Soulkey's 2013 - A masterpiece of consistency
The story of Soulkey's incredible 2013, in which the Zerg player finished top eight in all nine tournaments he entered.
This article was originally published on GameSpot's sister site onGamers.com, which was dedicated to esports coverage.
In 2013 Kim 'Soulkey' Min Chul quietly put together one of the most incredible single year runs of all time in StarCraft, despite rarely being the player with all eyes upon him. Names like INnoVation, sOs, TaeJa and Dear all commanded the spotlight over the year, and each for different but credible reasons. Meanwhile, Soulkey was grinding away and reaching the top eight of every single tournament he entered. Arguments can be made over who was the best player of 2013, but there is no argument against Soulkey being the most consistent player of 2013.
Consider these statistics over the 9 tournaments Soulkey played in 2013:
* Champion - 2 times (22.23%)
* Finalist - 4 times (44.45%)
* Semi-finalist or better - 6 times (66.67%)
* Quarter-finalist or better - 9 times (100%)
* $108,379 in prize money won.
This is the story of the phenomenal year of consistent play Soulkey put together, always a factor in the playoff bracket of tournaments and often in the mix for the title. He may have only won two titles, but his excellence should not be measured solely by the times he stepped onto the top step of the podium.
Expected to be good
Soulkey came into StarCraft2 as one of the BW (Brood War) players expected to be good immediately. The Woongjin Stars man had made his rise into the ranks of the top Proleague performers in 2011, putting together seasons of 60% win-rates. This success had translated into the notoriously difficult individual leagues of BW, with a number of Ro16 finishes but never moving on to the bracket stage of the final eight. Nevertheless, Soulkey's consistent day in and day out performances in BW were enough to see him finish the game ranked fourth by KeSPA and with the sixth highest ELO rating.
Transitioning into SC2, minus the years of experience most other top Korean players in the scene already had, was always going to be difficult for any of the BW players, even those peaking in form. It took Soulkey most of 2012 to make a distinct mark on the new game, but in the final GSL Code S season he was able to make a run all the way to the Ro8, falling there to fellow ex-BW latter day rising star INnoVation (formerly known as Bogus). Going into 2013, Soulkey was clearly an SC2 player on the rise, but with no reason for anyone to expect he was headed for the champion just yet.
Establishing consistency in the world's hardest league
In January of 2013, Soulkey progressed through the Ro32 of the first GSL season of the year, crucially beating TaeJa 2:0, an opponent he had lost from at the previous MLG less than three months prior.
"I realized some things when I lost to TaeJa at MLG and at WCG. I was able to realize by studying VODs that Taeja likes to use a formulated play style by getting economically stabilized as he prepares a bio army. So I told myself that I would be able to win as long as I also get economically stabilized also."
-Soulkey, on beating TaeJa in the Ro32 of GSL S1 (ThisIsGame, 2013)
In the Ro16, Soulkey defeated former GSL finalists MarineKing and Squirtle to reach a second consecutive Ro8 appearance. The team of 21 year old Zerg had been on a break, so he had been thinking about the games at home. Due to the structure of GSL, he already knew that his opponent would be the very same TaeJa he had defeated in the Ro32.
"I don't think I was able to properly show everyone my skills cause I got eliminated way too easily last season in the quarter finals. This time I am going to properly show my skills. To me, it seems like TaeJa is not confident in his TvZ. So I will grab my victory while emitting confidence."
-Soulkey, on facing TaeJa in the Ro8 of GSL S1 (ThisIsGame, 2013)
The series began dreadfully for Soulkey, no doubt evoking memories of the previous season's 0:3 loss to INnoVation, as he went down 0:2. Despite fighting back to level the series up, TaeJa took the decisive game five. As it turned out, based on post-match interviews, the Liquid Terran had been bothered both by the despair of knowing how good Soulkey was and wrist pains. This was TvZ at the end of Wings of Liberty, but TaeJa was one of the few Terrans who really could beat even the elite Zergs.
Just as Soulkey's studying of TaeJa, noticing his tendency to go for three orbital commands, had helped him defeat the Terran, so the Liquid man now revealed that he had studied Soulkey's play in the Ro16 and taken into considerations the insights Soulkey had revealed on his play. A key tendency TaeJa had noticed had been Soulkey's choice of no gas Queen builds.
"When I saw him advance, I learned what despair truly felt like."
