Photo credit: Fomos/kenzi (@kenzi131)
The unthinkable has happened. Korea, the country that created professional StarCraft, has been conquered. The 18-year-old American Alex ‘Neeb’ Sunderhaft qualified through a North American qualifier, traveled to Korea, and won a tournament against a field of the best players in the world. Something like this has never happened in StarCraft II. In fact, if a non-Korean player won a tournament anywhere against Korean opposition, it would be considered a huge deal—and this happens very rarely. The simple fact that non-Koreans are referred to as ‘foreigners’—even by the ‘foreign’ community—should tell you everything.
To put into perspective just how monumental Neeb’s achievement is, have a look at —as in, before the region-lock. Between 2012 and 2015, one single Premier tournament was won by a non-Korean. That happened in Taiwan against what was considered a very Korean lineup. In September of 2016, Neeb came to Korea and defeated the best players in the world in front of their home crowd. North America has always been considered the weakest region in StarCraft II. The last time an NA player won a Premier tournament? Chris ‘HuK’ Loranger at MLG Orlando in 2011.
To break down just how Neeb was able to accomplish what he did, we have to look at the region-locked system for WCS in 2016. He himself, as well as most other ‘foreigners’, has pointed to it as a major factor in their newfound motivation. Instead of practicing for the certainty of being knocked out of every event by better Korean players, they now have a realistic chance at winning tournaments. The system is definitely not without critics, but the results have been obvious. The ‘foreign’ scene has made tremendous strides in just half a year, especially compared to its very limited improvement before.
On the other hand, many Korean players have been demotivated due to the lack of opportunities in their region. Fewer tournaments than ever before, no Global Events all year—KeSPA Cup was the first. There is a notion in the community that the Korean scene is weaker than ever before as a result. Nevertheless, the two other ‘foreigners’ who came to KeSPA Cup—Artur ‘Nerchio’ Bloch and Alexis ‘MarineLorD’ Eusebio—were knocked out in group stage, while Neeb obliterated his group 4-0. Not any group either, a group with both GSL Champions of 2016, Joo ‘Zest’ Sung Wook and Byun ‘ByuN’ Hyun Woo. Neeb’s triumph cannot simply be explained by the skill gap shortening.
The way Neeb played at KeSPA Cup was worthy of the trophy. He smashed his first opponent, Lee ‘Rogue’ Byung Ryul, with very basic aggressive strategies and simple, clean execution. He then went on to defend everything Zest threw at him, never looking troubled by the serial champion. In long macro games, Neeb always seemed a step ahead, transitioned through the different stages of the game seamlessly and closed out both sets intelligently. He displayed calm, rational decision-making, something non-Koreans across the board have always struggled with.
Legacy of the Void plays to Neeb’s strengths. "The game plays a lot faster... the action happens quicker, the games start up faster, and the games are decided faster—and I like that" he said in an interview for ESL shortly after the new expansion was released. This is exemplified by how Neeb uses what has become almost a signature unit of his, the Adept. Introduced with Legacy, it has a Shade ability, allowing it to switch places with a double of itself that is immune to damage and can be controlled by the player. The ability can also be cancelled to pull enemies out of position.
This requires split second decision-making, something Neeb excels in.
This may be due to his earlier experience in StarCraft II when he played as Terran, a race that relies a lot on aggressive multitasking and quick decisions with mobile units. Even as far back as 2013, Neeb was hailed in the North American scene as a promising talent, but so have many others that went on to fade into irrelevance soon after. Be it to pursue university education,due to a lack of motivation or possibility to make it in a very difficult esports scene—almost all American upcomers disappeared. But Neeb stayed around. He switched to Protoss in 2015 during Legacy’s beta phase and has improved tremendously since.
And I haven’t even touched on the most impressive fact yet: Neeb has been without a team since November 2014. Only in April 2016 was he sponsored by TING, but a personal sponsorship is obviously different to having a team’s support. Neeb is part of a new generation in StarCraft II, one . He’s a regular in online competitions, where he regularly competed against the Korean Terran, and others, for money. Similarly to ByuN, he has had to figure the game out for himself, and find his own rhythm.
His ladder statistics have leaked from time to time, displaying his dominance of North American competition. But when he formed a practice house in Korea with Sasha ‘Scarlett’ Hostyn and Jake ‘NoRegreT’ Umpleby, he straight transferred those winrates to the Korean server. A few days before KeSPA Cup, Neeb reached the top rank on the Korean ladder, which has always been a good indicator for current form. Zest consistently sat on top of the Korean ladder when he dominated the whole year of 2014, ByuN did the same during his GSL run.
So when Neeb entered KeSPA Cup, all eyes were on him. He was placed in one of the hardest groups, and he delivered. And he kept going and going until there was no stopping him anymore. A 4-0 victory in the grand finals topped off a performance that no other non-Korean had put together in StarCraft II’s history. When Guillaume "Grrrr..." Patry won the Hanaro OSL in 2000—the last foreigner to win in Korea, albeit in the original StarCraft—Neeb was still a child. Sixteen years later he found himself kissing the KeSPA Cup trophy in front of a Korean crowd.
All year long, the community was wondering how ‘foreigners’ would fare when finally pitted against the top Koreans. Most expected them to be beaten down yet again, despite obvious improvements in the international scene. The players themselves were quite confident that the skill gap had narrowed, the community was more critical. But a month before the WCS Global Finals, Neeb made the biggest statement the ‘foreign’ scene has ever issued. There’s a championship caliber player outside Korea. And he’s good enough to win even in Korea. Looking towards the Global Finals, Neeb’s KeSPA Cup triumph may be the best outcome the StarCraft II scene could have hoped for.