Tenacity: Part 2 in a review of YellOwStaR's career

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Even if a professional player never makes waves, he always experiences periods of downturn. Every League of Legends player in the history of competitive play has had moments where he doesn’t play well, where his form deteriorates. In the game’s infancy, Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim excelled, he earned accolades, he could be referred to as one of the game's best. As a more sophisticated understanding of League of Legends developed, and more players acquired aspirations of “going pro,” the competition increased. As an AD carry shotcaller, YellOwStaR juggled his own performance against his team’s and found himself lacking — and then he found a way to change that.

“People were not playing as good as they are now,” YellOwStaR said in a 2014 Reflections interview with Duncan “Thorin” Shields. When asked if he thought he could perform as an AD carry again in 2014, as he had in early 2013, YellOwStaR said he didn’t think he could.

The swap and the mediocre support player

2013 EU LCS Spring regular season champion picks

Champion Games Wins WR (%)
Thresh 6 4 66.7
Sona 5 4 80
Draven 3 2 66.7
Leona 2 2 100
Fiddlesticks 2 0 0
Nami 2 1 50
Caitlyn 2 0 0
Varus 2 2 100
Lulu 1 1 100
Tristana 1 0 0
Twitch 1 0 0
Nunu 1 0 0
Shen 1 1 100
Ezreal 1 0 0

Fnatic went into the 2013 European League of Legends Championship Series having just won the first ever LCS split. High spirits followed the team, but steeper competition brewed on the horizon. Beginning as early as the playoffs, chatter of green squads rising and creating struggle for European giants like Gambit Gaming bubbled. Three new teams joined the LCS that summer: Lemondogs (qualified as Sinners Never Sleep), Team ALTERNATE, and Meet Your Makers.

During parts of the LCS that summer, both Lemondogs and Team ALTERNATE looked like the best teams in the league. Team ALTERNATE went undefeated in the five game super week of Week 1, beating staples like Evil Geniuses and SK Gaming. The team played a team fighting-oriented and aggressive style reminiscent of the Chinese league with tinges of inspiration from Oh My God as they drafted picks like jungle Hecarim.

By contrast, Fnatic lost three of their five initial games to Evil Geniuses, Meet Your Makers, and Ninjas in Pyjamas. Fnatic lost to an explosive invade from Team ALTERNATE in Week 2. In Week 3, they were defeated by an equally-struggling Lemondogs when support Bram "wewillfailer" de Winter had an improved roaming game over Fnatic’s Christoph "nRated" Seitz.

While some had previously called YellOwStaR a Top 3 AD carry in Europe, players new to the LCS like Erik “Tabzz” van Helvert, Jakub “Creaton” Grzegorzewski, and beginning in Week 3, Aleš “Freeze” Kněžínek exposed very obvious gaps between YellOwStaR’s mechanics and the new generation. Compiled with nRated’s alleged loss of motivation, Fnatic made the decision to execute what became one of the best role swaps in the history of the game.

Prior to Week 4, after losing six of 10 games in the first three weeks, Fnatic announced that they would add substitute AD carry, Johannes “puszu” Uibos to their starting roster and move YellOwStaR to support. As these changes coincided in timing with some of Counter Logic Gaming’s more egregious role swaps in North America, the initial declaration was met with skepticism.

Fnatic wanted to retain YellOwStaR’s vocal presence and motivation, but he struggled to keep up with other AD carries. LCS caster Martin “Deficio” Lynge, then the support for Ninjas in Pyjamas, recalled while describing Fnatic during the 2015 European LCS Final that when YellOwStaR was an AD carry, he would try to last hit and type cooldowns between CS. As YellOwStaR became more comfortable with the role in 2014, he said of his swap, “It's easier for me to pay attention to what we are doing on the map and shotcall.”

While his play as an AD carry in 2013 made it obvious YellOwStaR couldn’t keep up with flashy prodigies, his debut games as a new support were abysmal. In his first game against Meet Your Makers, YellOwStaR died twice in the first two minutes. His one-dimensional warding habits meant he over-warded, dropping greens in both lane bushes when far enough forward. He and puszu hugged turret and found themselves pushed back by MYM’s duo lane.

puszu, YellOwStaR's first AD carry lane partner

But they won, which was more than could be said for Fnatic’s earlier encounter with MYM that summer. In Week 4, Fnatic secured a 3-0 record over MYM, Lemondogs, and a Team ALTERNATE with Matti “WhiteKnight108” Sormunen subbing in the mid lane.

It’s difficult to say what worked for Fnatic immediately with YellOwStaR entering the support role. Perhaps his ability to focus more on the rest of the map in his new position freed up more of his faculties, and puszu’s hunger to advertise himself on the competitive stage made up for their depressingly lacklustre laning phase. puszu showed the same affinity for Varus as YellOwStaR had, and the two developed a rhythm of poking from afar on Sona and long ranged AD carry picks.

