StarCraft 2 World Championship Series 2015 Preview

October 25, 2015 by Kevin Hovdestad

Since the inception of its current iteration in 2013, the World Championship Series (WCS) has been run with a single purpose - to identify the absolute best StarCraft II player in the world.

Since the inception of its current iteration in 2013, the World Championship Series (WCS) has been run with a single purpose - to identify the absolute best StarCraft II player in the world. On the eve of the transition to StarCraft II’s second expansion - Legacy of the Void (LotV), which releases November 10, 2015 - this will also be the third and final WCS played within the Heart of the Swarm (HotS) ruleset.

This year’s WCS looks very different from the previous two, in large part because WCS no longer distinguishes regions in quite the same way. Whereas in 2013 and 2014, there were three competitive leagues run in parallel in North America (NA), Europe (EU), and South Korea (KR), this year’s points were distributed between the joint NA-EU WCS league and two Korean leagues - the Global StarCraft League (GSL) and the StarCraft StarLeague (SSL).

With less emphasis on the Western WCS split between NA and EU, but a new set of regional restrictions requiring players to have citizenship or residency (including an athletic or other visa) to enter the WCS league specifically, the caliber of play required to reach the WCS Global Finals at BlizzCon this year is higher than ever before - and that’s reflected in the lineup of players that are arriving in California beginning in late October for BlizzCon Opening Week. Competitors in all four of Blizzard’s eSports global finals will play the initial seeding matches in the week leading up to the main event.

Each of the 16 players appearing in the global finals this year earned their place in this tournament through a combination of their performances in a) one or more of three seasons of the three premier leagues; and b) top placements in third party tournaments. WCS Points were accumulated from these finishes, and used to determine which players had the best records in the world over the course of the year.

16. Dead Pixels Jung ‘FanTaSy’ Myung Hoon

16th place was decided by a tiebreaker between FanTaSy and HyuN, since both players finished tied for the last spot in the WCS finals with 3025 points. Both players had similar stories - neither with a playoff appearance in any of the three seasons of premier play, but both with a host of third party tournaments attended to earn as many points as possible to fight for the seven global finals spots not occupied by the champions of the three leagues. HyuN edged up to tied for 16th with his second place finish at Dreamhack Stockholm, the last WCS point awarding tournament of 2015. The two played a best-of-5 tiebreaker series on October 6, and FanTaSy won it 3-2.

FanTaSy’s road to this appearance has been a long one, and he may be slightly out of his element. His semifinal loss to soO at IEM gamescom was the best showing he’s had in StarCraft II, and being away from the rigorous training regime of SK Telecom T1 after his seven-year career with them could hurt his chances here. His breakout in the tail end of the Brood War era has not yet been mirrored in SC2, and being matched up against the #1 seed in the global finals won’t help his chances of starting to emerge as a force to be reckoned with in this year’s WCS.

15. Jin Air Green Wings Lee ‘Rogue’ Byung Ryul

2015 was a great year for Rogue, in the sense that he seems to have finally arrived stylistically. Previously a last choice for the former Team 8’s Proleague lineup and doomed to knockout after knockout by slightly better players in the Korean qualifiers for tournament after tournament, the new Rogue found playoff berths in premier leagues almost every season.

Fans looked on with amusement at the coincidental eliminations of Rogue’s quarterfinal opponents in the semifinals that followed, and thus was born the ‘Rogue curse’ - a player who beats Rogue (typically in a round of eight players) will lose in the subsequent round. He’s like a strange, reverse Good Luck Chuck for pro StarCraft.

While a string of quarterfinal appearances was sufficient consistency to confer a berth in the WCS Global Finals, it’s not the type of performance that commands a lot of attention. Still - for Rogue, appearing alongside two of his teammates at BlizzCon will be a tremendous experience.

14. Jin Air Green Wings Kim ‘sOs’ Yoo Jin

StarCraft fans refer to him affectionately as $O$, so-called for taking two $100,000 USD prizes home all but back-to-back: He won WCS 2013 handily, then turned around and was victorious in the IEM VIII World Championship four months later.

The Trickster became known for his unique style after exploding on to the scene in the newly minted WCS shortly after Heart of the Swarm released in 2013, claiming a semifinal spot in the first season of ‘WCS Korea’ and taking second in the seasonal finals that were held in WCS 2013. Those finishes were enough to propel him to BlizzCon that year, where his victory over Jaedong was as unique as it was ruthless.

The IEM World Championship looked like it would be sOs’ only success in 2014, but he turned around and claimed another trophy at the truly stacked Hot6ix Cup late that year. 2015 has seen a return to form for sOs with another compelling 3rd/4th finish in the second GSL season this past spring, and a victory at the fall MSI Masters Gaming Arena (dropping only a single map to Solar in the whole tournament). While not the shining beacon of late ‘13/early ‘14 that he was, sOs remains unpredictable and able to take games off absolutely anyone - and with a third $100,000 prize on the line, he has no doubt been training hard for BlizzCon. 

