Among esports, Brood War and StarCraft 2 have had a unique tradition within the group choosing ceremony. This is the second stage of groups in the round of 16, where the top four seeds get to choose their first opponent, and those players choose the next player in their group. If groups followed basic game theory, every player would effectively try to pick the weakest out of the remaining pool to bolster their own chances of advancing. This has rarely worked out that way as friendship, rivalry and ego often get in the way of the smart choice, adding an extra dramatic twist to the proceedings. The most recent case of this is upcoming Group B of Global StarCraft League Season 1.The group consists of Park “Dark“ Ryung-Woo, Kim “Classic” Doh-Woo, Lee “INnoVation“ Shin-Hyung and Eo “soO“ Yoon-Su. This is the most difficult group to be assembled since the famous GSL group back in 2013 that had INnoVation, Lee “Life“ Seung-Hyun, Won “PartinG” Lee-Sak and Lee “Flash“ Young-Ho.
What makes this even more interesting is that all four players are championship-caliber opponents with past ties. They were former teammates on SKT before the organization disbanded its SC2 division. All four have been top-tier players in the last years of SC2. Between the four of them they have 10 premier victories, more than any single player in history besides Jung “Mvp” Jong-Hyun and Yun “TaeJa“ Young-Seo. Each has crossed paths with each other and ruined each other’s tournament prospects at some point. Each represents a different kind of philosophical style to the game.
Dark is the embodiment of unending ambition. He wants to become a player greater than Lim “BoxeR” Yo-Hwan in both achievement and legacy; barring that, he wants 10 Starleague titles. While the former isn’t possible given SC2’s state, Dark still has a feasible shot at the latter. Despite these lofty ambitions, he has earned only one Starleague title to his name so far. Within this group, he has the fewest Starleague finals appearances among the four and only soO has fewer titles than him. To make it even more difficult, two of the three players here have ruined Dark’s ambitions: INnoVation defeated Dark in the semifinals of IEM Gyeonggi before winning the entire event, and soO won his first (and only) tournament by beating Dark in the Kespa Cup Finals Season 2 in 2015. As a player, Dark is the culmination of standard macro and standard all-in thought put into one Zerg. He isn’t as creative or intuitive as Life was; he isn’t as brutal or persistent as Han “ByuL“ Ji-Won. He doesn’t have the incredible raw power of soO’s mid game. But he is the closest to being the ideal mix of standard and cheesy Zerg play.
Classic is the most overlooked player relative to his accomplishments in SC2’s history. Despite winning two Starleague titles and boasting top four finishes across multiple tournaments, legend status continues to elude him. He is a largely a victim of circumstance because his rise to the top coincided with a whole host of Protoss players. They were either more charismatic/exciting to watch (sOs), posed half nude (Zest), or had a more compelling storyline during their period of dominance (Dear). Additionally, Classic’s GSL win came from defeating soO, who was known at the time for being a Kong (perennial second-place finisher). As a player, Classic is a jack of all trades. Many Protoss can say the same, but the difference between Classic and the average Code-S Protoss is that Classic at his best is the second best in every measurable criteria. He can morph his game plan to anyone he plays against to capitalize on their weaknesses.
Even though all four players in this group can conceivably win the GSL, INnoVation stands above the rest. He is the best player in the world right now with the best TvZ in the world. He has beaten both Dark and soO in high pressure matches, Dark at IEM Gyeonggi and soO in the GSL Finals. As a player, INnoVation is the ultimate standard Terran at a time when the standard Terran style is ascendant. Imagine for a second that Plato was right with his cave analogy, and we could only see shadows and pale imitations of the ideals behind reality. Right now, INnoVation is the ideal incarnate. When Terran is strong, he is unstoppable; when Terran is weak, he struggles to find his footing. He is Plato’s Terran and the likeliest to get out of this group.
Once, I ranked soO as the 12th greatest player of all time. But he could have very well been the greatest of all time if history had turned out differently. The difference was seven games across four finals. If he had won those finals — hell, if he had won two of them — he would’ve made a strong argument for the greatest Zerg of all time. Sadly, soO stands as the prime example of how composure and clutch distinguish champions from occasional winners. soO’s entire career has been defined by those losses. Since his glory period, he has been on a chase to return to the grand stage and prove his mettle. In order to do that here, he must face and defeat the three greatest challengers left. Funny enough, he lost to both Classic and INnoVation in the GSL Finals while defeating Dark to win his only premier title. As a player, I’ve come to think of him as the ultimate form of peak Lim “NesTea” Jae-Duk. His early game is air tight. His mid game to early late game is arguably the strongest of any Zerg there ever was, backed by his raw mechanics and innumerable small refinements that make all the difference. His late game seems a bit aimless in Z-v-T, but it rarely matters as most Terrans don’t get that far against him.
Although these four are no longer on a team together, their fates are still very much intertwined. We live in a world where a majority of Korean SC2 players are unsponsored and teamless. They have all had to make the tough decision to keep on playing or to move on with their lives. For the moment, this group has decided to keep playing. In that sense, Korean SC2 remains the same. Their system is predicated on pure veneration of success, the belief that victory is the only ideal worth fighting for. Four former teammates will go into the arena on Saturday. Dark fights to fulfill his endless ambition; Classic fights to prove that he is a champion worth remembering; INnoVation to prove he is still the best in the world, soO to wash away the bitterness of failure. Only two will survive. This is the cruelty of competition, to kill your friends’ dreams to fulfill your own. This is also the glory of competition, the determination to bet your soul on this moment knowing that if you fail, you will be crushed. This is the group of death.
Cover photo courtesy of ESL/illustration by Slingshot