A Tidal Wave in Still Water - Oliveira at IEM Katowice 2023by: Mizenhauer
There's a term in Korean gaming called Go-in mul (고인물), which roughly translates to stagnant water. It's used to describe old games where the best of the best have been playing for so long that it is virtually impossible for anyone to rise through the ranks and actually win a tournament.
It has long been used to describe Brood War, and it has also been applicable to StarCraft II for quite some time. Since the last KeSPA draft in 2013, the influx of championship caliber pros has slowed to a trickle. Yes, veterans like Creator and Cure can have late-career renaissances, but they've been around since the nascent days of StarCraft II. Fans sometimes labeled Clem and Reynor prodigious newcomers, but they had actually been playing StarCraft II for nearly half their lives. Their ascents were an organic part of their growth as players.
We simply do not get new champions all that often, especially at events like the IEM World Championship. In the present era of StarCraft II, the players who return home with the trophy are almost invariably highly decorated veterans who have long been recognized as being a cut above the rest.
At least that was the case until this year, when something very different happened. The 2023 IEM World Championship was going to be remembered for many reasons—Spirit's brawl with Cure, Creator's recall into despair, and Serral's IdrA moment all come readily to mind. But, more than anything, it will forever go down in the history books as the moment when Oliveira brashly disproved everything we thought we knew about professional StarCraft II and announced himself as the best player in the world.
Prior to Katowice 2023, Oliveira (playing under the ID "TIME") had been a tricky player to rate. His background was similar to Europe's next generation trio of Serral, Clem, and Reynor, where he received attention from a young age due to his tremendous talent. But unlike his peers, he never fully realized his potential, topping out as a regional powerhouse who couldn't make a serious impact in the biggest international events. Yet, every now and then he'd tantalize fans with a glimpse of what he was capable of. His 3-2 victory over Maru in the group stages of BlizzCon 2019 seemed like it could be a watershed moment—instead, Maru took a 3-0 sweep in the rematch, and Oliveira never showed that level of play in a world championship event. Similarly, he pushed Serral at the peak of his powers to an unthinkable game five, but that ultimately ended in a loss.
Those almost-triumphs had haunted him for a while, but the immediate lead-up to IEM Katowice 2023 was especially discouraging. International travel is often difficult for Chinese players, and November's DreamHack: Atlanta was one of the rare chances Oliveira had to play in such an event. He blew the opportunity in spectacular fashion, getting eliminated without winning a single map.
Thus, the expectations for Oliveira at IEM Katowice were set at a modest level. Placed into a tough RO24 group with Dark, RagnaroK, Cure, Neeb, and Clem, he clearly wasn't one of the favorites to advance. Even so, Atlanta didn't completely offset his past accomplishments—you still had to give him a fighting chance to advance if everything went right and he played to the best of his abilities.
In many ways, the start of Oliveira's Katowice run mirrored that of soO at IEM Katowice 2019, where the long-suffering Zerg was nearly eliminated off the bat. Oliveira's 1-2 loss to Dark on the tournament’s first day was expected, but he scored invaluable upsets against Cure and Clem. However, losses to more 'beatable' players in Neeb and Ragnarok put him in a four way tie with a 2-3 record. Like soO, Oliveira’s net zero map differential was just enough to win him the tiebreaker and secure himself a spot in the Round of 12. If he had played just slightly more poorly, or any of his group rivals had played slightly better, he may not have even sniffed the elimination rounds.
The Terran formerly known as TIME entered the playoffs in the round of 12, where he faced off against fan-favorite HeroMarine. Where Oliveira barely squeaked into bracket stage, Big Gabe had gone 4-1 in his group with wins over top tier Korean Terrans Bunny and Maru. But, instead of claiming another victory in TvT, he ran into a brick wall. Oliveira claimed the first two games, and while HeRoMaRinE made it interesting by winning game three, the Chinese Terran closed the door in game four. This victory allowed Oliveira to move on to the final day, where the final eight players would vye for the world championship.
