On Saturday Kim "Soulkey" Min Chul
ascended to the very pinnacle of Korean StarCraft2, winning the first Korean season of the World Championship Series, the tournament previously known as GSL Code S. In doing so he became the first Heart of the Swarm GSL champion, and only the second of the KeSPA players, from the 2012 transition over from BW, to take the title.
As a BW player Soulkey's rise was gradual and hard fought, not punctuated by any kind of sharp spikes in results. When competitive Korean BW came to a close he was still struggling to prove himself a top player in the individual leagues, having never reached the quarter-finals or beyond, but had established himself as a skilled player in the team leagues.
Less than a year after KeSPA's BW teams made the full transition over to SC2 he has laid down a very solid run already, with three consecutive GSL Code S appearances reaching the quarter-finals at least, the latter seeing him reach the peak of the mountain in only his fourth season of trying. This is the story of Soulkey's rise from the minor leagues of BW to the top of Korean SC2.
2008 - The bottom of the barrel
Competitive Korean BW was a cut-throat world, beyond the glittering lights of the televised individual leagues lay a vicious free-for-all of former top tier players, B teamers and rookies all battling to break into the top 24 or 32 of an individual league. If newer players could survive the trials of the preliminaries they might begin to build a name for themselves as legitimate individual players, rather than simply being known as snipers for their teams or practice partners for the stars of their sides.
In late 2008 Soulkey was in just that position: a young player looking to prove himself worthy of attention and acclaim. The young Woonjin Zerg had been only nine years old when BoxeR won his back-to-back OSL titles and elevated BW to the cusp of being considered a real sport in their native South Korea. Now, at age 17, Soulkey began attempting the arduous task of qualifying for the individual leagues.
First up was the GOM Classic Season 2, a fairly fresh new individual league which looked to position itself as a third league alongside the established giants of the OSL and MSL. One of the benefits of the GOM leagues were that they made no distinction between preliminaries and the main league, simply drawing players into one huge bracket and seeding in the best players later on. Despite winning the first two series in September and October Soulkey fell to VeloCity 0:2 to place outside the top 64.
In that season's OSL and MSL qualifiers it was a similar story, eliminated immediately from the MSL's and by go.go in the OSL's, following a series win over female progamer ToSsGirL. 2008 was far from memorable for Soulkey and in this story serves only to highlight that this Zerg's path to success began at the very bottom and was borne of determination and a dedication to self-improvement, possessed of no natural genius or innate aptitude for the game.
2009 - The fight goes on
In March the third, and eventually final, season of the GOM Classic saw Soulkey defeated 2:0 by KT Rolster's Stats. In the span of just over a month, beginning in early April, the next MSL and OSL qualifiers once more yielded no spot in the main leagues, losing out early on again, but this time in three games. While he had no individual league in which to test his skills Soulkey was entered into the Minor League, which ran from April to June, and against this field of lesser competition he went 7:9 in maps, showing good ZvP but shaky ZvZ and terrible ZvT.
That September things seemed to have taken a turn for the better, with his level distinctly rising for the next set of qualifiers. In the MSL preliminaries he got three series deep, finally losing in three maps to type-b, who had reached the semi-final of the previous OSL a month and a half earlier. In the OSL preliminaries Soulkey defeated SaiR (now known as SuperNova in SC2) 2:0, a player who had eliminated him from the previous season's MSL qualifier, but lost to Zerg legend July 0:2.
By this time July was long removed from his glory, not only had it been over a year since his final OSL title, but Soulkey had been only 13 when the stout Zerg had been in his prime. Still, Soulkey had only been halted from qualifying for an individual league this season by one of the previous season's top players and a three time OSL champion. Where earlier in his career he was halted by B teamers now only solid players could seemingly stand in his way.
The year ended with Soulkey debuting in the ProLeague, winning his first match and losing his second. 2009 had seen him consolidate his position and gradually begin to build onwards and upwards, the results were only there for detail-orientated eyes to see though.
2010 - Becoming a solid A team starter
While his individual league qualification struggles continued, 2010 was the year when Soulkey made a splash for his play in the team leagues. Beginning at the very end of 2009 he had been entered in the KeSPA Dream League, another team league for the lesser names to prove their worth in. Over the next seven months he stomped the rookies and B teamers he met, going 21:7 overall. All of his match-ups looked solid against this lesser competition, his ZvT at 80%, ZvZ at 75% and his ZvP at 70%. The 28 games he played included nine game and six game winning streaks.
