On February 26th 2014, the following exchange happened on an AMA for former SK Gaming midlaner, then-current Gamers 2 midlaner and owner ocelote.
Thexpredator: Hello Oce! Do you think G2 has a chance to qualify to the LCS ?
oceloteWorld: Ofcourse we do. Otherwise we wouldn’t be giving in everything we got!
As it turns out, it would take four splits, 16 months, ocelote’s retirement from playing, the acquisition of a complete new roster, and the turnover of four members of that roster, for Gamers2 to get to that fabled point of contesting for LCS qualification. In September, they’ll face off against SK Gaming in the Spring Promotion Tournament in a best-of-five with a LCS spot on the line.
The good news is that this time, the opportunity is as gilt-edged as it gets.
Gamers2 come into the Promotion Tournament off the back of a Challenger Series season that, while ultimately ending in disappointing fashion, still stands as their best one yet. The team didn’t drop a single set all season en route to an 8-2 regular season record – good for the #1 playoff seed.
This success came in spite of a spat of roster instability over the course of the month. Jungler Gilius left the team before their week 3 clash with Ex Nihilo, as did support H1iva; replacements Maxlore and Hybrid took their respective spots for that series, with the former then himself replaced after two matches in favour of ex-Unicorns of Love jungler Kikis.
While most observers of the scene rated them somewhat behind #2 seed Team Dignitas EU, they came into their match favoured against mousesports. However, off the back of some confusing picks and a brilliant series in particular from mous jungler Dan, they fell in two games. However, two convincing victories in the 3rd-placed game over Denial eSports both grabbed a few headlines – not least for the double Riven picks by Smittyj – and gave Gamers2 what they’d been looking for for four straight splits in the form of a Promotion Tournament berth.
Gamers2 and pick-ban in CS
Overall, compositionally, Gamers2 have one predominant style. In practically every case, they run a high-DPS mid with strong poke, an utility-centric ADC, a ‘carry’ top in synergy with the ADC pick (e.g. Corki with late-game tops, Sivir with low-mobility mid-game teamfighters, a late-game carry with a tankier pick like Maokai or no-Triforce Hecarim), a support with a strong laning phase and good disengage, and (with Kikis) an early-game jungler. The aim of that comp is to win early, accelerate to mid-game at the right moment, create pressure through siege, and look for aggressive picks to avoid the game stalling out; against teams that can potentially stall that out (e.g. teams who can stand up in 2v2 lanes, teams with significant jungle and support disengage), Smittyj is usually looked to as the potential release valve – an approach used most transparently, and successfully, in the regular season series against LCS-bound Dignitas EU.
Gamers2′ success this split has been built on the strength of their solo laners. From a compositional standpoint, there’s not too much to be said about Perkz. He plays a very standard meta pool, and is able to consistently serve his team’s need for a high-DPS AoE mid. His Jayce has been otherworldy when it’s made it through bans – see his one-man demolition of Denial eSports in week 4 for an example of that – and his Orianna payed dividends in the first game of the 3rd-place series. He’s been functional if unspectacular on Azir (his most-played champion this split) and Viktor, and has also shown off some very strong Ahri play.
It would be wrong to say that the meta fits him perfectly- his solo queue account continues to be full of assassin play, and he’s even on record as disliking the current mid meta – but he’s shown himself to be extremely proficient in it nonetheless. Averaging a league-high 421 GPM in the regular season (a full 20 up on the next-best mid), and with the highest KDA (6.67) and kills (64) among starting mids, as well as coming a close second to Denial’s CozQ in CS per minute (9.00 to 9.04), he’s been the cream of the crop in Challenger, and it’s easy to see him turning out in 2016 as a LCS mid-laner at the very least on the level of someone like Fox, who put up comparable stats for SK Gaming Prime last summer at this level (433 GPM, 4.9 KDA, 53 kills).
The big point of interest, however, is Smittyj. On the surface, Smittyj is very exciting. He’s a carry-oriented top-laner who caught the eyes of casual CS fans when he brought out Riven in both games of the 3rd-place match – actually his 7th and 8th picks of the champion in Challenger Series competition – and has a strong reputation and record on champions including Rumble, Ryze, Irelia, Jax, and Fizz. In a league featuring Wunderwear, Wickd, Morsu, and Kubon, he led in GPM and kills.