Oliveira's round of 8 opponent was none other than Reynor, the winner of IEM Katowice 2021 and runner-up in 2022. The Italian Zerg went into championship Sunday as the only player who had yet to drop a series in the entire tournament.
For two games everything went as expected for two players with such contrasting career resumes. Oliveira’s double Battlecruiser opening in game one was easily rebuffed, with Queens preventing the capital ships from damaging his economy and Roaches and Corruptors mopping up the remainder of his forces. Game two was also mostly one-sided in favor of the former World Champion, but some late mistakes gave Oliveira an unexpected chance to seize victory with a last ditch Marine-Medivac push. However, a single Baneling hit brought an end to that nonsense—surely Reynor would be more clinical in game three and finish the sweep?
We had to wait a few minutes to find out the conclusion, as the broadcast went to a short break with on-screen graphics kindly reminding us that Reynor was an 84% favorite on Aligulac.com to win the match. However, there was a deeper meaning to this pause. Oliveira had noted Reynor’s exuberant celebrations and heightened emotional state after the first two games. Stealing a tactic from another world champion in Rogue, he called for his tournament-allotted mid-series break, glad to let his opponent expend his energy riding the high that comes when one is only a few steps away from a spot in the semifinals.
When game three arrived it was Oliveira’s turn to pump his fists in victory. After eight minutes of gameplay, Oliveira found himself deep on Creep, his economy gutted by another well-timed runby. But, instead of crumbling, instead of allowing Reynor to sculpt the perfect engagement, Oliveira split his units just enough to clear his opponent’s Banelings and elicit the GG.
Game four was a far more protracted affair, with the players trading blows across Gresvan for nearly half an hour. While Reynor did an excellent job swallowing up as much of the map as he could, he traded poorly and his army steadily lost its tech-complexity and punching power. Meanwhile, Oliveira worked his way up to Thors and Ghosts, the perfect counter to Reynor’s expensive Ultralisks and Brood Lords. As the clock marked the 27th minute in their encounter, Reynor had depleted his entire bank and had no choice but to cede the field.
Tied at two games apiece, it was a pair of Cloaked Banshees that shoved the snowball of defeat down Mt. Reynor. Despite having his Starport and Tech Lab scouted, Oliveira managed to kill a half dozen workers with his harassment, an advantage he parlayed into a devastating Tank push before Baneling speed completed. Reynor defended ardently with Queens and Zerglings, but the initial blow continued to push momentum in Oliveira’s favor. Reynor managed to finally displace Oliveira and force him back, but the damage had been done. Oliveira was ahead on upgrades and tech while his economy remained untouched. As Oliveira’s Tanks sieged just shy of the ramp leading towards Reynor’s natural, he was ahead by more than 30 supply. Try as he might, Reynor could not dislodge his foe. Scratching his head in disbelief as his final units were dispatched, Reynor exited the game, ceding an incredible reverse-sweep that sent Oliveira into the semifinals.
If it had all ended there, it would have been enough for Oliveira and his fans. A top 4 finish at the IEM World Championship would have been the unquestionable best result of his career. It would have been the capstone on years of falling short against the best StarCraft II players in the world. However, there was something in the air, a note that suggested things might not be over just yet. Was this the same energy from IEM Katowice 2019 or the 2011 Super Tournament, where the dream refused to be denied? Or was it more like Creator's run in the GSL or MaNa's in WCS, where cold reality set in at the very end? That remained to be discerned.
