The curse is over—is it time now for a streak? Playing in his first major finals since IEM Katowice 2019, soO came through with another victory, defeating INnoVation 4-3 to win TeamLiquid Starleague 5's $8,000 first place prize. soO's finals triumph was the culmination of a stellar run through the upper bracket, where he defeated PtitDrogo, INnoVation, SpeCial, Elazer, Trap, and INnoVation once more to end the tournament with a perfect match record.
Much like his run back at Katowice, soO's success defied most expectations. He had not entered the tournament as one of the favorites to win the title, and his Code S RO16 elimination midway did not help this perception. But, at least over the course of four weeks of TSL5, everything seemed to go soO's way. He had plenty of chances to flex his preferred style of overwhelming opponents with unending Lair-tech swarms, and he even got those random, lucky breaks every champion needs (like Elazer failing to execute a tricky ZvZ wall-off against a Zergling rush).
As impressive as it was to see soO's world-class macro play unearthed, the most surprising thing about his run was the way he won the championship clinching map. Tied 3-3 in the BO7 finals, soO got off to a poor start in game seven when he lost his expansion Hatchery to an unscouted proxy-Barracks Bunker rush. Years of watching soO lose in finals had trained us to assume that the game was already over, and that soO would just collapse from that position. Instead, he stayed composed despite his disadvantage, made all the right strategic and tactical moves, and came back to defeat INnoVation with a Roach-Ravager-Ling all-in of his own.
Only time will tell exactly how much weight soO's TSL5 victory will carry in the community's eyes—a compelling narrative often supersedes reality in StarCraft II, and Korean community-consensus effectively wiped away his 2015 KeSPA Cup win for the sake of his Kong story-line. Still, at the very least, TSL5 should reaffirm that soO's second place curse is dead and buried, and that he's become a player who can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
soO's victory was tinged with some bitterness, however, as he announced in his post-match interview that he would be departing to fulfill his mandatory military service in four month's time. That makes the upcoming GSL Code S Season 2 his final major competition, and his last chance to earn another major championship before his eighteen-month service begins.
Regular viewers of GSL would have found the grand finals (Twitch VOD) between soO and INnoVation to be shockingly 'honorable' in comparison to the Code S playoffs. It was a throwback to Heart of the Swarm, with soO going for Muta-Ling-Bane while INnoVation went for standard, three-base bio play. There was little trickery in the first five games, with the biggest variables being what kind of early-game harassment INnoVation went for, and how much damage that harassment got done. Perhaps, in a testament to how closely matched the two finalists were in standard play, the games mostly snowballed the way they were 'supposed to.' Roasting just a handful of Drones with an early Hellion strike would turn into a comfortable victory march for INnoVation minutes later, while an untouched soO would end up overwhelming INnoVation with his never-ending swarm.
Deceptive plays entered the equation as the series started to reach its conclusion. Headed into game six at a 2-3 deficit, soO opted to go for a clever, fake-out move on Golden Wall. He built his third base at the top-left expansion—one expansion north of its typical position. This fooled INnoVation into thinking soO had taken his backdoor expansion, and/or that he was going for a two-Hatch build with extra-fast Lair tech. Curiosity killed the cat in this case, as INnoVation plunged his Hellbats far too deep into soO's territory to see what was up, only to lose them to enveloping Queens and Zerglings. As in the previous games, this kind of early game advantage meant all the difference between such evenly matched players, and soO snowballed his way to a series tying win (though INnoVation's famed macro kept it close for a while).
In the deciding game seven, INnoVation finally pulled out the proxy-Barracks Bunker-rush—a high win-rate ace card for many a Terran in important matches. soO's Overlord scout discovered it far too late, which allowed INnoVaction to make the perfectly good trade of a Bunker and four Marines for the Zerg's natural hatchery. Silver medal #10 (depending on who's counting) seemed to be a lock for soO, but a combination of good fortune and excellent crisis management allowed him to turn things around. After retaking his bases, soO decided he'd try to catch INnoVation off guard with his first Roach tech of the series. This ended up being a beautiful blind-counter to INnoVation's Hellbat-Liberator follow-up (though soO may have anticipated it), with the Roaches easily killing the Hellbats while Speedlings snuck behind enemy lines to raid the mining SCV's. After wiping out the Hellbats, soO saw an opening to end the game and pulled the trigger on a massive Roach-Ravager-Ling attack.
