StarCraft II is eight years old but its roots stretch back two decades deep. Released in 1998, the original StarCraft was created in Blizzard's American offices. However, it only truly realized its greatness in its adopted homeland of South Korea whereas of 2016, 4 million of the 9 million copies of StarCraft sold world wide were purchased. It only took a year for what would one day become OnGameNet to organize the Tooniverse Progamer Korea Open
, the inaugural edition of what would become the first iconic tournament series in Esports history.
The birth of professional Brood War in Korea was a seminal moment in the evolution of Esports as a competitive medium. StarCraft was wildly successful around the world, but only South Korea developed an obsession
with it. By 2000, the Korean playerbase already outnumbered the rest of the world 18 to 1.
StarCraft was indispensable in inducing the rise of broadband connections in Korea in the public and private spheres. Large corporations (particularly ones involved in telecommunication, natch) established teams and supported players; the formation of KeSPA and then Proleague in 2003 created a system that developed and then paid professional gamers. For the first time you could sit down and watch a video game on a major television network. An entire generation of Korean teens grew up being more familiar with the best Brood War progamers than the top stars in traditional sports. Simply put, Korea revolutionized the perception of video games as a part of the global zeitgeist.
That didn’t stop a few foreigners from trying to make a go of it in Korea. During the nascent stages of the game they matched their counterparts in skill. Canadian Protoss Grrrr
was one of the first foreigners to ply their trade in Seoul. He won a number of smaller events in 1999, but really broke out in the second ever OSL
where he took down H.O.T-Forever
3-2 in the finals. Hailing from Norway, Slayer
won the second season of KBK Master
later that year, but it was the only noteworthy result for a foreigner in Korea until the French Terran ElkY
managed to reach the Round of 4 in the 2002 SKY OSL
—only to be swept in the semifinals and 3rd place match by BoxeR
The rest of the community was never given a chance to integrate with the larger Korean scene. Instead of a free exchange of information they were forced to work with scraps, relying mostly on pieces of information they managed to scrounge from the limited available coverage of Korean events. World Cyber Games
was an annual chance for foreigners to steal a win off their Koreans overlords. But Korea won over a decade worth of gold medals in StarCraft. No foreigner ever got close to duplicating Grrrr’s Starleague feat either.
WCG 2003 was Grrr…’s last notable finish (he took third place). Alongside the German FiSheYe, this marked the apex of European/American showings at the tournament.
StarCraft II represented a new beginning for the international community. Brood War had been a niche game in the West, but StarCraft II opened the gates to an entirely new generation of international gamers. It was an enormously popular hit: 1.5 million people purchased the game within two days of release, a large portion of them from North America and Europe. Within a month of release MLG had already held the first edition of the MLG Pro Circuit in Raleigh
, North Carolina. Dreamhack hosted their first StarCraft II event
in J?nk?ping, Sweden a few months later. The game wasn't even a year old, but there were already more opportunities for foreigners to play professionally than there had ever been in Brood War.
Foreigners performed well in the initial editions of these events, but as Koreans began to attend their fortunes took a turn for the worse. By the time they started heading west in 2011, Koreans already had a stranglehold on the game. Amateurs and ex-Brood War pros, making good use of their decade-long head start, alike dictated how we interpreted and played the game at a meteoric rate. A few foreigners resisted, most notably Jinro
who braved the trip to Seoul to participate in the Global StarCraft II League
. Jinro managed a pair of Round of 4
finishes, a feat that wasn’t duplicated until Neeb
reached the semifinals seven years later. Naniwa not only reached the quarterfinals of Code S on multiple occasions
, he was a frequent finalist of numerous weekenders
As the years went on IEM and IPL were increasingly overrun with both the cream of the crop and mid-tier pros looking for their breakout moment; during 2012-2014 it was not uncommon to see Koreans exclusively claim all quarterfinal spots in a weekend tournament. The reversal of fortune is startling on paper. Naniwa won the fourth ever MLG event
held in April 2011, but in the sixteen that followed HuK
was the only foreigner to take top honors (MLG Orlando in 2011
). Foreigners managed to win five of the ten Dreamhacks held in November 2010-2012 due to minimal Korean attendance, but from 2013 to 2015 they went 0-16. Blizzard’s attempt to create a shared competitive environment between the two regions had fallen flat on its face. It appeared as if Korea was destined to reign until time unseen.