Understandably, Stars made him a solid fixture in their main ProLeague rotation for the year. That meant being thrown in the deep end of Winners League in the first few months of the year, the portion of ProLeague which utilised an All-Kill format of the winner staying on until defeated. Before he had seen much action there he had the individual league qualifiers to play. In the MSL preliminaries a loss to Snow put him out early and in the OSL he went three series deep again, including a 2:0 win over the very solid Terran ProLeague performer Sea, before losing out to Oz A teamer Killer 1:2. Yet another elimination via a three map loss.
In Winners League Soulkey overcame early losses to well known Terrans to pull an All-Kill seemingly out of nowhere, defeating STX Soul in the 3rd-4th place game of the playoffs. The four wins were all very solid, coming over Protoss star Kal, solid Zergs Modesty and hero and team Ace Calm. With this All-Kill Soulkey had arrived as a team league player and he would be fielded many more times in the coming months.
From April through to July his ProLeague performance, Winners League having finished, saw him go 10:7 over that period, very respectable for someone only recently inserted into the A team line-up. The match-up he was used the most for was ZvT, in which he managed a 62.5% win-rate. His ZvZ yielded 50% and ZvP was 66%, but with only three maps played. A number of his losses were to top team league players like Flash, Leta and Light. A key victory came over Fantasy, SK Telecom T1's Terran ace, well known for his skill in TvZ.
In late May and early June the next round of individual league qualifiers saw a familiar pattern repeat, going three series deep in both only to lose in three maps in the final series. In the MSL it was Lomo defeating him 2:1 and in the OSL Hyuk edged him in ZvZ.
August brought more team action for Soulkey, playing in the STX Masters Cup. The highlight was an All-kill vs. WeMade FOX. When the team reached the Ro8 he managed to upset STX Soul ace Calm but then lose to Modesty, displaying once more how up and down his ZvZ was. The next three months of ProLeague, closing out the year, had him going 10:9 in matches, again failing to crack 60% win-rate, but with more high profile games than previously.
This time around Soulkey's victories included the OSL finals legends Stork and Fantasy, and his losses included matches against god tier players Bisu, Flash, Jaedong and the aforementioned Stork, the four great players of the age. The loss against Bisu came in an Ace match, and would set an unpleasant precedent for Soulkey proving himself capable of being one of the team's top players but incapable of winning them Ace matches under pressure.
The year's last two months had Soulkey finally make real progress in qualifying for the individual leagues. Sweeping the preliminaries for both leagues saw him move on for the first time in his career. The OSL qualifiers had included victories over former OSL champion XellOs and Shuttle. In a playoff for a wildcard directly into the Ro16 of the Bacchus OSL he faced Calm, but lost to the MSL champion of the previous year, falling into the Ro36.
In the MSL Survivor tournament he once more defeated the aforementioned Shuttle, along with great, putting him into the Ro32 of the PDPop MSL. The Ro36 of the OSL had Soulkey gain a little revenge over Snow, who had eliminated him from the MSL qualifiers early in 2010, but fall to Oz Terran HiyA 0:2. Our hero's MSL journey was not to be halted at the same point. In the Ro32, held on Christmas day, he defeated Fantasy twice, with a loss to great sandwiched between, to reach the Ro16. Fantasy was not only the semi-finalist of the previous MSL, but was a two time OSL finalist.
2011 - Hitting the ceiling at the end of the individual leagues
In the Ro16 of the MSL, heady heights for a player who had never even reached the final 32 or 36 of an individual league before, Soulkey drew a ZvZ opponent in the form of team-mate ZerO. As 2011 began his far more experienced team-mate edged him out 2:1 and went on to reach the semi-final that season. Soulkey had broken through his own personal ceiling by getting out of the preliminaries at the end of 2010, reached the Ro32 and now had moved through to his first ever top 16 finish.
Winner's League had Soulkey used frequently, going a disappointing 9:12 (42.86%) over the first three months of the year. The match-up which struggled the most was his ZvT, the one he was sent out for most often, which plummeted to a 25% win-rate. Still, that Winners League run did include a standout moment: a three kill over Hwaseung Oz to give Stars the victory 4:3. As well as getting some revenge on HiyA and Lomo, who had eliminated him in individual league qualifiers, Soulkey took down Jaedong in the sixth game.
