IEM Katowice 2021by TheOneAboveU
Europe, Part 1: The Succession Wars
The 2020/21 ESL Pro Tour has been an all-out free-for-all brawl. On the global stage, the ever fiery rivalry between the old power of Korea and the rising forces of Europe got even more heated as both sides won glorious victories and suffered unspeakable humiliation. Indeed, we live in a new age of parity.
Europe itself underwent a similar transformation as Serral's hegemony crumbled away and the spoils were divided amongst those looking to usurp the throne. This season didn't feature one supreme favorite for every tournament, but instead three of them—Serral all of a sudden being merely a part of this group of equals competing for glory. However, this tectonic shift didn't happen in an instant—this story took a while to unfold.
Losing Control: SerralThough Serral was not nearly as dominant in 2019 as he had been in the previous year when he became WCS Global Champion, the Finnish Phenom had still picked up three premier tournament trophies headed into BlizzCon. Many still considered him the favorite to win the Global Championship, and only a defining case of 'Ultras into lose' saw him lose to Reynor in the semifinals. After BlizzCon, Serral ended his 2019 by winning his third HomeStory Cup win in a row, taking revenge on Reynor in a tropical locale near Berlin. The SC2 scene went into a well-deserved winter break, while ESL prepared to receive the baton from Blizzard.
Despite having enjoyed a pretty successful year by anyone else's standards, something seemed to nag at Serral during those quiet days. He started to deem his usual bread-and-butter macro style, the ruthlessly efficient loop of attack and riposte he had forged, as too one-dimensional. A decision was made to mix it up a bit more, especially in ZvZ, in which Reynor had just dealt him the loss he still considers to be his worst.
March's IEM Katowice 2020 kicked off the inaugural ESL Pro Tour, and Serral delivered as expected in the RO24 by topping his group. However, a surprising loss to underdog Hurricane also made ripples in the scene, further denting Serral's aura of invincibility—only Reynor had been seen as a threat to him up to that point. Well, there were bound to be bumps in the road, right? The path to the finals still seemed clear.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Zest put on a PvZ meta-game defining show against the Finnish Phenom, catching the Zerg off his guard with a dangerous 4-Gate Glaive-Adept style he could not find an answer to (VOD). The tournament favorite had been eliminated—not by Reynor, but by a Korean. That Rogue so easily dismantled Zest in the subsequent grand finals made the loss all the more jarring, dealing a further blow to Serral's prestige. A top four finish at IEM Katowice would be a fantastic result for any other player. But Serral is no ordinary player, and fans started murmuring about how he may have lost his mental edge, and how the end of an era was approaching.
Those voices would yet become louder as May's TeamLiquid Starleague 5 brought Serral to his lowest point in over two years. Previously, fans wouldn't have dared to use words like 'clowny' and 'fiesta' in conjunction with a Serral match, but Elazer made it happen by bringing brilliant and audacious builds to his upper bracket showdown with the Finnish star. Serral played his part in the festivities by answering with his own crazy moves, but ultimately could not defeat his Polish opponent at that chaotic game (VOD). Serral was sent down to the lower bracket where he had the misfortune of drawing his proven nemesis Reynor.
Initially, it seemed like Serral the stone-cold killer was back in the do-or-die match, as he went up two maps against Reynor. Then, the Italian Zerg struck back, thwarting all of Serral's attempts to close the series out. Uncharacteristically, Serral seemed to completely lose control even in situations where he had an advantage, and he gave up a stunning reverse-sweep to Reynor (VOD). Serral had been eliminated in the top sixteen of a major tournament for the first time since 2017, and the fans were stunned. Reynor himself noticed something was off with Serral, commenting "I think he has too much fear, you know? He probably thinks we have one build each map, but it's usually not true." in the post-match interview.
