2020 GSL Code S Season 2 - Round of 8 Day 1Start time: Wednesday, Jul 29 9:30am GMT (GMT+00:00)
What better way to celebrate 10 years of StarCraft II than with a night of GSL Code S? Keeping with the theme of remembering StarCraft II history, the first day of Code S quarterfinal matches features two blasts from the past. DongRaeGu and Dream have defied all our expectations and made it to the playoffs, showing us that mandatory military service doesn't have to be the end of a player's career.
Quarterfinals Match #1: DongRaeGu vs INnoVationby Wax
This is a rematch that has been nearly six years in the making.
Back on September 17th, 2014, INnoVation crushed DongRaeGu in the quarterfinals of Code S Season 3, taking a convincing, one-sided 3-0 sweep. It would be DongRaeGu's last Code S match until July of 2020.
As a fan, it's hard not to see a lot of symbolism in that match. DongRaeGu had been one of the best Zergs of Wings of Liberty, with three major tournament championships (including a GSL Code S title) to his name. DRG's in-game skills, combined with his outgoing personality and impressive English skills, made him one of the most popular and iconic figures in early StarCraft II. But by 2014, he had become a shadow of his former self. As it turns out, the "Elephant in the room" truthers had been right. Once KeSPA players made the official switch to StarCraft II and finished adjusting to a new game, they began to trample all over the initial pioneers of the SC2 scene. Some players like Polt and MC sought refuge abroad. Talented prospects like PartinG, Dark and Maru were assimilated into the KeSPA machine. DongRaeGu chose to stay in Korea and deal with the consequences.
DongRaeGu was too much of survivor to be relegated to irrelevance, but he ended up being stuck in the middle-tier. He ground out games for Team MVP in Proleague, doing what he could to try and keep them in the middle of the pack (he couldn't attain a 50% win-rate in 2014). In Code S, the tournament where he was once a champion, he became a group-stage regular. Still, he could create some inspiring moments of defiance, such as when defeated Brood War god Flash in Proleague, or better yet, defeated Flash to earn that Code S playoff match against INnoVation in the first place.
Unfortunately, his 3-0 drubbing at the hands of INnoVation was an instant snap back to reality. INnoVation was one of the players who had been at the KeSPA vanguard, leading the invasion into StarCraft II. While INnoVation had taken a one-year sabbatical from KeSPA to take a paycheck from Team Acer in 2014, he was still very much a symbol of the new world order that had changed the face of Korean StarCraft II. It was sadly fitting that he was the one who banished DongRaeGu from Code S title contention forever more.
I suppose this kind of fanciful storytelling is more for the fans than progamers. Perhaps, from the point of view of the actual players, the narrative was a simple as "DRG bad, INnOVation good." But even if that were the case, the implications would have been no less painful for DongRaeGu.
While DRG stuck around in the competitive scene for a while longer, Code S Season 3 of 2014 felt like the beginning of the end. He no longer qualified for GSL Code S tournaments on the regular, and thus started to fade out of our collective awareness (he did have a surprisingly solid Proleague campaign for Sbenu in 2015, yet again beating Flash in a signature upset). He planned a belated move to the overseas WCS Circuit, but the newly implemented "hard" region-lock of 2016 thwarted his plans. In the autumn of 2016, DRG departed from progaming to begin his military service.
The biggest surprise of 2020 so far isn't Rogue's IEM Katowice run, Cure's power-up as a championship level player, or any of Serral's ZvZ losses in major tournaments. No, it's the fact DongRaeGu, of all the players to return to competitive StarCraft II after South Korea's mandatory military service, was the first one to ever reach the Code S quarterfinals. All the evidence so far has told us that military service is a career death sentence, with players seemingly taking a permanent blow to their level of skill. Several greats of the past—MMA, MC,TaeJa, and Bomber among them—have tried to get over the RO16 hump (some are still trying), but all had failed up until this season.
If anyone could possibly break through, we expected it to be a player who had more recently shown us championship-quality play. MMA, Dream, and TaeJa seemed like they might have a chance, as they had been in the championship picture in late 2014 (well into 2015, in Dream's case). Certainly, their chances didn't look good, but it sure seemed more likely that they'd succeed than someone like DongRaeGu who had last been truly great in Wings of Liberty.