The end of March saw Soulkey follow up the previous season's Ro16 MSL run with qualification for the ABC Mart MSL. Defeating M18M twice, losing to Leta in between, he progressed from the Survivor tournament that the previous season's run had seeded him into. In the Ro32 Soulkey was graced once more by familiar names: Fantasy and Calm. Defeating Fantasy twice, with a loss to Calm in between the wins, moved him into the Ro16 for a second consecutive season.
"Every time I face Fantasy, I have exceptional confidence. I also think that Fantasy becomes a little timid when he faces me, so whenever we meet, I always feel at ease."
-Soulkey, after progressing from the Ro16
Soulkey's Ro16 opponent was CJ Terran and ProLeague star Leta. Despite having lost to Leta numerous times in the past, including in the Survivor tournament of this MSL, Soulkey may well have been confident going into the match, with the first leg coming only a week after he finally beat Leta in the ProLeague. The storyline for Soulkey repeated from last year though, losing 1:2 in the Ro16. Had he progressed he would have faced Flash in the quarter-finals.
"I learned a lot after it. I’m working hard not to play those kind of games ever again. Taking an attitude of not wanting to play such games again has helped me control my mind better."
-Soulkey on his loss to Leta in the MSL
Soulkey's individual league storyline was a thoroughly consistent one, losing to similar grades of opponent along the way and at similar stages, with gradual improvement as the years went by. As a player he would also beat specific players often, as seen by wins over Fantasy, but also frequently lose to the same group of players, Flash, Leta and Calm being good examples.
In June Soulkey lost in the last series of the OSL prelims, 1:2 to JuNi. In the MSL Survivor tournament he defeated BByong and firebathero, but would never get to see if he could continue his MSL Ro16 streak, as the MSL died before another tournament could be held. Soulkey finished the year winning four of his last six ProLeague games, including another qualifier loss avenged in the form of Oz's Killer.
At times during 2011 Soulkey had looked set to become one of the game's top tier players, individual league runs and key MSL/OSL wins seeming to confirm that trajectory, but he had never been able to sustain his runs to yield anything tangible. His ZvT deserted him at crucial moments and his ZvZ was always too rocky to rely on. As BW began to wind down one could be forgiven for wondering if he would ever crack the Ro8.
2012 - The end of BW and the transition into SC2
Over the first 12 ProLeague games of 2012 Soulkey went 8:4, amounting to 12:6 (66.67%) overall for that season, including those closing out the previous year. All of his match-ups were above 50% win-rate. As usual he was fielded most often in ZvT, which was at 57.14%, then came ZvZ, which was at 66.67% and finally he'd gone 80% over his five ZvP matches. Soulkey looked strong and a win over Bisu, who had been a ProLeague monster in breaking the record for wins the previous season, added another high profile win to his resume.
Sweeping through the Tving OSL preliminaries Soulkey reached the 24 man dual tournament. Beating Sea, losing to Zerg Shine and defeating Last, he moved to the Ro16 of an OSL for the first time in his career. With this being the last ever OSL to be held in BW he would get one final crack at making the Ro8 of a BW individual league. Unlike the MSL the Ro16 of the OSL is a group stage, not a single draw match-up. His opponents here would be three Zergs: Hydra, Shine and hyvaa.
Not only was it the last ever OSL but Soulkey would need his ZvZ to help him through. The group looked difficult, from an opponent stand-point hyvaa was the only bright spot, being as Soulkey had defeated him in previous match-ups. Hydra had won an MSL in ZvZ the previous year, beating the Jaedong in a Bo5 along the way, and Shine had defeated Soulkey in the previous round, so those looked to be the difficult hurdles to clear. After upsetting Hydra Soulkey fell to Shine once more. This set-up a final match against hyvaa, which he lost, but which did not eliminate him.
The results of the group meant a three way tie for second place had been the ultimate outcome, which meant tie-breakers needed to be played to decide who would progress. A first set of tie-breakers saw Soulkey repeat his previous results, beating Hydra and losing to hyvaa. With neither of them being able to string together two wins it came down to another round of tie-breakers. Things looked identical on Soulkey's end, beating Hydra and losing to hyvaa, but this time hyvaa defeated Hydra and so took the Ro8 spot. There would be no last gasp jaunt into the Ro8 for Soulkey in BW, his chance had passed him by in the form of three single map losses to hyvaa in ZvZ.
