It's safe to say, nobody saw the results of October coming. Battered and listless at MLG Columbus, the foreign cause in Starcraft 2 looked dead after less than a year. It was over, the Koreans were that much better, again. Despite a reset of the skill gap from Broodwar, despite the best Korean Broodwar players not yet having transferred, despite having foreign players in the GSL, the foreign scene seemed hopelessly out-thought and overmatched for a second time. After Columbus came utter disaster after utter disaster. NASL, Anaheim, Cologne, Raleigh, Valencia.
What had gone so badly wrong? Everyone had a theory, but there was a general consensus on the main reasons. The infrastructure imported from Broodwar; of teamhouses, coaches, long practice hours, and single-minded study of the game, had inevitably defeated the patchwork foreign model. A foreigner practicing four hours a day couldn't compete against a Korean playing eight. A foreigner practicing alone after school couldn't compete against a Korean playing all day with no concerns. A foreigner practicing on the North American server couldn't compete against a Korean playing on the Korean server. These were structural and physical handicaps that had taken a toll so quickly that it was unclear whether the foreign scene could create it's own comparable infrastructure in time to mitigate the damage. Still, many teams and players took initiative and tried. Multiple team houses were created this summer, and several teams and players made heavy investments in moving to Korea for a period of time to train. Yet throughout the summer, the bad results continued. A lone victory by HuK at Dreamhack seemed to be more a result of Korean strength than a rebuttal against it.
Then October happened.
You know the facts: in the span of a single month, three different foreigners won four marquee Korean-filled tournaments. IdrA defeated two Koreans to win IEM Guangzhou. Stephano beat four Koreans in a row to win IPL3. HuK and IdrA beat a combined seven top-tier Koreans at MLG Orlando, with HuK coming out victorious. Then, to finish off the schedule, Stephano and MaNa cleaned up the Koreans at ESWC to meet in the finals, with Stephano winning his second championship. At IEM New York, an eventual Korean victory occurred only after Attero defeated Killer and Gatored defeated DongRaeGu and TOP in series play. It's a stunning turn of events, one that must fundamentally change the way we view the foreigner-Korean dynamic, and one that poses many questions which need to be answered. If foreigners can in fact compete with Koreans, then we need to have a good idea of how, so that we can continue to do so.
In looking at the events of October, one thing seemed to be clear; we've been approaching this problem with the wrong perspective. Far and away the most common explanation for why Koreans have outperformed foreigners has been that they have an edge in practice. They put in more time, more effectively, against better opponents. Yet that theory simply cannot hold water anymore. October saw three different players with three completely different practice routines on three different servers each have the same degree of success. Stephano practices less than almost any other player of his caliber. IdrA practices against worse opponents than almost any other top professional. HuK, who has often been seen as a pure product of the Korean training machine, nonetheless spends a significant part of his time traveling, away from any routine whatsoever. Individually, each of these players convincingly destroys a crucial tenent of the 'practice harder' theory. As much as it may make sense on the surface, as much as it may have been true in Broodwar, and as much as we might wish it to be true, the evidence is clear—the argument that foreign players must play for more time and in more Korean-like settings to beat the Koreans is a myth.
I don't expect anyone to take this argument at face value yet. But if we allow it for a moment, it's obvious that we have no other good explanation for what accounts for foreigner success. If we accept that a player with Korean training does not inherently defeat a player without it, than why were HuK, IdrA, and Stephano able to conquer the Koreans?
In attempting to find a better explanation for how to win in Starcraft 2, I interviewed all three at some length about their wins, their practice methods, and their perspective on the Korean-foreigner divide. The conclusions expressed in this article were not preconceived, and instead came directly out of conversations with the players. These discussions made it clear to me that in the current state of Starcraft 2, there is not one way to reach the top. Instead, there are a multitude of methods, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Each of the three players has a section in this article that deals with their training, their success, and above all, their mentality—researched by asking the players themselves. Taken together, and with an eye on MLG Providence, I hope that the evidence presented in this article can give the community a more comprehensive understanding—at least for the present—of what it takes to win in Starcraft 2.
