Saturday will mark the first European LCS playoffs series in which Fnatic will not be the favorites to win. The team's 2016 roster hardly hearkens to last year’s lineup, let alone those of 2013 and 2014, but it still seems like a frace to say Fnatic will drop out of the playoffs in the first round.
Team Vitality are one of three EU teams that could qualify for the Mid-Season Invitational. A loss for them would be not only be surprising, but one of the season's largest playoff upsets. Given how the regular split matches between Fnatic and Team Vitality have gone this season, a 3-0 is not a fool-hardy expectation.
As spectators, we don’t just watch League of Legends for the results. We love the context of an exciting champion lock-in or a play by an underdog in the final hour. We like to know what this match means to each member of the team. Even if the series between Vitality and Fnatic has an obvious conclusion, we want to know how it happens — we want the story.
Here are five.
1. Klaj and the loom of the prodigal son
Last spring, Martin “Rekkles” Larsson left Fnatic only to meet failure, tears, and a seventh place finish with Alliance. A similar result may meet Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim in North America. Since YellOwStaR recently expressed interest in returning to Europe, attention instantly drifted to Fnatic, who have had difficulty establishing a new communication system in absence of their long-time shotcaller.
When Rekkles left Fnatic for a split, he was replaced by Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi, a rookie who had played for Challenger teams but lacked LCS experience. Even with outstanding domestic results and a fantastic performance at MSI, Rekkles replaced Steeelback when he decided to return to Fnatic.
This iteration of Fnatic sits in sixth place. Johan "Klaj" Olsson has slightly improved Fnatic’s cohesiveness, but his champion pool appears limited while his decision-making often puts him in situations where he can get picked off. Klaj has the highest percentage of team deaths of any non-Giants Gaming stand-in at 27.3 percent. He’s gotten himself killed more than once in his over-zealous pursuit of vision.
Klaj is only bested in wards per minute by his Team Vitality counterpart, Raymond “kaSing” Tsang. Already a powerful European support, this may be the best split of kaSing’s career as he’s lit paths for Ilyas “Shook” Hartsema, increased his rate of roaming, and played champions integral to Vitality’s compositions. This is a personal proving ground for Klaj, one in which he’s very likely to fail.
Everyone watching Klaj this weekend will be wondering, “Is this his last series for Fnatic?” Many of Klaj’s problems are the result of his lack of experience. Like Steeelback before him, Klaj has never played in the LCS before his first season with Fnatic. Despite allegedly good rapport with Rekkles, time may be something an organization like Fnatic, expected to finish at the top, doesn’t have.
2. That awkward carry jungler
From the title, it isn’t clear whether I’m talking about Shook or Lee “Spirit” Dayoon. The answer is both.
Aside from a stint on IWantCookie, Shook’s history starts with a competitive ban for toxic behavior. He competed in third party tournaments with the Copenhagen Wolves for most of 2013 until the lifting of his ban paved the way for him to join Alliance in 2014.
Shook’s qualities as an inconsistent player dovetailed with Henrik "Froggen" Hansen’s patience. While Shook would excitedly rush into a poor engagement or invasion attempt — or sometimes do nothing at all — Froggen patiently farmed mid lane to compensate for Shook’s late game misplays. Yet Shook was renowned for his ability to carry on Lee Sin, and that often separated Alliance from the rest of the EU LCS.
Following a disappointing World Championship in 2014 and a 2015 with only scant LCS appearances, Shook became the biggest question mark of Team Vitality’s major acquisitions. Channeling the Shook factor is one of his team's toughest tasks, but properly adapted, he is capable of creative teamfight moves and fearless invades. kaSing’s obsession with wards has gone a long way toward stabilizing Shook, and letting kaSing roam is a big reason Vitality have seemed to favor lane swap scenarios.
Spirit spent 2013 and 2014 working with MVP/Samsung Blue to compete at the top of the Korean League of Legends landscape. Samsung Blue used fast patch adaptation and scaling play to best sister team Samsung White in important Champions series.