The second season of the 2012 SK Planet Proleague saw a radical rehaul of the format, with StarCraft2 officially introduced to KeSPA play. Rather than have teams create an SC2 side KeSPA decreed that each ProLeague game would be played as a Bo3 in BW, a Bo3 in SC2 and then an SC2 Ace match if needed to determine a winner, in case of a tie over the Bo3s. To ensure every BW pro began his transition into SC2 the format also demanded that any player used in BW for one match had to play in SC2 for his next, so teams could not hoard their best players in the BW part only.
To finish the story of Soulkey's BW story without over-complicating things unnecessarily I'll relate the BW half of the league before moving onto SC2 entirely. Coming into the season as one of the top ProLeague performers Soulkey overcame a four game losing streak at the beginning to produce a similar calibre of form overall. The season ended with him having won seven of 10 BW matches (70%) and with all of his match-ups 50% or better: ZvT 4:1 (80%), ZvZ 2:1 (66.67%) and ZvP 1:1 (50%).
Of particular note was Soulkey's victory in his final BW game ever, defeating Flash for the first time and thus collecting the entire set of victories of the TaekBangLeeSsang (Bisu, Stork, Jaedong and Flash). A pleasant way to close out his BW career and head into a new challenge in the form of full-time SC2.
Soulkey finished his BW career ranked fourth by KeSPA. He was sixth in overall ELO, with his ZvT at ninth and his ZvP at 11th. Down at 27th his ZvZ was a reminder of that elusive third solid match-up that had never quite materialised. In BW a top tier player needed to be well-rounded, else his weak match-up would always hold him back from any kind of sustained greatness.
Wings of Liberty
Soulkey's first official match in SC2 came on May 20th of 2012, almost two years after the release of the game world wide. Despite losing that first outing he then went on a four match winning streak in the drastically different RTS he was grappling to come to terms with, all while practicing BW alongside it. Overall he kept his head above water, but never excelled. Going 8:7 he continued a trend from BW of being unable to close the deal in Ace matches, losing to one each to Jaedong and Stork.
In early June Soulkey had seen his first individual tournament action, selected as one of the KeSPA players to fly to MLG and participate in the KeSPA MLG Exhibition Tournament. After defeating Fantasy 2:0, reminding the SKT OSL champion of their BW individual league run-ins, Soulkey fell to Flash 0:2 in the semi-final, with the God of BW going on to take the tournament overall.
Just over a month later it was time to try and qualify for the first ever SC2 OSL, through the KeSPA preliminaries. Successfully making it through, with wins over Sea and Shuttle, yet more reminders of individual league results past, Soulkey found himself in the KeSPA Dual Tournament. Losses to Rain, the eventual champion, and Bogus, now known as INnoVation, halted the Zerg's OSL run there.
A few days prior to the Dual Tournament losses Soulkey had begun qualification for the WCS South Korea, competing against a non-KeSPA player for the first time. In the preliminaries he was beaten 0:2 by MMA, a slumping two time GSL champion of the previous year. Based on his post-game thoughts Soulkey was well aware that it was too soon to expect any results against the eSF Koreans, many of whom had over years of playing experience on him, though losses would be vital for his development.
"To be honest, I felt like I wasn't quite ready to beat them yet. But since I have experience against them now, I also got this feeling that I'll be able to catch up to them soon. I also got the motivation to work even harder than before. I previously stated that I didn't want to face any GSL players, but after yesterday's qualifiers, I changed my mind. The more GSL players I face, the more beneficial it will be for me."
-Soulkey on facing GSL players
Seeded into WCS Korea anyway Soulkey lost to GuMiho 0:2, beat CoCa 2:0 and then was eliminated by HerO 1:2. His win over CoCa had been a notable result, the latter having been considered a rising talent for quite a while, but the gap had still been noticeable in his other matches. At the prelims for 2012 GSL Season 4 he defeated the unknown Mariano and lost to the equally unknown RagnaroK, an IM player.
As part of the MLG vs. ProLeague online exhibition tournament Soulkey saw his first chance to shine in this new game, reaching the semi-finals of the tournament and earning a spot for the MLG Fall Championship that November. Along the way he had won Bo7 series over Jaedong and hyvaa, names he knew well from BW, before finally losing to soO 3:4. Before MLG there was the matter of the 2012 GSL S5 Code S Ro32 though, with Soulkey having been seeded in directly this time.
