I actually think Odoamne is one of the more underrated top laners, despite he's been here for such a long time. And people do value him, you know, and say he's a good top laner, but people rarely talk about him as like a star player.
—Martin “Deficio” Lynge, Unicorns of Love vs. H2K Gaming, Game 1
You can tell a lot about a team from its longest standing member. Although most of the 2016 season has focused on their bottom lane turmoil and the inconsistencies of Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski, top laner Andrei "Odoamne" Pascu remains the name that comes to mind the most when I think of H2K Gaming. Odoamne’s stable presence has been vital to keeping H2K afloat even during a tumultuous year, and both his strengths and weaknesses as an individual have been reflected in how the team has developed.
Few will refer to H2K as "Odoamne’s H2K" in the same way as they might refer to 2015’s Fnatic as Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim’s Fnatic, Team SoloMid over the recent years as Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg’s, Ming "clearlove" Kai’s EDward Gaming or Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok’s SK Telecom T1. But that says more about Odoamne’s personality and attitude toward the game than his ability to stand out. Odoamne frequently plays less of a focal role as a carry on H2K because he recognizes what he can do from a deficit and how he can play from behind.
"Our winning condition [in a] game may be to get AD carry ahead, or mid laner needs more item spikes before we can start going aggressive or winning fights," Odoamne said.
"So I just kind of recognize that ... Maybe it's bad for me to just give up the farm or not demand as much, but I feel like even if I give up that farm or give the farm to someone else, I can still stay somewhat relevant."
This is an attitude Odoamne has held since as far back as late 2013 on the new preseason patch. "It was tank meta," he said. "With like Dr. Mundo, Shyvana, and all that stuff. I was just playing a lot of weak matchups, so I just learned how to go even in all the bad matchups."
As a result, H2K drafts can see the team picking top lane much earlier than some of the other top teams in Europe — leaving counterpick priority to Odoamne's teammates. When H2K make that choice, they’re usually consulting Odoamne to make sure he’s happy with taking the bad lane matchup. This tendency opens the team up to a lot more possibilities. Odoamne’s confidence in bad matchups and his willingness to play with low resources allowed H2K to recruit a lot more talent while maintaining their strong core solo laners this year, but it’s also something that may have forced H2K into a fixed rhythm.
To supplement Yoo "Ryu" Sangook and Odoamne, H2K recruited a powerful jungle and support duo in Jankos and Oskar "VandeR" Bogdan, then rounded out their roster with the controversial but undeniably talented, Konstantinos-Napoleon "FORG1VEN" Tzortziou. Odoamne looked like the versatile piece that cold mold to make the roster work.
While Jankos’ all-or-nothing aggressiveness, FORG1VEN’s attentiveness to the 2v2, and Ryu’s assassin favoritism gave H2K strong early game tendencies, Odoamne brought more reactive play and a sense for teamfighting from behind that could get H2K back into the match if the early game didn’t go their way. In 2015, Odoamne’s ability to judge his durability and maximize teamfight presence with backs and Teleport re-engages made him relatively unique among European top laners, and it’s a skill he had to work hard to carry into this year’s iteration.
From Odoamne’s perspective, his greatest contribution to H2K’s communication is his sense for when to take a fight. "I feel like I have this good sense of skirmishing, so I find good fights. Sometimes I still make some mistakes and I troll fights really hard," Odoamne laughed, "but I think most of the time, I get good calls to force fights."
But putting these pieces together in 2016 Spring wasn’t simple. H2K transitioned to turrets easily, amassing fantastic laning phase leads, but lost that sense of unity if they were forced to 5v5. It’s likely that a large lack of teamfight practice given H2K’s tendency toward turret trading and pick play damaged their ability to get a better sense for each other in a teamfight. Odoamne’s apparent "troll" characteristics seemed to come out more.
Notably in the 2016 Spring EU LCS semifinal against Origen, Odoamne got caught in flanks or Jankos triggered the Kindred ultimate at an awkward time. Critics focused on H2K’s ability to teamfight or close games with their leads.
"When that stuff would happen," Odoamne said, "it would mostly be a kind of synergy issue between us. We were just not really on the same page. I would just go in because I thought it would be good for us … We needed a deeper understanding of how to play together … I guess that's why I was over-extending, trying to go in, and that's why we would get punished by that ... I think right now, we are a lot better at that.”
