2015: The Renaissance and Golden Age of Korean StarCraft IIby Mizenhauer
StarCraft II was always destined for great things.
Its predecessor, Brood War, was the product of a bygone era where game developers weren’t concerned with balancing the game for full-time professionals, the concept of esports was mostly limited to a convention center in Mesquite, Texas and most people didn’t even have high speed internet.
None of that mattered six-thousand miles away from Blizzard headquarters in South Korea, where Brood War became an unprecedented cultural phenomenon. An economic downturn, the proliferation of net cafes and high speed internet, and plain dumb luck factored into making Brood War the de facto national pastime for young men in Korea.
There was a tremendous desire to see the top players compete, which led to televised matches, the creation of live-in practice houses, corporate sponsorships... you know the rest.
Where Brood War’s success in Korea was entirely unplanned and unexpected, there was nothing unintentional about competitive StarCraft II. Designed from day one with the esports legacy of Brood War in mind, it was meant to spread the intense competition and pageantry that had captured one small nation’s imagination to the entire world.
StarCraft II made landfall with the fury of a hurricane. Viewership was excellent. Interest was sky-high. Organizations like Team Liquid and Evil Geniuses quickly established rosters, while tournament organizers like Dreamhack, ESL and MLG clamored for a chance to get a piece of the next big thing. Meanwhile, GomTV became the first Korean entity to transition from Brood War to StarCraft II with the foundation of what would eventually become the Global StarCraft League.
It didn’t take long for certain players to become stars. Fruitdealer won the First Open Season of Gom’s burgeoning competition, but was quickly swallowed by the rapidly evolving meta. Instead it was future champions, Nestea, MC and Mvp who came to dominate Korea and, by extension, the world.
But as rapidly as StarCraft II rose, its decline was steep as well. While much ink could be spillled about the specific reasons (*cough* BL-Infestor *cough*), it will suffice to say here that the game simply got old, the same way every game does. By the time RorO, one of KeSPA's rising stars, wrested control from the old guard, the halcyon days of StarCraft II already seemed long over.
Except this writer, who will always give RorO his just due.
Speaking of KeSPA, the powerful team coalition made the switch over to StarCraft II late in Wings of Liberty, but its assault began in earnest with the Heart of the Swarm expansion. From its ranks rose the aforementioned RorO, but more notably, players like INnoVation, sOs, soO and Rain, all of whom experienced great success in the years that followed. Unsurprisingly, their careers mirrored the ESF giants of WoL. Sure, they dropped maps or maybe lost earlier than expected in Code S, but no one really thought someone like BrAvO would suddenly surpass INnoVation or Shine would exceed soO. This wasn’t the early stages of StarCraft II when anything seemed possible. It was tempting for some fans to say StarCraft II had become yet another “stagnant water game”, as Korean fans had come to dub Brood War and its insular scene.
Those negative nancies would not be vindicated, however, because 2014 was n historic year for Korean StarCraft. A year when Zest and Classic fulfilled their potential, a year when Flash finally figured out SC2 and kicked a soccer ball with PartinG's name on it into the stratosphere. No, it wasn't quite 2011 when the sky was the limit, when MC gave IdrA the throat-slash gesture at MLG Columbus, and Hall D of the Anaheim Convention center felt like a Gwangalli beach for a new generation. But there was still room to grow.
The rumblings began on October 31, 2014 when Blizzard announced that 2015’s WCS format would include not just GSL, but a second individual league run by SPOTV Games. It was an unprecedented move and one which immediately made waves. No one knew what form it would take, but come January 2015, GSL, Proleague, and the newly established StarCraft 2 Starleague (SSL) formed a triumvirate unlike any in the game’s history.
- Monday, January 12: Proleague
- Tuesday, January 13: Proleague
- Wednesday, January 14: GSL
- Thursday, January 15: SSL
- Friday, January 16: GSL
Professional StarCraft II five nights a week. These weren't just the weekly cups we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. This trio of major tournaments, featuring StarCraft at the absolute highest level, were truly the gold standard. It was a killer line-up of top-tier StarCraft, with KeSPA Proleague as the financial anchor. Then there was GSL, the longest running tournament and the historical heart of competitive Korean SC2. Finally, there was SSL, which had room to experiment, playing out of a new studio with new casters and a new 16-player format.
Five nights of top notch StarCraft esports every week, just like in the golden era of Brood War's Proleague. This was the sort of thing Blizzard must have dreamed of when they conceived of StarCraft II. Of course, WCS continued to operate for the benefit of the international scene, but make no mistake about it: Korean StarCraft II was going to a whole new level.