Where in BW it was Soulkey's pattern to win the first match, lose the winners match and then defeat his first opponent in a rematch in the final game, this time around it would be a different pattern of results which saw him progress. In the opener he was defeated by HerO, foreign event champion and Ro8 finisher in the previous GSL. In the losers game he defeated Maru 2:1 and this set-up a rematch with HerO to decide who would take the Ro16 spot. Winning 2:1 Soulkey reached the Ro16 in only his second season of trying, equalling the extent of his runs in BW.
Prior to the Ro32 he had felt pressured by receiving a seed, knowing if he performed poorly it would cause people to question his skills and criticise his selection for that seed. As it happened he overcame one of the better Korean Protosses, and someone with considerable GSL experience, to seemingly justify that initial seeding.
"I think I fell because I wasn't able to warm up properly. I managed to keep my hopes up, though, because I still had an opportunity to play in the losers' match. I wanted to advance to the final match in order to get revenge on HerO."
-Soulkey after the Ro32
Before he could play the Ro16, and see how far he could go in this new game and new league, it was off to America for the MLG Fall Championship in Dallas, Texas. Placed into the Group C bracket Soulkey was immediately beaten 2:1 by Revival in the upper bracket and 2:1 by CranK in the lower. This meant the Woongjin Stars Zerg would have a long road to break a decent placing in the main bracket. Despite his play to that point though, he proved up to the task.
Stringing together five Bo3 series wins pushed Soulkey all the way into the top 12. His wins came over StarDust, IdrA, TheStC, hyvaa and Golden. None of them elite performers, but a mixture of recognisable names and decent players. In lower round six his MLG run came to an end, losing out to former MLG champion TaeJa 0:2. Soulkey had placed 9th-12th in his first ever real foreign tournament, finishing as the third highest Zerg in Dallas.
Back in Korea, mere days later, it was time for the Ro16. After the Ro32 Soulkey had expressed his desire for Terran opponents, citing ZvT as his strength, but his wish was not granted for the next stage of his first Code S run. Instead he found himself faced with Life and Leenock. Life was the reigning GSL champion and had just won MLG days earlier, while Leenock was the runner-up of the very same MLG.
Many considered Life the best player in the world, still marveling over how much the youngster had accomplished in the past few months. For Soulkey though he was someone to be studied, not feared. Defeating the GSL champion 2:0 in the first match Soulkey then lost 0:2 to Leenock, setting up a decisive rematch with Life. In the decider he repeated his initial feat, once more 2:0ing the mighty Life, and thus gaining entry to the Ro8. For the first time in his career he had successfully cracked the final eight of a major individual league tournament.
"I knew the amount of matches that I was going to have to play would be annoying. Which is why I prepared extensively for my matches. I'm a defensive Zerg player so an aggressive opponent like Life fit me well. I thought he was a player who was superior with apm but as expected, I didn't lose to him in the apm game so I had the confidence. "
-Soulkey on facing Life in the Ro16
"I pretty much had deciphered Life's strategies by the time I came to the studio. I scouted Life's location with my overlord and immediately knew that an attack was headed my way. But even if he hadn't attacked, I still never once thought to myself that I was going to lose."
-Soulkey asked about his Ro16 wins over Life
In his first ever Ro8 he faced off against another virgin of the GSL Code S quarter-finals, and another fellow KeSPA transition pro, in Bogus. In BW Soulkey had gotten the better of their match-up when the two had played, and here was the ZvT match-up he had asked for manifested. Perhaps Soulkey had assessed his strengths wrong though, as Bogus swept him 3:0 to eliminate him in late November. Amusingly Soulkey would have faced HyuN, a player he frequently lost to in BW, had he reached the semi-finals.
2012 had seen Soulkey reach the Ro16 of the last ever OSL, to add to his Ro16 finish in the last ever MSL the year earlier, and finish out BW in style, even defeating Flash at the end. After battling through the difficulties of transitioning into SC2, being thrown into the mix with non-KeSPA players only months in, Soulkey had risen to become one of the players poised to become a KeSPA star in SC2, still a new and rare concept. Overcoming the ceiling that had existed for him in BW, he had reached the Ro8 of the last GSL of the year.
