Although it was called NA vs EU Rift Rivals, last week’s tournament wasn’t about Europe or North America as a single entity. Yes, North America as a region came out ahead. Yes, one can draw common threads across what Cloud9, Team SoloMid, and Phoenix1 each did correctly. Yes, it feels like, as a collective, the European representatives let down their fans.
But each of G2 Esports, Fnatic, and Unicorns of Love found themselves confronted by vastly different problems. For the top three teams of the European League of Legends Championship Series spring split, Rift Rivals illuminated a difficult path for a slow climb to international contention.
“We actually came into this tournament underperforming in the LCS already,” Unicorns of Love top laner Kiss “Vizicsacsi” Tamás said, hunched over in the interview room at the conclusion of his team’s 3-0 loss to Team SoloMid in the finals. “We were losing games to NiP. We were falling behind against them. Even the week before, it was not convincing from us.”
He referred, of course, to the snowballed Game 1 loss to Ninjas in Pyjamas on the Saturday before Rift Rivals. Every lane fell victim to Rek’Sai’s early ganks, and only forces in mid lane with members of NiP out of position brought Unicorns of series victory.
But Vizicsacsi’s complaints don’t necessarily resonate with problems expressed by Fnatic and G2 Esports. Fnatic adjusted its play style rapidly, with visible signs of change showing as far back as the team’s June 15 loss to ROCCAT.
“It was really difficult because our style is like if somehow they don’t get picked on the side lane,” Fnatic top laner Paul “sOAZ” Boyer said calmly after a win against Phoenix1, “then usually either we will get out-scaled or something like this because they will have like late game AD carry, and we will have a Blade AD carry.”
Fnatic attempted adaptations before Rift Rivals. Instead of looking to pinch side lanes, the players began pushing minion waves to the bend in river, grouping and looking for the option to force mid. Commentators like Martin “Deficio” Lynge expressed consternation those changes came with weaker early mid lane matchups like Corki into Galio, or Anivia into Syndra.
FNC: Draft and play for MIDLANE PRIORITY. Can't play split push without push mid. Syndra, Leblanc, Ori or Corki + vision/ganks mid.
— Martin Lynge (@RiotDeficio) July 7, 2017
Some of these weaker matchups come with more inability to hold vision on mid lane flanks. Fnatic’s quick reactions to trades for a play on one half of the map after the enemy team makes a move on the other side belies the team’s inability to hold vision on river.
“Usually we tend to trade sides because we cannot really force a play or force vision,” sOAZ said. “So we have to wait until something happens unless we can get ganks off before.”
Even G2 was aware of its problems before Rift Rivals.
“We struggle with what we were good at before,” AD Carry Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen said after G2’s messy games against Mysterious Monkeys. “We get caught much more often now. We get caught in laning phase too where we just need to wait one minute before we see the jungler or their setup.”
G2 mid laner Luka “PerkZ” Perković’s play oscillated last summer. He couldn’t find stability with lower mobility mages taking the stage. When his strengths come through in toeing the line of a team fight to make a play or a trade, he will need to adjust to cooldowns, to range changes, to more crowd control. This split, a similar problem plagues not just PerkZ, but the rest of his team. More crowd control and all-in team comps make sitting that little bit out of position more difficult to handle.
But G2 support Alfonso “mithy” Aguirre Rodríguez won’t accept that as a simple excuse. “People are not used to this style, I guess,” mithy said, “and they are making more mistakes than we would see in the past, but I don’t even think it’s that. I just think it’s the fact that now it’s more punishing to make mistakes because more champions can punish you.”
The same mistakes that one might make with less crowd control in the meta would still be mistakes. It’s just that now players get away with them less often.
Most of the European LCS teams at Rift Rivals didn’t expect North America’s success. They didn’t play around it. But reactions throughout the course of the tournament made the severity or the problem different for each team involved.
