For years we’ve introduced IEM Katowice as the final destination of the ESL Pro Tour, but twists and turns in the calendar have turned it into a mid-way checkpoint. Still, with over ten years of history behind it and $500,000 in total prize up for grabs, you can be sure that the players will compete with a world championship level of focus.
With the RO36 getting trimmed out in the 2024 edition of the tournament, we begin directly in the RO24 group stages.
The Three Favorites
Looking at this group, Solar and GuMiho stand out immediately as the favorites to advance. Solar won the latest season of GSL Code S, finished top four at Gamers8, and was fantastic for ONSYDE in their back-to-back World Team League victories. As for GuMiho, he may not have won a trophy in 2023, but still rose to #2 in the EPT Korea rankings thanks to his consistently strong performances all year—the highlights being his runner-up finishes in both Code S Season 3 and EPT Summer/Jonkoping.
Those two might be the obvious favorites, in my humble opinion there’s another player who deserves that distinction: HeroMarine. Indeed, Big Gabe has managed to get out of the IEM Katowice RO24 every year since 2021, despite being put into difficult groups (not that there’s ever an easy Katowice group). He even reached the semifinals in 2022, and that kind of experience is an advantage over the players who haven’t achieved as much on the Katowice stage.
In the mix
Spirit is the player who has the best chance to ruin my top three prediction, and some fans probably even have him as a favorite over HeroMarine. Spirit is actually just slightly ahead of HeroMarine in terms of EPT points, with both of them having put up solid results over the course of the 2023/24 EPT season. However, Spirit’s single best run was more impressive, as he achieved a fantastic top four finish in EPT Summer Europe with big wins over Reynor and HeroMarine himself (eventually losing 1-3 to MaxPax in the semis). He almost made a similar splash in EPT Winter Europe, but barely lost 2-3 to Clem and settled for a top eight finish (HeroMarine did get his revenge here, winning 3-2 in the losers bracket). Going by EPT 2023/24 results alone, Spirit would probably be the pick to advance over HeroMarine, but the success factor at Katowice leads me to give Big Gabe the edge. Of course, Spirit will also be playing in front of a friendly home crowd, which has to be at least a minor advantage.
Scarlett may be a perennial fan-favorite, but she’s surely a long-shot candidate to advance. She’s never made it past the RO24 ever at Katowice, and in most tournaments she was stopped in the RO36. However, she’s been fortunate to draw her best match-up of ZvT (by Aligulac rating) three times, which makes this her best opportunity yet. Win a ZvT, beat Trigger, and coin-flip the ZvZ could be her formula to advance, but that could be tricky considering how upset-resistant Solar has been in the mirror.
Fellow Canadian trigger comes into Katowice as the clear underdog in the group. He climbed through the ranks of his region last year, going from a top 8 finish in EPT Americas Summer (featuring a close 2-3 loss to Astrea) to top 3 in the Winter season. However, he’s yet to make an impact in a global competition like this, and this really feels like the kind of tournament where he will take his lumps and get the big-match experience needed to achieve greater heights going forward. Like Scarlett, his vs Terran is his best match-up by Aligulac rating, so maybe he’ll be able to score an upset and throw a wrench in someone else’s plans.
Solar is a strong favorite to take first place, with stats site Aligulac.com projecting him as the comfortable favorite against every single group opponent. HeroMarine, the player with the best estimated chance against him, only has a 36% chance of winning, while poor trigger is deemed to have less than a 7% chance of scoring the upset. Those are very stark numbers for competition at this level.
That said, I feel like the numbers also underplay how dangerous GuMiho can be (does he really only have a 27% probability of beating Solar?), especially in a big tournament he’s had ample time to prepare for. He may not boost his Aligulac rating by dominating online cups, but he’s come through consistently with high finishes in big tournaments throughout the 2023/24 season. Even if he only limps through the group in 2nd or 3rd place, GuMiho could very well make another deep run when he hits the playoffs.
Could the three-way TvT carousel between GuMiho, Spirit, and HeroMarine throw the final standings into disarray? Remember, last year’s Group A featured the Terran trio of Oliveira, Clem, and Cure, but only underdog Oliveira advanced thanks to his 2-0 result in the ‘internal’ round-robin. Aligulac ratings show a firm TvT hierarchy of GuMiho (3033) > HeroMarine (2887) > Spirit (2536), but that’s not big enough of a gap to preclude some chaotic results.
In particular, I see the match of Spirit vs HeroMarine being one of crucial importance in the group. HeroMarine is a heavy favorite with a 72%+ chance of winning, and recently beat Spirit 3-0 in the EU qualifier for IEM Katowice. However, the head-to-head match record actually favors Spirit by 13 to 8 (36-29 map record) in matches since 2023. So don’t let that scary number of 72% fool you—this match definitely could go either way and possibly swing 3rd/4th place in this group.
The final Aligulac.com prediction aligns with mine, saying Solar, HeroMarine, and GuMiho will go through. That third place spot is hardly locked in, but I will favor the players who have the superior track record at Katowice.
3rd. HeroMarine — Advance
6th. Trigger — Eliminated
The Terrifying Terran Tetrad
If Group D hadn’t been so ridiculously stacked, Group B would definitely be worthy of group-of-death of designation.
We have to start with Oliveira, the defending IEM Katowice champion. If he can channel even a fraction of the magic from that miracle run, then he’ll be a threat to any player in the tournament.