2013 - The road to the championship
2012 had finished up with ProLeague play for Soulkey, who won six of his last eight games, with those victories coming in a streak of six wins. In his first seven ProLeague games of 2013 his form dropped, going 2:5. Things didn't look hopeful as Soulkey began his next GSL campaign, seeded directly into the Ro32 by virtue of his Ro8 finish the previous season. This time ZvT would be the match-up that mattered for Soulkey, as he defeated Noblesse 2:0 and TaeJa 2:0, the latter seeing him avenge his MLG Fall Championship elimination.
"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 my self that I would be able to win as long as I also get economically stabilized also."
-Soulkey after beating TaeJa in the Ro32
In the Ro16 there were once more no Zergs in sight, and once more he progressed without a series loss. Beating up multiple GSL finalist MarineKing 2:1 in the opener and Squirtle, also previously a finalist, by the same scoreline Soulkey had replicated the past season's run, reaching the Ro8 a second time. There he found himself drawn against another top Terran he had history with, this time a rematch with TaeJa, whom he had beaten in the Ro32. In 2012 TaeJa had accomplished a streak of three straight GSL Code S Ro8 appearances, and in the final instance had reached the semi-final.
"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 after the Ro16, ahead of facing TaeJa in the Ro8
If TaeJa really lacked confidence in his TvZ then it didn't materialise early on in their series, with the Liquid Terran going up 2:0 to put Soulkey at elimination point. The Stars Zerg battled back to knot the series, but in the end TaeJa took the decider and the semi-final spot. Just as in BW it seemed as though Soulkey's rise would be one of gradual steps up from level to level, no gilded path directly to the crown, devoid of suffering and toil. Two Ro8 eliminations at the hands of a Terran closed out Soulkey's Wings of Liberty individual league career.
With the end of WoL his ProLeague record had improved to 11:7 overall, with ZvZ as his finest match-up at 5:1 (83.33%).
Heart of the Swarm arrives
To qualify players into the MLG Winter Championship Show matches were held in HotS, which had yet to be released publicly, with the winner taking the spot for the American event. Facing Korean Terran Last, only really known for a Ro4 run in the first SC2 OSL, Soulkey was defeated 1:3, denying him a return to the USA.
In the first ProLeague matches of HotS, in "The Special", Soulkey started out strong, beating HerO and Stork, prior to a loss to Flash, who had finished runner-up at the aforementioned MLG that month. When regular ProLeague play began Soulkey emerged as one of the strongest KeSPA players. From April to May the Zerg played 16 games, going 12:4 for a stunning 75% win-rate. This run had included six and five game winning streaks. While he had been able to defeat the likes of INnoVation, HerO and Flash, Soulkey had also lost three costly Ace matches for his team, suggesting he was still not quite there are a high pressure player.
While he had been racking up ProLeague wins the first HotS GSL had begun, relabelled as the 2013 WCS S1 Korea GSL. Beginning once more in the Ro32, Soulkey defeated Maru 2:1, lost to Flash in the winners games 0:2 and once more beat Maru 2:1 to move onto his third straight Ro16. There he defeated YoDa, who had won the IEM VII World Championship in HotS in March, 2:0 and then took down Protoss Flying 2:0 to make it three straight Ro8 appearances in GSL Code S.
With Terrans having eliminated Soulkey from the previous two Code S quarter-finals he found himself on the side of the bracket containing only Zergs and Protoss players. His Ro8 opponent was PartinG, well known at the end of WoL as a Zerg killer and someone who had reached the semi-final of a GSL in early 2012. Soulkey went up 2:0 and held on, despite PartinG tying the series back up at 2:2, to take the win on the final map. Soulkey was through to his first ever GSL semi-final, where his opponent would be another Protoss: team-mate sOs.
Repeating the pattern of the previous series Soulkey put his opponent at elimination point immediately, going up 3:0, only for his opponent to claw back into the series and force a decider. Once more this GSL Soulkey came through under pressure, a finals spot was now his! This GSL had seen something different in Soulkey, his entire BW career had been littered with deciding map losses in series, and even through to SC2 he had lost in deciders and come up short in Ace matches. Now he had triumphed twice after blowing series leads that could have shaken him. Perhaps it was, instead, time to shake his reputation for being a player permanently on the fringe of being considered elite.
"Several days ago, Child came over and told me something. He asked me, “why do you keep pushing forward when force fields are blocking your way?” I responded “because I think I can win.” That’s why during today’s match, I decided to play as safely as I could. If I had played like I usually do then I probably would have had to just fight."