Yet, for those used to the ebbs and flows of Challenger, that basic idea – the carry top-laner looking to make it into LCS – might elicit a yawn or a shrug. Carry tops from Challenger have disappointed so many times in recent memory. After a memorable spring season and semi-final showing for LowLandLions, Morsu and the rebranded Copenhagen Wolves Academy struggled in the final, struggled in the promotion tournament, and were bought out by Ex Nihilo, with Morsu only stepping into the starting lineup of an eventual 1-9 side four games into the season. Seraph may have carried TDK through to a Challenger final, and even made his contribution with a brilliant promotion-sealing Game 4 against Winterfox, but he was a non-factor in the NA LCS. Cris might as well have “Mendoza Line” tattooed on his forehead at this point.
GoSu Pepper may think otherwise, but let’s be real – if Smittyj makes it into LCS, he’s unlikely to tear the foundations up, just as Werlyb, Vizicsacsi, and Calitrlolz didn’t. Yet, there’s a little more to Smittyj in terms of his potential in the Promotion Tournament in particular than has been the case for a Morsu or a Kubon. Smittyj is interesting because, while he’s a carry, he has a pool filled with three of the cheapest carry champions you can find. Rumble’s potency on merely a Haunting Guise or a Zhonya’s Hourglass, and his major impact when the right fights happen, is well-known. Ryze is more time-dependent than anything else, able to endure a paucity of farm while his Tear and RoA stack and still prove deadly later on. Riven’s extremely strong 1v1 laning phase generally doesn’t matter for competitive (although it may this time), but her ability to bring hell with half-completed items is still a threat.
With his range of champions, and their range of power spikes, farm reliance, and so on, Smittyj goes from a top laner who can be camped out and made ineffective fairly simply by LCS-level jungling and map play, to someone who can’t simply be knocked over and out en-route to a free win while the rest of his team fails to capitalise. Smittyj, more likely than not, won’t be the main force carrying Gamers2 in this tournament – but his presence, and his pool, will be crucial.
As for the rest of the team, there’s not too much to say. Kikis has a reputation for the extravagant, but has played mostly standard meta junglers on G2 bar for one Rengar pick – in any case, there’s no obvious holes in his champion pool. Jesse tends to favour safe champions with strong laning phases, good waveclear, and who take on the role of utility in the late-game. Hybrid has shown past proficiency on Thresh, Janna, Alistar, and Braum in particular, and has recently added Nautilus to that list.
A lot of criticism has been made of Gamers2 as being unable to close, and that leading to disaster on account of being a terrible late-game team. Some of this is unfair – they don’t build for the late game generally, and they’ve been unfortunate in that two of their biggest throws have caught the public imagination for differing reasons (their loss to a 1-8 mousesports side in the final regular season game of the spring split came at the hands of a ‘troll comp’ including a Teemo mid that would go on to win it all, and their Game 2 collapse to mousesports again in the summer playoffs was during heightened attention on the series following the Denial DDoS events the day before, and they had been behind anyway).
The truth is that a team can win games in the LCS as long as they can keep up into the mid-game and build a composition that can wear opponents down in siege situations, no matter how poor their ability to fight in the late-game. They won’t be contenders, and they’ll probably end up back in relegations the next season until they can get better at that. It’s what GIANTS! did in their first split in the LCS – run double-AD comps with Sivir most games, pick up four wins, and then make it back stronger in the next split. If you can execute the mid-game well enough, then you can afford for your late game to be somewhere between inefficient and disastrous.
Admittedly, you still need to win to get into the LCS; and, in the promotion tournament, you need to win 3 out of 5, not 4 out of 18. That’s where SK, and their weaknesses, come in.
As we did for G2, let’s look at SK’s pick-bans this season.
What immediately stands out when looking at SK as an overall team is that they are actually very similar in style to Gamers2. Like Kikis, Svenskeren opts near-exclusively aggressive early-game jungler, although he brings a particular fondness for Gragas and Nidalee. Like Perkz, Fox is an assassin player who has found success in Jayce, Viktor, and Azir. Like Jesse, CandyPanda is a safe laner who plays mostly Corki and Sivir. Compositionally, late-season SK are building most of the same things as Gamers2 are. They want to rush at you, win the mid-game, rotate quickly, poke you off objectives, and not let it go late.
