This weekend, the final season of this year’s WCS Championship came to a close at DreamHack Open: Montreal. While there was only one winner at the Summer Championship, there’s lots to talk about — big upsets, insane runs and the return to a balance of power. Here are five storylines from this season’s biggest StarCraft II event!
TRUE is unstoppable
We’d be remiss to begin this rundown anywhere else but with Bang Tae Soo, TRUE. The PSISTORM Gaming Zerg showed that while he left Code S some time ago, he hasn’t lost that golden touch.
He made it through the early stages of the tournament effortlessly, tossing aside fan favourite Snute, HomeStoryCup winner Harstem and Hydra-killer Welmu without losing a single map. It was only when he went up against an in-form HeroMarine that he looked a bit shaken — and that only lasted for one map, with TRUE securing the 3:1 victory in confident fashion after his initial stumble.
His aggressive Zergling / Baneling style was simply unrelenting, giving his opponents no respite with constant counter-attacks. It looked like he might finally face an equally strong opponent in Polt, the current WCS points leader, but even he was powerless to resist the swarm. After a single throwaway win on Dasan Station; TRUE took the grand finals 4:1.
That left the control Zerg clutching the famous DreamHack trophy (spelled correctly this time), with $35,000 and 3,000 WCS points in tow. That catapults him to the top of the WCS 2016 standings, where he sits in 7th place after a single tournament.
By winning, he’s automatically qualified for the WCS Global Playoffs, which kick off at the end of the year. It’ll be interesting to see how he matches up against the Code S players that he left behind — will he succumb to the mainland’s best, or can he carry the torch for the WCS Circuit?
HeroMarine, surprise package du jour
DreamHack Open: Montreal was a tournament of upsets, but no one surpassed expectations more than the Gabriel Segat, HeroMarine. The German teen was widely expected to fall in the opening stages, but he made it all the way to the semifinals with close wins over ShowTime, MarineLord and Major. The Terran player showed a convincing defensive style against Major, defeating the favourite in four maps.
Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into a win against TRUE, or even a particularly close series. Regardless, HeroMarine looked more dangerous than Polt did against the rampaging Zerg, and without some key errors he might have taken the series to the full five maps.
It’s clear that this four-time ESL German champion is now capable of contending at the international level. We’re looking forward to seeing what HeroMarine can accomplish in 2017, as he sets out to prove that his standout performance at Montreal wasn’t just a fluke.
Koreans can bleed
Going into DreamHack Open: Montreal, one nationality was better represented than any other: South Korea. Violet, TRUE, Hydra and Polt all qualified for the season finals, and nearly all were the favourites to win their opening games. Despite the redress of balance in the new WCS circuit landscape, Korean training still seems to be the most effective in the world. Yet while two Koreans faced off in the finals, it felt like the rest of the world continues to close the skill gap.
Hydra was the first to fall, losing his series against Welmu 2:3. Welmu is hardly the cream of the crop, with incredibly inconsistent performances, yet he managed to defeat a Korean Zerg who was once considered amongst the best in the world. Next was Violet, who managed a shaky 3:2 victory against Brazilian Protoss Kelazhur before falling to the (admittedly competent) Mexican Terran Major with a final scoreline of 1:3.
It’s not clear whether the Korean imports are getting worse after time spent outside Korea, or whether the foreign scene is improving. I reckon it’s a little bit of both; the proof of the pudding will be the WCS Global Playoffs where the two regions will go head-to-head.
Either way, no Korean in the WCS Circuit seems unassailable, apart from maybe TRUE; each one can be defeated by even a half-decent foreign player. That makes each series more exciting for the fans, and should give the foreign scene some much-needed self-confidence as well.
He may be trailing Nerchio by a few hundred WCS points, but right now the scene’s favourite foreign hope is undoubtedly Alex Sunderhaft, aka Neeb. The American Protoss has done well to capitalise on the current Adept metagame, with a string of strong results that have left him in good position to qualify for the WCS Global Playoffs. He’s ranked #2 in the world according to Aligulac, so you’d expect him to reach at the semifinals at a premier tournament… and that’s exactly what he delivered.
Neeb’s path to the semifinals was easier than most would have predicted. He faced the underwhelming PiliPili in the first round and a disappointingly out-of-form uThermal in the second. Nerchio would have been the obvious quarterfinal opponent, and a true challenge of his PvZ, but it wasn’t meant to be. Scarlett took out her former Team Acer teammate in a close 3:2 series with the support of the home crowd behind her. She seemed helpless to resist her Korean housemate and frequent practice partner though, and Neeb picked up a straightforward 3:0 victory to ensure his semifinal berth.
Neeb no doubt felt confident going up against Polt, given his recent run of form and his historically close series against the Korean Terran. After winning the first game in comprehensive fashion, it seemed inevitable that we’d have at least one non-Korean player in the grand finals. But that’s not how it panned out, as Polt dialled up the aggression and Neeb started making some uncharacteristic mistakes. Nerds everywhere were left screaming at the Twitch stream, as the American hero failed to stop Polt’s harass and counter-attacks. The final game of the series was the most heart-breaking, as Neeb threw away a long-held 30 supply lead in a series of sloppy engagements against Polt’s better-upgraded Terran army.
Neeb ends the weekend as he started it, as the best foreign hope, but there are still some serious questions to be asked about his ability to close out series and win longer matches against top-tier opposition. If he wants to survive in the WCS Championship Playoffs, he will need to calm down in the booth and improve his killer instinct.
The final day of the tournament began with something special: an audience with David Kim, balance master at Blizzard. He opened up about the development team’s plans to shake up the game, including longer-ranged Hydras, stronger Siege Tanks and even Dark Templars getting Blink. The balance changes should mark the largest shift in the game since the release of Legacy of the Void, and fans and competitors alike are surely eager to see how everything pans out.
Yet for all the talk of balance, StarCraft II is perhaps the most balanced and the most fun to watch now as it has ever been. This was demonstrated perfectly by the tournament itself, which started with an (almost) equal number of qualified opponents from each in-game faction: 10 Protoss, 10 Terran, 12 Zerg. That balance was maintained throughout, with no one race proving obviously superior to its peers, and ending with at least one representative of each race in the semifinals.
There may be some big shakeups incoming to StarCraft II, but I feel confident that Blizzard and the community can maintain their vigilance and retain that enviable balance between the three races. With a little bit of luck, the game will stay as competitive as it’s ever been, while becoming even more fun to watch and to play.
DreamHack Open: Montreal was a hell of a tournament, and a fitting end to this season’s highest-level competition: brutal, balanced and absolutely unmissable. Now only a few smaller tournaments and the WCS Global Playoffs remain, and after that we’ll finally see who is able to take the coveted title of Global Champion. 2016 has been a brilliant year for StarCraft II, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Image credits: Pierre Yves Laroche / DreamHack