IEM Katowice 2021by Wax
Korea: The Play-in Participants
When allocating regional spots for IEM Katowice 2021, ESL paid respect to Korea's formidable stature in StarCraft II by awarding it sixteen places. Thanks to Rogue's victory at IEM Katowice 2020 and Korea's obtainment of the 'wild card' spot*, eighteen Korean representatives are now set to compete in the all-online World Championship—half of the entire tournament roster.
We first take a look at the eight Korean players qualified for the RO36 play-in stage, who will fight it out against eight international competitors for four spots in the RO24 main event.
*This spot was awarded based on points. It replaces a spot that was originally planned to be awarded to the winner of an international event, which was subsequently cancelled due to the global pandemic.
ByuN: The Golden Opportunity or Final Opportunity?ByuN's return to StarCraft II after his mandatory military service has been a rare esports fairytale. On TL.net, we've constantly asked fans to be patient with stars returning from hiatus, writing that they might need six months, nine months, or well over a year to find their sea legs again. Some, like MMA and TaeJa, ended up being mere shadows of their former selves. Others, like DongRaeGu and PartinG, managed to reach the Code S semifinals but never truly recovered their old form. Our experience watching them struggle was what made it all the more unbelievable when ByuN won a major championship within three months of his return. In November's ASUS ROG Online 2020, ByuN ran through a murderer's row of opponents including the likes of Stats, Reynor, Serral, and Maru to claim the championship in spectacular fashion. All of our beliefs and expectations for the so-called 'returnees' had been recalibrated in an instant.
While there was no questioning the legitimacy of ByuN's run, you couldn't quite ignore a major caveat, one that was in the name of the tournament itself. ASUS ROG Online was, well, online. That may not have mattered to the pandemic-stricken international scene where online play had become the norm, but it was all too relevant in the context of the GSL. ByuN's return to StarCraft II may have been a fairy tale, but his return to the GSL had been a nightmare.
ByuN's wrist issues had been talked about since before his military service, but they became a real problem once he returned to the AfreecaTV studio. In his three last GSL appearances, ByuN has had to ask for a pause due to a combination of pain and numbness in his wrist. Twice, against Dark and Maru tournaments, it was a mid-game pause from which he was forced to promptly resume (GSL rules do not allow mid-game pauses for medical reasons). Against sOs in the latest Super Tournament, he was able to hold out until the end of game two and asked for the mid-series break allowed during best-of-five+ series. All three times, he ended up losing his match and being eliminated from the tournament at hand.
We have to be cautious about jumping to conclusions, as we can't know exactly to what extent ByuN's wrist pain was responsible for his GSL losses. However, it's clear that he wasn't 100% when he was playing in the AfreecaTV studio. According to ByuN, it's the unique discomfort and stress of playing in the studio that causes this problem. In contrast, he's been an absolute ironman online, grinding away in all sorts of competitions and staying up until the early hours of the morning.
These factors make IEM Katowice 2021 a potential once-in-a-career opportunity for ByuN. While we all hope that he'll recover from his wrist issues and play at a championship level in the GSL, we have no idea how realistic that outcome is. That means the unfortunate circumstances that have forced IEM Katowice to become an online-only competition might be a blessing for ByuN.
The sheer difficulty of ByuN's ASUS ROG run masks the fact it was a 'tier 2' major with a sub-$10,000 first place prize. Even stripped down due to the pandemic, IEM Katowice 2021 is still the second biggest tournament of the entire 2020/21 season with a $250,000 prize pool ($65,000 to first place), it still confers the title of World Champion, and the winner is still awarded the giant metal trophy. If ByuN's wrists continue to put the Code S title out of reach, then IEM Katowice 2021 is the single biggest tournament he has a realistic chance of winning.
Starting in the RO36 play-in bracket of IEM Katowice, ByuN's name clearly sticks out compared to the other fifteen players. In the 2020/21 EPT Season, he's the only one of the play-in competitors who actually won a tournament bigger than a regional DreamHack Masters event. Had ByuN not missed over half the season due to his military service, he may even have earned direct qualification for the RO24 main event (though who can say for sure given his aforementioned GSL woes).
While ByuN is certainly a heavy favorite to escape the play-in bracket and reach the main event, it's hard to say exactly where he belongs in the championship picture. ByuN is ranked 10th in the Aligulac.com rating at the time of writing, while his map win-rate since returning to SC2 is a good-but-not-great 62.43% Compared to his reputation and popularity, the numbers are trending slightly low.