In G2’s opening match, their high priority on Syndra left them with multiple lanes that lost the push early on. Fnatic and Unicorns followed a similar formula, especially around mid lane, allowing the enemy jungler to invade, deny camps, and set up skirmishes to snowball the game.
G2 changed its draft quickly, reversing circumstances against Cloud9 and using the Renekton and Elise combination to take control of the game. The Unicorns reacted for more scaling, but their drafts did improve to give them more mid lane priority.
“We noticed that NA teams actually have an insanely high priority on their mid lane picks,” Fabian “Exileh” Schubert said on Day 3. “They pick them in their early rotations.” Niche picks for Exileh like Kassadin and Vladimir countered some of the high priority Corki, Leblanc, and Syndra picks. They gave Unicorns of Love a narrow window for success but didn’t cover up the deeper problem.
“Usually it happens to be that I’m not over-thinking matchups too much,” Exileh admitted. “I don’t go too much in depth. I think I lost mid lane most of the time due to this. Or that I disrespect the jungle in terms of just ganking.”
Unicorns fall into familiar rut
A narrow pool has been a commonality for Unicorns of Love mid laners starting from the 2015 summer split with Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage. Scaling mid lane picks didn’t always provide the best edge for his team, especially when they relied on his power spikes before major fights. If UOL mids continue to struggle to develop a wider pool and a more complex understanding of matchups in laning phase, one begins to wonder why this point escapes team planning and staff.
PowerOfEvil still can’t be called one of the greatest mid laners in the world, but his champion pool has developed since his time on Unicorns and Origen. More aggressive choices like Ahri or Leblanc have graced the stage for Misfits. Exileh has demonstrated some sense of mechanical prowess during his Unicorns tenure, but teaching jungle awareness and mid lane matchups doesn’t appear to be a priority for the team.
In fact, the Unicorns instead would rather bring something they used to play to the forefront when cornered.
“When we lose,” Vizicsacsi said, “we have this tendency to resort to older styles where we might catch the enemy off guard and not try to go for the perfect play, but just aggressiveness, and overwhelm them with that.”
Despite Unicorns’ tendency to bring new picks to the LCS, if something doesn’t work immediately, they tend to fall into a rut. If they feel they’re underperforming, they don’t immediately look at abnormalities in their play or whether or not what they’re doing makes it more difficult for them to win against the standard style. That makes their problems somewhat circular in nature.
With talent on their roster, Unicorns should be able to expand their style of play. According to the team, they’ve experimented with more aggressive picks in scrims, but they haven’t come out yet. Instead, they stick to what they’re already good at with a certain level of stubbornness.
“We believe we will team fight better than the enemy and win the game that way,” Vizicsacsi said.
But Unicorns might need to decide to throw out the basic blueprint. Over the years, they’ve remained true to principles others don’t follow. “In Europe, we like to surprise a bit more. Pull off surprise plays. Or play a different style,” AD carry Samuel “Samux” Fernández Fort told Slingshot.
That’s fine to a point, as long as elements of macro don’t suffer. As long as the map doesn’t split open for the enemy jungler to feast. Right now, one might just call the Unicorns’ style — avoiding emphasizing mid priority, poor setups for dives in the early game, a focus on mid lane 5-v-5s at the expense of side lane control — bad macro and map decisions.
Fnatic’s crisis of style
As for Fnatic, most spectators tunneled on the classic team composition used on the final day of group stage against TSM. Shen, Kennen, and Camille support seemed a lot like the Unicorns of Love reaction to tunnel on ultra comfort, even when it put Fnatic in a bad position in terms of lane matchups and the way team fights would play out.
But for me, that wasn’t the story of Fnatic at Rift Rivals. They already knew the “Fnatic style” wasn’t working. Earlier games might have had the same side lane AD carry picks, but they went for more scaling options, and they, too, lost control of the map with choices like Anivia.
“We try a lot of different things in scrims,” sOAZ said. “We tried a lot to counter pick mid. We used to do that a lot.”
