Stephano, the peerless phenomenon
This article remembers Stephano and the steps he made to become one of the brightest, most influential players in all of StarCraft 2. From the early days of his career, to his rise to power and recognition; from his controversial and devil-may-care persona to how he set new standards for playing the Zerg race; and from being the highest earning foreigner of all time to having a dull exit, unbefitting the image he had.
Written by: Nydra
Graphics by: Momchil Sergiev
It’s August 6th 2013 and one of the most prolific names of the StarCraft 2 scene plays his last competitive game. The beating he endures is severe, almost ugly. Tank shells and marine fire rain upon his roaches, as the Terran tightens his grip. The Zerg with the curly hair knows he will be dead in seconds, and so does every single person watching the series.
Then there it comes, the signature “Congratulations” instead of the traditional “GG”. “Sorry for the fans. This game is not for me anymore. Goodbye” is typed in next. True to the word he gave all the way back in May, Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri steps down from his throne as king of the foreign scene and embraces retirement.
This article remembers Stephano and path he walked to become one of the brightest, most influential players in all of StarCraft 2. From the early days of his career, to his rise to power and recognition; from his controversial and devil-may-care persona to how he set new standards for playing the Zerg race; and from being the highest earning foreigner of all time to having a dull exit, unbefitting the image he had.
Stephano the unknown
Before year 2011, Stephano is nobody. His first steps in competitive gaming during the WarCraft 3 days leave no trail to be remembered whatsoever, something quite normal for a player whose first days of practice involve beating the AI offline for the lack of internet. Even when that changes a break-out into the WC3 world never happens. With the exception of the very minor victory at WC3NC Season 1, Stephano achieves nothing, always overshadowed by the strong of the day.
As a new Blizzard RTS game comes out in 2010, Stephano follows the transition of many WarCraft 3 players and enters the StarCraft 2 scene. Picking “Sat” as his ID and Zerg as his race – stylistically the closest thing to WC3’s Human that StarCraft 2 has – Stephano joins the ranks of the amateur ToY Gaming. His stay there, however, is a short one.
In October 2010, Satouri returns to Millenium, one of his former WC3 teams and now a growing StarCraft 2 house. Although ultimately making a step towards getting a better exposure for himself, Stephano again finds himself behind bigger Millenium names such as Lalush, Moman and later ToD. With school being an ongoing obstacle foe the talented Frenchmen, Satouri would spend almost one whole year before stepping into the highlights.
Stephano the champion
In late June of 2011, Stephano takes his Baccalaureates, puts school duties aside and directs his attention to professional gaming. But as he turns eyes away from the books he sees an ugly sight. The feared Korean invasion is already a fact and the Easterners dominate almost every tournament they attend. Outside the Mecca of StarCraft, his race is struggling like never before and foreign Zergs have troubles securing high finishes. Even in Korea things are not the greatest for the Swarm in general, the race mostly carried by the mighty shoulders of a few individuals such as NesTea, Losira and July.
Placed in this hostile environment, Stephano starts winning a match here, a group there and being often paired against the strong of the day earns him minor mentions in the media. The improvement is gradual and small of impact, but it is visible and suggestive of a peak in the future. And unlike other cases where said peak is a matter of practice environment or shift in the meta-game or even balance changes, for Stephano it’s simply a matter of time.
In August, Stephano travels to Helsinki for his biggest event yet, receiving an invitation extended by ASUS ROG for their Summer event. Aside from BroodWar bonjwa NaDa, the tournament is purely European and Stephano is given a beatable playing field, something that could act as a trampoline into recognition.
To his luck, Satouri slaloms around most of the European stars of 2011 and destroys his group without any resistance. As he enters playoffs, he tramples Taiwanese superstar SEn and rips apart Seiplo – both with 2-1 – before entering the semi-final pit against Dimaga.
Being the first player to ever beat the god of ZvZ NesTea, Dimaga is praised as the clear favorite for the match-up and the audience expects a slaughter. Two games into the series, the Ukrainian is flawless and a game away from grand making finals but the Frenchman persists. Two more games are forced and Satouri is inches away from a comeback but it is not meant to be. Dimaga closes the series 3-2 and moves on to eventually become champion, while Stephano is thrown down to the bronze final which after four games against Brat_OK yields him $2,900. Not an extraordinary amount by any means but it gets the job done – Stephano has now gotten the media’s attention. What he probably doesn’t realize at that moment is that he will hold that attention till the last day of his career.