And yet, it seems undeniable that ByuN remains in World Championship contention. His unexpected ASUS ROG Online run was a part of a hectic autumn and winter where we saw Maru, Serral, Dark, and Trap also win major internationals over the course of a few months. Whether you call it a descent into chaos or the restoration of parity, it feels like there are more viable title contenders now than at any time in the past three years. ByuN is in the mix, which seems to be the most anyone—be it Trap, Serral, or TY—can claim at the moment. Able to compete online from the comfort of home, this could be the best—and possibly last—chance that ByuN has of becoming World Champion once more.
DongRaeGu and Armani: The SemifinalistsBefore ByuN made his run at ASUS ROG Online, we looked to DongRaeGu and Armani for feel-good stories about post-military careers. While their careers before the military were wildly different—DongRaeGu being one of the biggest stars of Wings of Liberty, while Armani was perennial benchwarmer of the Proleague era—they returned to StarCraft II on equal footing as players who hardstuck in the first round of GSL Code S. In 2020, just as any chance of significant improvement started to seem bleak, both players had breakout seasons (incidentally, both were signed to AfreecaTV Freecs that year). DongRaeGu was the unexpected star of Code S Season 2, reaching the final four on the back of a 3-0 sweep of INnoVation in the RO8. Armani followed in DRG's footsteps in Season 3, achieving a top four finish of his own with a 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Zest. As it turned out, there was such a thing as life after governmentally mandated career death.
While all this helped make DRG and Armani sentimental favorites, it's hard to tell exactly how good they are in StarCraft II terms. Their miracle runs to the Code S semifinals gave us mixed signals. Both of them benefitted from being drafted to the 'group of life' in the RO16, where they played against weaker competition than in the other groups. On the other hand, both of them looked like extremely competent macro game players in their quarterfinal wins—DRG swarming all over INnoVation with his favored lair-tech armies, while Armani played some absolutely filthy turtle-Hive against Zest—taking out Code S mainstays in straight-up games. This speaks to what I perceive to be both their greatest strengths: they can play top-tier macro if they're left alone to develop their infrastructure and play their games. Of course, that's a highly unrealistic scenario to hope for, especially in a tournament like IEM Katowice. The higher the stakes, the more unpredictable games tend to become (unless you're facing INnoVation or something).
Neither player is trending particularly high headed into IEM Katowice. Armani has padded his stats in smaller online cups in the last few months (he does have some quality wins against players like Clem and Zest), but his record in major tournaments is more worrisome. Since his semifinal run in Code S, Armani has dropped out of the first round in all four major tournaments he played in afterward (2x Super Tournaments, TSL6, DH: Last Chance).
In the case of DongRaegu, it initially looked like he was setting himself up for sustained success after his Code S semifinal run in Season 2, as he made it back to the Code S quarterfinals in the following Season S. However, he's also played poorly since then, losing in the first rounds of TSL6 and Super Tournament 1.
Yet, such is the prestige of Code S—even as its ranks have been depleted over the years—that one feels obliged to extend these two a degree of respect that's greater than their recent results warrant. GSL Code S is supposed to be the strongest league in the world—surely RO4 there is worthy of the RO24 at IEM Katowice?
Dream: The In-BetweenerAnother ex-military player who impressed in 2020 was Dream, even though he ended up being overshadowed by DRG and Armani, and then practically blacked out by ByuN.
The high points of Dream's 2020/21 campaign were a top eight finish in Code S and top four placement in the Super Tournament—it wasn't anything spectacular, but it was enough to earn Dream safe qualification for the IEM Katowice RO36. However, I can't help but think that Dream is a little too good to be stuck in the play-ins, and that he stands just a half-tier above the non-ByuN returnees. I don't have any great, conclusive evidence of this—it's mostly small samples of tournament matches and the eye test doing the work for me here.
Gameplay wise, Dream plays a solid enough macro game to make him look like INnoVation-lite at times, and he plays with enough strategic diversity (he's a rare mech fan!) to keep him from becoming too predictable. Outside of individual competitions, I've been impressed with how Dream has been a strong, clutch performer in the Gold Series Team Championship. He helped an undermanned Brave Star Gaming squad constantly punch above its weight, most notably scoring an all-kill against INnoVation's KaiZi gaming in the spring playoffs. Generally, I feel like the GTC gets underrated in the West—it's the reason a number of players are on teams and are able to collect a paycheck, so its matches carry more weight than a run-of-the-mill online tournament.
I have a love-hate relationship with Aligulac.com's modified Glicko rating system, but in this specific case, I'm taking it out on a date to planet Dream. At the time of writing, he's 15th place in Aligulac.com's point rankings, which is the highest of any play-in stage player besides ByuN. That fits rather well with my estimation of Dream as a player whose GSL results haven't quite accurately represented his true skill. I'm looking forward to seeing if Dream can prove he's a cut above the rest, and perhaps even go on and make an impact in the main event.