It took six years of constant drubbings and the institution of a region-locked WCS system for Neeb to finally win the 2016 KeSPA Cup
on Korean soil (it still couldn’t stop ByuN
from winning the WCS Global Finals
later that year). The dissolution of KeSPA teams in late 2016 was a demoralizing blow, possibly a coup de grace
in more fraught circumstances, but the remaining Korean pros stalwartly adapted to their new environment. They returned to their winning ways in 2017, sweeping all the major international events. Despite the withdrawal of KeSPA, the utter lack of new talent, and the combination of retirements and resurgence of the Brood War scene, the momentum Korea had built up over decades was still overwhelming. Even on the tail end of the avalanche, foreigners were being buried.
The Korean scene remains, at the top level, far stronger than the foreign one. Players like Dark
haven't won a Korean event in years (or ever in TY’s case), but they regularly dispatch even the strongest foreigners when they cross paths. Still, just because the vast majority of foreigners are woefully overmatched, doesn't mean one of them can't catch fire and win a tournament. Neeb proved that two years ago and Scarlett
drove the point home at IEM PyeongChang
this spring. A sea change was coming even if only the faintest tremors were perceptible. While all eyes were glued to Korea and Maru
’s second consecutive Code S title, a storm was brewing on the WCS Circuit. The typhoon struck Korean soil on August 2nd with a fury unseen in 20 years. That was the day Serral
arrived. By the time the sun rose two days later he had challenged everything we thought we knew about StarCraft II.
In one of the most shocking upsets in StarCraft history, Scarlett defeated accoladed IEM champion sOs 4-1 to win PyeongChang.
It was a conquest more than three years in the making. Ever since Serral recorded his first victory against an elite Korean—Rain
in Fragbite Masters 2015 Season 4—he was the foreign scene’s worst kept secret. Everyone with their ear to the ground knew he was a virtuoso: making WCS Premier at sixteen tends to have that effect. He made the quarterfinals of a premier event for the first time at Dreamhack Leipzig in 2016
. He one upped himself in 2017, reaching the Round of 8 on four occasions—even daring to make a finals appearance at WCS J?nk?ping
. Serral made the switch to full time professional gamer that March, but it wasn’t until 2018 that he finally realized the greatness within him.
A disappointing showing at the 2017 WCS Global Finals
relegated Serral to the role of dark horse for WCS Leipzig
, the first Circuit stop of 2018, whereas Neeb, Elazer
were perceived as serious contenders. In an unlikely twist, Serral tore through the tournament in convincing fashion, losing four games en route to the title. His first premier tournament victory was a real milestone in his career, one unfortunately shrouded by ShoWTimE’s reemergence and Neeb’s inability to win his fourth straight WCS Circuit event. He was subsequently outshone by other players at IEM PyeongChang and the IEM World Championship
. His victory over Classic
in the third place match of WESG 2017
was a small but significant shifting of the tide in retrospect. No one could have guessed that Maru’s 4-3 victory over Dark in the WESG finals marked the last time Serral wasn’t the defining storyline of an event he attended.
Winning WCS Austin
back-to-back made Serral the foreign scene’s hottest ticket. The excitement was palpable and justified. He didn’t just balance injecting, creep spread and unit production as well as soO ever had, his infallible macro summoned visions of yesteryear Flash. Serral’s unit control was as precise as vaunted Protosses like PartinG
or Terrans like Maru. His flawless scouting meant he knew his opponent’s strategy as well as they did, allowing him to sculpt the perfect composition for every situation. Serral employed hydralisks, ravagers, swarm hosts, vipers and every other unit in the Zerg arsenal whenever appropriate.
