GSL Season Three
The Man who would fight Kismet
The Gap Year
Brackets and standings on Liquipedia
The Man who would fight Kismet
The most remarkable thing about SKT.soO isn't the fact he's reached 4 consecutive GSL finals. It isn't that he accomplished this feat in a year where zergs have only won 6 out of 26 premier tournaments, some of those including lackluster events like WEC. It isn't the complete lack of hype surrounding him despite dwarfing all others in some of the hardest runs of all time. Perhaps the most astounding thing about soO is the web of folly that ensnares every attempt to legitimize his standing. From the beginning, his career has been one of constant struggle against unseen enemies: bottom of the barrel expectations, unsavory legacies, a ubiquitous stream of rivals, and his own failings.
Once upon a time, there was once a boy named soO. At the beginning of SC2 he was, not to put too fine a point on it, unremarkable. Besides winning a largely unimportant invitational, the SKT zerg was not an immediate standout. He did not excel in any particular matchup and his play was rife with mistakes. soO's most famous exploit at this point was pulling off the worst baneling bust of all time*. Responses were as expected. Rain smirked, PartinG giggled, and Fantasy cursed under his breath.
These reactions were not well-deserved but predictable. As one of our previous writers noted during soO's first finals appearance, the life of a SKT zerg is traditionally loathsome. SKT zergs are losers, quacks, bumbling fools who can't step it up when their team needs rescuing. They are scorned for failing to live up to meager expectations, pitied for their insubstantiality. Glory and acclaim are privileges reserved for worthier players. Even soO, with his semifinal run in Jin Air OSL and excellent Proleague showings, couldn't entirely wash away the stink; just as he was changing the line into something with a semblance of pride, the Brood War era ended. He went on to play WoL and once again, he was forced to switch games as he began to gather some steam. One year later, he finally reached his first SC2 finals against Dear. When asked about the chance to become SKT's first zerg champion, soO had this to say:
“...All the Zergs who went through T1 up to now have had it rough, I'll wash away their pain."
It didn't happen.
soO's accomplishment was rapidly eclipsed by Dear, who had become the talk of the town. With his following victory at WCS Season 3, the double royal roader appeared to be the next herald of the protoss nation. Yet when 2014 rolled around, Dear inexorably slipped from the peak of the mountain. Once again, soO chugged his way to the GSL finals while other luminaries like Rain, Soulkey, and INnoVation collapsed on the side of the road. Once again, soO lost to an upstart protoss with a middling BW history. This time it was to a KT player formerly called Wooki, rechristened as Zest.
Surely 2 GSL finals would garner respect. Unfortunately for soO, Zest would similarly overshadow him. The upstart proceeded to take GSL Global Championship as well, beating soO again in the semifinals. GSL Season 2 followed and the warped funhouse of soO's career started to repeat itself. Once again, the champion of last year failed to repeat his success: Zest fell to TRUE's bizarre ZvP approach in the quarterfinals. Once again, soO made it to the finals.
He met Classic. It did not go well.
1 appearance could be attributed to luck. 2 appearances was a feat only Mvp has ever done. 3 appearances were the stuff of legend, and would remembered for all time. At the time, soO won undeniable respect for those who forgave him for dropping the ball. It didn't take long for the luster to wear off. Flash dazzled everyone with his monstrous August run, bringing up talk that God was indeed real and vengeful. Many expected him to smash through the Ro16; some people dared to label him the favorite after winning IEM Toronto. soO responded by murdering Flash on his way to the quarterfinals, even winning a game where he had lost 34 drones in the opening stages of the game.
This was the season of soO, until he met Zest in the semi-finals. Zest had just come off winning Kespa Cup over the best Korea had to offer. Zest had beaten soO twice in aforementioned series, and the latter was not a ZvP savant by any means. Naturally everyone expected Zest to move on; soO’s own teammates had told soO straight that he was going to lose. And at the start it looked like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Zest pulled ahead in the series 3-1, with soO only winning with a proxy hatch on Overgrowth. Then soO adapted, catching Zest off guard with bizarre tactics. He slowly, forcefully, took map after map, keeping Zest in a perpetual loop of surprise and apprehension until he finally broke him. Conquering that one demon ensured he would attend another GSL finals.