Again, Oliveira was undoubtedly the underdog heading into his semifinal match with herO. He had gotten the wrong end of their exchanges over their careers, and herO was in the midst of a second golden age after returning from military service. But whatever it was that had propelled Oliveira to these already preposterous heights, it refused to abate. herO may have been the favorite on paper, but you never would have guessed watching their match.
herO inflicted heavy worker losses with his trademark Blink-Stalker aggression in game one, but didn't have enough left on defense to handle Oliveira's decisive counterattack. Game two played out similarly with herO starting as the aggressor, but this time he balanced offense and defense far better and evened the series. herO kept the pressure on with a proxy-Gate in game three, but Oliveira benefited from his long memory. He recalled his long practice sessions with Dear from years before, where the two of them had ironed out exactly how to deal with herO’s proxy gate build. A Bunker, SCVs, plus an extra Marine ensured he took minimal losses despite a heavy investment in Adepts from herO. herO tried to find damage with a follow-up attack with mass Gateway units, but Oliveira read these intentions and continued to safely build up his army in his base.
Oliveira soon consolidated his forces for a counterattack, looking to siege his tanks up at herO's third base. But despite his less-than-ideal start, herO was far from dead, and he deflected the push before the Tanks could establish their position. The danger was averted—or was it?
When we think about StarCraft II’s greatest champions, it’s often easy to point to a single moment in which they secured that reputation. An instant where their killing edge and will to win manifests itself in a single game-ending decision. MVP will forever be remembered for his gutsy two rax proxy against Squirtle in game 7 of their Code S final bout. When it comes to Rogue you can point to his Zergling flood against soO while down 1-2 in the finals of the 2017 WCS Global Finals.
As for Oliveira's defining moment, there's any number of worthy picks from his Katowice run. But for me, it came here in game three of the semifinals. After one thwarted attack, Oliveira pulled his workers and joined them with his army. In that moment, memories of those past greats swam through my mind. This is what a champion does. They know when to be patient, and they know when to take their boot and slam it on their opponent’s throat, simultaneously ending the game and whatever hope their foe might have harbored. herO had no answer to the combined might of Oliveira’s army and SCVs. Oliveira washed over the Korean Protoss’ third with the unstoppable force of a tsunami and charged directly into herO’s natural, where he wiped out the last of his Stalkers to seize a 2-1 lead.
Oliveira had been the underdog less than an hour ago, but now his victory felt inevitable. herO tried to switch things up in game four by opening with Phoenix and teching straight into Colossus, but his errors were slowly compounding. While Oliveira was playing with a crispness born of meticulous preparation, herO seemed panicked in comparison. While the Korean Protoss was occupied with harassing his opponent’s natural, Oliveira unloaded two medivacs full of Marines into the Protoss main, massacring twelve Probes as another attack destroyed herO’s fourth base. herO, desperate to end the game before things spiraled further out of control, immediately countered, but lacked the firepower to shatter Oliveira’s defenses. Once more, Oliveira displayed that killer instinct, actually pouncing forward to assail the presumed attackers. herO’s army evaporated beneath a hail of bullets, clearing a wide-open path to the Protoss base.
It did not matter that herO had a superior resume or reputation. Oliveira left no doubt as to who was the better player on that day. He closed out the series, forced herO to pack up his gear, and took center stage to address the audience.
He described the moment as a miracle, as the product of never letting go of a dream and pursuing it with all one's effort. Then, speaking in Chinese to his most ardent fans on the other side of the world, he thanked them for sticking with him through the years, and that his run was not yet at an end.
Again, all this would have been enough for TIME and anyone who had placed an ounce of expectations on him. Oliveira had already become the first Chinese player in StarCraft II history to reach the finals of a premier tournament, let alone a World Championship. He had already far eclipsed anything he had achieved previously. But it's possible to know that something is enough but still want just a little bit more.
Oliveira's final opponent was to be his most challenging of all: Maru. As much as herO’s accolades outshone Oliveira’s, comparing Maru's five Code S titles to Oliveira’s entire career was as laughable as comparing The Hope Diamond to bauble you'd pick up from Kay's on a trip to the mall. By his own words, the legendary Terran was in his best shape ever at Katowice, and he had demonstrated it by dispatching RagnaroK with almost casual ease in the semifinals. TvZ wasn't even his best match-up—surely that had to be the Terran mirror, where he had racked up an ungodly record of 33 wins and 4 losses since 2022. Even a shocking upset loss against HeroMarine in the group stages couldn't dispel his aura of TvT dominance.
