WUHAN, CHINA -- No pressure. The crowd in Wuhan had a settled calm. With no Chinese teams taking to the stage on the first day of the second week of Group Stage, many of the LED lights that flashed through the crowd the week before were dimmed. Fans in equal measure of Longzhu, GIGABYTE Marines, Immortals, and Fnatic brought hand-written signs, and many supported players they took a liking to (Lee "Flame" Hojong, who had previously played in the LPL, for example) rather than a team.
The suddenly cold air outside and the peaceable contentment of the crowd belied the explosive day set to unfold. It started from champion select of the first game.
A conversation with Fnatic's Jesiz (or turning 0-3 into 4-4)
"It's basically issues that we've had throughout the entire year (pretty much both splits)," Jesiz said when I asked him about Fnatic's first week woes. "The general problem is basically that we're playing as five individual players, and not really as one team."
We've all heard the mantra before: one cannot place himself before the whole. There is no "I" in "team." It all sounds like petty words until you see its effects.
In Week 1, Fnatic came into Group Stage a disconnected disaster. It wasn't just that it didn't come prepared for GIGABYTE Marines' lane swaps when it had no reason not to know how to deal with it, but that every strategic decision Fnatic seemed to make made its situation worse.
Fnatic grouped in one side lane, giving up control on the rest of the map. It burned Teleports on fights already won. It sent Paul "sOAZ" Boyer to lanes where he would have to overextend to catch waves rather than giving him a bounced wave to catch up after starving him top side. It tried to collapse on Longzhu in the jungle when Longzhu had a stronger level one team.
A lot of these problems vanished.
"When someone is not having a good day," Jesiz said, "we, as an entire team, can easily crumble. I just felt like today we were having a very good day... I just made calls here and there and made sure to ask a lot of questions to my carries to sort of play around what is best for them because many games they had the lead."
Fnatic had a clear lead in mind. They had a plan that identified an Immortals loss to Marines as creating the best opportunity for success. That achieved, Fnatic wanted a scaling bottom lane, a strong early jungle pick, and to play around sOAZ more.
"Every single game," Jesiz said, "we were still sort of selling our top laner, sOAZ. He was basically on tank duty. Literally no matter what, even if he were to be able to counterpick, people just knew he was going to pick a tank."
While the most extreme example (Renekton and Rek'Sai into Jayce with a narrow window for snowball) ended in disaster with Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen pathing toward bottom side from the start, the plan of enabling sOAZ more had significantly positive effects. The simplest result was obvious in the final match against Marines when sOAZ's Gnar isolated and eliminated Nguyễn "NoWay" Vũ Long's Tristana at key moments in every late game team fight that could have won GAM the match. sOAZ took the MVP in exchange.
Of course, if Fnatic's better lane assignments and more consolidated play around mid lane can merely be attributed to a "good day," that doesn't necessarily bode well for Fnatic in the bracket stage. In Jesiz's words, Fnatic only dropped its ego in part due to desperation.
"We basically all faced death in a way," Jesiz said, "so we were all sort of in the same boat, and there was no reason for us to have any kind of ego."
But we've seen the ups and downs of this Fnatic before. And moments of improvement, of mid receiving necessary support or Broxah pathing to Fnatic's trong lane, seem fleeting. The volatile ego returns, and Fnatic end up fixating on the same point of snowballing bottom lane, side laning with the AD carry when Baron is in play, and crashing hard.
It's hard to imagine Fnatic moving beyond its quarterfinal seed. But after Week 1, it was hard to imagine it becoming the first team in LoL history to reverse the fortune of an 0-3 week to squeak out of Groups in second place.
Don't call it cheese
GIGABYTE Marines, who played lane swaps against tempo in Week 1 that only worked because its opponents had forgotten how to lane swap, didn't try to cheese its opponents in Week 2. Instead, Marines just played good macro. The flash of Urgot, Kayn and Zilean undercut the colors the Marines finally showed. The squad is a good macro team, and in many ways, it deserved to win more than Fnatic and Immortals.