It felt like the entire StarCraft II scene had experienced a monumental shift. Suddenly, the great champion seemed vulnerable. Serral continued to win matches at an obscene rate, but the numbers weren't quite as staggering as they had been in years past. Whether it was just perception or reality, he just didn't look untouchable anymore, not quite as capable of easily brushing aside whatever his opponents threw at him. ShoWTimE almost got him in the Summer Season of DreamHack: Europe. His group stage performance in the Douyu Cup was the messiest anyone seen in years. Most strikingly, Reynor continued to live in Serral's head rent-free when the pressure was on. The Finnish Phenom actually won a number of high profile encounters against his Italian rival, but only in a group stage or in the winners' bracket. As soon as elimination was on the line, it was like a switch was turned off in Serral's mind. Whatever had previously inhibited him from feeling pressure in elimination matches was gone, and he crumbled before Reynor when things really mattered. DreamHack Europe: Summer and the DouYu Cup both went to Reynor, who took out Serral in both finals.
After taking a beating for the first half of the year, the cross-regional DreamHack Summer Finals brought a much-needed reprieve to Serral. Reynor was eliminated by Trap in the semifinals, giving Serral a chance to show the cool, clinical play he was famous for. Serral defeated Trap convincingly to win his first championship of the year (VOD)—in PvZ, at least, it seemed like the champ still had it.
This, however, wasn't the springboard Serral needed to bounce back and dominate once more. Things became even more difficult for Serral when a third party rudely interrupted his rivalry with Reynor for supremacy over Europe. Clem had a breakout performance in DH Fall: Europe, defeating Reynor in the winners bracket and booking a Serral vs. Reynor match in the lower bracket final. Once again, the Italian triumphed, eliminating Serral from yet another tournament (Reynor went on to defeat Clem and win the EU title).
Clem's interference continued in the Fall Season Finals, this time taking out Serral directly in a 3-2 quarterfinal victory. Clem wouldn't be the only Terran to cause Serral trouble as the autumn went along, as October's King of Battles saw him suffer another quarterfinal elimination, this time at the hands of Cure. The Korean Terran dismantled him by a previously unheard of 3-0 score, and it seemed like things were getting out of hand. It wasn't just Reynor, Zergs, or players from Europe who had a shot of knocking Serral off anymore.
Serral's woes continued in DH Winter: Europe, where Clem and Reynor teamed up to banish Serral to third place once more. The Winter Season Finals let the ENCE player eventually land another victory, as he avoided both his European rivals (Clem defeated Reynor, and then Stats took out Clem). Yet, it was hardly smooth sailing for Serral, as Chinese star TIME almost threw him off course in a tight, five-game quarterfinal series. Neeb and Stats proved no match for Serral afterward, with ZvP remaining a welcome refuge for Serral.
November's ASUS ROG Online saw ByuN add his name to the growing list of players who had eliminated Serral in 2020, narrowly winning in one of the most exciting series of the year (VOD).
It bears repeating that Serral's results only seemed poor because he was being judged against the ridiculously high standard he had set for himself in previous years. Most other players would have counted themselves lucky to achieve such 'meager' results as winning two DreamHack Season Finals, finishing top three in every DH: Europe regional, and reaching the playoffs of almost every tournament they played in. If one was to tell the story of Serral's 2020 in a vacuum, it could very well have been a tale of immense success.
With 2020 coming to a close, TSL6 came as a chance for Serral to redeem himself for his dismal performance at TSL5. Things went well early on as he advanced through the winners bracket—he overcame a 0-2 deficit to defeat Dark, crushed Maru 3-0, took his expected victory against ShoWTimE, and got his revenge on ByuN in a 3-0 sweep. It was a dominant run into the finals through the winners' bracket without any major hiccups, where Serral looked like the confident and level-headed player from the good old days. However, he had not, in fact, travelled back in time, and the inevitability of a Serral triumph was long gone. Dark made one of the greatest lower bracket runs in StarCraft II history, and earned another crack at Serral in the grand finals. Actually, we did end up returning to the glory days of the past—only it was of Dark's days of destroying foreigners with ease.
