Here, in the middle of February, the professional StarCraft II scene in Korea is finally going full-throttle. Each year around this time we get to see players who we've known for a long time try to raise up and battled the entrenched top. In recent memory we've seen longtime pro gamer Han "ByuL" Ji Won finally break into a full-fledged position as one of the top players in the world.
As StarCraft II continues to age, ByuL's story will increasingly be the type that we see repeated year to year. StarCraft is one of the hardest games to play at a peak level, and it takes years of practice within a professional team before you are finally able to break through and become a real contender. Even looking at perhaps the most sophisticated and highly developed professional scene of all time, StarCraft: Brood War, this was almost always the case. Up-and-coming talent would be recruited into the professional Korean teams, and wouldn't even be fielded for a year plus. These players had to be broken down and built back up to be able to even have a shot at playing on TV. Those sent out too early would inevitably be crushed and lose confidence in themselves and their play.
It's a great treat to watch these players grow over the years and finally begin to progress. As with ByuL, the trip can be very emotional. Everyone who watched back in 2012 saw signs of greatness within him. But that was just it: signs. His hard work and dedication finally started to pay off in the middle of 2015, as he reached the epitome of professional StarCraft in reaching the finals of Global Starcraft II League Code S. It was a tearful second-place finish, as the weight of so many years not succeeding where he put in all his effort drained from his eyes. Since then he has been a staple at the top, picking up a top-eight and another second place in StarCraft II StarLeague, a top-eight and a top-four in KeSPA Cup, and even another second place in the GSL Code S.
As someone who has watched and played StarCraft for more than 17 years, I treasure watching players like ByuL come into their own. They battle against the rest of the world in an unforgiving game, and eventually break through. This is the norm for gaining new top-end StarCraft pros. Almost any whom you can name have come up like this, especially as the titles get older.
All you need is speed
There is another way though. An explosive way. A way that very few have or ever will take. And that brings me to a bold prediction: KT Rolster's Park "SpeeD" Kun Il will be our Rookie of the Year.
SpeeD first caught my eye in December 2015 when he popped up in the GSL's first preseason qualifier. He didn't make it into the main preseason event, but that's OK. No one would expect him to. He did do something else that no one would expect him to do, though ... he took out some very skilled and very seasoned pros. In the first round, SpeeD took down one of the hottest players in StarCraft II's newest expansion, Legacy of the Void: "ByuN" Hyun Woo. ByuN had been absolutely crushing all the Legacy of the Void tournaments and ladders, with, at that time, only Solar outshining him. More recently, ByuN made it into the round of eight in the StarCraft II StarLeague, got second place in Intel Extreme Masters: Taipei (losing only 2-4 in the finals to the defending world champion, sOs), and narrowly lost a tight GSL Code A match to Curious with a 2-3 score.
After dispatching ByuN, SpeeD went on to 2-0 Ahn "Seed" Sang Won. Yes, the former GSL Champion Seed. Yes, the one who's having a strong resurgence in Legacy of the Void, and qualified for GSL Code S this season. Finally, SpeeD ended up falling to the player who absolutely crushed the first preseason week, CJ Entus' Kim "herO" Joon Ho. Not too bad.
Just a few days later, SpeeD's name popped up again in the SSL qualifiers. He fell much more quickly, losing in the round of eight by a 1-2 score to the best Terran player in recent years, Lee "INnoVation" Shin Hyung. Not to be dissuaded, SpeeD entered into the GSL Code A qualifiers shortly thereafter, and managed to squeak by in third place, qualifying for his first televised match.
That's where he really turned it on.
The rookie rises
On Jan. 27, SpeeD played longtime StarCraft progamer Kim "Reality" Ki Hyun. Reality has been a Proleague regular for years, and more recently has been putting up solid results in Legacy of the Void since the beta. Reality had, in fact, recently dispatched SpeeD in the GSL Preseason Week 2 qualifiers with an overall score of 4-1 in mid-December.
Going into this match, my co-commentator Nick "Tasteless" Plott and I didn't expect very much out of SpeeD. Very rarely do you see anyone play up to their skill in their first televised match. It becomes all too real for them, with loads of pressure. Almost everyone breaks. Almost.
The first game on the biggest map currently in SC2, Ruins of Seras, couldn't have started out more poorly for SpeeD. He tried for an aggressive, luck-based strategy, hiding multiple buildings near two of the other bases on this four-player map. Unfortunately, this only had a 66.6 percent chance of being effective, and Reality lucked out this time, being as far away as is humanly possible from SpeeD's early aggression.
Normally something like this will really undermine a player's mentality in a televised match. In a best-of-five scenario, the second you find out that you are behind based on a decision made before the match even began, the climb back to victory often seems impossible. SpeeD kept his cool though, and followed up his failed proxy-barracks opening with Cloaked Banshees, and was able to do a lot of damage to Reality. From here the veteran decided to turn the aggression on to SpeeD, staying on two bases and attempting to kill him as SpeeD tried to expand his economy and upgrades after the early defeat and success. SpeeD's defense was absolutely immaculate. Reality was never able to get anything done, and SpeeD reacted as if he'd been playing high-end TV matches for years.
The second game was just as impressive from SpeeD. Both players opened with very similar long-game strategies of building their economies and getting upgrades. And then SpeeD just pummeled Reality. As in, they do the same thing, and SpeeD runs circles around the older pro. It's not even close. At this point I'm really wondering, who the hell is this guy?
Game 3 goes as so many Game 3s go when one player is up 2-0. SpeeD tries to pick up an easy win by going for a very aggressive and risky strategy. Reality stomps him for it. Finally, weakness in SpeeD's play.
With SpeeD still on match point, Reality really picks up his play on the fourth map. He gets ahead in every single way, and quite early on. His economy, upgrades and army are all superior. SpeeD starts to get creative though, and shows some great moves, making the game almost even at times. Still, Reality shuts him down and brings it to the final game.
The fifth map was Prion Terraces, a map that is centered around constant aggression in the Terran vs. Terran matchup. Reality opened up being aggressive finally, but SpeeD holds without any problem. From there, SpeeD's play is textbook perfect. He just completely tears Reality apart.
Boom. SpeeD is in Code S. The play that SpeeD showed wasn't perfect, but there was clear brilliance within it. His multitasking and harassment is insanely good. During his winner's interview, SpeeD said that he wasn't completely satisfied with the level of play he showed, and that he knew he didn't macro well. He was, in fact, upset at how poorly he macroed.
Throughout the interview, he showed an air of confidence, easily answering the Korean commentator's questions in an open manner that is rarely seen by any but the absolute best players in Korea. At the end of the interview he stated that he is aiming to win the GSL Code S on his first try.
Everything about SpeeD is setting off alarm bells in my head. If he can overcome his flaws, he will undoubtedly become a top-level professional this year.Rarely do we see someone show such potential so quickly, especially with his type of attitude. I'm calling it now. #YearOfSpeeD. This guy will be the best new player we see in 2016.