When asked about YellOwStaR’s transition, Deficio said, “His change to support was super clunky. It was during the Summer split and he got Puszu as ADC who was also new to the scene so facing them during the Summer Split was super easy. They were a teamfight focused bot lane who almost just ff'd the lane if you got 2v2 against them, but they got solid in lane and then did well outside of lane as a team during playoffs and Worlds.”

In Week 4, Team ALTERNATE gave way to Lemondogs in the running for upstart team of the year. Creaton suffered an injury, and substitute WhiteKnight108 moved to the AD carry position in Week 5. Coincidentally, one of YellOwStaR’s greatest rivals in 2015 entered the LCS the same week in which he transitioned to the support role. Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodriguez replaced wewillfailer on Lemondogs, and over time, many attributed their surge to first place in the regular season to that roster change.

Tabzz and mithy ran an exceedingly aggressive lane (for the time). mithy debuted with Fiddlesticks support, and was able to find key locations to hide in fog of war and spring traps on Fnatic. YellOwStaR finished his first deplorable competitive Thresh game with missed skillshots and 10 deaths, clearly outclassed by Europe’s new support talent.

But, again, Fnatic still won.

Over the course of the 2013 League of Legends Championship Series Summer Split, YellOwStaR learned support in front of stream spectators. Some of his initial flaws beyond predictable warding included strict adherence to the 2v2, uncoordinated back timings with puszu that opened opportunities for the player left behind to die 1v2, and playing scared and far back in fights in order to avoid getting caught out and dying so frequently.

xPeke and sOAZ were Fnatic's stars in 2013

It’s ridiculous to consider how little YellOwStaR’s individual performance mattered to Fnatic during the 2013 Summer split and the team’s subsequent World Championship run. Paul “sOAZ” Boyer and Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez were one of the most threatening solo lane packages, and their supremacy was seldom in question.

Perhaps by focusing less on CSing, YellOwStaR was able to aid the development of Fnatic’s team-play. During this time, they became known for several signature strategies in Europe: the “Fnatic death bush” or hiding in the bush on the top right side of the map for comeback ambushes, borrowing mid lane Teleport use to constantly chip at outer turrets and look for picks, and early group pushes, as in the team’s game against Gambit in Week 6.

In Week 7, Fnatic expressed an increased sense of confidence and flexibility as a unit. sOAZ and YellOwStaR swapped positions for one game. YellOwStaR, known to enjoy playing Shen, and sOAZ, a fan of selecting Blitzcrank, lead Fnatic in a heavy roaming game with frequent picks and dives. sOAZ roamed as a support considerably more than YellOwStaR, leading to a faster game. From that point on, the team seemed much more aggressive and comfortable with YellOwStaR and puszu.

In Fnatic’s third game of the split against Lemondogs, they executed an invasion strategy with YellOwStaR playing Thresh. mithy seemed to have a larger abundance of wards, and YellOwStaR ended the loss with eight deaths instead of 10. Lulu turned team fights in mithy’s hands later in the game.

Relative to mithy, YellOwStaR bad begun execute more overzealous engages. When their initial matchup was reversed, and YellOwStaR played Fiddlesticks, he refused to leave his team in grouping phase to find a flank from fog of war, and he could get easily picked off.

mithy tended to use more pink wards than YellOwStaR — though pink warding in general was still undervalued — and he placed them more often in the enemy jungler, while YellOwStaR favored far more defensive warding. mithy’s ability to secure vision in enemy territory allowed his lanes to play further forward.

Throughout the season, YellOwStaR continued to make steady improvements. By the time of the final game against Gambit, YellOwStaR placed fewer wards in lane and tended to allow wards up river to guard the team’s laning phase efficiently. By then, he also seemed to work out proper positioning on Sona in team fights and had game-changing Sona ultimates to seal Fnatic’s spot in second place in the regular season.

mithy entered the LCS the same week YellOwStaR transitioned to support

Fnatic’s 2013 season culminated in a final series encounter with Lemondogs. Both teams had secured a place at the World Championship by defeating their semifinal opponents. As with Gambit the previous split, Fnatic entered the series with a 1-3 record against their fellow finalist, but they reversed the standings by triumphing over Lemondogs. Though mithy still laid deeper vision, aggressive play in Game 2 up the lane allowed Fnatic’s bottom lane to start off the game with a rare double kill. At this point, it became obvious that even with a lead, puszu and YellOwStaR didn’t have the best concept of how to pressure a lane. mithy traded for a double kill of his own.

Despite this, Fnatic was still entirely the sOAZ and xPeke show. Jungler Lauri “Cyanide” Happonen had very high lane presence, making it easy for Fnatic to snowball, and then they simply ran Lemondogs around the map. Fnatic secured the World Championship's first seed and their second consecutive playoff victory.

Royal Club and the Leona

2013 World Championship champion picks

Champion Games Wins WR (%)
Leona 7 4 57.1
Zyra 6 4 66.7
Sona 1 0 0
Shen 1 1 100

YellOwStaR made a much larger dent in the bracket in his third World Championship appearance than he did in his second.

