IEM Katowice 2020: The First Frontierby Soularion w/ contributions from Wax
Throughout 2019, there was a lot of anxiety about the future of Blizzard's World Championship Series system. Besides stabilizing the StarCraft II scene, WCS had helped incubate non-Korean StarCraft II and develop it as a legitimate—albeit top heavy—counterpart to Korea.
What's New and What's Not
Change, especially to a system that many consider to be running successfully, can be nerve-wracking. But the 2020 transition from WCS to ESL Pro Tour has turned out to be a well-received shift that doesn't drift too far from what made the WCS work. While there's evidence pointing to a big shake up in Korea, the most noticeable change on the 'Circuit' side will only be relevant a year from now: the Masters Championship (the new Global Finals) has expanded to feature 36 players instead of 16.
But there are also subtle changes which may end up being quite impactful in the long run. Point distribution has been flattened and smoothed across the board, making singular, deep runs worth less compared to consistent strength. A notable change that's specific to IEM Katowice is that placement within Ro24 groups now matters. In the past, anyone who finished in the group stage would gain a flat amount of points, whereas now that amount varies depending on your rank in the group. Combine this with more equitable point distribution in general, and those 'meaningless' foreigner upsets in the group stage might now actually end up being rewarded. For example, uThermal's victory over INnoVation in the IEM Katowice 2018 group stage was turned into a mere footnote when the Dutch Terran was eliminated from his group in 4th place. But if 2020 rules had applied back then, the handful of extra points for placing 4th would have allowed uThermal to narrowly qualify for the 2018 Global Finals over Lambo.
On the other hand, with the expansion of the season-end championship to 36 players, it’s unclear how intense the qualification race will be as the season chugs along. One assumes most (if not all) top players will surely gather enough points to qualify for the play-in stage at the very least. TL.net's interview with Solar revealed how this more forgiving system could abet complacency, as evidenced by the lack of Korean participation in ESL Open Cups. This won't be relevant at IEM Katowice, where one expects all the players to be fully motivated to kick off the season, but it's something to keep an eye on going forward.
Breaking Out of Foreigner-Jail
For WCS Circuit players, IEM Katowice has been a historically disappointing event. Typically, it's just Serral and perhaps one other player (Neeb, in the case of last year) can hope to go toe-to-toe with top Koreans, and they ultimately fail to topple them in the end. Serral's semifinal run in 2018 has been the greatest success so far, while the wreckage of derailed hype trains decorate the landscape at Katowice. Neeb infamously finished last in his group in 2017 after having won a historic KeSPA cup in the preceding months. ShoWTimE and SpeCial combined for 0-8 against Koreans in 2018. Reynor did not even get out of the open bracket in 2019 after losing to Creator.
[At the same time, don’t freak out or overreact if your favorite player under-performs. Observant readers will note that this did not stop the above players from having successful campaigns in the end, in spite of their disastrous starts. Reynor ended 2019 by finishing runner-up in the Global Finals in 2019. Both ShoWTimE and SpeCial reached BlizzCon in 2018, with SpeCial making top eight. Neeb went on to be the best Circuit player in 2017, winning three out of four Circuit events.]
Obviously, fans of foreign StarCraft will be looking to Reynor and Serral to break this Katowice curse. They've utterly dominated the foreign scene over the last year, and their rivalry culminated in a fateful semifinal match at BlizzCon which saw Reynor's excellence force an uncharacteristic stumble out of Serral. With neither of them facing a group-of-death draw (pending the results of the open bracket), both should be expected to make the playoffs. While everyone's form is uncertain at the moment, the Zerg duo has proven they're on the same level as the top Koreans in the past. It's not just an opportunity to prove themselves as just 'the best foreigner,' but as perhaps as the best overall player, period. If not for the bloody history of foreigners at Katowice, it wouldn't be unreasonable for their fans to dream of a grand finals showdown.
Of course, there are plenty of players and matches to look forward to outside of the very top end. Non-Korean players have generally disappointed at Katowice, but that doesn't mean they haven't created a decent number of upsets as well. As mentioned above, those previously empty upsets might now have big ramifications in the future.
We have to single out Poland's Elazer as someone to keep a watch out for, as he surprised us by joining Reynor and Serral in the Ro24 through the online qualifiers (defeating Denver, Scarlett, and SpeCial to earn his seed). He was consistently good but inconsistently great in 2019, reaching the top eight at all WCS Circuit events and making one sparkling run to the finals of GSL vs. The World. It profiles him as an odd player to make predictions about. At the very least, he'll hope to improve upon his 0-5 group stage outing at IEM Katowice 2018 and give the Polish fans a performance worth cheering for.
Everyone else must fight their way up from the open bracket, a treacherous place that has buried many a fan-favorite. As previously mentioned, Creator eliminated Reynor last year, while Scarlett failed to break through the bracket in 2018—a shocking result after her impressive IEM Pyeongchang championship. And while this does reflect poorly on the non-Koreans, they're not the only ones who lose their way. Stats was once proxy-raxed out by souL, on the same day as soO lost to Harstem and LosirA.
In 2020, some Circuit flash-points include ShoWTimE and HeRoMaRinE being in the same bracket as sOs, Neeb being on a collision course with INnoVation, and SpeCial somehow drawing a newly-returned Polt in the first round of a challenging bracket that also features PtitDrogo and soO. Then there's bracket #4, full of those ‘at least one of these guys is bound to create a crazy, where-the-hell-did-that-come-from upset’ players such as Hellraiser, Lambo, HateMe, Rail, uThermal and Kelazhur.
Realistically, most of the Circuit players aren't competing at Katowice with a hope to win the championship. But there's a worthy aspiration to be the player who makes that surprise run, the player the community rallies around, and show those so-called championship contenders that their playoffs spots can't be taken for granted. They have a chance to battle history in a place that's been a stronger bastion of Korean strength than the Global Finals, or even GSL vs. The World. For years, Katowice has been the tournament Korean elitists have pointed out as evidence that nothing truly changes, the reality check on how the old world order continues to rule. Maybe 2020 will be the year the non-Korean scene can finally start the year strong and prove that the ESL Pro Tour brings with it more than just a change of name.