IEM Katowice 2021by Darkhorse and Wax
North America, Latin America, and Oceania
The 2020/21 EPT season was one of isolation, with individual regions mostly operating in their own bubbles except for a handful of international events. Like their peers in China and Taiwan, it's been hard to tell exactly how much players from North America and Latin America have progressed relative to the rest of the world. Still, in a limited sample of games, the five representatives from NA and LATAM have shown they have potential to surprise, and to upend our expectations.
North America: Astrea, Neeb, and ScarlettHas Astrea become the new king of NA? You could certainly make the argument. After the Alpha X player took second place in both the summer and fall regionals in NA, he was finally crowned champion in the winter event. Thanks to his consistency in domestic competition, Astrea earned just just enough EPT points to edge out Neeb and enter IEM Katowice as the #1 seeded player from North America.
Astrea’s 2020 was a microcosm of his LOTV career: a story of steady improvement. After showing glimmers of his potential in early 2019, the American Protoss headed to Korea for SpeCial-esque training in StarCraft's adopted homeland. This approach didn't seem to pay off at first, as he was knocked out of the open bracket at IEM Katowice 2020, as well as the qualifiers for Code S Season 1. But by the middle of 2020, Astrea started to hit his stride, finishing second place to Neeb in the summer NA regional while also qualifying for Code S Season 2. He also became a key contributor for an underdog Alpha X squad in the GTC Spring Season, consistently defeating weaker players while stealing 1-1 ties off elite opponents like TY and Dark.
Astrea had to leave Korea midway through the summer, but it didn't hamper his growth as a player. He held steady in domestic competition, taking another second place finish in the NA fall regional after losing to Scarlett in the finals. The third time proved to be the charm, as Astrea ascended to the top of the region in the NA winterregional by defeating Neeb in back-to-back series. Perhaps even more impressively, he did North America proud in the DreamHack winter season finals, advancing out of the group stage with victories over Trap and Enderr before narrowly falling out in the quarterfinals with a 2-3 loss to Stats.
Neeb had the higher peaks on the year (more on that below), but Astrea was rock solid throughout and earned his spot at the top of the regional rankings. It’s not often that a player’s season can be tracked by a simple steady upward trajectory. Astrea was particularly strong at PvP, something that was demonstrated against both Neeb in the NA regionals and Stats in the winter season finals. His series against Neeb in the NA finals stood out in particular (VOD), where he won the only macro game of the series yet still decided to wager everything on a cannon rush/proxy 2 gate combo in a deciding game seven. It was a risky play, one that looked amazing because it worked, but would have made him look extremely foolish had it failed. I think it showed a true championship mentality on Astrea’s part to go for the throat in that high pressure situation.
Astrea’s group presents some interesting possibilities. He’ll get quite the PvP test from Zest and Trap, and I can’t imagine anyone wants to play Trap regardless of the matchup given the form he is in. Beyond those two, he did draw two of the Europeans into his group in Reynor and HeroMarine. If he can find a way to outfox Zest in PvP (I’d recommend that he watch Zest’s nightmare series against Zoun from the last Super Tournament) he stands a decent chance of advancing if he can just get one win against either Reynor or HeroMarine. Of course, if we believe Astrea's progression to be linear, then he should be an easy lock to make the playoffs. And by Katowice 2022, he should become the champion, right?
With the rise of Serral and Reynor to astronomical heights, Neeb has seen his position as one of the best foreigners slip considerably since 2017. Still, even in his diminished form, Neeb may be the most dangerous player to come out of the New World.
Obviously, Neeb is historically one of the most accomplished foreigners ever, and was a pioneer in bridging the gap between Korea and the rest of the world. However, it is fair to say that 2020 wasn’t exactly the year of Neeb. While obviously international tournament participation was down across the board, Neeb wasn’t exactly hot out of the gates even before COVID-19 shook up the world. His run at IEM Katowice 2020 was brief, as he dropped out of the open bracket after taking losses to Bly and SKillous. With that being said, he still looked primed to dominate the NA regional scene, with only Scarlett appearing to be a credible contender.
However, Neeb ended up being equaled and perhaps even surpassed by Astrea throughout the year (as mentioned above, Astrea did technically top Neeb on points). He managed to win the summer regional, but fell to third and second place in the fall and winter seasons respectively, leaving Astrea and Scarlett to each pick up a title a piece in his stead. Neeb had a somewhat lackluster run at the DreamHack summer season finals, losing two sets to INnoVation to get bounced out of his first round group, but it’s not as if those are particularly bad losses to take. It is unfortunate that in a year so lacking in high profile international competition that Neeb didn’t make the most of that opportunity. Until…
After finishing second in the NA winter regional to Astrea, Neeb won a spot in the DreamHack winter season finals. Not only was he able to get out of his group in first place by beating Armani and Clem, but he also 3-0’d reigning GSL champ TY in the RO8, handily proving that he still hadg what it takes to go toe to toe with the other regions’ very best players. While Neeb ended up taking a hard 0-3 loss to Serral in the semifinals, he ended the tournament with a very respectable 3rd/4th place finish.
