And Then There Were Three: Maru's Place in GSL Historyby Mizenhauer
The 2018 season of GSL has ended and it's still just sinking in. Maru is the first player ever to win Korean StarCraft II's most coveted title three times running. Winning three straight GSL Code S championships might be the most incredible accomplishment in StarCraft II history.
With Maru's victory have come the inevitable proclamations. Greatest of all time. StarCraft II's first bonjwa. Lofty titles for sure, and maybe even deserved given the magnitude of his achievement.
...but that's a conversation for another day. For now, it's time to think about how Maru's 2018 stacks up against eight years of GSL history, against the illustrious predecessors who made the GSL Code S championship so prestigious in the first place.
Started in August of 2010, the first Global StarCraft II League featured a ragtag group of ex-Brood War pros, foreigners, and online-gosus hoping to make a name for themselves in an entirely new esports scene. Brick by brick, a rich history was built upon that humble foundation. Eight years later, the GSL stands proudly as the most important tournament in competitive StarCraft II.
The players are at the center of GSL's history. We still tell tales about the first pioneers such as FruitDealer, MarineKing, and Nestea. Heart of the Swarm saw the KeSPA invasion begin in full force, with INnoVation and Zest raising the standards of excellence. Legacy of the Void rewarded the patient, with veterans such as Stats and GuMiho lifting the trophy at long last.
Hundreds of players have passed through the GSL, but two players stand out as truly unforgettable, with legacies that are nearly as imposing as the GSL itself.
The first is Mvp, the greatest player of Wings of Liberty, and still regarded by many as the greatest player of all time. The early GSL (and StarCraft II for that matter) was rough around the edges, especially when compared to the 12-year-old professional Brood War scene. A handful of players worked overtime to build the GSL's legitimacy. MKP brought his micro skills, and Nestea offered up his strategic brilliance, but it was Mvp who gave the game the all-around solidity and macro play expected from a mature RTS.
In 2011, Mvp won MLG Anaheim, the Battle.net World Championship, and WCG, but the GSL was his true domain. That year, he won two GSL Code S tournaments (defeating MarineKing and TOP), the inaugural GSL World Championship (the predecessor to GSL vs. The World), and took second place in yet another Code S finals (losing to MMA).
Those victories may have made Mvp a household name, but it was his fourth and final GSL victory in 2012 that made him a legend. His Code S Season 2 finals against Squirtle is perhaps the most memorable and iconic series in StarCraft II history, featuring two of its most famous clutch plays in both the late-game and early-game. Four GSL championships was an unprecedented achievement—just two years into the GSL, StarCraft II fans already knew they had witnessed something special. And indeed, history would bear them out, as it would take five years before anyone matched Mvp's GSL title count (INnoVation in 2017).
Mvp reached another GSL finals in Code S Season 4 of 2012, where he ultimately lost to Life. But the very fact that GomTV prepared a special G5L trophy to commemorate a potential fifth championship—akin to how OnGameNet prepared the Golden Mouse in anticipation of Boxer's third Starleague championship—affirmed Mvp's mythic status in the GSL.
Have you tried winning five GSL titles with a BROKEN F***ING NECK?
Mvp's career would famously be cut short by injury, and it was fitting that his final GSL match came against soO—a then-unheralded Zerg who would replace Mvp as the GSL's most iconic player. soO reached the Code S finals for the first time at the end of 2013, the first in four consecutive finals appearances. soO wound up losing every single one of those matches.
Such a streak was, in a word, unfathomable. Unfathomable in the consistent excellence required to reach four finals in a row—back-to-back was the best anyone had managed before. Unfathomable in the sheer depth of heartbreak reached by losing them all. But that tragedy was also why soO has left such an indelible impact on the GSL. soO vs the finals became the greatest rivalry in Korea and the leading narrative in every season of GSL in which he participated. He later added two more final appearances in 2016, tying Mvp for six GSL appearances. Without winning a single championship, soO became GSL's biggest story—and star—in two separate years.