No longer a no-name, Stephano starts preparing for the last quarter of tournament activity and in September he signs in for third IPL 3 qualifier and starts walking the golden road. Koreans as well as foreigners fall victim to his Zerg with SlayerS’ ace MMA being the cherry on top. Stephano’s play is devouring, active to the point of franticness but at the same time sound and solid without the usual flaws of aggressive Zergs. Haunted by crackling raids, mutalisk harassment and baneling overload, MMA – the Zerg killer with 73% win rate in 2011 - falls in three games to the surprise of many.
Once on Korean-infested IPL 3 grounds, Stephano doesn’t loosen his grasp on the reins of victory. A 2-0 against HuK and 2-0 against Boxer – both among the most prominent names of StarCraft – give Stephano a flying start in the tournament but that’s just the overture. The momentum of the Frenchman increases with every playoffs match he plays and by the end his velocity is so huge that FXO Lucky – a player who had blanked vZ maestros Ret and MMA in the quarter and semi-finals – is swept away in four games. The Las Vegas crowd is ecstatic as Stephano, bandana over his curly hair and big smile on his face, accepts the trophy from David Ting and Rachel Quirico as well as the title of “best foreigner in the world” awarded by the fanbase.
Standing on a mountain of praise, Stephano needs to wait but two week before his next big hit. Back on home turf, the Frenchman enters ESWC ’11 on October 21st and two days later he adds another $26,000 to his bank account. Names like MarineKing and MaNa fall defeated as they bring Stephano’s total earnings to $56,000. Four months later following yet another gold medal at Lone Star Clash 2 and silver at Assembly Winter 2012, Stephano would hit a record no foreigner before him as ever had, a whole $100,000 in prize money won, placing him in the top ten of most earning players in StarCraft.
At this point, Satouri becomes the recipient of the regular community doubts following every player enjoying such explosive success? Is this a one-time thing? Is Stephano really something special or merely a passing phenomenon? Will this level of domination last till the end of his career or inevitably crash and burn like many a foreigner before him? With the StarCraft scene no stranger to fugacious glories, these doubts were anything but groundless.
Stephano the undethroned
Following Lone Star Clash and the overwhelming victory against Polt, Stephano suffers a minor decline in performance and struggles to secure another championship. Third place finishes at Red Bull Battlegrounds (1-3 to Squirtle) and MLG Spring Arena (0-2 to Symbol) add a bronze coating to Stephano’s near immaculate record. While losing to top tier Koreans is always considered normal in the world of StarCraft even for a reigning majesty as Stephano, a 0-2 loss to MaNa in the semi-finals of DreamHack Summer is considered a weird occurrence by many. Largely acclaimed for his prowess in ZvP, Stephano’s loss to the Polish is surprisingly brutal, coming on the back of archon timings that cut through Satouri’s signature roach-centric play.
Although MaNa’s triumph cracks the aura of intimidation surrounding Stephano, the Frenchman is quick on the rebound and a month after DreamHack he flies to Toronto, Canada for NASL 3 and he enters an environment too similar to IPL 3. Once again he’s on North American ground, competing for a grand prize pool and, naturally, the tournament is plagued by Koreans, many of whom are heavily favored towards seizing the $30,000 cheque. And once again, Stephano goes through it without a breaking a sweat. With 14-3 map score in the playoffs, he goes through Beastyqt, HerO, MC and Alicia refuting all theories of how his ZvP might’ve been figured out. His characteristic of freedom and power in his play are showcased once again and after a champagne shower and unintentional kick to a girl’s head, the title of “best foreigner in the world” is reclaimed.
NASL 3 would also become one of the cornerstones in Stephano’s career as this would be his latest victorious gig with Millenium and also the tournament at which, in his own words, he’s played the best StarCraft of his life.
Stephano the controversial
From his first victories on, another defining characteristic of Stephano’s persona becomes an inseparable part of his career. Being a teenager on the very top of his profession, the controversy of his often childish behavior follows him everywhere and for a player who’s admitted he’s in this for the money, he and “professionalism” are rarely put in the same sentence.
On June 21st 2011, shortly after DreamHack Summer, a picture of Stephano arrested by Swedish orderlies hits the headlines and makes community board explode. The reason: a combination of Twitch.tv afterparty, alcohol and a couch comfortable enough to receive the products of Stephano’s intoxication. While this would only paint a picture of a teenage boy getting some fun, more events would later come to tarnish whatever reputation of a “professional” he might have had.
