The Turning of the Tide: When Neeb Won KeSPA Cup 2016By: Mizenhauer and Wax
Given everything that has occurred over the past five years, one might actually forget what the StarCraft II world was like before BlizzCon 2018. It was a time when Korean players had an absolute stranglehold over the scene—when a 'foreigner' making it to the playoffs of a major tournament was a career-defining accomplishment and actually winning a championship was an outright miracle.
It was during these dark times that the American Protoss player Neeb shocked the StarCraft II world, becoming the first non-Korean to win a championship on Korean soil since the nascent days of Brood War. With Neeb having retired last February (or at least having withdrawn from full-time status), we decided to take a look back at the tournament run which made him a legend: the 2016 KeSPA Cup.
A Short History of Getting OwnedDelving back into history, it is rather obvious how Korea came to dominate StarCraft II. While the majority of the world played the original StarCraft sparingly after its heyday in the late 1990's, South Korea saw the game explode into a national phenomenon. Over the course of a decade, Korea established one of the world's first truly professional esports scenes. Not only did major corporations such as SK Telecom, Korea Telecom, and CJ operate professional teams, but even the Air Force got involved.
Thus, an entire esports-industrial complex was created to attract, identify, and hone the best RTS talents a country had to offer. Naturally, Korea had a massive head start over the rest of the world when Blizzard released StarCraft II in 2010. Even with the Blizzard-KeSPA intellectual property dispute slowing the initial transition to SC2, a wave of early adopters and ex-KeSPA trainees was enough to take over the formative scene.
There was stiff resistance during the earliest years of Wings of Liberty. Jinro, a former Brood War player from Sweden, set the benchmark by reaching the Round of 4 of the 2010's GSL Open Season 3 and the first ever Code S in 2011. ThorZaiN and Huk followed by winning international championships in 2011, while NaNiwa offered stiff resistance despite falling just short of gold. The legendary Stephano even made a case to be called the best player in the world at his peak during late 2011-mid 2012, winning two major championships while establishing the Zerg meta of the time.
However, these pioneers saw their skills gradually fade away, while the Korean contingent seemed to grow even stronger. Things only got worse when Blizzard and KeSPA came to an agreement, bringing the full force of Korea's esports machine into StarCraft II. Even Korean players who were not among the elite in their native country were able to opportunistically pillage tournaments stocked with hapless foreigners, pushing Blizzard to enforce various forms of region-lock.
More foreigners would continue to carry the flag and offer token hope, most notably Scarlett, Nerchio, Snute, and Sen. But by BlizzCon 2015, there was only one non-Korean among the 16 players invited to the WCS Global Finals. Lilbow, who was eliminated from the event in one of the swiftest matches in Global Finals history, finished 13th in the WCS Standings that year. The second best performing foreigner that year was Snute, buried all the way down in 26th place.
No one knew it in 2011 but this would remain the apex moment of foreigner SC2 for five more years.
There's a case to be made that this was rock-bottom for the international StarCraft II scene. Their results over the entirety of 2015—capped off by the humiliation at BlizzCon—were so dismal that Blizzard implemented one of its most extreme protectionist policies headed into the 2016 Season: 50% of BlizzCon seeds were now set aside exclusively for foreigners, siloed off in their own separate ranking.
Neeb and the 2016 KeSPA CupIn the autumn of 2016, a perpetually understated Protoss player from upstate New York made the flight across the Pacific to test himself in StarCraft's adopted homeland. This in itself was not remarkable—dozens of players had made the pilgrimage over the years. However, the vast majority of those journeys ended up being largely forgettable, producing no results of note. And, indeed, there was little reason to believe Neeb's journey would amount to much more.
Neeb got his first taste of top-level play back in 2013, back when he was still a fifteen-year-old Terran player. Playing in the WCS America tournaments of the 'soft' region-lock era, Neeb was basically group stage fodder for the Koreans who reigned over such tournaments at the time, but it was still impressive for such a young player to even make it that far. WCS shifted to a 'hard' region-lock in 2015, cutting out the majority of Korean players by forcing them to reside in an eligible country. That was a boon for many foreigners, but Neeb didn't progress as some fans had hoped. However, his decision to swap from Terran to Protoss, made in the spring of that year, sowed the seeds of what was to come.