This tendency demonstrated that Odoamne fit a lot more in with the aggressiveness of his teammates than a casual observer might realize. Stable laners, willing to play a weak matchup are generally characterized as patient or cautious. On the contrary, Odoamne even described his sense for fights as "bloodthirsty," believing that in 2016 Spring, Maokai complimented eagerness to fight well.
When I asked Odoamne about his apparent love of Maokai, he immediately started laughing. “The meme with Maokai players is just because, I feel most Maokai players were really bad [in Spring]," he said. "They didn't know the limits of the champion even though, 'Blah, blah, tanks are easy’ … Even if I go in alone, I could just drag the whole team with me. You wouldn't really get that punished. Only if you really, really over-extended it was really bad."
Peeling back the layers of H2K, Coach Neil "pr0lly" Hammad’s emphasis on macro play, lane swaps, and playing the "correct" way dovetails well with the boldness of his players. Odoamne lead the charge in many of H2K’s questionable teamfights, and a combination of a communication gap and simmering issues behind the scenes may have contributed to the catastrophic 2016 Spring failure.
Because that’s what it was. For as much time as H2K spent leading the pack in 2016 EU LCS Spring regular season, the team would have considered anything less than first place and an invitation to MSI a failure. Interviews have suggested that FORG1VEN’s conscription, his clash with pr0lly and Ryu’s visa struggles only provided a brief glimpse into H2K’s internal strife. CEO Susan Tully likened H2K to a "reality show."
Even with all of H2K’s struggles, Odoamne maintained he did his best not to get involved and stay focused. "I just play for the good of the team, so that's why I don't really care about these sorts of arguments," he said. "I just try to work around it as much as I can." This attitude says a lot about why, not just Odoamne, but H2K managed to make the World Championships despite whispers of conflict. Even if all players might not have Odoamne’s determination to stay above the fray, any disagreements or quarrels come from wanting to win.
At least concerning a lot of H2K’s synergy struggles, especially around FORG1VEN, Odoamne affirmed H2K have come to more of an understanding this time around. "When we started playing with FORG1VEN [again], even for these playoffs, we all knew what his tendencies are, so we all worked a lot more to try to go around that and not force him to do something he's not really willing to do," Odoamne said.
A lot of great teams have managed to find success by working with restrictions, but as H2K have settled into their group and have a chance of making quarterfinals this time, a few questions linger. One of the key points is versatility. Between splits, pr0lly doubted H2K’s ability to adapt with FORG1VEN, but this time around, FORG1VEN hasn’t been the focus of Jankos’ pressure in the early game.
In the first 10 minutes of H2K’s 12 playoff games, Jankos only ganked bottom lane four times. He ganked the top lane seven times, the mid lane a grand total of 11 times, and spent considerably more of his time in the top side jungle. In the start of summer split, H2K envisioned a team that could play to any lane. They’ve finally started to achieve that.
"Now [FORG1VEN’s] more respectful of where we're playing and on what side we're playing," Odoamne said. "He's accepted that in some situations he might not be our strong side. I think it's a lot better than in Spring. In Spring we were kind of playing a one-dimensional style where we just go for bot every time and force dives every five minutes."
But even as H2K has become more versatile and can utilize strong matchups in multiple lanes, the nagging semifinal failures remain. H2K have now lost four total EU LCS semifinal series, and Odoamne, Ryu and pr0lly have been present for all of them.
At least from Odoamne’s perspective, there’s no concrete mental block for H2K in series or semifinals. H2K even joked about their misfortune between games against Unicorns of Love. "We were 2-1. So we made a joke like, 'Guys, it's 2-1,' because the last three times it was 2-1, we ended up losing," Odoamne chuckled. "So when we said it was 2-1, everyone started panicking super hard, but it was kind of like funny. It wasn't really that serious … Even when we were playing quarterfinals against Fnatic, the feeling was the same as the semifinals against Splyce. It just happened. We just stopped in semifinals every time."
Without some unknowable mental block, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why H2K have lost their semifinals. Very likely, it was a different reason every time, and H2K’s difficulties have refined and evolved over their two-year period in the EU LCS.