It was hard to tell if Oliveira genuinely believed he could beat Maru, one of the most accomplished players in StarCraft II history, as he stood bathed in scarlet light before the cheering crowd. But if he had any hidden doubts, he certainly did not show them when the finals began.
Game one, at least, went exactly as expected. Maru pressed the issue from the jump, leading off with a Tank drop into Oliveira’s main. Catching Oliveira totally unprepared, he easily killed Oliveira’s lone Tank and camped his production. Oliveira pulled his workers in an effort to stabilize, but it was not enough and he GG’d out before the game had even entered its seventh minute.
It was not shocking. It was not even surprising. This was always how it was supposed to go. Surely, the rest of the series would go just as the game one had gone, with Maru ultimately earning the one honor that had evaded him since he started his StarCraft II career in 2010.
Maru showed his confidence in game two, leaning into a proxy Reaper build—exactly the type of build with which he demolished the competition when he won all three seasons of Code S in 2018. But instead of displaying the immaculate precision which had brought him such unprecedented glory, Maru committed an uncharacteristic error at the most crucial moment. Reviewing the VODs later, Oliveira pointed out that Maru omitted a basic SCV scouting check he always does, letting him know whether he should attack with his first Reaper or wait to surprise the opponent with two.
Had Maru played normally, he would have seen that Oliveira had gambled on a greedy fast Reactor on his Barracks without producing a single unit. That bit of information would have prompted him to leap straight into the main with his first Reaper. But, deprived of that crucial information, he instead waited for a pair. By the time he finally launched his attack, Oliveira’s Factory was nearly constructed, and Oliveira was able to hold the attack off with acceptable SCV losses rather than taking fatal damage.
This stroke of luck allowed Oliveira to recover quickly thanks to his faster expansion, and then stage the perfect counter to Maru’s aggression—a two base tank push. Maru ferried the majority of his army away in a drop intended to once more strike at Oliveira’s undefended main base—except this time it all went wrong. The KaiZi Gaming Terran was happy to lose some workers to Maru's drop, because he was in position to deal way more damage with his frontal attack. Indeed, the trade ended up being Oliveira's SCV's for Maru's GG.
Still, it was just one game. We had seen Maru bounce back from setbacks in previous BO7 finals, like his very first OnGameNet Starleague title where Rain had gone up 2-0 to start. So it wasn't a surprise to see him start game three with the same brazen attitude from games one and two, looking to be the aggressor against his far less heralded foe. But this time, Oliveira was more resolute than ever. He cleared up Maru’s first drop without losing a single SCV and smoothly navigated into the midgame. Normally, we could expect Maru to overcome this deficit by pulling the opposing player apart with harassment and superior army control, but Oliveira out-positioned and outplayed the G5L winner to take a 2-1 lead.
Maru refused to change course, and led off game four with the same Tank drop he employed earlier in the series. This time, Oliveira predicted it exactly, and intercepted the medivac with a Cyclone while killing seven workers with a Reaper counter. With Stimpack already on the way and Maru’s not even started, Oliveira had a major timing to exploit. The upgrade finished just as Oliveira sieged Maru’s natural, giving him an insurmountable advantage in a fight he probably could have won without the upgrade. Either way, with Stim on his side, it was a slaughter, with Maru pulling SCVs directly into tank fire in a last ditch effort before leaving the game.
As a viewer, I knew it was over. After game two, at 1-1, Maru's comebacks had come to mind. But now, it was time to recall his many inexplicable defeats. He may be a five time Code S champion, but his career was also marked by dramatic collapses. Lowered supply depots doomed him against Life in the finals of IEM Taipei back in 2015. Later that year, he was inexplicably picked apart by his teammate Rogue at BlizzCon, who at the time was universally considered to be the inferior player (Maru had dispatched him with ease in the prior season of Code S). At BlizzCon 2018, where a finals date with Serral seemed destined, Maru committed a silver league supply block at 23/23 which cost him the series against teammate sOs.