Here he is, on the cusp of battling Innovation in his 4th consecutive GSL finals. Unsettling idea, huh? Just a short while before, soO finally captured the imagination of the public at Dreamhack Stockholm. But he didn't categorize himself as the greatest player of the modern era or the most consistent player to have ever played the game. He proved he was the antithesis of a champion. Stockholm should have been a slam dunk that would have boosted his confidence for tonight. Most sensible folk had good reason to believe soO would crush Solar in the finals; he was better in ZvZ, he was better overall, and possessed way more experience in the pressure tank that constitutes a tournament finals. Instead, they saw the equivalent of a crack addict crashing after a binge. soO looked desperate, his play was uninspired, and his demise crippling. The perpetual silver soOfer had come home to roost.
There is no doubt soO had washed away the legacy of the SKT Zerg. However, that was a very low barrier to overcome in the first place. Not being an utter mess was enough to restore the SKT name among all nations. A player of his caliber had higher aspirations. soO aimed to become Boxer, to be spoken in the same vein as iloveoov, to surpass Bisu. Instead he has become Yellow.
After watching his 4 GSL runs and his Dreamhack disaster, one can’t help but feel it’s destiny for him to lose again. Never has there been a player so consistent to being the runner up. When faced against long odds against an obstacle like Flash or Zest, he inevitably proved himself superior. He has demonstrated he can use utilized brute force, guile, and intense willpower to secure the win through any means necessary. In any given round in any given tournament soO can beat anyone...as long as it's not here.
After remaining silent during the first three finals, the cracks are finally starting to show.
July once called this stage a battle of mental superiority. According to him, a tournament final was not a contest of skill to determine the better player. It was blatant psychological warfare. The key to victory did not necessarily lie in superior strategy or planning, but knowing how to shake the opponent to their very core. Those who fail to maintain composure are incapable of taking it; those who don't waver under pressure end up with trophies. Mvp, the only other player to have gone to 4 GSL finals put it more succinctly as “Winners just naturally win.”
So the question is not if soO can beat Innovation. We know the answer to that. It is if soO will beat himself. He cleansed the SKT legacy, he beat his greatest rival Zest in the semi-finals, he beat Classic at Dreamhack but now he fights his greatest challenge yet. Can he persuade Lachesis to alter her weaving? Will he finally break the curse of Kong or will it break him in the end?
*soO exploded 5 banelings in perfectly delayed sequential order that the SCVs repairing were able to keep up the depots. soO then lost the game.
The Gap Year
Everyone feels that pull, that inexplicable attraction. One looks outside of his classroom, his office, or his bedroom to see a bright blue sky, an expansive field, a dancing beach. Everyone asks what it would be like to be there, away from the grind of routine. Some people snap back to reality and continue their lives, They make sure to stow that ray of light, that blade of glass, that grain of sand as a keepsake in the back rows of their dreams. Some people snap and realize that there is no time like the present. They embark on a journey to find out just where they belong. Results often vary. The search always involves something new – a home, a direction, an ambition – but it can just as well be a reinvention of the old. To most, the latter ends up being the truth. They come home with a reaffirmed sense of purpose, meaning or clarity. Invariably, the man that leaves and the man that comes home are different. But that's a secret privy to himself.
When INnoVation lost to Soulkey 4-3 in the GSL finals, he stood there nonplussed as he smelled his bouquet of flowers. It's always been that way with Bogus, the unequivocal Blank Slate. We can never tell what he's really thinking or feeling in interviews, on screen, or on his rarely updated Twitter. When he won against sOs in WCS Season 1 Finals, it was more of the same. When Maru dismantled him in the OSL semifinals, INnoVation barely twitched. Coupled with his unbelievable mechanics his aloofness earned him the nickname of RoBogus, the man inside the machine.