As GSL commentator Hwang "GISADO" Yeong Jae said in soO’s 2017 WCS Signature Series, “He’s a symbol. An irreplaceable, incomparable representation of second place.” soO’s constant search for redemption and that elusive championship that made him GSL's heart and soul. For the first time, the GSL had something close to a solo protagonist.
How could anyone rival Mvp and soO for relevance? One would have to accomplish something no one else had ever done before.
Will you remember his smile, or something else?
Photo: Helena Kristiansson
Common sense tells us that it should be impossible to win three straight Code S titles. It was ludicrous enough when soO even reached the finals of every Code S season in 2014. But to actually win every Code S in a year? Impossible.
And so, when Maru beat Stats in Code S Season 1 earlier this year, we celebrated it as a long awaited title for one of the most exciting players in the game. It wasn’t until he swept Zest in Season 2 that we started to rethink StarCraft II's reality. TY proved to be a stern test in Season 3, but Maru could not be denied. He once more kissed the trophy, this time not as anyone’s peer, but on a tier all to himself.
Maru’s 2018 is without a doubt the most dominant single year in GSL history. Only one other player had even won two Code S titles back to back: Nestea, way back in 2011 when there were seven Code S tournaments in a single year.
Another testament to Maru's dominance in 2018 the fact that he earned one of the all-time great GSL resumes in a single year. Mvp, who played in the 2011-2012 era that hosted twelve Code S tournaments, still took seventeen months to win three, non-consecutive Code S titles. INnoVation, one of GSL's most persistent champions, won his three over the course of roughly six years. The exceptional results don’t even tell the whole tale—the manner in which Maru completely outclassed the best players in Korea, and the way he constantly broke and rebuilt the meta further enhanced his legendary 2018 GSL run.
If one were to measure players by their ability to dominate at their absolute peak, Maru would be the undisputed, greatest player in GSL history. On the other hand, there's more to greatness than that.
Yes, the plaudit that will follow Maru around forever more is 'three Code S titles in one year.' But an equally valid way of framing it is 'three Code S titles in eight years.' Playing in the GSL since the very first open in 2010, Maru delivered seven years of underachievement before ever reaching the finals. Though he made numerous Code S semifinal appearances in HotS and LotV, he never won more than two maps in any of those series.
GSL's history is replete with ironmen who might scoff at this Maru-come-lately. Mvp’s five Code S finals were spread out over the course of two years. soO finalled in 2013, 2014 and 2017. MC, INnoVation, Zest, and Life have all reached more than one Code S final over the span of multiple years. Throw in the 'lesser' GSL titles (Global Championship/GSL vs. The World, post-2011 Super Tournaments), and the list of multi-year finalists grows quite long (remember, this article is about the greatest players in GSL history).
Ultimately, it's not the just the counting of medals and comparing of resumes that matters, but how they tell the larger tale of a player's unique influence on the GSL. It's why INnoVation fails to cut as imposing a figure as his hallowed predecessor Mvp, despite having the same number of GSL titles. INnoVation is the guy who won a lot, but he's not yet the guy who won the most. Perhaps when he surpasses Mvp's tally by winning another Code S title, he'll carve out his own legacy as the GSL's ultimate compiler. But until then, he'll continue to live in Mvp's shadow (as the 4th greatest player in GSL history—not a bad place to be).
Mvp's in-game excellence gave the nascent GSL the legitimacy that allowed it to become what it is today. soO's suffering imbued it with a complexity and emotional depth beyond merely celebrating winners. Maru has impacted the GSL with something entirely new—he redefined our idea of just how dominant one can be at StarCraft II.
Consistency and trophy-accounting damn Maru if that’s what you care about, but the sheer magnitude of Maru’s achievements cannot be downplayed. Mvp and soO’s fingerprints may be all over GSL, but Maru punched right through the canvas this year.
Whether you consider Mvp, soO or Maru the greatest player in GSL history, you really can’t go wrong. All three are legends in their own right, with unique accomplishments that separate them from their peers. In the end, it’s just another debate without an answer, but the fact that Maru has managed to insert himself into the discussion is proof of how incredible a player he is.