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Dark puts South Korea back atop StarCraft world

StarCraft II World Championship Series finalists Park "Dark" Ryung Woo, right, and Riccardo "Reynor" Romiti face off during BlizzCon on Friday at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. Dark won the series 4-1 to take the title. Photo by Carlton Beener/Provided by Blizzard Entertainment

Around the world, Joona "Serral" Sotala's historic StarCraft II triumph at the 2018 World Championship Series Global Finals was greeted with euphoria. Serral was the first non-Korean to win the event.

But in South Korea, the game's spiritual home, the reaction to a huge moment in StarCraft and BlizzCon history was far different.

"It blew up on the message boards," Nick "Tasteless" Plott said. "People were like, 'What?' They all know about StarCraft II and the players; it's major esports news. So that fact that Serral won GSL vs. the World and then that, it was initially horror. Now, it's respect, and Koreans are hoping for a comeback."

The South Korean die-hards did not have to wait long.

Late Thursday night at a mostly full Anaheim Convention Center Arena, South Korean Zerg player Park "Dark" Ryung Woo defeated Riccardo "Reynor" Romiti 4-1 to win his first WCS Global Final at BlizzCon since finishing second to Byun "ByuN" Hyun-woo in 2016. The top-seeded Global StarCraft II League representative decimated 17-year-old Reynor on nearly every map, conceding only when a cheesy drone rush backfired in Game 3.

Otherwise, Dark was immaculate, punishing the Italian's early-game passivity with unrelenting aggression. Once the series was over, Dark admitted he tried the rush build on Winter's Gate only because he was seated across from Reynor on stage and noticed the teenager's composure begin to fray after two backbreaking losses.

"But I got seen by the Overlord," Dark said, "so that was pretty much that."

At BlizzCon, Dark displayed none of the uneven play that peppered his Global Playoff matches in Seoul last week. Dark effortlessly swept away Cho "Maru" Seong Ju in the quarterfinals, burying the top eight's sole Terran player under a deluge of free units and decisive macro. The fans were denied their dream Maru vs. Serral matchup once again, with the Jin Air Green Wings star unable to overcome Terran's shortcomings in the current Zerg-centric meta.

In the semifinals Dark met Kim "Classic" Doh Woo, a veteran Protoss who electrified the Anaheim crowd with a risky Dark Templar rush in Game 5 of his quarterfinal against Lee "Rogue" Byung Ryul. It was an unheard-of play, described by caster Kevin "RotterdaM" van der Kooi as a move "you do on a Friday night, when you're on ladder, just to entertain your audience."

Classic ran out of tricks against Dark and was swept out of the semis 3-0. It was the 27-year-old's swan song in StarCraft as he is retiring after BlizzCon to fulfill his mandatory South Korean military service.

"Classic has a very professional mind for StarCraft II," Dark said. "I respect him and have some points to learn from him. I have three or four years to go serve the military. Until that time, I'm going to continue working hard and build a career before that moment."

Dark did not expect to face Reynor in the grand final. He anticipated -- maybe hoped -- to see Serral and pay back the "Finnish Phenom" for losses at last year's GSL vs. the World and the WCS Global Finals.

But Serral didn't meet him there. The defending champion was outdueled by Reynor in one of the best Zerg-vs.-Zerg bouts ever played.

In Game 5 on Disco Bloodbath LE, Serral had Reynor under immense early pressure, with Banelings sniping dozens of Reynor's Drones at will. But Serral's Mutalisk-heavy army did not scale well into the late game, and Reynor knew it.

"He was owning me for a good part of the game," Reynor said in a postgame interview with Sue "Smix" Lee. "But Mutas really suck the longer the game goes. I knew if I could survive, I could maybe win the game."

Reynor and his Lurkers held on, setting up an East-meets-West final with Dark for only the second time in WCS Global Finals history. Though Reynor floundered at the finish line of his first BlizzCon tournament, the teenager is primed to bounce back. Reynor is ahead of schedule: a winner of two WCS titles and now a Global Finals runner-up, he's already accomplished more than Serral did at his age.

And Reynor has company: Fellow 17-year-olds Joseph "Future" Stanish, Clรฉment "Clem" Desplanches and Leon "goblin" Vrhovec comprise a stable of Western talent that will continue to push the scene forward.

"The foreign players are young, but they are very powerful, and they can do well at this tournament," Dark said. "Before, the players were not that good. But now they are really are good, especially the Zerg players at this tournament.

"Korea is a very strong esports country. We're going to keep showing with our know-how and our own ways to beat this tournament."

At 24, Dark is on the older side of competitive StarCraft II. Less-heralded players like Shin "RagnaroK" Hee Bum are next in line to challenge Dark and his cohort, but even RagnaroK is 23. Teenage players are present on the South Korean ladder, but the skill of legends like Maru, Classic, Dark, Rogue and others has kept them away from the spotlight.

Given the fresh stream of young international talent and an upcoming changing of the South Korean guard due to compulsory military service, there's a real chance that WCS Circuit players will stay competitive with their GSL counterparts beyond these incredible past two years.

As confetti rained down on the arena stage, Dark hoisted the Global Finals trophy and wore a wide simile. The trophy was heavier than he expected, and so too will be the burden of maintaining South Korea's dominance in StarCraft II. The world is catching up.

"I've been casting the same 40 players for a decade," Tasteless said. "I've seen some of the lower ones come up and go down. ... The Koreans will always have a shot at taking the world championship, but now that we've seen it can be done, the Finnish player did win, it creates more global competitiveness.

"You kind of want to have almost a WWE narrative of comebacks, all these twists and turns. The fact that we can have people that are not just growing up going to PC cafes and watching StarCraft on TV, as the Koreans do, when we can make this a more global thing, that's really good for the game."