First seed into the World Championship for Europe amounted to very little in 2013 as, having placed last at All Stars, Europe lost their first seed quarterfinals bye, and every team had to play in the group stage. Fnatic evaded the group stage heavyweights of Group A in SK Telecom T1 and Chinese team Oh My God by placing in Group B with third place European team Gambit Gaming, Korean team Samsung Ozone, North American Team Vulcun, and Philippines hopefuls, Mineski.

Vulcun started the group with an aggressive invade on Fnatic. Level 1s had gotten Vulcun two of the three prized wins against North American favorites, Cloud9, that summer and a Level 1 invade gave Vulcun a spiral to win over Fnatic. Lyubomir "BloodWater" Spasov demonstrated warding technique that would become standard at Worlds with invading to set out three wards and buying an early Oracle’s Elixir.

Fnatic rebounded against the wildcard team, Mineski, and catapulted into Samsung Ozone. The “dade award” for underperformance at a World Championship originated from Bae “dade” Eojin’s play at the 2013 World Championship. His champion pool had been stunted by a patch change, and he and most of the rest of Ozone showed abysmal form due to having failed to properly prepare. Gambit Gaming gave Ozone their first loss of the group, and Fnatic gave them their second.

During the World Championship, the support triumvirate of Zyra, Thresh, and Sona reigned, but YellOwStaR had different ideas. He has become known for his Leona play, though perhaps in a somewhat comical fashion. Leona wasn't heavily favored at the World Championships because of her lack of range, and the fact that she couldn’t help take down turrets in lane swaps or harassing. Fnatic and other teams (especially the Chinese squads) compensated by executing very early turret dives with Leona’s engagement instead.

More aggressive play allowed YellOwStaR to gather a 1/0/3 scoreline in the first 10 minutes of their rematch against Vulcun. Fnatic obtained the first seed from Group B into quarterfinals and drew North America’s first seed, Cloud9.

Despite YellOwStaR’s increased aggressive play in the group stage as Leona, he still warded primarily defensively within Fnatic’s own jungle when Tier 1 turrets fell. Against supports Daerek “LemonNation” Hart of Cloud9 and especially Pan Kan “Tabe” Wong of Royal Club Huang Zu, who tended to place more invasive words, this contrast caused Fnatic to make more misplays.

Fnatic’s series against Cloud9 was a close one. A game went into each team’s favor before Cloud9’s duo lane was caught out, resulting in a very large snowball for Fnatic that won them the best-of-three. After Royal Club Huang Zu defeated their fellow Chinese team, Oh My God, YellOwStaR would once again drop out of the World Championship as a result of “Chinese aggression.”

Though Leona didn’t conform to the World Championship meta, Tabe brought forth an even more outlandish pick that demanded bans: Annie. Tabe and Jian “Uzi” Zihao found success bringing the duo lane mid with Annie’s stun threats as capable backup while their jungler invaded. If a team tried to counter this aggressive style, Tabe would collapse with an Annie stun.

Supports performed much more actions in the first 10 minutes in this series than YellOwStaR had in his games in the European LCS. By toning down some of their over-active play, Fnatic could actually use YellOwStaR’s defensive wards to punish Royal’s over-extensions. The one game Fnatic won, puszu fell back on Varus, and Fnatic relied on the utility of counter-engage of their bottom lane with Leona and Varus to actually turn fights.

In an explosive Game 4, Fnatic let Annie through, opening Royal’s preferred style of play. This was the most back-and-forth game of the series, but Royal managed to find objectives after they won teamfights and ultimately advanced to the final over Fnatic.

Outside just the bottom lane matchup, Royal’s mid laner Pun Wai "Wh1t3zZ" Lo expressed a wider champion pool and decimated xPeke in farm totals by counter-picking him. This series loss gave Fnatic a lot to mull over, and a very different team would appear in the 2014 European League of Legends Championship Series the following year.

2014 and the time Fnatic lost the LCS

Fnatic had advanced little as a team in order to participate in one of the least satisfying interim international events following the World Championship, the Battle of the Atlantic. Cloud9 got their revenge, and Fnatic underwent changes before the new season began.

2014 EU LCS Spring champion picks

Champion Picks Wins WR (%)
Leona 6 2 33.3
Morgana 6 5 83.3
Karma 4 4 100
Thresh 4 1 25
Annie 4 3 75
Lulu 2 1 50
Alistar 1 0 0
Nunu 1 1 100

2014 was not a particularly good year for European League of Legends teams or Fnatic, as they lost their only split in three years, but it was a very important year for YellOwStaR. Martin “Rekkles” Larsson had turned 17 and could start for Fnatic in the first week of the Spring LCS. Immediately, commentators noted the drastic upgrade to Fnatic’s bottom lane, but Rekkles wasn’t the only one dropping jaws.

YellOwStaR adopted the Annie pick that had bested Fnatic at the World Championship. Changes to the support role in the preseason made Annie even more viable, and she worked her way into the champion pools of supports internationally. YellOwStaR and Rekkles began playing further up in lane than puszu and YellOwStaR ever had. Fnatic went on a seven game win streak, and their bottom lane lead the KDA ratings.

