A new season of Code S is set to begin!
Alas, for the first time in twelve years, there’s a feeling of dread mixed in with the anticipation. The Global StarCraft II League has undergone severe contraction in 2023, with prize money reduced by nearly 80% and the majority of the matches being moved to online play.
With such a reduction in scale, it wasn’t surprising to see fan perception of the GSL take a negative turn. A TL.net poll in February asking “Will you consider the 2023 GSL tournaments to be legitimate?” saw 48% of respondents reply “yes,” 22% say “no,” and 29% defer judgment with a “don’t know/neutral.”
Is this really the same GSL that was the backbone of competitive StarCraft II since 2010? Whether or not we like the answer, it’s time to find out together.
Group A Preview: Maru, DongRaeGu, ByuN, NightMare
Start time: Tuesday, Apr 25 9:30am GMT (GMT+00:00)
Alongside the drop in prize money and change to a hybrid online/offline format, Code S has also made the adjustment of going from twenty to sixteen players in the first round. This is certainly bad news for the players who fail to make the cut, but it has definitely made the first round of Code S (RO16) much leaner and more competitive.
The last few seasons of Code S worked out so that just about every notable player in Korea could make the qualifier cut, with a few slots left over for ‘semi-pro’ players such as Percival or Prince. In contrast, the most recent qualifier saw players like RagnaroK, SpeCial, soO, Scarlett, Armani, and TY all fail to get over the finish line. There’s very little fat to trim in the first round, and elimination is a real threat off the bat.
Having said all that, I have to admit that those remarks are more applicable to the other three groups. Group A is very straight forward, with Maru and ByuN being the obvious favorites to advance over the outmatched DongRaeGu and NightMare.
#1 seed Maru needs little introduction, entering Code S Season 1 with more or less the same list of descriptors he’s had for the last few years. He’s the best Terran player in the world, a top championship contender in any tournament he enters, and a living legend of StarCraft II. Ah, I guess there’s one more important part to add: He’s the only G5L champion in StarCraft II history.
However, Maru seems to care a lot more about the one honorific he failed to add to that list: “reigning world champion.” He hasn’t been shy to talk about how losing to Oliveira in the IEM Katowice finals has put him on giga-tilt, and how his growing number of second place finishes has been weighing on his mind.
That’s bad news for everyone else in the StarCraft II scene, as this bitterness seems to be keeping Maru as motivated as ever. Despite narrow runner-up finishes in the pre-season Wardi Korean Royale and the PiG Festival tournaments, he’s shown an overall level of play similar to IEM Katowice. When you consider that Maru was only stopped at Katowice due to a miraculous, once-in-a-lifetime performance from Oliviera, it’s clear that Maru is the #1 championship contender headed into the new season.
When I heard Code S was contracting to sixteen players, NightMare was exactly the kind of borderline Code S player I thought would be squeezed out. Thus, I was a bit surprised to see him advance from the qualifiers with victories over the far more established soO and Solar. However, even though it’s a great result for one of Korea’s few up-and-comers, I’m not rushing to recalibrate my expectations for NightMare.
If we look back to late last year, the NightMare bandwagon (or whatever wheeled vehicle hipsters use) picked up some momentum at DreamHack: Atlanta as the little-known Protoss made an extraordinarily clutch run through the losers bracket to finish in the top eight. However, his results in subsequent tournaments—group stage elimination at HomeStory Cup, RO36 elimination at IEM Katowice, and many unremarkable finishes throughout the pre-season—suggested that Atlanta really wasn’t a breakthrough event, and that NightMare remained at the level of a fringe/low-tier Code S player.
I don’t want to be too pessimistic about NightMare: I think he’s made some incremental gains since 2022, and he’s primed to have a really solid season for ABYDOS in the World Team League (he already stole a 1-1 draw against Reynor). However, he’s simply not at a level where he can disrupt what should be the most clear cut group in the RO16.
Similar to Maru, ByuN comes into this season of Code S with a list descriptors that’s remained largely unchanged for several seasons. He’s one of the best Terrans in the world, an absolute monster in online play, and a contender to win Code S—IF he can play at 100% of his skill level under pressure.
On that last point: GSL’s change to a semi-online format doesn’t actually help ByuN that much here. He’s already made a lot of progress in keeping his nerves under control, compared to 2020 when would suffer his psychosomatically induced wrist issues in the lowest rounds of Code S. Nowadays, ByuN looks largely fine until the later rounds of major events, where he’s more liable to lose due to drawing a bad match-up (vs Maru, vs Serral) than any kind of self-destructive event. Online or offline, I expect him to be totally fine in the RO16.
Putting mentality-based issues and the group stage aside for now, the most important big picture question for ByuN is his ceiling. Looking back at his 0-3 elimination at the hands of Serral at IEM Katowice, it’s tempting to say it proved ByuN was just a half-tier below the absolute best players in the scene. However, my view is that it was just one possible result between two closely matched players, and a ByuN 3-0 would have been just as likely.
It all goes back to the ‘era of parity’ I’ve been harping on for over a year now. Oliveira’s championship run at IEM Katowice 2023 was one of the greatest individual accomplishments in StarCraft history, but it was also emblematic of the overall parity gains in 2021-2022. The match results in the recent Gamers Without Borders tournament supports this trend as well, with ‘upsets’ dotting the bracket in both Korea and the EPT. Thus, while I think it’s impossible for ByuN to pull off a repeat of 2016, get red hot for two months, and actually surpass the Maru-Dark-herO trio, he should be able to compete against them as a near-equal.
I feel sad having to write DongRaeGu off, especially after his impressive 2022 campaign. The venerable veteran managed to reach the playoffs (top 6) of all three Code S tournaments that year, and even showed championship-level play in ZvT.
Unfortunately, DongRaeGu’s form seems to have slipped significantly since his RO24 elimination at IEM Katowice 2023 (4th place in his group). His performance during the pre-season period in March and April has been mediocre, hovering just above a 50% win-rate with a 43-39 map record. He faced both Maru and ByuN twice in that period, and ended up losing all four of those matches (0-4 combined map score against Maru, 1-4 against ByuN).
The only case for DongRaeGu is to suggest that maybe he’s been taking it easy in the off season. It’s great for fans that there’s hardly any gaps in the StarCraft II calendar, but for players it can feel like an endless marathon. One could imagine a scenario where DongRaeGu decided to use the pre-season to get some well-needed rest, and ramped up his practice just in time for the GSL. Still, even if this speculative thinking were to be true, DRG would be hard pressed to impede the two best Korean Terrans.
According to Aligulac.com, Maru and ByuN have 94% and 85% chances of advancing, while DRG and NightMare trail far behind at 16% and 6%. This seems perfectly reasonable to me—I might even be inclined to give the two Terrans even better odds.
As cut and dry as the overall result is, there should be a more unpredictable battle between Maru and ByuN for first place. While Maru still reigns as the #1 TvT player in the world, he’s lost his aura of complete invincibility. ByuN played a part in that, beating Maru in a scrappy 3-1 series in December’s GSL Super Tournament. Maru may have defeated him in their subsequent five matches, but ByuN continued to acquit himself well in defeat. Given the variance of best of three, ByuN has a puncher’s chance of pulling off the upset (Aligulac gives him a 33.46% chance of winning).
Maru > NightMare
ByuN > DongRaeGu
Maru > ByuN
DongRaeGu > NightMare
ByuN > DongRaeGu
Maru and ByuN to advance.