-Soulkey after the semi-final vs. sOs
With the other semi-final unplayed he could face either Symbol or INnoVation, the former having played in the previous season's final and the latter having defeated Soulkey two seasons ago in the Ro8 under the name of Bogus. The opponent for his first ever GSL final would be INnoVation.
"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 prior to the final
Despite claiming he preferred to face INnoVation, since it would be ZvT, Soulkey knew that his form in SC2 against the former Bogus was different to that he had enjoyed in BW. This seemed only reinforced when the two met in ProLeague action four days prior to their scheduled GSL final. Woongjin Stars and STX Soul had reached the Ace match and out Soulkey was sent to face the Terran might of INnoVation. The latter took the match for his team, and in many people's minds set the psychological tone for the upcoming final.
Prior to the GSL final each player was asked what he thought of the other, replying that he felt his opponent was the strongest player of that race. Due to INnoVation's dominant TvZ play many in the foreign crowd were touting him as near unbeatable in that match-up, and indeed his form seemed to suggest they might not be wrong. The STX Soul Terran had gone a staggering 21:3 in his 24 TvZ matches in HotS. With the final being a Bo7, Soulkey would need to hand INnoVation more TvZ losses than he had experienced in all of HotS! Of those three TvZ losses though, Soulkey accounted for one.
Not everyone favoured the Terran to take the title though. Soulkey, who had been impressive in ZvT, had garnered some favour when it was revealed that Flash had practiced with him for the final. In his past 10 Terran opponents the only two who had defeated him were INnoVation and the aforementioned Flash. When Korean GSL community figures were polled three of five (Mr Chae, Engine and Park Dae Man) picked Soulkey as the player who would take the crown.
"Soulkey's practice partner for GSL finals is me. I think he is the strongest Zerg among them all."
-Flash, prior to the GSL final
June - The first of many things
On the first day of June Soulkey entered the booth for the WCS S1 Korea GSL final. The door was closed and the first to four wins would take the title. He had already earned a spot in the WCS S1 finals, by making the semi-finals, but now it was about becoming an individual league champion for the first time in his career. An hour later that seemed a million miles away from becoming a reality. INnoVation had brought the kind of form to the finals that had had so many hyping him up as the world's finest StarCraft2 player, now the Terran led 3:0 and Soulkey would have his back against the wall of elimination every map from here on out.
It would be easy to imagine Soulkey might, under the bright lights and atmosphere of the finals, revert to the player who had been unable to break through the pressure moment in his past individual league campaigns. It was rare enough in BW that a player overcame an 0:2 start in a Bo5 final and prevailed to win the title, in SC2 no player had ever successfully navigated their way back from 0:3 and taken the GSL crown. Today would be the first for many things.
"INnoVation is the best terran player... (but) it seems like he can be shaken by early all-ins"
-Soulkey prior to the final
The Zerg who had described himself as a passive and safe player took back maps with all-ins that INnoVation was unable to deflect them or respond. Soulkey would later describe his game four build as one he had tailored in light of his ProLeague loss to INnoVation that week. The Terran found himself facing a 3:3 tied series, one map left to play. The pressure on both players was immense.
The decider was developing into the macro game fans of both players had been anticipating prior to the series, a scenario which one could imagine favouring INnoVation. Then came the mistake: INnoVation sent his viking to kill off overlords, spotting the location of Soulkey's mutalisks and losing the viking, but bizarrely decided to then follow-up with medivacs of troops to that location.
With no ability to boost out of trouble left as a fail-safe INnoVation delivered up a solid chunk of supply to Soulkey's mutalisks as a delicious snack. Seizing upon this advantage Soulkey would not be denied, grinding down INnoVation until the Terran's hopes were gone. The game finished and Soulkey was the champion of WCS S1 Korea GSL.
His whole career, spanning ages 16 to 21, Soulkey had been stuck on the verge of something more: qualifying for individual leagues, becoming an A team player, proving himself a true Ace player in team leagues, making it to the Ro8. With time and persistence he had overcome his limitations and pushed on to test new boundaries. On this day there were no boundaries left to hold him back, Soulkey was the champion of the world's hardest StarCraft2 tournament.
"If it was me from the past, then I would have lost 0-4 today. But my mentality has improved so much since then and my desire to win a championship has grown so much since then. My thirst to win the championship was so much bigger than back then so I think that’s why I was able to win."
-Soulkey, WCS S1 Korea GSL champion
(Photographs courtesy of their respective owners)