The Gold Series Team Championship isn't China's only major team league—the Netease Esports X Tournaments (NeXT) Spring tournament had been running parallel to GTC since early April. We're not sure about the inner workings at NetEase that causes them to run two different team tourneys at once, but we're definitely glad about it: the May 2nd grand finale of NeXT Spring saw Dark and INnoVation clash several times in high-level games worthy of any top-tier tournament.
Dark's Dragon Phoenix Gaming squad emerged victorious in the end, defeating INnoVation's KaiZi Gaming 4-3 in the grand finals to claim the first place prize of ¥60,000 (~$8,500 USD). While Dark defeated INnoVation in the championship deciding ace match, INnoVation still ended up being one of the 'winners' of the tournament. By going a combined 3-2 against Dark in the two matches between KZ and DPG, he backed up his bluster from the group selection ceremony and furthered the hype that the 'old INnoVation' might be back.
Check Liquipedia for group stage results
Last year, NeXT distinguished itself from the GTC by adding 2v2 matches to its spring tournament. This time around, it changed things up by using a unique BO7 format: teams fielded a line-up of three players who could each play twice each over the course of six maps, (with an ace-match if needed).
The way everything came together in the NeXT playoffs felt like destiny. In TL's GTC articles, I've often talked about Dragon Phoenix Gaming and KaiZi Gaming as the two giants most likely to win the championship, analogous to the two telecom teams of the Proleague. They certainly delivered a showdown worthy of the telecom legacy in their first tournament finals together.
Starting with eight of the GTC teams in the group stages, NeXT saw DPG, KaiZi, BSG, and Team LP advance to the playoffs. DPG took first place in their group as expected, but KaiZi only advanced in second place from their group after suffering a 3-4 upset against BSG (where Hurricane took down INnoVation in the ace match). This meant the playoffs kicked off with a blockbuster match of KaiZi vs DPG.
KaiZi won this initial match convincingly, with their 4-1 victory avenging their Week 1 loss to DPG in the GTC. The series included two pretty awesome macro games between KZ.INnoVation and DPG.Dark (Game 1 VOD | Game 2 VOD), which the Machine Terran was able to win by breaking Dark apart bit by bit with overwhelming attacks on multiple fronts. If you were longing for the return of 2017 INnoVation, the you'll find no better encouragement than these two games. I particularly recommend watching Game 1—had it been played in front of a live crowd like previous NeXT events, the fans would have gone crazy for their hero Lü Bu.
In the other first round match, Team LP battled out it out with Brave Star Gaming, with LP.Patience standing strong until he was toppled by BSG.Scarlett in the ace match. The Canadian Zerg had a pretty good weekend in general, winning three of the four matches she was fielded in, including this important ace match. BSG vs. LP is a recommended series for the sheer "NA factor" in some of the games, combined with the drama of it going to the ace match (VOD). Pure team league energy!
KaiZi continued to steamroll through the bracket, bringing out a triple-Terran line-up to defeat BSG 4-0 in the winners final (VOD). BSG.Dream came the closest to stealing a map in a very promising TvT against INnoVation, but failed to close the game out when he had the chance. Dragon Phoenix Gaming must have been pretty unhappy with their journey down into the lower bracket, and came back with a vengeance by dismantling Team LP 4-0 (VOD) and then taking out BSG 4-1 (VOD) in the losers final. Again, BSG's Dream almost took a map off a top-tier Korean Terran, but couldn't get it done in the end against Cure. Scarlett ended up taking the only map for BSG (vs Firefly), while DPG booked a grand finals rematch against KaiZi.
The grand finals started off with another INnoVation vs. Dark game (VOD | Game starts at 03:20), though it turned out to be not as great a spectacle as the two previous matches from earlier on in the bracket. Dark's army movement was unusually sluggish, opening gaps in his defenses which INnoVation was all too easily was able to exploit. KZ.TIME followed this victory up by doing what Dream could not achieve against Cure on Purity and Industry, taking the DPG Terran out with a strong push at his natural after Cure made some very unwise drop decisions. It looked like KaiZi might be able to repeat their feat from earlier and take down DPG in dominant fashion, but Dark was finally able to defeat INnoVation after fending off his proxy 3-Rax Reaper build. With KZ's momentum halted, Cure equalized the series against KZ.Dear, playing a proxy Barracks opener of his own to inflict some early damage. Dear managed to force a transition into a more stable game, but Cure still came out on top in the end.
Still, KaiZi Gaming were in a great position, still having TIME and Dear left to send out, while DPG was forced to field DPG.Firefly in back-to-back games. The 'weak link' of the DPG line-up tried to play a straight-up macro game against TIME and showed some promising maneuvers, but was ultimately overpowered by the #1 Chinese player. Immediately, it was Firefly's turn to play again, this time against Dear with no more second chances. It speaks volumes for Firefly that he didn't despair in this situation, nor did he go for the kind of weird all-in that netted him a huge upset win against Maru in the 2019 CTC finals. Instead, in what would be Firefly's finest hour, he outplayed Dear, averted a 4-2 loss for his team, and forced an ace match. Taking on his Korean opponent without any fear in a straight-up game, Firefly showed superb Zealot harassment and Blink Stalker movement, even sending his Stalkers deep into enemy territory to snipe Probes and delay crucial upgrades before being recalling to safety. Posturing with his superior Zealot-Archon-Stalker army, Firefly tried to bait Dear into an engagement, but the Korean held steadfast, waiting for his Disruptors to come out. Dear scored some huge Disruptor shots in one of the prolonged battles, but in the end he made the wrong decision of engaging Firefly’s army through a chokepoint. Firefly's superior position allowed him to chop Dear's legs out from underneath him (VOD), keeping DPG’s championship dreams alive in a final ace match.
What else could our ace match have been than another edition of INnoVation against Dark? There was no more fitting way to decide this finals, once and for all (VOD). Dark once again opted for a Roach based strategy on Golden Wall, heavily pressuring INnoVation, who in turn tried his best to use the superior mobility of his Medivacs to keep the Zerg busy at home. With constant skirmishing on both sides of the map straining the players’ attention, Dark finally managed to impact his opponent’s economy—something he could not do in the first game between them in these Grand Finals. As both players ground down each other’s economies, the game all of a sudden became very scrappy: Dark lost several bases and tech structures to drops he couldn’t really stop, while INnoVation’s SCVs lines were constantly ravaged by swarms of Zerglings. A heroic flock of three Vipers proved to be critical for Dark’s effort, since their Parasitic Bombs really cut into INnoVation’s Medivac count after a while, and finally punished the incursions into Dark’s territory.
This kind of scrappy fighting ended up playing to Dark's strengths: he didn’t have much to work with, so he made his units count. Having a ragtag army of Zerglings, Banelings, Ultralisks, Roaches, and Ravagers, Dark detached small groups of units to roam the map and keep INnoVation from rebuilding his severely weakened economy. With both players on their last legs, INno gave up trying to vainly defend his scattered bases, and instead consolidated his forces to take the fight to Dark once more. It proved to be the final march of the Machine, as Dark had already prepared a full surround and finally sprung the ambush, covering his charge with Blinding Clouds. INnoVation was finally defeated, and he conceded his first macro game loss to Dark that weekend. Dark may have lost the direct duel against INnoVation with a 2-3 score over the two team matches, but he won the most important game of the five. With this win in their NeXT debut season, Dragon Phoenix Gaming solidify their position as the top team of in the Chinese scene—we’ll see if KaiZi Gaming can take their revenge in the GTC and continue this saga.