IEM Katowice 2021: China & Taiwanby TheOneAboveU
The 2020/21 season of the ESL Pro Tour has been an unusual one in many ways. Not only was it the first season held under ESL banner, but it was also one held under the extreme circumstances of a global pandemic. We quickly grew accustomed to online play, with Korea's GSL being the only tournament held regularly offline. Webcams became the norm, helping close the distance between players and audiences.
One unfortunate side effect of ESL's pandemic-restructured system is that the SC2 scene became more fractured than ever. The season was reorganized to focus on regional tournaments, leaving only the scaled-down Season Finals to offer a fraction of the international competition from the old WCS Circuit stops.
China and Taiwan (technically, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan) had already felt somewhat distanced from the other regions of StarCraft II, with China in particular having its own domestic system independent from the WCS Circuit. But the two regions always found ways to connect with fans in Korea and in the West, with representatives participating—and often making an impact—at major offline tournaments. With those competitions being hampered in 2020, China and Taiwan have fallen off the radar for many fans. Make no mistake, though: they played StarCraft II in 2020, and they're ready to show the class the results of their practice at Katowice.
A Nation's Champion: TIMETIME's domestic 2020/21 season was just like his 2019 campaign: he came, he saw, and he conquered. All three editions of the regional DreamHack Masters fell to 'Barbarian Li,' with the grand final scores (4-2, 4-0, 4-0) leaving no doubt about who wielded supreme power in the Chinese StarCraft II scene. Not as glorious were the subsequent expeditions to the Season Finals, where his best finish was a top eight position in the Winter edition. There, he narrowly lost to eventual champion Serral, blowing the 2-1 lead he had earned with fantastic TvZ play. Though, isn't that how most of the heroes from the 'minor' regions end up? They play some great games, earn praise for their skills, but never really take that last step to contend for a major title—much less actually win one. Is TIME really different from his predecessors?
There are good reasons to believe so. First, TIME remained dominant in his home scene for an extended period now, winning six consecutive WCS/EPT Chinese regionals over the span of two years. There's a certain amount of respect that has to be given to players who dominate even the smaller regions for so long—it's the same pedigree as players like SpeCial, Neeb, and Has. The closest anyone came to ending TIME's reign was Cyan in DH: Summer (more on that below), where he shockingly kicked TIME down into the loser's bracket. TIME did not let the unexpected situation shake him, however, and he came back to win in the grand finals by a 4-2 scoreline.
This mental strength—an almost casual dismissal of the outside situation—forms TIME's second great advantage. He lets loose some really whiny comments about balance from time to time, but this outspokenness seems to be the norm amongst his Chinese peers and we need not look far for further examples (his KaiZi teammate INnoVation being a prime specimen of the eternal balance whiner despite his successes). The point is: Whatever he may say outside of the game, once he's loaded into a map all that is irrelevant.
In fact, TIME might even play better under pressure. In a moment when even legendary INnoVation showed trepidation, TIME stepped up to be his team's final runner in the GTC 2020 Fall Finals. TIME rose to the occasion and won the winner-take-all ace match, securing the championship for KaiZi and penning one of the greatest team league moments of the post-Proleague era.
KaiZi Gaming had been founded to win the GTC championship, but underdog heroics from FanTaSy and Dream, as well the killer-instinct and clutchness of Dark had kept them from reaching their goal. The 2020 Fall Season finally saw KaiZi earn their best shot at the title yet, securing a direct seed in the grand finals by coming out on top during the regular season. Things looked even rosier when underdog Alpha X made a miracle run, eliminating Brave Star Gaming, Jin Air Green Wings, and Dragon Phoenix Gaming to oppose KaiZi in the finals.
But the supposedly easy opponents proved to be far tougher than they appeared, and Alpha X valiantly fought their way to a deciding ace match. Of all people, INnoVation, who was signed by the team explicitly to be their all-conquering ace player, was afraid to go out as Zoun (the 'INnoVation-killer') was projected to be the opposing ace. Who stepped up in the streamed team meeting (one of the rare examples where pandemic production made esports even better to watch) without any hesitation or doubt as the Machine's courage failed him? TIME did. And TIME conquered Zoun with a relentless storm of aggression, figuratively laughing in the Protoss player's face by sniping his Disruptors moments before they could evaporate his entire army, striking here and there without fear until Alpha X's dreams of becoming champions crumbled away.
The third and final point is TIME's style. Former Chinese representatives on the big stage relied on a rather one-dimensional playstyle, often aggressive to the point of madness, which players from other regions could easily counter after a period of adaptation. While TIME, too, is very aggressive, Terran lends itself to that much better than Zerg or Protoss—he very much falls into the camp of Maru and Clem. He's shown some versatility over the course of a year, however. Mech, though it couldn't be further away from his usual approach to the game, is something he can use in devastating fashion. He's also learnt a great deal from INnoVation in terms of macro ability, not just from being his team mate, but from playing against him in many Chinese events (going 6-5 against him in series in 2020, in fact). TIME is no one-trick-pony—he plays like the elite Terrans he aspires to join.