2016, the first full year under Legacy of the Void, saw Neeb rapidly improve to become a force to be reckoned with in the foreign scene. Neeb swept all three WCS North America Challenger tournaments (a lesser version of today's EPT Americas regionals), besting the Korean transplants Hydra (x2) and Polt. His match record across those events was an impressive 12-0 as he plowed through the competitions, never once dropping into the losers' bracket.
However, Neeb's performances in offline tournaments was more of a mixed bag. He had some impressive showings at third party events, finishing runner-up at both DreamHack Austin and IEM Shanghai (both region-locked). However, at the three 2016 WCS Circuit Championships, Neeb was stopped in the RO16, RO8, and the RO4—twice by those very Korean transplants who he had toppled in the qualifiers. He fell into that intriguing yet infuriating category of players who show tremendous peak ability, but lack the consistency to wield it at major events.
For whatever troubles Neeb had offline, his prowess in online qualifiers continued to hold up. September's 2016 KeSPA Cup implemented a partial region-lock in its qualifiers for the very first time, putting four foreigner spots up for grabs: two for players from WCS Europe, and two for players from WCS North America (the previous KeSPA Cups ended up being all-Korean for a variety of reasons, despite having all-region qualifiers on paper).
Looking back, it might come as a surprise that one of Neeb’s greatest hurdles on the path to victory came before the KeSPA Cup even started. Despite his nearly immaculate record in NA qualifiers over the course of 2016, Neeb (who was already bootcamping in Korea since September) was bested by Scarlett 3-1 in the upper bracket and was sent tumbling into the loser’s bracket. Needing to rattle off three straight wins to earn his spot in the 16 player event, Neeb did just that—first defeating SpeCial, then viOLet, before getting revenge on Scarlett in a best of 5 that went the distance (Neeb would later go on to state that losing to Scarlett put him on tilt and that he played the remainder of the qualifier with a more care-free attitude).
Once he qualified for the KeSPA Cup, Neeb was subject to a brutal RO16 group draw where he was placed into Group A alongside 2016 Code S Season 1 Champion Zest, Code S Season 2 Champion ByuN, and the best performing Zerg in Proleague that year, Rogue. Neeb was the clear underdog in that group, garnering 10% of the Liquibet votes (last place) while also being the lowest rated player in the TL.net Power Rank at 12th place out of 16 (ahead of Jin Air player Trap, but lower than Nerchio at #9).
In hindsight it's hard to say if this was too generous of an appraisal from the community, or if it was reasonable for a talented youngster with high potential. Overall, it was around the level of respect one might afford to a low-tier Code S Korean, who was expected to show a few impressive games before their inevitable elimination.
Whatever the community thought, the most interesting preview of the tournament came from Neeb himself in an interview with TL.net. While he didn't make any bold predictions about his results, he made the surprising statement that the gap between KeSPA and the world had narrowed compared to the past year. It was easy to pass that off as familiar foreigner hubris, but Neeb would soon vindicate himself.
'Foreigner house' proprietor NoRegret acted as Neeb's coach during the KeSPA Cup and chronicled his tournament run on video.
On opening day of the KeSPA Cup, Neeb made his way to Seoul's Nexon Arena accompanied by 'foreigner house' proprietor NoRegret (alas, his essential role in providing foreign pros a place to live and practice in Korea has been all too quickly forgotten since the online/pandemic era). Facing off against Rogue in the second match of the group, Neeb immediately made his presence known. The first game lasted all of seven and half minutes, with Neeb parlaying a successful Glaive-Adept opener into a deadly Immortal-Sentry-Adept attack. Rogue managed to make it past the ten minute mark in game two, but looked equally helpless as Adepts and Dark Templars gave Neeb a lead he would not relinquish. While the Rogue of 2016 was a long distance off from the greatest-of-all-time candidate he is today, it was still quite the accomplishment for Neeb to take down a strong Proleague player and Code S regular.