It isn’t simply about getting a strong mid and jungle matchup, of course. It’s about populating river with vision and keeping tabs on the enemy jungler. But map control becomes much more difficult without mid priority. That’s one thing about the Fnatic style that shouldn’t be sacrificed.
Perhaps Fnatic feels the need to go for more scaling mid lane picks because of the AD carry choices it makes. As sOAZ said, often Martin “Rekkles” Larsson will latch onto a Blade of the Ruined King AD carry pick while crit builds have gained increasing popularity.
sOAZ referred to Rekkles choosing Corki AD carry as him “wanting to be off-meta. He doesn’t really want to follow what’s meta. He has his own way of thinking about the game.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t work early or we cannot play early game as we would have wanted,” sOAZ explained, “and we fall really far behind… Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
It comes off as a sense of stubbornness in terms of champion picks on Rekkles’ part. If that’s the case, Fnatic might feel the need to pick more scaling carries in mid lane. That doesn’t always work well with aggressive jungle picks, and it usually requires a strong grasp of draft to check both boxes.
I don’t think Fnatic needs to veer too far away from pick compositions for success. It’s less in what they’re playing than in how they play. Following up laning advantages with jungle invades and wards and looking for picks around mid rather than simply in side lanes could go a long way. Instead, Fnatic tends to give up control of mid for pinching the enemy split-pusher in top or bottom, opening up mid for an engage from the enemy team.
“Sometimes we can get a better team fight off because we play the fights better,” sOAZ said, “but it’s really risky if they can just ARAM mid and just try to push and get full vision like this. A bit like ROCCAT did in the second game against us when their top lane was like 0-11, and they just group mid as four, and they will just run down middle.”
In a recent series against Splyce, Fnatic had already started making those adjustments. Despite Kassadin having a strong matchup into Corki, Fnatic also picked the Elise to make Kassadin’s early levels less comfortable. Fnatic’s increasingly frequent Tristana picks provide a happy medium between what Rekkles wants and the better scaling they think is necessary. During the match, they only pushed side lanes to river and grouped to try to catch Splyce in the center of the map instead.
“We’ve been trying to play a bit different in scrims recently rather than playing the same style with me on aggressive junglers and just trying to get really far ahead early always,” jungler Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen said on the first day of Rift Rivals.
It seems like in the context of the context of EU LCS, Fnatic has begun to think of early and late game as either/or. You either aim to make every lane a strong matchup and snowball astronomically, or you go for a full scaling composition like Unicorns to force mid, abusing the mistakes of the enemy team from behind. One hopes in their scrims they can find the happy medium.
It’s worse when you already know
Fundamentally, tunneling on late scaling relies too much on early game and mid game mistakes by the enemy team. Although North American teams certainly made mid game mistakes, they took advantage of openings left when European teams drafted weak laning matchups across the board.
“It’s fucking hard to play against that,” Cloud9 positional coach and ex-EU LCS jungler, Jean-Victor “loulex” Burgevin told Slingshot on Day 3. “If you have certain picks, maybe you can find ways to make things happen in a lane that gets pushed, but it’s typically pretty hard…If every lane is pushing, then usually the game is pretty doomed.”
In this matter, one can point fingers at Fnatic and Unicorns of Love for mistakes in choosing high scaling picks across the board. But after Game 1, that wasn’t G2’s problem.
G2 managed to draft the top lane beating Renekton and Elise combination in two of their games and had much more success drafting balanced compositions. Problems came rather when they failed to reinforce river and the jungle with vision control from winning matchups, allowing North American junglers to get away with otherwise questionable invades. For the effort expended early in snowballing Ki “Expect” Daehan, NA junglers could get map advantages in river control for free on the other half of the map.
Then, in mid game, G2 had difficulty balancing pressure in lanes, and members of the team frequently found themselves caught out.
