Unprecedented year in StarCraft II heads toward BlizzCon finale

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Jacob Wolf: 'Activision Blizzard can't make a lot of risky bets right now' (1:29)

Jacob Wolf gives his thoughts on how Activision-Blizzard can set itself up for success during BlizzCon. (1:29)

Over 26 minutes had elapsed in Game 6 of the 2018 World Championship Series Global Finals grand final before Joona "Serral" Sotala secured the decisive pickoff.

Once Serral's Viper abducted Kim "Stats" Dae Yeob's Mothership -- and a Carrier seconds later -- the series was over, and Serral etched his name in the StarCraft history books. For the first time in the game's 20-year history, a non-South Korean player was crowned best in the world.

As Serral strode toward his trophy, fists held high like a victorious prizefighter, veteran StarCraft commentator Leigh "Maynarde" Mandalov sat next to his wife amid a screaming BlizzCon crowd. As the gravity of what Serral accomplished sank in, Maynarde shed tears of joy.

He wasn't alone.

"You could just feel the energy," Maynarde said. "Everyone was losing their minds. There were people in the sidewalks, in the middle aisle and backed up to the end of the stage area. It almost looked like a fire hazard.

"As someone who's been a fan of StarCraft for so long, who's used to seeing the Koreans win, I don't know how to describe it other than it being really moving, really powerful."

Back in the talent green room, fellow commentator Nathaniel "Nathanias" Fabrikant shared a similar reaction.

"I honestly can't even remember a time when people were more excited at a StarCraft event," Nathanias said. "Most people got brought to tears by that moment. It was just a crazy thing for us, because we knew that things would never be the same."

Nathanias & Co. were right: After Serral's unprecedented triumph at BlizzCon, things haven't been the same. The confidence and expectations of Circuit players have risen, further closing the gap in skill with their Global StarCraft II League counterparts.

Suddenly, overcoming decades-long South Korean dominance became an achievable goal rather than a pipe dream.

Some tournament results have already reflected that new reality. At August's annual GSL vs. the World clash, three Western players made the semifinals, a first for the Seoul-based tournament.

Circuit players continued to impress at the WCS Global Playoffs last week. In Group A, German Protoss player Tobias "ShoWTimE" Sieber pushed Park "Dark" Ryung Woo to five games before the top-seeded GSL Zerg ultimately bested him. In Groups B and C, the two winners matches were composed of Circuit players, something that had never happened since the current format was adopted in 2016. In Group D, GSL No. 2 seed Cho "Trap" Sung Ho narrowly escaped elimination in a five-game decider match with the Circuit's seventh seed and GSL vs. the World finalist Mikołaj "Elazer" Ogonowski.

As a caster and analyst at the Global Playoffs, Maynarde recognized those standout performances for what they were: signs of the Circuit's growing strength against the GSL.

"In StarCraft, the longer the game goes, the better player usually wins because there's so much to manage," Maynarde said. "Your multitasking gets pushed. Your mechanics get pushed, Your speed and endurance get pushed. And a lot of [Circuit] players winning in these best-of-fives were not cheeky characters. They were beating them straight-up in legitimate, lengthy games.

"Stuff like that puts a lot of stock into the narrative that WCS is catching up, and they're doing it very quickly."

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Despite their improved play at the Global Playoffs, most Circuit competitors did not advance to Friday's quarterfinals for the world championship at BlizzCon in Anaheim, California. The top six GSL seeds all made it out, four of whom comprise one side of the BlizzCon bracket, guaranteeing South Korean representation in the final. Unsurprisingly, Serral breezed through groups without dropping a map, casually breaking old foe Stats and Terran player Li "TIME" Peinan of China.

Riccardo "Reynor" Romiti rounded out the top eight, earning passage to his first BlizzCon by surviving a shaky five-game series against Kim "herO" Joon Ho and sweeping German Terran player Gabriel "HeRoMaRinE" Segat. At 17 years old, the prodigious Italian Zerg has been Serral's main Circuit antagonist since he became eligible to compete late last year.

By demeanor, Reynor is Serral's inverse, funny and expressive in interviews compared to his Finnish rival's all-business exterior. The two Zergs each claimed a pair of WCS titles in 2019; Reynor captured WCS Summer and Winter in Europe, while Serral secured Spring and Fall.

Nathanias is excited by the potential Serral-Reynor semifinal, an all-Western affair that would be another StarCraft first in a season full of them.

"I love what I've been able to see out of Reynor," Nathanias said. "This is going to sound weird, but I love watching him play because I'm not as confident in him to dominate all the other players as I am Serral. But he can beat Serral, which creates this tension because Reynor has performed so well. I would say he's at worst a notch below Serral, and at best, he's pretty much there. If Reynor and Serral meet in that semi, I have absolutely no idea who is going to win."

The two have an additional advantage going into BlizzCon: They're playing what seems to be the most powerful StarCraft race at the moment. Of the six Zerg players that entered the Round of 16, only Elazer failed to make the top eight. A confluence of factors -- many large maps in the pool, the devastating Nydus Worm/Swarm Host strategy and the cost reduction for Overlord's Pneumatized Carapace -- combined with longstanding late-game superiority have made Zerg exceptionally strong in the current meta.

At the Global Playoffs, Terran went 2-9 against Zerg, a far cry from their 6-1 record in the same round last year. South Korean Terran Cho "Maru" Seong Ju is the lone Terran in the quarterfinals, and he got there after avoiding Zerg players in groups. With Dark and Lee "Rogue" Byung Ryul waiting on his side of the bracket, Maru will get his chance against Zerg soon enough.

More likely than a dream Serral-Maru final is the possibility of an all-Zerg final four, but Maynarde cautions that presumption might be premature. A lot can change after one week of preparation.

"I'm willing to bet the players who are going up against Zergs have something very special planned," Maynarde said. "I think we're going to be surprised by something really cool out of these players in the round of eight."

It will take something extra special to upset Serral, though.

Despite his flat IEM Katowice performance and occasional losing bouts with Reynor, the "Prodigy from Pornainen" is still considered to be not only the world's best Zerg but the world's best player, titles which even going into this BlizzCon remain a marvel. That Serral wasn't able to sweep the WCS majors as he did a year ago is an indirect compliment to his influence. The Circuit has improved because his success improved it, inspiring a younger generation to practice harder and dream bigger.

The future of the scene lies in fresh faces like Clément "Clem" Desplanches and Leon "goblin" Vrhovec, who join Reynor as 17-year-olds aiming to leave their mark on an esport that, as Serral proved, can be won by anyone.

"StarCraft is at an interesting place," Nathanias said. "We have a lot of tournaments that happen, both offline and online. The community support for people is there, and if the talent shows itself, the opportunity exists for those players to rise up.

"There's still a lot of people who play StarCraft, young and old. Hopefully, seeing that these non-Korean players can continue to have the limelight will only motivate more foreigners to try to compete, qualify and become that next Reynor, or that next Serral."