Alex “Neeb” Sunderhaft has had an incredible year. The American professional StarCraft 2 (SC2) player has conquered three of the four World Championship Series (WCS) Circuit tournaments that were up for grabs throughout 2017. With Ting as his exclusive sponsor, the 19 year old American Protoss player spent the year flying all around the world, playing the world’s hardest esport at the highest level imaginable. Neeb was crowned champion of Premier tournaments in Austin, Texas, Jönköping, Sweden and Montreal, Canada, earning $150,000 in prize money along the way.
For even the most diehard of fans, it was hard to imagine the possibility that Neeb could have a better year than 2016. He won the KeSPA Cup tournament in South Korea, and in doing so, became the first non-Korean to win a premier StarCraft tournament in the country in sixteen years. The Korean StarCraft scene, as well as their esports community on whole, has proven itself to be unbeatable for the better part of two decades. Not only was Neeb’s accomplishment celebrated in the StarCraft 2 scene, but it was recognized as an amazing feat across the entire esports community.
In the WCS 2016 Global Finals at Blizzcon, Neeb finished in the top 8, proving once again that he was a part of the movement to raise skill level of the StarCraft 2 professional scene outside of Korea. All eyes were on Neeb to have a successful 2017, but nobody could have imagined the domination that the young American had in store for the WCS Circuit.
Success wasn’t just found in the WCS Circuit for Neeb though, as he started the year with a fantastic third place showing at the World Electronic Sports Games tournament in January, falling only to the tournament’s eventual champion, TY. It seemed that Neeb was only getting warmed up there though, winning back to back tournaments in Austin and Jönköping. At WCS Valencia, Spain, Neeb saw defeat for the first and last time at a WCS event in 2017, still managing to reach top 8 for the event. Finally, Neeb completed the WCS hat trick, winning his third WCS Circuit championship in Montreal, dropping only two maps throughout the entire tournament.
The fact that Neeb is the best StarCraft 2 player outside of Korea this year is undeniable. But is he the best non-Korean StarCraft 2 player of all time? There are many who argue that he is. Some still hold onto the old names such as Stephano, Naniwa, or Scarlett. The 2017 Blizzcon Global Finals offer a chance for Neeb to silence all of those doubting voices. If he is able to perform well at StarCraft 2’s most prestigious, high stakes tournament, surely there can be no more doubt. He will be the best non-Korean in the history of StarCraft 2 thus far.
Catching up with Ting Neeb
We had the chance to chat with Neeb after his success in WCS Montreal, learning about his practice regimen, his thoughts on the foreign StarCraft 2 scene, and more!
Did the WCS Circuit events this year feel different from KeSPA cup?
Yeah they were a lot different, especially because they were live tournaments with foreigners as opposed to KeSPA Cup where it kind of felt like a GSL style tournament even though it was every day and just the fact that it was group stages and they were all broadcasted similarly. It felt like a GSL just over a few days.
Did you prefer the Korean crowds, or are they just different?
They’re just different. Every WCS event is different as well, but overall I think the WCS event crowds were much nicer, because for KeSPA Cup there was a time when not a lot of people cared too much about StarCraft. All four groups got very low live viewership, there were maybe like 15 people in the entire audience. For the finals it was much nicer, as the first level was completely full and there were people standing on the second floor. But overall, the WCS events have much better crowds.
How does it feel to win the third tournament of the year? You’ve won three of four WCS events, did you expect that at all?
I don’t know, I guess for me I’m satisfied. I worked so hard this year especially when I was in Korea. I thought I got a lot better than I was before, so I’d be kind of disappointed if I didn’t win as much as I have honestly.
Was there anyone specific in Montreal that you were happy about dodging throughout the tournament, or were you confident against everybody?
I think the two hardest opponents in terms of raw skill are probably ShoWTimE and Serral but for whatever reason ShoWTimE wasn’t doing too good recently, or at all events this year aside from Austin. He had kind of disappointing performance. I was super happy beating him at Austin because he was by far the hardest (opponent) there. And then Serral, I don’t know why he just doesn’t play well in a live event setting. So I was pretty happy that he got knocked out, and while I wasn’t happy when ShoWTimE got knocked out it made my tournament run easier.