“I think in general top-jungle synergy is not very good in Europe,” mithy said regarding the failure of the Renekton-Elise combination — a pairing that often wins games in LCK — in the EU LCS. “So it’s understandable that there’s not really a good way of playing these two champions if they don’t coordinate with each other when one of them is trading if they’re both low HP. Elise can come over and dive or — the level 3 dive is very telegraphed.”
Mithy’s leadership of G2 receives a lot of praise from anyone who has seen the teamwork behind the scenes. He receives a lot of credit for helping the team and leading the charge when the opportunity to make a play presents itself.
“I’m able to think outside the box and kind of understand what paths people are going to take and what places they don’t have vision on and make plays around that,” mithy said. “In this game, I was playing very well around tempo and pressure and waves. I was able to get deep wards through that.”
Mithy is aware of the challenges posed by more crowd control in the meta, by the fact that this period’s champion picks can both forgive early game mistakes and punish mid game missteps made with an advantage. He just isn’t content to use that as an excuse.
““I think if you play sloppy it’s because you fucked up, and you’re shit, you know?” mithy said. “Like if you’re good, if you’re really good, then you understand what you can do and how they can play make against you. And you just expect it and play around it.”
For mithy, no doubt, members of G2 (himself included) getting caught out of position doesn’t necessarily reflect a new round of mistakes, but it reveals issues within the team he already knew existed. When I asked him if Rift Rivals could help G2 “hammer down some of the stuff (they) are missing,” he seemed surprised by the suggestion.
“Well, I know all the mistakes that we make. I can see them in scrims.”
Unlike Unicorns of Love, who have defaulted to comfort in a time of crisis and seem too afraid or too stubborn to make a change, and Fnatic who still haven’t figured out how to fix themselves, G2 plays for mid priority. Kim “Trick” Gangyun doesn’t always take advantage of his leads, and sometimes his attempts to reinforce mid’s lead is an awkward gank that doesn’t amount to much, but it’s clear he has an idea of what he should be doing.
Throughout the split, G2 has maintained it’s aware of the team’s problems. Regarding aspects in which they are behind because of their vacation, they simply need to talk it out. It’s just a matter of time.
Until it isn’t. Knowing what is going wrong and understanding what it will take to fix it isn’t always a preferable problem to obliviousness. It can be a much more frustrating one.
“I was fine, honestly, before this week,” mithy admitted. “But I think maybe the stress of this tournament and the fact that I want to show that I’m performing well put me on the edge. Now I’m worried, honestly. I really feel like — it doesn’t feel well anymore, you know?”
G2 has a vision of how it should play. Spectators have seen glimpses of it, especially in a single game win against Cloud9. Yet flaws like getting caught frequently, over-tunneling on advantages on one half of the map, not reinforcing leads with vision, and forgetting about the enemy’s Teleport don’t seem to vanish.
Instead, the vision itself begins to drift away.
In the wake of Europe’s Rift Rivals humiliation and 28.6 percent win rate against North America’s representatives, commentators might feel the need to lump all of each team’s problems in a pile. Europe wants to play “their style.” No one understands mid priority. No one wants to change.
But the feeling I got from the teams this week reinforces that Fnatic, Unicorns of Love, and G2 Esports are aware that their problems are their own. The EU LCS as a collective didn’t let its fans down this past week; three individual teams with three separate challenges collapsed against their North American opponents. There’s no “EU meta” to blame, and as EU LCS resumes this week, it becomes that much more clear.
It’s a challenge Europe’s teams are still facing after a spring success hangover, and even representing the EU LCS at the League of Legends World Championship might seem like a daunting task for some of them.
“We would kind of need like first place to secure worlds spot because fighting in the gauntlet will be very hard,” Vizicsacsi said, “and we had that last split, and it’s very hard to qualify to worlds from it.”
“I’m trying my hardest,” mithy said. “I can sense what is going wrong and what is going right, and I think I’m really giving it my best to become good again.”
For now, that’s the most anyone can ask.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games