The twenty-four best players from the five previous Global Challenges and HomeStory Cup 4 according to the IEM rankings have been invited, where they face off for the final championship of the season. The group stage is made up of four groups of six players, with the top three players of each group advancing to a single elimination tournament. The first place player from each group receives a first round bye and is placed directly in the quarter-finals, while the second and third place players begin in the round of sixteen (brackets).
Opening up the tournament, Group A threatens to set the tone for the rest of the World Championships, as the three Korean players leading off look like they could win it all, while the three foreigners, though adept, aren't the exactly a foreigner all-star team. It could be considered an upset if even one foreigner managed to break into the top three of the group, and it will be interesting to see if they can make it happen.
The Ridiculous Favorite: The obvious favorite is MMA, who is the most plausible answer for the question; "Who is the best Korean Terran?" A respectable (although far from overwhelming) top eight finish in the opening GSL of the year has preserved that reputation for the moment. In his past three foreign tournaments, MMA has placed 1st, 2nd, and 1st, the latter at IEM Kiev which is why he's here. MMA's traditional weakness is Protoss, but he's buoyed by the weakness of JYP in this match-up (although JYP's PvT woes have usually been overstated) and should probably be fine against Socke as well. KiLLeR has always looked good in ZvT, and Strelok has been solid in TvT. Perhaps they could take a game or two. Of course, those cheering for the underdogs can always hope jet lag or travel fatigue will play some factor. But that's mostly grasping at straws; MMA has looked as good on foreign turf as he has on Korean, and that means he's a huge favorite to top the group and win the first round bye.
Dark Horse: Why not viOlet after all? The Korean transplant to Texas ought to be known as the Longhorn in the Room, because his amazing ascent upon moving from the Korea to North America defies a lot of the conventional wisdom that's floating around about why players are able to get good. While in Korea, viOlet made a single Code S, got rolled, and then bounced emphatically from Code A by Liquid`HerO. Yet now, he's battling HerO neck and neck in IPL Fight Club, and bashing Code S player oGs.SuperNoVa at IEM São Paulo. Go figure. I keep expecting the fairytale to end somehow, but frankly, viOlet looks really good. If anyone is up to the task of upsetting MMA, it's probably viOlet.
Player to Watch: If you pay a ton of attention to anyone in this group, make it Socke. The German has been training (along with others) at TaKe's apartment for a while. In that period, we've heard little out of the man who has always been Germany's stalwart performer. At Hanover, Socke's recent hermitage will be put to the test against some very good players. But that shouldn't intimidate the seasoned performer, and of the foreigners in the group, his is likely the best chance to break the Korean monopoly.
Of the four groups at the IEM World Championships, three are perfectly balanced, with two of each race. Group B is the sorry exception. With only Nerchio representing Zerg, and zero Terran players left due to Sound's abrupt cancellation, there are a whopping five Protoss players in this group. We know that at least one player will be leaping for joy.
The Favorite: We're going to be doing this a lot, I figure. The Korean is the favorite, yada yada yada. MC doesn't need a lot of introduction, but this will be his first live tournament abroad, complete with audience, completely under the banner of SK. How will that change things? Probably not at all. MC will still do abusive early attacks, pick really good positioning, and generally beat everyone. It's weird, nobody seems to have a good idea who the best Protoss in the world is, which might mean it's still MC. At any rate, even with PvP being unpredictable, it's still unlikely that MC won't getting out of this group in first.
Dark Horse: For a player of his calibre, Nerchio gets oddly little attention. We believe he was a top five Zerg in the world at one point, but he just didn't have the one major event that most players need to catapult themselves to fame. His win at the Battle In Berlin came the closest, but it was still limited by being an eight man invite from a newly started organization. IEM provides yet another opportunity for the young Pole. He has the advantage of only having to play a single match-up, and is a favorite against everyone but MC. Extremely likely to advance out of the group, he has a solid shot at first, and will be a strong threat to whomever he faces in the bracket stage.
Player to Watch: Elfi is just plain weird. Another player whose success is somewhat inexplicable, Elfi's low apm, Maru-fueled play continued to claim supposedly better players at Assembly. The master of four-gate mind games showed some even more tricky tactics at Assembly, using a four-gate blink rush to defeat dignitas.BlinG after promising a four-gate rush. Elfi could screw up everyone's ideas of how this group should play out with his PvP dominance, somehow winning against players with double his mechanics. My gut says that there are a few players here who will not die to elfi's bizarre style, but the collective gut of the Starcraft II scene on elfi has been wrong plenty of times. Several excellent players have already been beaten, somehow, some way. I wouldn't expect elfi to reprise his IEM Guangzhou run to the finals, and his non-groupstage performances have often been a little anemic, but in the early rounds, elfi causes havoc.
Group C is a ridiculously competitive group, with all six players being extremely evenly matched. PuMa's long record of international success makes him the favorite on paper, but only by a slim margin. DIMAGA and SeleCT are some of the best international players in the world, both having championship experience. Even the players with the least accomplishments in international tournaments – Killer and Zenio – are Code S class Koreans, which means everyone should be afraid. Last but not least, MaNa is Europe's very own Kong – a strong player who has no problem making it as far as second place.
