With BlizzCon 2018 fast approaching and a host of great StarCraft II matches set to take place in the World Championship Series (WCS) Finals, we caught up with Joona “Serral” Sotala of Ence Esports. Serral tore his way through his matches in the group stage and is poised to play Dark in the round of eight this weekend. We spoke about his confidence levels going into the round of eight, including a few player specifics, and also his feelings about the rivalry narrative between him and Maru. We also discussed hype and tournaments, his family and hometown, and more.
Daily Esports: So, first of all, it’s really, really wonderful to meet you, and congratulations on your matches against sOs and Zest. They were super impressive and you had a really great first day. How do you feel about that?
Serral: Yeah, I’m very happy with the first day. I mean, I was kind of expecting to get to the second stage. I was mainly worried about sOs, since I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t prepare for him actually a lot … but he didn’t end up bringing too much to the table, so it went really smoothly. I was confident against this all the time since I think he’s been destructing at tournaments a bit. … I think he plays very stale, so I kinda knew what to do against him.
DES: Both of your opponents in the group stage were Protoss. Are you really confident in your Protoss game? Or are there Protoss players that you’re looking forward to testing your skills against in the future?
Serral: Yeah, I’m pretty confident in ZvP. If I get into a very normal game, I’m super confident against anyone, but I feel like there’s some strange things Protoss can pull and it could make it hard for me. But I think most Protoss players, they play very stale. … Like I said, for example [with] sOs, I wasn’t very worried about him, but he was the only one in this moment who would be very difficult.
DES: Okay, but what about Stats? Because in GSL vs. the World that was really close, so, if you meet him in BlizzCon do you think it might be close again?
Serral: I’d be very confident if I would play against Stats. I think he’s a good player, but PvZ isn’t his strong point for sure and I think I learned a lot from my GSL vs. the World series. I wouldn’t try as many tricks necessarily, and I would feel very confident if I would get into standard games against him.
DES: You’ve mentioned in the past that Europe has strong Protoss and Zerg but it’s lacking a little in Terran, so are you worried at all about opponents like TY?
Serral: Actually, not really. I’ve been actually doing pretty good against Terran matchups lately and I kinda know what to do in all the situations. I don’t play against as good of players as TY and Maru, but I’m very confident against them because I kinda know what to do against Terran right now.
DES: A lot of the Terran play right now is a little “unexpected,” so have you figured out what to in all of those different scenarios? And so you know what to expect when they’re doing these weird plays?
Serral: Mm, yeah, well, I didn’t prepare too much for Terrans. Just, well, I didn’t think there’s too many things they would pull against me. It’s mainly just, like, strange builds have become very standard in the matchup so you kind of expect everything.
DES: The unexpected is becoming expected from them.
Serral: Yeah, so, I’m gonna say, [if] they have something in their pocket, it’s always a bit scary. But I think I prepared decently against everything they could pull out, and if, for example, in round of eight I play against TY, I still have time to prepare and I’m already pretty confident against anything they can pull out.
DES: Personally, I love watching ZvZ, and I’m incredibly excited to watch some really high-tier European vs. Korean Zerg play. And we interviewed Rogue earlier in the day, and he said he was really looking forward to playing you, but he’s confident in his ZvZ. He says that if he just plays his game and focuses he’ll never lose against another Zerg. So I’d love to hear your own opinion about your ZvZ, and how you feel about Rogue.
Serral: Mm, I’m pretty confident in my ZvZ. We are — Europeans are, I guess. ZvZ is the matchup we — I think against Koreans — we feel like we should win. But I think Rogue is actually one of the only Koreans who are actually willing to play. Normally Korean Zergs, I find after mid-game they don’t really want to go to the late game. So if you get into a game with like ten Lurkers, I wouldn’t see myself losing to Dark for example. But Rogue is willing to play the later stages, so I think he’s one of the better ZvZ players, and, I don’t know, last time I played against him I won 2-1 so, that’s all I have. *laughs* … It’s very hard to say how good he is in the matchup.
DES: So, do you think you guys have very different play styles?
Serral: I think Rogue plays pretty similar to Europeans. Maybe a bit different, but the basic idea is the same.
DES: You rather famously beat Dark 3-1 in GSL vs. the World, and at the time he was considered the best Zerg on the planet. Now you’ve kind of taken that title, or made a strong case for it. So, if Dark ends up beating ShoWTimE and advancing, you think you can beat him again, right?
Serral: Yeah, I think I have a good chance. I think Dark might play a bit different this time if I face him, but just me knowing that, I think I would have a very good chance.
DES: [People like to say you have an intense rivalry with Maru.] With this rivalry narrative, is that the way you’re thinking about it, or are you just thinking about all of these really good players that you need to fight against? What’s your perspective on this?
Serral: Well personally, I hate the rivalry narrative. Personally, I’m not a fan of it and I try to dodge it, but I guess that’s what people want.
