The best StarCraft 2 player in the world may not be Korean

SerraL seeks to make history this weekend, but Korea's best player stands in his way.

Photo by Helena Kristiansson for Blizzard Entertainment

For the first time, the best StarCraft 2 player in the world is not a Korean, and this week will prove it.

Joona “SerraL” Sotala, the 20-year-old Zerg player from Finland, is going to win the 2018 World Championship Series (WCS) Global Finals at BlizzCon and become the first ever StarCraft world champion who is not Korean. And he’s not going to win through sleight of hand, clever cheese tactics, or some secret knowledge of the meta. He’s going to do it because he’s the superior player.

That’s a crazy statement to make in a game like StarCraft. The history of Western failure dates back nearly 20 years and is filled with false hope and heartbreak. And even the biggest favorite likely only has a 30 or 40 percent chance to win a tournament like WCS, with eight of the world’s best players remaining. But for the first time, it’s a realistic possibility.

“A lot of people are still in this mindset where oh, everyone has overhyped him, he’s going to crumble,” StarCraft 2 analyst and former pro player Jared “PiG” Krensel told Dot Esports during the group stage at WCS. “But looking at it objectively, he is the best mentally and strategically and mechanically. He’s just the best player right now. And that’s why I’ve been saying he’s my favorite to win the entire tournament.”

SerraL is a sensation and a revelation. The Finnish wonder exhibited an unprecedented level of dominance over the Western StarCraft 2 scene this year, winning all four WCS Circuit events. And then he did the unthinkable: He went to Korea and won GSL vs. the World, besting one of Korea’s best in all three races on his road to history.

Looking at it objectively, [Serral] is the best mentally and strategically and mechanically. He’s just the best player right now.

Jared “PiG” Krensel, StarCraft 2

SerraL must walk a road littered with the corpses of past challengers and lined with the specters of failure. That’s a daunting path, one that has eaten many hopeful players alive. But SerraL is unique, an outlier, a player who doesn’t walk the path set out by others, and instead forges his own. He shrugs off pressure like it’s nothing, the Finnish ice in his veins allowing him to calmly claim victory.

But it certainly won’t be easy for him.

This year the Korean scene has produced its best ever StarCraft 2 player. In 2018, Cho “Maru” Seong has dominated like no other player before, leaving fans whispering that he may be the first StarCraft 2 bonjwa, a legend on the level of Brood War gods like Lee “Flash” Young Ho, Lee “Jaedong” Jae Dong, and Kim “Bisu” Taek Yong. Maru won the World Electronic Sports Games 2017 event in March and then took the title in all three seasons of GSL Code S, becoming the first player to sweep Code S in a single year. Now he seeks the global championship to pen the perfect final chapter to his year and write his name in esports history.

There are six other star players ready to crash the party and ruin the destined SerraL and Maru meeting in the finals. Zerg player Park “Dark” Ryung Woo seeks to snipe SerraL and quell the whispers from even Korean fans that the Finn is in fact the best Zerg in the world. The defending champion Lee “Rogue” Byung Ryul wants to make history of his own and become the first back-to-back champ. Kim “Stats” Dae Yeob beat Maru at GSL vs. the World to delay Maru’s bout with SerraL, and could easily do so again. Kim “sOs” Yoo Jin is a two-time world champ who has made a living off of subverting expectations. Terrans Jun “TY” Tae Yang and Juan Carlos “SpeCial” Tena Lopez, two unlikely friends, seem to push each other to greater heights, and play SerraL’s worst matchup.

But so far this year, Maru and SerraL have been up for every challenge.

Unrivaled dominance

Since the 4.0 patch of Legacy of the Void on Nov. 14 of 2017, SerraL has a 131-29 record against non-Korean players at offline events in individual games. He’s posted a 46-2 match record, a ridiculous 95.83 percent win rate, and the last of those losses came at IEM PyeongChang in February against Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn.

Against Koreans, his numbers are similarly impressive, if less spectacular. He has a 31-17 game score (64.58 percent win rate) and is a ridiculous 12-2 in offline best-of series.

Even at the height of Alexander “Neeb” Sunderhaft’s power, from mid-2016 through that 4.0 patch, a period where he won three of four WCS Circuit events, the KeSPA Cup, and reached the podium at IEM and WESG, he only featured a 78.46 percent win rate in offline best-of matches against non-Korean players. Neeb was the first Western player in StarCraft 2 history to win a premier event on Korean soil, but against Koreans he went just 12-14 in that period, even with his title run.

SerraL is playing at a level unrivaled by any who have come before.