Oliveira was already 10-2 against Terran on the weekend and needed only one more game to claim the title. Maybe some still held out hope for Maru to rally, but Oliveira was proving to be every bit an unstoppable force.
Ever one to stick to his guns, Maru once more led with a Tank drop in a must win game. But if his intended mind-game was 'surely he won't expect it AGAIN,' then he was dead wrong. A bunker outside Oliveira's natural prevented one route of attack, while a Sieged Tank by the Barracks and a patrolling Viking made ferrying units into Oliveira’s main an impossible feat. Maru repositioned in an effort to force out a bit of damage, but Oliveira was again prepared and shut Maru down.
For the first time in the series, early-game decisions didn't spiral wildly out of control into a quick conclusion. Even as both players constantly looked for opportunities to attack and skirmish throughout the early and mid-game phases, an advantage simply wouldn't stick for either side. The two Terrans seemed locked in a cycle of neverending attacks and counterattacks, which brought them to the point of late-game transition on remarkably even terms.
Working off 4~5 bases and a maxed armies, both players went mass Starport as they took the long view. However, the two players made diverging decisions which would ultimately lead to the most pivotal moment of the game. Maru opted to go straight to pure Raven-Viking, the late-game style that had made him invincible in TvT. On the other side of the map, Oliveira went for Liberator-Viking first, looking to transition to more heavy Raven production afterward. In the past, this had proved to be a losing move for countless Terrans, with the versatility of Ravens leading Maru to victory in the end. This game, however, would be a world-class exception.
Just before Maru's Ravens hit critical mass in terms of number and energy count, Oliveira pushed out with his main army. It was the brief window before a hail of Interference Matrices could nullify any attack, and Oliveira was determined to force the issue. Even with the anti-armor debuff coating his Vikings, he committed to a pitched battle for control of the skies. Oliveira later said he wasn't even sure he was ahead on Viking count, but he went into the battle with the attitude of https://www.reddit.com/r/starcraft/comments/112o293/oliveiratime_postgame_stream_full_english/j8lqfhe/］"F*CK THIS MAN, I'M TAKING THIS FIGHT IF I WIN I WIN I LOSE I LOSE".[/url] That recklessness, or courage, was duly rewarded. Oliveira cleared the skies, giving his range-upgraded Liberators room to operate. He executed a devastating Marine-Tank-Liberator push, gutting Maru's Tank count and clearing out several key expansions.
Defender's advantage finally kicked in for Maru and let him stabilize before things got out of control, but he left in a precarious situation where Oliveira had a significant economic advantage. The best thing Maru could do was try to exploit the fact that most of Oliveira's lead was accruing in the bank, while actual army strength would be similar for the time being. Unfortunately for Maru, he found it impossible to create a winning engagement. Oliveira was all over the map, quicker to respond to incoming threats, more decisive when it came to inflicting damage of his own, but still patient enough not to rush headlong into danger.
The one major operation where Maru was able to bring his Raven advantage to bear wasn't enough to change the momentum of the game. Even after disabling and killing five of Oliveira’s Tanks, all Maru could do was force Oliveira to give up his almost completely depleted third base. He tried to keep going—he tried to press the advantage—but the arrival of more Liberators forced a retreat. Oliveira quickly replenished his forces off of his fantastic economy, while Maru wasn't even able to get back up to max supply again.
While on the retreat, Maru stopped to try and pick off one of Oliveira's outlying expansion. In another MVP-esque moment of decisiveness, Oliveira ignored that weak threat and marched his main army across the map for an audacious charge into Maru's main. The front door was wide open for Oliveira, and his Tanks, Liberators, and Marines set up position on Maru's ramp as if it was their own home base. Maru somehow managed to break the position thanks to his Ravens, but it was a costly hold that left him down 60 supply. The game looked effectively over, with Maru's legendary TvT prowess the only thing leaving a semblance of doubt to the outcome.