He was decisive as any player to have played the game, always making the right move in places his kin would have gone full foreigner
. His incredible sense for striking where the opponent was weakest was more reminiscent of Life
. Be it overlord drops, multi-pronged attacks or zergling runbys, Serral’s opponents were always playing from behind. While they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off the Ence Zerg was transitioning into an unstoppable army. Attuning one’s sense of strategy to his weaknesses was an exercise in futility. All-ins landed with a thud. Outside of precise timing attacks macro games were a death sentence; Serral was a master at accumulating advantages off the most minor choices. Was there anything the Finnish phenom couldn’t do?
This face would make anyone quake in terror.
And so, more than three years after beating Rain in a largely meaningless event, Serral traveled to Korea for GSL vs. the World
, the Signature Series film crew trailing in his wake. Whether they were betting on something special happening or simply following a predetermined schedule, they couldn’t have chosen a better weekend to chronicle his journey.
Naysayers predicted he would exit in the Round of 8, but Serral had other ideas. He only dropped one game on the way to the finals, with wins over INnoVation
and Dark appearing so effortless GSL vs. the World looked more like an OSC Weekly event than a star-studded Korean competition. Despite his roaring start Serral still entered the finals as an underdog versus Stats
, a position seemingly validated when he fell behind 2-0 to a sharp all-in and cannon rush. Suddenly Serral found himself in a deep hole against one of the most decorated players since the release of Legacy of the Void.
It would have been a simple thing to crumble. To give in and slink back to his kingdom overseas. The thing is Serral doesn’t crumble. He doesn’t back away from a challenge or lose his composure when the pressure is excruciating. Winning is what he excels at, regardless of the odds. It took five more games for him to lift the trophy, but as his queens and roaches marched across Dreamcatcher and battered away the last of Stats’ defenses, one thing was abundantly clear: Serral was really, really good.
Fresh off the triumph of becoming the first foreign GSL champion, Serral shifted his attention to new aspirations: winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive WCS Circuit title. Montreal seemed to be money in the bank considering his form, yet the toll of cascading success already began to show. The subtle pressure of matching insane expectations and deflecting the schemes of potential usurpers had culminated in fatigue. Serral looked unsettlingly mortal in the Montreal bracket stage. He was imperfect, error-prone and liable to dropping games against inferior competition. He even fell behind Reynor
—an excellent player but no Stats— by a 2-3 score in the finals. But similar to GSL vs. the World Serral persevered. He played one of the best games of the year on Cerulean Falls, recovering from an early deficit by outplaying the Italian Zerg in every facet onwards. From there it was a simple matter to close out the series with a queen/roach nydus that punched through Reynor’s mutalisk-oriented build.
It was the first WCS Circuit title where Serral had been sorely tested. Still, he’d conquered adversity for the second straight tournament to emerge as the champion. With the WCS Global Finals less than two months away Serral represented the best the WCS Circuit had to offer. And he was no longer playing the upstart. He was a legitimate threat to win the entire event and upset Korea’s twelve year stranglehold on Blizzard's various world championship events.
Serral’s status as one of the tournament’s favorites put a target on his back. Korean pros had long since recognized his talent, but former victims like Dark and Stats expressed confidence in their ability to claim revenge in a rematch. Meanwhile an army of WCS fans mobilized behind Serral, the best chance for a foreigner to win BlizzCon in the history of the game. Others remained skeptical and sought to dampen what they saw as gratuitous hype. They stubbornly clung to their belief that Serral had yet to prove himself. They refused to see the brilliance, flair and efficiency in Serral’s play. Honestly, who could blame them? The history of foreign StarCraft II is one of unreserved hope followed by disillusionment. A veritable list of promising candidates have tried and failed to topple the Korean juggernaut. IdrA
, Jinro, HuK, Stephano
, Naniwa, Scarlett, the list goes on and on.
