Triumphant Song Gaming's Solar brings mixed tidings from Korea in this pre-IEM Katowice 2020 interview, catching us up on what's been going on during the off-season.
Fretful fans will be glad to hear that we need not fear about the continuation of GSL Code S. What's more, the latest batch of players returning from military service could be the most competitive yet (in particular, a certain reaper-expert).
On the other hand, tightened travel regulations means Classic may not be the last Korean pro to have trouble playing in major international events. And, of course, region-lock still sucks for Korean pros who can travel.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Wax: What have you been up to since Super Tournament II, your last major tournament of 2019?
Solar: I haven't been up to anything special, just taking it easy. Toward the end of the year I participated in tournaments in China and Australia, winning a bunch of of them, and then took a break.
When did you start practicing in earnest again?
After the patch I started practicing properly, but I don't think I have 100% understanding of the game yet.
We have most of the info for the Circuit/foreigner side of the ESL Pro Tour, but barely anything for Korea. Are Korean players in the dark as well?
We roughly know when everything's going to happen. The Super Tournament just got officially announced, didn't it? I dunno, there's just some delays in Korea because of various issues like the corona virus.
So we'll have three Code S tournaments like last year?
Yes, I think it will be three of them. There will be some changes, but I can't talk about those yet since it's not official.
Some people in the foreign community were panicking because of the lack of information.
There's going to be Code S, but there will be changes compared to last year.
So the Korean players are satisfied with what they've been told?
Honestly it will be a bit more... I think the competition will be more fierce than last year.
But personally, what I'm unhappy with is that... Was it last year? The year before that? I wrote about [the problems with region-lock] on Twitter. When I looked at the response from the foreign community, there were a lot of opinions that [region-lock] was unfair. Even when I asked foreign pros, though they were the ones benefiting, they thought it was a bit unfair as well.
So if the players and fans all think that it's unfair, I don't know why it didn't change this year.
Well, I think we all know it's unfair—it's just a trade-off for the sake of more viewership.
Yeah, and a lot of Korean pros retired because of it.
How's the Korean scene looking? The top of the scene is still brutal, but maybe it's gotten easier to get through qualifiers?
It's easier... But with format in the upcoming season, and since I hear a lot of foreign players are coming to play in GSL Code S, I'm a bit worried.
You're playing and winning a lot of the ESL weeklies, but Korean players aren't really participating. Why is that?
Because it's just 10 points per win, I don't think the players really understand the importance of it. The top players, in particular, think they will [qualify] anyway... Also, this year the number of players that can go to the Masters Championship [*Note: equivalent to the old Global Finals] was greatly increased from eight to sixteen. So I think the players are a little overconfident. I'm trying to stack up points beforehand so I can advance directly to next year's IEM Katowice/Masters Championship without any trouble.
Also, as far as I know, there are a lot of players who won't be able to travel overseas next year. Probably more than fans expect, the top tier players will be barred from travelling. So I don't think they're worried that much about earning points this year.
I think Classic said what he learned from his travel permission issues might help other players in the future.
Regardless of that, Korea's laws changed recently. People who are 25 or older can get international travel permission six months at a time, and the longest total period you can request is two years. So actually, according to current laws, I don't think I'll be able to travel abroad when I turn 28 in Korean age.
[*Wax: I'm not familiar with these regulations, so I might not have interpreted the specific technical details correctly. Regardless, the point is that Solar fears new regulations will affect progamers above a certain age.]
Military service isn't a career death-sentence? Some of the 'returners' are showing promise.
Cure's been a hot topic in the foreign community for how good he's been during the off-season. Is he for real?
Cure was always good in practice. But the latest patch was quite good for Terran, so I think that had an effect. I think Terran players are all doing well in general, after the patch. Also, perhaps he's approaching things with a new attitude after leaving Jin Air.
Who are some players to look out for going forward?
Personally, I think you should keep an eye on players who returned from the military. There's a lot of players who finished their military service that are good, like DongRaeGu, Armani, or Dream.
Players who came back from the army haven't had much success in the past. Is that changing?
The practice is a bit... I think maybe having your military obligations out of the way helps you focus solely on practice. Compared to the past, they've really caught up a lot in terms of skill.
How are Dark, Maru, the usual top guys doing?
I think all the guys who used to be good are still good; like Maru hit 7000 MMR on the Korean server. Besides a few guys, I think all of the strong players are still in good shape.
Also, ByuN is going to return this year. ByuN is laddering on the Korean server these days, and he's around 6800~6900 MMR right now, getting in the neighborhood of 7000. He's still got it. So I think when ByuN comes back, he'll continue to do well in tournaments.
You mentioned your game knowledge isn't complete yet, but still, who do you think is going to win at IEM?
I think this time... Before, I always picked Serral to win tournaments. But this time, I think it will be tough for him, in my estimation. It's because Zerg doesn't have any big edge in terms of balance right now. In longer series, Terran and Protoss have a lot more strategies they can use. So I think it will be hard for Zerg players—I think Terran and Protoss players will do well.
Who are the top Protosses in Korea?
I think Trap and Stats are the best.
KeSPA-tier salaries in the ambitious China Team Championship.
What was it like playing in the live, China Team Championship playoffs?
It was great, there were a lot more Chinese fans than I expected. It was awesome that the Chinese fans were enjoying it so much. The recent epidemic is delaying WESG and other tournaments right now. I hope the situation gets better and we can play in Chinese tournaments again.
Did it remind you of the Proleague days?
Playing matches regularly, it definitely felt a lot like the old days. Because the Chinese teams have been signing a lot of players, I think the next season is going to be really competitive with a lot of good players.
Has the introduction of the CTC been good for Korean pros? Maybe it's not KeSPA level pay, but that kind of stability must be nice.
It IS at that level, the pay is very good. The players who really earn a lot, they make as much money as top KeSPA players used to. Having regular income, it really stabilizes your career as a player.
Are there plans for CTC to start holding even regular season games live, and for the teams to all have teamhouses in China?
From what I know, that's the ultimate goal. For everyone to have team houses in Shanghai—my team [Triumphant Song Gaming] already has a teamhouse in Shanghai. So to play and practice there, really like it's Proleague—I hear SCBoy is dreaming of something like that. That's if everything goes well and things get bigger. It's still hard to do that now, but I think it would be fun if that happened in the future.
You were excellent in a variety of competitions last year, even getting an eight-win all-kill in the CTC playoffs, but Code S didn't go that well for you. Why's that?
I don't know for sure, either. Just, I can't play that well in Code S, maybe it's the nerves. Also, the players prepare so well. I think the Code S format is disadvantageous for Zerg. The more time there is to prepare, the worse it is for Zerg, since Zerg have a limited range of strategies. So I think it's tough in tournaments where there's a lot of preparation time. Also, my style is a bit simple, so I think I get countered a lot.
Conversely, foreign Terrans say that the short-duration format of the Circuit events favor Zerg. Anyway, what are your personal expectations for IEM Katowice?
When I got through the qualifiers, I was actually pretty surprised because I didn't expect it. But somehow, all my games went well on that day, so I [earned a seed]. I don't really have huge ambitions, it would just be nice to [get to the fop four] and play in Spodek. That's my initial goal.
Any final comments or shout-outs?
I don't think I have that many fans compared to other players, but I'm thankful to everyone who's kept cheering for me, no matter how much. I'm thankful to all my foreign fans as well.
The StarCraft II scene has changed so that ESL is running things. I hope this change will make the scene more vibrant, we'll see more tournaments pop-up like in the old days, and we'll have a year where we can all be happy together.
You can follow Solar on Twitter at @TSG_Solar and catch his stream at AfreecaTV.