YellOwStaR finally understood the power of a support’s threat zone and dictated the pace of the lane the way he never had in 2013. Fnatic suddenly didn’t have to find creative ways to maneuver around the map; they could perform much better in team fights with an AD carry who could position well enough to secure kills and add onto the damage provided by sOAZ and xPeke. This slowed some of their strategic advancement, but made them more threatening in a skirmishes and team fights.

Then things went very, very wrong.

Fnatic's win streak came to an abrupt end against Gambit Gaming. Vision changes meant a general reduction in vision placement by European teams, and Gambit quickly learned to abuse the meta growing pains with an Evelynn rework. Gambit themselves began maximizing their pink ward placement, but Fnatic's map was very dark by contrast.

As a result of stagnation, Fnatic then went about losing to every single team in the LCS after having already beaten them. They topped their seven game win streak by going on an eight game losing streak. High Fnatic KDAs shattered, and they began to grasp for strategies that would work. The public mocked sOAZ's Lulu top fixation, but no single player seemed at fault for the collapse.

Even with a slacking form, Fnatic managed to make the finals of the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship. They bested Millenium, Cloud9, and an Invictus Gaming barely treading water before being utterly humiliated by a lagging KT Bullets in the final.

Eventually, Fnatic found an answer.

Fnatic changed their luck in Week 7 against Gambit Gaming, the team that started them on their losing streak. Fnatic built a poke and disengage composition that allowed them to move around the map quickly with Sivir. They applied the disengage power of a new support popularized by rising Polish squad, Team ROCCAT: Morgana. Gambit could't keep up with the speed of Fnatic's composition and promptly lost.

Despite struggles with Fnatic and Team ROCCAT's initial rise, Fnatic's main 2014 Spring rivals were SK Gaming. SK developed an intelligent approach to the game that focused on setting up fights around dragon by herding teams into the pit and creating space for AD carry Adrian "CandyPanda" Wübbelmann to take advantage. Though CandyPanda didn't stand out, his team had means of impaling the opposition on his Vayne, and they developed a flavor for split-pushing.

Having rewatched games closely, I believe the 4v0 meta of 2014 Spring had a huge impact on YellOwStaR's playstyle. YellOwStaR seemed to lose some confidence around Week 9, as he and Rekkles reverted to more passive laning, but the evolution of the jungle-duo lane-top laner push meta opened up the map much more. In order to lane after taking down outer turrets, more jungle vision was required, which kept YellOwStaR roaming frequently. He picked up support Karma to move more fluidly around the map and started to fall into place as the roaming and vision-oriented support we’ve come to know him as.

After overcoming their hump, it seemed Fnatic engaged with the game much more creatively. During semifinals, Fnatic ran a series of entertaining compositions, including the Soraka/Kayle/Janna composition that served as a maddening counter to Alliance’s catch and Karthus composition.

Despite these advancements, Fnatic were wholly unprepared for the blunt objects that knocked in their teeth at All Stars in Paris that year. By once again winning the LCS in 2014 Spring, Fnatic were invited to the All Stars tournament to compete with the top teams in the five major regions.

Fnatic lost to every single team except the GPL’s Taipei Assassins. It became clear that the Chinese and Korean teams had developed a counter to the 4v0 meta that allowed them to freeze the minion wave top to get an advantage on the AD carry. Completely lacking an advanced concept of wave control, Fnatic fell hard against SK Telecom T1 and got run over by the team fighting prowess of Oh My God.

Perhaps in one of the most memorable humiliations in League of Legends eSports history, SK Telecom T1 fielded a roster of their World Championship skins, despite those champions not synergizing particularly well nor being in meta.

Like KT Bullets, SK Telecom T1 hadn't been performing well in Korea, but they demolished every opposing team at All Stars, demonstrating the full extent of Korean dominance. Sure, the game wasn't a stomp, but given how poorly those champions fit in the meta at the time, Fnatic should have won.

2014 EU LCS Summer champion picks

Champion Picks Wins WR (%)
Morgana 11 8 72.7
Thresh 11 8 72.7
Nami 3 2 66.7
Braum 1 0 0
Zyra 1 1 100
Alistar 1 0 0

Following All Stars, Fnatic returned to the European League of Legends Championship Series and picked up their first analyst in Alvar "Araneae" Martin Aleñar to contend with having fallen behind strategically. Yet Fnatic had even bigger problems in Europe.

Alliance, the super team that only managed to acquire two-fifths of the initially proposed roster, had finally begun to look like a dominant force. Fnatic lost to Alliance and SK Gaming in the first week of the summer split, foreshadowing events to come.

Of Fnatic, Henrik "Froggen" Hansen, the central figure of Alliance, said "Fnatic would rather go between lanes and get kills than focus objectives." This proved to be a very apt description of how games between Fnatic and Alliance would play out.

In response to YellOwStaR roaming more often, Rekkles began to follow. YellOwStaR got picks on champions like Morgana or Thresh, and Rekkles eliminated them with Lucian or Twitch. Alliance held lanes, pushed out, and use hyper scaling champions to chip at turrets and avoid direct confrontation until late game. Kog'Maw was favored by Alliance AD carry Tabzz and seemed to appear in every match against Fnatic to punish their lack of objective focus.