No result would be surprising, not even Puma missing the cut, DIMAGA topping the group at 5 – 0, or seeing both East Europeans go through while three Koreans go out.
The Favorite: Out of pure respect, we have to give this to PuMa, who is arguably the most successful player in the history of international SC II tournaments. Championships at NASL S1, S2, and IEM Cologne, second at DreamHack Winter, third at IEM Cologne and Assembly Winter, top eight at MLG Raleigh and Orlando out of the open brackets... We've talked a lot about HuK and how his schedule of death wore his body down and made him unable to play to his best, so I guess that makes PuMa some sort of international tournament playing cyborg. He knows how to get it done on the road, and that's his edge in this hotly contested group.
Dark Horse: It's hard to pick an underdog in this group, because after Puma, there's barely anything separating the other five players. Anyone could have hot day and come out on top of this group.
Player to Watch: Zenio was disappointing at his first IEM appearance at Kiev, where he finished fourth after losing some very winnable games against Ukrainian TvZ boss Kas. He seemed determined to prove that his performance at Kiev was nowhere near his normal level of play, and completely destroyed the formidable Korean Terran MvPsC in his very next GSL game, qualifying for Code S in the process.
Though he's an inconsistent player, Zenio playing at his best would be the strongest player in the group. It's worth keeping an eye out to see if the good or bad Zenio shows up.
Foreigner Upset Watch: There was a brief period in the summer off 2011 where you could argue that MaNa was the best PvT player in the world. MC was going through his slump, leaving the race with no singular star. 1/1/1 was spreading like the plague, decimating Protoss populations everywhere. During those dark days, MaNa emerged from nowhere to provide a single, hopeful ray of light, going on a ridiculous 32 – 5 run in the match-up, which included a 2 – 0 victory over 1/1/1 master Puma.
Obviously, MaNa hasn't been able to keep up that win-rate since then, and other Protoss players have come along to fill the MC void (also, MC crawled out his grave). However, MaNa is still one of the best PvT players in the world, and is the only Protoss player in the world who has a winning record against PuMa (5 – 2 record. Only players with three or more games played counted). Damn right, a foreigner is actually the favorite.
A Different Kind of Winner: It's true – Killer has neither an impressive tournament resume to his name, or any noteworthy recent victories. However, in a totally different sense, Killer has some serious game.
Well, it's not hard to tell why people will be tuning into this group. IdrA has been on a losing streak, and it's been typically blown out of proportion by his typically atrocious PR, with the lack of GG's being somehow connected to this string of losses. Haters will look to shovel yet more dirt onto his still-warm body, while fanboys will hope for turn-around against some thankfully non-Korean competition.
Alright, now that's out of the way...
The Favorite: We got burned HARD for hyping up SuperNoVa before IEM Sao Paulo, but we've refused to learn our lesson. There are reports that the food didn't quite agree with the oGs ace's delicate Korean stomach, and well... let's say he might have been playing with a sense of 'urgency' that was detrimental to his game.
SuperNoVa is still the strongest in this field, despite his string of poor recent results. He'll be better prepared for an international tournament this time around, and should put on a much better performance.
Dark Horse: Feast still seems to be finding his way after breaking out in the winter of 2011 as a pretty good Protoss player in the international scene. He's yet to achieve results that are remarkable, but the way he went from being almost totally unknown, to being someone who made top eight at two consecutive IEM events was very impressive. It's probably too soon for him to make a deep tournament run – especially at this one, where the later rounds will be packed with fearsome Koreans – but making it out of the group stage is a very realistic goal for this up and comer.
Player to watch not named Greg Fields: In a world where everything is becoming more standardized, with more precise build orders, timing attacks measured down the second, and a well-defined meta-game to rule it all, one man stands alone, defiantly practicing his philosophy of "do weird s***."
ReaL has been given the short end of the tournament draw several times in recent competition, being pitted against players such as viOLet, Sound, SuperNoVa, and Stephano. Each time, his bag of unorthodox tricks proved to be effective, allowing him to play a much closer series than anyone would have expected. From random DT timings, to completely do-or-die fast third bases, he's been a master at catching his opponents off guard.
Unfortunately, he didn't actually win any of those series, as good ol' standard play won out in the end. But ReaL showed that he is a tremendously entertaining player, one worth watching even in defeat.
Foreigner Upset Watch: SuperNova showed some real weaknesses in late game TvZ at IEM Sao Paulo, unable to deal with well baby-sat brood lords or ultralisks in a cost efficient manner. d.Killer, RoX.KIS.Slivko, and DarkForce all came close to defeating SuperNova, based on this late game weakness. DarkForce will have one more chance to achieve the upset, and it will be interesting to see if SuperNova has changed up his game at all since Sao Paulo. Also, though IdrA is more well-known for his fearsome lair stage play in TvZ, he may upset SuperNova nonetheless.