Dark's distinctly personal approach to ZvZ briefly ended the grand debate between the European and Korean factions about the Zerg mirror, as he had the perfect answer to anything his opponent threw at him. Furthermore, the series brought out all those problems Serral had had over the course of the year and laid them on display for everyone to see. He wanted to mix things up, but tangled himself in doing so. More and more, his play seemed flawed and hopeless, as he desperately looked to score some sort of win. Dark took a crushing 4-0 sweep over Serral (VOD), taking down his personal white whale and winning an important title after an otherwise down year.
The DH Last Chance tournament wasn't anyone's last chance to qualify for IEM Katowice, but it was the final opportunity for Serral to remind the SC2 scene about exactly who he was headed into the World Championship. When Serral reached the finals on the back of convincing 3-0 victories over ByuN and TY, it seemed like he had patched up whatever ZvT weakness had briefly afflicted him in the fall. Rising from the other side of the bracket was Trap, a player who had never won a single series against Serral. Combined with the fact that ZvP had been a safe space for Serral on the year, it seemed like another championship was close at hand.
As most viewers expected, Serral dominated early on and quickly took a 3-1 lead in the series. However, if fans had been paying close attention to 2020, they might have also seen the second half collapse coming. Trap assessed his situation, decided that 2-Stargate Voids was the only thing that was working for him, and started his rally. Making exactly the right moves and exploiting Serral's relative lack of familiarity with Void Ray opener (compared to KR Zergs), Trap turned the tide. Once more, Serral was the one typing out the final 'gg' (VOD).
While the story of Serral's 2020/21 season was that of decline, the negativity shouldn't be overblown. You could hardly be blamed for saying that Serral is still the favorite to win IEM Katowice 2021, even if the margin between the Finnish Phenom and other competitors is narrower than ever. Still, we've all realized that the age of dominion has come to an end. With the resumption of 'normal' StarCraft II, perhaps we can now truly appreciate what a special, magical year 2018 was. Serral may forever chase those highs and never again attain them.
Even in 2018, IEM Katowice was the one title that eluded his grasp. 2021 gives him the chance to complete his collection. If there's anything we've learnt in 2020, then it's this: Serral still enters any tournament as a favorite, even if he's no longer the favorite. Being a part of the pack is only a downgrade for Serral because he ran ahead of it for so long.
Serral already attained greatness in 2018, but Katowice 2021 presents him with an opportunity of a different kind. If adversity is what makes winning worthwhile, then maybe he'll earn his sweetest victory yet.
Seizing the Reins: ReynorReaching the grand finals of the world championship in his first year of full-time competition on the WCS circuit in 2019, Reynor's future looked like it was full of limitless potential. He alone had been able to consistently challenge the dominion of Serral in 2019, even though the Finnish Phenom had still bested him in overall score.
The young Italian got off to a much more modest start in 2020. IEM Katowice proved disappointing as he failed to advance from his group, with a confident interview given early on ending up blowing up in his face. His next major tournament in TSL5 had a pothole as well, with HeroMarine unexpectedly sending him down to the lower bracket early on. However, Reynor managed to navigate the deadly gauntlet with aplomb, surviving a clash with PartinG and then taking out his rival Serral in an unexpected lower bracket clash. As alluded to above, Reynor showed incredible mental strength to come back from 0-2 against the best ZvZ player in the world to complete a dramatic reverse-sweep. Clem was the next opponent up, and as it turned out, the May 2020 version of the Frenchman was still no match for the Italian.
All the momentum was gathering behind Reynor. Serral had been eliminated by his hands, and that left him looking like the favorite to go all the way. INnoVation was Reynor's next foe, and Reynor had already defeated him 3-0 a day before in a showmatch. Reynor kept his streak of wins going, going up 2-0 against the Machine. However, INnoVation then shifted gears, bringing out one of Reynor's old weaknesses in the form of mech play to tie the series. The deciding game on Golden Wall became one of the best games on the map ever played and a nerve-wracking thriller on top. INnoVation managed to keep a cooler head and took better trades, while Reynor became too eager to fight. INnoVation won the war of attrition, consigning Reynor to a top eight finish. But even as four Koreans battled it out in the final four, Reynor had foreshadowed the coming DH: Europe season by besting both Serral and Clem.