All summer, Alliance relied on other teams making mistakes. Very few squads took it upon themselves to force anything from Alliance, so they simply waited for openings. YellOwStaR himself said that he believed Alliance really capitalized on Fnatic’s mistakes (see video above). Alliance shut down Fnatic 3-1 in the LCS final that summer, handing Fnatic their only LCS loss in six splits to date.

More troubling than Fnatic’s lost summer split was the fact that they didn’t even look like the second best team in Europe. Fnatic barely bested Team ROCCAT in a five game series, and SK Gaming’s close games that met Alliance in objective prioritization made them look better than Fnatic. They secured the second seed into the World Championship, but Fnatic looked like only the third best team in Europe.

2014 World Championship champion picks

Champion Picks Wins WR (%)
Janna 2 1 50
Thresh 2 1 50
Nami 2 0 0

Following the 2015 European League of Legends Championship Summer final, sOAZ told theScore eSports in reference to 2014, "I've said it many times before, but the atmosphere on the team was really bad for the month leading up to Worlds. I was a bit down, but I still tried to focus on what I could." It certainly showed.

It's remotely possible YellOwStaR has an even year World Championship curse because, just as he did in 2012 with SK Gaming, YellOwStaR fell from the tournament in the group stage. During the World Championship, Fnatic displayed both a high ceiling and a disastrous low. Fnatic's highlight moment was their definitive dismantling of Samsung Blue, likely the strongest team in the world for most of the year in 2014. They simply hit the go button from spawn time, Rekkles ended with an impressive Lucian KDA of 8/1/5, and YellOwStaR a score of 0/1/9 on Thresh.

On the low end of the spectrum, Fnatic participated in one of the most strategically void games played at a World Championship against OMG. I haven't actually counted the number of bad trades of an inhibitor for Baron, illogical backs, or canceled auto attacks, but it's actually just bad, and in the end, Fnatic lost.

Naturally, lolesports awarded that game "Game of the Year" in 2014. It's fun to watch if you suspend critical thinking.

Despite the disaster of Fnatic's 2014 World Championship, I think of it as a unique time in YellOwStaR's career up to that point in which he was the single best performing player on his team. Even in the series against OMG where his teammates made terrible misplays every which way, YellOwStaR could make a highlight reel of Nami disengages.

Some would reflect and call Rekkles the best performing member of Fnatic at 2014 Worlds, but he really only excelled on Lucian. Even in losses, YellOwStaR landed the right Thresh hooks and used the right skillshots on Janna and Nami. While xPeke, Cyanide, and sOAZ struggled depending on the game, YellOwStaR maintained a powerful form and ended the tournament having out-warded every support he faced in the group, including Samsung Blue support, Lee "Heart" Gwanhyung.

By the end of 2014, YellOwStaR, a player who had never been a truly elite AD carry, despite the accolades he received, had become an elite European support. Yet Fnatic was in shambles. YellOwStaR had overcome his own battle for relevance after finding himself unable to compete as a shotcalling AD carry. Unfortunately, despite the high level of skill on the Fnatic roster, the team of sOAZ, Cyanide, xPeke, Rekkles, and YellOwStaR had reached a point where it had begun to tear at itself.

Many in the public sphere knew of the discontent within the Fnatic roster. Changes were coming. In the coming months, YellOwStaR would have to make a decision.

Kelsey Moser is staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.

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Febiven on Game 2 against OG: 'I don't think we were fully focusing and really wanting to win'

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Fnatic are back in familiar territory, having locked themselves into first place with a convincing 2-0 takedown of Team ROCCAT on Friday.

After the day's action, Marcel "Dexter" Feldkamp spoke with Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten about the mental toll of Thursday's 80 minute slugfest against Origen, Fnatic's improvements against ROCCAT and looking ahead to next week's matches against Giants and G2.

For more video interviews and highlights, be sure to subscribe to theScore esports on YouTube.

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Kraków to host EU LCS Summer Finals

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The EU LCS Summer Finals will be held in Kraków, Poland on Aug. 27-28, according to an announcement from Riot Games via the official League of Legends esports page.

The venue will be the TAURON Arena, which boasts a capacity of over 15,000 for sporting events.

The first-place finisher at Kraków will represent Europe at Worlds, with the second spot going to the EU team with the most Championship Points and the third selected though the EU Regional Qualifiers, which are set to take place after the Summer Finals. G2 Esports currently leads the standings for Championship Points with 90 so far.

The EU LCS Spring Finals were held in Rotterdam, Netherlands, at the Rotterdam Ahoy, a concert hall venue that had similar seating capacity to TAURON.

Tickets for the Summer Finals are not yet on sale, but more information is expected soon.

Josh "Gauntlet" Bury likes it when the beat drops but the bass never stops. You can find him on Twitter.

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Deconstructing NA's sudden superiority

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The North American League of Legends Championship Series is having a moment. Reading comments from fans, it seems the prevailing sentiment is not only that the NA LCS is now more entertaining to watch than the EU LCS, but the games have reached a higher level of quality.