Inside the tournament triumvirate, fans could cheer for the trio of top players in Dream, Maru and Life. Their battles and successes in early 2015 reminded us of how great StarCraft II could be. Even the most hardened, jaded fan had to feel excitement when exposed to their brilliance. You knew you were witnessing history when watching Maru's and Life’s victories in Season 1 of the SSL and GSL. Dream ran it back in Season 2, returning to the finals of SSL, but had to settle for second best once more as Classic became the first Code S champion to triumph in another premier Korean league.
Meanwhile, Rain outgrew his reputation as the greatest defensive Protoss player of all time, transforming into a behemoth. Adept in every facet of the game, he became the first player to win Code S while a member of a foreign team, and the only one to do so before the fall of KeSPA.
KeSPA's big four once more found themselves on top of Proleague, with CJ Entus, KT Rolster, Jin Air and SK Telecom trading blows as the season progressed. SK Telecom’s perfect Round 3 culminated with a 4-3 win over Jin Air that had the crowds trading fan-chants so boisterous and fervent they will never be forgotten, the third consecutive defeat in the round finals for a daring Jin Air squad.
Statistics say barely anyone clicks links embedded in text, so here’s SK Telecom’s glorious win (and fanchants) in all their majesty
The rise of ByuL tinted the latter portion of 2015 in a different shade. Losing in the finals of Code S during Seasons 2 and 3, as well as Season 3 of SSL painted him as an undeniably tragic figure in the image of soO. But, it was his runs to those finals, which included uphill battles against mech, perfect mutalisk play, and the ability to execute any strategy under the sun against Protoss that was proof of his undeniable skill. Lastly, his emotion made him a hero. If Maru’s play earlier in the year had us visualizing the perfect player, ByuL’s tears, tears that moved Gyuri beyond words showed us the irresistible, human side of StarCraft II. And, yet, it was INnoVation who brought cold, ruthless, excellence back into focus at the end of the year, as he surgically destroyed ByuL in what would end up being his last premier tournament finals.
2015's solo tournaments had already made it the most action-packed year in StarCraft II’s history, but Proleague soiled us with the grandest of finales. sOs’ scored an impossible reverse all-kill in the first round of the Proleague playoffs, nudging Jin Air past Flash's KT. In the following round, Rogue’s banelings showered down on herO’s army, leaving the mouths of CJ fans on the floor while Jin Air fans roared in delight. Disbelief etched on his face, herO ceded the first ace match. Cursed to never be the star of the story, ByuL had to surrender the final GG of the series to sOs a day later, catapulting Jin Air into the Proleague finals for the first time.
The Proleague finals duel between SK Telecom and Jin Air will be remembered as the long awaited coronation of the most individually successful team in Korean StarCraft II history up to that point. SK Telecom had survived a roster revamp after their finals defeat a year earlier to become perhaps the strongest, most versatile team in the league’s history. The plucky Jin Air squad had done well to make it so far, but they would need another year of seasoning before they were truly championship quality. SK Telecom reclaimed the championship, with Classic closing out Trap in the final game.
Never again will we have a year quite like 2015. Never again will we feel its energy and experience its thrill. 2016 attempted to a facsimile of the same, but continued match-fixing scandals, the disbanding of teams, and the spectre of KeSPA's departure from SC2 were shadows that loomed over the scene.
Five nights of StarCraft, three leagues, thrilling games and magnetic players. Back in 2015, we were so engulfed in everything going on that we never were able to step back and take a moment to appreciate our surroundings. It was impossible to grasp the scope and magnitude of the moment.
A lot has changed over the past half decade, but through thick and thin we’ve been able to rely on the twice weekly visits to the FreecUP Studio. Those who watch, whether it’s 5:30 am, lunch time, or early evening are at least subconsciously aware of the significance of watching Code S, how it's a pilgrimage we are fortunate to still call our own. StarCraft is different, but most of the old faces are still around and fighting. The bounty and yoke of KeSPA are long gone, but those who once fought under the banner of SKT or CJ Entus have long found ways to manage without their former patrons, and have sometimes found themselves fighting together wearing new heraldry on new battlefields.
For better or worse, this is our reality. The scene is smaller, but don’t make the mistake of thinking something is lessened simply because something is smaller. I’ve long been a pessimist, perhaps too preoccupied with thinking about the eventual end than finding joy in the present. StarCraft II is about those who play the game and those who support them. As long as you’re here it will never truly disappear. As long as people care it will hold a place in our hearts.
Still, as summer settles over a world that has become more uncertain than ever before, older fans of the game can’t help reminisce about crowded outdoor finals at Lotte World and Children’s Grand Park. About the battles between the rising superstar Dream and a still-pure Life. About the pain of watching ByuL fall just short each time, the terror of seeing INnoVation return to the supreme machine form, the bemusement of seeing soO win a semi-major title, and the respect of seeing sOs claim his second BlizzCon title at year's end.
Simply put, it’s impossible not to think back to 2015 when Korean StarCraft experienced its renaissance and we all watched in awe.