What followed was an amazing DH: Europe campaign from Reynor who won two out of three titles on the year. As described previously, Reynor didn't exactly dominate Serral, but he always won when elimination or a championship was on the line. One has to be wary about reading too deeply into body language, but the camera shots of Reynor and Serral seemed to give away the state of their rivalry. On the one side you'd see Reynor, confident with an easy smile and laugh on his lips—even when his games were going awry. On the other side was Serral, stoic and grim even when he won, and only really emoting by muttering to himself when the situation went south (if Wolf was still a commentator, he would have declared "look at him, he's so tilted!" many times over). Reynor had the edge in the little mind games between the two titans and it helped that his style had always been more unpredictable than Serral's—in a way resembling Dark's, such as in their early adoption of Lurkers in ZvT, but being a bit less chaotic. In any case, Reynor went back-to-back in the Summer and Fall seasons of DH: Europe, winning both championships. Reynor's dominance in Europe also coincided with the first cross-regional championships of his career, as he won both the DouYu Cup and DH: Fall Season Finals while taking quality victories over the likes of Serral, Clem, Zest, Stats, Trap, and TY
At that moment in time, Reynor was both a Serral-beater and a world-beater, and it felt like he might begin his own run of extreme dominance. Thankfully for the other competitors in SC2, Reynor wasn't able to solidify his reign. He bombed out of King of Battles in the group stage after coming off both of his Fall wins—though his narrow loss to Cure ended up seeming 'justified' due to the strength of Cure's overall run. Clem pushed Reynor off his European throne in the following Winter season of DH: Europe, further complicating the situation in the old world. Then, TSL6 saw Reynor become one of the victims in Dark's epic lower bracket run, as he was unable to avenge his loss from the BlizzCon 2019 finals. Finally, in his last major tournament before IEM Katowice 2021, Reynor dropped out of the group stage of DH: Last Chance with losses to INnoVation and Bunny.
Reynor tasted supremacy in the European theater in 2020, and for a hot second during the fall, he looked like the best player in the world. On paper, you could argue that Reynor was clearly the best European player of 2020, winning more premier titles than Serral and Clem combined while putting up a winning record against both of them. However, despite his concrete achievements, Reynor could not overcome the intangible specter of Serral's reputation. Serral isn't the only one cursed by his 2018 season—it also gives his potential successors like Reynor an impossible standard to live up to.
Instead, Reynor for one year became primus inter pares—first among equals. As such, his expectations for IEM Katowice will again be high and there can only be one goal in his mind: finally win the super-major title denied to him in 2019 and take what he must now regard as his rightful place in history at the very top of the globe.
Rite of Passage: ClemClem, who first showed up at a DreamHack in 2016, was a not-so-secret talent that many fans in the scene had their eyes on. However, scrutiny and expectations rose exponentially when he joined Team Liquid in February 2020. The most prestigious team in the scene hadn't signed anyone for quite a while, so when Clem was announced with Harstem as new recruits, people at once knew the significance of what had occurred: this kid was expected to do great things. His style fully fed into the building hype train. Clem is a flashy player, relying on relentless multitasking and aggression to wear his opponents down, full of cute little micro moves meant for highlight reels. Clem's young age, the name of Team Liquid, and a rabid French fan base made his matches the source of many exaggerated reactions. Was he the next great European champion in the line of Serral and Reynor? Or was he an over-hyped prospect who would become a footnote in history?
The truth is, it did take a long while for Clem to catch up to the hype others had built up for him (which is no fault of his own). Clem was simply improving on his own schedule. IEM Katowice 2020 was a catastrophe as he failed to qualify through the open bracket. While Clem got a win over DongRaeGu in TSL6, he was subsequently schooled by Reynor and uThermal—both were players he had butted heads with repeatedly, very often with a bad outcome. His new teammate seemed especially tough for him, as TvT proved to be a weak spot for the French player for a long time. The tricky and experienced uThermal mercilessly used that to his advantage, preparing some nasty early-game tactics.