Neeb’s opening victory set up a winner’s match showdown against Zest, who had already dispatched ByuN in his first match of the evening. Even with Neeb scoring a massive 2-0 upset in the previous round, and even with Zest being in the midst of a troubling slump, the KT Rolster star remained the favorite. Yet, against all expectations, the upsets kept coming. Zest's one base all-in in game one fell flat as Neeb scouted the proxy Gateway and Stargate, allowing him to defend his fast 2-gate expansion neatly. Zest was forced into a delayed two-base all-in, but it was a futile effort as Neeb had a 20 supply lead when Zest came knocking.
Zest opened with a Stargate in the second game as well, but once again Neeb defended with aplomb and secured an earlier expansion than his opponent. Zest did his best to make up the difference, but Neeb was constantly one step ahead. His micro was better, his tech was more advanced, and he remained ahead on expansions from start to finish. Neeb’s superiority was so stark that if you took the names away on the observer UI, almost everyone watching would have assumed the imperious Protoss in purple was the Code S champion KeSPA pro. Thoroughly outplayed in every aspect of the game, Zest GG’d out, making Neeb the first player to reach the Round of 8.
Five days later, Neeb returned to the studio to play his quarterfinal match against an unexpected opponent: his practice partner Pet. In an amusing twist, Neeb found himself in the position of the favorite, as Pet had almost no notable individual results to speak of. He had only played two matches for Team MVP during the 2016 Proleague season, and had lost both of them at that. No one had given Pet much of a chance in his RO16 group consisting of TY, herO, and TRUE, but he had beaten the odds to advance in second place.
Considering Neeb had scored surprisingly easy 2-0 victories against Rogue and Zest in the group stage, it was no surprise to see him go up 2-0 against Pet to start their best of five. However, the infamous team-kill curse set in mid series, and Neeb suddenly found himself struggling against his familiar foe.
Game three saw Pet psych Neeb out in classic team-kill fashion, exploiting his habit of going for blind Nexus-first on New Gettysburg by opening with a 12 pool. The all-in worked perfectly, and the constant waves of Zerglings forced the GG in less than five minutes of play.
The Zerg aggression continued in game four, with Pet going for a Speedling all-in assisted by a slow-Overlord elevator (remember that?). Neeb very nearly held this attack off with a Probe pull, but a tiny gap opened up between his units that allowed Pet's Speedlings to pour into his base and force a sub-four minute GG.
Pet continued his shenanigans in game five, as he looked to take advantage of the unorthodox map of Dasan Station and its extremely close ground distance between main bases. He expanded aggressively at his forward gold base, soon after adding a Baneling Nest for a committed Ling-Bane all-in. Meanwhile, Neeb went for the Dasan-standard play of taking his backdoor natural while walling off his main ramp.
Neeb survived a chaotic brawl against Pet on the infamous Dasan Station to advance to the semifinals.
Neeb averted a total disaster by scouting the all-in in time to put up a hasty wall, but Pet was prepared with enough Banelings to tear through such makeshift defenses. Things looked dire for Neeb as Speedlings leapt through the breach, ready to finish the reverse sweep and embarrass anyone who had entertained the notion of Neeb as North American hope.
It was in these moments, which very well could have been Neeb’s last in the tournament, that he fully channeled his abilities. Adepts placed between the minerals of his main turned what should have been a slaughter into a protracted fight, while his expertly split Probes prevented Pet’s remaining Banelings from getting a game-ending detonation. Neeb’s heroics allowed him to stall for long enough to get a few cycles of production out of the Warp Gates in the back of his main, and with the help of his Mothership Core (remember THAT?), he weathered the storm.
For all the calm and composure Neeb showed to make such an impressive hold, he also made a terrible blunder once he took a commanding economic lead. Some overaggressive Adept harassment saw him throw troops away for free, giving Pet a narrow but unexpected lifeline.
