Cool Things From 2019:by Wax
For $150,000, INnoVation will be INnoVation
2019 was a pretty good year for storylines, whether it was Classic's last ride, Serral and Reynor's rivalry, or Dark's ultimate redemption. And so, it feels a bit odd to pick an event that didn't really fit into any of the year's other arcs as one of my favorite moments: INnoVation's $150,000 championship run at the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) finals.
Sure, you could technically include it in the ongoing "Serral vs Korea" conflict, but it felt more like a singular, self-contained episode. It didn't set-up any future payoff, largely due to INnoVation's irrelevance outside of WESG. His WESG victory was sandwiched by disappointing, group stage eliminations in both IEM Katowice and GSL Code S, and he ended up finishing the year far outside of BlizzCon contention at #17 in the WCS Korea rankings. Alongside soO miracle run at IEM Katowice, WESG ended up being one of the two inexplicable blips in a manic March that made little sense in the context of the entire year.
Then what made INnoVation's WESG run so great? It has something to do with LONG-term career arcs.
Most players earn reputations over the course of their careers. For INnoVation, he's accrued something more akin to a mythology. The infamously laconic Terran has given us precious little insight into psyche (he likes penguins???) over the last eight years, and so the StarCraft community has ended up building his identity for him. For the first few years of INnoVation's SC2 career, this identity was rather one-dimensional: He was an emotionless automaton of destruction, winning four major titles (and two Proleague titles) over a four year stretch continued excellence.
Then, in 2016, the legend of INnoVation took a more complex turn. He endured a catastrophic, year-long slump, where he qualified for zero Code S tournaments and a single SSL tournament (where he was eliminated without winning a single map), and put up a subdued 17-11 record in Proleague (0-2 in ace matches). If he had come out of this experience with some kind of lesson, or found any kind of meaning in this pseudo-sabbatical, it might have served to humanize him and make him more relatable. Instead, when INnoVation shrugged off his slump by defeating BlizzCon finalist Dark to win IEM Gyeonggi, he was adamant that it was all an utterly meaningless waste of time. There were no takeaways, lessons learned, except perhaps 'don't play League of Legends when you're a StarCraft II progamer.' With IEM Gyeonggi as the starting point, INnoVation resumed exactly where he left off on his path of destruction, winning four major titles to make 2017 the most successful year of his entire career.
For any other player, this two-year roller coaster may have come across as wildly unprofessional and disappointing behavior. Who the hell squanders that kind of talent for an entire year, when other players are desperate to win just one championship? But somehow, INnoVation largely eluded receiving such normal judgment, perhaps by virtue of being such an abnormal player. He may not have become any more likable, but he certainly become more interesting. With one on/off cycle, he had become more than just the implacable machine. Was he a lazy genius in the vein of TaeJa? Maybe in a post KeSPA-world, he had been forced to turn into a ruthless prize-money hunter like MC. Whether he was man or machine, one thing was clear: he was becoming one of StarCraft's biggest enigmas.
After his incredible 2017 campaign, 2018 turned out to be another down year for INnoVation, though his fall was not as drastic as in 2016. He at least qualified for every Code S tournament on the year, even though he was bounced in the Ro16 each time. Ultimately, he failed to qualify for the Global Finals, and it ended up being a largely forgettable season. One of the persistent dilemmas of the TL.net Power Rank at the time was figuring how much past credit we should give to INnoVation. No matter how poorly he was playing at a given time, it always seemed like I was trying to talk someone out of placing INnoVation at #10 for no other reason than 'he is INnoVation.' Sure, I understood the underlying sentiment and remembered what he had done in 2017, but really? Giving past credit for nearly year-old results?
After all that setup and explanation of context, I suppose I can get finally get to the point. This year's WESG finals were amazing and memorable because I just couldn't help but laugh. Both laugh at how unbelievable the result was, and laugh at myself for not seeing it coming. Here was INnoVation, coming off a real stinker of a year in 2018, coming off a similarly poor showing at IEM Katowice (group stage elimination), and coming IN to one of the biggest events of the year with absolutely no claim to be a championship contender other than 'he is INnoVation.' As many slumping veterans have shown us in the past, reputation is a really, really flimsy claim.
So, of course, INnoVation—or 'this f***ing guy,' as I find myself referring to him (with extreme fondness)—went on to defeat three-time consecutive Code S champion Maru in the semifinals. Again, INnoVation hadn't reached a single Code S playoffs the previous year while Maru won all three. Having defied all logic and common sense once, INnoVation then went on to do it again, defeating the reigning Global Champion Serral in the finals and stealing $110,000 from under his nose. HOW? Because 'he is INnoVation, I suppose, because I have no better answer. Damn, I guess I was wrong about those Power Ranks.
I'm reminded of the the footballing cliche "form is temporary, class is permanent" which has long been popular in the Korean StarCraft community. Typically, it applies to players who are losing their speed and mechanical edge, but still find ways to succeed through strategic thinking, veteran decision-making, and sheer determination (think MMA in 2014 or sOs in 2018). In INnoVation's case, he deserves his own aphorism: "form is permanent, but it shows up whenever it damn well pleases." The fact that he beat Serral at all was remarkable, but it was even more remarkable because it wasn't some kind of desperate scrap where he had to summon every ounce of resourcefulness. In the big picture, there wasn't all that much separating WESG champion INnoVation and 2013 WCS Season 1 champion INnoVation. Strategies: limited. Marine splits: optional. Macro: completely and utterly overwhelming.
Curiously, the fact that INnoVation spent the rest of year playing far below his WESG championship level makes that championship moment more meaningful. He was rather unmachine-like, since machines are supposed to be reliable. INnoVation in this stage of career—besides being an absolute legend of StarCraft—seems closer to a force of nature. Like a hurricane lurking off the coast, we don't know if he'll peter out without even making landfall, or if he'll sweep through the coast and wreck everything in his path. All we know is that every once in a while, we're due for a big one.
After 2019, I don't think we've come away with any better understanding of the mystery that is INnoVation. We don't know how much of his success is a matter of trying, caring, or just needing to see a lot of zeroes in a tournament's prize pool. But, at least, we came away with a reminder of how much richer the scene is for having him: the least interesting, and most interesting player in the world.
Credits and acknowledgements
Written by: Wax
Written by: Wax