Serral’s career offered evidence he was the exception to the trend. It has been a story of constant improvement by traditional and nontraditional means. Sure, he grinded countless hours on the ladder like everyone else, but he notably transcended the limitations of his scene. When the European server presented a paucity of elite Terrans Serral played the games out in his mind: he theorycrafted optimal builds, visualized the best way to rotate and split his army in order to harass, defend and attack depending on the situation. People often claim that TY, or perhaps sOs
, is the smartest individual based on his wide variety of builds and cleverness in choosing when and how to execute them. But it’s clear at this point that Serral’s understanding and aptitude for the game exceeds them.
Serral’s approach to StarCraft II is a fascinating blend of the entrepreneurial spirit from Wings of Liberty and the discipline of the KeSPA Koreans. He is constantly evaluating the game in new, original ways, pioneering solutions to circumstances others can't decipher. At the same time he harkens back to the KeSPA emigrants who refined the game to a previously unheard-of level in Heart of the Swarm. His ability to optimize builds, while at the same time making them pliable, has created strategies that can dictate the pace of a game and accurately respond to any disruption. It’s a mixture we’ve never seen in a single player before, one which has been instrumental in Serral’s ascension.
Serral’s match versus Maru showcased how helpless he could make the best players look. The Korean Terran was endlessly rebuffed or put on the back foot. He never reached a position where he could exploit his intimidating offense.
The opening weekend of the WCS Global Finals
was an eye opener. sOs admitted to having prepared exclusively for Serral, but his targeted planning was all for naught. His predictable cannon rush on Lost and Found and uninspired play on Blueshift demonstrated the wide gulf between their abilities. Next Zest
tried his hand at derailing Serral, but he was thoroughly outclassed in a 17 minute macro game on Acid Plant before being caught completely off guard by a cleverly disguised timing on Blueshift. The tournament had just begun yet Serral had already made two of the best Korean Protoss look like rank amateurs. It was a convincing debut if there ever was one, a slaughter that further confirmed Serral’s position among the favorites to win it all. We had to wait a week for BlizzCon proper to see the tournament conclude, but you couldn’t fight the feeling as the sun rose on the second of November that magic was in the air.
To say the day started off with a surprise would be a complete understatement. Maru and Serral had only played four offline games against each other all year, but their dominance in their respective regions saw them cast as mythical rivals by the community, casters, even Blizzard. The entire community had been dreaming of a grand final between Maru and Serral for months on end, but it took three swift games for sOs to shatter those hopes. While everyone else’s spirit sank, Serral remained unfazed. In an interview conducted in the days leading up to BlizzCon, Serral expressed his confidence against Korean Zergs due to their reluctance to go into the late game. He was convinced if he managed to amass ten lurkers there wasn’t a chance in the world he’d lose to someone like Dark. Those words proved to be prophetic. When the time came to take the stage he dominated the newly minted Gosu Crew Zerg. He did the same to Rogue
in the semifinals, a pair of victories as impressive as any we’ve seen in recent years. Dark and Rogue didn’t play poorly. In fact it’s arguable they personally demonstrated their best gameplay all year.
Dark was at his tenacious apex, incisive and clever. He correctly identified Serral’s muta/ling style on Lost and Found and perfectly countered it with roach/corruptor. The tech advantage would have proved checkmate against any other Zerg on the planet...except Serral. Dark maintained his exceptional level of play in games two and three despite being behind for most of them. Despite his best efforts there was a consistent difference of inches between the two. Serral’s harassment was more effective; he teched faster and sculpted more lethal compositions; his production was unceasing. He ran circles around Dark for three straight games until the 2016 BlizzCon runner up had no choice but to concede.
