Carrying on the Spirit of Fnatic

by theScore Staff Dec 16 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Dennis Gonzales / theScore eSports

After losing four members from their 2014 lineup, Fnatic's 2015 expectations had plummeted. They signed several rookies to the general incredulity of the public.

Then they won the European League of Legends Championship Series. Twice.

As a result, fans have put their support behind Fnatic, despite the team losing three members this year, retaining only Martin “Rekkles” Larsson and Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten. Instead of going for relative unknowns as they did last year, Fnatic have signed Lee “Spirit” Dayoon. They have reportedly signed Lewis “NoXiAK” Simon Felix as support, though NoXiAK later denied the report, and ex-Dignitas top laner Noh “Gamsu” Yeongjin.

The addition of Spirit has several in a stir, already calling this lineup an upgrade in terms of talent. Following a Top 4 finish at the 2015 World Championship, Fnatic have earned a considerable amount of goodwill that’s only exaggerated by the signing of one of the offseason's biggest free agents. Spirit has performed well on two different teams, where he’s had to play two different styles, so it only seems obvious he’ll adapt to the environment of Fnatic and continue to succeed.

As WE’s 2015 results showed, even if Spirit succeeds as an individual player, that doesn’t mean the team will. The argument may become that Spirit has a stronger and more dedicated team around him this year than he did last year. I agree with the sentiment, but believe this year’s Fnatic might be last year’s ROCCAT or Elements: talent with scrambled identity. I suspect they'll still place in the Top 3 or 5, but will lose the strategic depth Fnatic developed this summer.

I have less faith in Fnatic’s ability to continue their reputation for success and rebuilding because they lack core components that made the old Fnatic stand out: the chance encounter with Heo “Huni” Seunghoon in Korea and the stability and guidance of Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim.

Choosing Febiven as a midlaner wasn't just luck. H2K managed to qualify for LCS mainly on the shoulders of his playmaking, and whispers had followed him in Challenger for at least a year. He became a logical choice as a local talent. The selection of Huni was reported as happenstance, and Huni recommended Kim “Reignover” Yeujin to the team, making Pierre "Steeelback" Medjaldi the only truly “scouted” player, and he was replaced before the end of the year.

Fnatic's 2014 Spring roster at MSI

YellOwStaR has been praised by teammates and others for more than just shotcalling. His approach to the game has always been his strength, even as an AD carry, and the primary motivation for his transition to support. He also sets the tone for the environment, with Reignover going so far as to say “YellOwStaR... never tilts, no matter what happens. He'll know what to do in every case.” That role is difficult to replace.

As Spirit is the only player on the speculated new Fnatic lineup with shotcalling experience, he isn’t just replacing Reignover as jungler, but YellOwStaR in the leadership role. WE’s largest problem was in team play and calls, outside just their player weaknesses, which doesn’t lend much credence to Spirit’s abilities. As a result, one would hope Rekkles, Febiven, or the new support can take up some of the responsibilities. Gamsu was also said to have communication problems on Dignitas' English-speaking roster this year.

Until then, the only assumption that one might make is that, in the short run, Fnatic will have a similar communication setup to WE: two Korean players with limited knowledge of the language the other three players use. Spirit has some basic sense for the English language, but nowhere near the level of Reignover.

Given the depth of the jungle talent in Korea in 2014, jungle has looked like a logical export role in North America, China, Brazil, and even Europe. Korean junglers, including Lee “KaKAO” Byungkwon and Park “Winged” Taejin have expressed the opinion that jungle is the most difficult role to play on a foreign team, as it is incredibly reliant on communication with lanes. Spirit compensated for this problem by rapidly altering his style of play.

During his time with Samsung Blue, Spirit played a more supportive jungle style based around counter-ganks and team fighting. Spirit debuted in the LPL with a Riven pick against Invictus Gaming. In Game 2, he selected Rengar. In both games, he appeared completely detached from his team, started to take his own engages with no followup, and went on a farm frenzy.

Later in the season, Spirit opted for Rek’Sai and Nidalee, champions with high mobility that have the ability to react quickly and get to a skirmish in a timely manner. For the summer, Spirit had the highest percentage of team gold of any jungler in the five major leagues, surpassing Ming “Clearlove” Kai, who held the title earlier in Spring. In 102 games played in LPL this year, Spirit averaged 3.8 cs per minute, more than any jungler besides William “Meteos” Hartman for which Games of Legends has more than three games of data.

The common theory is that WE didn’t have strong laners, and as a result, Spirit had to rely on himself to carry. WE played scattered throughout the year, and when they succeeded, it looked more like a solo queue game with every player trying to stampede over his opponent. When they won, either Spirit, Su “xiye” Hanwei, or Jin “Mystic” Seongjun got a large lead.