Then, there’s Clem, who finally translated his great European online results into an offline championship at EPT Winter/Atlanta. While he cooled down slightly in Master’s Coliseum 7, his scintillating Atlanta run and rampage through the WTL playoffs mark him as one of the top championship contenders.
If that wasn’t enough, Cure comes in as the third elite Terran. Like GuMiho in Group A, he had a fantastic 2023 despite not winning any trophies, placing runner-up at Gamers8 and Code S Season 1, and top four in Code S Season 2 and EPT Winter. International tournaments used to be Cure’s weakness, but now he seems prepared to advance from the IEM Katowice group stages for the first time.
Finally, there’s Bunny to add even more Terran power. While he’s come down slightly from his amazing 2022/23 campaign, he proved himself in Code S with a top four result in Season 1. Even a weakened version of Bunny can be dangerous due to his aggressive and wild style, and he may even have been one of the favorites to advance in Group A or C.
Chasing Past Glory
Two-time Katowice finalist Stats has been back from the military for over a year now, and unfortunately for Protoss fans, his recovery has been on the slower side. He needed a lot of bracket luck to qualify, drawing his best match-up of PvP several times while ducking stronger players due to big upsets elsewhere in the bracket. Ultimately, he only needed to beat NightMare (3-1), Coffee (2-0), and sOs (3-1) in the qualifier, which is rather unconvincing ahead of this kind of event. Still, it’s not like he’s totally out of place—his Aligulac rating of 2747 puts him in the range of other Katowice participants like Astrea, Spirit, and Scarlett. Given how great Stats was in his prime, you can’t count out the chance that his pre-Katowice practice will pay off big in the main event.
Meanwhile, SHIN is chasing highs from the not-so-distant past. He had a fantastic 2023/23 season, achieving runner-up in Code S and top four at IEM Katowice 2023 (where he took a huge upset against Serral in the quarterfinals). Unfortunately, the 2023/24 campaign has been more in line with what we expect from the Zerg formerly known as RagnaroK. He remained in the top 20-16 zone in Code S and EPT events, and his best result was a top four in AfreecaTV Champions Cup #2.
In spite of these disappointing results after the highs of the previous season, SHIN is still playing good starcraft in the smaller online tournaments and ranks just outside of top 10 on Aligulac (#13 at the time of writing). If Oliveira plays like he has during the 2023/24 season so far, SHIN might even be the favorite to take third ahead of Oliveira and Bunny.
On paper, it sure looks like Clem and Cure are locked into the top two, while SHIN and Oliveira will battle it out for the third place spot. However, there is potential for this group to go in a completely unexpected direction.
As mentioned in the Group A preview, both Clem and Cure failed to advance from the RO24 last year due to TvT, with Oliveira sneaking into the playoffs at their expense. In the cross-matches between Clem, Cure, Bunny, and Oliveira, there are only marginal favorites, and no one is immune to an upset.
Just last month we saw Ryung hold the all-powerful Clem to a 1-1 draw twice in the WTL playoffs. The very same Ryung that was eliminated by Vindicta at EPT Winter/Atlanta, and didn’t even qualify for Katowice! Also, the TvT meta still doesn’t seem fully set—mass Cyclones in the early game are still strong, but defense has been catching up. Anyone who is ahead of the curve strategically could have a crucial edge.
The other X factor is the intense pressure players will face at Katowice. Cure has never made it out of the Katowice group stage, while Clem only did so during the all-online version of the tournament in 2021. However, there’s reason to believe they’ll get over the hump this time. Clem overcame the offline wall by winning EPT Winter with a dramatic run worthy of a shonen anime, and I think it was a real turning point. As for Cure, he went all the way to the finals of another $500k-tier tournament in Gamers8, which suggests he’s gotten over whatever held him back in high-stakes events.
The Normal Man
Speaking of mentality, Oliveira played the best StarCraft of his life in last year’s Katowice while his opponents crumbled around him. Considering that we were calling that run a miracle as it happened, it’s not exactly a surprise that he hasn’t played at that level subsequently. He was stopped in the group stage of Gamers8, dropping ‘expected’ losses to Solar, Reynor and Clem. While he earned a respectable top eight finish at EPT Winter, he mostly beat players he could previously have defeated (Elazer, Harstem and Astrea) before losing to Serral 1-3. In the most recent tournament of Master’s Coliseum 7, he missed the playoffs with losses to Dark, Clem, and Classic.
Overall, it feels like Oliveira is back to where he was before IEM Katowice 2023. He’s a strong foreigner right below the top players, with an outside chance to advance but not a favorite by any means. Maybe having lowered expectations will be a good thing, with most of the pressure that came immediately after Katowice being gone. In any case, advancing will be no easy task, but perhaps Oliveira’s strong TvT will give him the edge once more.
Aligulac likes Clem, Cure, and SHIN to advance, but I think there’s enough variables in the group to go for a crazier prediction. Based on nothing but Stats’ past accomplishments, I’m going to say he will emerge from his hyperbolic time chamber in incredible shape and qualify for the playoffs.
That’s as far as I’ll go here—I can’t predict Clem and Cure to drop out of the group stage for the second year in a row (but I would not be in shock if that was the case). As for Oliveira, SHIN and Bunny, they all have a realistic shot at qualifying, and the battle for the 3rd spot should be particularly fun this time around—at least for the viewers .
3rd. Stats — Advance
6th. Bunny — Eliminated