SpeCial Is the Last, Best Foreign Hope
One of the most exciting parts of the World Championship Series (WCS) Global Finals is tracking the top foreign players who remain in the running.
Players from Korea have been the dominant force in StarCraft II since Brood War, and that's been true in every global event that pits them against non-Korean players (commonly referred to as "foreigners" by Korean audiences). But we’ve seen hints this year that foreign players may be catching up to the impeccable skill that Koreans have long been known for—and now Juan Carlos ‘SpeCial’ Tena Lopez is making that case as the only remaining foreign hope heading into the semifinals at BlizzCon.
SpeCial had an explosive start to the year. He changed his name from MajOr to make 2017 a fresh beginning with a new style and a new moniker. He practiced and trained heavily in Korea with the top players there, catching the eyes of the professional StarCraft II scene right away. Not only did he crush his opposition at WCS Austin, but he also qualified for the first season of the Global StarCraft II League (GSL) Code S, the game’s most prestigious competitive league. His aggressive playstyle made him look unstoppable as he flew through the group stages in Austin and made his way into the playoff bracket.
A Rival Appears
Then Neeb happened.
Alex ‘Neeb’ Sunderhaft made a name for himself as a particularly potent Protoss player six months before Austin, when he defeated some of Korea’s best in winning the 2016 KeSPA Cup. Across five matches, Neeb only lost three games before sweeping Cho ‘Trap’ Sung Ho in the finals, 4-0. That was an unprecedented accomplishment for a foreign player, and Neeb would end up standing in SpeCial’s way in Austin. When they met in the semifinals, Neeb narrowly defeated him in an intense five-game series. However, after showing such a potent style of play, it was certain that SpeCial would be a serious contender moving forward in 2017.
"His greatest strength was [a] Phoenix-Adept [strategy], so that's what I prepared for," SpeCial said on Friday at BlizzCon about that April contest. "He surprised me with [a Robotics Facility-focused attack]. He's pretty good at that, too. I think Neeb and I were pretty evenly skilled. Sometimes I cheese or sometimes he 'mis-micros,' but I was pretty happy."
When it came time for WCS Jönköping, SpeCial brought his strong play to bear once again. Much like Austin, Neeb stood in his way in the playoff bracket, though this time they met in the quarterfinals. And much like Austin, Neeb managed to take SpeCial down in a very close five-game series. Fans and players alike began to theorize that Neeb was SpeCial’s gatekeeper—that nobody else could take him down, and if he could avoid Neeb in the brackets (or manage to defeat him), nobody would be able to stop this Terran powerhouse.
The Mid-Season Struggle
Enter WCS Valencia. After cruising through the group stages and the round of 16, SpeCial once again faced down Neeb in the bracket stage of the tournament. But this time, their back-and-forth five-game series ended in SpeCial’s favor. At last he bested his gatekeeper and was free to make his way to his first premier championship title. But in the next match, Jens ‘Snute’ Aasgaard swept him in a clean 3-0 series. With such a crushing defeat, SpeCial only had one more chance for a Circuit championship.
WCS Montreal was the nadir for SpeCial. Not only did he fail to qualify for the event in the WCS Challenger series, but he didn’t even make it past the second group stage, when 50 players remained. As much of a bang as the beginning of the year had been for SpeCial, the final event of the year was a whimper. All the hype and excitement around SpeCial seemed to vanish as the foreign scene turned its eyes to Neeb instead.
The Tweet Heard 'Round the StarCraft World
With the lowest point of the year behind him, SpeCial took to Twitter and made a promise. He vowed that if he were to qualify for BlizzCon, he would disappear and come back to this last tournament of the year in his best form yet. He did manage to qualify for the Global Finals, but just barely: he filled the eighth and final spot in the Circuit standings. So once Opening Week rolled around, the time had come to see if his unseen training regimen would bring the results he promised.
So far, it has. SpeCial blasted his way through Opening Week, only dropping one game to the extremely talented Kim ‘Stats’ Dae Yeob. When SpeCial outperformed Stats in the Protoss' most comfortable, economically focused game, it became clear that he’d worked hard to have the right strategy in his quiver for each opponent. While the foreigner favorite, Neeb, fell in the group stages, SpeCial has been picking up the slack with his upgraded style. No longer relying solely on multi-pronged aggression with constant drops, SpeCial is mixing in a slew of streamlined strategies to great effect.
When asked about those earlier accomplishments, SpeCial replied, "I don't think about it like that. I prepare for each opponent as much as I can and I just play my best."
Now that he is the last foreigner remaining in the Global Finals, can SpeCial seal the deal to become the first non-Korean to make it to the grand final? If he can, does he have what it takes to make history and be the first Circuit player to win BlizzCon? Tomorrow has the answers, and it’s sure to be a wild ride as we race toward this epic conclusion to the 2017 WCS season.