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Fnatic and the fallacy of the early start

Can we really know where teams are going to place this early on?

During the League of Legends split schedule, your team cannot afford the luxury of quitting. You can not quit when you are behind. You can not quit when you are ahead. You can not quit when the client repeatedly crashes and your top laner’s PC has to be switched out for the third time today. You can try to surrender a game – though this is rightfully frowned upon – but the season must go on.

Given enough time, all things are possible, and League of Legends has afforded enough time for some pretty significant turnarounds to occur year in year out. So when people signal the death knell of one team or the advent of a new colossus based upon the first weeks of results, all too often they have inevitably been forced to eat their own words. Which brings us to Fnatic.

Fnatic’s Firsts

Fnatic are currently in the throes of their worst start yet (0-4), yet this time last year, they were also on a disappointing start at 2-2 – including a loss to the newly formed H2K roster. G2 are in the midst of quite the opposite, but as recently as last split, they were also looking at the potential for an undefeated run in the same time span. Yet only one of these two teams held the crown in Europe last season. 

A slow start is not new to Fnatic, nor indeed is it new to its recently appointed head coach Joey “Youngbuck” Steltenpool – who administered the strategic prowess that took the team all the way to the World Championship Finals last season. His final split with his former team G2 started similarly poor. 

After making it to the finals of the 2017 Mid Season Invitational, fatigue appeared to have finally claimed Youngbuck’s G2 Esports. They went 1-3 in their first four games of the 2017 Summer Split – their one victory came from a close match against ROCCAT, a team that would not even make it out of the bottom two in their group that split. G2 claimed their fourth consecutive title that year, despite significantly lagging behind Fnatic in their group.

Boom and Bust

In that same split, Misfits Gaming scraped along to the playoffs. A 6-7 regular record definitely didn’t spell out the rest of the then-new and ambitious organisation’s journey to the 2017 Summer Finals against the equally rejuvenated G2. Despite losing 3-0 in the Finals, Misfits had already qualified for the World Championships and went on to a legendary five game set against SK Telecom T1, a series many argue to this day should have ended in Misfits’ favour.

It is with some irony, then, that the most obvious example of a strong start that didn’t quite transition into a finale comes from Misfits the following year. The Summer Split of 2018 saw them begin their run looking almost invincible. While G2 began 4-0 and extended to a 6-0 lead, Misfits racked up an astonishing nine game win streak and eventually saw themselves 10-1 before a crash and 1-8 record in the second half. Misfits eventually ended the regular split in fourth place without a bye in the Playoffs.

A photo of Jiizuke during Week 2 of the LEC

Daniele “Jiizuke” di Mauro and Vitality took the LEC by storm in their debut weeks.

Neither G2 nor Misfits with their strong starts in Summer took the title, and this in and of itself was not even an isolated event in 2018. The preceding Spring Split saw two unexpected titans rack up immediate victories. The recently qualified Team Vitality looked unstoppable, going 3-1 in their first two weeks (and arguably securing Daniele “Jiizuke” di Mauro the title of Rookie of the Split in just four games). They extended this record to an astonishing 7-1, almost unheard of for a rookie team in their debut run.

The second team was arguably even more surprising. While rookie talent has often gone far in Europe, the world was not expecting a team with a roster like Giants Gaming to look like the only clear contenders to Vitality’s #1 spot. Giants went 3-1 and extended it to a 5-2 that included a loss to Vitality. The crash of Giants’ Gaming occured at the same time as another team, H2K, underwent an almost opposite journey. Starting 1-3 and hitting the depths of 1-7, H2K qualified for the 2018 Spring Playoffs while Giants Gaming found themselves absent. Neither Team Vitality nor Giants, both clear contenders in the initial weeks of the split, made it to the Finals.

Finding a niche

It is clear that there have been some very notable discrepancies between early starts and finishes. The question is: Why?

There is no one singular answer. It is certainly clear that some strong starts have come down to meta dependency. Misfits and G2 of Summer 2018 both found some clear points in the early meta that benefited them, albeit in different ways.

A photo of Schalke 04 Esports during Week 2 of the LEC

Schalke 04 have had a devastatingly strong start to their S9 ambitions.

Currently Schalke 04 are experiencing an incredibly strong start to their 2019 ambitions. I would argue that it is to be expected of a roster that has been formed with so distinct an identity in mind. Both Jonas “Memento” Elmarghichi and Donggeun “Ignar” Lee have an immensely strong grasp of the early game.

As a team, Schalke have set their focus on unlocking their mid-jungle to work for their bot lane. Repeated visits have placed Elias “Upset” Lipp in a position to perform above the league’s usual superstars. In spite of this and their 3-1 start, however, Schalke have already demonstrated that a focus on their early-mid game win conditions are where things end, and their struggle with closing out games has left them with one of the highest average game times in the league.

Cracks have appeared, but having strong direction in the set up of their roster has given them a powerful start. Vitality were a team performing similar feats in 2018, though their identity was somewhat different. Without fail, Erberk "Gilius" Demir would go for a level 2 gank to start with a pressure lead, and then once Jiizuke had his ultimate up, they would gank bot lane mercilessly together until the turret cracked. It seems simple, it reads simple, but if other teams are working on foundational elements while you are playing to a particular direction together, the advantage is firmly in your court.

Not so bad

That is, until the foundational elements have been solved by the competition.

The current disappointments of Fnatic and Origen have lacked a specific identity. Yet I would continue to back these two. Fnatic’s members themselves have cited that nobody on the team is willing to be played around. Despite this, the team has created multiple compositions that seem ideal for a mid-to-bot focused strategy in much the same vein as Schalke. Would anybody argue that the current iteration of Fnatic’s roster is incapable of following suit? Even from significant deficits, the team has worked incredibly well in grouped situations, accruing advantages and winning teamfights from behind.

"These are teams preparing for a marathon, not a sprint."

Origen are even easier to make a case for. Thus far, most of Origen’s games have been lost in transition. While the pathing taken by certain players has led to them being caught, the rotations intended were good ones. The question of Origen’s improvement becomes not one of fundamental theory, but of simple execution. In both cases, Fnatic and Origen are closer to figuring out League of Legends than many of the mid tier teams. Fnatic’s play once the laning phase has ended, I would argue, has more promise than Schalke’s.

Luckily, the split doesn’t end in the first weeks, no matter how much some would want it to. Had it done so in the past, the landscape of the LEC would look vastly different than it does now. These are teams preparing for a marathon, not a sprint, and though we have identified with ease the strongest sprinters in LEC right now, we are far from learning who will win this particular race.

Quitters never prosper.

Can Fnatic recover? How long will it take their line-up to click? Give your view in the comments below.