Friday, November 16, 2018

Starcraft II 2018 - Year in Review

Blizzcon is over, a king has been crowned, and Starcraft II in 2018 is officially in the rearview mirror. Time to pause and reflect on what transpired, hand out some awards, take a look at the games of the year, and return to my predictions at the beginning of the year.

Firstly, I think 2018 was a great year for Starcraft II despite how repetitive it seemed to be in terms of the winner's circle. I loved Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, but for me Legacy of the Void is the best iteration of competitive Starcraft II, and 2018 continued to prove why. Gameplay forces players to control more units at a time with a speed of economy not seen earlier, leading to quick, massive engagements that are more often than not decided by skill rather than luck. I love a good cheese and there are moments bad luck still effects outcomes, but overall I believe players are forced to juggle an even greater number of balls in terms of tactics and at faster speeds if they are to win in the state of the game today. Watching Legacy of the Void games versus Wings of Liberty, the degree of higher complexity is noticeable. The average number of different unit types seen on the field in the climactic battle is typically a magnitude higher than say Parting vs. Marineking or MMA vs MC back in the day. We now talk about Terran and Zerg deathballs in the same tones we used to speak about the Protoss deathball. It's not strange for Maru or TY to walk into battle controlling ravens, vikings, and liberators in the air and marines, marauders, tanks, hellions, widow mines, and cyclones on the ground—in three or four different locations at the 15 minute mark. That's just what you've got to do to win. Whether or not Serral would beat MVP is a moot argument, but as a whole I think Starcraft II progamers in 2018 have had to show a higher degree of skill than those of 2011, which is, of course, to the viewers and fans' advantage.

And now to the elephant standing in 2018's room. Serral. Wow, just wow. MVP, Innovation, Life, Zest, Nestea—these are names bandied about as best ever. But not one of them ever has had a run even loosely resembling Serral's 2018. Winning almost every premier tournament he entered, from North American to Europe to Korea, he was only a couple wins aways from perfect. In any other year we would be talking about Maru's superb performance in such hallowed tones. But Serral simply overshadowed him. Sure, Maru wiped the floor with Serral early in 2018 (at WESG, a 3-0 victory), but Maru's failures at GSL vs. the World and Blizzcon where Serral cleaned house, not to mention Serral beating Maru 1-0 in a showmatch late in the year cements Serral's year as the greatest, ever. In the hundreds of tournament matches played, that's saying a lot.

And now to the individual awards:

Most Entertaining to WatchI'm not really a fan of Dark as a person—what little I get through media, that is. He's too cocky for his own good (and I can't help but think it is causing him to develop a Soo syndrome of his own). But he's in every game he plays. Making the most of little in aggressive fashion, he can extend matches that initially appear one-sided in highly entertaining fashion, and still beat lesser players. But perhaps most importantly, he is likely the least predictable zerg on Earth. Willing to break out cheese more often than fellow zergs, you never know what you're going to get, which is great for fans. sOs could win this award every year, but interestingly I feel 2018 was his most 'standard'. LotV essentially forcing players to get good at managing mixed armies, it doesn't play to sOs's strengths of surprising and overwhelming his opponents with an OP unit or group he sneaks in. (Runner up: Reynor. I just loved watching the little guy. His GSL and WCS Montreal runs were super exciting.)

Comeback Player of the YearIn making my list of potential winners, there were only two who popped up: Showtime and Zest. And I don't know if I can choose a winner between them. Both made it to the finals and semi-finals of their regions biggest tournaments, appeared in most premiere events, and if you sat them down for a best of seven on their best given days, I don't know who would win. (A few years ago Zest would certainly win, but Zest today is not the same...) Making things more difficult is that I think both experienced equal low points in 2017 relative to their careers. So, ultmately I have to award a tie: Zest and Showtime.

Breakout Player of Year: There are a few names I want to mention before getting to the winner: Lambo, Heromarine, and Has. Nobody thought Lambo would improve as much as he did, show such exciting games (particularly against Serral) or even go to Blizzcon. But he did. Heromarine didn't win anything big or cause any huge upsets, but he quietly, steadily and easily qualified for Blizzcon—a career first, and it deserves recognition. And Has? Making the finals of a WCS event and going to Blizzcon, simply unthought of for the cheese meister, previously. And yet he did. But I think this award has to go to Reynor. At the beginning of the year nobody thought he would make the quarters of a GSL let alone give Serral the best run for his money (save perhaps Stats in GSL vs. the World). I think it's fair to say that for as much talent the youngster displayed in previous years, his 2018 far exceeded expectations. I'm looking forward to seeing his happy smile on the winner's podium in 2019.

Where Were They? Award – Something for players who fell off the map, I have to wonder what happened to: Innovation, herO, and Soo in 2018. From GOAT in 2017 to non-Blizzcon finalist in 2018, I think Innovation has to be called out here as having had the highest fall. Sure, he won Homestory Cup, but that's it. What many were talking about as the greatest of all time failed to even escape the round of 16 at any GSL, and was a non-factor in the other premiere tournaments he managed to qualify for.

