Ten Years Of Grinning In Disbelief

Maru wins the Global StarCraft II League Super Tournament

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Maru holding the Super Tournament trophy in front of an empty arena

In 2010, when Cho Seong-ju made his professional broadcast debut there were people in the studio watching. It wasn’t notable then but the camera operators were also not wearing masks. In the time since, many StarCraft II events have dispensed with the soundproof booths that Seong-ju looked so tiny in at the moment — he was only 13 years old, the youngest player to ever appear in a televised professional match — though it feels like the isolation might have even more utility now. Maybe they all are, but it’s been a strange decade.

Seong-ju’s introduction came at the inaugural open season of the Global StarCraft II League, the game’s first premiere tournament in Korea. The production decision that (especially English-speaking) viewers would identify better with gamer tags than with full (overwhelmingly Korean) names had not yet been made, but in addition to the romanized “Seong Ju Cho” the graphics identified the little guy playing terran as “MaruPrime.” Maru was facing zerg player Hong “Cella” Seung-pyo. Cella was literally twice his age and would shortly go on to coach StarCraft II, League of Legends, and Overwatch. StarCraft II had just been released and by the standards of even a few months later, the matches of the GSL open seasons were awkward, rudimentary chaos, but there were already sparks of something great. Maru steamrolled to a first map victory and won the series 2–1. Cella’s face summed it up.

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Cella after losing to a thirteen-year-old

Being green and thirteen years old, Maru was bumped from the tournament in the next round. It took him several years, until the release of the game’s Heart of the Swarm expansion, to find his groove, but in 2013 he won his first major championship in the OSL. In 2015 he won an SSL. By 2018 he had grown from a precocious talent to a seemingly unsolvable problem. Over thirteen months he won a WESG and then somehow, unthinkably, four straight GSL Code S titles. The previous record was two in a row.

This week, in a relatively different universe, in a studio with no fans where the camera operators were wearing masks due to a global pandemic, Maru won a belated GSL Super Tournament. End-to-end it was an impressive performance under surreal circumstances, capped off by a nail-biting seven-game finals against reigning world champion Dark. But the most remarkable moment came from the second game of Maru’s 3–0 rout of Solar in the semi-finals. The explanation for what happened, beyond “Maru is just different,” goes all the way back to that debut and runs through an inconsequential match-up from five years ago.

In the third round of the 2015 Korea e-Sports Association Proleague, the Jin Air Greenwings met SBENU. Proleague was the most prestigious of the StarCraft II team competitions and its format led to some of the game’s weirdest and most dramatic results. Maru had moved on from Prime to join Jin Air, a team who he would help lead to a runner-up finish that season and a championship in the next. On that day they would lose unceremoniously to SBENU, 1–3. Jin Air’s one tally, though, was unlike anything else.

Maru, who had spent the early portion of the year solidifying himself as a terran infantry monster and finally one of the best players alive, was facing one of SBENU’s lesser-known members, Kim “MyuNgSiK” Myung-sik . For fifteen minutes of game time, Maru threw non-stop harassment at his opponent and the SBENU protoss did the most unexpected thing: he appeared to handle it flawlessly. MyuNgSiK’s defense was beautiful. He swatted away drop after drop, pulled workers out of harm’s way and picked off widow mines at the last second, intercepted medivacs with a roving air force of phoenixes. Maru refused to change tacks or relent and he hemorrhaged units as he ordered hit squad after hit squad across the map and MyuNgSiK squashed them. It appeared to be an upset in the making, but then Maru just never stopped.

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Maru breaking kayfabe with his teammates

The relentless attacks, which had seemed wasteful, had been a calculated sacrifice. The pressure had kept MyuNgSiK busy on his side of the map and tentative to mount any real offense. Maru had used the space to greedily upgrade, build infrastructure, and expand. The strategy allowed him to turn out a massive ground army in the midgame, and being Maru allowed him to use it like a vice. Now he was knocking out bases, sniping misplaced groups of colossi like no one but him ever really has, and turning up everywhere at once. Gradually, the fact that MyuNgSiK still had a quality army and looked to be in a competitive position mattered less than the feeling of inevitability. Maru, never particularly known as a trash talker, took time out in the middle of fights to drop MULEs and build buildings right in front of MyuNgSiK’s face. It was the StarCraft equivalent of Larry Bird before the All Star three-point competition asking the locker room who was planning on coming in second place. “It’s already over. Get out of my game.” On the player camera in the corner of the feed, MyuNgSiK appeared to be fighting back tears. Minutes after it had already metaphysically ended, he conceded, typed “gg,” and buried his head in his hands. Maru took off his headphones and left the booth expressionless to high five his waiting teammates. He didn’t allow himself a smirk until he hit his coaches the end of the line.

This last Saturday, rather than being frustrated to tears, Kang “Solar” Min-soo was wryly grinning, too. He spent the aftermath of game two with his neck cocked to the side and a smile on his lips. I would like to think that, despite being the victim, on some level he was able to appreciate what had just happened.

Maru has, at various times, been an aficionado of aggressive “proxy” builds: hiding production facilities out on the map, in close proximity to your opponent, and rushing out units to attack with immediately. Before his run in 2018, conventional wisdom was that if these builds were relatively well-defended, the attacker would end up far behind. This is, generally, still the case — it takes a serious investment to launch such an early attack and leaves vulnerable infrastructure outside the protection of your base — but Maru more than anyone else became adept at transitioning out of even fairly unsuccessful attempts to get back on competitive footing. Maru keeps going, until eventually, inevitably, he crushes you. Still, there is a difference between “fairly unsuccessful” and “complete disaster.”

As he had done in game one, Maru started the second game by trying to proxy two barracks. This time though, in the absolute worst case scenario, Solar scouted them immediately and cancelled Maru’s plans before they ever even got started. It would not be unusual for a professional player to tap out preemptively under the circumstances. Maru, as he tends to do, hung around.

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Solar not believing it either

Solar took the immediate advantage, produced a small force of roaches and ravagers and walked across the map to bust Maru’s nearly defenseless front door. Despite huge losses, and finding himself even further behind, Maru survived. And he kept surviving. Solar repeatedly built roach/ravager armies and repeatedly battered Maru’s undermanned positions, but Maru just never went away. He took efficient engagements and caught up on attack and armor upgrades. He turned out tanks, medivacs, and liberators, while Solar stagnated on the same tech trying to finally put the nail in his coffin. Maru managed to expand directly into the attack he was fending off. He pushed out of his base, penned the zerg in to starve his income, and eventually overtook Solar on upgrades. It felt like watching a glacier erode a rock face over thousands of years. As Maru cancelled his attempts to get up new bases in every direction, Solar gathered up one last push, but by then his army was obsolete, and Maru cut through it like talc.

It was one of the most unlikely comebacks the game has ever seen. Solar was left with nothing but the same response as most everyone else watching: grinning and wondering “How the hell did he do that?” After almost a decade of Cho Seong-ju’s transformation into Maru, ten years of turning the improbable into reality, it hasn’t gotten much easier to believe. None of this is inevitable, of course, which is what makes it worth smiling about.

I write. Freelance for Deadspin, The Outline, Vice, SBNation, Kotaku, Hmm Daily, The Classical. Twitter: @ HugeMantis. Email: HugeMantis @ gmail dot com

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