Understanding SerraL

It’s hard to pinpoint just what makes SerraL such a monster. Many players have a specific attribute or characteristic that they leverage to become a champion. Maybe it’s their incredible micro and unit control, or their unique and creative build orders. Maybe they’re strong in macro games, able to defend even the cheesiest of all-ins. With SerraL, he’s so consistently excellent  that nothing stands out. He’s incredibly fast on the keyboard, with incredibly crisp mechanics. He’s a smart decision maker, capable of intuiting his foe’s every move and crafting the correct response, even in unfamiliar situations. He’s a fundamentally sound player who rarely makes mistakes. And when he does, he shrugs them off. Even in the most dire circumstances, SerraL never gets tilted.

“I think that really is the big secret to his success, because he’s a very well rounded player,” PiG said. “Stylistically he’s a defensive player. He reacts to his opponents, but it’s the emotional control. He doesn’t get fazed. He makes incredible comebacks regularly, because even when he’s down and out, he just kind of methodically hunts for ways to get back in the game. That’s really cool, because that allows him to win a lot of scenarios where other players get tilted and thrown off… His emotional control is incredible.”

That was perfectly showcased during the GSL vs. the World finals, where SerraL battled Korea’s top-ranked Protoss player, Stats. The Korean jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, causing foreign fans to believe that this was a script they’d seen before—the dastardly Koreans expertly setting the stage to maximize the destruction of foreigner hope. But SerraL fought back and tied the series. Then Stats took another game, going up 3-2. Surely SerraL would crumble, like so many other foreign legends before. But SerraL recovered to win the series 4-3, showing that he can still play at a championship level even under the most intense pressure.

Fans often compare SerraL to a Mark Zuckerberg-esque cyborg, if testifying before congress is like facing down an all-in. He shows no emotion in interviews or while he’s gliding to victory on stage. He rarely cracks a smile on camera, shrugging off questions about how he feels and seeming almost confused that a player could be nervous facing the world’s best. He says he’s just doing his job. Playing on stage is only natural for a pro gamer, he says. Nothing can rattle SerraL—not only is he unable to be tilted, it’s inconceivable, and that’s one of his greatest powers.

SerraL believes his “game understanding” is his greatest strength, he told Dot Esports a day after his group stage win. But he has no secrets on how he acquired that skill, simply citing years of hard work and dedication. His Signature Series video, part of a preview series released by Blizzard, highlights the discipline trained into him by his Finnish upbringing, a harsh but supportive father, and a rivalry with his older brother.

“[Game understanding] comes from practicing and going through replays, understanding why you lose, and just understanding all the timings of the games, understanding the reasoning for everything that people do,” SerraL said.

Many players don’t truly learn from their losses, even if they review them, he said, and often ignore fundamentals like understanding basic timings. SerraL’s focus on fundamentals like scouting may seem boring, but it’s allowed him to excel.

Even so, it took a big loss for SerraL to unlock his hidden potential. Since emerging onto the scene in 2014 and 2015, SerraL has always been a strong player. He grew into the European ladder’s top threat. But even in 2017, he struggled to replicate that success in the big events when it really mattered. Last year’s BlizzCon, where he was eliminated in the group stage by losing two best-of-three series to Korean Terran Koh “GuMiho” Byung Jae, opened his eyes.

SerraL was content to sit back and play a standard game, confident his mechanics and decision making could carry him. But Gumiho exploited that predictability by “blind countering” him.

“That taught me that if you actually want to beat Korean players, you kind of need to play your own game, and take the game into your own hands,” SerraL said. “I think I was a bit too easy last year to play against. People kind of played a bit crazy against me and got a good early game. I had to fight back too much for my wins. Nowadays I feel like I can play at an even table.”

Photo by Carlton Beener for Blizzard Entertainment

Krensel said it was WCS Austin where SerraL really came into his own, essentially countering foes used to blind countering him with greedy or aggressive early games.

“The moment he started throwing curveballs in there, he was just stealing maps with ease,” Krensel said. “It was interesting to see his opponents just go, ‘Oh no.’ They started freaking out a little bit.”

Even the Koreans seem to be a little bit intimidated after SerraL showed what he can do at GSL vs. the World. It’s clear that SerraL is a different kind of beast from past challengers. But that just means he’s an even bigger trophy to hang on the wall.

One of the strengths of the Korean scene is their ability to prepare for matchups against specific players and identify and exploit their weaknesses. Years of competing in Proleague, where you know your opponent days in advance and can spend days perfecting counters for them, make them dangerous when they’ve got specific prey to hunt.

Yet during the global finals group stage, where sOs and Joo “Zest” Sung Wook surely prepared to specifically eliminate SerraL, the Finn swept them away like nothing. SerraL told Dot Esports that the games went mostly “as expected.” He almost seemed disappointed that sOs didn’t have anything more creative to throw at him. But the reality is there may just not be a weakness for even a wizard like sOs to exploit—and SerraL was simply better than him.

