It’s the finals of the Melbourne leg of the Australian Cyber League’s 2012 circuit. A hundred people are gathered in a conference room at the Mooney Valley Racecourse, watching intently at the stage as the conclusion of Tim “MaFia” He and Jared “PiG” Krensel’s second best-of-three edges closer and closer. For many, this match is not just the culmination of a gruelling 48 hour stretch, but also the standard for a much more intense and important finals in a month’s time: the World Championship Series.
After six exhausting games, the benchmark was set – Krensel was the winner, taking home not only cash but the confidence of finally having thrown off his inability to win a major LAN event. He was understandably upset, but not overly so: he looked extraordinarily menacing throughout the entire tournament, cleaving his way through the upper bracket and comfortably breezing through their group stage.
The tension in the air, sparked by the trades, explosions and pushes finally sparked with MaFia’s capitulation; cheers rang out, although a subset of those – members of Terror Australis, who were fervently hoping for a MaFia victory – let out a groan. It was all good natured, of course, but ultimately it was a release: the players and spectators, many of whom had taken part in the various online and regional qualifiers around Australia, knew that this was simply the precursor to what would be the biggest event of the year.
That suspicion was only fanned by the intense hype generated by the Australian Cyber League, culminating in various clues, rumours and even the odd bit of information from those “in the know” at ACL Melbourne. But it was left for the league’s CEO, Nick “Vanzr” Vanzetti, to blow everything out of the water when he confirmed the wet dreams of many a nerd: Tastosis, the Casting Archon, would be touching down in Australia to cast the event, alongside Painuser and HDStarcraft.
Add the best 16 Australian Starcraft 2 players, US$10,000, a few ocker accents (although whether rising internet celebrity Goatlust will make an appearance is yet to be confirmed) and the event was already shaping up to be a bucket list for gamers around the world, let alone those down under. But it doesn’t stop there: the top 6 Australians face off against Tilea “KnighT” Flavall and Thomas “Jazbas” Cho for an additional US$15,000 and the right to represent Oceania at the World Championship Series global finals in China later this year.
And despite the advantage in numbers for the Australians, it’s worth remember just how tough the two Kiwis are. Cho managed to recover from a first-round loss at the Battle.net Invitational last year to claw his way to a grand final with Andrew “mOOnGlaDe” Pender, while Flavall has the advantage of competing at a few Major League Gaming events. The pressure and intensity there will no doubt equal the atmosphere of the Australian Technology Park on the 11th and 12th of August, and his experience may be a crucial factor in the final placings.
Equally advantageous is Flavall’s teammates: unlike many New Zealand and Australian players, Flavall has the benefit of practicing with his higher-profile teammates in Light eSports, including one of the most consistent North American MLG performers, Lok-Yin “KawaiiRice” Kwong. Kwong’s creative streak and his strengths against Zerg and fellow Terrans will prove absolutely invaluable to Flavall, considering the make-up of the Australian contingent. Four Terrans and five Protoss might have qualified for the top 16, but the final six could quite easily be an all-Zerg affair, leaving the 18-year-old with just the one match-up to concentrate on.
Irrespective of who the final opponents will be, this is a strictly professional affair. Players are literally putting their minds and bodies on the line, grinding out anywhere between four and ten hours of practice a day. Some of the players are lucky enough to be either unemployed, in between semesters or able to making a living as a full-time professional, while others are balancing the full-time commitments of a job and gaming at the highest level.
But when you talk about professionals, there is always one in the room that cannot be ignored. Despite a decidedly mediocre performance at ACL Melbourne by his standards – coming 4th – every single competitor understands the folly of writing off Pender, the returning champion and one of the most battle-hardened competitors ever produced in Australia.
At last year’s World Cyber Games, the Queenslander came within a whisker of dumping Lee “MarineKing” Jung Hoon, one of the world’s most loved and fearsome players out of the tournament in front of the Korean’s home crowd. Despite going down in an eventual 2-1 loss, Pender never broke a sweat – an utterly essential quality for playing at the highest level. The modicum of experience Flavall gained from attending MLG is nothing compared to what Pender has accumulated over the better part of the last decade – and it’s for that reason alone that he enters the tournament as a strong favourite.
Experience alone, however, isn’t enough to end a red-hot streak, and the two hottest players right now are the finalists of the recent nationals in Melbourne. We interviewed Krensel ahead of the tournament and he was certain of a strong finish, so one can only imagine how big the psychological boost he received in Melbourne was (especially considering the double-come-from-behind nature of the finals).