When his former team, STX SouL, disbanded due to financial difficulties, all the world came begging for his name on their roster. Every pundit, insider and fan expected him to join the team most likely to offer him the best salary and best chances to improve. Previously INnoVation had shown no partiality concerning popularity or hobbies. He gave us no reason to think he had more important priorities than winning. If that's all he truly cared about (and walks in the park), KeSPA was the only sensible choice.
In retrospect we know that something was rumbling inside him, something that we had never seen and hence something we could not have expected. But back then, the choice seemed obvious for a man dictated by logic and the optimal route to victory. It turned out that he was just like every 19 and 20 year old, wistfully looking out his window and daydreaming of a different life. Instead of a bunk with his hyungs, maybe a comfortable bed with his parents. Instead of Korean food in Seoul, maybe Korean food in Cologne. Instead of a walk in Namsan Park before a GSL group stage, maybe a walk in Rencks Park before ASUS ROG Northcon.
So, he joined Acer on the adventure of his lifetime.
The Price of Freedom
INnoVation knew full well of the cost. Raised in the ranks of KeSPA and its rigid training environment, his sudden independence would be strange. There was no more forced routine. There were no more stringent coaches. There was just his computer and the nameless barcodes on the ladder.
In his very first tournament for Acer, he reached the finals of Dreamhack Bucharest before falling agonizingly short to the Prince of Summer. It looked like the adjustment was going to be a minor one, and his ascent to greatness unaffected by his change of scenery. But it turned out to be the beginning of a slow decline.
Soon afterwards he fell in the Ro16 of WCS KR Season 3, failing at the hands of future finalist soO. It was the first time he had failed to reach the knockout stages of Code S since 2012 GSL Season 4. At Blizzcon he was the victim of one of the biggest upsets in SC2 history. Set on competing for the title, he got chopped down by duckdeok on the first day of competition. Their game on Frost will forever be remembered as the moment duckdeok solidified his unexpected legacy. He'd attempt to redeem himself at DreamHack Winter and Northcon but the semi finals proved insurmountable against Patience and Jaedong, two players considered leagues below him. On January 22, 2014, INnoVation was knocked out of the GSL; 3 weeks later, he got bopped by HerO in the quarterfinals of IEM Cologne. That would be his only offline tournament result until his Ro8 at IEM Shenzhen in July.
If it had been anyone else, it would have been treated like the average career trajectory. Every player has their ups and downs. There's nothing surprising about a lull in results. But there could be no respite for a player as hyped as INnoVation. He was once hailed as the future of terran, a potential recurring champion, and a burgeoning great of the game. In his prime his mechanics were best described as devastating, his strategies oppressive. His TvZ was the stuff of balance complaints, a vicious exploitation of HotS units that came to define the matchup for years. It was a shock to see him struggle in foreign lands, let alone his old stomping grounds. His fans got to see him perform all over the globe, but secretly many questioned his decision to embark on this journey. He started improving in GSL Season 2 as he participated in fewer foreign events but in a vocation that's often described as 'short', a year of self-discovery threatened to be a year wasted.
In the end, only he will know what his year with Acer was worth. After his contract concluded INnoVation announced that he wanted to return to the rigors of a Proleague team house. As usual his detached interviews revealed little, and the press releases were polite and amicable. Perhaps one day we'll find out his true persona through his play or a crack in the ice, but he's made it clear that his gap year is over.
Now he's back home – though KeSPA is more of a barracks. He wasn't expressly motivated by desperation, greed or envy. It was just time for him to come home. His foreign journey has satisfied his curiosity to explore and experience a freedom that he had never had in his career. He's flown to more countries than many of his peers will ever dream of, and he's received the applause of thousands of fans that chanted his name in languages he will never speak. But that part of his life is over now, and he's replaced that sense of wonder and wander with a renewed sense of ambition.