-TaeJa, on what he felt upon seeing Soulkey progress to face him in the Ro8 (ThisIsGame, 2013)
Entering the WCS circuit with a bang
While a lot of the other big Korean names headed out to Dallas for the MLG Winter Championship, Soulkey would be back home after losing in his showdown against Last that would decide who got to go Stateside. A month later it was time for the first ever GSL in both Heart of the Swarm and under the WCS (World Championship Series) banner. Soulkey's Ro32 saw him battling only Terrans. Beating a then entirely unnoteworthy Maru, losing to BW monster Flash and again beating Maru, Soulkey booked a spot in his third straight GSL Ro16. The Ro16 would be a much simpler affair, dropping YoDa and Flying in straight sets to reach a third consecutive GSL Ro8 appearance.
Soulkey's Ro8 opponent would be, for the first time, a Protoss. PartinG was appearing in his fourth GSL Ro8, including the previous season, and had made it as far as the semi-finals a year ago. What's more, the SKT Protoss had escaped the "Group of death" containing INnoVation, Flash and Life. Where all of his past Ro8 series had seen him lose the first two maps, this time Soulkey went ahead 2:0. PartinG pulled the series level and Soulkey was provided with an opportunity to overcome the disappointment of the previous season's deciding game elimination, winning game five to move into his first GSL semi-final.
A team-kill semi-final looms
Soulkey's opponent for the semi-final would be sOs, a Protoss player who was his team-mate on Stars. Soulkey came into the series in blistering Proleague form, having gone 11:3 in maps over the last 10 team series he had competed in. SOs was making his first individual league run of any significance, his previous best being a single Ro32 finish in the last GSL of 2012. he had beaten KangHo (formerly known as LosirA) 3:2 in the Ro8, so both Stars players had ample information from which to scout builds, being as they wouldn't be practicing against each other directly.
On May 21st the semi-final had arrived and Soulkey looked every bit ready to reach the first individual league final of his career. Over the first three maps the Stars Zerg was dominant against his team-mate. At that point Soulkey was soaring, but sOs was to bring him crashing back to reality. After winning game four, to stave off elimination, the Protoss brought out cannon rushes back-to-back to win games five and six, taking the series to a deciding seventh game.
Knowing he would face either INnoVation or Symbol in the final, Soulkey boldly stated that he wished to face INnoVation, as he felt his ZvT would allow him to show more than a ZvZ final. INnoVation was at the time considered the best player in the world, particularly in TvZ, so this could easily have been seen as grand-standing, given that everyone expected INnoVation to kill Symbol and reach the final anyway. If Soulkey really believed he could beat the monster Terran, he would have to wait 11 long days to prove it.
"I think I can win the championship, but more important than that, I have this commitment that I want to win and that I have to win no matter what. I feel like this season will be a really good opportunity."
-Soulkey, on whether he would win the WCS KR S1 GSL final (ThisIsGame, 2013)
Matched up with a monster
"[Soulkey] is the best Zerg player right now, and if I want to beat him I have to work even harder."
-INnoVation, speaking in a pre-final interview (ThisIsGame, 2013)
In an interview prior to the final, both players labelled the other the best of his race and the stastics certainly seemed to back them up. Their history extended back into BW, where they had battled in Proleague games, and had continued into SC2 with INnoVation eliminating Soulkey in both player's first GSL Code S Ro8 appearance. That victory had been a solid 3:0 and the SouL Terran had only gotten stronger since then. In HotS he had fast become the most dangerous player in the entire world, even moreso in TvZ. His dominance in the match-up was so fearsome that Zergs around the world were calling for hellbat nerfs.
INnoVation came into the GSL final with a 21:3 (87.50%) map record against Zergs in HotS. His style of aggressive harassment and sending wave after wave of units against his enemy, preventing them from expanding and establishing themselves economically, had only been beaten by two Zergs out of the 11 members of the swarm had battled. In the semi-final, Symbol had managed to steal two maps from him, but those had been all-ins. The only Zerg who had been able to stand up to the might of INnoVation in a standard game had been the man who would now face him in the final: Soulkey.
Soulkey himself had established a repuation as the best ZvT player in Korea, boasting an 11:5 (68.75%) map record. Crucially, Soulkey and INnoVation had played twice in the Proleague over the last month or so. Soulkey had managed to stand up against the might of INnoVation's force in the first meeting, giving hope that elite Zergs could beat the monster. But the two had played in the ace match of a game only three days before the final and INnoVation had emerged the victor.
