Grand Finals: KT_Zest vs SKT_soO
by stuchiu and Waxangel
For over a decade, telecom giants KT Rolster and SK Telecom T1 have been embroiled in a legendary rivalry. Their struggle for power seemed to reach a turning point in 2014, with the groundwork laid out for an extended era of SKT dominance. Seven of their players qualified for Code S, the most of any team. Of those seven, three were champions in StarCraft 2: Rain, PartinG, and new acquisition Soulkey. iloveoov, famed for his achievements as a player and coach, had been promoted to the head coach position to lead them forward in Proleague.
On the other hand, KT Rolster looked like a team refusing to adapt to the times. Surrounding Flash with a group of unassuming support players was a strategy that only worked when Flash was unquestionably the #1 player in StarCraft. In a world where Flash had suffered embarrassing relegation to Code B, KT Rolster seemed woefully underequipped to challenge the SKT juggernaut. Even the acquisition of TY, an undoubtedly talented player, seemed like the bare minimum they could do to stay afloat.
Three months into 2014, we're at a turning point – but not the one anyone expected. KT Rolster is on the verge of humiliating SK Telecom T1 to a degree that we've never seen before. They denied SKT the Proleague Round 1 championship, all-killing them 4-0 in the finals. They've won all three of their Proleague meetings, taking them by a landslide 10-1 map score.
One player has been at the center of it all. For years a supporting player on KT's line-up, Zest has come out of nowhere to become a monstrous player with a 46-19 record in 2014. Though he has been demolishing all sorts of opposition, he has been especially cruel to SKT. It was Zest who all-killed SKT in Proleague, and it was Zest who eliminated Soulkey and Rain from the GSL. With a 12-3 record against SKT, he has become the bane of their existence.
Not all hope is lost for SKT. They have a chance to recover some their wounded pride and begin a comeback: the GSL finals. However, Zest stands in their once more. He is now one series away from lifting the GSL trophy while sentencing SKT to a new level of shame. SKT's most famous and accomplished champions have been unable to stop Zest. Now, there is only one player who can bring SKT salvation. soO.
SKT’s last Hope, the SKT Zerg
Yes, soO. Not Rain, the player who has won the most glory for SKT in StarCraft 2. Not PartinG, the charismatic Protoss who has the most StarCraft 2 experience of all SKT players. Not Soulkey, the paragon of consistency and the best Zerg of 2013. It's soO, SKT's homegrown Zerg who has received as much mockery as adoration during his time on SKT. He is the one who bears the last hopes of the SKT Empire.
It's soO, the most underrated player in the world. In Brood War alone, he made multiple Ro16 appearances in individual leagues, finished in the top four of an OSL, and carried SKT for stretches in Proleague when the aces were ailing. In StarCraft 2, he has placed in the GSL/OSL Ro16 on multiple occasions, and has now made his second GSL grand final. Yet, he still finds it hard to get any credit.
It's soO, the top Zerg player. Flash makes one Ro16 appearance and people are calling him the future of SC2. Two consecutive GSL finals by soO and people are slowly realizing that he is one of the top Zerg players in StarCraft 2. You hear names like Life, RorO, Soulkey and Jaedong come up when top Zergs are talked about. Jaedong and RorO were eliminated in the Ro32 of their respective Premier Leagues. Soulkey lost in the Ro16. Life lost to soO in the semis. Have any of them reached two GSL finals? Have any of them reached two GSL finals in a row? (They haven't, the only other player to do so was Mvp)
It's soO, the SKT Zerg. The curse of the SKT Zergs has crossed over from Brood War to StarCraft 2. Even a tried and true champion like Soulkey is being dragged down into a mire of disappointment and mediocrity. On SKT, he has become an ordinary Proleague player instead of the super ace he was for Woongjin Stars. His incredible streak of five consecutive quarterfinal appearances in OSL/GSL has been ended as well.
We can't know how much a little piece of fan-lore like the SKT Zerg lineage matters to soO. But we like to imagine each time he gives a shoutout to coach HyuK – a compatriot from the Brood War days – a part of him remembers the painful times when they were called the dead weight of SKT, and tells himself "I can end this."
It's soO, the loser of a GSL final. The last time soO had a chance to change his career, he only ended up reaffirming the SKT Zerg legacy of disappointment. Losing 2-4 to Dear in the WCS Korea Season 3 finals, soO joined a long line of easily forgotten runner-ups.
Though the loss must have been devastating at the time, perhaps soO needed to fail first before he could succeed. soO has responded to his failure by making an unnoticed yet historic run, becoming the second player to reach back-to-back Code S finals. To reach a finals once could be chalked up to luck. But by doing it twice, soO has proved that win or lose, he is a player who deserves our respect.
