Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Starcraft 2 in 2018

The 2018 season of Starcraft 2 is upon us.  Qualifiers for WESG, WCS, and IEM Pyeongyang are ongoing, January tournament start dates are just around the corner, and the first season of GSL has just begun.  Thus, it’s a good time to look ahead, see what the landscape looks like, ask some question about how the year will play out, and perhaps, just perhaps make a prediction or two.

The biggest change influencing the coming year will be the major patch that occurred at the end of 2017.  Where LotV evolved Starcraft 2 into an entirely new scene, the latest balance update, less so.  It changes (not evolves) the game, and would seem to bring back into the picture certain aspects of HotS.  Without pylon charging and the Mothership Core, Protoss is back to base defense, and potentially less aggressive on the map early-game.  Zerg underwent relatively minimal changes (buffs if anything), but for certain Infestors will be used in greater force, something we saw a lot more of in HotS.  Terran has changes to the Liberator, Raven, Cyclone, etc.—what on the surface seem nerfs, but time will tell.  This is all not to mention that mineral patches and gas geysers now provide more resources, meaning the amount of turtling should increase ever so slightly.   Overall the game remains quite similar, but there are changes.   Thus, the question is, which players do these changes best suit?  And, who is most likely to adapt well and be successful in 2018? 

After a mediocre 2016, Innovation dominated 2017.  And there is no reason to think he cannot continue in 2018.  Except, if history has proven anything, it’s that it’s extremely difficult to maintain that high level of play for years.  And given the level of competition around him, the fresh desire from those who did not have a good 2017 to do better, not to mention the rough time Terrans seem to be having early in the new patch, it’s uncertain.  With The Machine it’s possible, but we’ll have to wait and see.  Looking at the other Terrans, Special had a breakout 2017, but the question remains: is his new id enough to overcome any remaining deficiencies to finally achieve a trophy?  In terms of the other Terrans who might be competitive, my eyes are on Maru.  2017 was not his year, indicating he, of all players, really misses Proleague.  But maybe he can bounce back and achieve the tip-top form he once had?  Of the other Terrans, he, and perhaps TY, are those seeming most poised to do well.  Otherwise, we may be looking at him as a HotS wunderchild, and that’s it.  As much as I like him, Byun’s days as being a legitimate threat to the throne seem over.  Unless he can rekindle the drive he possessed in 2016 and adapt to the new patch, he will remain mid-tier in Korea as he was in 2017.  Another player I think we may have seen the peak from is Gumiho, but maybe he can prove me wrong?  For sure he will win games and go far in tournaments, but can he win SSL or another GSL?  TY remains the biggest mystery among Terrans.  The other contender for breakout player in 2017, he has really struggled in the early going of the new patch, and things are looking really uncertain for 2018.  (His “whining” on Onpoong is great, if you haven’t seen it.)  Will TY slip back into the mid-tier of Korean progamers he previously occupied prior to LotV?  Have to wait and see.  

Turning to Protoss, 2017 was Stats’ best ever year, and given his relaxed manner, it’s possible he can continue the success in 2018.  Winning more GSLs and SSLs in the same year is a high bar, however.  herO, Zest, Classic, and sOs all had great success in HotS yet were not up to the same standard in 2017, and therefore look best poised to give Stats a serious run for his money as best Protoss on Earth in 2018.  I fully expect two of those four to take a premier tournament trophy home at some point this year.  I trust that Billowy, Trap, Creator, Trust and other such Korean Protosses to continue as they have—mid-tier programers in Korea, not legitimate contenders for titles.  Neeb is the biggest mystery to me in terms of what to expect looking forward.  In a very short time he has proven his ability to adapt well, even if his success in Korea and at global events hasn’t been stellar since his KESPA Cup victory in 2016.  I don’t think he will win three out of the four premiere WCS events again, but whether he can achieve major victories like a GSL or Blizzcon title remain legitimate, open questions.  Another question mark is ShowTime.  Can he bounce back, or is his highly successful 2016 just a blip on the radar?  And there is still yet one more Protoss mystery: PartinG.   Previously one of the best players on Earth, can he return to form?  Does the drive to win premier tournaments still exist in him?  We will see.  I love him, but my gut instinct tells me he canot be as competitive.  At least he will bring some personality--something the Korean scene needs.

Zerg is enjoying huge success in the early going of the latest patch, which would seem to pave the way for 2017’s successes like Rogue, Dark, Soo, Snute, Elazer, and Serral to remain successes.  But as history has shown, the early days of a new patch are not always indicative of how things pan out once the secrets and tricks are fully exploited in the course of the year, so we wait and see.  And what of the Zergs sitting just outside that group, players like Scarlett, ByuL, Nerchio, True, etc., can they return to form?  Caught somewhere in the middle is Solar.  Seemingly always a threat in 2017 yet rarely capitalizing in a major way, can he return to title contender form and be a consistent threat like he was in 2016?  Or is his character makeup too inconsistent?  By far the Korean progamer with the best English, it’s a joy to hear him speak and represent the other Korean progamers at events like Homestory Cup.  

In terms of tournaments, the circuit has been announced, and there are no real surprises.  For all practical purposes, it is essentially the same as 2017, which, if there is to be a region lock system, is pretty good.  I dislike the WCS system using weekend tournaments to determine the equivalent of a GSL winner, including auto-seed to Blizzcon.  My primary concern is that WCS players don’t have good preparation time for their next opponent.  If the GSL has proven anything, it’s that great games are the result of good preparation.  Knowing a few hours in advance is often not enough to develop complex strategies, and therefore more unique games.  But it is what it is, and many of the matches are exciting, particularly in the quarter and semi-finals.  In Korea, I imagine JinAir will be back for another year of SSL, which is good.  I prefer the GSL format, but at least I can say SSL breaks the mold, and does add an interesting dynamic to each week’s play, not to mention gives players one more key trophy to seek.

While it promises to be an interesting year, some regrets I have are that fresh blood is basically coming only from the WCS region, not Korea.  For each Korean tournament it’s the same old names we’ve been seeing for years, not one new face among them.  Looking at the GSL qualifying brackets there are many new ids, but none seem able to crack the pantheon of established names, and the mid-tier players remain just good enough to retain their hold on qualifying spots (yet not good enough to reach quarterfinals or semi-finals).  In NA, Europe, and elsewhere, however, we see new successes popping in and out.  It’s a shame most are Zerg—not that I hate Zerg (I could care less about race wars), but for the e-sport to be most interesting, there needs to be a dynamic that we do not often see of late, Europe in particular.  Essentially uThermal, Special, and Neeb are the only non-Zerg progamers who currently have a shot at a premier title.  If it wasn’t for Neeb, in fact, I believe most of 2017’s WCS finals would have been ZvZ.  It’s an interesting matchup, but not desirable long term for fans or the e-sport.  Given how dynamic the player base is in Europe and NA, however, I’m hoping new faces will emerge in 2018 from the other races.  But who?  That is a big question…

Anyway, here are some random (more fun, less daring) predictions for 2018:

  • Soo returns to the GSL finals in season 3 
  • Innovation wins a premiere title (if it’s GSL, we have to declare him GOAT) 
  • sOs returns to prime form and eventually takes Blizzcon
  • We see at least three big-name player retirements from Korea
  • JinAir sponsors the final SSL year of all time 
  • Serral finally wins his first premiere WCS event (likely the first of the year) 
  • Neeb wins the end-of-year points standings for WCS
  • One foreign progamer will make the round of 16 in GSL
  • A patch arrives to nerf Zerg and buff Terran after GSL season 1 
  • Special wins a WCS premiere event late in 2018

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