Soulkey had in Korea been given the nickname "Iron Wall", by caster Lee Seung Won, due to his aptitude for defensive play, but against INnoVation that would play right into the hands of the aggressive multi-tasking monster. In their preview for the final, seven of the eight TeamLiquid writers predicted an INnoVation victory. Koreans were not quite as convinced, with three of the five GSL figures polled siding with Soulkey, including Mr Chae, GSL director, and Engine, revered analytical caster.
Face-to-face with the machine
The series began with Soulkey thrown against the wall and beaten into submission. It took less than an hour for INnoVation to go 3:0 up against the "Iron Wall" which had been unable to deflect or absorb any of his attacks. No player in GSL history had ever come back from an 0:3 deficit to win the series. Perhaps thinking back on Symbol's map wins against INnoVation, Soulkey brought out two consecutive roach-baneling all-ins. The gamble worked and the Zerg poised at the brink of elimination had pulled the series to a 2:3 score. Perhaps rattled, INnoVation attempted some cheese of his own in the sixth game, which subsequently failed, and just like that Soulkey had somehow hung on to reach a deciding game for the GSL title.
The seventh game saw no cheese and both players began their standard game. The crucial moment came as INnoVation uncharacteristically committed a fatal error, something which would have been unthinkable based on his play over the first three maps. After scanning Soulkey's group of mutalisks, the Terran machine flew his medivacs directly into them, allowing Soulkey to strike the key blow and topple the Terran terror. Soulkey had won the GSL.
Following the win, Soulkey would credit two of his most important practice partners for the final, both legendary Terran names. MMA was once upon a time the best Terran in the world, particularly known for his TvZ, and twice a GSL champion, though he had since fallen heavily in the rankings. Flash was the most successful BW player of all time and had proven to be a difficult opponent for Soulkey thusfar in HotS. With the help of both, Soulkey had been primed and in top shape to play a ZvT series against INnoVation.
"I practiced really hard but I got the thought that I was going to lose when the score became 0-3. But I think the reason I was able to win was because I made sure my mentality stayed intact. I am really glad. I got so emotional that tears started flying down. The next time I win a championship, I will make sure I don’t cry."
-Soulkey, speaking after winning the WCS S1 KR GSL Code S final (inven, 2013)
Right back into battle
Most championships afford the victor time to rest, following his strenuous journey to the top, and reflect upon his win. For Soulkey, there would be no such moment. A week later he would attend the Season 1 WCS final, hosted in his native South Korea. Surviving the group stage without a loss, and defeating aLive along the way, he had reached another Ro8 for the year. Facing him there would be a Zerg opponent, for the first time, in RorO. RorO had been the champion of the first GSL of 2013 and was a fellow ex-BW KeSPA Zerg. Soulkey won the series 3:1 to reach another semi-final. The story seemed set to be the same, as he met team-mate sOs there.
Where their GSL semi-final had been a Bo7, this one would merely be a Bo5. Soulkey lost the first two games to his Protoss friend, but battled back to reach a deciding game, playing out a reverse of their GSL series. To complete the bizarre world version of the GSL match, sOs was the one who took the decider this time, eliminating Soulkey in 3rd-4th place. sOs would face INnoVation in the final and be crushed there without a map win.
Moving on into the OSL
The second season of WCS Korea was to be hosted OnGameNet, in the form of their prestigious OSL tournament, long revered as the most important individual league to win in BW. Soulkey opened his Ro32 group, which was single maps against each opponent and not the usual Bo3 of GSL, with a loss to YugiOh. After beating RagnaroK, Soulkey got revenge on YugiOh to ensure his streak of top eight finishes didn't finish so early. In the Ro16 he defeated PartinG, soO and Symbol to make it four straight Ro8 appearances in OSL/GSLs. Despite such a run, Soulkey had yet to establish himself as Korea's most consistent player, as INnoVation had put together an identical run but also gone further in more tournaments.
"I too am confident that I can beat him. Right I’m confident regardless of whom I meet. This time around, I feel like I’ll end it before it gets to a 4-3 score."
-Soulkey, on facing INnoVation in the WCS S2 OSL Ro8 (ThisIsGame, 2013)
The very same INnoVation would be Soulkey's opponent in the Ro8. The history between the two was the stuff of legend at this point. INnoVation's 3:0 victory over Soulkey in the GSL S5 Ro8 had been repeated in the WCS KR S1 GSL final, with INnoVation up 3:0, but then Soulkey had struck back and won 4:3. SOs' win over Soulkey had prevented the Zerg having to face INnoVation's wrath in the WCS season finals, now he would have to prove his GSL final had been no fluke. The INnoVation that turned up that day was every bit as scary as the one who had made the final, and made such short work of Soulkey that many could wonder if the GSL had been more about INnoVation's mistakes than Soulkey's resilience, as INnoVation won this match-up 3:0.