Morphing Ravagers in sight of a liberator almost endangered soO's push, but he managed to complete enough of them to rain down biles on INnoVation's wall-in and break through into the Terran main. With his defenses breached and Zerg troops flooding in, INnoVation was left with no choice but to type out the final GG.
I'll end with some parting thoughts on some of the other notable players & themes of the tournament.
INnoVation's hype train comes to a screeching halt: With two 3-4 losses to seemingly inferior opponents in the span of a week, much of INnoVation's momentum has evaporated into thin air. Hindsight is a tricky thing, and I don't want to rush to any conclusions about how good INnoVation 'really' was over the last month. Some fans might say he wasn't any better or worse than he was in 2019, and that his handful of clever builds in the Code S group of death fooled everyone into thinking he had gone up a level. Others might say he was truly playing at a higher level than in most of 2019, and that he was simply unlucky to lose by razor-thin margins in two BO7 series.
Personally, I can see the case for both opinions—a boring take, I know. What wasn't boring was INnoVation's demeanor over the last few weeks, as he swaggered around the GSL studio and declared himself the future champion, and had a smirk permanently affixed to his face (somehow, the smirk came across even in online play). That's the most fun version of INnoVation we've seen in a very long time, and I hope this persona returns in Code S Season 2.
Trap, and the dilemma of being hard-stuck again: I went back and watched the CrankTV VOD of Trap vs soO, and was pleasantly surprised to hear sOs join in as a guest commentator. Aside from sOs' delightfully dry sense of humor in balance whining, the thing I laughed at the most was how he roasted his Jin Air teammate Trap. The best roasts are always anchored in uncomfortable truths, and I had to feel bad for Trap when sOs called him a "mass-produced Protoss." Basically, he was calling Trap someone who didn't have the ability to innovate or get easy wins with unexpected build orders.
Now, being extremely proficient at boring-ass standard play has been enough for other pros to win championships in the past, so this isn't necessarily a huge knock on Trap's style (friend-of-the-site GGemini is going to counter that Trap actually IS creative, but whatever). But, at least in the context of the previous season of Code S, it does seem that being an excellent macro player won't cut it in this day and age of GSL. Standard play can get deep into the playoffs, or maybe even carry you all the way to the finals. But looking at our last few champions, it feels like you also need a devious strategic mind to win the championship. TSL5 was the tournament Trap might have won on the back of his strong fundamentals, but instead, that opportunity ended up being seized by soO.
Korea vs. The World: After every mixed-region event, there's always a few fams who want to turn it into a referendum on the state of Korea vs the rest of the world. For instance, after GSL vs World 2019 you might have heard people say what amounts to "HAHA, Korean ZvZ sucks after all." Or after every IEM Katowice: "HAHA, foreigners are, were, and will always be trash." Let's not do that with TSL5.
Still, I do feel that TSL5 helped further illuminate some big-picture trends. As mentioned in a prior preview, there's a growing number of foreigners, who at their peak level of play, can beat Korean pros in BO5 series. In TSL5 we saw MaNa 3-1 PartinG, uThermal 3-0 Zest, and SpeCial 3-1 Cure—and of those results, I'd say only uThermal's clean sweep of Zest was actually shocking. These are the kinds of upsets we see frequently enough at BlizzCon, HomeStory Cup, and GSL vs the World.
The 'problem' for foreigners, so to speak, is that high peak skill doesn't equal high consistency or ability to perform in the clutch. uThermal's TSL5 run reminded me of TIME and HeroMarine at the 2019 Global Finals: The pair of Terrans won major upsets against Maru and Classic in their initial encounters, only to get destroyed in the rematches where elimination was on the line. Likewise, uThermal may have caused the biggest upset of the TSL5 by 3-0'ing Zest in week one, but he ended up being eliminated by Zest in the losers bracket rematch. I don't know that there's any simple solution to the problem of inconsistency and losing in important matches. Maybe, as was the case in closing the overall skill gap, the answers will come with time.