Neeb still retained a considerable lead from defending the initial all-in, and he deepened Pet's deficit with continued Adept and Phoenix harassment. Pet had no choice but to commit to a Roach-Hydra-Queen all-in, but Neeb had already set up a formidable defensive position on Dasan's extremely narrow third-base choke (one Force Field wide). Pet may have been wiser to wait out the Pylon Overcharge out (remember THAT?!?!), but with time running out on his economy he charged straight in. He took massive losses in the fight, all but confirming Neeb's victory.
Pet wouldn't give up without a fight, and forced Neeb to work for the GG by executing a backdoor Roach attack and teching up into Lurkers. However, Neeb was already running away with the victory, and eventually he forced the final surrender out of Pet with an unstoppable army. Neeb had survived a match that showed even the least heralded KeSPA players were to be feared—now it was time to go back to facing the association's best.
The very next day, Neeb returned to the Nexon Studio for the final day of the KeSPA Cup. His semifinals opponent was Stats, who had defeated the mighty Maru in his own quarterfinal match. With the benefit of hindsight, Neeb's victory against Stats may have been the most impressive victory in the tournament. Stats had improved considerably in 2016, finishing the Proleague season with an absurd 27-9 record (most wins in the league). Already, one could see the signs of his ascent to become the best Protoss in Korea for the following two years.
With Neeb giving such contrasting performances in the RO16 and RO8, it was hard to know what to make of his chances against Stats. Optimistically, one could say the RO16 had been a breakthrough moment, where Neeb had unlocked a new level of play in offline events. However, one could just as easily claim the opposite, saying his struggles against a weaker player in Pet showed he was still not to be trusted in high-pressure matches.
The pessimistic view won out in game one, as Stats’ mighty army of Archons, Immortals, Phoenixes, and Zealots ran over Neeb’s Stalkers and Disruptors. Down 0-1 to the presumably superior player, Neeb’s back was already against the wall. However, he got back on the right foot in game two, getting a convincing macro win of his own. Neeb took the lead with fast 2-Gate expansion, and used his excellent defense, superior control, and devastating Disruptor shots to stay ahead from start to finish.
Game three unfolded as a close macro bout, with the two Protoss players going to different army comps in the mid-game. Neeb's decision to stick with his trusty Disruptors paid off, as he found a massive, 22-supply hit on Stats' army while the KT ace was momentarily distracted with his Adept harassment. Neeb used his massive army advantage to end the game with one deadly attack.
Whatever Stats' original plan was for game four, he ended up playing yet another macro game after falling behind to Neeb's Adept drop. The two players progressed into a dangerous game of Stalker-Disruptor dodgeball, with both players inflicting heavy damage with their Purification Novas. Neeb, whose micro had been spectacular throughout the series, got the better of these exchanges, and steadily built a healthy supply lead as both players established their fourth bases.
Neeb won a late-game Skytoss battle against Stats to advance to the grand finals.
Neeb's edge on the ground also carried over into the air as both players invested in a Tempest transition, and the game seemed to be heading toward a slow and steady closeout from Neeb. However, Stats kept himself in the game with dogged backdoor attacks, using his cheap Gateway units to put Neeb behind in economy. As often happens in games between closely matched players, things gradually evened out as they pursued the same endgame strategy. The two Protosses discarded Probes to open up more army supply, and they ended up on uncannily similar compositions of mass Tempests supported by a smattering of ground units.
After much maneuvering and prodding, the two Golden Armadas finally engaged in a game-deciding battle near Neeb's only surviving expansion at around the 29-minute mark. As Tempests blasted each other from long range, support from ground units became critical to swinging the battle. Here, Stats' decision to engage near Neeb's expansion proved to be unwise, as Photon Cannon fire gave Neeb a slight edge on the ground. As the Tempest fleets started to thin out, Neeb managed to warp in a small round of Stalkers that Stats could not match with his own.
