Albus NoX Luna had already picked Caitlyn. It was H2K-Gaming’s final champion rotation of the first game of the 2016 World Championship quarterfinal, and Konstantinos "FORG1VEN" Tzortziou-Napoleon’s stare was locked on his screen. He spoke quickly with his coach, and then he took Sivir.
As the casters reminded the audience that Sivir's range disadvantage against Caitlyn makes for a poor matchup, those familiar with the mythos of FORG1VEN heard the lines they left out. FORG1VEN is too stubborn to give up a laning advantage for his teammates — he refuses to play a matchup that doesn't crush lane.
But his approach to the game is more nuanced than the popular narrative would have us believe. He is stubborn. He knows what he wants and how he wants to play. The rest is up for interpretation.
Since his entry into the LCS, FORG1VEN hasn't lasted more than a split on a single team, but his return to H2K for the final week of the EU LCS Summer Split delivered hints that this time would be different. He is the same AD carry he always has been, but H2K have begun to identify that his ability to dominate the lane is his own way of being a team player. They have learned how they can use him to find advantages, not just in his lane, but everywhere on the map.
"I was always kind of a flexible player," he told me after the match. "I mean maybe not many people see it, but the reason that I'm dominant as a player in laning phase doesn't mean that my team has always played around it."
Sometimes FORG1VEN does take up a large share of his team's resources, as he often did in the spring season with H2K. Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski would, at times, spend a great deal of his time sitting in brush around bottom lane or hesitate to head to the top lane and give up pressure.
That didn’t necessarily mean FORG1VEN was demanding attention from Jankos. FORG1VEN is the kind of player who believes he can still succeed when he's at a disadvantage, and whether or not the team decides to support him, he will play to win his lane. In the Albus NoX series, the fact that Caitlyn out-ranged Sivir hardly factored into his decision. "I'm obviously better than my counterpart, so I got to do what I want to do regardless," he told me. "I kind of dictated the way that bot lane or bottom side of map would go."
Whenever he explains a decision he makes, "because I’m FORG1VEN" is inevitably part of his reasoning. It's something he’s aware of and something he wants to use, but not in a one-dimensional way.
"I like Sivir a lot as a pick in general," he said, though he admitted it took him a long time to come around to the champion last year. "Obviously it's not as lane dominant as it should be, but as a player, I can get away with this because it's like what Tristana was in the previous split, where it was very bad in lane, but because of how bad players were against me, I was able to get away with it by taking Tristana. So Sivir is basically the same thing. It helps my team, it basically helps me to play my style still."
True to his prognosis, FORG1VEN broke even in CS for the early part of the first match. With his shorter-range pick he was able to push out creeps, and by 10 minutes he was leading in itemization and CS over his opponent.
H2K’s first-pick Jayce signaled that they were going to invest more resources in the top lane. In fact, they gave up Caitlyn early in all three games in the series, and FORG1VEN chose picks that were more off-meta. Though Lucian and Sivir haven’t been favorite choices for pro carries lately, aspects of their kit will always appeal to FORG1VEN. Sivir’s innate control of the lane's flow, Lucian’s mobility and his ability to get an easy lead and remain relevant — FORG1VEN looks at all of these things independent of whether or not he will have jungle pressure on his side.
Most of H2K’s successful games so far at the World Championship and in the 2016 EU LCS Summer Playoffs have relied more on Jankos coordinating with his solo lanes. The opportunity that FORG1VEN has in these kinds of games is not more jungle pressure in his lane, but everywhere else. The team is able to take advantages across the map at the same time he is building up his own bot.
FORG1VEN will find a way to take a lead, regardless of H2K's game plan. For example, since the lane swap patch, he has started to buy a Cull, an item that allows its owner to stack an extra unit of gold with each minion kill up to 100, at which point it's cashed in for an additional 350. In the lane swap meta, FORG1VEN shied away from this item — with his consistent farm, he felt he could do one better, buying a B.F. Sword by the time the first tier tower trades ended while competitors went with Cull plus Long Sword. With a B.F., he recalls, "I have 40 or whatever more damage on him, so I wish him good luck if he wants to contest or if he wants to be faster in the lane swap."
More recently, FORG1VEN has altered his build to take Cull more often. In the post-swap meta, he can buy it at nearly any point in the game and be sure to cash it in thanks to his farming efficiency. In H2K's Group Stage Week 2 match against ahq e-Sports, for example, he bought a Cull after already farming 105 creeps, meaning he would have to extend the laning phase and farm even longer to make the item worth it. Where that might cause other players to hesitate, for FORG1VEN the choice was trivial. Whether facing a 2v3 scenario, poor matchup, fast push or extended laning phase, he still believes he can play the way he wants, far forward in lane and in control. He doesn’t put limits on himself, and he pushes the advantages he has as far as they can go.