On September 18th 2011, COO of the Complexity Jason Bass announces that Satouri, then merely an Assembly Summer bronze finalist, will be transferring to the American team, a quote from the signee and newspost at Millenium.org arriving shortly thereafter to give credibility to the story. It would not be until a few hours later that the French-based team would come out with an official statement that Stephano, in fact, will not be transferring but stay with Millenium for the time being.
Two days later the debacle would be solved by Millenium paying a substantial fine but the process of negotiations laid out before the public by Complexity Gaming would be harmful to Stephano’s image, despite his young age. The community would learn how Stephano and Complexity negotiated for whole 18 days; how a legally binding contract with coL was signed; and how that very contract would be broken in favor of re-signing with the French team. As a field labeled by the laymen as “kids getting paid to play video games”, neither eSports, nor Stephano were having a great day.
Merely three months would pass before Stephano bathes his own image in tar once again. On January 29th 2012, Satouri forfeits the grand finals of the ONOG Invitational by stating he’s too tired to play, giving event organizers an ultimate of the “postpone or I forfeit” persuasion and then promptly logging off.
While this certainly is neither the first, nor the last instance of match forfeiture, it is Stephano’s demeanor towards an invitational tournament of ONOG’s nature that raises the pitchforks against him.
I dont understand why people can get mad cuz i gave up for onog, even if i had played the game would have been awful.
In March the same year, Stephano abandons another tournament without any notice – namely the MSI Pro Cup #8 – which incites anger in his own organization. Millenium StarCraft 2 manager Rémy “Llewelys” Chanson would call him “an arrogant little prick” before he bans Stephano from the next MSI Pro Cups. Little do Millenium know that this will not be the last time Satouri would portray them in bad light as two weeks later another match forfeiture happens, this time in Iron Squid #1 against MMA. This would lead Iron Squid general manager Fabian Garcia to directly call out Satouri and his staff and their lack of professionalism.
It saddens us that we are not able to offer our viewers the aforementioned match featuring Stephano vs MMA during our Wednesday, April 4 show. We hope that Stephano and his staff will regain the professionalism to which Team Millenium has accustomed us to.
With the continuous incidents of unprofessionalism, a large anti-fanbase thus forms behind Stephano. The Frenchman is often criticized for his past behavior and it is only his outstanding results on the battlefield that keep the balance between hero and villain.
To his luck, the eSports business is a show business like any other. With every misdemeanor, every instance of unprofessionalism, every tournament won as if it’s nothing noteworthy and every mention of his loose practice schedule ostensibly differentiating him from every other StarCraft 2 player on the planet, Stephano becomes more and more the product the community craves for, without even purposefully pushing for that. A combination of unexplainable talent, the flagrancy of Idra or Naniwa and the flamboyance of MC, Stephano grows into a peerless phenomenon, an entity whose qualities would attract the attention and riches of other eSports organizations.
On September 10th, Stephano joins the ranks of Evil Geniuses, arguably the perfect place for his image. Just a month later, Satouri becomes victim of his own unbridled tongue for yet another time as in an in-game chat with close friend Samayan “BlinG” Kay he jokes about having sex with a minor. Once again, the community is in uproar and fingers are pointed towards Stephano’s childishness but this time the punishment is severe. Notorious for treating such words ruthlessly in the past, Evil Geniuses punish Stephano with suspension and one month of his reportedly substantial salary.
The response of the team is applauded and soon the community moves on, pointing out how this is nothing more than Stephano being Stephano. But at the same time everyone following StarCraft 2 is aware of another thing: there’s much more to the Frenchman than a winning player with haughty unprofessionalism.
Stephano the innovator
If looking at Stephano’s list of achievements and overall dominance over the scene says one thing, it’s that he wasn’t a random glitch in the system. Examined from up close, his rise to prominence in times extremely difficult for the Zerg race, his two-year period of unflinching performance and his durability to almost every meta-game change are a direct result of a playstyle of unmatched endurance, something vastly different than what the majority of the Zerg employ.
Match-up wise, Stephano’s ZvP has been the point of the most analyses. His is the famed twelfth-minute maxed roach push (later shortened to the eleventh minute) as well as the transition into blood-hungry deny-the-third aggression and the contrasting gas-heavy patience in late game. In his ZvTs, he would often forgo the quick third in favor of defensive posture against marine drops and also aim for ultras in late game, a tech largely overlooked by the majority of the Zerg players of his time. At the same time, other games would be completely different and feature abusive amount of banelings, controlled by the characteristic lavishness of Stephano’s playstyle and the establishing of unmatched map control.
