The weekend promises to be a particularly special one, as Blizzard has announced a community event dubbed ‘I < 3 StarCraft’. Company President Mike Morhaime will be in attendance, and there will be a miniature Broodwar tournament featuring the talents of legendary players Jaedong, Flash, Bisu, and Stork. Many fans speculate that this event will also bring the announcement of the Broodwar Remastered project that has been so heavily rumoured in recent months.
For StarCraft 2 fans though, the real spectacle will be the Zerg player, Eo “soO” Yoon Su fighting the Protoss player, Kim “Stats” Dae Yeob for the title of GSL champion and best SC2 player in the world. They’re playing for more than just the title though, with ₩ 40,000,000 (over $35,000 USD) and 4000 valuable WCS points that are vital for players who want to attend the WCS Global finals at Blizzcon. For fans and for these two players, this may be the high stakes match of a lifetime.
SC2 finds itself in a fairly calm month when it comes to the balance of the metagame. There are very few people who can discuss the intricacies of SC2 balance from an unbiased and knowledgeable position. Perhaps nobody is a better source for information on the meta than Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski. Artosis is a long time SC2 caster, former Broodwar pro, and one half of what is arguably the best casting duo in all of esports, Tastosis. Alongside Nick “Tasteless” Plott, the other half of the Tastosis casting archon. Artosis has been casting the GSL since its inception. When it comes to SC2 balance, Artosis believes it’s a topic that is “over talked about”. He told me that an important part of discussing balance is to realize that the metagame is constantly evolving. “As the metagame evolves, as players improve and understand more, the game will always shift,” he said. “Sometimes this goes faster than other times.”
In regards to the Protoss vs Zerg (PvZ) matchup specifically, Artosis told me that he believes its evolving particularly fast. Delving deeper into the topic, Artosis said that “Protoss players have added complexity to some strategies (such as the 2nd prism for archon drops) which Zergs have learned to counter with +1 speed roaches. Zergs have been revisiting some older styles, and right now there’s a reemergence of Hydralisk / Baneling styles.” Artosis told me that its hard to predict how this will affect the GSL finals, but that he doesn’t believe that there’s a good way to talk about balance. “We should be seeing some fresh and refined play out of both sides. It won’t be something stupid like mass Adepts every game.”
Taking a deeper look at the two players themselves, it would be wrong to say that Stats and soO are average competitors. Each of them is at the age of 24, and both find themselves clamouring for a win. These are men who have been playing professional StarCraft all their adult life, as well as through their teens. It’s not uncommon for Korean progamers to join teams at young ages, even dropping out of high school to do so. Stats joined KT Rolster’s Broodwar team in 2009 at the age of 16, while soO joined KT’s chief competitor SKT1 in 2008 at the age of 15. These are men who live for the competition.
In spite of their experience, both players have an unfortunate history of barely missing ultimate success. Look through their premier tournament results and you’ll see a wash of bronze and silver, but very little gold.
Stats has been knocked out in the semifinals of five premier events since 2015, finishing as the runner up in three more. The most recent of such near misses came just weeks ago, as Stats narrowly lost the IEM Katowice world championship to his former teammate Jun “TY” Tae Yang. In fact, Stats has only one first place finish in a premier tournament to his name, the WCS cross finals in 2016. Stats has been building himself quite a name since Blizzcon 2016 where he secured himself another 3rd-4th finish. Many fans claim that he is the best player in the world now, he needs only a chance to prove it. As a lifelong competitor, he is surely hungry to prove such speculation to be true.
After finding himself teamless when ProLeague held its final season and KT Rolster closed their SC2 division, Stats was recruited to Splyce Gaming. The weight of the GSL finals not lost on Splyce, in fact far from it. CEO of Splyce Gaming, Marty Strenczewilk, told me that “Winning GSL is something that is huge at Splyce right now – everyone is hyped up for the match and I imagine we’ll have an enormous amount of very tired staff the next day after everyone stays up for it. This is one of the pinnacle tournaments of esports – maybe even THE pinnacle tournament – and winning it would be an incredible accomplishment”. In fact, Mr Strenczewilk is perhaps most excited for the match. “For me personally, Starcraft (and Warcraft) are games that are a huge part of my life,” he told me, “I used to ride the bus from New York City to Boston once a month and play Starcraft on my laptop the entire ride. Finally getting Splyce into Starcraft at all was a big deal for me as someone who is a huge fan. Now getting to see both Stats and Solar (the second half of Splyce’s SC2 squad) play at such an incredible level and make our entrance into competitive Starcraft 2 have such momentum is more than I could ever have hoped for.”
A win for Stats in the GSL finals would make Splyce only the second team outside of Korea to have one of their players successfully conquer the tournament.