Clem had clearly improved by the time DH Europe: Summer came around, as he matched Reynor's gaudy 14-1 record in the group stages (with wins over MaNa and uThermal). Clem ended up facing off against Serral in the winners' final of the tournament, but the reigning king proved to be too strong. Clem took a 2-1 lead initially but fell short of victory in the end, giving the series away. Clem was then bested by Reynor in the lower bracket, and ended the tournament in third place. While it was Clem's best tournament finish thus far and a reason to celebrate, you could still feel the gap between him and the twin titans. Despite being relatively close in age with Clem, both Serral and Reynor had much more experience in pressurized situations under their belts. Both of them were veterans of BlizzCon finals and countless other high-stakes series. This was new to Clem, who had never made it that far before.
Group stage exits in the Summer Season Finals as well as DouYu Cup followed, with Korean opposition proving too strong for Clem to overcome. Still, the results weren't of great concern—Korean players had been contending with the likes of Maru and INnoVation for years, and Clem was not yet on that level.
Clem improved on all fronts in the Fall Season of DreamHack Masters. He reached the grand finals of the EU regional, even entering it from the winners' bracket with a one-map advantage. The winners' final had been a close cut affair between him and Reynor: after going up 2-0 it seemed like the Terran's nerves once again would affect his performance, as the Italian took the two next maps to force a decider. A liberating win on Deathaura proved that Clem could come through in the clutch. Ultimately, Reynor came back through the lower bracket and narrowly vanquished Clem in the grand finals rematch, but Clem had still passed a very important milestone. He had improved his placement from third to second, and he had won a BO5+ series against one of the big two in a major event. Clem made more incremental progress in the cross-region Fall Finals, this time eliminating Serral in the playoffs before losing to Reynor again. He had bested both Serral and Reynor in BO5+ series—now he just needed to beat them in the last series of a tournament. In King of Battles, he scored a dominating win over uThermal—another rite of passage when it came to his ever improving TvT—and finally overcame some Koreans on the international stage, beating RagnaroK and Zoun to secure another top four placement. In a slightly ironic twist, it was Maru himself, who eliminated the Frenchman so inspired by his playstyle.
The slow but very steady climb towards the top finally reached its climax in the Winter Season of DreamHack Masters. Since joining Liquid, Clem had shown improvement month after month, clawing his way ever closer to being the foreign Terran savior his fans had portrayed him as from the very start. This time, he had to go through the lower bracket to reach the finals of the European DH Masters event, revisiting many of his 2020 highlights along the way. Clashes with ShoWTimE had always been spectacular as their contrasting styles lent themselves to epic games—Clem 3-0'd him in this one. HeroMarine had been a thorn in his side all year, as they dueled again and again in the many ESL Open Cups, but this time Clem took a solid 3-1 victory. Revenge against Serral, who had sent him into the lower bracket came next, with Clem putting on a fantastic performance to claim a 3-1 win. In perfect storybook fashion, it was Reynor who awaited in the grand finals. The Italian took an initial lead, but that was not enough to stop the Clem hype train, which had been fired up for an entire year and had now reached its top speed. Clem took four maps in a row, rolling Reynor over with clinical TvZ execution.
Clem, the long-awaited imaginary savior of Terran in Europe, had finally manifested in reality. And while it may not have been the fans who willed him into existence, their steadfast support must have given him confidence on the hard climb upwards.
While ByuN cut Clem's TSL6 run short, he came back stronger at DH: Last Chance to achieve a top four finish, only losing out to eventual champion Trap. IEM Katowice 2021 hasn't even begun, but Clem's result is already better than last year as he's earned a main event seed. He has taken a place amongst Europe's reigning triumvirate and in the trio of best foreign players in StarCraft II. While Serral and Reynor's stature changed in 2020, it didn't compare at all with how Clem catapulted himself from curiosity to champion in the span of a year. This remarkable chapter of Clem's career will bookend itself at IEM Katowice 2021—and now, he has the power to write the ending he truly desires.