The practice paradox

It’s no secret how most Western players achieve new levels of success. Players like the only other Westerner left in the global championship, SpeCial, and the first winner on Korean soil, Neeb, reached new heights by moving to Korea, where they can practice against the highest concentration of elite players in the world.

SerraL, though, has mostly avoided Korea. Last year, he spent one month there preparing for BlizzCon. But this year, he’s only spent one week there, to compete at GSL vs. the World. It’s a common question: Why doesn’t one of the Worlds best players practice in Korea, where most of the best StarCraft talent is concentrated?

Well, his answer is he doesn’t feel that he needs to.

“Personally I feel like if I go to Korea, I mainly get ZvT practice,” SerraL said. “I think ZvP practice is completely fine in Europe. We have a lot of good Protoss players. And ZvZ practice is probably even better than in Korea.”

He’s confident in his ZvT play this year, so he doesn’t need a Korean trip—and he also “just wanted to be home.”

Perhaps that’s a bit of hubris considering he’s mostly matched up against those Western Terrans who are a level below the Korean Terran terrors. But even Krensel feels it won’t hurt SerraL entering BlizzCon, and the comfort of practicing from home may be better for the Finn. Krensel calls SerraL “a unique case” and believes other players still need time in Korea to excel.

“SerraL is a freak and that just doesn’t affect him,” Krensel said. “He just doesn’t care… He understands what he has to do well enough. It’s partly that emotional control. He doesn’t get fazed. Even if he’s playing against a player who is 20 percent better than his practice partners, he just rolls with the punches. It’s just discipline, practice. I don’t know what the words even are to describe it. That’s a unique SerraL quality that allows him to do that.”

It seems logical that ZvT would then be SerraL’s worst matchup, despite his confidence in his own ability, and objective rankings such as Aligulac show as much. If SerraL wins the event, his confidence will likely be tested, considering his biggest obstacle is a Terran.

Photo by Helena Kristiansson for Blizzard Entertainment

Korea’s hero

Every protagonist needs an opponent to overcome, an insurmountable foe to test their limits and push them to previously-unreachable heights. And this year, the Korean StarCraft 2 scene has produced that for their own greatest hero.

Maru was a prodigy when he won his first professional match at 13 years of age in the first GSL in 2010. He won his first premier tournament in 2013, and became one of the world’s best Terran players. But in 2018, he’s matured into an unstoppable monster. Maru won every single GSL Code S event this year, something no one has ever done, dominating the Korean StarCraft 2 scene like SerraL did the Western one.

“It’s new in StarCraft 2. We haven’t had this level of dominance really, ever,” Krensel said. “It’s been something people complained about in Starcraft  2 for years. Where is our Roger Federer? Where is our Flash? The guy people can always point to as the best. That’s very important in one versus one sports.”

Maru might be that player. Since the 4.0 patch, Maru has won 62.59 percent of his games in Korea, good for a 87-52 record, leading to a 29-11 tally in best-of series. That’s perhaps a bit below the level of dominance players like Flash showed in their Brood War prime, posting numbers upward of 65 percent, but it’s close. And Maru has won an outside portion of trophies this year, especially if he can add the Global Championship to his collection.

“He’s always been this aggressive player, but he hasn’t always necessarily had this ability to play a wide range of styles until Legacy of the Void came out,” Krensel said. “He’s really embraced the chaos that happens when a game gets as much strategic depth as Legacy has.”

That “chaos” is where Maru thrives, according to Krensel. The Terran player likes to play an abrasive style, constantly challenging foes across the entire map from the opening minute of a match. Maru has the mechanical ability and wherewithal to consistently win those multitude of fights, building advantages through the speed at which he navigates the chaos of a map-wide battle. Maru prefers strategies like proxy barracks that allow him to apply early pressure, threatening to end his opponent at any time if they show even the faintest weakness.

That’s produced a level of dominance not seen since Jung “MVP” Jong Hyun, the best player in StarCraft 2 history. Maru has a real shot to take that title for himself, if he can survive this weekend.

“If Maru can win a BlizzCon, win a GSL in the first couple of season next year, I think he eclipses everyone else because it’s just such a level of dominance with so few gaps in between,” Krensel said.

That’s something of which Maru seems acutely aware.

“If there’s one player in StarCraft 2 right now that can catch up to God himself in Flash, it would be Maru,” veteran commentator Daniel “Artosis” Stemkoski said in Maru’s Signature Series video.

“The expectations of others are a bit high,” Maru said in response. “I feel the pressure when I hear that kind of thing, so I think I need to meet my own expectations first. To achieve that, I think I need a lot of championships. And I think a BlizzCon championship is absolutely necessary. So if I want to be remembered as that kind of player, I need to win BlizzCon.”