This allowed Neeb to go up to 14 Tempests against Stats' 12, starting the snowball of death between air units. Stats went into a panicked retreat, bleeding off Tempests in great numbers. By the time he turned to fight back, Neeb already held an eight tempest lead. Stats tried vainly to warp in Stalkers before coming to terms with his defeat and GG'ing out.
Stats had gone 12-3 on the year against Protoss in Proleague, but he only played up to that level in game one. After that, he was comprehensively outplayed in three consecutive games. As the camera turned to Stats, his expression could only be considered one of disbelief. No one had expected Neeb to even make it out of the group, but here he was, in the finals of the KeSPA Cup, one best of 7 away from making history.
After the matches, Neeb was joined by NoRegret in the booth. “Wow, I think you can do it,” he said to Neeb before asking who he would rather play between Trap and TY in the finals. Neeb replied that he would much rather play Trap. It was only fitting that in a tournament where everything had gone Neeb’s way that he would get his wish once more.
Back in 2016, Trap had yet to find the consistency that would define him in later years, and he had entered the tournament during one of the down cycles of his career. Trap being placed a spot below Neeb on the TL.net Power Rank drew virtually no protest, with his results in the prior months largely justifying that position. Even with Trap taking down TY 3-2 in the semifinals, it still felt like Neeb has proven more over the course of a week. For the first time in years, perhaps since Stephano faced Alicia in the finals of NASL Season 3, the foreigner looked like the strong favorite to win it all against the Korean.
The start of game one was eerily similar to Neeb’s matches against Zest and Stats, where his 2-Gate expansions had gone almost completely unpunished. But instead of going for the Disruptors he had favored against Zest and Stats, Neeb opted to play Archon-Immortal-Gateway units. This almost resulted in disaster, as Neeb ate some enormous Disruptor shots while trying to force an attack.
A desperate backdoor Adept strike saved the day for Neeb, as Trap decided to ignore them and force a counterattack. Neeb was able to hold off the attack thanks to Pylon Overcharge and a timely defensive Disruptor, all while his Adepts crippled Traps economy on the other end of the map. From there, Neeb entered a Disruptor-Stalker war with a comfortable advantage, and his Disruptor micro proved to be just as good as in previous PvP series. Neeb clinically closed the game out, going up 1-0 in the series.
The familiar pattern played out once more in game two with Neeb taking another 2-Gate expansion while a Korean Protoss failed to punish it in any meaningful way (in a behind-the-scenes video, Neeb flatout told NoRegret “I do the same build every game.”). Unlike the previous game, Neeb decided to go full Wings of Liberty mode with his economic advantage, laying back until he assembled a maxed out army centered on Colossus.
Trap responded by squeezing out a few Tempests, and in conjunction with his ground units, he barely held off Neeb's initial attack. However, Neeb had help on the way in the form of his beloved Disruptors, which gave him a huge injection of firepower. Trap's small number of Tempests just couldn't take advantage of their range to chip away at the enemy, and Neeb used the sheer, brute-force damage of his all-ground army to force Trap to tap out again.
True to Neeb's word, he went for another fast 2-Gate expansion in game three. Trap decided to match him this time, only having a slower Nexus by a few seconds. Despite this, Neeb still managed to take an economic advantage, exploiting Trap's mispositioned units to kill four Probes with an Adept and Mothership Core. Neeb proceeded to get even more scattered pickoffs with his Adepts, which Trap could ill-afford after his poor start.
Neeb was quicker to start construction on his third base, while Trap found himself massively supply blocked for the second time in less than eight minutes. For years, mistakes like those from a non-Korean player would have drawn derisive mentions of going "full foreigner" across SC2 forums. But now, it was the Korean who was losing his composure.
Up a base and ahead in army supply, Neeb launched an assault on Trap’s natural. Pylon overcharge bought Trap time, but a shade into Trap’s main dislodged his defenses and Neeb easily dealt with the temporary turrets. Needing a miracle, Trap tried to land a game changing disruptor shot, but a pair of forward Blinks allowed Neeb to snipe the Disruptors and take a 3-0 lead.
