At the conclusion of the third place match between H2K and the Unicorns of Love, the hometown heroes stood together on stage with the Polish flag draped over their shoulders. H2K support Oskar “VandeR” Bogdan expressed his regrets. “We should have taken the series against Splyce. We beat ourselves, I should say.”
Some might think this statement puts down Splyce, whose improvements and triumphs this split have been truly admirable, but VandeR’s words were heavy and genuine. “We beat ourselves” rings truer for H2K than many who have uttered the phrase. The laundry list of public problems has been recounted several times: Yoo “Ryu” Sangook’s visa, Konstantinos “FORG1VEN” Tzortziou military summons, as well as his conflict with Coach Niel “pr0lly” Hammad and Aleš “Freeze” Kněžínek’s injury.
The visible devastation H2K experience on stage after losing 2-3 to Splyce in their fourth consecutive semifinal forced me to have doubts. But this week’s third-place match wasn’t about any of those things — it was about what allowed the team to scrape by, to overwhelm Unicorns more convincingly than G2, the Summer champions, and qualify for the World Championship. The small changes the team made to their style and the difference between them and G2 made this match incredibly impressive.
Watching the early games of Unicorns of Love and H2K-Gaming, Kang “Move” Minsu received heavy criticisms for falling behind in farm. During the regular season, Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski could hardly be called a farming jungler. He averaged 48 percent of total jungle camps taken, usually underfarmed relative to his opposite — unless he made the early ganks work. This gave H2K-Gaming the famous “live or die by Jankos” tag line.
During the course of the set against Unicorns of Love, however, there were instances where other members of the team, Ryu especially, granted Jankos waves of farm by backing early. Because of Ryu’s strength over Fabian "Exileh" Schubert, he could trade very well in lane and remain ahead. This particular matchup made a significant difference. Throughout the regular season, H2K progressively focused on holding mid lane, and the synergy between Jankos and Ryu has grown increasingly strong.
For once, H2K were able to execute the style that has been incredibly popular in the EU LCS all year: running through mid-lane. There were several instances where H2K were able to use the terrain between first and second tier mid lane turrets for dives and invades. Jankos’ ability to invade through the bottom blue side jungle and utilize the part of the map between turrets proved effective for a red side team. This, as well as the team’s tactic of delaying the support pick to counter the enemy team’s strategies, could have been a major reason H2K continued to choose red side throughout the series.
With more farm, Jankos averaged 51 percent of jungle camps taken throughout playoffs, and Ryu came off as the star of the team in the third place match, constantly pressuring the lane and abusing Exileh’s champion pool. Yet this was only possible because of the stability of H2K’s side lanes.
With a strategy that relied less on a jungler farming, H2K teetered between spectacular and deplorable throughout the summer split. Their bottom lane often had limited effective strategies, perhaps because of Freeze’s injury and inability to practice consistently. Freeze tunneled on his famous Draven pick. This made playing around the bottom side of the map occasionally ineffective. It also cut down on many opportunities for the top side of the map to get ahead, as with the popularity of Teleport, the most effective way for a top laner to get a lead is often to Teleport to bottom lane skirmishes. In this way, top and bottom have a very strong link in the current meta.
During the semifinal match between Unicorns of Love and G2 Esports, top lane lacked any independent pressure. G2 were only able to have their most decisive victory over Unicorns of Love when Kim “Trick” Gangyun camped the top side of the map, allowing Ki “Expect” Daehan to finally get a lead. This discouraged a great deal of aggression in the bottom side of the map, as G2’s top lane had the ability to push out the wave and both get to the bottom lane before the enemy top laner as well as have a greater impact.
Top lane was never a weak point for H2K throughout the series. Jankos put more jungle pressure on the top side of the map, and Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu’s consistency shone through extremely well. This series, the bottom half of the map exerted a great deal of pressure without Jankos even traveling to the bottom half, and FORG1VEN and VandeR were able to play aggressively, abusing their advantage, knowing the rest of the team was winning top side.
This is the seamless symbiosis we’ve always expected form H2K this season, but never really encountered. For once, this was a team with more stability and freedom, yet it still hinged heavily on the skill of their individual players. This was H2K showing up in their meta against another semifinalist, not a bottom lane camp or a high risk-reward strategy based upon early ganks that don’t always pan out. This was H2K showing up when almost everyone had lost faith.
The question is how long it lasts.
If you’ve had a year like H2K, there’s always another shoe. FORG1VEN’s departure from H2K and return after pr0lly’s comments is incredibly admirable on both sides. H2K swallowed their pride and admitted they needed help. FORG1VEN swallowed his because it’s undeniable — if you play like that, no matter how high your Overwatch rank is, you love League of Legends, you love the competition and the feel of victory, however rare it has been in the past, on the competitive stage.
But the problems H2K had don’t just disappear, and with their inconsistent performances throughout the summer, it’s almost certain that they have even more issues that have nothing to do with FORG1VEN. This H2K is the H2K we’ve wanted to see all year. They’re flexible, they’re less reliant on either FORG1VEN or Jankos. They know how to use the solo laners who have always been there, braving the storm since H2K entered the LCS, two of the best solo laners in the world, though this is rarely acknowledged with the rest of the talent on the team.
“We beat ourselves,” VandeR said, and it rang true of H2K’s struggles throughout the year. Everyone who loves this team or loves the European LCS felt it, though it only lingered in the air for a minute.
H2K finally stopped beating themselves and started beating their competitors for perhaps the first time since Spring. As a fellow lover of League of Legends, I can’t expect this to last forever, but I can hope it lasts through the World Championship in October. I can hope that this is the H2K we see in San Francisco because this is an H2K that can win, this is an H2K that understands how to use the resources they have. This is an H2K that can beat almost anyone.
Remember, H2K, the enemies are on the other side of the rift, and you’ll do just fine.
Photo credit: lolesports flickr
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports who strives to bridge the gap between LPL and EU LCS fans for no reason in particular. You can follow her on Twitter.