5 storylines for IEM Cologne
With the open bracket portion of IEM VII Gamescom finished all eyes can now shift to the group stage. With that in mind I present for you five storylines to follow throughout the tournament, highlighting significant factors to bear in mind as the Cologne-based event marches on.
As elfi noted on twitter prior to the start of the Open Bracket: "Wow looked IEM cologne open bracket wtf qualis are harder than main tournament:P". Few would argue with the Finn, objectively the field of the Open Bracket made the main tournament field look like this was opposite day and someone had mixed the lists up. Now that the Open Bracket is finished and the eight players have been decided a key storyline for the rest of the event, as relates to the issues mentioned above, will be that of how well the Open Bracket players will fare in comparison to the players who qualified via the conventional IEM route.
The eight Open Bracket qualifiers:
Can NesTea close the deal abroad?
Of all the elite South Korean players in SC2 NesTea is sat in the undesirable position of being the only one yet to capture a tournament in Europe or America. Yet the man who was once the undisputed Zerg kind of Korea is also in the unsettling position of having most of his success outside of Korea for the last year. Since grabbing his, then record-breaking, third GSL championship in July of 2011, the elder statesman of Korean SC2 progaming excellence Code S has really been no safe haven. Since that time NesTea two Ro8 appearances, one in October and one last season, and the last such run to the playoffs saw him unceremoniously swept by ByuN of all people. Hardly a fitting state of affairs for the man who once seemed unmatched outside of his own team.
NesTea has not been as frequent a traveller abroad as the majority of the other Korean elites but when he has ventured outside of the Korean border he has found more success, taking second at BlizzCon 2011 and this year ushering himself into the top three of IPL4 and the Iron Squid. Personal foreigner kryptonite NaNiwa aside, NesTea has been almost impeccably good at navigating foreigner fields, very very rarely losing to anyone but a fellow Korean. Yet the oft-described Zerg creator of the universe has still not landed a crown outside of Korea. This may well be the tournament that changes that.
At IPL4 people complained that NesTea was unduly stressed by a combination of travel and having to play long hours, causing him to narrowly lose key series. If that was the case, and certainly NesTea is still somewhat inexperienced in comparisson to most of his Korean brethren in that department, then IEM should be just the remedy for his foreign championship woes. With the event the most drawn out and separated form of competition out West NesTea has a chance to play games which will end well before night-time and then, assuming he continues to advance, he can enjoy the playoff format that allows a full night of rest between the group stage and the first two playoff rounds, and then another before the final two rounds.
That rest will also allow him the closest thing to a GSL environment in terms of preparation for key matches. If he can make the semi-finals then he will have a whole night, and in this case a real whole night and not just one that begins after playing until 2am, to mull over how to approach his Ro4 opponent and the player he could potentially face in the final.
His group contains threats but none he shouldn't be up to the task of, if he is truly a favourite for this event, and so NesTea looks poised to make a real run at his first foreign crown, in his first IEM appearance.
PuMa set for another deep IEM run
PuMa's last four months have been a rollercoaster of almost impressive finishes mixed in with outright himiliations. In the former category we have his runs at the MLG Spring Championship, NASL S3 and Assembly Summer. In the latter stand the results of Dreamhack Stockholm, Dreamhack Summer and MLG Summer Arena. The pattern has so far been of one run which almost goes deep enough to rank highly, but is stopped in its tacks, and then a miserable outing which is then followed by another almost-made-it run.
Chronologically the story begins a month after PuMa's runnerup finish at the IEM VI World Championship, playing a final many felt he could and, as it turned out, perhaps should have won. April's Dreamhack Stockholm saw that form entirely disappear as upon reaching the third group stage PuMa fell apart and lost all three games, to the HyuN, SaSe and Forsen, to be eliminated outside of the top 16. Next up was MLG spring Championship and after winning his pool PuMa lost to Stephano in the championship bracket and then was immedately down by Alicia 2:1 in the lower bracket, spoiling what prior to the playoffs must have seemed like a run with real potential.
Back over to Europe for Dreamhack Summer and it was a Swedish rerun for PuMa, again making the third group stage and again failing to progress, this time a lone win standing alongside losses to fraer and Cytoplasm. Again no top 16 or better finish for PuMa. After alternately tournaments in Europe and then North America it was two NA tournaments in a row up next as PuMa's "home" event, the North American Star League, seemed like the grounds where he could recapture his title-contending form, being as he was the reigning champion of both seasons.
Instead a promising run was cut short by rival MC in dominant fashion in the Ro8, denying PuMa back-to-back-to-back top 4 finishes at his favourite event. Next up was another MLG, this time Summer Arena, and he found himself ousted early and hard, losing to Welmu in his upper bracket opener and First not too far into the lower bracket. Back in Europe for his last offline event prior to GamesCom and PuMa still lacked any European success for this four month span, again falling in the last group stage before the playoffs. In the unique Bo5 double-elim group stage format it was two losses to ForGG that cost him a spot in the final eight.
So looking back over his last four months we see PuMa comes into IEM VII GamesCom with his last top eight placing four tournaments back, and thusfar no success at all in Europe over that timespan. The man who had reached the deciding map of the Dreamhack Winter final has been unable to get any kind of footing in European SC2 tournaments over the last 120 days or so.
