Where have all the great European rivalries gone?
The promotion tournament, apparently.
The European League of Legends Championship Series promotion tournament kicked off last week with perhaps not the highest quality games, but some of the most interesting storylines of veteran pro players and trash talk from rookies, yet unburned by public vitriol. In the end, previously relegated Schalke 04 and Giants Gaming climbed above this split’s bottom LCS teams, Ninjas in Pyjamas and Mysterious Monkeys, to enter the final and compete for the first spot into next year’s LCS.
Almost every matchup had its exciting storylines. Schalke’s grudge match against Mysterious Monkeys, a team comprised of three of five players that kept Schalke from reaching the promotion tournament in the spring, extended to five games.
Veteran Mateusz “Kikis” Szkudlarek took to Twitter to declare he had “no idea how people can say other teams in promotion have better top-jungle synergy” than he and Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider, but Schalke’s Lennart “Smittyj” Warkus exposed the pressure well for his team. Jungler Jonas “Memento” Elmarghichi sometimes even roamed top to put wards down when the wards were ineffective and his camps were spawning bottom to support the 2-v-2.
At times, the fixation on the 2-v-2 backfired for Schalke, such as Game 4 when two trips to Monkeys’ top blue side jungle within two minutes cost them a skirmish, and Schalke couldn’t gain enough map control to balance pressure enough for Smittyj to push effectively on Jax. Yet Schalke demonstrated a main strength in reacting to Monkeys’ decision to group by pressuring every other lane at once.
For Amazing, the loss stung. He’s played five promotion tournaments in his career and won all of them, and an initial setback in the opening round can take a heavy toll. Monkeys kept tunneling heavily on specific top lane counter matchups, but they couldn’t consistently snowball a favorable advantage. Even when Irelia got ahead through Monkeys’ piling into his lane in Game 1, Kikis couldn’t find a strong angle of approach in fights, and the rest of the team didn’t organize well enough to keep mid pressure for him to split-push.
Though a lack of mid pressure was a problem for both Schalke and Mysterious Monkeys. Memento tunneled heavily on playing to top, but Monkeys often got control by pressuring the mid lane or using staggered backs from Schalke’s bottom lane to get vision on dragon and transfer it to mid lane.
“I think it’s just me and Caedrel don’t have the best synergy, so we don’t tend to work as well together,” Memento said. “I think it comes down a lot about communication about lanes and how you — like ‘I can move after this wave’ because sometimes he doesn’t say it, and sometimes I don’t say I’m going to base.”
Yet mid control deteriorated for both teams as the game progressed. The fact that Smittyj could keep side lanes pushed and the rest of the team performed well in team fights with scaling picks like Corki or Tristana gave them plenty of early Barons to close.
For the other two teams in promotion, the mid lane issue felt much more one sided. Ninjas in Pyjamas’ drafts faltered so much in this series that even support Hampus “sprattel” Mikael Abrahamsson commented immediately after the set.
“Interesting drafts,” he said, with no additional clarification.
It’s hard not to criticize NiP’s drafts immediately with simple faux pas like picking Syndra blind without accounting for Daniele “Jiizuké” di Mauro’s now famous Ekko answer. Not only did the Ninjas lose mid control against this pick, but they didn’t properly answer the split-pushing Ekko for much of the game, and Giants chipped away at their map for free. They started tunneling on Lucian with three AD damage sources, opening up Bramble Vest rush and not having an answer for late game team fights.
Yet NiP’s transgressions extend beyond just draft.
Giants have followed a simple formula for much of Challenger Series. They prioritize a strong bottom lane matchup. Jungler Berk “Gilius” Demir has pathed to bottom side, sometimes even when the draft doesn’t call for it (as in Game 1 when Caitlyn could handle the lane self-sufficiently, and Maokai would do better to play to strong top side), they contest dragon, and then they execute their composition around mid.
Team RB, for example, tried to counter with a more complicated flanking composition that didn’t have straightforward engage options like Lissandra. Giants cut out the need to side lane almost ever, even opting for the likes of Poppy and easy engage. Their preference for Kalista as a champion that does everything for them in terms of getting bot control and engaging fights speaks volumes about Giants.
