IEM Katowice 2023 - Power Rankby: Wax
IEM Katowice 2023 is nigh! Before we begin, we embark on an ambitious project: Rank all 36 players.
While all forms of Power Ranks are speculative, this one might take the cake. A new patch and map pool was implemented in the last two months, and we've seen ZERO high-stakes events in the new setting. Also, a large chunk of the players in the competition haven't competed at all in 2023, leaving their form a mystery.
Thus, I'm leaning hard on previous performances, reputation—and for the lack of a better word—vibes for some of these placements. I fully expect to be surprised by players who had very productive practice leading into Katowice, or those who are bringing effective new strategies to the competition.
Tier 6: Looking for a Series Win#36: TeebuL
Unfortunately for TeebuL and Coffee, historic results force me to place them here in Tier 6.
Since the WCS-EPT transition, the #1 seed out of Oceania/Rest of Asia and #2 seed from China have never made it out of the IEM Katowice play-in stage. That's not to say those seeds haven't scored upsets—previous China #2 seed Cyan took down Scarlett at Katowice 2021 and then defeated Has at Katowice 2022. As for the OCE #1 seed, Probe managed to eliminate Percival 2-0 in last year's Katowice play-in stage. Like their regional peers, TeebuL and Coffee could very well win surprise victories that help send a player from a stronger region out of the tournament.
However, you need to put together three to four of those upsets to escape the RO36, and I just can't see either of these two pulling off that kind of underdog run.
Tier 5: Contending for a Group Stage Spot#34: Armani
It's been three years since IEM Katowice's format was changed to include a RO36 bracket/play-in stage, and I believe that the 2023 edition features the most competitive, closely matched field of players yet.
Setting aside TeebuL and Coffee as the underdogs and Cure and Zoun as the two favorites, that leaves a whopping twelve players whom I believe have very similar odds of advancing into the RO24. Of course, I favor certain players over the others (hence their ranking), but I don't think the gap between #34 and #22 is significant. Match-up luck and gameday form are sure to play a huge part in deciding who actually survives to reach the group stage.
Keep in mind how how wild last year's RO36 was: Favorites like herO, DRG, and Creator all got knocked out, making ByuN's advancement the only 'predictable' result. The other three RO24 spots went to Astrea, Ryung, and Spirit, who all happened to catch fire at the perfect moment.
While Ryung and/or Spirit have a chance of pulling off the same feat in 2023, it could very easily be someone else in this tier who makes a dramatic run to the main event. Could NightMare follow-up on his shocking RO8 placement at DreamHack: Atlanta and disrupt the groups? Will soO rekindle the fire from 2019 and play his best StarCraft since returning from the military? Or will it be Harstem captaining his ship into the RO24 for the first time since 2017? I'm open to every single possibility.
[*Unfortunately for SpeCial, he's the sole RO24 seed who I have ranked alongside the RO36 players in Tier 5, as I don't think he'd be a clear favorite to advance from the RO36 if he had to start there.]
Tier 4: Contending for a Playoff Spot#21: Oliveira
Tier 4 is the group stage version of Tier 5, containing nine RO24 competitors—plus Cure and Zoun from the RO36—that I believe have similar chances of advancing into the playoff stage of the tournament.
Again, I believe these eleven players are extremely closely matched. I ran their names through a list randomizer a few times as an experiment, and each result felt like a reasonable, justifiable ranking from a certain point of view. For the sake of this particular power rank, I used major tournament success in 2022/23 as my primary differentiator, but even then the margins were razor thin. Take a look at Astrea's results in 2022 and compare them to ShoWTimE—can you really say either player was clearly better?
If I had to pick a handful of players who have a chance to vastly outperform my expectations, I'd have to go with GuMiho, Cure, and Zoun. In the case of GuMiho, he has a well-earned reputation for being a brilliant build-crafter, even strategizing his way to a Code S championship in 2017. If there's anyone who could take advantage of the new maps/patch and surprise their opponents, GuMiho would have to be near the top of the list.
As for Cure, he combines GuMiho's knack for strategizing with championship-tier play in the recent past. Yes, Cure has experienced a worrying fall-off since winning Code S 2021—hence his disappointing starting position in the RO36. However, that marvelous Code S run is still close enough in the past that I believe he could regain that form.
