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Serral searching to cement his StarCraft legacy

Arguably the best Zerg in the world, Joona "Serral" Sotalaral has a chance to make western StarCraft history at BlizzCon 2018. Helena Kristiansson for Blizzard Entertainment

When Joona "Serral" Sotala last played golf with his father over a year ago, at an 18-hole course just minutes south of their home in Pornainen, Finland, he lost. As usual.

"We don't really count the [score], but he normally wins if he plays with me," Serral admitted. "I think I have decent potential to be good at golf, but I'm missing the consistency."

Despite the losing record against Dad, Serral enjoys golf. A completely individual endeavor, the sport fits his competitive style. "I'm more of a solo guy," he said. "I don't really see myself as a team player. If I'm going to play a competitive team game, I'm going to be mad at my teammates. So I play solo games where I can only be mad at myself."

Lately, Serral hasn't had time to roam the links or work on his putting. He has been too busy making history in a different solo game: Starcraft II, the iconic, real-time strategy game that birthed modern esports. Arguably the favorite in this weekend's World Championship Series Global finals at BlizzCon, Serral has a chance to cement his legacy as the greatest western player of all time.

Longtime Global Starcraft II League commentator Daniel Ray "Artosis" Stemkoski still remembers the first time he saw Serral compete. It was at the Bucharest DreamHack Open in 2013, when Serral -- then an anonymous 15-year-old Zerg player -- matched up against Korean Terran Kim "SuperNova" Young Jin in the group stage. Serral lost 0-2 and failed to make the knockout rounds, but something about the way he played caught Artosis' eye.

"I literally said during the commentary something to the effect of, 'Oh my God, if this kid keeps playing like this, he's going to be one of the best [non-South Korean players] for certain,'" Artosis remembered.

Even back then, Serral was attempting to play Starcraft II the "correct" way, in a theoretically unbeatable style in which the player perfectly maximizes his economy while simultaneously defending and attacking. Imagine in a fighting game trying to block and counter -- without ever missing a timing or combo -- while most of your attention is devoted to micromanaging dozens of other units accomplishing something completely different. Imagine doing that with only two hands. It's incredibly demanding and nearly impossible to do, even for the elite South Korean players.

Serral couldn't do it at DreamHack Bucharest, but he can now. And because the 20-year-old Finnish phenom hits his timings better than anyone else alive, Artosis' prediction has come true.

"This is the most impressive level any non-Korean has ever reached," Artosis said. "You can have a high level of consistency in Starcraft, but we've never seen that level of consistency. [Serral] is legitimately the best Zerg in the world or at least the second-best. Everyone knows it. All the Korean players know it. It's just remarkable."

The results speak for themselves. Serral won the four 2018 WCS Circuit events held in Leipzig, Austin, Valencia and Montreal, the first grand slam. He won GSL vs. the World -- the lone WCS tournament that features both foreign and Korean players -- by beating Lee "INnoVation" Shin Hyung, Park "Dark" Ryung Woo and Kim "Stats" Dae Yeob, each world-class masters of a different Starcraft race.

"If I think of what player I was happiest to win against, it would be Dark," Serral said. "I think he was the best out of the three players I actually beat. He doesn't really lose too often against foreigners, so it was nice to break that streak. He plays Zerg like I do, so it was nice to show who is the better Zerg."

Serral's choice to master Zerg originally stemmed from a process of elimination. His older brother, Jonne "Protosser" Sotala, picked Protoss when they both began playing Brood War in 2009, leaving Serral Terran or Zerg. After a brief spell with Terran (whose creative builds he still misses), Serral fell in love with the way Zerg could "outrun people."

"Zerg just feels like the race that has the most control of the game," he said.

Artosis isn't surprised that Serral gravitated toward Zerg, a race that best exemplifies the "correct" style of play.

"Zerg is the big, macro race," he said. "If Zerg is maximizing their economy correctly, they are going to be passive in the early game, very reactive. You're trying to stay alive so that a little bit later in the game, you're in control of everything."

Europe is full of Zerg players, so much so that in preparation for BlizzCon this year, Serral actively sought custom games with experienced Terran and Protoss players instead of waiting to find them on ladder. In contrast to the long hours spent boot-camping in South Korea a month before last year's BlizzCon, Serral's practice schedule in Pornainen this year was more practical. Two-to-three hours of ladder a day plus a couple more for custom games seems downright relaxed compared to the double-digit grinds of other esports, but when the average game length is less than 15 minutes, the practice adds up.

"I want to practice when I actually feel like playing, not forcing myself into practicing too much," Serral said. "If I practice just because of practicing, it doesn't do that much. I'm not exactly training my mechanics anymore because I think my mechanics are pretty good right now. It's more about going through all the scenarios, knowing what to do."

His practice has paid off so far. Serral didn't anticipate any problems in a group with Gabriel "HeRoMaRinE" Segat, Kim "sOs" Yoo Jin and Joo "Zest" Sung Wook, and no problems presented themselves. Pre-series apprehension about the weird builds sOs could utilize turned out to be exaggerated; Serral swept sOs 2-0 in under 16 minutes after the South Korean Protoss failed to cheese him with a cannon rush in Game 1. Later that Friday, Serral also swept Zest 2-0 to earn direct passage into the quarterfinals and a free weekend to explore the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Donald Duck's star was the "only one worth a picture," Serral wrote on Twitter.).

Serral barely broke a sweat in qualifying for the bracket stage, but doing so marked the furthest he had ever gotten at BlizzCon. Last year, South Korean Terran Koh "GuMiho" Byung Jae eliminated Serral in groups, leaving the bruised Finn with intel he'd carry through 2018.

"Last BlizzCon was a very good lesson for me," Serral said. "I learned that Koreans try to go for the weakness very hard and abuse that one weakness. I felt that I lost four games because [GuMiho] was playing extremely greedy, and I didn't really do anything. I think this event, I'm going to do my background work a bit better and hopefully not get countered too hard."

Now, the road gets rockier. Fate has rematched Serral with Dark in the quarterfinals to determine who really is the world's best Zerg. Then Serral will likely face two South Koreans from Jin Air Green Wings: Lee "Rogue" Byung Ryul and Cho "Maru" Seong Ju, the latter of whom won all three seasons of GSL and beat Serral 3-0 the last time they met at the World Electronic Sports Games in March.

Artosis believes Serral is the tournament favorite, though anything goes if it's Maru he meets in the final.

"It's clear that the best two players in the world are Maru and Serral," Artosis said. "It's going to be amazing to see what happens if they do hit each other in this tournament. There are other players who can take them out, but they have this unrivaled stability. But I see games where Maru looks a little bit weaker occasionally and has to come back from being behind. It's very rare to see that from Serral."

No non-South Korean has won Blizzard's top prize, but Serral doesn't want to be a figurehead for foreign Starcraft or deal with the extra pressure that expectation entails. He wants to execute his builds, be in control, then fly home to Finland and play more. Maybe, when the summer comes, he'll pick up that golf game he has been putting off.

"A lot of people are expecting a lot of me right now," Serral said, "But at the same time, I don't really want to go and win because other people want me to. I want to go win because I want to win myself."