13. Millenium David ‘Lilbow’ Moschetto

The lone foreign hope, and the first since NaNiwa snuck into the WCS 2013 Global Finals only to be unceremoniously eliminated in the first round, Lilbow looks the part of a serious contender for the best foreigner in the world with his WCS results this year: Second place in Season 2, followed by the first place trophy in Season 3.

As the first and only foreigner to win a WCS Premier League title and the first foreign champion in a tournament with Korean players in over a year, Lilbow has a lot of curious onlookers hoping he could go the distance at BlizzCon. While his results outside of WCS this year have been less impressive, two consecutive WCS seasonal finals is a serious feat. The field in WCS was less dense with many of the Korean players previously competing in WCS gone - no Bomber, HyuN, TaeJa, StarDust, jjakji, MMA, MC, etc. present - but Lilbow still defeated excellent players like Jaedong and ForGG to make it as far as he has.

Will the young Frenchman have the raw talent to tangle with last year’s WCS global champion in the first round? Can he stack up in a room with 15 top tier Korean pros? We’ll know soon enough.

12. KT Rolster Joo ‘Zest’ Sung Wook

Zest exploded on to the scene with his GSL victory in the first season of 2014, and immediately followed it up with the trophy at the GSL Global Championships that spring - against a field of many of the world’s best Korean players. He made the playoffs in every premier tournament he participated in all year, including all three GSL seasons, and also won the KeSPA Cup leading into BlizzCon. His BlizzCon run was cut short in 2014 by the eventual world champion, Life.

In 2015, despite convincing early success in the IEM Season IX World Championships with another first place finish, Zest failed to qualify for the first two seasons of GSL and the first season of SSL. In the other three seasons (S2 and of SSL and S3 of both GSL and SSL), he looks back to better form, breaking to the quarterfinals in all three.

If 2014’s Zest arrives in California, he will be a force to be reckoned with. The Zest of 2015 looks less sure of himself; against opponents of this caliber, lacking the self-assured swagger of a champion could prove his downfall.

11. CM Storm Choi ‘Polt’ Seong Hun

One of only two threepeating players in WCS, Polt has been a nigh-expected staple in the competitive StarCraft scene since his breakthrough performance in the MLG Spring Championship in 2013 and subsequent back-to-back WCS America championships. While Polt was certainly a household name in pro StarCraft II back to its earliest days, his explosive success since moving to the US has kept him relevant for many years.

In both of the previous years’ Global Finals, Polt has stood strong atop a ton of tournament appearances and strong finishes - ranked 4th overall going into BlizzCon both years. He fell to eventual 2013 champion sOs in the first round that year, and was eliminated in the first round by Classic in 2014. 

To count Captain America out early would be a mistake, though. The 2015 WCS Season 1 champion made the playoffs in all three seasons, which gave him enough points to effectively guarantee a BlizzCon spot. We’ve seen less of him this year, but Polt remains among the most ruthless and efficient biomine Terrans in the world - and treating him as anything less than a top tier player could cost his opponents dearly.

10. SK Telecom T1 Cho ‘Dream’ Joong Hyuk

Joining SKT has obviously been good for Dream. His nearly four years of play with MVP had shown little for results other than a surprise second place at IEM Season VII Katowice. That tournament was not especially impressive in terms of its pro attendees, so it was perhaps a less meaningful finish than it might have been otherwise.

Fast forward to 2015, and the new Dream that has SKT training gets second place in two absolutely stacked back to back seasons of SSL, as well as a top four finish in the second KeSPA Cup. These are tournaments where Dream is overcoming the likes of Maru, herO, and current world champion Life (twice!) - no easy task.

A young player, Dream will only have just turned 19 when he reaches Anaheim. Has his perseverance through his early years as a teen - having previously qualified for Code A at only 14 - finally paid dividends with SKT’s assistance? It would be no surprise to see a well-prepared Dream make a deep run at his first ever Global Finals.

9. SK Telecom T1 Kim ‘Classic’ Doh Woo

If there is a trend in pro StarCraft, it seems to be that players who go to SKT explode up to their full potential. Classic spent years languishing without results on STX SouL, then suddenly won the second season of the GSL in 2014 out of seemingly nowhere. A top four finish at KeSPA Cup that fall allowed him to attend last year’s Global Finals, where he was eliminated in the semifinals by MMA. That placement made him $15,000 USD and set his expectations for how he wanted to do in 2015.