No one will ever match Rogue's knack for stepping up in big matches, but Zoun has become a bizarre, semi-successor to that legacy (alright, maybe 1/16th successor would be a more accurate description). Although he's not very consistent, he's pulled off some wild BO5 upsets in his career, like taking down Dark and Rogue in a GSL Super Tournament, or more recently eliminating Serral at HomeStory Cup XXII. What's particularly impressive about these upsets is that Zoun didn't even play particularly cheesy—he was just legitimately better than these world champion players for the duration of a single series. Sure, Zoun's inconsistency means he might just get knocked out in the RO36, but he's also got a chance to really ruin your bracket prediction.
Tier 3: Playoff Favorites/Longshot Championship Contenders#10: HeroMarine
HeroMarine reached an entirely new level at the last IEM Katowice, progressing all the way to the final four and pushing Reynor to the brink of elimination in the semis. This momentum carried over briefly into the start of the 2022/23 season, as he eliminated Serral from the first DH: Europe regional of the year with a 3-2 victory. Alas, this did not herald the coming of Big Gabe, Champion of Europe, as he soon reverted back to being 'normal' HeroMarine. While he remained one of the most consistently strong players in Europe, he ceased to be a serious title threat in the rest of the year's tournaments.
Still, seeing something once is enough to instill belief, and I'm not ready to say IEM Katowice 2022 was a once-in-a-career event for HeroMarine. I'm cautiously placing him in the longshot contenders tier, with hopes that he can turn in a repeat performance.
For better or for worse, my assessment for ByuN and Solar is the same as it has been for a couple of years now: they possess championship-level skill but are weighed down by their questionable mental.
There's no doubt that the two players made huge strides in 2022. Solar broke a multi-year championship drought by winning GSL Super Tournament 2, where he looked calm and composed as he clutched out a game seven against a proven 'winner' in Dark. While ByuN didn't win a championship, he finished the year strong with a top four finish in the same GSL Super Tournament (losing to Solar) and top three placement in HomeStory Cup XXII. It was particularly encouraging for ByuN that his chronic wrist issues—which had been revealed to be at least partially psychosomatic—didn't flair up in a significant way throughout the 2022/23 season.
The question is, how well will these improvements carry over to the most pressure-packed stage of all at IEM Katowice? While I doubt we'll see anything as drastic as Solar eating a historically disastrous nuke or ByuN requesting multiple pauses due to wrist pain, I'm worried that something will go wrong. As is always the case with these two, I'm praying for the best but bracing myself for the worst.
Tier 2: The Wild Cards#7: Clem
Considering how heavily I've factored in past performances for other players, it might be surprising to see that Clem is still lingering in this section of the rankings. After all, his showings in international competition have been consistently disappointing compared to his continued domination in Europe (winning his fourth and fifth EPT/DHM Europe regionals in 2022). It's largely due to his weak Terran vs Terran, which has been such a consistent problem that it might appear incurable to some fans.
However, I'm just too tantalized by Clem's talent to exclude him from title contention. We just saw Creator reach the GSL finals after a 10 year slump and herO redefine what's possible for military returnees—I think it's pretty reasonable to expect a hyper-talented Terran who's still only 20 years old to solve his problem match-up. And even if he doesn't quite figure out TvT, Clem's strong TvP and TvZ mean he's only a lucky bracket away from a top four finish.
Another Terran I'm high on is Bunny. He started to break out toward the end of 2021, stringing together some solid domestic results before making a career-best run to the top eight of IEM Katowice 2022. However, his momentum was derailed in comically unlucky fashion, with the combo of a hand/wrist injury and international COVID quarantine wasting the first half of the EPT 2022/23 season. However, he recovered in brilliant fashion, and went on the run of his career at DreamHack: Atlanta. Not only did he take down Serral, but he came within a map of beating herO and winning his first major championship.
I'm now left to seriously wonder whether that Atlanta run was a brief burst of supreme inspiration, or if it truly represented a new normal for Bunny. The subsequent GSL Super Tournament 2 definitely felt like a reality check, as Dark slapped him down hard in the RO4. Still, I'm going to err on the side of optimism here, and say 2023 will indeed be the Year of the
Tier 1: The Championship Favorites#5: Dark
While there's sure to be much disagreement about the rankings up to this point, I think most fans would agree that these five players are locks at the very top.
herO's overall career resume is clearly the weakest of the five, but he arguably had the strongest EPT 2022/23 season out of anyone. He was the only player to win two of the 'tier 1' majors on the season (remind me to rant about how Liquipedia-Premier is too broad a category some other time), claiming the championship at both GSL Code S Season 2 and DreamHack: Atlanta.