Korean Terran of the Year: Who else but Maru. Winning all GSLs plus WESG, the closest competition is TY—who Maru beat for his third GSL title. If it weren't for Serral's amazing year, people would probably be talking about Maru's year as best ever.

Foreign Terran of the Year: Some would argue this category shouldn't even exist, but I think there is consensus that Special is, once again, the title holder. Uthermal showed scattered flashes of brilliance throughout the year, HeroMarine had an undeniably good run, but Special's consistency and high quality showing at Blizzcon (again) solidified his place as foreign Terran to beat. There aren't really any other names to discuss.

Korean Protoss of the Year – At the beginning of the year it looked like Classic was poised to take this award (and likely there are people who will argue he should have it given the number of points he racked up). But I would say Stats' year was still more successful. GSL finalist, GSL Super Tournament champion, GSL vs. the World finalist, and placing highly in many other competitions, capped by the Blizzcon finals appearance, he was slightly less consistent than Classic but appeared in more starred moments. Classic did go to the IEM Katowice final and won his own GSL Super Tournament trophy (likewise in thrilling fashion), but those were his only two finals appearances. Close, but just a zealot run by short.

Foreign Protoss of the Year – This is a real tough one—an apple and oranges affair. After a poor 2017, Showtime returned to fine form. He reached a WCS final and showed good form at Blizzcon, as well as the rest of the premiere tournaments he attended. After an outstanding 2017 (topped only by Serral's 2018), Neeb fell back to relative Earth this year. His achievements are lackluster by comparison, though he did have a GSL semi-final run—tied for highest any foreigner has ever gotten in the Korean tournament, ever. The tie-breaker for me is that Neeb was able to qualify for Blizzcon with his WCS points and placed 16th in Korea—just behind Innovation and ahead of herO, Byun, Impact, etc. Winner: Neeb, runner up Showtime.

Korean Zerg of the Year – Another very difficult category to call, I think it comes down to a two horse race: Dark and Rogue. Riding the wave of success with which he closed 2017, Rogue quickly won the first premiere tournament that came up on the schedule in 2018: the IEM World Championship. But save a semi-final run at Blizzcon, Rogue was basically done for the year. Arriving at no other semi-finals or finals thereafter, his resume tails off very quickly. Dark had zero tournament victories under his belt for 2018, but does have numerous premier finals and semi-finals to his credit—both GSL Super Tournaments, GSL vs. the World, and GSL Season 1 among them. As such, I think the award has to go to Dark. Despite Rogue's IEM Katowice victory, Dark was the more consistent player, which in my book is worth more.

Foreign Zerg of the Year – For as chock full Europe is with good, quality zergs—Elazer, Nerchio, Scarlett, Reynor, Namshar, Lambo, et al, there is just no comparing to Serral in 2018. The reasons clear as day, see the next paragraph.

Player of the Year: No question here. If anybody thinks someone other than Serral deserves this award, then the psychiatrist should be called to check for mental health problems. Winning all four WCS premiere events, GSL vs. the World, and Blizzcon, it is simply the most dominating year SCII has ever—ever—seen. Maru is clearly the runner-up in this category for his three GSL and WESG titles, but that, unfortunately, still falls short of Serral's achievements. No psychiatrist needed here.

Premiere Tournament of the Year: This was really tough. This year's Blizzcon was great. GSL Super Tournament #2 had amazing semis and finals. IEM Pyeongchang had a super surprise run. But by hair, I think WCS Montreal was the best. The rise of Reynor, Serral's attempt at a fourth straight WCS title (a clean sweep for the year), and numerous good matches leading up to the 7-game epic final—all was exciting throughout.

Major Tournament of the Year: This was also tough, but mostly because I didn't watch all of the major tournaments. Perhaps I should rename this to: “Best Major Tournament I Watched”? Nevertheless, I'll try. Suning saw Soo take home a trophy. Hangzhou Starcraft featured a foreigner not named Serral beating Koreans (again). Ultimate Series had a great mix of players and races. But my favorite was Home Story Cup. Not only was it great to see Parting, Fantasy, and MMA back in action, but the tournament format (group stage followed by round robin) I think is the fairest, and produces great matches (i.e. opportunities for revenge). Coupled with the player commentary (and a Korean translator this year), relaxed atmosphere, and behind the scenes camera action, this is the major tournament of the year.

Personality of the Year: I wasn't the biggest fan of his style, but Starcraft II will certainly miss TotalBiscuit. A Starcraft evangelist and tournament organizer, I hope somebody will carry on his torch.