After another slow start to the year, Classic once again took home a mid-year trophy in SSL Season 2. Coupled with good-but-not-great finishes in GSL S3 and KeSPA Cup S2, Classic was more or less assured of a spot at BlizzCon - and then, on top of it all, he turned around and won IEM Shenzhen, which cemented his placement in the top 10.

In his return to BlizzCon this year, Classic will no doubt look to improve upon his results from 2014. As the first ever SKT player to bring home a GSL trophy, it would somehow be fitting for Classic to bring them their first world championship, too.

8. CJ Entus Han ‘ByuL’ Ji Won

After a brief period of moderate success in WCS America in late 2013 with Incredible Miracle, ByuL seemed to lose his mojo and disappeared into relative obscurity. His start with CJ Entus in 2014 seemed equally inauspicious.

Somehow, though, ByuL found his footing in 2015, and claimed three silver medals: Two in back-to-back seasons of the GSL (reminiscent of another Zerg prodigy, soO) and an SSL. He made the playoffs in every other league or tournament appearance in the back half of 2015.

The new and improved ByuL hasn’t won a title, but he’s beaten almost every other player at BlizzCon, and his performance in every matchup still appears to be on the rise. BlizzCon could be ByuL’s opportunity to prove that he is, in fact, championship material.

7. ROOT Gaming Shin ‘Hydra’ Dong Won

One of the only Korean pros to get a visa to continue competing in one of the Western regions, Hydra has seen great success since his transfer to ROOT Gaming and focusing on competing in WCS. A second place finish in WCS Season 1 and a first place finish in WCS Season 2 punched Hydra’s ticket straight to BlizzCon.

How he’ll hold up against competition of this level remains to be seen. His win ratios and stats belie the fact that many of those victories are over foreigners in smaller tournaments; his recent meetings with other Korean pros, especially in offline events, have not been as favourable. His showing in the spring Gfinity Masters tournament showed he could wrestle with players like sOs, however, so he’s not a free win for anyone. 

As the highest-ranking WCS participant at the Global Finals, can Hydra show that the West is competitive enough to tangle with Korea’s finest?

6. mYinsanity Jung ‘Rain’ Yoon Jong

Often referred to simply as ‘The Assassin’, Rain was among the original SC2 greats. He emerged on to the scene in Wings of Liberty with a StarLeague victory, then played well - but not flawlessly - in 2013. Near the end of that year, he picked up a convincing Hot6ix Cup victory, and immediately turned around and placed in the top four in the first GSL season of 2014 and in IEM Cologne, but again had another good but not great year overall.

2015’s Rain, having left SK Telecom T1 to pursue more international opportunities, has done better. His GSL Season 2 victory and subsequent SSL Season 3 top four finish got him a BlizzCon berth, and his performance in the other premier leagues and third party tournaments all year have been strong.

Rain’s Achilles heel - if one of the best StarCraft players in the world can have such a thing - is his weakness in the mirror match-up. If he does advance, he’s guaranteed to face another world-class Protoss, and that misfortune could spell the end of what could otherwise be a championship run for Rain.

5. SK Telecom T1 Lee ‘INnoVation’ Shin Hyung

As we enter the top five players by WCS points in 2015, we start to see the best of the best - champion quality material, every one. INnoVation is no stranger to championships: The WCS S1 Finals in 2013 with STX SouL, GSL Season 3 in 2014 as he left Team Acer and joined SK Telecom T1, and both the third season of GSL and IEM gamescom on SKT in 2015. All the way along - since WCS started in 2013 - INnoVation has been scary good.

Fans call him The Machine for a reason, though. This is a man whose ELO in pro StarCraft II has broken the meter; he is the lynchpin behind the 2015 Proleague champions. He made the final of the first Heart of the Swarm GSL season, won a season in 2014, and won the last ever Heart of the Swarm GSL to boot.

If you were to bet on INnoVation as the player to win WCS, you would be making the safe bet. At this point, “Who can beat INnoVation?” is an open question - and no one has a sure answer.

4. KT Rolster Lee ‘Life’ Seung Hyun

We appropriately find the 2014 world champion of StarCraft II near the top of this list. Life exploded on to the scene in 2012 with his GSL win, and cleaned house in a ton of non-GSL tournaments in the six months that followed. Unable to emulate his initial GSL success, however, Life failed to qualify for the WCS Global Finals in 2013 by quite a margin.

Not so in 2014. Life found enough points with a GSL semifinal finish and his Dreamhack Bucharest victory, along with a sprinkling of points from other moderate event finishes, to squeak into the top 16 players of 2014 by WCS points. He narrowly split series with potential fan favourites in Zest and TaeJa, then closed out a convincing 4-1 finals over MMA to secure his title.