The Korean Model
The most successful foreigner in Starcraft 2 to date, HuK is the poster child for the Korean method of training. Renowned for a lack of strategic depth but a strong passion for the game prior to moving to Korea, HuK took to the oGs-TL house and the KR server like a fish to water. Despite not breaking through for the initial qualifier seasons of GSL, he continued to put in more practice hours than almost anyone on the team, refining his mechanics, and executing the pioneering strategies that came out of the oGs protoss line-up. Famously overconfident at Assembly Winter, when he made his 'top three control' statement, HuK was soon able to back up his somewhat cocky statements with results by advancing to Code S and staying there. However despite his success in Korea, it was his victory at Dreamhack Summer, where he easily dispatched July and narrowly defeated Moon twice, that was his coming out party. It was the first time since Dreamhack Winter where a representative from the foreign scene had beaten the Korean invites to win a major LAN event.
Whenever HuK wins, a controversy about the semantics of 'foreigner' and 'Korean' erupts. But while it may be true that HuK's current level of play has a lot to do with his training method of the last year, this semantic argument doesn't seem significant anymore. If the Korean model of training is only one of several possible ways to reach the top level as a player, the distinction between 'foreigners' and 'Koreans' no longer needs to be one of inferior and superior training methods. Instead, what's much more important post-October is the individual.
HuK is a perfect example of this. His strong work ethic going into Korea led to him putting in long hours improving his mechanics on ladder. His exposure to Korean strategies and skill informed his own. There is no doubt that HuK is among the best foreigners in the world because of they way in which he trains. But a close look at his practice shows that none of the ways in which HuK's playstyle has benefited most tangibly from Korea are a direct result of the team-house model. His primary practice routine has been mass gaming on the Korean ladder for the entirety of his stay in the oGs house. He plays relatively few custom games against his teammates or the AI, and does not get extensive help and attention from his fellow players or Coach TheWind. The results of this practice seem somewhat reflected in his play. HuK is famous for mechanics and immunity to cheese, not carefully honed strategies or superlative decision making. What's important to realize however, is that staying in a team-house or breathing the same air as MC are not factors that on their own made HuK such a strong player. Nowhere will I argue that these benefits of the Korean model would not improve HuK's play, or that they aren't positive things for many players. But in the specific case of HuK; given delay-free access to the Korean server, HuK might've been able to improve his play to the same degree in your basement.
That is not to say that there are no secondary benefits to the Korean team-house model that HuK benefits from. In fact, it's precisely this model that allows a practice schedule like HuK's, simply in less obvious ways. One of the primary benefits to the Korean team-house is that it excuses players from having to perform everyday tasks like cooking or cleaning, allowing them to spend more time practicing. The most consistent contribution that being in a team house makes to a player's starcraft ability is merely removing some of the mundane obstacles that would otherwise get in a player's way.
There's one other thing to consider. The least obvious, major benefit that HuK has gained from his stay at the oGs house is a Korean mindset. HuK was always a confident player, but even in his first months in the oGs house he was intimidated by the Korean players. Over time, with success and familiarity, this changed dramatically. Exactly what this meant, and what a Korean mindset actually means is quite hard to accurately describe, but it must be something like believing your unit control is one of the three best in the world. It also must mean a lack of nerves on TV, large stages, or in high pressure tournament situations. And most specifically, it certainly means a strong belief that you are better than almost everyone else, and just as good as the remainder. This comes from playing in the GSL, living with top Korean pro-gamers, and from practicing on the Korean ladder. Overall, it may be the most important thing he has learned.
The Foreign Teamhouse Model
IdrA was supposed to be the most successful foreigner. After having achieved the highest level of foreigner skill in Broodwar, he transitioned to Starcraft 2 and immediately saw his background pay off. But after achieving middle-tier results in a succession of GSL's, he moved back to the United States with the prospect of winning a lot of free money in the foreign scene. There was every reason to believe it would be a smart move; at the time, the foreign scene was booming, the Korean scene was — and still is — stagnating, and IdrA was the best player outside of Korea. But instead, the move largely backfired. An ever growing list of bizarre losses contributed to a sense of disappointment, and bolstered the idea that there was something special about Korean training. With the aim of getting IdrA and all of Evil Geniuses back in shape, the team management set up the west's largest pro-house in Arizona.
There are a number of obvious distinctions to be made about this approach and how it differs from the Korean model. The first is that the team house has the best access to the North American server, by far the weakest of the three major servers, with a skill level at the top that might be something like low masters league in Korea. If players attempt to practice on the Korea server they must deal with significant delay, which must surely mitigate the results of this training. The second point to be made is that the EG pro-house has no coach, and only has a handful of players in it; still far below the density of most Korean training-houses. Coaching and a high density of players are two instrumental factors that allow for the rapid sharing and honing of new strategies among the Korean players. For some time, these distinctions seemed to have been fatal, and the move yielded little tangible results. However, in October, IdrA's breakthrough at IEM Guangzhou and his excellent MLG Orlando reversed the consensus and validated the team house decision. It, like many things, had taken time to have an effect, but the principle of adopting a Korean training house in the west appeared to have finally borne fruit.