NiP committed the cardinal sin of giving up almost all control for free. In Game 2, for example, after NiP pushed out top lane at 17 minutes, they backed to reset. With their mid laner getting pressured in the 1-v-1 (they had again drafted their mid pick blind only to get countered early), Giants’ bottom lane pushing back top, and their jungler completely out of position bottom, NiP’s own duo appeared indecisive. They gave up any attempt to answer top, moved mid to ward, then wandered back top awkwardly to watch Giants take two of their turrets uncontested.
Though Giants’ series seemed more decisive, this play from NiP covers some of Giants’ more obvious flaws. Gilius plays around bottom to the point of predictability. In cases where he doesn’t, he seems out of his depth, failing to set up properly for Rift Herald or transfer leads mid. Giants seemed less collected trying to approach the dragon pit from mid side instead of bottom lane. The fact that Giants didn’t have a winning mid matchup in Games 3 and 4 disrupted its usual control of the blue side entrance to red buff, costing the team skirmishes and tempo. When Giants did want to push mid, it quickly gave up side lane control.
In the second week of the promotion tournament, the matchups and the stories continue. Although Giants finished first in the regular season of Challenger Series, it came with a single blemish on an otherwise pristine record: a 2-0 loss to Schalke.
“The real game rematch,” however one wants to define it, has arrived, and the stakes are a spot in LCS.
Schalke’s long season of disappointment and Giants’ fall from the LCS in the spring have pitted the two teams against one another as the strongest teams in the promotion tournament. One might say the rivalry of the current rosters began when SmittyJ’s promising split and third place EU LCS finish with Giants Gaming crumbled in the Gauntlet against Unicorns of Love. Rumors of in-fighting had kept the team from scrimming, and suspicion fell to Smittyj given his history of having been benched from North America’s Team Dignitas.
Perhaps it started with Gilius getting relegated with the original Schalke 04 roster last summer. On his way down, he lost to Memento, then jungler for Team ROCCAT jungler and current Schalke member. Schalke’s first venture into LoL seemed rushed, the roster functional at best. Gilius parted ways with them at the end of the season when the club overhauled the roster.
Or maybe the grudge began as far back as when Schalke AD Carry Elias “Upset” Lipp traveled to Gyeonggi, South Korea with Giants. His big stage performance against Team Liquid brought in more attention, and he left Giants for Schalke before the spring season. Giants then accused him publicly of “break(ing) up single-handedly and without prior motive or justification the deal over his signing with our organization” without contract breach.
Dwelling in the past ignores that some of the more exciting back-and-forths have been between the rookies on current rosters. Jiizuke and Caedrel, National League mainstays and ladder climbers, have finally climbed into the spotlight for recognition. The AD Carries have exchanged a few showy words in interviews.
In part because of the attention Giants give to the bottom lane and early dragon fights, Upset’s counterpart, AD carry Amadeu “Minitroupax” Carvalho, has gained much more attention this split than Upset. Caster Devin “PiraTechnics” Younge referred to him casually as “a god” in a recent interview.
Yet both AD carries are centerpieces of the team in fights, and Schalke’s taste for early Barons could set up the vital clash between the two. Either team can win, but for Giants, it might be by abusing the fact that Schalke doesn’t often use bottom leads or try to control dragon. Schalke’s best option may be in an early swap and going for Rift Herald instead. If Schalke picks strong solo lanes, it can set up pressure across the map in the mid game and prevent Giants from executing straightforward fights.
For Giants, it’s hoping for Infernal or Ocean spawns, controlling the bottom area, and trying to bait Schalke into fights. Unless Giants gets Kalista, it seems unlikely to pick up momentum and will rely a lot on Schalke over-extending against terrain picks like Jarvan IV or Taliyah and getting forced into fights against Giants’ tanky drafts.
Because Giants’ road to victory relies more on Schalke making mistakes, and Giants hasn’t demonstrated a lot of variety, betting on Schalke is the safer answer. Yet, unless Monkeys figure out how to play without tunneling solely on getting Kikis ahead or NiP retool their champion priority and reactive play, EU LCS should have two new teams next season. I hope the grudge between these teams becomes a full-on rivalry.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games