Xlera8

#5: INnoVation – Greatest Players of All Time

The Greatest Players of All Time

By: Mizenhauer

• Top two GOAT candidate during first half of SC2 history (alongside Mvp)
• One of the highest Proleague win-rates & two-time Proleague champion
• Three Code S championships + six other Liquidedia-premier titles

Notable tournament finishes

  • 2013 Code S Season 2: 2nd place
  • 2013 WCS Season 1 Finals: 1st place
  • 2013 DreamHack Bucharest: 2nd place
  • 2014 Code S Season 3: 1st place
  • 2015 IEM Gamescom: 1st place
  • 2015 Code S Season 3: 1st place
  • 2016 IEM Gyeonggi: 1st place
  • 2017 SSL Premier Season 1: 1st place
  • 2017 GSL vs. The World: 1st place
  • 2017 Code S Season 3: 1st place
  • 2018 HomeStory Cup 17: 1st place
  • 2018 HomeStory Cup 18: 2nd place
  • 2018 WESG Main Event: 1st place
  • 2019 Gold Series Championship Season 1: 1st place
  • 2020 TeamLiquid Starleague 5: 2nd place

If one were to make this list about the most feared players in history, one of the first players to come to mind would be INnoVation. The Terran Machine was widely called the best player in the world at several points throughout his career, winning four Korean Individual League (Code S, OSL, SSL) titles, a WESG championship, and numerous other trophies.

On top of his individual achievements, INnoVation was one of the defining players of the Proleague era. He led STX Soul to the first all-SC2 championship during the 2012/13 season, and repeated the feat with SK Telecom T1 in 2015.

Ironically, INnoVation wasn’t much of a strategic innovator compared to the other players on this list, but that’s because he never needed to be one. He terrorized the StarCraft II scene with his unmatched macro and endless parade pushes, brute-forcing even the best players into the dirt.

[image loading]
In 2013, few would have expected INnoVation to have the best SC2 career
out of these three players.

Career Overview: The Best Player of All Time… …When He Felt Like It

Like #10 player Rain, INnoVation began his StarCraft II career at the forefront of the KeSPA’s invasion. Alongside Rain and Soulkey, he was one of the quickest Association players to adapt to SC2 after the official switch out of Brood War in May of 2012. He reached the upper echelons of the scene within his first three seasons in the GSL, achieving a top four result in Season 5 of 2012.

After Heart of the Swarm was released in March of 2013, INnoVation rapidly became considered one of the strongest players in the new expansion. The inaugural Code S season in HotS saw INnoVation go on the warpath, taking out Rain, Life, Flash, RorO, and Symbol on his way to his first major tournament finals (in particular, INnoVation winning the RO16 group of death with Life, Flash, and PartinG made a huge impact at the time). Even though he drew a difficult finals opponent in Soulkey, his coronation as the first king of HotS still seemed assured with nearly 90% of TL.net readers picking him to win in the pre-match poll. However, the finals ended up being a monumental moment for a disastrous reason, as INnoVation blew a 3-0 lead and gave up the first and only reverse-sweep in the Code S history.

Despite suffering such a devastating loss, INnoVation wasn’t fazed at all. A mere week later in June’s WCS Season 1 Finals—a high-prize tournament featuring the top finishers from the WCS Korea, Europe, and America regions—he took his due prize in convincing fashion. Starting with wins over Revival and RorO in the group stage, INnoVation proceeded to take out aLive (3-0), Mvp (3-2), and finally sOs in a crushing 4-0 sweep to lift the championship trophy.

[Note: The trio of WCS Season Finals tournaments in 2013 are quite tricky to rate. On the one hand, it was a weaker competition than Code S as it had only sixteen players and drew from the weaker WCS Europe and America regions as well. However, Blizzard allotted these tournaments significantly more top-end prize money and WCS points than Code S, and clearly intended for them to be the biggest events aside from BlizzCon.]

Having won his first major individual title and standing atop the SC2 world for the first time, INnoVation was quick to use his powers for his team’s benefit as well. Playing as STX Soul’s ace in the summer’s 2012/13 Proleague playoffs, he lived up to his world-best billing by posting a 6-1 record—including two crucial ace match wins against SK Telecom T1. The rest of the STX Soul roster chipped in with clutch performances as well, and together they claimed the first Proleague title in StarCraft II.

Shortly after winning Proleague with STX Soul, INnoVation made the surprising decision to leave STX and join European squad Team Acer. And, with this move out of KeSPA, he kicked off what would become a series of familiar boom-bust cycles that defined the rest of his career.