Whether or not Life’s 2015 story will unfold similarly is a tale yet to be told, but it has all of the right trappings: a GSL victory early in the year, more than enough WCS points to sit near the top of the 2015 rankings, and almost a full year of the training and opportunities that being a part of a KeSPA team and participating in Proleague have offered the young star.

Will StarCraft’s young talent earn the coveted bonjwa title with two back-to-back world championships?

3. yoe Flash Wolves Won ‘PartinG’ Lee Sak

The history lesson required to understand PartinG is one of many rises and falls. This was a player who looked eminently dominant prior to Heart of the Swarm, winning the pre-WCS StarCraft World Championship and immediately following it up with a win in the World Cyber Games in 2012. Shortly thereafter, PartinG departed StarTale for SKT, and his results became less impressive.

In late 2013, PartinG won the Red Bull Battlegrounds in New York, perhaps setting the stage for a comeback. It did not come to pass - although he did fare well in the GSL Global Championship in 2014, he found no footing, and passed out of the pro scene’s top picks after two years of moderate, but not exceptional, play.

Late in 2014, PartinG joined yoe Flash Wolves, and he immediately resurfaced. He won HomeStory Cup X, finished second in the first GSL season of 2015, performed admirably at IEM Taipei, and won Dreamhack Tours earlier this year. He failed to see major success in any other leagues throughout the year, but did get a silver finish at IEM Shenzhen. Those results for this NesTea Award holder, who had his own PartinG award named after him for 10 consecutive GSL Ro16 appearances, meant plenty of WCS points in 2015.

PartinG now descends upon Anaheim the highest-ranked player with no seasonal championship to his name this year, looking to claim his first big trophy in 2015 on the biggest stage of the entire year.

2. Jin Air Green Wings Cho ‘Maru’ Seong Ju

Jin Air’s shining light and the other young prodigy on this list, Maru experienced immense success in 2013 on the heels of his Royal Roaderperformance in the OSL that summer. He would go on to a string of semifinal eliminations in the GSL, the WCS Season 3 Finals, the Hot6ix Cup, and the WCS Global Finals that year.

After a middling 2014, Maru came back with a vengeance in 2015. He became the first person in StarCraft II - and the second person ever, after Boxer in the original StarCraft - to be a double Royal Roader, winning his first-ever StarLeague. That victory and the numerous playoff finishes in leagues and tournaments in 2015 propelled Maru to his strong second place overall finish in this year’s WCS by points.

Now, Maru - like Life - must fight back to peak form after a brief window of less displayed proficiency to prove that he is one of the world’s absolute best players. Historically, Maru has suffered at the hands of unpredictable and aggressive players like PartinG, so hopefully he’s had ample training time with his teammates at Prime to ready himself for BlizzCon.

1. CJ Entus Kim ‘herO’ Joon Ho

WCS points were awarded in fairly small batches. League winners, runners-up, and semifinalists would get 2,000, 1,250, or 900 points respectively; winners of third party events (with the notable exception of the IEM World Championship) would get 750 points. 3,000 or so points is traditionally the benchmark to break into the top 16 - typically achieved with a major league win and decent performances alongside it, or sometimes through a string of decent showings in third-party tournaments.

In this year’s global finalist pool, breaking 3,000 points was the bare minimum. Breaking 5,000 cemented you as one of the players in the top half of the bracket. PartinG came in third with an impressive 5,850 points despite no league championships; Maru snuck past him with 6,050 by virtue of his SSL victory.

First place, however, belongs to CJ Entus’ herO. herO finds himself the top seed going into the global finals on the heels of his SSL Season 3 victory (worth a handsome 2,000 points!); if he had gotten 0 points from that league at all, he would still very nearly be the top seed with a whopping 7,900 WCS points.

In a year that has included an IEM championship, a KeSPA Cup championship, and an SSL championship, herO has also finished in the semifinals of another two leagues and another third party tournament. He found playoff berths in two more IEM events and another KeSPA Cup, and very nearly broke to the playoffs in all three seasons of league play in Korea that he didn’t finish in the semifinals or better of. On top of all this, he is historically immensely successful in IEM events in general, and has also received accolades for his exceptional Proleague performance.

herO comes into the WCS Global Finals an underdog in spite of all this. Historically, he has weaker matchups than many of his peers, and his mirror match-up statistics are only just better than even.

But those numbers are against the absolute best players in the world, and herO has proven himself against them all. In his most consistent form ever, could 2015 be the year that The Smiling Assassin brings home the biggest trophy of them all?

Written by Kevin Hovdestad. Kevin is a full-time video game and eSports journalist from Canada - published on IGN, GamesBeat, RockPaperShotgun, and more - whose work focuses primarily on Blizzard Entertainment franchises and how eSports can grow and succeed into the future.