In fact, the conventional wisdom about the EG training house has probably been wrong since the beginning. What October has actually shown is that the team house might never have been necessary to improve performance in the first place, and that it was unfair to expect rapidly improving results from it. A closer look at IdrA's turnaround does not challenge this conclusion; his superb recent results do not have a great deal to do with a changed practice environment.
Instead, they have much more to do with an improved mentality. As his mechanics and strategies are relatively unchanged, what has given IdrA recent success is a different way of looking his games and his play.This is not news, IdrA has said this in interviews, and it has been echoed repeatedly by the EG faithful. But it is symptomatic of the cognitive dissonance on these issues that the significance of this has not been really examined. IdrA's previous issues are well known; he left games too early, he allowed feelings about game balance dictate his playstyle, he held on to pre-conceptions and grudges, and he developed mental blocks around certain players. All of these traits resulted in a uniquely self-destructive mentality. But while no player ever developed the same ability to die on his own sword quite like IdrA, it's easy to see many of these mental issues repeated among other foreign players, and even easier to see them come out in foreigner vs Korean matches. In the aftermath of MLG Columbus, most foreign players adopted the idea that Koreans were hopelessly better than they were. This was repeated countless times in interviews and in private. Once you hit a Korean, your tournament was all but over.
IdrA's recent success is the result of frank discussions he had with members of his team, and the beginning of a book club of sorts. While players like DeMusiliM seem to have benefited greatly from the EG teamhouse, It might later be said that the biggest benefit of the EG teamhouse to date was the ease with which the team was able to share Mind Gym, a book about positive thinking, dealing with stress, and learning from failure. After reading this book, IdrA won IEM Guangzhou, and EG's CS team won ESEA #9. For IdrA, the skill to challenge the Koreans was there all along, something IdrA fans rightly insisted despite the mounting disappointments. What needed to change was the mentality.
The parallel between IdrA and HuK's transformations is obvious. When IdrA left Korea, he lost the perceived edge he had held. When HuK went to Korea, he gained exactly what IdrA had lost. When you watch the famous hallucinated void ray game between the two, the point is made completely clear. HuK's audacity, his refusal to admit to being the inferior player for a single game, even when it was obvious, overpowered IdrA's shaky confidence in his lead. This was a Korean mindset defeating a foreigner mindset.
The Lone Ranger Model
Ever since he started to demonstrate his prodigious ability, Stephano has been the biggest mystery in the scene. Extremely little was known about his practice habits, but the general knowledge was that they were not much. From his first major international appearance in the third TSL qualifier, to his remarkable qualification for IPL3, Stephano's supporters and detractors grew in equal measure. To those who watched his play on a regular basis, his position as one of the foreign scene, and perhaps the world's best players was undeniable. To those who looked at his hype and looked at his practice hours, something didn't add up. How could someone who put in four hours a day—and this is how long he practices, by the way—play on the level of those who practiced eight?
At IPL3, Stephano made it official. His insane ability was simply impossible to dispute. But has already been mentioned, Stephano's success stood in direct opposition to the theory of 'more practice, better practice'. It was clear after IPL3, and his subsequent ESWC triumph that either we'd been looking at the foreigner-Korean relationship wrong, or Stephano was one hell of a fluke.
Discussing Stephano gives a good opportunity to present a better picture of how he actually practices. Despite its relatively short duration, Stephano's practice time is quite structured and well thought-out. Starting at a regular time every night, he splits his time between dedicated training, and streaming the European ladder. He rarely plays beyond his usual hours, but rarely plays less as well. In the regularity of his schedule, Stephano gains a consistency that is rare even in Korean pro-houses, where more is often viewed as better. Moreover, his training mindset is strongly focused on his own play, and mostly filters out the irregularities of his opponent's play. That's not to say that he doesn't make adjustments based on his opponent's strategy, but it means that he rarely finds excuses in his opponent's play for his own mistakes. When you have the training mindset that Stephano does, you are constantly working towards playing perfectly yourself, and only as a result, playing better than your opponent.