The remainder of 2013 saw INnoVation fall off from his dominating peak, which resulted in a shocking 2-3 loss to Duckdeok in the RO16 of BlizzCon 2013. Things only got worse when 2014 came around, as he failed to qualify at all for the first Season of Code S, losing to ascendent KeSPA Protosses herO and Zest in Code A. Now, that wasn’t a sign that INnoVation had actually fallen to Code A level—he was still placing high at international ‘weekender’ style events like DreamHack Opens, and his peak play could be reminiscent of his 2013 prime. However, he simply wasn’t contending for the biggest trophies anymore, and that point was made clear again in GSL Season 2 where he made it back to Code S but was eliminated in the RO16.

[image loading]
INnoVation trying his best not to have fun at HomeStory Cup.

Then, out of nowhere, INnoVation decided he wanted to be the best in the world again. Well, at least that’s how he made it seem in Code S Season 3. After finishing RO16-Not Qualified-RO16 in his last three seasons of Code S, INnoVation jumped straight into the championship picture. After squeezing through his RO32 group in second place (the infamous MyuNgSik gave him a scare), INnoVation announced a surprise move back to KeSPA fold by leaving Acer and signing with SK Telecom T1. He proceeded to win out for the rest of the tournament, with wins over Stats and PartinG in the RO16, wins over DongRaeGu (3-0) and Cure (4-3) in the playoffs, and finally a 4-2 victory over soO to claim his second major title and first in Code S.

At the time, this seemed like a clear-cut demonstration of the advantage of KeSPA teams against their foreign counterparts. Even the official statement from Acer explicitly stated that INnoVation wanted to play in less international tournaments and rejoin the regimented KeSPA teamhouse environment for the sake of getting better domestic results. While there must have been some truth to this, INnoVation’s subsequent up-down cycles on both T1 and various other teams suggest it was simply in his nature to be mercurial.

In any case, INnoVation’s win in 2014 Code S Season 3 restored the public faith in his abilities, and he ranked only second to Zest in TL.net’s winner-prediction poll ahead of the 2014 WCS Global Finals at BlizzCon. Alas, for the second straight year he failed to challenge for the championship, although this time due to a much more understandable loss to TaeJa in the RO8 (he may also have been affected by a controversial and extremely long tech-delay). Following the pattern from the previous year, INnoVation’s stretch of relatively middling results continued into 2015. He managed to finish top eight in the first Code S Season of 2015 and in the IEM World Championship, but once again fell back to being a Code S RO16 player by Season 2 of that year. In the case of the newly created SSL, he failed to qualify at all in both Seasons 1 and 2.

But, just as in previous year, INnoVation abruptly flipped the switch midway through 2015. After hinting at a revival with a championship run at IEM Gamescom, INnoVation went all out in Code S Season 3. After blazing through both group stages in first place, INnoVation continued his rampage in the playoffs with wins over Zest (3-1) and Maru (4-1). The grand finals match placed INnoVation against ByuL, with the CJ Entus Zerg having previously defeated INnoVation 3-2 in the SSL Season 3 playoffs. However, INnoVation got his revenge in the rematch, beating ByuL 4-2 to clinch Code S title number two. As the cherry on top, he helped SKT win the 2015 Proleague championship days later, successfully concluding his first full year with T1.

The inevitable slump cycle came for INnoVation in the 2015 WCS Global Finals, where he once again dropped out in the RO8, losing to eventual champion Life. As in both 2014 and 2015, INnoVation’s decline continued into 2016.

However, if INnoVation had previously kept getting respectable results and showed flashes of his championship quality during these down periods, this time he hit rock bottom and splattered all over the floor. He failed to qualify for all three seasons of Code S, while only qualifying for the first of three SSL competitions—there was no summer rebound as in past years. And, while INnoVation somehow managed to be quite solid in Proleague, overall it felt like a downswing that he may not recover from.

Part of this extreme nadir may have been due to the new expansion of Legacy of the Void, which was a career turning point for many players. But, INnoVation himself was not shy about admitting his lack of focus in 2016, becoming lax in practice and focusing more on League of Legends than StarCraft II.