One of the downsides of being an out-and-out professional, however, is finding time to pay the bills: a lot of Krensel’s time, perhaps more than he would like, will get eaten up fulfilling his coaching commitments. He can always cancel his tutoring sessions, but doing so directly eats into his income, so at least some of his time will have to be siphoned off.
MaFia has no such problems; the former poker professional, who once banked over $300,000 in a single tournament, is able to fully devote his time towards Starcraft. It’s already paid off, helping the highly respected, softly-spoken Zerg enter the Grandmaster league on the Korean server, despite competition from every corner of the globe.
Even before his brutalisation of the upper bracket at ACL Melbourne, the Sydney-based Zerg was on a tear, putting in some remarkably strong showings in the international TeamLiquid Starleague qualifiers. MaFia finished in the top 8 of one of the qualifiers on the North American server – out of a bracket featuring nearly 1000 players – after taking out several big name Europeans. He then followed it up with a round of 16 finish in a following TSL qualifier, again taking out big players along the way.
MaFia had the best finish out of any of the Australians, but someone who was equally consistent was the outspoken and highly talented Bradley “tgun” Seymour. Like Pender, Seymour’s one of the more well-travelled gamers around: he hasn’t been around as long as his Zerg senior, but his wealth of experience playing in South Korea, the GSL qualifiers, a season of GSTL and a few MLG events is worth its weight in gold when sitting in front of a crowd and a stack of cameras.
While he’s not as experienced, someone who’s always had a reputation for being freakishly talented is the sole representative from Canberra, Yojun “YoonYJ” Yun. Also known as YYJ, Yun juggles gaming and a social life alongside his studies at the Australian National University. Despite that encumberance though, YYJ’s speed and his outlandish personality make him a force to be reckoned with.
I’ll always my first encounter with him for two reasons. I was playing in the WCG Sydney qualifiers in Chatswood last year when the friend beside me managed to take YYJ into the third map of their best-of-three in the upper bracket. A successful quick blue-flame hellion drop put my friend heavily in the lead, and the engagements afterwards should have well and truly sealed the deal. According to the replay, YYJ had 5 SCVs to my friend’s 55, with a meagre 20 supply to approximately 100.
YYJ won; I still don’t understand how. When I heard later that he’d been offered a spot to trial for Korean pro-gaming house Startale – one of the most diverse teams in Starcraft 2 – I believed it straight off the bat. It’s been over a year and I’ve still never seen a comeback as ridiculous as I did that day, but those are the kind of wins freaks notch up on a regular basis.
An equally talented player is one of the latest recruits to Team Immunity, Ray “Light” Zi. Ray first became known locally after getting into Grandmaster the old-fashioned way: 1000 straight games of 4 gating. He’s naturally branched out his play since then, and next to MaFia and Pender he’s also risen the highest on the Korean server.
But Zi has time issues of his own, juggling a full-time job and a social life while trying to remain competitive. But if the 3rd at ACL Melbourne is any judge, he’s doing well. Furthermore, Zi’s always had the massive advantage that apart from being the only top-notch Protoss only, he’s quite usually the only Protoss at a tournament.
That doesn’t mean players are out of form against Protoss, but they’re certainly far less practiced when Zerg players typically make up 75% of the bracket. Plus, unless you’re playing Zi, chances are your practice partners aren’t on the same level, so what might have worked before the tournament might be torn to pieces on the day.
The most interesting thing about the event, though, is that while the people above could quite conceivably win a ticket to the world finals, they’re also more than capable of dropping games the people beneath them. From the 15 Australians attending, only 1 – Frustration, the runner-up from Western Australia – has the potential to be cannon fodder, but even then you can never rule out the potential for an upset when you stick someone in a booth, a crowd and a bunch of cameras.
The three remaining Terrans in the bracket – Daniel “deth” Haynes, David “Rossi” Rossi and Ethan “iaguz” Zugai – are all expected to make it reasonably far in the tournament, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least two of them qualify for Sunday. Zugai is the one with the most form of late, notching up a pair of respectable finishes at ACL Melbourne and the Gigabyte Slam event held the day before.
But the margin of error between a win and a loss is very small. Zugai effectively knocked out Haynes in the group stages of ACL Melbourne, while Rossi was paired against his teammate YYJ. If the Terrans can avoid hitting each other – which happens very rarely – then all three could make significant inroads.