Odoamne spoke of the most recent semifinal series against Splyce like someone who had watched it repeatedly after the fact. Any hint of pain seemed to have worn into a more calculated self-reflection. He recalled the laundry list of mistakes, from his failure to work with Jankos to coordinate ganks with Gangplank's ultimate, a failure to use the strength of H2K’s composition in skirmishes given Martin "Wunder" Hansen’s split-push focused Gnar build, and concluded he still felt H2K’s composition was valid, just poorly executed.
This element of pride in the heat of the moment could be part of H2K’s undoing. They’re vocal about the strengths of their ideas: the way they think about the game. H2K in the past have been famous for long VOD reviews during scrim blocks to ensure the players know and understand their role in game and where their decision-making was flawed. They’re confident.
In the semifinal against Splyce, H2K didn’t ban Gnar because they’d played against it before, they knew there were ways around it if they had played correctly. "In Game 4," Odoamne said, "I think we made some mistakes in skirmishing with Gangplank, and we realized we shouldn't do that, so we tried to implement it in Game 5, but we just went back."
Remaining comfortable in their draft is still a step up from the shambles H2K devolved into in the spring. There were no wild Ryu LeBlanc picks, no truly awkward compositions based on a Hail Mary solo carry. H2K at least remained confident in their ideas this time around, but if they struggled to execute them, that’s something they’ll need to work on acknowledging mid-series. Otherwise even if they get out of Groups at Worlds, they’ll grind to a halt in a best of five.
Part of H2K’s lapse in judgment in this instance can be laid at Odoamne’s feet. Odoamne conceded, "Maybe against Splyce, I think maybe it was better to not give up the Gnar and go for counterpick top." It’s something Odoamne only said after the fact, but either it didn’t occur to him mid-series, or he didn’t speak up at the time because he’s so used to playing the weaker side of a laning phase matchup.
"Since we rarely execute," Odoamne said, "I'm not confident enough to demand more resources and get the team to play off of me." But H2K's top laner also acknowledged that being able to play a bad laning phase matchup has become a point of pride for him. He felt confident in his ability to make Gangplank work into Gnar, especially since the team knew the reasoning was sound.
Odoamne’s flexibility on a variety of champions and ability to stay relevant is the first thing most people praise about him. Wunder himself, prior to the semifinal matchup against H2K, said Odoamne “can always go even in lane or win lane in almost every matchup,” and for this reason acknowledged him as one of the two top laners who had left the deepest impression on him in Europe.
With the rise of the likes of Heo "Huni" Seunghoon and Lucas "Cabochard " Simon-Meslet, this skill has been widely underrated. “Two best of fives in Korea in a row or something,” Odoamne said, “and every game, I see the person playing in the weaker matchup gets solo killed two or three times. Other players don't know how to play weaker sides of the matchup and just go even … I guess I'm proud of that because I just see other players make so many mistakes, and I'm always in my head, 'How does that happen?'”
This quality of Odoamne’s, while it may prevent him from speaking up and demanding a counter matchup in situations like last year’s World Championship — where it would have greatly benefited H2K — also speaks a lot to his outlook on the game. It’s an interesting metaphor for H2K’s entire season, having to adapt to obstacles they didn't expect or hampering themselves by showing their hand too early and being forced into a position where they need to figure out how to adapt in game.
"There's counterplay to anything," Odoamne said. "No matter if you're ahead or behind. It's just how you react to what the enemy is doing."
Throughout the 2016 season, H2K failed repeatedly in instances where they should have succeeded with the level of talent on their roster. When the third place match against Unicorns of Love arrived, they changed their approach to favor red side and counterpick support, to putting more farm on Jankos. They still made the 2016 World Championship after a year of metaphorically putting themselves in the bad matchup.
The Group Stage in San Francisco is the next — and possibly the last — test of this H2K roster. As he prepared to head for Korea to bootcamp against the teams H2K will face throughout October, the regrets of the EU LCS season still weighed on Odoamne.
"I just want to prove that we've grown a lot. Everyone. And we can do a lot with this roster. In the spring, when we lost to Origen … I felt like we were good enough to win the whole split," he said.
"This split was kind of like a mess because we played with Freeze and we played with FORG1VEN … I think, even this split, we could have been the best team. I just want, at Worlds, to go as far as G2, or even beat them. I just want everyone to know H2K is Europe's best team."
With the year H2K have had, that’s not an easy ask. The first step, for both Odoamne and H2K, is getting out of their own way.
All photos credited to lolesports flickr.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter to look out for more of her pre-Worlds content.