Of all the players in SC2, soO is surely the only one who can rival the Stats’ hunger for success. Poor soO has become something of a meme in the SC2 community, as this will be his fifth appearance in a GSL final, having no first place finishes. In fact, soO has six second place finishings at premier tournaments, with one third/fourth result in GSL 2014 for good measure. Unlike Stats though, he hasn’t experienced any level of premier event success in recent years. His highest finish in the past year has been a fifth-eighth result at IEM Gyeonggi. Despite lackluster results though, soO has established himself as one of the top Zerg players in the world. Many fans still give that title to WCS 2016 runner-up Dark, but a win here for soO would cement his claim to the title. For soO, this season of GSL symbolizes a redemption arc. A tournament where he can finally show the world that his potential has been tapped. A tournament where he can prove to himself that he can take a tournament all the way to the finish.
Not only will a win for soO this weekend mean that he can walk away with unwounded pride, but the prize money has to be taken into account as well. Unlike Stats, soO hasn’t been able to find a new team in the wake of ProLeague’s closure. For soO, this win could mean sustainability for his career as a pro gamer. For a teamless pro like soO, this win can mean housing, food, and bills paid for months to come. These are factors that shouldn’t be underestimated or forgotten when calculating soO’s drive.
Combining his extensive experience as a competitor and a caster, there is perhaps no one as knowledgeable about the hunger to win as Artosis. For Artosis, the sense of desperation that emanates from soO is the key to this storyline. “soO has said that he feels like this is his last chance for a GSL victory. I disagree with that, but in his mind it might be true.”
One of the most beautiful and complex aspects of SC2 is the importance of a player’s build orders. Tailored to fit each map and matchup, a build order can make or break any game of StarCraft, long before a player’s mechanics enter into the picture. Matches such as the GSL finals are famous for players creating specific build orders that are designed to suit their opponent’s playstyle directly.
Here lies an interesting line of thought. Which player has the advantage in preparing specific builds? soO had to overcome the famous Jin Air Protoss player Kim “sOs” Yoo Jin in order to advance to the finals. This means that he’s been preparing for the ZvP matchup for weeks, but it also means that there will be plenty of recent matches for Stats to analyze. With such a recent high stakes match to draw information from, will Stats know the ZvP build orders that soO has prepared? Meanwhile on the other side of the bracket, Stats had to conquer True Esports’ Kim “Ryung” Dong Won, a Terran player. Stats will have had significantly less time to prepare for the PvZ matchup than soO has.
“It’s always a hard call whether the player going into the finals having already practiced the matchup a lot for the round of 4 match is at an advantage or disadvantage”, Artosis told me. “soO mostly showed strong defensive play alongside a liking of the currently strong Hydra/Bane style. sOs and Stats are about as different as night and day though, so I don’t think Stats would have put all his eggs in the early Drone-killing basket that sOs did throughout the series. Overall, I would give the advantage to soO. He didn’t give too much away, and has been practicing ZvP for weeks already, whereas Stats has only been focusing on PvT.”
The two ran into each other just days after their semifinals matches in TotalBiscuit’s ShoutCraft Kings March tournament. Little can be preordained based on their game though, as soO opted for a very early spawning pool after cancelling his early drones. When his ling poke failed, soO made an early lair rather than playing a more standard build order. Perhaps he was nervous about playing a full game and revealing even more of his ZvP playstyle to Stats, or perhaps he simply made a mistake as he loaded in and opted to do a throw-away early pool. Whatever the case may be, neither player revealed much about what we may see at the GSL finals.
This weekend offers the opportunity to see some of the highest level esports competition that exists. The GSL is a world-renowned league for a reason, and the season finals never fail to offer the most exciting StarCraft that you can imagine. With soO and Stats on the ticket, the event will surely provide enjoyment and entertainment for even the most casual of esports fans.
When it comes to predictions, Artosis didn’t want to place bets on either player, telling me that he “[doesn’t] really like choosing a favorite here”. He cited the volatility of the ZvP metagame as the primary reason for the match’s unpredictability. In the end, Artosis made a very safe and reasonable assessment, saying “I think one player will come more prepared, with a higher understanding of the way the matchup should be played right now, and will win because of that”. As for Mr Strenczewilk’s prediction? He only told me that “this is Stats tournament. No one is playing in the form he’s in. He’s ready.”
If you’re in Korea on the 25th, you can attend the I <3 StarCraft celebration at the COEX Auditorium in Seoul. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for watching the livestreams on AfreecaTV, TwitchTV, and Youtube. The I <3 StarCraft celebration and showmatches starts at 5:00 AM GMT on March 26th. The GSL Finals begin at 10:00 AM GMT.
You can watch the GSL finals on Twitch.tv/GSL or afreeca.tv/2016asl (there is no YouTube stream available for the GSL finals).