In December 2016, INnoVation decided it was time to be good at StarCraft II again. After a year where he had gone entirely missing from GSL Code S, he abruptly announced the old INnoVation was back by winning IEM Gyeonggi. It must have been an especially infuriating run for his peers to have seen, as he took down both Dark and Stats—two of 2016’s breakout performers and both individual league champions—on his way to the trophy. This victory set up INnoVation’s 2017 campaign, which was arguably his most consistent run of championship-level play in his career. He proceeded to win 2017 SSL Season 1 (albeit, in its reduced 10-player format), GSL vs The World, and finally, his third Code S championship in 2017’s Season 3.

That Code S title would be the toughest one INnoVation had ever won, as he was pushed to elimination-point in five consecutive series. However, neither aLive, GuMiho, ByuN, Dark, nor sOs could take that final map needed to put INnoVation away for good, and the machine clutched out his most hard-earned championship yet.

Unfortunately, even this rejuvenated INnoVation couldn’t break the streak of underperforming in world championship events. Despite ending 2017 second in the WCS Korea Standings, INnoVation had to settle for another RO8 finish at BlizzCon, barely losing 2-3 to TY. This disappointing loss would set up the final and maybe the most dramatic rejuvenation cycle for INnoVation.

[image loading]
INnoVation collected new team uniforms like he did trophies, playing for seven different teams in his career.

The 2018 version of INnoVation hardly resembled the multiple-champion of 2017, as he was eliminated in the RO16 of all three Code S seasons. While it wasn’t as disastrous as the 2016 campaign, it was a write-off year all the same as he failed to qualify for the Global Finals at BlizzCon.

In an eerie instance of deja vu from IEM Gyeonggi 2016, INnoVation portended his final championship run with a series of impressive tournament results toward the end of 2018. First, he survived the brutal Korean qualifier for WESG, earning the right to represent Korea alongside Dark and Maru. Then, at HomeStory Cup 18 INnoVation made it all the way to the grand finals, and pushed the newly crowned WCS champion Serral to a game seven before finally tapping out (this was all the more surprising as five months prior, Serral had thrashed INnoVation 3-0 in GSL vs. The World)

Those strong performances initially seemed like false-positives, as INnoVation started 2019 with a dud performance at IEM Katowice where he finished last place in his RO24 group (he did happen to win a 2-1 against Serral in a meaningless match for both players in the final round-robin). However, with that disappointment as the backdrop, he would achieve the most surprising run of his career just three weeks later at WESG 2018 main event (confusingly held in March of 2019).

The first part of the tournament was routine business for INnoVation, as he blitzed through his all-foreigner slate of opponents in the RO48, RO16, and RO8. However, a RO4 match against Maru seemed like the inevitable end of the road for INnoVation, with the Jin Air Terran having achieved triple Code S golds in 2018 compared to INnoVation’s triple RO16’s. But, against all expectations, INnoVation defeated Maru and did it convincingly as well, taking a 3-1 series victory.

Things didn’t get any easier in the finals, as INnoVation matched up against Serral in a rematch from HomeStory Cup. Even if INnoVation had kept things shockingly close in Krefeld, it didn’t seem realistic that he could do the same against the most dominant player of 2018 in a much more high-stakes match. However, this time, INnoVation came out on the winning end of the seven-game series, taking the WESG championship and his biggest ever single payday of $150,000. Then, in typical INnoVation fashion, he was eliminated from the Code S RO16 just days later.

INnoVation would remain active for another two years after his WESG win, but the triumph in Chongqing marked the end of his time as a top-tier championship contender. Amusingly enough, for a player of such highs and lows, INnoVation’s fade-out phase from 2019-2021 might have been the most consistent in his career. He remained a solid RO8 level player in both Code S and international events, and even finished RO4+ of a handful of pandemic-era online tournaments (a second place finish in TSL5 was his high mark). Perhaps INnoVation actually did have one more championship run in him if given enough time, but the StarCraft II world never got a chance to find out. The Korean military precluded that possibility, finally calling his number in the summer of 2021.

Still, the Machine would give us a final ‘comeback’ of sorts in 2023. Freshly discharged and having barely practiced according to his peers, he qualified for one last Code S Season before wordlessly departing the scene for good (or so it seems). It was as if he was teasing us for one last time: “You know what I could do if I tried.”

The Tools: The Epitome of Unstoppable Macro

While many Terrans players aspire to the flamboyant, micro-heavy styles of 2011 MMA, 2015 Maru, or 2021 Clem, the pragmatism and brutality of every-era INnoVation is the style they should be trying to emulate. From day one, INnoVation’s macro mechanics were world class, able to magically produce more units than any of his opponents. His micro was certainly top-tier as well (though it became blunted over the years), but it simply never had any room to shine next to his overwhelming macro.