Special Award: …for whatever deserves recognition but doesn't fit anywhere specific. Essentially, I would like to recognize the Korean Teamhouse. While predominantly a place where Foreigners came for months at a time to practice on the Korean ladder, it was also a place where the Foreigner and Korean progamer community grew closer together and foreigners whose skills were good before became great. Reynor, Elazer, Showtime, Scarlett, Neeb, Special, DNS—and on and on goes the list of names who had the opportunity to not only experience another culture but elevate their game to be among the elite (not to mention make a few Korean friends like TY, Stats, etc. along the way).  Three foreigners made it to the GSL round of 8, all of whom spent time in the Teamhouse.  I know there is some bitterness between NoRegret and Rifkin about the organization of the Teamhouse, regardless, good on all those people who helped make it happen.

Matches of the Year – Throughout the year I keep a running file with great matches I've watched (a txt file to be precise), and at the end of the year I divide it up. From Contenders to Honorable Mentions to Match of the Year, they are as follows:

Elazer vs. Neeb - WCS Leipzig
Innovation vs. Zest - GSL Season 1
Gumiho vs. Maru - GSL Season 1
Stats vs. Maru - IEM Katowice
Neeb vs. Nerchio - IEM Katowice
Maru vs. Dark WESG Grand Final
Dear vs. Rogue - GSL Season
Zest vs. TY - GSL Season 2
sOs vs Classic GSL Super Tournament #2
Special vs. Classic WCS Global Finals
sOs vs. Zest WCS Global Finals
Lambo vs TY WCS Global Finals

Honorable Mentions:
Stats vs Serral GSl vs. the World Final – The definition of nail-biting, seven game, epic set.
herO vs sOs - GSL Season 1 Ro. 16 – This is the highest level PvP we have ever seen.
TY vs. Rogue – Blizzcon Quarter-finals – There were a lot of epic TvZs throghout the year, but this is the best, I believe. Aggression from the word go, there are two shames: 1) that it was only a 5-game set, and 2) somebody had to win.
Serral vs. Reynor WCS Montreal Grand Final – Though an epic 7 game set, this was a true nail-biter for more reasons: could the sixteen year old take down the three-time WCS champ?

Match of the Year
Stats vs. Dark – GSL Super Tournament #1 Final – The moment this epic 7-game ends epitomizes, at least for me, the blood and guts of Starcraft. Sweat beaded all over his face, Stats detaches his eyeballs from the monitor in a literal daze. Like a person waking up in the morning, for a moment he doesn't know where he is. His body and soul so focused on the match, he has to take a moment to figure out where he is, and then, funny enough, figure out that actually he won the match—and tournament. A smile slowly emerges on his face as the implications sink in, and utterly exhausted, he stumbles to the podium to get his hardware. So weak, he even has trouble maintaining a smile... That is competition. That is a player against the ropes putting his whole heart into a game. That is a player emerging against the odds. That is a back and forth game 7 for the ages. And, that is the heart of Starcraft II. Stats vs. Dark, my match of the year.

And finally, a look at my fun-minded predictions from the beginning of the year:

  • Soo returns to the GSL finals in season 3 Wrong, unfortunately. I would still love to see Soo have one more crack at a GSL title—and win.  
  • Innovation wins a premiere title (if it’s GSL, we have to declare him GOAT) Wrong, all wrong. He was a non-factor in 2018. 
  • sOs returns to prime form and eventually takes Blizzcon -While not making the finals, he did make it damn close. The semis his final resting place against Stats (a player who just seems to have his number), I still wonder what a sOs-Serral final would have looked like...
  • We see at least three big-name player retirements from Korea – I guess correct (if you consider Billowy a 'big name'.) They are Hero, Billowy, and Byul, On the flip side, we saw the return of three major names who retired: MMA (who has since retired, again), Fantasy, and Parting. Outside Korea, we saw Snute hang up the mouse pad, unfortunately.
  • JinAir sponsors the final SSL year of all time  - It turns out 2017 was the last year—a real disappointment as it means overall less sponsor interest for SCII. I'm even wondering if JinAir will keep team sponsorship for 2019. Hope so...
  • Serral finally wins his first premiere WCS event (likely the first of the year) – Right, but yet so wrong. Not only did he win one, he won them all!! 
  • Neeb wins the end-of-year points standings for WCS Wrong, wrong. I'm not even sure if you add up the points for players 2-8 they will equal Serral's points haul...
  • One foreign progamer will make the round of 16 in GSL – Not only one, but three. Scarlett, Reynor and Neeb advanced, with Neeb even making the semis. Will Serral try his luck next year?
  • A patch arrives to nerf Zerg and buff Terran after GSL season 1  Didn't happen...
  • Special wins a WCS premiere event late in 2018 – Again, unfortunately wrong. I would love for the quiet, kind Mexican to win something big before his desire fades. He deserves it. Perhaps Serral decides to go to university next year?

3 out of 10, not bad. ;)

Looking forward to the new patch and SCII in 2019!!

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