A day after announcing his move to SKT T1, Innovation beat Cure 4-3 in the GSL semifinals; it signaled his first premier tournament final since that fateful loss to TaeJa. Coincidentally, that was both his first tournament representing Acer and his only premier tournament final for the team. While he's made it to several semi finals over the past year, it was a disappointing run judged against the aura of invincibility he fabricated on STX SouL. His lack of a title can only be considered inexcusable. But though many may still question his motivations for leaving Korea right as he was peaking, only the machine can know whether or not it was worth it. Tonight will show what Innovation learned in that period of time.
In his last GSL finals, he crumbled to Soulkey's cleverness after taking a 3-0 lead. He played a predictable albeit successful style, and he was punished for his robotic sense of planning. He showed a similar attitude last week against Cure, opening with greedy builds and relying on his mech prowess to win the late game. If that series is any indication of how INnoVation approaches the finals, it'll show that he has learned little from his year away. While there are few players that are as fast, precise, and powerful as Innovation, he has always been limited by his inability to "feel out" his opponent. He rarely morphs his style in response to new information. When Plan A fails, he just tries to do Plan A better. This falls right into the hands of soO, the best player in the world at figuring out games after they happen. Once he's experienced something soO adapts as soon as the next game starts, and the old shenanigan never works again in the series. soO is both standard and the destroyer of standard play, and Innovation was once the prime example of the former.
The only sure way he can win is if he's changed. Tonight we'll find out if a new man exists underneath that stoic veneer, or if the journey was all for naught.
Predictions:As far as their playstyles go, they're both extremely standard players. INnoVation's early-HotS TvZ still haunts zergs to this day, and he's still a master of the endless parade push style that almost won him a GSL. Recently however, he seems to have branched out a bit and added additional firepower to the machine. Against DRG for example, he showed excellent mech play on Deadwing before showcasing his traditional bio/mine playstyle. He's also unafraid to throw in a 2rax in a long series, but like many Korean terrans, it's often in the second or third maps. Even when he chooses to cheese, it's a calculated and logical choice and it can become predictable for the astute. The way he plays has always been about the most optimal path to victory, and that has caused him to change his TvZ very little over the past year.
soO in theory is a very similar player to DRG. He can and will open with a number of different builds, be it pool or even gas first, roach openings and even all ins, 2-base spire, you name it. But no matter what, they all lead towards the same overall gameplan: overwhelm opponents with masterfully executed muta/ling/baneling. Rock solid engagements, impeccable mechanics, flawless decision making. soO has been nigh unstoppable in standard ZvTs, and much of it comes down to his decision when to build banelings instead of mutas. He doesn't build a big round of mutas in order to surprise the terran and hit his economy; he morphs a few (4 to 6) mutalisks each round and slowly adds to his flock. This ensures that he always has enough gas to build banelings if the terran pushes. soO is the paragon of zerg macro mechanics as he rarely misses creep spread and inject cycles, and this allows him to hold almost any parade style attack. His weakness is his tendency to overextend, but even during his attacks he never forgets to manage his economy.
The finals will likely come down to series planning and whether or not INnoVation chooses to play a singular style. His 4M, however spectacular, is just the kind of game that soO loves to play against, and it's clear that INnoVation will be falling right into soO's trap if he stubbornly sticks to it. His calculable BoX strategies have often come under scrutiny, and soO is the type of player that can solve these puzzles. The rigidness by which INnoVation plays has sometimes been attributed to the chiseled routines of KeSPA, and it'll be interesting to see whether the freedom he experienced over the past year has opened up his programming to new modes.
With both players at the very top of their game in the matchup, small details and advantages could spiral and end up making all the difference. Those could especially be of psychological nature. Both players have reached this stage before - one more often than the other - and have failed at the most crucial of moments. Their mentality coming into this might be entirely different. soO tries his luck for the fourth time in a row, right after being crushed 0-3 by Solar and watching yet another player claiming a trophy that was meant to be his. INnoVation meanwhile is back in Korea, on one of the finest teams in the world, and his last offline showing saw him overcome one of the hottest rising stars in the scene, Cure. He might well be the more relaxed and confident player heading into his second Code S finals. And, as his opponent soO has taught us, mentality can be everything. Especially on the biggest stage.
INnoVation 4 - 3 soO