The difference between the two teams is what fredy122 plays. fredy did play Rumble once earlier in the split and Irelia once later, and boasts one of the best Gnars in the EU LCS, but in general he’s looked to hyper-tanks like Shen, Maokai, and recently Tahm Kench. While fredy is admittedly renowned for his strong tank play, this has caused SK repeated compositional problems, because they are fully reliant on Fox for damage usually in the late game.
The problem is that, throughout the split, Fox has been lackluster in terms of providing that damage. From a statistical standpoint, according to oracleselixir.com’s database, Fox is 9th out of 10 EU LCS mid laners in terms of share of his team’s damage, and 8th in damage per minute. Admittedly, this is on a similarly low share of resources compared to most EU mid-laners, but when the team has relied on him to the point where they spent the middle third of the split building Cassiopeia-centric compositions around him? The low damage is bad, and the fact that he’s being deprived of resources is even more worrying for what it speaks to about SK’s macro play.
SK are not a team that can reliably build towards late, and they know it; all illusions about that were expelled with their horrendous loss to ROCCAT. That’s a huge boon in the first place for Gamers2 as opponents, because they’re fighting on at least equal ground in that regard. Both teams are looking to rotate and fight early. Yes, teams can change their styles up somewhat; the problem is that doing so means playing to your weakness against someone else’s strength.
That approach could work if Gamers2 were one of those teams to emerge from Challenger that had genuine, overriding mechanical weaknesses that let their opponents come ahead after such a bold sacrifice. The problem is that they don’t. Every member of this Gamers2 squad, from what we’ve seen in Challenger, looks like a low-tier LCS player at this point. Perkz is significantly ahead of admittedly fairly weak competition. Smittyj distinguished himself against the other ‘carry tops’ of EU Challenger. Kikis and Jesse have both played in the LCS in 2015. This is not a great lineup – but it can be good enough.
SK have made an interesting roster change in the leadup to the Promotion Tournament, bringing in NoXiAK (most noted for a mildly-applauded stint on MYM in the spring split). While part of the move was probably related simply to the known friction between nRated and the organisation (with an earlier attempt to remove him mid-season sparking a near-walkout from three of his teammates), he’s also well-known as an aggressive laning support, as exemplified by his signature picks – his Leona won two of MYM’s four games last split, and his Nami got them a third. The NoXiAK pickup seems like a very clear signal from SK: they’re looking for 1v1 and 2v2 lanes, they’re looking for rotational poke compositions, and they’re accepting getting stronger in their core areas at the expense of narrowing their gameplan further.
If the two teams butt heads, SK can win, but by no means can they feel safe in that. For a LCS team going against a CS team, that’s an extreme rarity.
One step ahead: planning against SK
We’ve discussed why, if nothing changes, G2 could have a very good chance at taking down SK; let’s wrap up with touching in brief on how G2 could tilt the odds in their favour.
We’ve already talked at length about what both teams want, but let’s revisit it in brief:
- Both teams need a high-DPS, poke-heavy mid-laner. Preferably they should scale well into the late game, but that’s more important for SK than G2.
- Both teams are looking to pick a safe-but-strong bottom lane combination, featuring an utility-style ADC and most likely a ‘two-way’ support (engage/disengage). Both are overwhelmingly likely to look for a 2v2 lane (on both grounds of composition and looking back through multiple recent games for both teams).
- Both teams want an aggressive early-game jungler, and both are generally willing for that to be a non-tank if necessary.
- SK will look towards primarily hyper-tanks in top, with Gnar as a possibility. G2 will probably not look towards tanks, although it’s an option.
- Both teams are looking to do well in lane (and leave their respective jungler the opportunity to snowball somewhere), take down towers quickly once they get a lead or hit a power spike, and siege as a 5-man unit with enough engage to punish.
With all that being the case, the basic idea for Gamers2 is to deny. They need to deny their opponents those ingredients they need, and they need to deny their opponents from doing what they’re seeking to with what they can get.