That doesn’t mean he's immune to misjudging his limits from time to time. For example, in Game 3 against Albus NoX Luna, FORG1VEN and Oskar "VandeR" Bogdan were forward in lane while Jankos and mid laner Yoo "Ryu" Sangook took dragon. Albus’ jungler and support planned a Bard Magical Journey gank and eliminated both of them.
Yet nothing seems to shake FORG1VEN's confidence. Even when H2K play to the top side of the map, or Jankos isn’t in a convenient position to provide a counter-gank, he will play like his jungler is nearby or like he knows where the enemy jungler is — not always, but often enough to notice. He believes he is smart enough to respond to threats as they arise.
Though lane matchups often dictate the flow of the game, FORG1VEN talks like they don’t apply to him and VandeR. "We basically absorb pressure or we play matchups that we should lose, but we don't," he said after the ANX match. "Junglers going to gank from wherever, so I have to be really smart, and I was really smart, I think."
This is a high-risk way of looking at the game, but it has worked out for H2K more and more often since FORG1VEN's return. The team feels more unified than it did in the spring. Improving bottom lane vision helps to facilitate this style, and at the EU LCS playoffs and Worlds a lot of H2K’s wards have ended up on the bottom side of the map. This time around, no one has tried to make FORG1VEN play in a way he wouldn’t normally.
This trend extends to the draft. In our interview, FORG1VEN said he hasn't been forced to play a specific champ, but largely has control of his own picks. "I obviously decide as a player," he said. "I advise my coach what I think is the best, then he thinks of it because we had discussion previously, and we go into a decision."
FORG1VEN can be a restriction on his team as much as a degree of freedom. But since the start of the past split, H2K seem to have learned how to play within his parameters. He is a known quantity, but when his play works, it opens up a great deal of opportunities on the rest of the map. Perhaps understanding that has made the synergy between Jankos and his solo lanes more effective as well. Jankos no longer camps lane idly — instead, his laners are good at prepping waves for him to gank as soon as he approaches, and he’s able to control much more of the farm in the jungle with pushes from his teammates. He falls behind less in CS than he did in either spring or summer’s regular splits.
It’s well-documented that FORG1VEN can be difficult to work with, but H2K seems to have learned to work around it. "I know if I do poorly in lane, he'll be really mad at me," VandeR jested after H2K's tiebreaker win in the Group Stage. Then he sobered up a bit and added: "I have to always consider this and always have to — I have to help the team a bit more, right? I am a support player, I carry wards and pink wards, so sometimes I have to go to enemy camp and ward it, or pink for mid lane — but I also have this in the back of my mind, that I have FORG1VEN in bot lane, so if I make him unhappy by roaming too much... you know? I have to be a bit careful for that."
Whenever FORG1VEN plays with a team, it seems as if they eventually reach a turning point, where they can choose to stick it out through the growing pressure and find ways to work around whatever obstacles FORG1VEN presents in-game or out-of-game, or they can part ways and go a different direction. Given this trend, and H2K's other difficulties this year, it’s almost miraculous that they made it to semifinals. Their opponents weren’t as challenging as they could have been — H2K’s run so far can be likened to Star Horn Royal Club’s in 2014, in that they didn't encounter a Korean team until there were no other options left — but the achievement is nonetheless commendable, because it seems like FORG1VEN has finally found a roster that fits him. After seasons of restlessness, he has found one that at least makes some effort to exploit the freedom he provides, while making concessions for what he takes away.
"The fact that we are in Top 4 is actually a huge success if you remember or if you remind yourself how H2K went through the last split," FORG1VEN said. "Personally, it isn't that I want to make our achievement a big deal, like wow or holy shit they are so good, but we have to come to a realization."
FORG1VEN's teammates have said that their success since he returned at the end of the summer hasn’t just been a result of their own sacrifices; they’ve noticed a change in him as well. “Now he's more respectful of where we're playing and on what side we're playing," Odoamne said before the group stage began. "He's accepted that in some situations he might not be our strong side.”
Arguably, this tentative sweet spot has always been there, but it required FORG1VEN and his team to carve out a mutual understanding to find it. It’s not that he doesn’t want to play a balanced team game, but he wants to be able to contribute to it with his own strengths, not force himself to focus on another style that doesn't suit him.
"You can either be an all around player and never be truly good at anything, or you can be a very good player with flaws that you can always cover. There are very specific and few parts of the game that you can actually be truly good at and shine in comparison to your position or to your competition," he said.
"It's what the game allows me to do. I'm not going to play the second best in one way. Yes, I'm very good at lane phase … It’s just a strength that I have, so shouldn't I play my strength sometimes?"
Success means being stubborn sometimes. It means pushing the boundaries of what you’re good at, demanding sacrifices of others around you. But it also means sacrificing things yourself. In subtle ways, it's something FORG1VEN is slowly learning. But on the other hand, it's something that's always been part of his identity as a player, he's just struggled to communicate it to his teammates. Like a 2v3, it's just another boundary for him to push. Maybe this extra time with H2K has helped him begin.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.