IEM Katowice 2021by Wax
Play-in Stage Preview (Round of 36)
IEM Katowice 2021 is set to kick off with the RO36 play-in stage, where sixteen players will fight for the four remaining spots in the main event. While there looks to be one heavy favorite to advance, the fighting should be fierce for the other three main event seeds.
- Double-elimination bracket
- Top four advance to RO24 group stage
- Qualification matches are best of five. All other matches are best of three.
- Losers' bracket not depicted in image
Also read: Europe's Big Three - Korea's RO36 Players - North & Latin America at IEM - Zest, the Meta Changer
Smooth Sailing for ByuN?I have to begin this preview by talking about ByuN, who enters the play-in stage as championship contender who looks sorely out of place. One could argue that the only reason ByuN is starting in the RO36 is because he played for less than half of the EPT 2020/21 season after being discharged from the military last August. Despite the late start, ByuN still hauled in enough EPT points to comfortably qualify for IEM Katowice by winning the championship at ASUS ROG Online and placing third at TeamLiquid Starleague 6. On the other hand, one could also argue that an RO24 seed was within ByuN's grasp, but he blew it with poor performances in the GSL.
Well, that latter point might not be entirely ByuN's fault. His health has become a major concern in offline play, with wrist pain playing a part in cutting his last three GSL runs short. In stark contrast, ByuN has been an ironman in online competitions, playing long hours and putting up great results. As mentioned in TL's first Korea preview, those factors make IEM Katowice 2021 a potential once-in-a-career opportunity for ByuN. If there is no cure for his wrist ailments, then this pandemic-altered, all-online version of IEM Katowice may be the biggest championship ByuN could realistically win.
To that end, it seems like ByuN will get off to a smooth start in the RO36. It's hard to see any of the play-in Zergs being a problem for ByuN in macro games, though players like RagnaroK, Scarlett, and Elazer are certainly crafty enough to hurt ByuN with early-game attacks. However, TvP could be considerably trickier, with Protoss seeming to have a slight edge in the match-up headed into IEM Katowice (Aligulac.com's latest balance report says Protoss has a 53.2% win-rate in the match-up). Remember, ByuN was considered a heavy favorite to win against sOs in January's Super Tournament, but ended up giving up a 2-3 loss. While one could point to ByuN's wrist issues as the reason, his choice to play non-1/1/1 builds in every single game seemed just as culpable. While I don't necessarily think it was a bad strategic approach just because ByuN lost, I have to wonder why ByuN decided he needed to veer away from standard play against a seemingly weaker opponent.
One might think ByuN first round match against Dream is his biggest hurdle, as Dream could very well be the second best player in the play-ins. However, ByuN has 7-2 head-to-head match record against Dream on the season, and is currently on a five match winning streak. Furthermore, TvT has been post-military ByuN's best match-up by win-rate at about 66%.
All-in-all, it seems like ByuN has a great chance of reaching the main event. However, the uncertainty of best-of-three—even with the cushion of double elimination behind it—makes it impossible to put any prediction in stone.
Korea vs The WorldSo, let's say ByuN is a soft-lock to claim one of the tickets to the RO24 group stage. Which players will claim the other three?
One might be tempted to say Korea will make it a clean sweep, if only due to its numerical advantage. ESL treated the Korean region with a ton of respect in how they allocated IEM Katowice 2021 spots, with GSL players taking up eight out of sixteen spots in the play-in stage (two of these sports were 'earned' mid-season, but I'll refrain from going on a boring tangent about the EPT rules). However, I feel like ESL's worldview may have been a bit outdated. Sure, there was once a time when mid-tier Koreans were better than all but the best foreigners. But the Korea-World skill gap has narrowed over the years, and the 'Code S RO16 Korean' isn't quite the fearsome entity it once was in the past.