SerraL vs. Maru

We may not get to see the dream final between the two best player of 2018, perhaps the two best players ever. Both seek to write their name large in the history books, but there are six more names seeking to change the story.

While Maru may feel the pressure, the weight of fans hoping and expecting him to achieve legendary greatness, the potential to leave a legacy that lives forever, SerraL simply ignores the notion of making history.

“Haven’t thought about it once so far,” SerraL said. “If people want me to win, obviously it’s nice, but if I lose I’m not going to be sad because my fans would be sad. I will be sad for myself. I don’t really take too much pressure off that kind of thing. I just kind of like to play my own game and just try to do my best. If it’s not enough, then it’s not enough. I don’t care about it too much.”

Both approaches have merit. Maru is driven to greatness by the fear of letting his fans and himself down. SerraL’s discipline and stoicism allows him to approach every map with a level head, to ignore the demons that deny success from many weaker-willed players.

Photo by Helena Kristiansson for Blizzard Entertainment

The one and only time Maru has met SerraL in a best-of-three series at WESG 2017 Finals in March, he swept the Zerg—marking the second and final loss of the year for SerraL against a Korean player. But SerraL has evolved since then, and showed it at GSL vs. the World, beating Maru in convincing fashion during the team bout.

Krensel said SerraL made Maru look like a “lower caliber player” in that match. That, of course, comes with the caveat that it was a single map with little on the line, but Krensel believes a rematch may happen that way again.

“As good as Maru looks, I don’t think he’s going to be able to put SerraL in a chaotic enough position, even if they do face off against each other, for Maru’s talents to come out,” Krensel said. “Maru needs to drag SerraL down into the dirt, and no one has been able to do that effectively this year.”

Critics might shrug off Krensel’s analysis and point out that SerraL’s ZvT is his worst matchup, especially after he elected to avoid practicing in Korea before the event. Maru also has an incredible record against Zerg this year. He’s lost just a single series against Zerg in offline events in 2018, when he played Rogue at IEM in March. Rating site Aligulac gives Maru a 75.94-percent chance of taking a best-of-five against SerraL.

But being an underdog means nothing to the Finn.

“I’m not really worried about anyone,” SerraL said. “Obviously Maru is very good, but honestly as long as I’m… I’m pretty confident with all the matchups right now. As long as I’m confident with my play, it doesn’t really matter who I’m going to play. I think I have a good chance with everyone.”

The end of Western pathos

Long-time StarCraft fans have a love-hate relationship with their heroes. Dozens of challengers have emerged, Korean killers, hopefuls, and raw talents. They’ve teased fans before with big success, but always followed it up with heartbreak. Players like Johan “NaNiwa” Luchessi and Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri could beat Korea’s best under the right circumstances but never when it truly mattered most.

We’ve been programmed to expect failure, even to relish it, watching our champions fall in ever more spectacular ways. But this time is different. SerraL doesn’t crack under pressure. He doesn’t have any major weakness to exploit. He’s the prototype of a perfect player, and he’s not Korean.

The Western pathos is so deep that even if SerraL does win, fans will discount his victory. They’ll say it came during a weak period in StarCraft 2’s history. Krensel, though, a former pro player himself, believes that’s selling the scene short.

He points to a player like Jens “Snute” Aasgard, who relinquished his title as the world’s highest earning Western player to Neeb earlier this year. Snute was a famed Korean killer and one of the best the West had to offer. But he retired at the end of the WCS season this year, citing that he could no longer keep up with the game’s higher skill ceiling.

“You look at [Legacy of the Void] and it’s undeniable the skill cap has been raised,” Krensel said. “The game is harder and it definitely does give a chance for players to distinguish themselves if they’ve got that extra bit of understanding or that extra bit of mechanical ability.”

In short, the best players are better than they’ve ever been. The game takes more skill than ever. This won’t be a cheap victory, whoever lifts the trophy.

So tune in this weekend to watch StarCraft history. Maru looks to complete his nearly perfect year and become the greatest legend the game has ever known. SerraL seeks to succeed where none have before and provide panacea for the cynicism of Western fans earned over more than a decade of heartache.

If you’ve got skin in the game as a fan of Western StarCraft and Western esports, it’ll be nerve wracking and adrenaline pumping to watch SerraL play with the threat of a letdown hanging overhead like a bulging thundercloud. But you’re more nervous than SerraL. And that’s why he’s going to win.

Quarterfinal matches begin on Nov. 2 at 2:30pm CT with Maru against sOs. SerraL takes the stage in the final match of the day at 7pm CT against Dark.