Although mostly known for revising how ZvP is played, Stephano’s influences go back the very fundamentals of the Zerg playstyle. In times when the race is still being figured out and the reigning Zergs play reactionary and operate playstyle extremes – i.e. perfect aggression or perfect macro – Stephano comes in to introduce a Zerg that is relentless in its activity but at the same time safe against counter pressure. Uncanny sense of the game and the ability to read an opponent even without scouting is combined with heavy emphasis on positional play, army control and spell caster efficiency to make up for his lacking in macro mechanics, something that Stephano himself acknowledges as his weakest point.
Although players like Idra raise concerns about the playstyle of his teammate dying out once it’s figured out, this never happens. On the contrary, his way of handling the game is only expanded upon, the style utilized and improved by top Korean Zergs who would in turn set new standards for playing the race. The impact of Stephano is so insurmountable that even Zerg icons from the glory days of Brood War would acknowledge his talent.
Watching his games, he executes the plays that I would like to do. The kind of plays that I've drawn up in my mind, he uses them a lot in his games.
Also, he's a foreigner, and that was also very impressive. To think that someone who's not Korean could play like that was fascinating, and I thought it was very attractive.
-- Jaedong for Team Liquid, May 22nd, 2012
Later in his career and after the launch of Heart of the Swarm, Stephano would try to revolutionize ZvP and ZvT once again. Satouri is among the first to heavily favor the use of patient swarm host/static defenses turtling against Protoss and burrow roach/hydra openings against Terran, both strategies which, unlike his innovations in WoL, would not take root in the meta-game.
The once and no more king
Five days after signing with EG, Stephano flies the colors of his new team to Stockholm, Sweden for the WCS Europe Finals. Thirty two players in total are gathered by Blizzard who are to officially crown the best European at the end of the weekend and so Stephano arrives with a target sign on his back as large as his list of accomplishments.
What the elite of Europe manage to accomplish is only break their teeth in Stephano’s skin. In the five rounds before the grand final, the Frenchman drops just a single map, crushing HasuObs, Dayshi, Lowely, Lucifron and Vortix. The latter is the only player to take a series off of him as he crawls to the grand final through the losers bracket but it makes no difference to Satouri. Another 2-0 later and Stephano is $24,000 richer and crowned champion of Europe, proving he’s unrivaled among his foreign comrades. By the end of the year, Stephano would add another Lone Star Clash gold and a bronze medal from ESWC 2012 to his account, becoming the fourth richest player in StarCraft 2 with $212,000, right behind the god trio of MC, MVP and NesTea. The number two foreigner in that table – Mouz’s MaNa – is whole $120,000 behind.
Photo: Helena Kristiansson
Although a few disappointing tournaments come for Stephano in 2012, it is not until 2013 that his decline truly onsets. The launch of Heart of the Swarm is not kind to the king of Europe and he finishes top twelve at IEM World Championship and top thirty two at MLG Winter Championship. His play, though with minor sparks of his former ingenuity, is mostly uninspiring. His persona is overshadowed by other foreigners and the talks of the “EG curse” resurface, although Stephano would openly admit he is not practicing as hard.
Following this period of decline – although not as a direct result of it – on May 14th Stephano officially announces he will retire in three months’ time. The clock is now ticking as the champion is given very little time to walk out head up high and gold in hands.
One month later, Stephano reaches the playoffs for WCS Europe and his fans are in exultation seeing their favorite back in top form. The swarm host play humiliates BabyKnight and the familiar aggression of his ZvT 3-1’s ForGG, sends him to the grand final and takes the first game off IM’s MVP. The momentum is definitely with the Frenchman but it’s not enough. The Korean engineers a comeback and leaves Stephano second. Time is running out.
It is on August 6th that the era of Stephano officially comes to an end on the back of a 0-2 loss to Lucifron in the round of 16 of WCS Europe S2. There is no gold, no fanfares, no happy end, just a short “Sorry for the fans” followed by a “Goodbye” and a final interview with RedEye.
One week after his retirement as we look back at his entire career, it is up to us to choose how to remember Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri. Whether it is as champion, innovator, revolutionist, showman, “arrogant little prick”, gold digger, irresponsible child matters not or the gestalt of it all matters not.
In the end, he was a natural at all of it and that made him unique.
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