To some extent, I've supported this view with my own commentary, but it's been several weeks since the first raw games of the split, when EU teams were hit hard by the meta and by major roster changes. Some teams in EU have made significant strides, and top NA teams have exposed weaknesses of their own. If there ever was a gap in the quality of NA and EU games, it's grown progressively narrower as teams like Fnatic have started to clean up their play (with the exception of their 80-minute game against Origen this week, though even that match showed that they've gotten better at coming back from an unfortunate mid game).

It begs the question: “What makes us decide a region is good or bad?” Usually, an entire region’s play isn’t demonstratively "better" as a whole. The top teams become competitive, but by virtue of the league format, even Korea will have questionable bottom-tier teams who won't be able to stand up to the top teams from other regions.

Knee-jerk responses to major international events are partly to blame here. It’s no coincidence that opinion has turned against EU so soon after G2 Esports was eliminated from the group stage of the Mid-Season Invitational, while NA's Counter Logic Gaming went to the Grand Finals — just as EU was seen as a much stronger region in the wake of last year's Worlds. And though there's no point arguing about which teams or regions are more entertaining, there's also no denying that enjoyment is an important metric for fans. Beyond that, however, beliefs about each region's overall quality seem to arise from common generalizations and biases — most notably, “only bad teams throw,” “faster games are better,” and, the most recent sentiment to flood Reddit, “lane swaps are boring” (which, ironically, often goes hand-in-hand with the belief that “macro play is the best way to win the game,” even though smart lane swaps are an important enabling factor for good macro play in the current meta).

If you've watched the EU LCS and NA LCS recently, you might have observed that EU games are longer, involve more lane swaps and tend to be more back-and-forth. Top teams in EU are regularly splitting their best-of-twos against lower-tier teams, or even going down 0-2 (see: H2k-Gaming vs. Unicorns of Love, Week 4). Some of these generalizations are based in fact, but the question is whether trends in EU actually represent "bad play," or whether there's a good reason they're happening.

Does EU really have less action?

League Game Length CKPM First Tower First Herald
EU LCS 37:29 0.63 06:44 15:13
NA LCS 36:25 0.67 07:33 13:29

Note: These data do not include the last two days of NA LCS; data were acquired when 80 games had been played in EU and 79 in NA.

Despite the perception that EU games are slower, average game length has been virtually the same for EU and NA this split, and both regions see roughly the same pace of action, with near-identical numbers for average combined kills per minute. There's also no real difference when it comes to how long it takes for a team to acquire first dragon or Baron, or how many dragons are taken each game.

The biggest differences in objective timings between the two regions have to do with how they set up the early game, specifically when they take first tower and first Rift Herald. EU teams take first tower on average almost one minute earlier than NA, reflecting a slightly higher initial lane swap rate. NA teams put more emphasis on taking Herald early, which could suggest either that they put more emphasis on split-pushing top lane picks, or that they wait to take the Herald before opening the map more and taking down second-tier turrets.

We can look for more evidence for these hypotheses by comparing differences in the kinds of champions each region has prioritized. To highlight differences in pick priority between the regions, we'll look only at champions who have been picked in at least six games in total across both regions, and who have a pick-ban rate that is at least 15 percentage points higher in one of the two regions.

Role EU LCS specialty champions NA LCS specialty champions
Top Gnar; Trundle; Olaf; Fizz; Gragas Jax; Fiora; Swain
Jungle Elise; Gragas Kindred; Rek'Sai
Mid Fizz Anivia; Karma; Swain
ADC Caitlyn Ashe; Lucian
Support Braum Zyra; Karma

Note: Champion pick and ban data do include all recent NA LCS games.

As expected, the biggest discrepancy is in top lane picks. Both regions have favored some of the same carry picks like Irelia, but NA has shown much more of a preference for top lane duelists like Jax and Fiora, while EU has developed an affinity for Gnar that NA hasn't shared. European teams still seem to prefer tanks and tank counters like Trundle, and Trundle and Gnar come as something of a pair, since Gnar's range allows him to play well into Trundle, while still serving a front-line role and split-pushing effectively.

Outside the top lane, EU has picked Elise and Gragas more often, while NA has favored Rek'Sai at the expense of most other picks. Rek'Sai has higher early lane presence than a pick like Gragas, who usually only looks to play more proactively upon hitting Level 6. Though Fizz has only been played twice more in mid lane in EU than NA (four and two times each), his higher presence in bans in Europe means he's been involved in 51.7% of drafts this season, as a flex pick with a tankier top lane build and assassin-oriented mid lane build.

EU still gravitates toward play-making mid lane picks to counter Azir, while NA looks at more stable counters to channel confrontation into side lanes. Vladimir, who is popular in both regions, has a slightly lower win rate in NA, which may be the result of NA being more willing to pick champions like Anivia that counter him, while EU is comfortable picking Vladimir earlier in draft rotation. EU also has more of a distaste for Swain, preferring to pick Viktor or lane swap on him if he goes top lane.