Neeb’s winter season finals run was the best international performance by any North American or Latin American player all year. It truly goes to show that even in a down year, and even when international matches are scarce, that Neeb is still someone who can contend for a top spot globally. This makes him quite an intriguing figure heading into Katowice. With the groups already being selected, Neeb will have a chance to do some preparation heading into the event, albeit without the knowledge of who will advance to his group from the play-in stage. So far he’s got Parting, Rogue, Cure, and Stats, which isn’t the worst group he could’ve been placed in. Far be it for me to count out Rogue in Katowice, but he hasn’t looked good at all as of late. Cure is obviously an online warrior but he was awful in the GSL Super Tournament and his best performance of the year came all the way back in season one of GSL. If Neeb is able to pull one over in PvP against either PartinG or Stats, he honestly stands a good chance of making it out of his first group and carrying the banner for North America into the playoffs.
Like the aforementioned Neeb, Scarlett is a key figure in the history of foreign SC2, toiling as one of a few credible challengers to the Koreans in WoL and HotS before earning a late-career payoff by winning IEM PyeongChang in 2018.
This year, the Canadian Zerg has snuck into IEM Katowice's play-in stage as the third seed from North America. Despite a slow start in the EPT points race where she finished fourth in the NA summer regional, Scarlett righted the ship by winning the fall season in what was by far her best performance of the year. Despite taking a loss in the semifinals to Astrea, Scarlett went on quite a run through the loser’s bracket by beating Silky, Nina, and Neeb before taking a rematch victory over Astrea in the finals (bring back MLG era extended series rules you cowards). This helped create some parity at the top of the region, giving us three different champions in three different seasons of NA regionals.
Unfortunately for Scarlett, she didn’t fare particularly well in international competition. Winning the fall season of NA regionals qualified her for the DH season finals, but she failed to get out of the group stage after losing twice to INnoVation. While one can hardly be blamed for being eliminated by the Machine, we really don't have much else to go by given Scarlett's sparse participation in international competition on the year. Her performance in the DouYu Cup—her other major international outing—also went poorly as she was eliminated with a 1-4 record in the group stage. On a more positive note, Scarlett made the RO16 in both Code S Seasons 1 and 2 (she left Korea before Season 3), which is actually a better result than some of the Korean players she might face in the play-in stage of IEM Katowice. Furthermore, Scarlett didn't advance in Code S just by beating the low-tier players of Code S—she took wins against the likes of Rogue and Armani.
NA fans have reason to be concerned about Scarlett's form headed into IEM Katowice. After taking third place in the NA winter regional, she's been rather inactive with only two tries at major tournament qualifiers. In the TSL6 qualifiers, Scarlett was eliminated early on by Poland's souL. Then, she fared just as poorly in the qualifier for DH Last Chance, losing her only two matches to uThermal and Kelazhur (the ZvT terror of HotS, she is not). Scarlett hasn't even played an official match since those qualifiers in December, with Aligulac.com even delisting her from the rankings due to inactivity. While we have to pay respect to Scarlett's historic accomplishments and propensity to punch above her weight class, her recent form and inactivity point to an early exit from Katowice 2021.
Latin America: Special and KelazhurWhile many players ended up being confined to their home regions due to the pandemic-adjusted EPT system, one player decided that simple things like a global catastrophe wouldn’t keep him locked down in Latin America. SpeCial, a long-term resident of Korea since 2017, qualified and competed in all three seasons of GSL Code S, all three DH Season Finals, both TSL's, and a single Super Tournament.
Unfortunately, despite his broad participation in tournaments, SpeCial really didn’t have a standout performance on the world stage compared to previous years. He failed to advance past the group stages in GSL Code S, and the playoffs remained out of his reach in the DH Season Finals as well. In third party events, TSL5 ended up being his best showing as he defeated TIME and Cure before being eliminated by soO and TY (good for a top 12 finish). While simply being a Code S regular is arguably a better resume than some of the other players in the play-in stage, there's no denying that SpeCial has underperformed compared to previous years. He did score some quality wins in 2020—he defeated soO twice to advance to the Code S RO16 in Season 2, and more recently he advanced to the Super Tournament main event on the back of a huge qualifier upset against Rogue. However, despite SpeCial's clever strategies, he hasn't been able to make the kind of deep runs we've come to expect from him a couple times a year (who can forget his top four run at BlizzCon 2017?).