Montreal was your easiest tournament win of the year so far, but you also said you didn’t feel very prepared coming in. Do you think it’s just because you feel really confident against foreigners and you’re a lot better than them anyway, or maybe it’s the fact that you’ve learned how to perform a lot better at offline events?
I think I had a pretty good mindset going into the event, I wasn’t expecting that much because I was pretty happy with my results already this year. So I didn’t put any pressure on myself or anything. I even took a week and a half break before the event. I played the last few days before leaving for Montreal. I wasn’t playing that much but because I had practiced so much in Korea before that and so much earlier this year, I think my skill level is good enough to beat any of the foreigners just by playing my game. The events are always a little easier for me because I’m always first seed so I always get the easiest group, I always get the easiest bracket opponents and then I don’t need to worry or anything so the events are pretty comfortable.
Last year there were a couple different foreigners fighting for the top spot. This year, the best non-Korean player is clearly you. How does that feel?
It feels good for me but I don’t know, it honestly feels like the foreigners got a little bit worse compared to last year. I don’t feel like I’m that much better than last year. I definitely improved but not enough where I should just be winning every event. Maybe at Dreamhack Tours last year that was maybe the highest skill level of foreigners in general. Around mid last year.
Last year, BlizzCon was great for foreigners, as we saw many foreigners make it into the main bracket. What do you think will happen this year? Do you think it’ll be more of a beatdown?
I think it’ll definitely be a beatdown because the Koreans weren’t playing that much last year because of all the news that KeSPA wasn’t continuing with SC2 and all the teams were disbanding. There were a lot of really good players who just didn’t practice at all, like Dear for example. He got knocked out pretty quickly at BlizzCon in kind of disappointing games, even though he’s really really good when he’s practicing it’s just because he wasn’t playing for a few months, and there were a lot of players like that. But this year is much different.
So what are your expectations for Blizzcon? Would you prefer to have Protoss, Terran, or Zerg players in your group?
It’s still too far from BlizzCon to really know what my best matchup or most comfortable matchup will be so I don’t really care about races. But yeah, it’s nice if I have multiple people with the same race in my group because it’s easier to prepare obviously.
You’re the only Protoss to qualify for BlizzCon through the WCS Circuit and yet you’ve won three of the four tournaments this year. Why do you think that’s so? Do you think Zerg is a little easier to play at the foreigner level?
Zerg is somewhat easier to play, I’m not sure it’s easy to play but all the foreign Protoss players at least have had pretty disappointing years. Drogo hasn’t been doing so great, ShoWTimE hasn’t been doing so good, even Harstem and all the other European Protosses. They’ve just had a disappointing year. I feel like at that level it’s easier to play Zerg because you can just make Hydra/Baneling and attack-move every game. But once you get to a high enough level where you can always stop the Hydra/Baneling attack-move, which is always so hard, then it’s kind of easy for Protoss because there’s not really much Zerg can do besides that. They have to play really tricky if they want to consistently win.
So once it gets to the highest tiers of controlling units and positioning, you’re the one guy who can take on all the foreign Zergs in the circuit.
Kind of or its just like avoiding the late game even. This past event, Montreal, I was just killing everyone in the mid game because I didn’t really want to play the late game. So I was really focused and prepared to win the mid games. While a lot of the other foreigners, they’d just try to defend the entire game and play late game and play a comprehensive style where I just picked one decisive build and did that every game. It’s not that I’m way better than everyone it’s just that I knew how to play it a little bit better.
It seems like you have a lot more variation in your builds compared to last year. Is this due to confidence?
I think this is like the kind of thing that you get better at naturally the more you play competitively. The longer you’re a pro gamer, you’ll get better at playing your race like I’m getting better at playing Protoss. Not better at PvZ/PvP/PvT, but better at Protoss in general. I’m better at coming up with new builds or having an idea in game and taking the game from there. So I don’t really need to only have one standard build and that’s the only build that I can do in tournaments, I feel like I can make something from weirder situations.