Besides ByuN, how many of the seven Korean players in the play-in stage are clearly better than uThermal (EU #7) and Elazer (EU #6)? uThermal has a 45% win-rate against Koreans during the 2020/21 season, while Elazer is slightly lower at 40%. The caveat is that the majority of their games were played against the championship-tier Koreans who are already seeded in the RO24—the competition down in the play-ins is somewhat weaker.
The two Europeans have proved to be feisty competitors in international competition during the 2020/21 season, scoring a number of notable upsets. uThermal made a top six run at TeamLiquid StarLeague 5 (tied for best foreigner finish), picking up wins against Zest and Clem, and narrowly losing to Trap in a five game series. In Elazer's case, he placed in the top six at both TSL5 and TSL6, picking up wins against Serral, Reynor, and Stats along the way.
While the GSL delegation certainly has numbers on its side, would it really be an upset if uThermal, Elazer, or both of them advanced? Furthermore, the seeding has loaded the Korean players on one side of the bracket, which makes it more difficult for all of them to advance together. All in all, I look forward to seeing how Elazer and uThermal will do when they're not facing the absolute best players from Korea, and if they'll be able to further the case that Europe deserves more representation in future international tournaments.
'Minor' region malaiseESL's shift to focusing on regional tournaments in the wake of the global pandemic has dulled the international feel of the old WCS Circuit, where you never knew which player from what region might break out at a Circuit event. The 2020/21 EPT tour was basically the Europe and Korea show, with North America getting in just a tiny bit of shine toward the end of 2020.
When you're thinking of players who could shake up the status quo, then Has should come immediately to mind. The infamous cheesy Taiwanese Protoss is the epitome of high variance StarCraft II—he might find it difficult to survive until the final four, but he's a threat to deal any one of the favorites a shock loss in a BO3.
Has' countryman Nice actually took the spot of #1 Taiwanese player away from him in the 2020/21 season, showing improved macro play while retaining that distinctly unconventional regional flavor (go watch any of the series between Rex and Has if you really want to enjoy Taiwanese SC2). Though it will also be tough for him to make it all the way through the play-in stage, he's also got a solid chance to upset anyone in a BO3—particularly the Terrans.
And, of course, you always have to be wary of Scarlett, if only for her willingness to play both shameless all-ins and loathsome turtle games in order to get a win. The Canadian Zerg actually made two Code S RO16's in 2020, which is on par or even better than some of the Korean players in the play-in bracket. However, Scarlett's motivation came into question in the latter half of the year, with a dalliance in Brood War followed by a long period of SC2 inactivity in official tournaments. Still, her recent signing by the newly formed team Shopify Rebellion could be a positive sign, showing that she's completely locked in on SC2 once more.
PredictionsOnline-ByuN is a tremendous player who's given us very little reason to doubt him, making him an easy pick to advance to the group stage. While it seems dicey to pick ByuN's very first opponent to advance as well, I'm going to go ahead and predict that Dream will end up qualifying alongside him. As mentioned in TL's Korea RO36 preview, I think Dream is a half-tier above both most of the RO36 field, and even if he loses to ByuN initially, he should be able to survive to reach the group stage.
Elazer vs Bunny is an intriguing first round match-up, with both players having proved they can reach high peaks and defeat championship caliber players. After talking up the Europeans in this preview, it would be weird if I didn't pick at least one of them to advance. So I'm going to bet that the best version of Elazer will show up for the RO36 and earn a ticket to the main event.
With my fourth and final pick, I'm bound to take sOs due to my self-imposed promise to never doubt him ever again. Actually, this isn't as much of a 'heart' pick as it could have been in previous years, when sOs' decline seemed more stark. The two-time BlizzCon champ has been playing fairly well in the lead-up to EM Katowice, reaching the top eight in two GSL Super Tournament events. With solid macro play to go alongside his galaxy-brain cheeses, sOs might even go on to make the IEM playoffs for the second straight year.
Predictions: ByuN, Dream, Elazer, and sOs advance.