When Spirit went to China to compete for Team WE, he lost a lot of that patience. WE’s scattered communication and fluctuating talent levels often left the team playing as if they were in solo queue. Three of the team’s strongest players were solo queue stars who grinded to the top of the ladder and converted these skills into unpredictable play that allowed them to find initial success at Intel Extreme Master Katowice, but was easily unraveled by teams with more unity.
Reigning in Spirit’s new carry style has been Fnatic’s most difficult task. He has become considerably more tame following Week 1's disjointed play, but he seems to lack concentration in the early game. Spirit's First Blood participation only sits at 17 percent next to Shook’s 44 percent. Spirit spends a lot of Fnatic’s games trying to force unsuccessful ganks for Noh “Gamsu” Yeongjin, a strategy that could easily open him to invades by Vitality’s more coordinated team play.
Europe’s first 2016 quarterfinal features two awkward junglers, but only one has grown into his team.
3. All eyes on Febiven
Erlend "Nukeduck" Våtevik Holm has quietly become one of Europe's best performing mid laners once again. He has demonstrated a versatility this split that was difficult to find in his play before, as he has gone from the mid laner who, paired with Shook, has lacked stability, to one who serves as a pillar for the team who can often be relied upon to hold the mid lane.
Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten, Europe’s best mid laner in 2015, has only recently improved his performances enough for this clash to be exciting. The prevalence of lane swaps have often made mid lane an isolated 1v1, which Febiven has occasionally taken advantage of in the past. Though laning could never been strictly called Febiven’s specialty, his willingness to abuse his opponent’s complacency with a daring all-in has been Fnatic’s mechanism for success in recent games.
If Fnatic’s Korean duo cannot find an edge in Fnatic’s games, Febiven may have to use a high mobility pick and avoid Nukeduck’s constant pushing. If Fnatic have any chance of pulling an upset, Febiven is sure to be the MVP.
4. Stylistic workaround
The biggest reason Vitality are favored in this quarterfinal has nothing to do with individual players. Both times Vitality and Fnatic faced each other in the regular season where Vitality confidently allowed Fnatic to choose whatever composition they pleased. In both cases Fnatic had used the same picks in a previous game and in both cases Vitality picked to counter Fnatic’s style and dismantled them.
When Fnatic have performed well this split, they’ve tunnelled on a set of picks, like Olaf and Zac or Corki, Lee Sin, and Jhin that have worked well for one or two games until an opposing team (usually Vitality) found a workaround. This bodes even worse for Fnatic in an extended series. In many cases, it has seemed as if Fnatic have only prepared one strategy at a given moment. Vitality may already know how Fnatic want to play, and even if they don’t, they have the experience on each of their individual players to react and adapt between games.
Vitality is the team in the playoffs that will test their opponents’ creative depths. So far, Fnatic haven’t revealed much beyond the shallow end. Yet the possibility still exists that Vitality need more than a short break between games to devise a proper counter-strategy and may simply ban a troublesome pick. This series could tell us a great deal about Vitality's own limitations that we don't already know.
5. The kingdom crumbles
Fnatic’s triumphs in 2015 may have inspired organizations like Team Vitality to enter the EU LCS. There’s no way of confirming the statement, but Fnatic and Origen found enough reserves to not only top the European LCS, but to climb to the World Championship semifinals. Then, teams dug for resources to consolidate talent and increase the competition at the top of Europe.
Team Vitality emerged full of players tired of losing to Fnatic. Lucas “Cabochard” Simon-Meslet stood in Heo "Huni" Seunghoon’s shadow as he developed a similar affinity for carry tops. Nukeduck’s Team ROCCAT failed to make an impression as Nukeduck stagnated and experimented with picks like Irelia. H2K’s bottom lane could perform against Fnatic’s, but their tunnel-vision on one strategy as a team made them easy to defy.
Vitality have combined pieces from some of last year’s most promising teams. They’ve improved on weaknesses and may be Europe’s most versatile squad. Fnatic’s cracks are well known to spectators. Vitality will stand above the structure as Europe’s five-time LCS champion crumble in quarterfinals, their worst ever placement in LCS history.
All statistics referenced from OraclesElixir.com.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. No matter who wins, you can follow the games with her on Twitter.