This mentality allows Stephano to effectively train, despite being in what was theoretically less than optimal conditions. But it also is a massive part of his offline success. More than IdrA, HuK, or probably any other foreigner, Stephano's success can be attributed to an iron mentality. His focus onstage; blocking out the crowd, the casters, and especially the opponent's identity while just focusing on the actual gameplay, is as integral to Stephano's success as having wheels is to a car. You cannot separate one from the other. Stephano's emphasis on mental strength is almost unparalleled, in his opinion, on par with his emphasis on his actual ability. This is perhaps reflected, and helped by his well-kept training schedule. It is an example of the disciple of his approach to Starcraft 2, and at the same time constantly reinforces it.
The house built by examining HuK and IdrA's success is lived in by Stephano. No one so thoroughly exemplifies the 'mind over matter' way of looking at Starcraft 2 than he does. It would be wrong to omit what are clearly excellent mechanics, and a good strategic mind as reasons why Stephano has succeeded. But if you put only these two together, you will wind up with a player like pre-IEM IdrA, or pre-GSL HuK; good, but not elite. It's only that crucial missing element, mentality that distinguishes Stephano.
"The way I play is to create a pattern where I have an advantage, and then crush my opponents with momentum. That way my opponent can’t play with 100% of his skill. That’s why I think mind-games are more important than skill."
"The way I play is to create a pattern where I have an advantage, and then crush my opponents with momentum. That way my opponent can’t play with 100% of his skill. That’s why I think mind-games are more important than skill."
This article isn't just about the foreigner success in October, it's born directly out of it. Without these wins, the myth of a superior 'Korean training method' remains unchallenged. Without these wins, there is no evidence that you can achieve Starcraft 2 greatness outside of Korea, that you can achieve Starcraft 2 greatness outside of a teamhouse, there's no evidence that you can achieve Starcraft 2 greatness practicing only a few hours a day. But put together, the foreigner revolution in October is pointing out that the emperor has no clothes—or is scantily dressed, at least.
Throughout this article I've steadfastly denied that there exists any such thing as 'superior Korean training'. That does not mean that Korean training is not good or effective, or that it doesn't produce more high level players than any other model. That doesn't mean that the Korean ladder isn't the best ladder. That doesn't mean that the Korean scene doesn't have an insane amount of depth. But at the top, Korean training is not currently a barrier to entry.
The second major plank of this article is an attempt to establish that what does exist is a superior Korean mindset. It seems self-evident that these two are linked; if you spend more time playing Starcraft 2, than you will be more confident about your abilities. But at this point in the game's history, it seems abundantly clear that these two things do not need to be tied together. Skill is important, but once you reach the top, the returns diminish. What is left, unworked upon so far, is mentality. For any player among the foreign scene's upper echelon—from Gatored to HuK—if your mindset can be strong after only four hours of training, or after a day of noob-bashing, or after several weeks of travel, than you have as good a chance at victory as any Korean. Perhaps you can't engineer victory through a strong mentality, but you can avoid defeating yourself, and that might be all it takes.
Might the future look different? We might have good reason to desperately wish it will. At the heart of 'balance' in starcraft is a belief that the better, harder working, smarter player will always win. In challenging the idea that practice is what matters most of all in Starcraft 2, we open up the argument that Starcraft 2 is simply not as balanced a game as we wish to believe. That players who have put in less time, in less rigorous conditions can win is a threat to the basic premise of Starcraft 2 competition. This argument seems like too dramatic an overall conclusion after just a month of foreigner success. But it might be that we all have a stake in rooting for Koreans in the future, if only because it'll mean that practice is slowly starting to make perfect.
But in the near future, as we look towards this weekend's titanic showdown at MLG Providence, it seems clear that foreigners do have a chance. Fourteen of the thirty two Code S players will be in attendance, and it is extremely likely that one of them will win. But that is in a large part because there are fourteen of them, and not necessarily because they're in Code S. Some of the Korean non-Code S players, like PuMa, HerO or Keen could also take home the trophy. But that's because they're not intimidated by other Koreans, not because they're Korean. IdrA and NaNiwa are just four series victories away from winning, they are much more likely to win by virtue of that alone. Ret is five away. SeleCT is six. Both have defeated high-level Koreans recently. Both can win MLG Providence.
This is the glory of the post-October universe. The Koreans might win, but they don't have to. We're back to what counts. Three games, two players, one winner.
Many thanks to HuK, IdrA, and Stephano for giving up their time to talk with me for this article. Thanks to Meko and Fishuu for the images. Thanks to Waxangel for.... support(?) Thanks to motbob for criticism and edits. Good luck and have fun at MLG everyone. Foreigners fighting!