Lucian has maintained a foothold in NA while EU has largely moved on. Caitlyn enters EU drafts significantly more than NA drafts, with their preference for pushing down turrets and trading them early. NA has shown more of a preference for Ashe, who works well in lane especially with a strong support, and NA teams often look to match her with a 2v2 to keep her ultimates in lane, rather than risk her taking them off-guard in other parts of the map. In the support role, Zyra and Karma have burst that makes them strong in lane trades, but Braum specializes better in stalling wave clear and pushes.

Bottom lane and top lane pick differences especially reflect a stronger emphasis on the laning phase in NA. From this analysis, it's clear NA teams put more emphasis on standard lanes, and look to snowball off leads with their different pick priorities. Meanwhile, EU teams try to take down and trade turrets earlier. In series like G2 Esports vs. Team Vitality, one can see EU teams agreeing to opt into these trades early on to open the map, while focusing more on getting farm on AD carries for later Baron or dragon fights.

EU's open map meta

A preference for opening the map earlier has a lot of implications for Europe, in terms of compositions and tactical focus, and ultimately, in terms of how decisively EU teams can close games.

For one thing, an early open map means pick comps become much more effective. H2k-Gaming didn't debut Ashe and Zyra in EU because it's become a strong, popular combination in the NA LCS; they did so because of the duo's power to get catches. Likewise, Elise has swung radically into favor in EU because of her single-target crowd control. Gragas' power as a disengage tool also demonstrates EU's slight aversion to full 5v5 team fights — they'd rather pick off a single target for elimination, then rotate toward an objective.

Another consequence of EU's early turret trades is that they've had to invest more in maintaining vision control. Ward placement and ward clearing have proven significantly more important to European teams, and H2K, Vitality, Giants and Fnatic all place more wards per minute on average than any team in North America. Meanwhile six teams in Europe all clear more wards per minute than Echo Fox, the team in North America with the highest average WCPM.

As the map opens up more and teams lose more passive vision, it's easy to see how individual players may get caught out more often. While EU carries freeze in side waves after turrets have been taken, a jungler or support will find himself caught out while warding a less tightly controlled map. In NA, stronger dueling champion picks keep to the lanes and keep their jungler close by or grouped with the rest of the team.

Do-or-die duelist picks like Swain and Fiora also make the early game much more important for NA teams. Choosing a carry scaling pick like Swain makes it much harder for a team to come back from a deficit. Meanwhile, lane bullies like Lucian will have less usefulness later on than a pick like Caitlyn, who has a mid game trough, but is good during early and late game — making her a prime perpetrator of both throws and comebacks.

For EU, important picks can lead to swings in games, especially later on. As the stats show, EU games tend to be much more highly contested after the 25-minute mark than NA games:

Parameter EU LCS NA LCS
%Games won by team w/ Gold lead@15 min 76% 81%
%Games won by team w/ Gold lead@25 min 76% 90%

Note: These data do not include the last two days of NA LCS. Data were acquired when 80 games had been played in EU LCS and 79 in NA LCS.

While the chance of an NA team winning increases the longer they have a gold lead, EU teams are just as vulnerable to being overtaken by an opponent at the 15-minute mark as they are at the 25-minute mark. Comeback victories are indeed more common in EU this split, which is a natural result of EU's pick-heavy meta and less passive vision.

RELATED: Kelsey Moser's EU LCS Review: Caitlyn's side lane niche

Cloud9 have benefited a lot from NA's current focus on the laning phase, especially with their mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen and AD carry Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi, but have looked less convincing or fallen behind in lane swap scenarios. Meanwhile in Europe, with teams opting into side lane trades willingly, jungle contests are more frequent. Despite H2K's love of lane swaps, G2 and Fnatic have benefited most from open map scenarios. Both teams have jungle minion kill rates over 56%, higher than anyone else in EU or NA. G2's Kim "Trick" Gangyun and Fnatic's Lee "Spirit" Dayun have shown the best control and invades in open map scenarios, leading in part to their teams' ascent through the EU standings. H2K have gotten caught out more often, leading to some of their more egregious losses.

Picks like Gragas and Trundle, favored more by Europe, also don't necessarily need a lot of itemization to create comeback opportunities. With Trundle's ult, he can counter tanks effectively with few items, and Gragas can separate targets for picks even if he doesn't necessarily get an extensive lead himself. Again, this contributes to EU's tendency to capitalize on picks to change the tide of the game, leading to more back-and-forth games throughout the season.

A comparison of gold distribution in NA and EU lends more support to this characterization of the different regional metas. Three of the top four teams in the NA LCS allocate a large share of gold to their top laners (Team SoloMid, EnVyUs and Immortals), while Europe's top two teams have much more gold allocated to bottom lane and jungle. As picks like Ezreal or Caitlyn scale for late game, more opportunities for stalling games and turning will arise. In the 80-minute game between Fnatic and Origen, Fnatic's Ezreal and Viktor had a lot to do with Origen's inability to close efficiently.

