ASUS ROG Online 2020: Showdown of Ultimate Destinyby Wax
The big story of DreamHack Masters: Winter was Korea's humiliating performance, with four out of six KR representatives failing to survive the group stages, reigning Code S champion TY getting swept by Neeb in the RO8, and only Stats salvaging some pride by reaching the finals. It was Korea's most disastrous event since GSL vs. The World 2019, which featured the all European final of Serral vs Elazer.
In a certain sense, DH Winter was emblematic of the times, where Korea has lost its status as the singular, uber-dominant nation of StarCraft II. Yet, it's also not a result one should read too deeply into. A month before DH Winter, we saw King of Battles conclude in an all-Korean final, with the slumping Cure eliminating both Reynor and Serral on his way to second place finish. It's undeniable that the Korea-World skill gap has gradually closed, when you look at the big picture over the last few years. But the data points of individual tournaments are scattered around wildly, and one should realize that neither KoB nor DH Winter were referendums on the overall state of competitive SC2.
Who am I to tell you NOT to consume StarCraft II as a series of short term narratives where the thing that just happened is also the most important thing that's ever happened? I mean, c'mon. This is sports, where there's no downside overreacting to events—in fact, recency bias is what makes it fun (this may be the answer to why Tastosis always seem to be enjoying themselves so immensely).
And thus, I can say with my tongue firmly in cheek, while also being 100% serious, that ASUS ROG Online is the climactic battle of ultimate destiny. Korea was victorious at King of Battles, the World triumphed at DreamHack Winter—Will the reeling Korean empire take its revenge? Or will the united of heroes of the world continue to dismantle their tyrannical reign? This is the deciding bout, the one for ALL of then international marbles.
Until TSL6, anyway.
The European TriumvirateReynor and Serral are the top candidates to win another title for the non-Koreans, having taken all the major global tournament wins for foreigners this year (Serral winning DH Summer and Winter, Reynor winning DH Fall and the DouYu Cup).
Clem might have similar odds to win a solely European tournament, but lingering questions about his TvT and TvP remain in global tournaments. The aggregate stats say Clem is decent vs Korean Protosses and horrid vs Terrans—but regardless of those big picture numbers, he's generally struggled to get by them in bigger, more richly prized events.
What makes Clem intriguing, however, is how steadily he has improved from tournament to tournament. Over the course of the year, he's gone from a player who was clearly a tier below Serral and Reynor to a player who might even have a slight edge. In that context, it's easy to see his DHW performance—a group stage victory over Maru and narrow 2-3 defeat to Stats—as a minor milestone on the way to an inevitable breakthrough against the top Koreans. There aren't any easy outs for him at ASUS ROG, with ByuN, INnoVation, and Maru representing Terran, and Stats and PartinG holding it down for Protoss. Given how Clem has progressively overcome all the obstacles set before him this year, this might be the tournament where he scores a major win against one of those players in a BO5+ series.
Koreans wHo ArEn'T TrYinG*For the Korean faction, the stand-out player is Stats by default, who comes in as the DH winter runner-up. For GSL fans, Stats' finals against Serral was was encouraging and deflating at the same time. Stats managed to take a comprehensive late-game victory—something that seemed completely impossible just a year ago. However, Serral responded by simply demolishing Stats with Hydra-bane in the mid-game, showing his that his ZvP mastery spans across all the phases of a match.
In general, Stats has been worryingly inconsistent as of late. While his peak-level play is still championship tier, he's become oddly prone to throwing games—in GSL and DreamHack, he was just a map away blowing what had seemed like one-sided wins against INnoVation and Clem, respectively.
It really seems like we'll just have to wait and see which of the big, brand name players (including Stats) happen to be in good form over the weekend. Maru's dominance in 2018 has really spoiled people in terms of what to reasonably expect from top-tier Koreans—the inconsistency of an INnoVation or a Rogue is probably much more 'normal' that we'd like.
What makes things all the more frustrating for fans is that these players give you few hints of when they're going to play at their peak level. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I can't really explain how INnoVation came out of nowhere to take $100,000 off Serral at WESG 2018 (give it your best shot, 'I watch every online cup'-tier TL.net users). Likewise, there wasn't much hype around Rogue before he hit the jackpot at IEM Katowice 2020. There's just a strong "you never know" factor with Stats, Maru, Rogue, and INnoVation.
*[C'mon, guys. Since when did "the players didn't try" become a more popular explanation for results than "StarCraft is hard and other players are also good."?]
Mid-tier madnessWhile the SC2 community tends to focuses on the championship picture when discussing the Korea-World rivalry, I've generally believed the more important measure of parity is the performance of 'middle-class' players. Historically, the mid-tier Koreans have mopped the floor with their counterparts in the foreign scene, and they've been far more capable of punching above their weight and making a deep tournament run. King of Battles continued this trend, with HeroMarine, Nice, ShoWTimE, uThermal, and MaNa getting eliminated in the group stages, while Zoun made a surprise run to the playoffs. However, other tournaments have seen the less-heralded foreigners make up ground, be it Astrea's PvP heroics in Dreamhack Winter, or Elazer and uThermal's top six runs in TSL5. How will things pan out this time around?
The group of Koreans who made it through the qualifiers is quite scary—if you're wondering why Zest, Cure, Dark, and Trap aren't playing, it's because of these guys: DongRaeGu, ByuN, PartinG, and Solar. It wouldn't be surprising to see any of these players make a run to the finals, but I'm particularly interested in seeing how far along ByuN is in his post-military recovery. Though the infamous online grinder is putting up a solid 70% win-rate in such competitions, his Code S RO16 run wasn't particularly notable.
Meanwhile, the non-Serral/Reynor/Clem foreigners include Harstem, MaxPax, Neeb, SpeCial, and ShoWTimE. Obviously, Neeb is the player who stands out most here, with the American Protoss making a surprise top four run at DreamHack Winter where defeated Clem, TY, and Armani along the way.
But I'm more curious in seeing how the Europeans do—with the DH Season Finals format only awarding four seeds to Europe, it's been awfully hard for the other European players to get a chance to shine in high-stakes global competition. The might of the Reynor-Serral-Clem triumvirate by itself doesn't warrant more European representation in the EPT system—the other players have to demonstrate their prowess as well.
Statistics and records: Liquipedia