TIME's record of 254-286 in maps against Koreans since in the 2020/21 season isn't quite on Serral (114-50) or Reynor's (117-86) level, but it is comparable to the much-hyped Clem (122-124). In more recent months, TIME has been putting up solid records against both Terrans and Zergs, but TvP seems to be a major problem (as seems to be the case for every Terran right now). TIME will be going into IEM Katowice as the uncontested best player of his region and he will be going into the event under disadvantageous conditions having to play from China. Repeatedly, he's shown his disregard for such circumstances and performed well above people's expectations, coming so very close to defeating the eventual tournament winners—INno at GTC 2020 Spring All-Stars, Serral at DH Masters 2020 Winter and ASUS ROG 2019, or Trap at NeXT 2020 Winter. He may not be one of the favorites to win, but TIME has earned the right to be looked at as a true contender in every tournament he enters—and that is a position no player from his country has ever attained.
Reach for the Sky: CyanCyan, in a bygone era, looked like he could become what TIME has transformed himself into, but he ultimately could not hold on to the StarCraft II 'Mandate of Heaven' as the Terran has. That hasn't stopped him from playing some impressive StarCraft II this year and earning his spot in the season's final event. Fans were briefly shocked when Cyan managed to knock TIME out of the winners' bracket in the Summer edition of the DH Masters—one of those regional events the Chinese fans have started to call 'TIME's kindergarten playground' due to his dominance. Though Cyan failed to claim the championship in the end, falling to TIME in the grand finals rematch, it was still a meaningful moment for the veteran Protoss. Cyan had once been a Chinese domestic champion in the pre-TIME days, vying for GPL titles against the likes of iAsonu and TooDming. While many of Cyan's peers had fallen off, the fact that 27-year-old Cyan gave the new king TIME his toughest challenge yet was a victory for the old guard.
We can look to the GTC once more to learn about Cyan's principles and strengths—the team league truly has become crucial for the development of the Chinese scene. Cyan went 5-11 overall and 1-7 against non-Chinese players in the Spring Season of the league, an unimpressive record altogether (though he did win TL's Weekly MVP on one occasion for stealing a crucial 1-1 tie against Solar). What's more important than his score, was the manner of his matches. Cyan played some truly excellent macro games against Koreans, going toe-to-toe with them for large stretches of several games before finally succumbing to defeat. Instead of looking to steal a win with a cheeky cheese or all-in, Cyan kept on trying to macro his way to victory, refining and improving his gameplay this way against superior opposition. While this didn't pay off with results in the GTC (his team might have preferred that he go for a few more proxies), his focus on straight-up play paid dividends when he faced TIME in the winners bracket of DH: China, enabling him to come out with a 3-2 victory in hard fought macro games.
In the Round of 36 at IEM Katowice, Cyan will clash with his former team mate Scarlett. The Protoss outperformed her in the Fall Season of GTC (6-8 to 4-10), where the trend of close matches against very strong opponents continued, as well as the lack of rewarding results for those exertions. Having broadened his available styles over the last year and being emboldened by the new Protoss meta we have entered, Cyan should have a good shot at beating the Canadian. While the historical record does favor Scarlett, no games between the two have been played in 2020, so we can largely disregard that. Scarlett herself hasn't been seen in an official match since December, her lack of motivation having been a topic throughout the latter half of the last year—the options Protoss have now won't exactly make a positive impact on that. While Scarlett can be expected to bring her best effort for Katowice with a lot of money on the line, a reinvigorated Cyan, who has earned back his spot as one of the few Chinese players able to qualify for international events, can go into this duel with his head held high and his eyes to a brightly colored sky.
Rise of a Golden Dragon: NiceWhereas the toppling of the established order failed in China with TIME retaining his seat on the jade throne, in Taiwan the ancien régime under Has the Oracle, Builder of Cannons and Proxies, First of his Name, has collapsed under the assault of his former second-in-command Nice. While Has won the first regional DreamHack Masters tournament of the year, Nice usurped him in the second half of 2020 by winning the next two championships, securing the #1 seed from the Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau/Japan region. It was a major shift in power for a somewhat stagnant region, brought about by a transformation of Nice himself over the summer.
