The Race is On
The winds of spring bring with them a new WCS circuit, with last year's stars returning to the WCS spotlight for the first time in quite some time. It seems crazy that it's taken quite this long for the WCS Circuit to truly kick off—it's been over five months since BlizzCon, and seven since the Copa Intercontinental. While some of these players were seen at IEM Katowice, many others haven't had a sturdy offline venture since at least HomeStory Cup, and it'll be interesting to see how they have adapted to recent balance changes, and what they'll have to show for it on a large stage. We've separated the camp into two groups; one for those searching for a championship, and one for those who could be happy finishing short of that.
MajOr - "The Dark Horse"
On and off for years, MajOr has been the greatest dark horse of the foreign scene. His indisputably amazing ladder play has often resulted in him being one of the best online players in the entire scene, but in all that time his greatest offline result remains a top eight finish in Montreal, where he ultimately fell out in a messy match against HeRoMaRinE. Hope was renewed for MajOr after a weak 2016 when he snagged a surprise qualification for GSL, beating Hurricane 2-1 and giving GuMiho a run for his money as well. A solid run - top eight, maybe even top four - would help cement 2017 as the year that MajOr finally puts in the books, while an early failure would certainly leave the rest of his year in doubt.
uThermal - "Searching For The Next Step"
2016 was a bittersweet year for uThermal, a year of being "close, but not quite there". He won his first championship in Shanghai, managing a miracle run against a gauntlet of Snute, Elazer, viOLet and Neeb thanks to his Reaper control and solid TvP play in the finals. He followed this up by crushing Hydra at WCS Mexico, but unfortunately fell short against ShoWTimE in a set which could've given him a ticket to Blizzcon. Instead, he had to watch from home, a step away from being one of the players on that massive stage. Katowice was similar, as he pulled off a stellar upset over INnoVation only to lose the tiebreaker on map score. WCS Austin is a relatively small step in what looks to be a make-or-break year for uThermal, but getting off to a good start is still essential and would help prove uThermal as one of the key players in the road to Blizzcon.
Harstem - "The Never-ending Year of Harstem"
Due to the meme status of the 'Year of Harstem' joke, it sometimes becomes hard to realize Harstem has actually made it as one of Europe's top protosses. No longer is it surprising to see him make a deep run, and he proved this by winning not only one but two tournaments last year. While both runs let him largely rely on his sharp PvZ, Europe's Zerg domination makes such a bracket a definite possibility to occur again in Austin. However, it's worth noting 2017 hasn't gotten off to the best of starts for him. He holds a 47% winrate in the year as a whole, a record which includes disappointing losses to Bly and DnS in the qualifiers for this tournament. A good run here could rejuvinate his poor start, where as a bad performance would be symptomatic of greater issues at play.
Serral - "The Risen"
Serral is the golden boy of the foreign scene right now, a strong contender for the title of 'best Zerg' in a stacked field, as well as the foreigner who had the most success at Katowice. For years Serral has been marked down as someone to watch out for, and after a very disappointing 2016 in which he failed hard at almost every offline venture, such a performance drew a lot of attention. All eyes will certainly be on the growing superstar as he tries to follow up his success with a strong run at Austin. If he is able to do so, this might be the year Serral becomes the offline monster he has been prophesied to become.
Nerchio - "The Contested Throne"
While Nerchio's consistency last year did amount to a Dreamhack Valencia championship, things haven't been as rosy since. He's failed to make a single top eight - admittedly against top-tier competition - and the stellar Protoss duo of ShoWTimE and Neeb have snatched the title of best foreigner from his grasp. On top of that, Snute and Serral are providing harsh competition for the title of best foreign Zerg. WCS Austin is a chance for Nerchio to silence the audience and prove his superiority, or for him to sink and end up only the third best Zerg in the west, and barely top five overall.
Snute - "The Curse of Opportunity"
Last year's controversial Blizzcon came with a silver lining in the ability to see top foreigners play top koreans in a high-pressure environment. Of all the foreigners present, Snute was likely the one with the highest expectations, being highly experienced and considered one of those regularly capable of making true upsets with moments such as his back-to-back wins over GSL and SSL champions Rain and Classic a few years back. Although his first series against Stats was fairly competitive, he ended up going home in disappointing fashion by losing to PtitDrogo, and missed the chance to redeem himself in Katowice. It's going to take a lot to bring Snute back to his peak, but a good performance in WCS Austin would go a long way.