He also put up solid head-to-head results against the other players in this tier, most notably beating Maru in both the semifinals of DreamHack: Atlanta and the grand finals of Code S Season 2. While he didn't play nearly as many high stakes matches against the three Zergs, he was definitely competitive against them (and in the case of Dark, regularly beat up on him in the ESL Open Cups).
Really, the only major mark against herO is just hasn't enough time in his post-military career to build up the same kind of aura of dominance as the others. But going by the 2022/23 season alone, he might even be the #1 world championship candidate.
Regardless of what I think of herO, it's actually Maru who comes into IEM Katowice with the most EPT points and the #1 overall seed. Maru might lament his three runner-up finishes in interviews, but his 1 gold/3 silver record in EPT 2022/23 would constitute a career-best year for around thirty of the other players in the tournament.
But while things look good for Maru on the surface, things are a bit more worrying underneath the hood. The reason why he has three silvers is because he's failed to overcome the other players in this very tier—Dark beat him in the DH: Valencia finals, herO took him down in Code S Season 2, and Serral walloped him in TSL9. At least the finals vs Dark was a nailbiter—the herO and Serral series were worryingly one-sided. Throw in Maru's history of underperforming when traveling outside of Asia, and I have to wonder if he's actually the weakest of the five players in this tier.
However, if I've been optimistic about Clem, HeroMarine, Solar, and other players down the ranking, I have to give Maru the benefit of the doubt as well. He's on the shortlist to be the greatest SC2 player of all time—surely he'll reach the IEM Katowice finals at least once?
Reynor and Dark feel like oddly similar players to me, even though one is the epitome of Zerg greed and the other is the swarm's most clinical early-game attacker. What ties them together is how their recent tournament results have basically zero correlation with how I feel about their level as players. Regardless of what their Aligulac ratings say, regardless of tournament placements, you know another championship is inevitably coming.
For instance, back in 2021, Reynor went into IEM Katowice after playing poorly in the three lead-in tournaments. That, of course, ended with Reynor fighting his way through a historically brutal bracket (Stats-Dark-Maru-Zest) to win the world championship. And while that achievement was hugely impressive, nothing about it was truly surprising. Similarly, Dark went through a rough stretch in late 2020 where he flopped out of consecutive Code S group stages. Then, not long after, he survived one of the most difficult tournament gauntlets of all time to win TSL6. Again, it was a performance that somehow elicited both applause and a shrug.
The reason I have Reynor higher than Dark is that he's pulled this kind of s*** off in two consecutive world championships. His tournament results leading into previous two IEM Katowice tournaments were uninspiring, but he still came up with the championship in 2021 and a runner-up finish in 2022. It's a nice bonus that this year he's actually going into IEM Katowice on the high note of having won HomeStory Cup XXII, but I'd still have the utmost faith in him had he been eliminated in last place.
For the vaunted #1 spot, I ultimately had to go with reigning Katowice champion Serral. If the lower half of the ranking was more focused on centered around objective results, I found myself leaning more and more heavily toward gut feeling as I went up the rankings. As I touched upon above with Reynor and Dark, I stopped caring so much about who had played well recently, and thought more about who had proven that they could play at a high level in a world championship event. And if that was my primary criteria, then who could I place higher than the only player in the entire tournament with both BlizzCon and Katowice championships?
Of course, this isn't to say that it's 100% vibes that lead me to take Serral at #1. His Aligulac.com rating is monstrously high as usual, and he stands at #1 headed into the event. His 2022/23 results were very good as well, winning championships at HSC XXI and TSL9.
Going through the rankings, I found it telling that I constantly went to "did Player X beat Serral?" as a criterion, as much as Aligulac rating or tournament results. That's just how much of a gold standard Serral has become in the scene. Even as the parity in the StarCraft II scene has reached its highest point in years, the man to beat remains the same.
Reference: Aligulac.com standings (February 7th, 2023)For the sake of reference and comparison, I've included the Aligulac.com rankings of all the competing players as of February 7th. Players who were marked as "inactive" have been listed according to their prior rating.
Credits and acknowledgements
Statistics and records: Liquipedia and Aligulac.com
Statistics and records: Liquipedia and Aligulac.com