A Proleague rematch
Since his GSL victory, Soulkey's Proleague form had dropped, going 3:3. Nevertheless, Stars had finished first in the Proleague regular season, booking themselves a spot in the final. As if according to a script, their finals opponent would be INnoVation's SouL. INnoVation defeated Soulkey and SouL took down Stars as a team 4:2, taking the Proleague title. Despite finishing runner-up, Soulkey had put together a fabulous Proleague season, going 28:16 (63.64%) in maps. Losing that final one had been a backbreaker though, as it might have afforded him an Ace match in which to battle INnoVation for the title.
Soulkey made it through his group in the Korean WCG qualifier and would spend the middle of August progressing through the qualifier. In the semi-final he lost to Sora, a rookie Protoss who was making waves in the qualifier. The key impact of that loss was that only the top three finishing players would qualify for the WCG Grand Finals, so Soulkey would have to win the third place decider. His opponent there, of course, would end up being INnoVation. The SouL Terran beat Soulkey 2:0, making their record since the GSL final six map wins in a row for the WCS S1 champion. Seemingly, there would be no WCG appearance for Soulkey this year.
Another season, another deep run
Ten days after the last game in the WCG qualifier, Soulkey was in GSL action again, as the reigning champion from the first season. Beating Pigbaby and PartinG, who had now become a regular victim of his, he moved into the Ro16. Sleep, a Zerg he had picked for his group, beat him in a three map series in the opening match, but Soulkey defeated DongRaeGu 2:1 and gained revenge on Sleep by the same score in the final match. A fifth straight Ro8 run in OSL/GSL tournaments, going back to the last GSL of 2012, and the fifth Ro8 run of 2013 in all significant offline tournaments.
Soulkey's opponent in the Ro8 would be Rain, runner-up of the OSL of two months prior. Soulkey was merciless and sent the SKT Protoss out of the tournament after only three games. Soulkey was moving into his second ever GSL semi-final.
"I practiced with the players around me. In particular, sOs was really active about helping me practice. The build I used in the first map was suggested to me by sOs. Dear, Terminator and First also all worked really hard to help me."
-Soulkey, on preparation for his match with Rain (ThisIsGame, 2013)
In the semi-final, on the 9th of October, Soulkey faced off against soO, a Zerg from the very same SKT as Rain. No doubt benefitting from practicing against Rain and PartinG, opponents of Soulkey's that tournament, soO came out and returned the favour, 3:0ing Soulkey out of the competition in the semi-final. Soulkey would be able to take some comfort in continuing his collaboration with SouL Protoss Dear, who was soO's opponent in the final, helping ensure the Zerg was beaten there.
Is the enemy of my enemy my friend?
Towards the end of October Soulkey flew out to Toronto for the Season 3 finals of WCS. Winning over Rain in the Ro8 of the GSL had ensured he would be present at the Global Finals the following month, but for championship players every title matters. The group began shakily, with MC 2:0ing Soulkey. Wins over Terrans Polt and Hack saw the Stars Zerg make it to another Ro8 all the same. Here he would face Oz, an EG Protoss who had finished top four in the previous season of WCS America. Soulkey put on a clinic and swept Oz 3:0. In the semi-final the opponent was another Protoss name, SouL's Trap. Soulkey was seemingly unbeatable against Protoss, after MC had delivered his wake-up call, and again swept the series.
With six straight map wins against Protoss, one could be forgiven for expecting Soulkey would be the favourite against a Protoss in the final. In fact, the man opposite him on the stage would be Dear, the Protoss he had been practicing with to get into PvZ shape to defeat soO in the GSL final. Dear was in unbeatable form at this tournament, seeming to read his opponents at every turn. Soulkey was no exempt from such form, as Dear ruthlessly eliminated him with a 4:0 stomp in the final. Soulkey had finished top four in four tournaments, yet only one had yielded a title.
Two weeks after the WCS S3 finals, it was time for the WCS Global Finals at BlizzCon. Ranked first in the WCS standings, with a mindboggling 6,250 points and the most map wins on the circuit, Soulkey would face the final name to qualify for the tournament. As it happened, that would be the only foreigner in the field: Swedish Protoss star NaNiwa. In their Ro16 series, Soulkey was at his best, controlling the action and his opponent. NaNiwa was able to win a single map, when facing elimination, but Soulkey looked every bit the number one ranked WCS player and put him out 3:1.