TRUE - "A Tale Of Two Truths"
TRUE is a very stylistic [E/N: in other news, INnoVation is considered a robotic player] player, with his mechanical skill allowing him to play with a sense of freedom and unpredictability in both build orders and decision making which lends itself to some truly off-the-rails games. But, and this is the kicker, he's also very inconsistent. HomeStory Cup was a disappointment rapidly followed by his championship success in Dreamhack Montreal. In KeSPA Cup, he beat herO before losing to Pet. He struggled at Blizzcon, then qualified for Katowice by going on an inspired loser's bracket run through Dear, Stats, Scarlett and Zest. Then he won only one match in Katowice, and lost to PiLiPiLi. TRUE is the most variable player coming into this tournament, unfortunately just as much in terms of performance as in terms of play. Only one thing's for sure: TRUE's going to entertain, be it in the game or out of it.
Neeb - "Living the American Dream"
Where as everyone else in the American scene currently seems confused or has acquired a bad habit of falling apart when it matters, Neeb has remained one of the best foreigners in the world, forming a solid top two with his Protoss peer ShoWTimE. He's dropped a little since his peak going before Blizzcon, but remains as threatening and dangerous as ever, one of the strongest players online with enough offline pedigree to earn his status. Playing in front of a home crowd in WCS Austin will provide Neeb with the perfect opportunity to prove to us why he's rated so highly; but with an opportunity comes a risk alongside it. Failure here - particularly early on - would be a suspicious sign for his form, particularly after his shaky performances in Katowice and HomeStory Cup XIV, and would certainly not bode well for the rest of the year.
ShoWTimE - "Building the Perfect Self"
Of all foreign players, ShoWTimE inspires perhaps the most faith. While he isn't as flashy as Neeb, nor as grandiose in ambition as Nerchio, he succeeds by being consistent where others falter. This mentality is showcased well by ShoWTimE's choice of idol; the GSL champion Rain. It is that sense of striving towards perfection which drives ShoWTimE's relentless play, his search for good habits to pick up on the road towards stardom. His perfect posture, and effortless micro, and fantastic macro play. While a difficult group in Katowice and an unrelenting Maru in WESG halted him from moving past his upset of ByuN at Blizzcon, WCS Austin might just be the tournament for ShoWTimE to take that next step. Becoming not only the best foreigner in the scene, but a force who could legitimately contend with the top Koreans, and one of the best Protoss players - period.
PtitDrogo - "Finding Miracles"
A couple weeks before Blizzcon, any betting site wouldn't even have registered the chance for PtitDrogo to pick up a win as possible. After all, he was mathematically eliminated after failing to qualify for WCS Mexico. But, miracles do come true at times, and Polt having to cancel due to other obligations let PtitDrogo show up and surprise the world by eliminating Snute from competition. His games against Stats and Dark may have been ugly, but it showed that PtitDrogo possessed the willpower to win on the biggest stage, a fight which has always been difficult for the French protoss. Going into WCS Austin, PtitDrogo can only hope to replicate that same mindset. Without pressure, PtitDrogo is at his strongest - and not much in terms of expectations have been set for the tournament, so perhaps he'll set them himself.
Bly had a good performance in the WCS Austin qualifiers, coming a single game away from qualifying directly, and is looking to repeat his DH Leipzig performance here. Zanster and Lambo are both players to watch, with untapped potential to remain watchful of. Lambo in particular will be looking to utilize his talent in ZvZ to notch a place in a competitive field full of European Zerg. MaSa, puCK, JonSnow and PiLiPiLi help to bring pride to a struggling American scene, while iAsonu, as well as Has and iaguz, represent the oddities of the non-Korean east. Cham and Kelazhur have both had particularly good showings online, with Cham brewing up a storm with solid player on the ladder. If you're a fan of the no-name underdog, Optimus' strong TvZ might set him apart considering the zerg-heavy field, and TIME is making his debut in an offline western event.