Zest's Bloody Royal Road
Unfortunately for soO, this finals could be even harder than the last. While Dear was the target of doubt and scrutiny right up until the moment he lifted the championship trophy, Zest comes in as the red hot, super-hyped player of the moment. He is recording an incredible 70%+ win-rate in 2014, and his Proleague and GSL runs so far have put him in the conversation of best player in the world. He is walking the Royal Road, reaching the finals in his very first GSL tournament. Every step of the way, former champions have fallen before him. His victims have ranged from faded champions like Leenock and Dear to present day contenders like Rain and Soulkey. All Zest lacks is a championship of his own. He may soon fix that.
In some ways, Zest's story is similar to soO's. He spent several years as an unassuming supporting player next to his team's big star. Like soO, StarCraft 2 has been an opportunity for Zest to spread his wings and enjoy the most individual league success of his career. The big difference is that Zest is now commanding the spotlight while soO remains on the sidelines even as he heads into his second final.
For KT Rolster, the implications of a Zest victory go beyond inflicting unspeakable misery upon SK Telecom. For the first time in five years, KT Rolster may crown a champion other than Flash. For the first time in seven years, KT Rolster may call a player other than Flash their ace. In practice, Zest is already KT's ace player. But in name, Flash is still the icon of the team, and a player Zest defers to. But if Zest can win the Code S finals and seize the championship, the unthinkable may come to pass: Flash will pass down the KT Rolster torch.
With an incredible amount of momentum behind him, Zest seems almost destined to make history by walking the royal road and making himself Flash's successor. Yet, there is one blemish on his sterling record: a loss to Billowy in the Proleague Round 2 playoffs that began KT's 0-4 loss. A week before a match that could win him the greatest personal honor, Zest let down his team. If he is the true heir to the KT Rolster kingdom, there can be no more failure. Only complete and utter domination will be accepted.
Overall Thoughts and Prediction
ZvP has contributed greatly to soO's Code S run so far, making up 4/6 of his series wins (wins vs Panic, sOs, Trap, and PartinG). But when you go back and watch those series, it can be hard to explain how he won. Without soO doing anything particularly noticeable or flashy, wins just seem to fall into his lap. In some games, he held off all-ins effectively. In others, his opponents just gifted him wins with incomprehensible attacks (hi, PartinG). And in other games still, soO busted his opponents mid-game hydra-roach attack. The most striking games soO played were the ones where he went muta-corruptor, actively seeking to abuse his mobility and outplay the opponent.
There aren't many major patterns to pick up on with soO. He appears equally inclined to play swarm hosts, roach-hydra-viper timings, or mass mutalisk transitions. However, he has shown a very strong aversion to going all-in during the early game. soO might look to take advantage of his safe/macro reputation and pull out an aggressive build or two in the finals.
Compared to soO, Zest has shown us more flamboyant games. Three times he fell behind to Soulkey's swarm hosts, and three times he came back and won in style by expertly abusing Soulkey's lack of mobility. Though Zest's micro on multi-pronged attacks was not always the best in those games (sometimes he was just blindly dumping units), they always seemed to be buying time, stopping an expansion, or serving as a distraction. If you haven't seen the games already, we highly recommend that you do (VOD 1, VOD 2).
With that kind of late game ability, it's not surprising that Zest prefers to play macro games when he can. He even reminds us of SKT's Rain in that his default gameplan seems to be "open phoenixes into third base into find out a way to win later." Zest's mechanics aren't outstanding – it's not uncommon to see him floating resources or slipping a few units here and there – he sees the big picture extremely well and makes great decisions.
Though Zest has mixed in some all-in play to keep opponents honest, he is much less inclined to do so compared to a PartinG or a San. Like soO, Zest may look to cash in on his safe, macro oriented reputation in the finals.
It will be interesting to see if soO's experience counts for anything. He has been to the GSL finals before, one which was held on at a separate stage and not the Gom studio like this finals. Both and inside and outside of the game, soO knows how to prepare for the occasion. Zest is no stranger to performing under pressure, as evidenced by his all-kill of SKT in the Proleague Round 1 finals. But individual leagues and team leagues are not the same, and different players react differently to each stage. soO will be hoping that Zest is the type that loses his composure without his team behind him.
If Zest can keep himself from succumbing to nerves and play like he has for most of 2014, then he should have the advantage in this match. Both Zest and soO enjoy playing macro games, but Zest has look extraordinary while soO has looked merely 'very good.' soO beat players like Trap and Panic by playing swarm hosts into the late game, but he came horribly, horribly undone when he tried to play a top-class Protoss in sOs the same way. Watch these two games side by side and tell us you believe that soO can win late. soO's best hope might be to try and kill Zest before the games go long, aiming to hit mid-game timings as Zest is trying to secure his third base.
Only one player will be able step out from underneath his team's massive shadow, change its history, and claim the ultimate individual glory. May the best man win.
Zest 4 - 2 soO
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