Against Immortals, for example, GAM drafted three strong lanes and unrelentingly abused Kayn as a counterjungler. Đỗ "Levi" Duy Khánh immediately identified the lane to play around and followed through. Trần "Archie" Minh Nhựt burned Teleport in mid game, and that gave Immortals a great deal of pressure with a side laning Shen and Ryze, but immediately gave both up for a play on bot side that didn't need to occur because of the power Immortals had with a mid lane Kog'Maw and Lulu.
As Phùng "Nevan" Thiện Nhân put it on Day 1 of Group Stage last week, "Because we have control of the vision on the map, so we know exactly where the enemies are, and we can plan ahead."
While he told me this allowed GAM to stay ahead of opponents in the midst of chaos, it applied even better when it simply drafted for strong lane matchups and played out standard macro. GAM executed elegantly on its leads, prioritized the better objectives, and ultimately lost its tie-breaker final against Fnatic to missed Orianna ults more than faulty decision making.
Even its hybrid lane swap strategy with Galio bottom laning with the support against Longzhu was less cheese. The lane swap wasn't even a lane swap in the sense that it didn't apply the classic mechanics of bouncing waves and trying to get tempo advantages in turret trades. It just used Xayah to solo lane against Jarvan IV and set up a potential dive for Rengar.
GAM in particular forced Longzhu out of its comfort zone.
"Playing against teams like GIGABYTE Marines," Gwak "Bdd" Boseong said about the team's shift away from the snowballing, split-pushing compositions that gave LongZhu success domestically, "it was a lot more difficult than expected to snowball in the early stage."
In the LCK, Bdd and LongZhu didn't hesitate to draft strong lanes and close out against SK Telecom T1. In Group Stage at the World Championship, however, GAM dragged LZ to a late game war of attrition that required mythic heroics from AD carry Kim "PraY" Jongin's Varus.
It all made me wistful for what could have been if GAM had entered the tournament dispensing with the cheese entirely. If every game, GAM just demonstrated the strong macro that won it domestic titles and ultimately kept it in the running to get out of Group Stage until the final call, perhaps it would be the first Vietnamese team to make Quarterfinals at a World Championship. Instead, fans will mischaracterize it as a "cheese team" for years to come.
Immortals' NA plummet
When Immortals lost the first game of the day against GIGABYTE Marines, the faces of hopeful Flame hold outs fell. When I came back from sitting in the crowd to watch Immortals drop again to Fnatic, I returned to find a disgruntled Travis Gafford with North America's 2015 0-10 Week 2 written all over his face, coupled with a long suffering sigh.
Every North American fan knows what it's like to expect great things after Week 1 of the World Championship. Even more, they know what it's like when hope is violently ripped away by a winless Day 1 in the second week.
Let's be clear: Immortals have no excuses. Even in the close game against Fnatic, Immortals demonstrated better use of mid pressure transferring to side lanes, and it didn't get caught off guard by Marines' antics. The collapse of any semblance of macro play and improper engages that left the back line exposed or didn't account for the presence of front lane by jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero baffled the mind. It felt like, while Marines and Fnatic chiseled subtlely at their flaws from Week 1, Immortals not only stagnated, but regressed.
For North America, the fact that this has become a reliable trend is disheartening. In 2015, Fnatic's Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten referred to Cloud9 as predictable and one-dimensional on stage, earning him the famous on-camera middle finger from Hai "Hai" Du Lam. The jab still stings for many NA teams just as much as it rings true. Week 1 is about coming to the table with a strong concept of the meta in mind, and Week 2 is about adapting. Those ahead can fail to see gaps and fail to adapt in time.
"Us EU teams," Jesse "Jesiz" Le explained, "...everyone is just really unsure about what is really the best in many cases. That just sets us really far behind the other teams."
Jesiz's advice to his fellow EU teams, G2 Esports and Misfits, may also apply to any hopefuls aiming to advance to the quarterfinal.
"I'm still not completely sure how we made it through," he said. "You know the Worlds meta kind of changes. Even though it's the same patch for a long time, the meta kind of changes, and I think, at the end of the day, whoever makes it through Groups and Quarters is whoever refined their style and champions they've practiced for a long time."
To Team SoloMid and Cloud9, stick to what you know, but make sure it evolves. That's the best you can do to avoid the mistakes of Immortals and the NA teams that have crashed and burned before you in Week 2 of Group Stage.