2021 GSL Code S Season 1 - Round of 16by Wax
Welcome to the group of death? Well, that's what Group C is, at least according to a TL.net reader vote. Me, I'm not so sure. Certainly, the combined name value of the players in Group C is tremendous, as they bring with them dozens of championships' worth of credentials. However, the recent form of these four players has been... mixed, to say the least. In my estimation, Group C isn't so much a group of death, as it is a 'group of let's see where these guys are at.' Anyway, let's meet our contestants.
Group C: Rogue, Zoun, INnoVation, DarkStart time: Monday, Apr 12 9:30am GMT (GMT+00:00)
Rogue enters as the top seeded player of the group, largely due to his championship run in Code S season two (GSL seeding only takes GSL events into account). Despite his legendary stature and unmatched success in world championship events, Rogue remains one of the most difficult players to evaluate in competitive StarCraft II. He's infamous for the lulls he goes through in between triumphs, having followed up the glory of winning a world championship with the indignity of getting eliminated in the first round of Code S on two separate occasions. Consider this sequence of tournament finishes from 2020: [IEM Katowice: 1st place - Code S Season 1: RO24 - Code S Season 2: 1st place - Code S Season 3: RO16]. That... that's just silly.
So, what are we to make of Rogue's rather middling run of form since winning Code S Season 2 in 2020? After that, a top four finish in the Super Tournament was his best finish. In his most recent major event, he was eliminated from IEM Katowice 2021 in 8th place. It would be easy to chalk all that up to laziness/lack of interest—something Rogue has admitted to in the past—but I get the feeling that he's just going through a stretch of 'game-is-hard'-ness like every StarCraft player suffers from time to time. His play just seems to have suffered small declines all across the board—his Infestor-Viper micro in the game isn't quite as crisp, his all-ins don't have the same success rate as before, and his defense against early harassment isn't quite as pristine. Also, while I typically don't read too deeply into players' body language or on-camera reactions (if Twitch chat is to be believed, every progamer is in a permanent state of tilt), some of Rogue's desk slams and pained expressions convince me that he really is trying hard right now—the game is just refusing to comply with him.
After intentionally creating a group of death last season, Rogue took a conservative approach this time around and picked Zoun as his initial opponent (Rogue later insinuated that without a guaranteed Katowice seed in hand, he has to play it safe to maximize points). Like Rogue, Zoun is a tricky player to rate—but for different reasons. Since Zoun's return to competitive StarCraft II in 2019 (like PartinG, he was a former KeSPA player who retired, went on a hiatus, and later returned to SC2), he's been on a steady upward trajectory, and now seems to have established himself as a Code S regular with two RO16 appearances in a row. As regards to greater aspirations, his impressive 2nd place run in January's Super Tournament 1 was certainly an eyebrow-raising moment, proving that at least in PvP, he was ready to compete against the GSL's best (3-1 vs PartinG, 3-0 vs Zest, 2-4 vs Trap during the Super tournament). However, due to his failure to qualify for IEM Katowice, we've seen precious little of Zoun's PvT or PvZ against top players in major events (he did manage to 3-0 Armani in the Super tournament).
Looking at Zoun's combined offline-online record in 2021, he has the good-but-not-great statistical profile that you might expect from a Code S player: 65% win-rates in PvZ and PvT, a 57% win-rate in PvP (surprisingly low considering his Super Tournament success), and the #6 Protoss spot on the Aligulac.com rankings. That makes him an underdog in a group with so many vaunted players, but given his trajectory since his return, a surprise playoff berth is hardly out of the question. In a more subjective evaluation, Zoun does seem to have an element of clutchness that helps him perform above expectations. He made the Code S Ro16 when few expected it, reached the Super Tournament finals when even fewer expected it, and he has generally exceeded expectations in the Gold Series Team Championship by helping Alpha X to high finishes.
Curiously enough, Zoun decided to continue his mini-rivalry with INnoVation going by drafting him into the group, even throwing out a barb about INnoVation's inability to dodge purification novas. The head-to-head record between the two is almost dead even, andeven INnoVation has admitted that Zoun is a tricky opponent.
The fact that Zoun can dare to poke fun at INnoVation reveals the paradoxical place the Machine is in. Like Rogue, INnoVation's career body of work forces us to respect him regardless of his recent form. Put the 10+ premier tournament championships aside—when INnoVation shook off a year-long slump to beat Serral in a $150,000 deathmatch at WESG 2019 (arguably the biggest win any Korean player took against 'peak' Serral), I figured there would be no reason to doubt his talent ever again.
Yet, two years have passed since that victory, and the results say INnoVation is a much diminished player from his prime. INnoVation's tournament finishes over the 2020-21 EPT/GSL season were remarkably consistent: in fourteen out of sixteen major events, he achieved a finish of top eight or better. Ten of those finishes were exactly top eight. It paints a portrait of a player who has become a very high-class gatekeeper. Do you think you're ready to challenge Maru or Serral for championships? Let's see you beat INnoVation first.
While that might cast some shadows on INnoVation's chances of winning a Code S championship, you still have to feel good about the odds of him reaching the Code S quarterfinals. Eight has been the magic number for him over the last year and a half—by hook or by crook, he always seems to get there.
Finally, another illustrious player in Dark rounds out the group. Once a paragon of consistently excellent Zerg play, Dark has joined INnoVatioN and Rogue in becoming more of a feast or famine player. After winning the BlizzCon championship in 2019, he proceeded to lay an egg in the 2020 GSL season, only earning a single Code S playoff appearance (and even that ended in the first round).
Overall, Dark is in a similar predicament as Rogue: He's still very good, he's still a former world champion, but he's somewhat diminished from his absolute peak. However, the big difference between Dark and his two legendary peers is that he actually has a recent-ish tournament that reminded us of how good he can be when he's firing on all cylinders. In December's TSL6, Dark went on one of the most impressive playoff runs in recent memory (really, only Reynor's IEM run is above it), defeating Parting, Rogue, Reynor, ShoWTimE, Maru, ByuN, and Serral to win the championship. Four months later, one can still hold up TSL6 as proof that Dark will contend for the title in GSL—at least it feels like better evidence than INnoVation's WESG, Rogue's latest Code S Season 2 title, or Zoun's Super Tournament runner-up.
All that goes to say, there are three legends in this group who could snap back into championship form at any moment. And, they're joined by a rising star whose limits have yet to be revealed. There's no result in this group that would be a true surprise.
Rogue > Zoun
Dark > INnoVation
Rogue > Dark
INnoVation > Zoun
Dark > INnoVation
Rogue and Dark advance
Despite these predictions, I'm bracing myself to see Zoun advance from the decider match after chain-cannon rushing a Zerg.