It’d be more interesting from a spectator standpoint too: the three are fairly even in skill, with some slight differences. Haynes tends to be bolder, and occasionally more reckless, which is always entertaining to watch. Rossi’s control is as good as anyone’s, while his knowledge of build orders and their respective counters makes him an exceptionally versatile opponent in a tournament.
Zugai’s not as flashy and lightning quick as the others – although that didn’t prevent him from winning an invite last year to IEM Guangzhou and establishing himself as one of the most consistent players in the country – but he’s also the most effective, which couples nicely with his sheer determination, intelligent decision making and an acute sense of awareness, the latter of which is absolutely invaluable when you’re about to be hit by a swarm of zerglings and banelings.
The prince of Western Australia, Mark “yang” Richardson is a bit of an anomaly as well. Another member of Team Immunity, he performed admirably at ACL Sydney, but got knocked out of the online qualifier (there was no LAN event for Perth) and was relegated to playing in the Gigabyte Slam event at Monash University where he finished 9th-12th.
Like most at this level, Richardson is solid across the board. He’s got a good strategical mind and good army control, although his multi-tasking isn’t quite as sharp as some of the others, leaving him open to multi-pronged attacks.
Most of the same applies to Lukas “BiGbiRd” Bridley from Adelaide, one of the few players with a background in Warcraft 3. Like all Warcraft players, his micro’s excellent and his macro has improved to a decent, although not world-class, level. Bridley lacks the experience and game knowledge of his peers, however, but if he can refine a few good timings and avoid making any major mistakes he has the mechanics to do a lot of damage.
Of course, when it comes to strategical minds, even Pender falls behind the man who practically led the way forward for every budding professional gamer in Australia: Peter “Legionnaire” Neate, who surprised everyone when he won a WCS seed at the Brisbane leg of the ACL qualifiers.
A brief stop to his Liquidpedia page explains why the man is such a gaming legend: he was one of the original pro-gamers and one of the first foreigners to establish himself on a South Korean pro-gaming team. He was the first foreigner to all-kill – single-handedly defeating the opposing team – in a televised match and won a bronze medal at the World Cyber Games in 2005.
Neate retired to focus on his studies, but made a brief comeback during the beta and after SC2’s release. It was short-lived, however, and he faded into absence shortly after despite having some success in the beta tournaments.
So just how good can he possibly at the finals after such a long absence? Since the Brisbane regional, Neate has been practicing hard, so whatever he brings to Redfern should be pretty well refined. A month should be long enough for someone of his calibre to get up to speed with the metagame, and if you’re talking about cameras, crowds and nerves – well, this man’s been there before. But it’s also been a long time since Neate was there, and nobody knows what, if any, impact being in the booth will have. Irrespective of the result, it’ll be nice to see Neate chat about old times with Artosis and Tasteless.
Not to be ignored are the trio of Zergs remaining in the pool: Lucas “Techtron” Tan, Cameron “EdgE” Murrin and Alex “Ninja” Smith. Tan’s been on quite the run lately, qualifying for the championship bracket at ACL Melbourne ahead of Norwegian student studying in Australia, Kristoffer “TargA” Marthinsen, and fellow WCS competitors Bridley, Rossi and YYJ.
He’s a sharp and vibrant player and could cause plenty of havoc with his strengths against Terran and fellow Zergs. That’s largely applicable for Smith as well, who finished 4th at ACL Sydney and put in a strong showing at Melbourne by finishing 3rd in his group. Smith also has the honour of beating Nestea on ladder, a Korean that’s treated more like a Starcraft 2 deity than a good player.
Murrin’s just as talented as Tan and Smith, but he’s also freakishly quick. According to an analysis of all the available replays from ACL Melbourne, Murrin had the highest effective actions per minute – meaningful movements and commands, not just spamming hotkeys – at more than 280. The Adelaide-based Zerg has always been a fearsome opponent, but WCS will be only his third major LAN event, despite being a prominent player in the scene for the past two years. If he can manage the massive difference in production from the standard netcafe-based events at Adelaide, Murrin could do surprisingly well; he’s one of the more favoured practice partners in the scene and he’s strong across all three match-ups.
But as with any tournament, a major factor will be the preparation leading up to it and who decides to show up on the day. There’s less than a fortnight before 16 Australians will battle it out for the chance to fly overseas, possibly taking the first step on a journey they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.