And yet, somehow, DongRaeGu beat the odds and won the race to reach the quarterfinals. What's more impressive about his run is that he's done it with a foundation as a solid macro player. In the RO24, he twice defeated Code S stalwart Dear to advance to the second group stage. He showed us why Korean Zergs have been crediting him for figuring out standard Zerg plays in 2020, and being the one to develop the textbook response to Zest's new Glaive-Adept meta. He also showed us how he's been adapting to the GSL-specific meta. DRG said that he had been too fixated on macro play in the early stages of his return, and had become too predictable. He adjusted by bringing out early Speedling all-ins against Dear, which worked brilliantly in helping him to the RO16 (the builds were good enough that even Serral admitted to copying them in Dreamhack).
One could say DongRaeGu was aided in the RO16 by being placed into an easy group with TY, Scarlett, and SpeCial. The #1 seed in the GSL RO16 usually manages to draft three of the weakest players to his group, making it easy for an underdog to sneak into the playoffs in second place. But DongRaeGu didn't beat up on the foreigner duo to claim a playoff spot—he smashed TY fair and square to take 1st place in his group. In fact, in his matches against SpeCial and TY, the only games he lost were to Bunker rushes.
In any case, DongRaeGu's reward for his historic accomplishment is a much-delayed playoff rematch against INnoVation. In an interview with Hajinsun, DRG revealed he doesn't have much of an ax to grind against INnoVation for their bygone match. Rather, he said was relieved to have drawn INnoVation instead of PartinG, due to his preference for ZvT over ZvP.
Is DongRaeGu for real? Two Code S groups is too small a sample to go off of, especially for an ex-military player with few notable results since his return. But I do desperately want to believe he's real, if only for the future of the 'returnees' and the future of Korean StarCraft II on the whole.
As for INnoVation, he was typically nonplussed about having to face DongRaeGu in the quarterfinals. One of the more intriguing subplots of this GSL season was how the top Terrans all seemed to consider TvZ a favorable match-up, but INnoVation was the only one who really proved that point through his gameplay. After defeating Dark by a combined score of 4-0 in the RO16, it stands to reason that he had little reason to fear any other Zerg in the GSL (Serral and Reynor? Different kind of problem).
Anyway, I'll end by introducing a personal hypothesis that will be tested in the upcoming two matches. Maybe, just maybe, there are situations in professional StarCraft II where you have to go backward in order to move forward. Those who stay the course are suffering constant attrition to their willpower, passion, and conviction. But those who are forced to depart against their own will might end up better appreciating the value of what they once had. That kind of realization, which can only be gained through loss, could unlock another level of motivation.
Is that theory too idealistic? Probably.
Prediction: INnoVation 3 - 0 DongRaeGu
Quarterfinals Match #2: Dream vs Rogueby Orlok
'Returnees' are a most enigmatic group of players. As with any career, it's not surprising for progamers to have some regrets when they retire, be it about matches they could have won with better play or not having tried just a little bit harder at a crucial juncture in their career. But still, life moves on, and it seems pointless to dwell too long on the events of the past.
Do players keep coming back to StarCraft II because they stubbornly insist on taking care of their unfinished business? Or do they return because they actually have put their regrets behind them, and can play without being weighed down by any of their bygone burdens? Whatever the logic behind coming back to SC2 is, the result has been mostly the same: disappointment and failure. Or, at least, it was until this season. Dream is back on the stage he left all those years ago, and is poised to reach heights he was denied all those years ago.
Dream’s career is one of one sharp ascendance followed by a quick descent. Once, he was just another pro player on a middling team in MVP, in danger of being swallowed up and lost in the sea of mid-tier competitors in Korea at the time. But deep down inside of him, there must have been a spark of talent that separated him from the masses, as SKT swooped in to add him to their roster in 2015 (certain TL.net forum-goers will claim they also noticed that spark!). Whatever scouting SKT did was spot on, as Dream quickly became a valuable part of SKT's campaign to reclaim the Proleague throne. Once a player who struggled to make it out of challenger/Code A, Dream made a star turn by reaching back-to-back finals in the newly established SpoTV Starleague. And while he didn’t end up lifting the trophy, he did look every bit like a next generation star. He was a versatile winner, being able to crack series against the likes of Life and herO, both of whom were at their peaks. He played a solid role in Proleague as well and looked to assume the mantle of top tier Terran for years to come.