And then it happened. As Maru's final army jockeyed for position, some awkward unit pathing split off half of his Tanks and exposed them directly to the enemy army. Sadly, or fittingly, there would be no glorious last stand for the G5L winner. Oliveira pounced, diving on the unsieged tanks as Ravens transformed the battlefield into a nearly indistinguishable mass of vibrant orange. The supply told the tale: 76 army supply for Oliveira. 13 for Maru. One of the greatest players ever to compete at StarCraft II tilted his head to the side in that way he does when he realizes that he has been defeated.
The final GG flashed on the screen, and Oliveira sprung to his feet with even more vigor than before. He had done the impossible. He had come back from the verge of group stage elimination, only to rip through the elimination rounds with a strength we have rarely seen in StarCraft II. Lights and smoke filled the stage in an attempt to capture the excitement of the moment, but Oliveira's face said it all.
The energy that brought the new world champion to his feet suddenly left him, and he fell to his knees with his hands clasped together. It was as if he was thanking whatever unknown forces had granted him such strength for one day. However, I was reminded of a line from a different kind of world dominator from a fictional show: “I pray to myself, for myself.” He was not the champion because some entity had willed it. He had reached the zenith of StarCraft II by outplaying the best the game had to offer. First Reynor, then herO, then Maru. After going down 2-0 in the quarterfinals he had rattled off a preposterous 10-2 record across the rest of the event. In a game where the gulf between champions and contenders has widened over the years, Oliveira had pulled off the most improbable run in the history of StarCraft II. He beat perhaps the best Zerg in the World, the undeniable best Protoss in the World and the man with five Code S trophies to his name.
Taking the stage for one final interview with Smix, Oliveira looked consumed by a mix of shock and pride. He reiterated how much he had struggled and how many had said he should give up—that he would never be good enough to win an event like this. “Look at me now,” he stated in defiance. Don’t worry, Oliveira, the image of you winning the world championship will never leave our minds.
Oliveira may not have been a GSL champion. He may not have been an ESL Champion, but I didn’t believe him for a second when he said he was a "normal man." At only 22 years of age Oliveira is still three years younger than Maru and the same age Rogue was when he broke through in 2017. Winning an event like the IEM World Championships does not happen by chance or by mistake. It is the product of tireless effort and years of dedication. There's no contradiction in saying this was one of the greatest miracles in SC2 history, and also saying Oliveira always had this within him.
It might have been the pain of going 0-6 at Dreamhack Atlanta that allowed him to finally channel his potential. He prepared for IEM Katowice like never before, practicing as many as 12 hours a day. All the while he maintained a sleep schedule specifically designed to allow him to adapt to the change of time zones and maintain a state of calm his competition could not match. That foresight and discipline allowed him to become the player he was IEM Katowice—the best StarCraft II player in the world.
Speaking one final time in his native Chinese, Oliveira expressed that if he could become a World Champion nothing is impossible. Tears in his eyes, he added just how long he had waited for this day and how he often thought it would never arrive. Even then, he never stopped fighting. He never stopped working.
Even the biggest Maru fans, or fans jaded by 14 years of fandom had to admit this was the perfect ending to the 2023 IEM World Championship. And in the end, that is the beauty of StarCraft II. The pinnacle of the game isn't only in INnoVation or Serral playing at a level above their competitors and dominating an era. It's just as beautiful to see players beat the odds and accomplish more than anyone ever expected. StarCraft II may be an old pond of still water—but the right player can still make a tidal wave.
Oliveira deserves this championship as much as any player has deserved anything since the first professional StarCraft tournaments began decades ago. He may have stumbled. He may have faltered. But he never gave up. And no matter what comes next, this moment will always be his. For now and forever he will always be the 2023 IEM World Champion.
Credits and acknowledgements
Statistics: Aligulac.com & Liquipedia
Images: Starcraft Historian
Statistics: Aligulac.com & Liquipedia
Images: Starcraft Historian