In terms of target bans, there are two main ones that are worth considering. Svenskeren’sNidalee is a scary prospect – his ability on the champion is known, it fits into the team comps SK runs, it’s in an extremely strong place in terms of power right now, so it’s worth considering for a ban even though his Gragas has been more successful over the course of the split.
It also may be worth banning out Fox’s Viktor on blue side, with a resultant first-pick of Jayce if it’s left up. This doesn’t ban out Fox totally – he can play Azir, or Vladimir, or Cassiopeia – but it forces him onto a much weaker (and more vulnerable) champion for the role he needs to play for his team to make sense.
Other than that, there’s nothing that stands out as needing to automatically go just for player-champion proficiency (although NoXiAK’s Leona should be monitored carefully). In terms of targeted compositional bans, G2 should just follow the LCS’s lead and ban out Sivir unless they’re willing to first-pick it (and – the engage/disengage value of the ultimate massively helps one comp and hurts the other. A Braum ban is also worth considering – no other champion can provide the sort of utility against a poke comp that he can, and NoXiAK is known to play it.
In terms of LCS bans on the most recent available patch, we’ve seen Lulu (understandable but probably not worth a spot), Rek’Sai (utterly pointless), Jayce, Azir, Shen twice (a lower priority now – there’s a good chance that NoXiAK won’t play it which removes a lot of the utility), and Tahm Kench.
For pick priority, the #1 pick for G2 should most likely be Jayce. Perkz’s best performances in terms of raw DPS have come on the champion (as opposed to the decent but not mind-boggling numbers on Viktor and Azir), and given that the series could very easily be decided on one late teamfight in any game that stalls out, this isn’t something worth taking chances on. That’s not even mentioning that, his damage aside, Jayce’s utility via Acceleration Gate has the potential to be huge.
Jayce will realistically need to be paired with at least one of Elise and Corki. It seems a very real possibility that Corki won’t make it through to a first-rotation red or second-rotation blue pick if it’s left unbanned (it was first-pick blue in both week 9 games), but if it’s there, it needs to be taken off the table – given the prospensity of both ADCs to Sivir and Corki, and given that it’ll force the other onto something like an Ezrael or Caitlyn, it’s a nice deny.
Letting Elise fall this far (i.e. not ban or first-rotation pick) is a little bit of a risk – she’s extremely powerful right now, is multi-compositional thanks to her build path flexibility, and should in theory fit Svenskeren well – but he’s making so little use of it in solo queue as opposed to other champions (particularly Gragas) that it seems very likely that it won’t feature too highly in SK’s priorities.
With an early pick being spent on mid, there should be good scope for counter-picking lanes and the jungler down lower, so it’s not worth going into too much detail here given how long we’ve already gone on. One point of concern worth noting is that SK may make use of Gangplank as an answer to the Ryze-Rumble options for AP top – a Ryze ban is likely (it’s been banned in 5 of their last 6 games by them), and the reworked champion has been wheeled out already in competitive as an answer to Rumble in-lane.
On the subject of ‘wildcard’ picks in general and solo-queue give-aways, the only two that blatantly stand out (albeit still a fair distance away from the series itself) is fredy122’s Kennen (would fit within SK’s style although would also be tricky to pair with a jungler) and Fox’s Veigar (makes very little sense). It’s possible that other picks will reveal themselves closer to the time, but there isn’t anything obvious out there that would fit well with how SK want to play while also warping the matchup in their favour.
In general terms, and without looking at the finer points of lane control and rotational play, the winning team will likely be the faster team in most matches in this series. A high priority needs to be put by both teams on movement speed, and as a by-product, on supporting parts that make good use of it in their own engages. Conversely, a lower priority needs to be put on soft CC (e.g. slows) – that might sound silly, but with both teams stacking up on speed-based disengage, and potential wildcards like the Olaf pick coming out, positioning will take precedence over reactive play.
Since the inception of the current Promotion Tournament format (a Bo5 between a LCS and CS team) in the summer of 2014, eight teams have attempted to win promotion to the EU LCS through the tournament. On seven of the eight occasions, the LCS team has won; six of those serieses failed to go five games, and three were sweeps. It may have been a very bumpy road for Gamers2, but in this tournament, they have been handed what their contemporaries who made it over them didn’t have – a dream matchup, and a genuine chance to topple one of the LCS old guard.