RagnaroK, Hurricane, Bunny: The Puncher's ChanceWhat ties these three players together? If you said "none of them made it past the Code S group stage this year," you'd be right, but I would also mark it as wrong since it wasn't the answer I wanted for the sake of this preview. If you said "they're the last three Korean players to make the cutoff for IEM Katowice," you'd also be right, but it also wouldn't be the answer I was looking for.
No, what I want to point out is that all three players possess that intangible, almost mythical quality: the puncher's chance. Yes, it's a tired cliche] that I've attached to underdogs so often that I've already made fun of myself for it in many earlier previews. However, this cliche is much more than just a meme or a glib compliment.
Trap has been the hottest player of the last three months, winning nearly every tournament he's played in since December. The only championship that eluded him was TSL6, where he dropped out in the first round. Who stopped Trap's rampage there? It was none other than RagnaroK, who cheesed the f*** out of him in the RO32.
While RagnaroK is a capable macro player (he's my pick for the dubious award of 'player who looks the best while still losing'), I enjoyed seeing him go full-on Impact in order to secure an important victory. I'm afraid that RagnaroK sense of honor will doom him to another valiant loss in an epic, game-of-the-year quality TvZ at IEM Katowice, but I'd like to see what happens if he leans into the dark side some more.
Bunny has presented a great case for himself as the potential spoiler of the RO36. Typically a group stage player in GSL Code S, Bunny shocked everyone in January's DreamHack: Last Chance by toppling Reynor and INnoVation to win his group and advance to the playoffs (he lost in the quarters to Clem). Bunny followed that up with another impressive showing in Super Tournament 1, handing PvT master Stats a shocking 1-3 defeat in the first round (Bunny was swept by Zest after).
What was particularly impressive about those three victories was that Bunny took them in relatively straight-up games. It made it all the more surprising that he lost so handily to his very next opponent in both of those tournaments. It's hard to know what to make of this 'new and improved' Bunny, as he went off the grid and stopped playing tournament games following his GSL ST elimination. The limited sample of games Bunny showed us in January suggest that he's playing his best StarCraft since he made the Code S quarterfinals in 2019. His play-in games will bear close watching to find out if he's for real.
As for Hurricane, you have to go back an entire year to pull-up his 'dangerous underdog' credentials, but they're definitely there. Back in IEM Katowice 2020, Hurricane made a completely unexpected run from the RO76 all the way to the playoffs. The key victory that got him out of the group stage was a 2-0 victory against Serral, which broke the Finnish Phenom's eleven-match ZvP BO3+ winning streak that had stood for nearly half a year. The points earned in that run were actually instrumental to Hurricane being in Katowice 2021 at all, or else he would have ceded his spot to Zoun.
Honestly, Hurricane's results haven't been all that good since then, and he even missed out on Code S qualification in Season 2 of 2020. At the time of writing, he has the lowest Aligulac.com rating of all the Koraen representatives by a large margin, sitting at 54th place—over 20 spots below 31st ranked DongRaeGu. Still, I get the feeling that Hurricane is good for an upset or three in the play-in bracket. He does play Protoss, after all.
sOs: The sOsAround this time last year, I made a commitment to never doubting sOs ever again. The legendary Protoss player had an extremely poor lead-up to Katowice, having been eliminated from the Code S RO32 in the previous two seasons while failing to qualify at all for the Super Tournament. At the time, I said "sOs has earned infinite "you can never count him out" credit. I don't care that all those [past] achievements were in Heart of the Swarm or the fact that sOs never got out of the Code S group stages in 2019. For all I care, he could be retired for 15 years and be stuck in Bronze League, and I'd still consider him one of the most dangerous competitors on the planet."
Lo and behold, sOs fought his way through the RO76, escaped his RO24 group in second place, took out Stats in the first round, and even managed to annoy Maru before dropping out in the quarterfinals. It was the kind of result that no one saw coming, but paradoxically, didn't actually surprise anyone either.
Since then, sOs has become an even more bizarre caricature of his old self, and I mean that in the best way possible. At some point, his games and tournament results ceased to have any predictive quality whatsoever (possibly when he started proxy-Nexusing inside people's bases). He had yet another dismal Code S campaign in 2020, failing to make it out of the first round at all—so what? He played well in the two Super Tournaments leaning up to IEM, beating both Zest and ByuN—so what? sOs doesn't adhere to your rules of so-called 'normal' StarCraft II.
I have no idea what to expect from sOs at IEM Katowice. All I can do is stick to my commitment, refuse to let doubt seep into my mind, and watch the legend go to work.