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Fnatic vs SK Gaming: The battle of the old guard

After being away from the highest level of European competition, SK Gaming are trying to invade Fnatic's kingdom in the first game of the LEC. Do they have what it takes to beat a Worlds finalist?

It’s been over three years, but SK Gaming are finally back at the highest level of League of Legends competition. Coming from the defeat and despair of the 2016 Spring Promotion Tournament, they now have a point to prove.

So, are they being eased back into professional LoL with a simple start to League of Legends European Championship in Week 1? Entirely the opposite. They’ll be going up against Fnatic, a team which has been there since the start. A team which has won more EU LCS titles than any other. A team which competed in the Grand Final of Worlds just two months ago. It also happens to be the very first game of the split. No pressure.

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SK Gaming face the Worlds 2018 runner-up in their first game.

On paper, it’s a scary match up, arguably the scariest in the league. The team Fnatic sent to Worlds 2018 was the best roster ever formed by a European team. In the top lane you had the immense experience of Paul “sOAZ” Boyer backed up by the youth of Gabriel “Bwipo” Rau. You had the Lee Sin maestro Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen in the jungle. In the bottom lane you had Martin “Rekkles” Larsson and Zdravets Iliev “Hylissang” Galabov, able to hang with the world’s best on their day. And in mid you had Rasmus “Caps” Winther, a man who is still only 19, but already recognised as one of the best mid laners in the world.

Perhaps luckily for SK Gaming, Caps is now playing for G2 Esports, and sOAZ has headed off to Misfits Gaming. The rest are still there though, and it will be highly interesting to see how they show up to the first game of the LEC.

Two teams with a point to prove

The Worlds 2018 final did not go Fnatic’s way, it’s fair to say. They went into it with the full expectation of the West weighing heavy on their shoulders. They had had an amazing run through the tournament, and they had even beaten their Grand Final opponents twice already in the Group Stage to come out of a tough group on top. However when it came down to it, in front of tens of thousands at the Incheon Munhak Stadium, and millions watching around the world, Invictus Gaming took Fnatic 3-0.

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Fnatic are looking to make a big start to their 2019 campaign.

So, will Fnatic turn up to LEC hungry for blood, eager to put that defeat behind them? Or will that dismantling leave them licking their wounds and treading water? Smart money is on the former, but with a new mid laner mixing things up for 2019, will Fnatic be the same beast they were last year?

Stepping into Caps’ place is Tim “Nemesis” Lipovsek. He may be an unfamiliar name to a lot of EU fans, however anyone keeping an eye on the Spanish league or on the European Masters over the past year may be starting to draw a few comparisons between the two players. They’re both 19 years old, and they both make a habit out of winning, a lot. Playing for MAD Lions E.C., he won the SuperLiga Orange Spring Split, the Summer Split, the Gillette XL Invitational, the Iberian Cup, and the summer European Masters.

He might not be Caps yet, but he’s certainly on the way. As the man told us himself just last month, “Spain was the best experience I could've gotten in terms of competition outside of LEC.”

New challengers

But what about Fnatic’s opponents? That successful MAD Lions team which Nemesis played for? It turns out three of them are now playing for SK Gaming. Top laner Jorge “Werlyb” Casanovas Moreno-Torres, jungler Oskar “Selfmade” Boderek, and AD carry Juš "Crownshot" Marušič are all still playing together under a new banner, and they’re joined by a couple more players with a point to prove too.

Han “Dreams” Min-kook used to be the substitute support player for Team Vitality. Choi “Pirean” Jun-sik was once on Phoenix1, and more recently he played for SK Telecom T1, where he was back up for none other than Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Now they’ll be hoping to grab the spotlight all for themselves.

There’ll be a good amount of synergy between the jungle and the bottom and top lanes thanks to Werlyb, Selfmade, and Crownshot’s playing time together. Pirean will be bringing knowledge of the game over from South Korea that you can only learn by playing with, and against, some of the world’s top players. You have to pick up a thing or two playing with Faker for nearly a full year.

Many will likely still give the edge to Fnatic. They’re probably even heavy favourites. However, in a best of one, anything can happen. Maybe a Level 1 invade goes wrong. Perhaps someone steals an Elder Dragon, or a Baron. It could be that one team just has a bad day at the office. Just ask Fnatic how they felt on the evening on November 3, 2018, and see if they’d want to give Invictus another go. Chances are, they’d do a lot better than losing 0-3.

There’s a lot of pressure on both teams. It’s one of the marquee matchups in the opening week of a brand new league, and a lot of eyes will be on them. Fnatic are looking to bounce back from a crushing defeat. The new players on SK Gaming know they’re playing for a team with a massive history in the scene, and they’re going up against the most successful European team in history.  

It’s a long season, and a lot of people will tell you that a single result doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. But for the 10 players taking to Summoner’s Rift on January 18, and the two organisations backing them up, this is a big one.

Don’t miss the 2019 LEC Spring Split season opener between Fnatic and SK Gaming kicking off on Friday, January 18th at 18:00 CET. Who will reign supreme? Let us know your thoughts in comments.