With the qualifying rounds having recently finished for the final GSL Code S (GSL) and StarCraft II StarLeague (SSL) of the year, everyone's getting pretty excited about BlizzCon. The world championship this year is harder to get into for top South Korean players, and with much more on the line. The prize money for first place has been doubled to $200,000, but, maybe even more important, it is the biggest, most prestigious and most watched event in all of StarCraft II.
To qualify for BlizzCon as a South Korean citizen living in Korea, you have two possibilities:
Win one of the four 1v1 leagues in 2016 (two seasons each of GSL and SSL)
Finish within the top four in WCS points for the region
Cho "Maru" Seong Ju, one of the best to have ever played the game (he won his first televised game at age 13), had a terrible start to the year. He didn't make it into SSL season 1, and had the misfortune of playing against Joo "Zest" Sung Wook, currently the best player in the world, during the season 1 GSL Code A preliminary. Needless to say, Maru was knocked out immediately (Zest went on to win GSL for the season).
Maru failed again to make it into the main SSL tournament this season, but has qualified directly into GSL Code S. Maru currently stands at only 300 WCS Korea points. This puts him in 39th place, despite being easily one of the four best players on the planet.
Now, I'm pretty certain that some other WCS events will be announced before BlizzCon rolls around, so Maru should have some ways to pick up some extra points coming up. As of now though, the only thing locked in for him is GSL Code S. And he'll be gunning to win it.
Normally, it would be insane to call good odds for any player to win a GSL before the round of 32 starts. Legacy of the Void has changed things up, though. The increased skill cap of the newest expansion has given the very best players much more stability than we've seen in previous iterations of the game. For instance, as early as December it was obvious Jun "TY" Tae Yang and Park "Dark" Ryung Woo were the best Terran and Zerg players in the world, and the front-runners to win the major leagues. Shortly thereafter, Zest demonstrated great promise and was added to the list. Last season, Zest won GSL, Dark won SSL, and TY got second place in GSL. The best players are holding on to the top spots with apparent ease.
Now that Maru has really risen up to join the ranks of these other players, it's time for him to step up and do what they did last season. There are 13 players ranked above Maru who qualified for both SSL and GSL this season. Some of them are going to gain a lot of points, so let's be realistic here: Maru needs to win GSL to have a shot at the championship. There are quite a few obstacles in his path, though.
The dark horses
Jo "Patience" Ji Hyun and Kim "Impact" Joon Hyuk. These two players are absolutely not on the radar to win this GSL at the moment, but both are building toward something amazing. Patience has been really finding his stride on the Afreeca Freecs, and is next in line to become a top-of-the-world Protoss player. Impact has been an up-and-comer for a long while at this point, and is really starting to impress. He is clearly on the path to becoming the next big Zerg player. Both of these players are going to break out and become world-class. The only question is when, and, right now, the kettle is whistling.
The defending champ
World champ, that is. Oh, I mean two-time world champ. Kim "sOs" Yoo Jin is actually in the exact same spot as Maru: he gained only 100 points in the last season, and is qualified only for GSL. You can never count sOs out of winning anything, though. He might be the single most dangerous player there is.
The best Zerg
Dark is downright frightening. He is easily the best Zerg on Earth right now, and seems to be the only Zerg who has been able to consistently beat Terran players in this time of perceived weakness in the matchup. With a likely Zerg buff to help specifically against Terran coming soon, Dark has the potential to take out anyone in his path.
The other best Terran
TY hasn't lost a beat since December. He is still easily one of the top four players in the world, and it shows in every match. TY doesn't have his BlizzCon spot 100 percent locked down as of yet, so he will doubtless be focusing completely on any obstacles in his path. One thing to note: If Maru and TY face off, it will likely be the greatest Terran vs. Terran match ever played. Both seem unbeatable in the matchup, with completely different styles. I don't know if that's ever happened before.
Zest is the most likely player to defeat Maru in the upcoming season. His play is on a completely different level than any other Protoss player. Perfect build orders. Flawless execution. A Maru vs. Zest GSL finals might break the world in half like it was Dragon Ball Z.
Despite the road ahead of him, Maru can do it
Zest, TY, Dark and sOs, named above as Maru's top competitors this season, are all within the top 10 in Proleague this year. They are absolute killers for their teams, and in fact their teams have already secured their spots in the overall playoffs for the year based on these players' super-strong performances. That being said, their play and stats pale in comparison to Maru's. Maru currently sits at an 85 percent win rate at 17-3, a staggering 15 percent higher than even Zest, the next in line of these players.
Maru has always been a strong competitor, but why is he rising above anything that we've seen from him previously right at this moment? As it turns out, 2016 Legacy of the Void is the perfect storm for Maru.
Maru was born in 1997, which means he was 13 years old when he played in his first GSL. While there's lots of debate about when a professional gamer hits his or her prime, no one can argue that Maru has hit it. We generally see South Korean professional gamers become concerned about what they will do when pro gaming ends for them around 24 years old. Korea has compulsory military service for every able-bodied man, and it weighs hard on the older pros as to when they will need to lay down the keyboard and mouse for their country. Retirement is almost always permanent, as military service generally lasts for two years.
Maru is 19 years old now, which is young enough that these obligations shouldn't be distracting him at all. His age, health, speed and stamina all seem to be in alignment. While all of this may seem pretty important, the main reason for his dominance, in my opinion, is the game itself.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (WoL) and Heart of the Swarm (HotS) were both versions of StarCraft II where Maru had strong success. He was still an up-and-comer during the WoL era, but during HotS, Maru was able to win a coveted OGN StarLeague (OSL) title in 2013, as well as SSL season 1 last year. These are great achievements, and are much bigger than most can ever hope to obtain. Those versions, though, didn't really play to Maru's strengths. While to the casual player StarCraft II's three expansion titles may seem like the same game with a few minor brush-ups and new units, nothing could be further from the truth.
WoL and HotS are both much more slowly paced than Legacy of the Void (LotV). Each and every base had many more minerals than Legacy bases, which allowed players to expand around the map much more slowly, and build more units and defensive structures per base taken. The end result at the top professional level was that much of the strategy and skill revolved around holding three or perhaps four bases with a huge army, continually building upon it until you had what we called a "death ball": an army so fearsome that it would destroy anything that came in contact with it.
LotV turns that style of play on its head. Bases get sucked dry so quickly that you are forced to constantly spread yourself out to keep an economy going that can support a reasonable army. This opens weak spots all over. You simply cannot defend everything, at least not flawlessly like in the previous expansions. On top of that, the new units added, as well as tweaks to older units, have focused heavily upon harassment, meaning ways to slightly injure your opponent, especially where his economy is concerned. This type of situation is perfect for our Terran hero.
Maru has long been known as the best micro (unit control) Terran and the best multitasking (taking care of multiple areas at once) Terran in the world. What was so dazzling about his play in previous expansions was the way he would tear down a seemingly impenetrable defense by moving his army around the map perfectly in multiple locations while out-microing his opponent's army in all of them! The overall playstyles of WoL and HotS were both skewed against this style of play, but Legacy, with its faster economy and more spread-out bases, begs for it. Simply put, the changes that have occurred in StarCraft II have made Maru's style the best of them all. And he's the best at it.
It's time to sit back and watch what may be the beginning of Maru's reign of dominance. If he plays at the top of his game all season, he can absolutely join the other three StarCraft "gods" at BlizzCon. If he falters, though, it will be a disappointment on the grandest scale for Maru as well as for fans all around the world.