HeRoMarinE was the one who seemed most resigned—and almost content—to being defeated. It's not the most exciting profile for a player, but it does make him one of the most dangerous foes in these initial rounds.
HeRoMarinE seems to be a safe bet to make a deep playoff run in WCS Europe. The unorthodox playoff gauntlet format means he's unlikely to face Serral before the finals, so perhaps this will be the tournament where we see the German Terran rise to another level and become more than just a 'very good' player.
Elazer - 2018 Final Circuit Ranking: #11
As mentioned earlier, Elazer became one of 2016's breakout stars by making a top-four run at the Global Finals. He followed that up by having a phenomenal 2017 (where he won WCS Valencia), but suffered a disappointing-as-hell slump in 2018. He actually started 2018 off quite strong, making back-to-back quarterfinal on the WCS Circuit and proving he was a player who had to be taken seriously in various mixed-region events such as IEM Katowice and WESG.
Unfortunately, Elazer suffered a calamitous collapse in the latter half of the year, falling out of the BlizzCon running after concluding the final two WCS Circuit events with RO32 finishes. Teammate Lambo contends that Elazer never got worse in terms of skill—tournaments just didn't go his way for whatever reason. Elazer is one of the most accomplished star players in the foreign scene, and it would be great for European StarCraft if he could regain his footing and bounce back with a strong showing in WCS Winter.
Lambo - 2018 Final Circuit Ranking: #8
The WCS Global Finals are a dream tournament for any progamer to play in, especially for the Western pros who don't have the GSL studio to play in regularly. Unfortunately it's often a place where foreign pros get the door slammed violently in their face, as Lambo experienced at the hands of Maru and TY.
However, it's hard to get too down on Lambo for losing to the two best Terran players in the world (he managed to take a map off TY, mind you). On the whole, his 2018 campaign was a success, validating his decision to go full-time pro. He achieved a top four finish at WCS Austin, narrowly made it to the Global Finals at the #8 player from the Circuit, and got to play in the biggest tournament of they year (and was paid $14,000 for his RO16 elimination). Now it's time to return to the grind of Europe, where he can prove that he wasn't just lucky to edge out Reynor for the #8 seed in 2018 and put to rest any doubts that he is one of Europe's true elite.
WCS Americas RO32: Groups A to DBroadcasy 19:00 GMT (+00:00) @ Twitch.tv/starcraft
SpeCial - 2018 Final Circuit Ranking: #3
SpeCial looks to be one of the players who will benefit most from the split between America and Europe. We've mentioned his six losses in premiere semifinals on multiple occasions, but it must be noted that only one of such losses came at the hands of a WCS Americas region player (a narrow 2-3 loss to Neeb at WCS Austin 2017). Europe has been responsible for so much of the depth in Circuit competition—from old veterans such as MaNa and Snute to young guns like Reynor and Serral—and now they will plague Special no more. His entire career has been spent chasing a premiere finals and his time may finally have come.
There's an argument to made that the diluted player pool reduces the importance of such an achievement, but the WCS points and prize money don't lie. In WCS Americas, not only is SpeCial already the second best player, but he stands the best shot of beating the faltering king Neeb and winning the championship he's been dreaming of for so long.
Scarlett - 2018 Final Circuit Ranking: #12
Much like SpeCial, Scarlett has a strong case for being the biggest beneficiary of the Euro-exit. She's been a top-tier North American player for her entire career, and she proved she was a world-class player by winning 2018's IEM PyeongChang. Surely, she should excel against the limited foreigner field in WCS Americas Winter?
Unfortunately, her results in 2018's WCS NA Challenger tournament paint her as an inconsistent player who often fails to live up to her reputation. In four Challenger tournaments, she was eliminated in the semifinals on two occasions, and was swept by Neeb twice in the finals.
TRUE might have left the Americas field for now, but SpeCial has been added in as an even more dangerous title contender. On top of that, there's a slew of plucky players from China, Taiwan, and Oceania who have joined the fray. Every result is on the table for the mercurial Scarlett, all the way from RO32 elimination to another championship run.
Kelazhur - 2018 Final Circuit Ranking: #17
Compared to his Cinderella run in 2017 that saw him reach the Global Finals, Kelazhur's 2018 was a total letdown. He didn't make a single quarterfinals the entire year, and simply looked nothing like his old self. It was no surprise when he announced that he'd be going part-time in mid-August.
However, Kelazhur is known to be one of those unusual players who can perform better when they're not taking the game too seriously, and he finds himself in WCS Americas after qualifying as the #3 player from the ladder competition. With reduced pressure and expectations, we may very well see Kelazhur make another underdog run.
Neeb - 2018 Final Circuit Ranking: #4
The headliner for WCS Americas should be Neeb, who has been mostly unopposed as the North American king since his KeSPA Cup title in 2016. After he won three-of-four WCS Circuit stops in 2017, it's become pretty hard to make an argument against him being the best North American player of all time (Scarlett fans can keep trying, though). Though he was overshadowed by Serral like everyone else in 2018, Neeb reached yet another career milestone by finishing top-four in GSL Code S.
For Neeb, WCS Americas is an opportunity to step back from the mayhem of the combined WCS Circuit and reassert his dominance in a narrower field. However, he's been far from unassailable in this domain—though he won three of 2018's WCS NA Challenger tournaments, he also suffered a shock quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Silky in another. While many fans will be eager to see WCS Americas end with a dream-match of Neeb against SpeCial or Scarlett, it's not a foregone conclusion.