And Then There Was One: Maru Becomes the Greatest GSL Playerby Mizenhauer
The GSL is Korean StarCraft II’s most prestigious competition, creating countless historic moments and crowning nearly all of the game's legendary players since the first GSL Open in the summer of 2010. Nearly nine years later, we are bearing witness to a player who is more legendary and historic than all who preceded him. With his fourth consecutive Code S title in hand, it's clear that Maru is a level above all others in the GSL.
Last year, after Maru won his then-unheard of third straight Code S title, I posited that only three players in GSL history could compare to him in significance: Nestea, for being the only player to win back to back Code S titles and possessing the only perfect Code S title run; soO, for reaching four consecutive Code S finals; and Mvp, for his unmatched tally of four GSL championships (3 Code S + GSL WC).
Since the start of 2018, Maru has made a rapid ascent up the ladder of greatness. Winning his second consecutive Code S tied NesTea’s eight-year-old record. Maru's third straight Code S title broke Nestea's record and gave Maru a unique accomplishment of his own. Just reaching the finals for the fourth season in a row saw him match soO in sheer consistency. And now, by winning his fourth consecutive Code S title, it's clear that not even Mvp can rival Maru's greatness.
Should anyone contend that there's still room to debate Maru's status as the greatest GSL player ever, here are some records to consider (via Code S facts and Liquipedia). He’s won Code S four times, the most of any player in history (the vaunted Mvp may have four GSL titles, but only three were in Code S). Maru also reached the Code S semifinals on another four occasions, which gives him the most top four finishes of any Code S player. Maru has also played the most Code S matches in history with 286, and is tied for the second most tournament appearances at eighteen (only GuMiho has more appearances with nineteen). If Maru hadn't had the misfortune of playing Zest in the first Code A of LotV, he would have played in an unbroken streak of Code S tournaments since mid-2013.
We can safely say no one saw this coming. When Maru debuted as a blazing-fast 14-year-old prodigy in the very first Season of GSL, the most we could expect was that he'd have a career as a progamer. But even that modest prediction seemed off as he languished in obscurity for the next two years.
That all changed in the in his 2013 OnGameNet Starleague (OSL) Royal Road run, where he went from notorious cheeser to top-tier player in the course of one event. The KeSPA giant and defending OSL champion Rain was defeated by a diminutive Terran who’d been more novelty than championship contender for the first three years of his career.
The first half of 2014 was a trying period for Terrans in Code S, but Maru shined brilliantly as the sole Terran hope in the Code S playoffs for two consecutive seasons. However, he was overshadowed later that year when INnoVation won the final Code S tournament of the year, becoming the first Terran to win Code S since Mvp nine seasons earlier.
Though Maru added to his championship resume by winning the inaugural StarCraft II Starleague (SSL) in 2015, he failed to be a credible title contender in GSL Code S. He only made two semifinals between 2015 and 2017, and didn’t look particularly competitive in either of his defeats (vs INnoVation and GuMiho respectively).
Heading into 2018, Maru was the owner of a glass-half-empty legacy. His micro and multi-tasking made it clear that he was unquestionably one of the most physically talented players to play the game. His two titles in individual majors, and position as a bonafide ace on a Proleague winning team gave him the resume of an undeniably great player. But compared to players of seemingly similar skill—the sOs', INnoVation's, the Zest's—he was was found lacking in historical impact. Maru was excellent at the game of StarCraft II, but he was no legend of the esport.
What came next was the greatest period of uninterrupted dominance in GSL Code S history. In 2018, Maru codified and optimized the Terran metas of his time, maximizing the potential of Ravens and the Proxed-buildings on his way to three consecutive Code S titles. In 2019, he has continued to innovate new strategies or optimize those which had already been established, whether it be devastating two-base timings against Protoss or the latest iteration of split-map Terran against Zerg. Maru has always had the potential to execute at a level no one else can, but he’s graduated to being able to summon this transcendent form nearly at will. In doing so, he's assumed the role of the fourth race, a player unbound from the rules that govern all others.
How he managed to elevate his already transcendent talents to this level will endure as one of StarCraft’s greatest mysteries. Maru's 2017 was unremarkable by his standards—he failed to qualify for BlizzCon, while a 2nd place finish at WESG was his highlight of the year. The only hint Maru has given is his utter refusal to claim individual credit, always praising the support of his Jin Air teammates after every victory.
Also central to Maru’s success is the fact that his drive to become a champion hasn’t diminished in the slightest. He’s had every opportunity to rest on his laurels—even before his latest triumph against Classic, his third straight title had already made him the greatest GSL player in the minds of all but the stingiest critics and historians. His seemingly unquenchable thirst to win more is exactly why he's positioned as the favorite to win Code S for the fifth season in a row.
After four seasons and four titles it appears as if the only person capable of standing in Maru’s way is himself. The question has shifted from “will Maru win again?” to “will Maru ever lose?”