WE at the IEM World Championship

While I agree that the overall talent level on the Fnatic roster is superior to that of WE, and I’ve made several public criticisms of the weaknesses of WE’s laners, xiye and Mystic at least were not unserviceable. xiye could pressure several mids in lane, and Mystic had a Jinx record that nearly rivaled Kim “deft” Hyukkyu’s. WE severely lacked the coordination to even begin to execute the available talent and advance from beyond bottom four this summer, which should have been feasible.

With Spirit’s departure from WE, the team replaced him with Chinese rookie Wang “WuShuang” Haili. In the second tournament in which they participated this offseason, WE won first place, a feat they had failed to achieve all year.

I don’t put a lot of stock into Chinese offseason events, but I do appreciate the difference in WE’s game play. Instead of picking all of their team’s best champions, they seemed to show an understanding of what worked in the meta, and the early game coordination of ganks not only existed, but made sense in terms of game flow. Watching WE play the tournament, I would notice an opportunity where the team could gain an advantage, and WuShuang would appear momentarily to attempt a gank. By contrast, in Invictus Gaming’s set against WE, KaKAO ignored obvious opportunities to gank Peng “Aluka” Zhenming while Liu “Zzitai” Zhihao maintained a freeze, prompting Aluka to over-extend.

That doesn’t make WuShuang a better jungler than Spirit or KaKAO by any stretch, it just shows a difference in emphasis. Where Spirit’s WE seemed more like an every-man-for-himself solo queue squad, WuShuang’s WE looked as if there was a relay of information present that hadn’t existed before. Following the game, Aluka told an interviewer that he and WuShuang shared the responsibility for most calls. WuShuang had a Chinese speaker in every lane, making it easier for him to get information from all sides of the map.

Even in cases where one or two strong lanes complement Korean junglers, as was the case Qiao Gu’s Baek “Swift” Dahoon, Unicorns of Love’s Cho “H0R0” Jaehwan, or Team Impulse’s Lee “Rush” Yoonjae, teams have looked inconsistent around them. Either the jungler, like Spirit and Rush, takes matters into his own hands with a high farm and carry style, or he appears disconnected and unsure of how to function with his team like H0R0 or, intermittently, KaKAO.

Successful styles where a jungler plays more for vision or counter-ganking, as seen with EDward Gaming or Choi “DanDy” Inkyu in Samsung White, don’t exist when the jungler doesn’t speak the primary language of the team. As a result, even though Fnatic have more talent overall than WE, I don’t see Spirit reverting back to the more supportive jungle style that characterized his days on Samsung Blue. Fnatic will struggle to reclaim the cohesion that made them formidable this year.

One might raise the objection that, over time, Spirit became one of the Koreans most proficient in speaking Mandarin Chinese. By this time, I think Spirit had lost a lot of his motivation and focus. He began spamming hard carry champions in solo queue and picking Fizz or Nidalee even if the composition didn’t call for it. Spirit may improve his communication with Fnatic over time, as Huni did this year, but the question becomes whether the team will be able to keep improving at that point.

Possible solutions to Fnatic’s woes include setting up a lane camp. 2015 Spring Fnatic were successful with Reignover primarily revolving around Huni’s lane. Reignover and Huni could communicate easily, setting up plays to get the duo ahead.

Spirit may adapt a similar approach with Gamsu, as Febiven and Rekkles are both quite used to fending for themselves. The question becomes whether Gamsu can make the same use of an injection of gold resources as Huni. According to a recent statistical analysis by Tim “Mag1c” Sevenhuyson, Gamsu hasn’t exhibited the same characteristics as a Huni-style player, and is unlikely to fill the role seamlessly.

A better approach, given Febiven’s growth over the year as a strong carry, may revolve around Spirit and Febiven adopting their own synergy and duoing to set up this camp. In LPL, Clearlove expressed that he felt more comfortable with Heo “pawN” Wonseok despite a language barrier because they had the patience to become used to one another over time. A strong synergy between a jungle and mid who speak different languages is still possible if the players are willing to work for it.

Either option could make Fnatic extremely one-dimensional for the time being. With the raw skill of the players on the roster and the increased emphasis on just winning lane will probably keep Fnatic as a top 3-5 roster depending on other teams announced, but I find it unlikely they’ll win 2015 LCS Spring with the setup they have in place.

More emphasis needs to be placed on styles of jungling in analysis, including the high quantity of wards Reignover placed which could be absent with Spirit’s existing style. Spirit often avoided building Sightstone to rush more aggressive items, and if not being able to communicate easily with his team puts pressure on him to keep his habits, Fnatic’s once bright map will grow darker.

It’s also hard to quantify the tension relief YellOwStaR’s confident presence provided. Spirit, while always referred to as an overall positive person, is emotional. If he does assume shotcalling duties over time, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to replicate the environment Reignover attributed to YellOwStaR for the team.

If this Fnatic team is to succeed, it will be a long game and may require a roster change between the Spring and Summer. Spirit is a fantastic addition, but I fear raw skill alone doesn’t translate to an upgrade. Fnatic may have gained a new Spirit, but they lost their old one.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter, where she may provide Spirit gifs on command.