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The Road to Worlds: an in-depth look at Fnatic

by theScore Staff Sep 17 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Kelsey Moser / EU LCS

Fnatic is one of the oldest and most powerful names in League of Legends: they won the first ever World Championship and have since only failed to reprise an appearance in 2012, when they instead placed second at the IGN Pro League 5. Despite their history, Fnatic seems to fall a bit lower each subsequent year and have never quite managed to reach the top again.

This isn’t that Fnatic.

This brand new Fnatic started nearly from scratch at the beginning of 2015 around one core idea: winning. So far, they've done a lot of that in Europe. Fnatic went undefeated through the regular season until the finals against Origen where they dropped two games. Since their appearance at the Mid-Season Invitational where they snagged two games off of SK Telecom T1, they've only improved.

But so have all the other top teams. Not only is this Fnatic a new team with the strongest chance of returning to the World Championship Finals since Season 1, they're entering what may as well be a new landscape. The patch has changed. Their opposition has grown stronger.

Yet if new Fnatic expected an easy victory, they wouldn't have bothered to split themselves in half. They wouldn't have bothered to gamble on a talent they met in a pickup game. They wouldn't be new Fnatic. In a month-and-a-half, the rest of the world will know if that’s enough.

The Road So Far

If we count Fnatic’s second place finish at IPL 5 in lieu of the 2012 World Championship, the team had a near linear decline in results from their victory at the Season 1 World Championship — until last year. Semifinals at the 2013 World Championship transitioned abruptly to not making it out of the Group Stage in 2014.

As Fnatic fans remember with a twinge, it could have been marginally worse. Fnatic’s second game against OMG has been remembered simultaneously as one of the most entertaining and tactically worst games of 2014. OMG’s Nexus slipped down to one auto attack worth of health before they rebounded.

Not making the quarterfinals progressed into a brutal offseason. AD carry Martin “Rekkles” Larsson left Fnatic for Alliance, a team whose Worlds expectations surpassed Fnatic’s only to find themselves in exactly the same position. The departures of Paul “sOAZ” Boyer, Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño, and Lauri “Cyanide” Happonen followed, leaving only Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim to rebuild the squad.

Despite xPeke’s track record and star quality, Fnatic's core already felt like YellOwStaR.

YellOwStaR only played for Fnatic in 2013 when regulations barred Rekkles from joining the LCS as an underage player. Even as a stand-in AD Carry, however, YellOwStaR had the makings of a team leader.

On the 2013 Fnatic squad, sOAZ and YellOwStaR handled most of the shotcalling. Riot caster Martin “Deficio” Lynge, a professional support player at the time, recalled that, as an AD Carry, YellOwStaR would take down timers between securing creeps.

In the Summer Split, Fnatic made a hard choice to remove Cristoph “nRated” Seitz and put YellOwStaR into the support role. He didn’t initially take to it, as some may recall YellOwStaR's 2013 involved a lot of Leona success, but limited strong play on other picks. By mid-2014, however, YellOwStaR was the best support player in Europe, capable of playing any champion at a high level of mechanical proficiency and assuming more and more of a shotcaller role.

At the World Championship, YellOwStaR stood out. No one placed more wards per minute in the Group Stage. His disengage performances on Janna galvanized audiences. Even as Fnatic crashed, YellOwStaR rose.

Upon reflecting on the split, sOAZ, now Origen's top laner, decided that the Fnatic's separation worked out best for both parties.

“I think Fnatic right now is much more serious,” he said. “I think it has helped YellOwStaR a lot more with his style of calls. It was a big step for YellOw and Fnatic.”

Fnatic regrouped around YellOwStaR. The success of his swap from AD Carry to support warranted another gamble.

Though Fnatic failed to make it out of the Group Stage at the 2014 World Championship, their visit to Korea for bootcamp marked the most influential moment in their reformation. While in Seoul, the team engaged in a pickup game with Heo “Huni” Seunghun and his companions living in the Samsung house. Fnatic were easily defeated.

In rebuilding the team, Fnatic’s owners remembered Huni, tracked him down, and gave him an offer that he extended to jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeujin, who spoke English fluently. The two Korean players went with Fnatic to Europe to meet their final two teammates.

Fabien “Febiven” Diepstraten stood out on H2K Gaming as a rising mid lane star. Anyone who watched him knew he’d make a name for himself — just perhaps not right away. Though Febiven’s flashy Zed plays did a great deal to pull H2K into the European LCS from Challenger, he would need molding to stay steady.

AD Carry Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi had even less experience than Febiven. He competed on SK Gaming Prime with almost no noteworthy accomplishments before Fnatic turned their eyes to him. Steeelback represented a stable addition to a roster the team hoped would brim with stars with a coach primed for poker-esque drafting outplays.

Fnatic’s debut in the Spring Season didn't come with high expectations from the average fan. Even so, Fnatic not only unseated Alliance (then rebranded as Elements), but ripped through the European LCS. They remained resoundingly Top 2 throughout the regular season and took first place in the playoffs, shutting down doubters.

Spring dominance was far from complete. Fnatic dropped five games in the regular season — two of them to the Unicorns of Love — and both of their playoff series extended to five games. To characterize their playstyle this Spring as “over-eager” would be generous. They went for dives, early dragon fights, and dragged skirmishes across the map like crime scene splatter.