That lethal combination led to many of the most one-sided victories in professional StarCraft II, where INnoVation simply opened with a standard build, applied some rudimentary pressure, and steamrolled his opponent with a much, much larger army. When INnoVation was playing at 100%, he was simply untouchable, and every one of his peers—no matter how accomplished—knew this and feared him.

[image loading]
Top 3 control meets top 1 macro.

The Numbers: Top 2 GOAT Candidate Until 2017, Still an Amazing Resume Afterward

Korean Individual League (Code S, OSL, SSLᵃ) win-loss records
From KeSPA entry into StarCraft II (Code S Season 4 2012) to the end of 2017

[image loading]

a: SSL 2017 was excluded due its 10-player format.
b: Played in a 16-player, double-elim format.

Korean Individual League (Code S, OSL, SSLᵃ) finishes
From KeSPA entry into StarCraft II (Code S Season 4 2012) to the end of 2017

[image loading]

a: SSL 2017 was excluded due its 10-player format.
b: The opening round for these tournaments was the RO32 except the following: SSL 2015-16 (RO16), OSL 2012 (RO16). Tournaments starting in the RO16 were recorded as not having a second round.

From 2010 up to 2017, what we can call the first half of StarCraft II history, INnoVation and Mvp were the only two realistic candidates to be called the GOAT. Both players had checked off four boxes on the way to the hallowed G5L, with each having 3 Code S/Open championships and 1 GSL vs The World/Global Championship to their name. With both players also having won a number of non-GSL events of varying prestige, it was often a matter of personal taste as to which player had the edge.

In any case, let’s get back to the methodology of this particular series and focus on Korean Individual Leagues (Code S, SSL, OSL) and players who competed within the time period. Looking at INnoVation 2012-2017 prime, he was clearly the best player of his era. He won three Korean Individual League titles through 2017 (four if you count the 10-player SSL 2017), putting him ahead of Maru, Classic, and Zest who all won two. Even all-time greats like herO, Dark and Stats were still stuck at a single Korean Individual League win during this timeframe, with much of their resumes getting filled out in the 2018+ era. Only soO is ahead of INnoVation in total finals appearances with six, but with the obvious caveat of all of them ending in runner-up finishes.

While INnoVation’s career was full of ups and downs, it should be noted that it was extremely difficult to achieve year-over-year consistency during his 2012-2017 prime period. His peers at the top of the scene all went through similar slumps of some sort, which are well documented in the articles for Rain, soO, sOs, and TY. Thus, despite INnoVation’s truly dismal crash in 2016, his cumulative record during his prime still comes out ahead of his contemporaries.

Notable half-year win-loss records vs Korean playersᵃ during KeSPA era
From KeSPA entry into StarCraft II (Code S Season 4 2012) to 2017

[image loading]

a: To adjust for record inflation from international tournaments during an era where the Korea-World gap was at its widest.
b: Match records can be misleading up to 2016 due to many best-of-one Proleague matches. While they were included for reference, game records are probably a better indicator of ability.

A big part of INnoVation’s previous GOAT case was the aura of dominance he exuded. Indeed, INnoVation put up monster win-loss stats and win percentages when he was playing his best StarCraft, making him feel utterly unbeatable. Interestingly enough, the above numbers might even downplay how dominant he felt to the community at the time, though there’s no objective way to capture that vibe.

StarCraft II Proleague win-loss records (map score)ᵃᵇ

[image loading]

a: The 2011/12 season was excluded as it was played in a hybrid Brood War + SC2 format.
b: Playoff statistics included.
c: Classic’s nine games as Terran (2-7) were excluded.

Although INnoVation missed a year of Proleague due to his dalliance with Acer, INnoVation has one of the strongest historical Proleague resumes in terms of win-rate. At 68.2%, INnoVation has the highest mark for a player who recorded a significant number of games. While sOs, herO, and Zest may have a stronger cumulative resumes, INnoVation and Maru would surely beat them in the “who would you have wanted for a single season?” test.

While single players can only be given so much credit for team success in the Proleague format, it’s notable that INnoVation is one of only three players—alongside his former STX teammates Classic and Trap—who won two Proleague championships in SC2. INnoVation was at least the clear ace on one championship squad (2013 STX), and at worst the co-ace on another (the extremely evenly balanced 2015 SKT roster).