After being a strong contributor for team TSG in 2019, Nice was signed by KaiZi Gaming at the start of 2020. In the GTC, teams must field one player from the Chinese region in every series, so having such a player who's a credible threat to the Koreans is a huge advantage. Nice ended up being a decent player for KaiZi in the spring season of GTC (putting up a 5-5 record), but ultimately wasn't able to be a difference maker as KaiZi ended the playoffs with a disappointing third place finish. During that time, Nice also made it a habit to participate in the American ESL Open Cups, managing to become the first and only Taiwanese player to win one of the weekly tournaments. He established himself as a regular face in the top four, scoring several big upsets throughout the year, which also helped him gain more recognition overseas. This by itself was not enough to overcome Has' infamous reputation and overtake his peer in prominence, but it proved to be a steady source of practice for him and made sure he was present in people's minds.
Ultimately, KaiZi couldn't resist dropping Nice at the end of the spring season when TIME became available as a free agent. This bad news overlapped with the first DreamHack regional final of the year, where Nice fell to Has in two separate matches to end up in second place.
However, this series of setbacks ended up being the springboard for Nice to come back and enjoy the best stretch of play in his career. Alpha X, who had played a brilliant debut season in GTC and were looking to improve even more in the upcoming Fall Season, signed Nice to bolster their roster. As part of the golden dragons, the Protoss not only gained a secure weekly starting position in GTC, he also got access to a strong support network with a coach and almost daily practice events. Alpha X had already shown through Astrea and Zoun that they could maximize the performance of their players by helping them inside and outside the game, and it was Nice's turn to benefit as well.
The fall season GTC saw Nice tie with Dark in the regular season, even facing the Korean World Champion in an ace match. Alpha X's miraculous run through the playoff gauntlet would not have been possible without their Taiwanese player, who went 4-4 overall in the postseason, once again forcing a 1-1 tie out of Dark to help pull off an eventual upset for Alpha X. In the Grand Finals, Nice was entrusted with the opening game against none other than TIME, who had replaced him at KaiZi earlier this year. Using a Phoenix-Gateway style, the Protoss secured the first map and almost locked down the second one as well, but the Terran managed to turn things around in that one, out-maneuvering Nice's clunky army. Alpha X lost by the narrowest of margins that day—in a bit of a twist of the knife for Nice it was TIME, who aced the final game—and the Protoss had contributed heavily to their successful season.
Things began looking brighter in the individual events under the Alpha X banner as well. Nice finally got one up on Has by defeating him in both the Fall and Winter Editions of the DH Masters, and bested a field of tough international competitors to qualify for King of Battles. Nice nearly made it to the quarterfinals of the DreamHack Winter Season Finals, taking down HeRoMaRinE and just narrowly losing out to TY in the group decider match, showcasing his beastly PvT to an international audience.
Nice will begin his IEM Katowice journey with a PvP against Hurricane, likely followed by another PvP against sOs or Probe should he win. Given Nice's many clashes with Has throughout the years, he's no stranger to high-stakes PvP with an extreme likelihood of cheese (after all, isn't sOs just the strongest form of Has?). 2020 saw Nice rise to new heights with the help of a team, who have given him all of their support and confidence. If 2021 continues along the same trajectory, this golden dragon will soar even further.
Still H.A.S.by Wax
The 2020/21 season of the ESL Pro Tour might have left some fans wondering: Hey, whatever happened to the cult hero Has? The answer is: not much. He's still Has, and he's still doing Has things. Due to the scaling down of WCS/EPT/GSL international events, combined with Has' own lack of participation in third party events, it's been hard to see the mad scientist outside of domestic competition. But if you peer into the Taiwanese SC2 scene, you'll see the same kind of madness as always. All the cannon rushing, all of the random proxies, all of the nonsensical improvisations are still there to be enjoyed.
Still, one important thing did change in the 2020/21 season, as Nice went from being the close #2 player in the region to being Has' worthy rival. Their head-to-head record was almost dead-even over the 2020/21 season, while Nice narrowly won the battle for DH: Taiwan titles 2-to-1 (he won the deciding DH: Winter finals by a 4-3 scoreline). Seeing how well Nice has been playing in international competitions, this is probably more a sign of Nice's improvement than any significant decline on Has' part.
When we did get to see Has in mixed-region combat at the DreamHack: Summer Season Finals, he delivered—well, kind of. He started off his series against Cure with the questionable, seemingly pointless, multi-proxy tactics that you'd expect from him, and it predictably ended up with him losing 0-2. Has was then eliminated in the losers match by Trap—but not before 'pulling a Has' and coming back from a seemingly unwinnable position with random Dark Templars to steal a map. All-in-all, it was the typical Has experience: Not good enough to win, but weird enough to mess with the best players in the world and entertain the fans.
Has certainly has his worth cut out for him at IEM Katowice, where he'll be hard pressed to make it out of a stacked RO36 play-in bracket. Luckily, as fans, we have the luxury of measuring his success by a unique set of standards. Whether it's by losing an unloseable game, breaking Kaelaris, or playing strategies that don't make any sense (or actually do when refined by other players), all we want from Has is for him to leave us in awe once more, jaws agape.