Perhaps that’s exactly why Fnatic could put Team SoloMid so resoundingly in their place at the Mid-Season Invitational. Many remember the Cassiopeia top lane selection that easily perturbed Macrus “Dyrus” Hill, but Reignover’s proactive jungling tipped the single game in Fnatic’s favor, coloring the entire tournament.

TSM only won one game at MSI, and Fnatic powered their way into semifinals. They startled many by taking SK Telecom T1 to five games before falling, but ultimately SKT showed why their more patient play often ruled in Game 5. Warrior Enchantment Rek’Sai and Febiven’s aggressive all-ins earned Fnatic praise, but SKT advanced to the tournament finals.

For Fnatic, the drawing board returned once more. Rekkles came home after a disappointing stint on Elements, and Fnatic became all about adopting that which defeated them at MSI.

Fnatic’s debut game against Unicorns of Love progressed much slower than their earlier matches. This became a trend to Fnatic’s Summer. Though they closed out games efficiently, they took fewer risks and relied more on mid game Baron control to make decisive turns. Fnatic put away the wild skirmishing that got them surprise wins for more reliable risk calculation.

When Fnatic exposed weaknesses, they came out in the early game. This cost them in games against Origen in the Finals. Origen abused Fnatic’s tendency to go for patient scaling by drafting triple Trinity Force power spikes. The first game's out-rotation and early power plays gave Fnatic a devastating loss that jungler Reignover admitted left the team “in 10% tilting mode because it ended up being a pretty one-sided match.”

Despite their final series hiccups, Fnatic secured a well-deserved first seed into the World Championship Group Stage for Europe. They’re primed to test their changes against those of the rest of the world.

The Current State of the Team

Objective Rate EU LCS Regular Season Max
First Blood 67% 67% (FNC)
First Dragon 67% 78% (OG)
First Tower 61% 83% (H2K)
First Baron 83% 83% (FNC)
Game 100% 100% (FNC)

One of the easiest criticisms to lob at Fnatic is that they haven't been challenged enough. Two game losses might mean that Fnatic have lacked the adversity to adapt and grow as a team.

To an extent, that's true. With the exception of the radical change that followed Fnatic to become a more calculating team, they've kept a stable approach. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as most teams work on perfecting a style. The criticism arises when viewers posit that their approach hasn't been properly stretched.

Despite having one of the shortest game times in the regular season at 36 minutes and 12 seconds and winning all of their games, Fnatic have a fairly low focus on collecting initial objectives. They fall significantly behind Origen in collecting first dragons (tying with SK Gaming) and far behind H2K and Origen in collecting the first tower. Huni and Febiven are also not extremely high up in the ranks in terms of CS leads at 20 minutes, with Huni averaging a 2.6 CS lead and Febiven averaging a deficit of 2.4 CS. While Fnatic are still rubbing elbows with the top of the list, they're not as dominant in early game control as they are in other areas.

Early game has indeed been where Fnatic have suffered. When teams like Origen have picked standard lanes or difficult matchups for Fnatic, they've fallen behind, but that's when Fnatic's strengths shine. Fnatic have become more proficient at 1-4 than any other team in Europe, sending Huni to the bottom lane to keep minions pushing while they prep for Baron.

If you ever wrestle a Baron from Fnatic, consider yourself lucky. Their 83% first Baron secure rate towers over the rest of the EU LCS with only Origen and Elements managing to best 50%. Perhaps weak Baron control at 20 minutes made it easy for Fnatic to execute their style, but their timing in pushing out bottom wave and securing for a war of purple proportions make them top contenders as the Baron barons of the World Championship.

On top of powerful mid game Baron control, Fnatic turn games with team fighting. The addition of Rekkles has made Fnatic capable of sticking it out with more late game team compositions centered around sustained damage. Fnatic have enjoyed drafting more scaling compositions, and though Origen could punish them for that in the finals, it's most often come to their aid in hitting hard once the team collects three items with Europe's sometimes isolated approach to laning phase.

Fnatic's most picked champion this summer was Rek'Sai. Many have looked at Reignover's champion pool as a target for Fnatic, but in his own words, "we just prioritize the meta picks." Gragas and Rek'Sai were a huge part of Summer drafts and comprised the majority of most junglers' champion pools until the end of the season.

Interestingly, Fnatic were able to pick Kalista in 6-of-18 regular season games. Given their Baron focus and Kalista's objective shredding power, a Kalista at 20 minutes is a massive asset, and given Fnatic's leanings, it's something to look at going into the World Championship.

Outlook for Worlds

Fnatic and their fans have high expectations this World Championship. The team itself was born out of a big risk that would make winning this October a possibility. Fnatic have had one of, if not the, most impressive splits in European LCS history.

The only thing that will hold Fnatic back from winning Worlds is not having experienced enough disappointment this year. As disappointing as that sounds, Europe itself hasn't grown a considerable amount this summer. Many teams remained stagnant with only Fnatic and Origen truly showing progress.

It's expected Fnatic will make the quarterfinals. Anything beyond that varies on the reaction scale. A semifinals berth will depend on the quarterfinals opponent draw — and that's likely more than can be said for any other North American or European team in attendance.

Fnatic can go far. I'm looking forward to watching them climb.

Note: All data from this article are taken from OraclesElixir.com.

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

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