While these trends don't characterize every team in NA or EU, they do help explain why EU games seem to swing more often, and why NA teams appear to close more efficiently. Teams who benefit a lot from snowball will be more likely to win in NA's current meta, but teams with aggressive junglers that coordinate invades well on open maps have risen to the top in Europe.

It's difficult to say definitively how well teams from one region would fare in the other, but one reasonable explanation for the divergence is that the meta in each region has developed as a result of its dominant teams' weaknesses. For example, TSM AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng seems to get caught out somewhat frequently for a North American ADC, with 20% of his team's deaths, a larger proportion than most of his peers in the league. His propensity to wander on his own might make him a target in an open European map, exacerbating this weakness — which pushes him and his team toward's NA's laning phase-focused style. Likewise, Fnatic and G2's top laners might struggle to lock heads with some of NA's top carries on a consistent basis and come out on the other side, potentially pushing them towards more consistent tower trades.

Who wins in a fight?

If you had asked me two weeks ago whether North America is stronger than Europe, I'd probably have said that, definitively, I believe Team SoloMid could top the EU LCS. Yet Fnatic's recent improvements, including the way they've consolidated around Spirit's aggressive style, their strengths in coordinating lane swaps and their ability to stall out a push, continue to make them a tough opponent. TSM is probably still better, though that's less clear after watching them struggle to react to Echo Fox's Shen this week. They make mistakes, just like Fnatic, and Fnatic feel like they're a team with many growing dimensions.

Given that NA teams like Immortals retained their full rosters this split while EU teams like G2 underwent massive changes, and given that H2K has taken to experimenting with a new style where they vary their carry from game to game, it does feel like North America has more depth in strong teams in the first four weeks. Yet in both regions, a gap is beginning to emerge between the top and the bottom rungs. At the moment, Fnatic and G2 sit near the top of EU, while North America's elite, for the time being, seats four.

This is subject to change as soon as this time next week. But even if the situation somehow remains static until the playoffs, it won't necessarily help either region perform better on the international stage. The famous "Jatt Dilemma" has stood as a symbol for the debate over whether more competition at the top of the league will yield better results. Teams like SK Telecom T1, EDward Gaming, and Fnatic have shown some of the best results for their respective regions despite a lack of steep competition domestically, yet in 2014, a war for the top spot in NA between Cloud9, Team SoloMid and LMQ allowed NA to put up a better fight at the World Championship than European teams. There doesn't seem to be any correlation one way or the other between a region having a crowded, competitive top tier and their performance at international events.

Forced to choose, I'd say NA is a slightly stronger region, but Europe's emerging playstyle isn't "bad" and actually has a lot of value to it. They're more likely to create opportunities for comebacks and find ways to balance out situations where their teams don't win lane. They contest dragons just as frequently as NA teams, and they aren't stalling games to an unbearable length of time (well, except that one time). In this environment, EU teams might prove more resourceful in the long run, and they'll come out learning a lot about efficient vision placement and jungle control.

There's still a lot for observers to learn from European games, including efficient minion control and how to counter dives, just as NA can teach us about transitioning leads and maintaining momentum. In the end, they'll probably both produce one or two good teams each that can make it out of the group stage — maybe even to semifinals — at the World Championship.

On Summoning Insight Episode 73, Team Vitality's coach, Kévin "Shaunz" Ghanbarzadeh, claimed it's hard to judge the relative strength of regions because you can't judge their thought processes until they reach the international stage. On the contrary, I do believe it's possible to judge teams' relative strength by watching them in their own region. But to do so, you have to actually watch them and assess why they make the decisions they make, whether they can execute well repeatedly, and how they might adapt in other circumstances. EU teams don't close on a lead as often as NA teams — but there are actually valid reasons that happens. It's not as simple as "they're not playing as well."

In sum: the EU LCS is worth watching this split. What a concept!

Data for this article come from Oracle's Elixir and Tim Sevenhuysen.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.

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Highlight: Vitality pull off the miracle hold, twice

by 6d ago

This was insane.

Team Vitality felt plenty of pressure in their second game against G2 Esports, when G2 decided to push deep and end the game. But as Vitality's towers fell, they managed to pull it together and save their Nexus with a fraction of its health remaining.

But Vitality couldn't capitalize on their defense, as G2 came back with their entire team not even three minutes later. As all of G2 converged on the Nexus, Vitality pulled off the impossible to wipe G2 and hold a second time.

Vitality would go on to win the game, in what is easily the greatest hold in the EU LCS in the 2016 Summer Split.

Preston Dozsa is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Top 5 Plays from Week 4 of the EU LCS Summer Split

theScore esports Staff 5d ago

It's been a thrilling few days of action in Berlin as teams took to the Rift to fight for supremacy in the EU LCS Summer Split. We look back on all the action and plays that left us speechless to present to you the best of the best in our weekly Top 5 Plays.

This week, Splyce show off their teamfighting with two impressive plays, Unicorns of Love GNAR! their way to victory and Team Vitality get a double dose of miracles.

For more videos and highlights, be sure to subscribe to theScore esports on YouTube.

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