At this tournament he finds himself with an early challenge in the form of ForGG, a chance for revenge and a turning of the tide. Nerchio will look to test PuMa's self-admitted weakest matchup: TvZ, the Pole hoping the replicate the kind of success Stephano has had against the Korean. Elsewhere the matchups look pretty good for PuMa. He will face team-mate DeMusliM, who he should naturally be very familiar with, in a TvT he is favoured for. SortOf hasn't proven the kind of consistency that should have him seriously concerned just yet and inori has done nothing offline in quite a while.
While not the ideal group this looks like a very manageable order for PuMa. Beyond that the chances of a lot of elite Koreans in the playoffs does loom large but PuMa is primed to turn his run of form around and in the playoffs make an impact in Europe the likes of which we remember from last year's Gamescom, which he won, and Dreamhack Winter, which he almost won.
Grubby's chance to shine
Grubby remains a big name in the esports world and as such always draws a crowd, both for his style of play and the expectation level his name/history envelops his tournament entries in. Nevertheless the fact remains that Grubby's tournament resume still lacks beefy results to go along with his impeccable public persona and legion of fans. Every positive tournament result he has put down in the ledger so far has some qualifying factors which bring it down a little on inspection.
At his second offline tournament at Copenhagen Games saw him take down a solid third place, only for critics to lambast MorroW's ZvP decisions rather than laud Grubby as having made a statement. A second place at the IeSF looks nice on paper but the goofy nature of the tournament field coupled with a severe lack of top tier players robs it of significant impact.
Then there was the first big result of Grubby's career: his fourth place finish at ESWC. The French-based event has long been one of esports' majors but this run has a little of its shine taken off when considering the playoff portion consisted of a 2:1 win over Nerchio, a win over a LiveZerg who had upset IdrA and then a 0:2 loss to MaNa in the semis and a 1:3 loss to MarineKing in the third place decider. The result was there but the big name victories were not.
This year has been no better, with fourth place finishes at Lone Star Clash and The Gathering, which in the case of the latter was nothing to write home about in terms of big name wins, and in the case of the former had a win over viOLet to cap a lower bracket PvZ run which was then ended by Sleep.
After that it's been a rough road for the Netherlands' favourite RTS son. Three MLG events in a row all yielded little to show in terms of placings. MLG Spring Arean 2 featured a couple of solid wins over Oz and Ryung but ended with a loss to ionri well before the tournament had gotten deep. MLG Spring Championship saw Grubby get out of the group only to be instantly ousted by SaSe 2:1. Finally, MLG Summer Arena wasn't a whole lot of anything, a gimme over Tefel followed up by a loss to HerO and then being ejected from the tournament by Rain before his feet had fully hit the ground of the lower bracket.
Now we come to the present day and Grubby finds himself in a position to potentially make a solid run in Cologne. Escaping an Open Bracket where many would have picked Oz to join sure-fire qualifier Mvp in the next round, Grubby beat the former in a straight up PvP and then surprise lower bracket finalist TargA. After the group draw had been announced the Dutch player found himself with quite the opportunity to make this a playoff-bound affair.
Grubby's group features no real favourites for qualification, with even Bomber being quite the erratic player in terms of game-to-game results. What's more the playoffs suggested that Grubby has found a comfortable matchup at last, with three wins coming in PvP. One of his biggest weak points in the past had been that there was no matchup in which one could be assured Grubby would be at home, as he would take losses across all of them without too much rhyme or reason.
One moment Grubby would lose to Stephano and the next he would beat viOLet only to then lose to Sleep. One tournament he can lose to LucifroN and another he can beat Ryung. Key defeats from SaSe, HerO and inori cost him solid runs but he has now put together two wins over Oz the last two times they have played. Can PvP be the matchup to help carry Grubby to the playoffs? In this group he will face PvP specialist elfi and minigun. The former is always tricky, especially at IEM events, but the latter should be a pretty manageable task. Then likely it's a matter of needing two wins out of his matchups against Bomber, sLivko and mOOn-Glade.
The last two looks like one of the easier asks when you consider some of the other playoff groups out there, laden with Koreans. This group features only one Korean and gives Grubby a good chance of making top three if he can beat up on other European players, something he has shown himself capable of doing, and take down an American most wouldn't put their stock in to reach the playoffs.
Grubby's name will always be writ large in the book of esports but now he sees himself with a very legitimate chance to make top 16 and the playoffs here. With the Bo5 nature of those playoffs that would make for the perfect chance for Grubby to shine and prove himself with some big name series wins to start beefing up that resume.
sLivko to wreak havoc once more
sLivko is one of those players who helps perpetuate the legend of Eastern Europe's impossibly deep field of, to the West, semi-unknown players who can be expected to play well above their name value and take a big name to the limit or outright upset them, element of surprise ever on their side. A look back over the Russian Zerg's offline history reveals a pattern of sLivko upsetting bigger names, effectively speedbumping their tournament runs, only to peter out later in the tournament against a lesser name, comparative to the one(s) he has eliminated himself. Scalps like SaSe, MorroW, Grubby and Stephano can attest to that.
sLivko is the prototypical Bo3 upset threat. His kryptonite has been reaching the playoffs and having to play Bo5. In longer series the Russian has managed five-setters with SuperNova, Stephano and Golden, only to come out on the wrong side of the deciding map every time. Both his strength and weakness may be on display here in Cologne as he has drawn just about the best group he could hope for, with opportunities to upset almost all of the other players here and grab one of the top three spots. Upon reaching the playoffs, however, he will have to play Bo5s all the way from then on out, and very likely against top tier opponents at every turn. Will sLivko live up to his reputation as a dangerous upset merchants who then fizzles out before making an impact on the final standings? The forecast looks good for now
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