Into yet another Ro8, Soulkey would face Terran for the first time in an offline playoff bracket since his loss to INnoVation. This time it was Bomber who sat before him. The StarTale Terran had been rising in results over the year, going on a run of a GSL Ro8 to a top four OSL finish and then winning the WCS Season 2 finals. In the previous GSL he had bombed out in the Ro32, but this Bomber looked more reminiscent of the one who had won WCS S2. Bomber ended Soulkey's run with a 3:1 win. The biggest title of the year would evade Soulkey, though his consistency remained ever rock solid and dependable.
Taking a smaller title
The WCG has never been considered a big title in StarCraft2, on par with the likes of GSL. Nevertheless, to get the chance to compete in it, is considered a matter of pride for Koreans, being as the tournament was founded and run by Koreans. When it was announced that INnoVation had given up his spot at the tournament, so as to play in Dreamhack Winter, the next in line was Soulkey. At the finals Soulkey found little difficulty in the group stage, winning all seven series and only dropped two maps out of 16 played. Taiwanese Zerg Sen could do little against Soulkey in the Ro8, falling 0:3.
The semi-final saw a shock in store for Soulkey, as the Chinese Protoss Jim went up 2:1 against him. Soulkey recovered, as he had done so many times that year, and pushed the series to a decider, winning out to reach the final. With a medal now assured, all that was left to be decided was what kind of metal it would be made out of. The finals opponent was Sora, the Protoss who had beaten Soulkey in the semi-final of the Korean WCG qualifier. Soulkey executed his revenge upon the rookie, beating him 3:1 and taking the WCG gold medal.
One last deep run for a title
The final tournament of the year was the Hot6ix Cup, a tournament which invited the winners and runners up of the various Korean tournaments of the year to battle each other one last time. The tournament was eight players only, so Soulkey immediately notched up another Ro8 finish. First up he would face Bomber, the Terran who had knocked him out at the Ro8 in the WCS Global Finals. Going down 0:2, it was easy for fans to fear Soulkey can found another Terran who would hold sway over him. Soulkey showed that his nickname, "Iron Wall", could apply to his mental fortitude as much as his defensive style, winning three maps in a row to put Bomber out.
In the semi-final it was another Terran blocking his path, as youngster Maru faced him. Maru had developed much since losing to Soulkey in the first GSL of the year. Since then, Maru had won the OSL and finished top four at WCS KR S3, WCS S3 finals and the WCS Global Finals. The man to defeat the youngster at the previous tournament, the WCS Global Finals, had been Jaedong, by a 3:1 score. In fact, Maru had lost 1:3 in all of his semi-final losses. This time would be no different, as Soulkey followed Jaedong's example and won out 3:1. Playing in the last Korean tournament final of 2013, Soulkey met a familiar face: Rain. The Protoss he had viciously 3:0'd in the WCS KR S3 Ro8 was once more to be his opponent.
The series began with Rain going up two maps, but Soulkey battling back to level the series at 2:2. While that had often been the initial storyline of success for Soulkey, this time it was the opponent who was set to bring out his best last. Rain won the next two games to secure the Hot6ix Cup title. Soulkey finished the year on another silver medal, but a monster body of consistent work. Less than a week after the Hot6ix Cup, it was announced that Soulkey would join up with the man who had beaten him, joining the ranks of Rain's SK Telecom. Uniting here with former foes Rain, PartinG and soO, Soulkey's success over the year had ensured him a good home after Stars had disbanded.
Living and dying by the same sword
Soulkey's methodical style was one which benefited from opportunities to theory-craft against specific opponents, something which previous losses could help him with. INnoVation, Bomber and Sora had all suffered in beating Soulkey the first time and then losing a key series against him later in the year. All the same, Soulkey's consistent style could also make him predictable and meant that other players could likewise benefit from their experience against him. TaeJa, sOs, INnoVation, soO and Rain all followed up key losses with big wins over Soulkey over the year.
Soulkey didn't win enough big titles in 2013 to definitively grasp the title of best player of the year, but he did have everything else lined up on his resume. The statistics referenced at the beginning of this article are unbelievable, showcasing a consistent dedication and mental fortitude few players will ever be able to boast. Soulkey's 2013 was a work of art.
Photo credits: inven, Daily e-sports, ThisIsGame
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