Game four took place on Apotheosis, a map known for its long rush distances. As Neeb remarked to NoRegret before the game, he was expecting Trap to try something “weird,” and Trap did something of the sort by being the first opponent across nine games of PvP to actually expand before Neeb. The role-reversal continued as Trap sniped Neeb's Warp Prism before it could even start any harassment, letting him tech up to Stalker-Disruptor in peace.
Neeb piloted Stalker-Disruptor to a dramatic comeback win in game four.
Neeb tried to hit a timing with Immortal-Archon-Stalker before Trap's Disruptor count got out of control, but the Jin Air Protoss deftly held the attack. Trap jumped ahead to what seemed like an insurmountable lead, having the luxury of going for Dark Templar drops while being thirty supply ahead.
Having shown all tournament long that he could consolidate leads, now it was time for Neeb to prove that he could fight his way back from behind. Again, his mastery over Stalker-Disruptor was the key. After making a belated transition into his signature PvP army, Neeb started to surely, and surprisingly [i]slowly fight his way back into the game.
Despite Stalker-Disruptor being one of the most volatile compositions in StarCraft II, there wasn't a singular, calamitous moment that turned the game around. Trap proved to be an able operator of Stalker-Disruptor as well, and he didn't allow Neeb to make any decisive moves that could steal back momentum in an instant. But as skilled as Trap was at the deadly Blink-Nova dance, Neeb remained just a half step ahead of him. Battle after explosive battle, Neeb ground out small advantages that began to add up. After being holed up on his corner of the map, Neeb gradually broke out and asserted his control over the map. His economic situation went from dire, to equal, to ahead.
After twenty-five minutes of nerve-wracking action, the game-changing moment came. No, Neeb didn't catch Trap napping and evaporate his army in an instant. Rather, the economic advantage that Neeb had built for himself began to show. Trap could only afford to trade at a slight loss when he was ahead, and his supply was starting to decline as his resources ran out.
A single Nova that wiped out five of Trap's Disruptors rapidly accelerated his demise, and Neeb piled on the pain by using Adepts to damage Trap's already ailing economy. Trap fired off Disruptor shots in search of a miracle, but they were to no avail against the patient Neeb. Playing methodically (or as methodically as you can with Stalker-Disruptor) had brought him out of the pit, and that same approach was going to take him to the top of the mountain.
At around the 29:21 mark, Neeb finally gave Trap his GG-timing. For the final time, Neeb rushed forward, focusing down Trap’s Disruptors until only one remained. Trap’s Stalkers tried futilely to resist, but they exploded in the face of Neeb’s Disruptors.Reduced to 23 supply, Trap conceded defeat.
As a roar erupted from the casters and crowd alike, Neeb stood up with that familiar grin on his face. He took the stage, lifting the KeSPA Cup in his hand while confetti fell from above. The screen showed a pairing of words that almost no one had expected to see. CHAMPION. NEEB.
Of all those who had made the pilgrimage to the spiritual home of StarCraft, he was only the third player to ever reach the holy grail. For the first time since 2000, when Norway's Slayer and Canada's Grrrr... won twin championships, a foreigner had won a major tournament on Korean soil.
In the following years, more and more foreign players would close the gap. Scarlett and Serral would follow in Neeb's footsteps and win championships in Korea, while Serral, Reynor, and Oliveira went on to win world championships.
It would be convenient to say Neeb's KeSPA Cup win was the first domino that started it all, but we all know StarCraft II is far more complex than that. Even without Neeb, Korea's domination of StarCraft II would probably have collapsed.
Still, even if Neeb didn't directly pave the way for his more celebrated peers, his KeSPA Cup 2016 victory deserves to be celebrated all the same. He gave international fans something to believe in during their darkest times, and his victory symbolized the turning of the tide.
Credits and acknowledgements
Writers: Mizenhauer and Wax
Images: SpoTV Esports/TEN Global
Records and Statistics: Aligulac.com and Liquipedia
Writers: Mizenhauer and Wax
Images: SpoTV Esports/TEN Global
Records and Statistics: Aligulac.com and Liquipedia