If the last three years have been legendary, it's probably the case that that 2008-2009 season was the golden age. Luxury's MSL run and sAviOr's last hurrah – cheaters they may have been but they played some fine Starcraft. The fantasy-Jaedong rivalry. Some of the best games of all time: Flash vs UpMagic. The Bisu vs Iris series. JangBi's epic cheese against Calm in the playoffs. sKyHigh's RAK to win the inaugural Winners League title. I could go on, but I'm sure you have your favorites – so I'll let you mention them.
The 2009-2010 season was the year of Jaedong vs Flash. Proleague was suitably excellent, and KT took the title in convincing fashion, but it was really all about the Starleagues. Jaedong and Flash met in three straight MSLs and (going back to the Winter 2008 season) one or the other reached the final in five straight OSLs, winning four titles between them (EffOrt nabbed the fifth) and, in Korean Air 2, finalizing the question of dominance in Flash's favor. Other storylines? There... but not as gripping. Call it the silver age.
And last year... last year was our gilded age. The hype was there: 7-game matches, double-Winners League. The story-lines were there: fantasy and then Jangbi breaking out of the Kong line. But for one reason or another it was clear that reality was fading: SC2 has continued to grow, stealing at least international viewers; KeSPA's done good and bad, but seems too rigid to adapt quickly to a new esports environment. MBCGame, especially, had trouble finding sponsors, and that entire side of the Brood War equation folded, leaving an orphaned MSL and players without a team – as did the (unsurprising) closing shop of WeMade and the (surprising) disbandment of OZ.
Now we face the new season, and if last season was a final stunt, a sales pitch made to attempt to continue a high level of success, this year is all about cut-backs due to acceptance of reality. Back to five-game matches. No more Winners League. A reduced schedule. And, of course, we now only have eight teams, and one without a proper sponsor.
When I first started this review, it seemed simple enough: review last season, note potentially hot players, those falling off, any important trades, and offer some predictions. Even the team cut-backs didn't do much but make that job harder.
Then the format came out.
To quote MGoBlog, "Chart? Chart."
To make this perfectly clear, the last three years of Proleague have been dominated by Flash, Jaedong, and Bisu. Apart from 2008-2009, when Leta was at least within shouting distance, no one else has challenged that trio for the "most wins" crown. The "most games" category, while similarly unique to the big three, was more similar: most aces play about the same number of games, some are just better than others.
Also, the chart above needs some qualification. Half the "possible games" last year came from Winners League, one third of the season. The years before that, a third of "possible games" came from Winners League, which was only one fifth of the season.
Even accounting for that, though, it is crucial to note that even top aces don't play all the games they theoretically could. Proleague format was 44 matches per team in 2008-2010 seasons, and 36 per team last years. Out of a potential 88 (or 72) games, most ace players never hit more than 40 games or so, and only the top of the top reached 50-60. This was most true in 2008-2009, with preset lineups, but continued in the following seasons: between 3-0 and 0-3 results not involving an ace player, occasional wild decisions to send not-Jaedong for ace, and meaningless matches with lineups like sHy-Dear-Perfectman-Killer, the aces didn't play anything like all the games they "could" have. (Yes, OZ was the primary transgressor of common sense, and Jaedong still played more games than anybody.) I would estimate that a team's ace would play a second game in the ace match maybe a quarter of the time (even assuming there was only one ace on a team), and miss 1 or 2 matches a round.
Ace matches as such are gone, now; I expect players to continue to not play for a match or two each round, more depending on the team. So I think we're looking at 30-35 games this year for the top players. Look for your winningest player to have just over 30 wins this year: yes, half of Bisu's record last year.
While the effect on the ace players is a fascinating exercise in prognostication, the real question remains what we can expect from the teams. I can say, right now and with perfect confidence, that CJ Entus and KeSPA Eight will make the playoffs. But the other two spots are thrown into confusion. SK Telecom T1 always makes a strong case, but Woongjin and Samsung have worked for a couple years now with deeper teams, even if they don't have the S-class ace. That should benefit them in the new format. I will say now that STX and ACE look like the worst teams, but I could regret that prediction at the end of the year. I don't think it's outrageous to say that KT Rolster is most hurt by the changes, but Flash is still Flash, and they've put some pieces together as well.
Here's a fun fact: if you have three players who win 60% of their games, and you play them 1-2-3 every match, you should 3-0 about 22% of your matches. If you have a Flash or Bisu who can manage 70%, it's more like 25%. This is basically how SKT has tried (and mostly succeeded) in winning over the past few years: play Bisu, fantasy, and BeSt a lot – win a quarter of your games right there. Then play the hot hand to mop up if necessary; if there are still problems, send one of FBB out for ace. The complication, of course, is that this year there's no "ace match": just a fifth set.
All rosters current A-team from this thread.
Air Force ACE
Protoss: Kal, M18M, Rock
Terran: Canata, firebathero, Iris, PianO.
Zerg: Chavi, great, Orion, Peace
Projected Finish: 7th
ACE is basically KHAN's second-stringers right now: great, firebathero, once-a-promising-rookie M18M, and the terrible Chavi. Then there's last year's hero ggaemo, veterans Kal, Iris, Much, Orion, and Rock (that's in order of descending skill) – and one-time potential saviors Piano (for Woongjin's Terrans) and Peace (for MBCGame's Zergs).
I don't predict great things for them this year. ACE's players are a bunch of guys who could beat anyone but usually don't. Best of seven was great for them because they could take their lumps from the A-class and steal wins beating up rookies. Best of five will make that harder, because they'll face a higher concentration of better players. But in a twist of fate, no-ace helps ACE: they don't have anybody at the top of the A-class, but there are few deeper teams right now simply because the flyboy team accumulates veterans.