As an example, it was so exciting to see you mix things up and cannon rush TRUE in game three at DreamHack Montreal. What was going through your mind at the time?
The other two games I saw that he didn’t keep his second overlord in his natural. Everyone does that now because the threat of canon rush but TRUE never did it like he didn’t care or he didn’t think I’d cannon rush in a tournament so I just did it in the last game.
Just a couple years ago we watched you play in the WCS 2014 Round of 16 as a Terran player. Is it surreal to think that you’re a Protoss winning multiple tournaments as one of the best players in the world?
I like the word used, surreal. That’s definitely how it feels. I was always convinced that I was only going to be a bottom tier foreigner for my entire StarCraft career back when I was a Terran. It feels slightly weird because I don’t even feel like I’m the same person that I was back when I was Terran. So it’s hard to really compare myself because I feel completely different.
That’s really cool. Back then, would you have ever believed the fact that you’d win three of the four WCS events in one year?
I really thought I would have moved on from StarCraft earlier than this or I’d still just be playing a little bit kind of forcing myself to play some but not really having my heart into it or anything.
Is there any advice that you could give to someone that might be in the position that you were in a few years ago? Say you’re an up and comer and you want to be the best, is there any advice that you’d say you’d give your past self to reach that goal?
I don’t think I have any good tips honestly. I feel like I was pretty lucky with my situation, that I was very motivated, and I didn’t really have anything else to do in my life. I was kind of just bored with everything. I just worked a lot on StarCraft, it’s not really like I have any good advice. It’s kind of bad advice but it gets good results.
You mentioned a bit about your work ethic and how you train harder than foreigners, but do you think it’s just that you practice more often or do you think you practice smarter?
I think I try to practice pretty smart. I don’t even play the most out of any foreigner honestly, there are probably still some Europeans who play more than me. But when I play on ladder I’ll never do the same build twice. I’ll always mix up something from game to game. I’ll just change one minor thing like maybe my gas timings at my third or when I add on more gateways because I don’t want to do the same thing that I already know how to do.
That isn’t going to help you get better. It’s just going to help your mechanics if you do the same thing over and over so I like to always do something different, and I don’t really care about my ladder rank so I use it to learn. Even just losing games is great because then you know what not to do, it’s like if you have some ideas for builds and you do it on ladder and you get completely wrecked it’s still useful because you know not to do that kind of stuff.
So do you typically go back and look at replays or do you normally know what you did wrong during a game?
I never really watch replays. I’ll have an idea for something to fix and I’ll write it down on my notepad on my computer, and the next time I get into that situation I’ll remember to try my idea that I had.
So do you have a list of things that you work on? Say before you practice maybe you look at things you wrote down from the previous practice session, things to focus on strategies to try and stuff?
Yeah it’s mostly just ideas that I have, like I write some ideas for PvZ/PvP/PvT and then whenever I get into those games I’ll just try them out. I don’t really ever look at the notepad, it’s just that writing it down helps me remember. The worst thing is when you lose a game for some really stupid reason and you just don’t fix it at all so you lose to it again. Like I never want to make the same mistake twice.
So if it’s something silly like when you go Nexus first, if you send your first adept out on the map and they run Zerglings in so you have to keep your adept back at home, they could just be streaming Zerglings across the map and you wouldn’t know, so I like to send a probe out on the map and just keep it patrolling in the middle of the map, so I know if it’s a Zergling all in so I have enough time to wall if it is. Something like that.
Any idea on your plans for next year?
I was quite sad when I lost the GSL qualifiers this year, because I was so close. I was up one game against Hurricane in both series and I lost the last two games. I was really disappointed and I definitely want to play GSL next year. I might go back to Korea in time for Season 1 but definitely Season 2 and maybe Season 3, I don’t know. It’s a long time from now.
Catch Neeb in the WCS Global Finals starting Friday, October 27 until BlizzCon ends on November 4.
Thanks to Neeb for chatting with us and to Padraic ‘Cyan’ Murphy for writing the article and transcribing the interview.