SpeCial did, however, continue to dominate domestic competition, joining China's TIME as the only player to earn a full DreamHack regional sweep in 2020. He did show a rare moment of vulnerability in the fall season when he lost to Cham in the winners' bracket, and just barely came back to win the grand finals rematch by a 4-3 scoreline. Still, if you consider Copa America, WCS Challenger, and DH Masters to be part of the same lineage, SpeCial is currently on an incredible eleven tournament winning streak in Latin American regionals.
While SpeCial is an absolutely amazing player whose consistency and work-rate should be celebrated, he has yet to show in 2020/21 that he should be considered a legitimate threat to get out of the IEM group stage. I actually think the fact that he drew a group with no Protoss will help him, as he can lean on his TvT's against TIME and INnoVation to get some precious wins. Things could be rather grim if he can't go 2-0 in the TvT's, as the prospect of TvZ against Serral and Dark seems unlikely. Still, we've seen players advance from the group stage with losing records and go on to win the world championship, so if SpeCial prepares well and fights tooth and nail for every map win, he might be able to conjure up some magic.
It should surprise few that Brazilian Terran Kelazhur enters IEM Katowice as the #2 seed from Latin America. There was a time when Latin America was far more competitive, back when Kelazhur used to trade regional titles back and forth with SpeCial, and when even Cham managed to snatch the championship belt for a season. However, ever since SpeCial moved to Korea to train on a more permanent basis, the LATAM regional competition has become a much more predictable affair with the Mexican Terran monopolizing first place finishes while Kelazhur inevitably comes in second.
That pattern continued in 2020, though Kelazhur's position as the designated #2 player from the region came briefly under fire during the fall season. Mexican Zerg Cham made a spirited run through the playoffs where he wrested second place away from Kelazhur, but the Team Liquid Terran was able to reclaim his usual second palace position in the winter season and effectively locked in an IEM Katowice spot on points.
While it seems impossible for Kelazhur to beat SpeCial in regional competition (he lost by aggregate map scores of 0-7, 1-6, and 1-7 in each respective season), it's no shame to have a losing record against the greatest player of all time from the region. Also, Kelazhur may have something to offer yet on the global stage. Kelazhur plays a very viewer friendly style, with his multi-tasking and harassment oriented style of TvZ being a particularly exciting watch. If the many thrilling TvZ games he played against Cham over the 2020/21 season are an indicator, then he'll at least give us a great show in the play-in stage of IEM Katowice.
Also, Kelazhur has been mostly absent from the larger tournaments outside of Latin America this past year, which makes him one of the more unknown and mysterious participants at IEM Katowice. If his opponents underestimate him and fail to do their requisite scouting, he may be able to get one over on a more highly ranked player. While Kelazhur is certainly not under any expectations to make a deep run, any victories earned by the Liquid Terran will be a nice springboard into the 2021 EPT season where he'll try to reclaim his domestic crown.
Oceania: ProbeAt first glance, you might think it was obvious that Probe clinched the sole seed from the Oceania / Rest of Asia region ("Oceania" for short). After all, he had represented Australia and Oceania many times throughout his career, in a variety of international tournaments ranging from WCS to WESG. However, Probe's path to qualification was anything but easy, as he barely fought off challenges from RiSky and Seither to win his seed.
Probe got out to a strong start in 2020, taking second place in the summer regional and winning the championship in the fall. This gave Probe a tenuous first place position in the point standings headed into the final winter regional, with RiSky and Seither trailing closely behind in 2nd and 3rd place. Probe courted disaster when he suffered shock elimination in the group stages, but he salvaged his IEM chances by taking #2 ranked RiSky down with him in the group stages. That left only #3 ranked Seither in a position to overtake both RiSky and Probe and seize the single seed—but only if Seither could go all the way and win the regional championship. Fortunately for Probe, he was rescued by an unlike savior in the form of EnDerr, with the Filipino Zerg thwarting Seither in the grand finals.
It's hard to know what to expect from Probe in the play-in stages of IEM Katowice. Like Scarlett, he's been inactive to the point of being delisted by Aligulac.com, with the OCE winter regional being his last official event. It doesn't bode well for him that prior to being delisted, he was the lowest ranked competitor on Aligulac.com among all of the IEM Katowice 2021 competitors.
Still, one hopes that Probe will have prepared especially hard for this unique opportunity, which is momentous in the history of OCE StarCraft. While regional lines have been redrawn many times over throughout the history of competitive StarCraft II, the "Oceania" region hasn't been represented in the main event of BlizzCon, IEM Katowice, or equivalent world championship-tier event since 2016, when PiG competed at IEM Katowice 2016 (or even 2010, depending on how one wants to appraise 'world championship' events). A strong showing from Probe would help prove that the OCE seed isn't just about global representation, and that this supposedly 'minor' region truly belongs at the grand finale of the EPT season.