Protoss: Horang2, Movie, Nbs, Snow
Terran: BByong, Rush, sKyHigh
Zerg: EffOrt, herO[jOin], Hydra, Where
Projected Finish: 1st
CJ was scary-deep last year. Now they have EffOrt back. With EffOrt, Hydra, Movie, Snow, and Leta, they can field five players who are all starleague contenders; then they add Horang2 and sKyHigh. There won't be enough games to go around for this team. Even the backups are decent: Food5, BByong, Rush, and Where impressed in limited action last year. herO[join] and Nbs are more or less competent as well.
On the other hand, they have Songduri, who may have played the single worst game of the season last year. That... probably won't make a difference. If CJ doesn't finish first, it will be an upset in its own right.
Crazy Eighth [KeSPA-managed 8th team, basically OZ + MBCGame]
Protoss: Tyson, Neo.G_Sang
Terran: BaBy, Sea, Speed
Zerg: Ever)Z(Killer, Jaedong, Ryul2
Projected Finish: 3rd
Your Mission: You may have one of Jaedong, Flash, and Bisu. You must have three bad players or rookies. Construct a team which can win proleague.
The Result: this team. Sure, I would probably have picked Flash or Bisu. But when I can make a good argument that any of Sea, Killer, or BaBy are a number 2? These are all ace-caliber players. Even the Protoss line isn't bad.
If we still had ace matches, I'd pick them to finish #1, maybe #2. But we don't, so I can't; I feel like there are a few too many not-quite-clutch players on the team. (That said, they win at least one of the playoffs. How could they not?)
Protoss: Anyppi, Stats, Wooki
Terran: BarrackS, Flash, Mind, Suny
Zerg: Action, Crazy-Hydra, HoeJJa, Perfective
Projected Finish: 5th
KT is an interesting team this year. Flash is coming back from successful surgery. Violet may or may not return. KT's number two, Stats, in good but prone to dumb mistakes at unfortunate times. The roster, like always especially the Zerg line, is stuffed with good but unreliable players: Action, Mind, Crazy-Hydra. I think the key to KT's season will be the play of three newer names: Wooki, BarrackS, and Perfective. If they can improve enough to take starting spots or even put enough pressure on the current A-team, KT should outperform my prediction. Otherwise, I feel like even with all the talent, KT will suffer from not being able to play Flash twice.
Protoss: Brave, Grape, JangBi
Terran: Reality, Sharp, TurN
Zerg: Juni, oDin, RorO, Shine
Projected Finish: 4th
KHAN is one of the giants, but the last few years they've been a bit disappointing. Still – possibly motivated by great's departure – they've finally addressed their biggest weakness: Zerg. Importing the disbanded WeMade's team "not on MY anti-team" duo of Shine and RorO, KHAN is probably the second most complete team in Proleague after CJ, assuming Reality and TurN live up to last year.
SK Telecom T1
Protoss: BeSt, Bisu, By.Sun, Paralyze
Terran: Fantasy, Ssak, yeOngJae
Zerg: Alone, Hyuk n.Die_soO, Sacsri
Projected Finish: 2nd
On the one hand, T1 has a Protoss lineup that could probably go 5-0, with a little luck, against most teams. On the other hand, they basically don't have a Terran lineup beyond fantasy, who is streaky. On the other other hand, their Zergs are better than we give them credit for, and include T1's only real pickup, Sacsri (mostly notable in my mind for being a surprise player in the last GOM tournament). On the other other other hand, this is really still just Bisu's team. On the other other other other hand (I got an octopus to help me), they've been to the last three Proleague finals, winning in 2009, and won the Winners League last year. I think CJ's roster puts them past everybody else, but otherwise I'd simply assume T1 takes the first spot again. Second will have to do.
Protoss: Dear, mini, Trap
Terran: Bogus, Classic, Last
Zerg: Calm, hero, hyvaa, Modesty
Projected Finish: 8th
STX collects B-teamers and castoffs like its their job. Apart from Bogus, Clam, and maybe Shuttle, nobody on this team belongs in a proleague lineup. Sure, hyvaa and Modesty have fluked their way into OSL appearances, but does anybody think they're actually good?
Bogus is this team's ace. Against Kal, ggaemo, or firebathero, he loses 6 of 10 at best. Thus I predict STX finishes Last. It's ridiculous, but STX just doesn't look good this year. STX fans, hope that it's all just a Trap for the rest of the league.
Protoss: BisAnG, Flying, free[gm], GuemChi, sHy
Terran: hOn_sin, Rudy
Zerg: fOKINS, Neo.G_Soulkey, Woon, ZerO
Predicted Finish: 6th
I feel like I'm being pessimistic here. ZerO, Soulkey, and Light are good enough to keep Woongjin in contention all year. But when you look closely, I might almost be being optimistic. Stars loaded up on Protoss in the offseason, but it seems more like desperation than a plan: Flying, GuemChi, and sHy have all impressed at different times, but none have been consistent at all. I still think the key will probably be free's play.
If there's one thing Woongjin should have done to stay in contention this year, it was get another Terran. There's a whole list that might have been available if management had been proactive: Midas, Ruby, HiyA are the headliners. Even one of them would make a difference. Midas retired now, and HiyA's said he's not going to be playing, but I look at this as a failure on Woongjin's part.
Anyway, it will work out however it works out. Woongjin fighting!
EDIT 2011/11/24: Jaehoon -> captain, fixed Killer's TLPD (Whoo somebody fixed TLPD too.), noted Light/Much possible changes, added TLPD for free & hOpe