Every year, the final months before BlizzCon transform into a desperate race for qualifying points. The last World Championship Series tournaments turn into free-for-all scuffles with the winners clutching their golden tickets by the thinnest of margins. In 2013, Baek “Dear” Dong-Jun made an incredible run at the end of the year to reach BlizzCon, highlighting his rise from a quiet, steady Protoss to an unstoppable juggernaut.
This year, Lee “Rogue” Byung-Ryul has replicated the feat (the transformation has yet to be confirmed). In some ways, his run even more miraculous. Dear had the benefit of a short StarCraft 2 career, masking his potential and rendering it difficult to judge, whereas Rogue was a supposedly known quantity who had been playing SC2 for years. We knew where his level was or where it was likely to be. But near the tail end of the year, he summoned a last desperate sprint as he won IEM Shanghai and the GSL Super Tournament to punch his BlizzCon ticket.
It’s remarkable to ponder his recent triumphs and juxtapose them with the uncertainty that plagued his entrance into SC2. Far from being a certain thing, Rogue’s journey came close to stalling out at the beginning. When the KeSPA teams transferred over to SC2, there were rumors Rogue was set to retire. Many of the Brood War pros were uncertain about their future as the switch from BW left an ugly taste in their mouths. Rogue, known as Savage back then, was tagged as one of the potential retirees. In the end, he decided to stay and became one of the more exciting players in the world. His play style thrilled the crowd with unique and varied openings that exploited early openings or tricked his opponents.
In 2015, he had his best year so far when he made the Round of 8 in five of the six Korean Starleagues: GSL S1, GSL S2, GSL S3, SSL S1, and SSL S3. Although he dropped out of every playoff bracket, it was never apparent that he suffered any mental blocks or crumbled under pressure; he played his game to the best of his ability. The problem was that his style of play was fundamentally limited. Beyond the tricky gambits he leveraged to gain early game leads, he was a mediocre macro player. Oddly enough, he excelled in the very specific circumstances of Swarmhost vs Protoss and Swarmhost vs Mech. The affinity showed in his quarterfinal series against against Kim “herO” Joon-Ho in GSL Season 1, which he lost 3-2.
In every playoff match, he only won games in which his tricky gambits lead to an insurmountable mid-game advantage. When he was forced to go into the mid game or late game on even footing, he always lost. Sometimes it was close, but the theme did not change. The glass ceiling resisted all his feeble blows; it seemed his career had hit its upper limit. Yet here we are in 2017 with a revitalized Rogue.
A few things converged to smooth out his path to the top. First, there are fewer players than ever in the Korean scene, making it easier for seasoned veterans to make erratic jumps to the top. Second, Rogue has started to improve the understanding of his late game to a level he’d never attained. Finally, the meta has shifted in ways that aligned with his previous strengths. The new units and patches of LotV created a meta where Mech vs Swarmhost became the norm, except with the absence of grinding characteristic of the 2015 era. The same can be said of his ZvP matchup. Today he can fight on even ground in the late game, which has made him a well-rounded player who can still do tricky gambits, but he possesses an incredible macro game the other opponent must respect.
These sets of circumstances allowed Rogue to win IEM Shanghai and the GSL Super Tournament back to back. The GSL ST was especially impressive considering he had to face Lee “INnoVation” Shin-Hyun and herO in the final two series of the tournament. Both were incredible macro players who specialized in the late game, traditionally huge warning signs that a long, agonizing loss was around the corner. But Rogue took them both there and won.
The the meta has been good for Rogue, but his newfound fortune owes an equal debt to resolution as well as luck. No one can predict when the meta will change to favor their style. But a player must maintain his form nevertheless and hone his craft so that if that time ever comes, they can capitalize on that moment. At the same time, don’t conflate the strength of the meta with a decline in prestige. People immediately think that a favorable meta equates to an easier game for those who can harness the advantage. Except in the case of bl/infestor or the blink era, it is just an advantage. Even when the meta is in favor of a race, that doesn’t mean the best of that race always wins. We’ve seen proof earlier this year with INnoVation dropping out early in Seasons 1 and 2 of GSL.
Through serendipity and tenacity, Rogue heads to BlizzCon with his best possible chance to make history. He must strike when the iron is hot. He must make the most of this now. Form comes and goes. Patches come and go. Somehow he has hit the perfect time where his form and the correct meta have aligned. These chances are rare in a SC2 player’s career and they must be seized at the moment they happen. For Rogue, this could be a once in a lifetime chance to win Blizzcon and cement his status in SC2 legend.