WCS Europe Winter: Round of 8By: Soularion
The Serral Question
Saturday, Mar 23 3:00pm GMT (GMT+00:00)
- Round robin.
- All matches are best of 3.
- Top 6 advance to the playoffs.
- Playoffs: "Gauntlet"/"King of the hill" format based on RO8 ranking.
The first major chapter of 2019 has concluded with soO and INnoVation prevailing at IEM and WESG, but we're only now getting into the most intriguing and innovative phase of WCS Winter. Unlike prior events where we'd be at the traditional tournament stage by now, we're set to see the top eight players compete in a single round-robin group which will seed them into a king-of-the-hill style playoffs (think old SSL or Proleague). There won't be any need to hypothesize about who could beat who, because this time, everyone plays everyone.
The question looming over WCS Europe is one we've been wondering about for a while now: Who can beat Serral? The Finnish Phenom has attained an almost mythical stature after winning all four 2018 WCS Circuit events as well as the Global Finals. Many fans, commentators, and players initially saw this tournament a contest for second place.
However, WESG and IEM Katowice have shown us that Serral is mortal. INnoVation was able to match and beat Serral at every stage of the game (his super-late game was especially notable), while soO forced Serral to eat the ZvZ loss we suspected would eventually come ever since he barely survived a ZvZ gauntlet at WCS Montreal 2018. Even Serral's vaunted ZvP was taken down a peg by Neeb in the group stage at WESG, and he also dropped a map to Rail earlier in WCS Europe.
It's all too easy to dismiss these supposed weaknesses. There are no Terrans in Europe who are on INnoVation's level. soO needed a game-of-the-year type performance to beat Serral (and Serral was still strong enough to beat Dark handily at WESG). And Neeb stealing a set off Serral doesn't seem to mean much, considering that he did that right before Serral went on to win BlizzCon. And yet, it's become just a tiny bit easier to imagine Serral stumbling somewhere over the course of a full round robin. Surely there has to be someone in Europe who can at least make things interesting... right?
After all, the great part of a round robin is that we get to see Serral match up against most of Europe's top-tier. This includes underdogs who have played surprisingly close series against him such as Lambo and the aforementioned Rail, but also previous WCS finals opponents ShoWTimE and Reynor who would likely have been champions in a Serral-less world.
Unfortunately, the present version of ShoWTimE looks far less formidable compared to the one that took two games off Serral in the finals of WCS Leipzig and concluded 2018 as the #2 ranked player on the WCS Circuit. The German started Legacy of the Void's as the foreign scene's promised son, becoming the first foreigner to win a WCS title in 2016. He spent the rest of that year dazzling onlookers with his consistency and his ability to duel with top Koreans, including ByuN at the Global Finals. Before, we would have said ShoWTimE was one of the favorites retake the European throne if Serral were to fall... but it has not been a good start to 2019 for the German Protoss. He was knocked out of the IEM Katowice open bracket with losses to Scarlett and aLive, and was eliminated in fourth place in his WESG group with losses to Neeb, Serral, and Harstem. Going by those early signs, ShoWTimE has regressed back—at least temporarily—into being a member Europe's middle-class. Still, if he can give us a strong performance in the round robin, and perhaps by some miracle even threaten Serral, we'll be more than ready to forget his slow start.
Similarly, Reynor's stock has also fallen from its peak 2018 level. The Italian Zerg came out of absolutely nowhere last year to shake up the scene, eliminating the vaunted Classic in his GSL Code S debut. He then pushed Serral to seven games during the finals of his second ever WCS Circuit event, making it seem for a moment that Serral finally had a Circuit rival. However, our optimism made us overlook some of Reynor's failings—he blew an immense lead against Serral in game six of the Montreal finals, while he was thoroughly beaten by fellow foreigner Neeb in his Code S RO16 elimination match. So maybe we shouldn't have been too surprised that Reynor struggled out the gates in 2019. He was eliminated with losses to Creator and GuMiho in the IEM open bracket, and gave up a reverse-sweep to Neeb in the WESG RO16 (a 0-2 loss to PtitDrogo in the group stage had him compete in the playoffs as a #2 seed).
This, perhaps, is the reason why Serral looms so large in the WCS scene. It's not just that Serral is so dominant, but it's that no one is ever consistent enough to be a sustained threat to his reign. His closest competitors from 2018 have gotten off to poor starts in 2019 and would be happy enough to simply get on firm ground, let alone actually upset Serral. The argument against Serral winning the championship is that someone can capture lightning in a bottle and have the tournament of their career (the 'look, it's not LITERALLY impossible' argument).
While we naturally look at WCS Europe through the lens of Serral, this round robin will also help settle a conflict that's been brewing for quite some time. The first WCS event of 2018 went mostly as expected, with top dogs ShoWTimE and Serral meeting in the finals. Yet, as the year progressed, the some of the supposed stalwarts of the scene saw their places taken by newcomers and late-bloomers. Reynor's finals run at WCS Montreal was the most eye-opening event, but we also saw relative newcomer Lambo earn a last-ditch BlizzCon spot at the same tournament. Veteran player HeroMarine also enjoyed a breakout year where he made the Global Finals, displaying quiet consistency against everyone not named Serral. Similarly, Rail has finally come alive in 2019 after playing his first live event in 2013. He doesn't have a huge series upset to his name yet, but he's flummoxed both INnoVation and Serral on single maps.
On the other hand, ShoWTimE, PtitDrogo, and Elazer represent the 'old' guard in a sense, and their resumes are dotted with the championships and high finishes that the other contenders so greatly desire. And while PtitDrogo and Elazer were notably poor in 2018, their group stage performances at WESG (a perfect 10-0 from PtitDrogo!) suggested that they're not going to let the newcomer surpass them without a fight.
WCS Winter could see the old champions establish their authority, or it could be the final nail in the coffin for the old order as Europe dissolves into chaos.
Except for the whole 'Serral winning' part. That's a constant. Probably.