Then, as quickly as he rose, Dream fell. A hot 2015 led to a extremely cold 2016, where he achieved little of note but a single Code S RO8 appearance. It was as if his hard-attained mastery of Heart of the Swarm had been instantly blown to pieces by the bombshell arrival of Legacy of the Void. Perhaps lacking the resolve to grind his way to the top in yet another expansion, the 21-year-old Dream decided to move on and begin his military service at an early age.
But, lo and behold, he completed his duty to his country, came back to StarCraft, and has actually picked up where he left off. Now just three seasons into his return, Dream finds himself already matching his previous high point in the GSL.
While one could point to Dream's baseline talent, #TerranPatch, and his relatively young age (he's still just 23) as the reason for his rapid recovery, there are still things that defy explanation. After all, TaeJa was just as talented (if not more so), is only two years older, and also plays Terran. Yet, while TaeJa is struggling to overcome F2 syndrome and survive in an era of extreme multi-tasking, Dream is playing impressive macro games on the level of TY, INnoVation, Cure, and Maru. Dream is doing all those top-tier Korean Terran things: he's everywhere on the map, he seems to have an infinite supply of units, and he has cheeky builds for the occasional free win. Did he just practice that much harder than all the returnees? Maybe more than TaeJa, but it's to think that he straight-up outworked consummate professionals like FanTaSy and MMA.
While there’s no concrete evidence, I believe in the end sometimes all you need to get over your hump is time. Not in the sense of time invested, but time as a resource going forward. There are instances where simply not focusing too hard on specific goals, just letting things proceed naturally, will actually beget better results. Dream doesn’t have to worry about military service. And unlike some older returnees, he doesn't have to worry as much about his 'life after progaming' and look around for coaching jobs or whatever he'll do next. For now, he’s free to play purely for himself, with no strings attached, and perhaps that’s why he’s outpacing a lot of other players.
On the other hand, Rogue is the opposite of Dream in many ways. Dream came back to resume a title-less career. Rogue has kept grinding for nearly a decade, and has achieved virtually all there is to achieve in professional StarCraft. Win BlizzCon? Check. Win IEM? Check. Win a GSL Code S? Check. Win IEM AGAIN? Check. Rogue has basically achieved the grand-slam of StarCraft II, and if anyone still doubted him, he was even on his way to contend for the WESG title before the tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19. Whatever regrets he has when he retires, they'll seem trivial compared to what Dream must have been processing in 2016.
If there is a regret, it would probably be the lack of popular recognition. Players like Maru and Serral are still given plenty of praise for their iconic 2018 campaigns, and have always been at the forefront of “best player in the world” debates for the last couple of years. Rogue, despite being far more successful at super-majors than either of them (Maru hasn't won either IEM or BlizzCon, while Serral has won a single BlizzCon), is rarely the first name to pop up in those debates. When people talk about the greatest of all time, it's always players like INnoVation (and his 10 major titles), Maru (for winning 4 Code S tournaments in a row), and Serral (because of reasons) who draw the most attention. Be it because he's maligned as a "patchzerg," because he tends to win in dominant, boring finals, because he slacks off hard after winning a major title, or because he simply has terrible trophy celebrations, Rogue just doesn't get as much praise as he deserves. While it probably doesn’t cost him much sleep (the new 50,000 won bills provide good neck support), it must bother him to some degree.
It’s hard to know what Rogue is playing for every time he steps onto the stage. The practical reason would naturally be to earn every dollar of prize money he can squeeze before inevitable retirement. But a more romantic view would be to perhaps earn—no, DEMAND—the recognition he deserves. Sure, there's a definitely a mercantile and pragmatic undercurrent you notice more and more in the SC2 scene, whether it's with multiple-time champions or returnees looking to make a quick buck. But just because something is underlined by pragmatism doesn't mean it's devoid of all loftier meaning. The knowledge that you are firmly one of the best ever in history is an honor that a precious few players ever come close to achieving. Somewhere in the cost-benefit analysis Rogue seems to engage in before every tournament, this has to factor in.
Prediction: Dream 3 - 2 Rogue