DES: Why do you think they’re trying to make it a thing?
Serral: No clue.
DES: There’s a lot of hype around you because you’ve basically got, like, “ooh the foreign hope” weighing on your shoulders and stuff, right? And you’re a really amazing player, so being in that spotlight must be kind of intense. Do you like the attention?
Serral: Mm, I guess I like the attention to some extent, but I don’t think about it too much. I just play my own games.
DES: What do you do to sort of push that away? Like in your own practice and your daily everything, like when you get to a big tournament and stuff like that, what do you do?
Serral: Actually I don’t need to do anything to push it down. [This] is no pressure for me. I just don’t care about the pressure too much; there’s not a whole lot I need to do for it.
… I feel like when I go to tournaments and when I’m just playing StarCraft, that’s just kind of what I do, and I can’t be too nervous of doing something I actually like doing and dreamed of doing. So, I mean, it’s kind of just my work.
DES: Your Signature Series is one of my absolute favourites. Your relationship with your brother seems really wonderful. Is he there supporting you?
Serral: Yeah, he was watching my games, and he wanted to be in Korea back then but he was watching the games live.
DES: And what race does he play?
Serral: Oh, he plays Zerg as well.
DES: I see it all over the internet [that] your father gave you this good advice about having good manners in gaming? It’s stuck with me and a lot of other people. It sounds like you really had a good supportive home life, especially in regards to pro gaming.
Serral: Mm, I guess. My dad … used a lot of generic sports, like running, swimming, that sort of stuff, and he was pretty good at it. So he kind of used the same kind of method to help me in esports. … I guess in that way I had a very good trainer, you could say. And yeah, I got a lot of support from both of my parents. Mainly my dad, but my mom is into it a bit more now.
DES: Oh yeah? How so?
Serral: Oh he’s helping a lot now as well. My dad helps me mainly but my mom has gotten a bit more interested in the esports scene and they’re both very supportive.
DES: Do they watch your matches?
Serral: My dad watches all of my matches. My mom watches some of my matches.
DES: Does she, does she know the, do they both actually know all of how it works and stuff? Or do they just watch it to…
Serral: *laughs* No, my mom doesn’t know too much, but my dad has pretty good understanding. He actually played himself a bit, like probably 300 games, so he knows a good amount. And if nothing else, at least he can look at the supply, and that tells the story most of the time.
DES: In your Signature Series you mentioned that eventually you’d go the route of school? Have you thought about what you might be interested in studying or anything like that?
Serral: Mm, no. I haven’t really spent too much time actually thinking what I’m going to study. Yeah, I don’t know, but when the time comes I’ll have to think I guess.
DES: What do you do when you aren’t playing StarCraft?
Serral: I don’t know, *laughs* normal stuff. Maybe I go outside. I do some skiing during winter; we can go up during the summer. I mean just normal stuff — hang around with people. Play some other games as well when I have time for it.
DES: Cool, how much time do you actually have that you aren’t playing StarCraft?
Serral: Actually it’s a lot of the time I don’t play StarCraft. I don’t play 11 hours a day. I’m more of a once-a-day I practice with full focus and to play the time I feel is useful.
DES: You mentioned that you’re from a fairly small town. Do the people in your town know that you’re… “Serral”?
Serral: *laughs* Uhh I mean, some of them do probably, but I don’t really know. We are Finnish, so we don’t really talk too much about that kind of stuff anyway. So if I talk with someone, he’s not going to bring that up.
DES: So do you ever get recognized by fans when you aren’t at a competition?
Serral: At competitions, yeah, but at my home not currently.
DES: Do you like that? Is it better that way?
Serral: Yeah, I think it’s better that you kind of… No one knows who I am. I’m just a normal guy so, I don’t know if I’d like it to be different, but I don’t know the other side so it’s hard to say.
DES: Are you going to explore Anaheim or Burnham before the round of eight? Or have fun in the city or anything like that?
Serral: Well actually, yesterday I already went to Hollywood, but other than that I don’t think I’m going to go around too much, but maybe–
DES: Wait! Didn’t you tweet a picture of that Donald Duck?
Serral: Yeah. *laughs* … I mean, maybe I’ll go somewhere, but I’m probably just going to practice for most of the time.
DES: That makes sense, yeah. Okay cool, I think I’ve run out of questions, so thank you so much. I really appreciate your time.
Serral: Yeah, thank you to you as well.
DES: Do you have anything to say to your fans?
Serral: Yeah, I want to thank all my fans for the support. It’s been very helpful to me, and I think all my fans are very kind, kind people. I also want to thank my team and teammates for the support they’ve given me.
We’ve also interviewed Dark and Rogue, if you want to read more interviews with the players who are going into the round of eight this weekend. We’ll be covering that as well, by the way, so stay tuned for more!
Alexandra is an avid writer and a huge fan of StarCraft, and combining those two things is giving her a great excuse to watch an absolute ton of progaming.