Rogue by contrast put up a more valiant fight. The Jin Air Zerg looked excellent in game one. He even held a lead for a time only for Serral to snatch it away with superior engagements and perpetual harassment. There was a brief interruption as Rogue briskly evened the series with ling/bane aggression, but Serral wasn’t shaken in the slightest. The next two games were eerily reminiscent of the three he’d played earlier against Dark, particularly game four on Lost and Found. Strategically Rogue made all the right moves as the game dragged into the later stages: he harried Serral with constant harassment while maintaining a one base advantage. His opponent was not fazed by his precarious position. Serral said after the game he was confident he was taking better trades and that Rogue would eventually run out of steam, a prescient in-game call. Rogue eventually depleted his gas count, leaving him with no choice but to fight 3/3 hydralisks and lurkers with 0/3 zerglings. The result of those fights was as predictable as that of the match: 3-1 Serral and a spot in the finals.
Serral and Rogue face off in one of the best games of the WCS Global Finals
Serral had earned a spot in the most important match of his career against Stats, a foe he had bested just a scant few months earlier. Their meeting in GSL vs. the World was a close series: the tense back and forth was only resolved in game seven when Serral recognized and greedily leapt upon a narrow timing that caught Stats mid-transition. Stats and Serral were neck and neck then, both deserving of the title of champion. It wasn’t anything like that this time around. Serral momentarily faltered after taking a 3-0 lead, but as he expertly controlled the later stages of game six on Para Site, hampering Stats’ economy while developing the perfect upgraded army, there was no doubt left in anyone’s mind. Unlike that August night when the pair fought to the bitter end, Stats no longer had a claim for the title. There was only one man who could possibly could be called the best player in the world. As his corruptors killed off the last of Stats’ haggard carrier fleet, the better player was obvious to all. Now Serral was the official WCS World Champion.
While Serral certainly isn’t a bonjwa, the GOAT, or even the most decorated player to have attended the 2018 WCS Global Finals, that doesn’t mean he isn’t incredible in his own right. At this point there’s no question he’s playing at a level unmatched by any foreigner in the history of StarCraft II. In fact, it’s quite possible his current level of play sets the benchmark for future participants. His performance over the course of the year, particularly at the WCS Global Finals, easily rivals that of Zest from 2016 GSL Season 1, Dear
’s incendiary form at the end of 2013 or INnoVation’s peak earlier that year. The title of world champion catapults him to the top of the greatest foreigner list, above legends like Stephano and Naniwa, as well as Serral’s contemporary Neeb. By that feat alone he will forever hold a unique place in history.
Serral’s victory was the realization of a dream whose seeds were first planted when Blizzard released StarCraft II. Back then the goal wasn’t to unseat the Koreans from their throne. It was merely to foster the type of international competition unseen in Brood War. The 2018 BlizzCon final was the most important match of Serral’s career, but in future recollections it may stand out as one of the most important matches in StarCraft II history. Don’t be mistaken, Koreans still hold the advantage when it comes to top players. Yet if Blizzard repeals region lock in the upcoming WCS announcement, we won’t see a repeat of the game’s early days where second and third tier Koreans annihilated the best Europe and North America had to offer. The foreign scene has been strengthened to the point that only the best in Korea can reliably beat players like Neeb, SpeCial and ShoWTimE. No one can consider the Koreans runaway favorites to win every global event, not while Serral is around. For the first time in two decades, the power dynamic between the two regions has decisively shifted. A promising teen only a few years ago, Serral’s persistence, ingenuity and seemingly unending talent have carried him to the very top of the scene. In doing so, he has rewritten the shibboleths of the game.
For the first time in the game’s history, a foreigner is the measuring stick by which all professional players will be evaluated.
Back in 1999 a revolution transformed a RTS game into the world’s first esport. Nearly 20 years later we have another seismic movement on our hands. Serral is a product years in the making. The successes and failures of every foreigner who has played professionally since StarCraft’s inception have led up to his victory at BlizzCon. Historians will look back at this moment as the one in which Korea’s reign was finally shattered. When everything we thought we knew went up in smoke. Serral is only one man, but his success will inspire so many others. Things won't go back to the old ways. Not while Serral is around.