Also, even though non-Proleague team competitions weren’t seriously considered for this series, it’s interesting to note that INnoVation is probably the most successful teamleague player in SC2 history (Maru could also be considered). His team choices worked out so that he won championships in GSTL, Acer TeamStory Cup, WTL/SCBOY leagues, and Nation Wars, almost always acting as the ace player with several multi-kills.

The Placement:

INnoVation has a somewhat similar career outline as #6 Zest, earning legendary status through a series of championship runs during the mid 2010’s. The StarCraft II landscape was very different when the two players were in their primes, with perennial championship contention being much more difficult compared to the present day. A single Code S/BlizzCon championship + one or two secondary titles was often enough to earn a player the distinction of being the best player of the year. Under those circumstances, Zest posted the best year of any Korean in 2014, while INnoVation made a run at the same distinction in 2013, 2015 and 2017.

Both players were very productive in Proleague, but in different ways. Zest was one of the historic workhorses, tying herO for most games played and maintaining a very good win-rate while doing so. Meanwhile, INnoVation lacks in game count due to his one season outside of KeSPA, but was a more dominant player than Zest when he did compete.

Outside of their primes, both players enjoyed some surprising runs in the modern era, with Zest achieving two IEM World Championship runner-ups while INnoVation took home the trophy at WESG 2018.

Weighting it all together, INnoVation’s aggregate resume is just better than Zest’s. Even with one of the worst wasted year in 2016, INnoVation still achieved better overall performances over his career.

The Games

Games were selected primarily based on how well they represented a players’ style, not entertainment value.

INnoVation vs Soulkey – 2013 Code S Season 2, Grand Finals, Game 2 (June 1, 2013)

[embedded content]

While this series would ultimately end in a reverse-sweep victory for Soulkey, at least the first half of the series demonstrated why INnoVation was regarded as the best player in the world and heavy favorite headed into the match.

In particular, game two on Bel’Shir Vestige featured a textbook demonstration of INnoVAtion’s unstoppable parade push, as he bashed Soulkey into submission with an unending stream of infantry. Funny enough, the 8-Rax bio ‘all-in’ seen here (complete with the omission of 3/3 upgrades) would prove to be a valid strategy for the rest of INnoVation’s career, surviving dozens of balance patches and map pool changes.

INnoVation vs sOs – 2015 Proleague Grand Finals, SK Telecom T1 vs Jin Air Green Wings, Game 4 (October 10, 2015)

[embedded content]

While not the cleanest game INnoVation ever played, this bout serves as a good demonstration of how he could make some mistakes around the margins and still win by having way, way more stuff.

sOs tried his best to slow down INnoVation in this match, and exploited Vaani Research Station’s layout to launch a series of backdoor attacks. Combined with some dubious troop movements from INnoVation, he may have been able to play into a winning position against a different Terran. However, INnoVation being INnoVation, he shrugged off all of these minor setbacks and simply overwhelmed sOs in the end.

INnoVation vs Cure – 2014 Code S Season 3 Semifinals, Game 7 (September 26, 2014)

[embedded content]

This match is similar to the famous TaeJa vs INnoVation Newkirk Precinct game, except this time INnoVation’s mech ultimately triumphed against the nimble bio of his opponent.

Long before Cure became the player we know today, he had one of StarCraft II’s more inexplicable hot streaks in the second half of 2014. In fact, he played so well during that period he was even able to push the mighty INnoVation to his limit in the Code S semifinals. However, INnoVation stayed calm in the seventh and deciding set, and calmly piloted his mech to victory against Cure’s frenetic infantry movements and backdoor attacks.

INnoVation vs Serral – HomeStory Cup 18, Grand Finals, Game 1 (November 25, 2018)

[embedded content]

Fans of StarCraft II spent all of 2018 hoping for an offline BO5+ match between Maru and Serral, only for the dream matchup to never materialize. But, fear not fans of TvZ, as the finals between INnoVation and Serral proved to be a most entertaining replacement.

Game 1 in particular was a delight, with INnoVation navigating his way to the late-game despite constant run-bys from the Finnish Zerg. While INnoVation is most famous for his mid-game parade pushes, he reminded us he was deadly in every stage of the game by grinding out a win against one of the best late-game Zergs.


Mizenhauer’s Greatest of All Time List

#10: Rain – #9: TY – #8: sOs – #7: soO – #6: Zest

#5: INnoVation – #4: ??? – #3: ??? – #2: ??? – #1: ???