Europe’s legendary ‘League of Legends’ team is in a nosedive

In our new column, "First Blood," Ferguson Mitchell dissects the week that was in League of Legends, the most popular esport in the world

Photo via Fnatic

In our new column, “First Blood,” Ferguson Mitchell dissects the week that was in League of Legends, the most popular esport in the world.

The curse of February

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Probably nothing in esports has proven this old adage more than League of Legends team Fnatic, who were the number one team in Europe just last month. Fnatic took home the gold for both splits of the premiere season last year and they finished tied for third—in the world.

This season, they’re barely treading water above the bottom of the table.

After finally getting their star marksman back (who was benched due to age restrictions) at the start of the season, Fnatic went undefeated through their first seven games. They looked, at the time, unbeatable.

On Jan. 31, however, the team suffered their first loss of the season. It was a rematch against long-time rival, Gambit Gaming, who were just two games behind. The loss was uncharacteristic for Fnatic, the winningest team in Europe, but perfect seasons are rare enough. One loss was just a glitch.

But then it happened two more times. Fnatic had a reasonable excuse for one of those losses: ROCCAT, one of the teams that beat them, came out of nowhere this season to hold a spot in the top three teams. But the other loss came at the hand of Alliance, who at the time were 2-6. Alliance are currently tied for last place.

Fnatic seemed to be stopped cold in their tracks, and they haven’t moved since. They haven’t won a game yet this month. That leaves them in a seven-game losing streak, and possible exit from the top three of the league. They are currently tied with two other teams with a 7-7 record.

For fans, it seems almost incomprehensible. Where has the team gone who was ranked third in the world in 2013? Where have the strategies and skill gone that claimed two crowns in the League Championship Series?

Comments on Reddit attempted to rationalize the sudden reversal. Some pointed to the new marksman’s differing style from the previous marksman. Others even suggested going so far as to change up the roster with a role swap— which, if we learned anything North American team XDG, is rarely a good move.

Fans are questioning both in-game strategic decisions and out-of-game communication and motivation. At this point, what isn’t going wrong?

The biggest indicator right now to the team’s problems might be their bullheaded use of a strategy that has yet to produce any results for them. Called “Double AP,” the strategy aims deal out a lot of damage at the cost of survivability.

In League, “AP” refers to ability power, or the damage that comes from casting spells. Spellcasters and utility-based champions (player avatars) focus on raising their ability power throughout the game so they can dish out more damage with their spells. This type of champion is opposite that of an “AD” (attack damage), who deal most of their damage through non-spell attacks like a punch or sword hit.

“Double AP,” then, refers to when the team focuses on building two powerful spellcasters. The position that typically does this is the top laner, who is traditionally a tank-like, defensive-focused champion. So by going double AP, the team focuses on dealing out spell damage, but won’t have nearly the same kinds of defensive options.

Fnatic attempted this strategy three times, all resulting in a loss. In fact, their first attempt to use it, against Gambit, was their very first loss—a loss from which they have yet to recover.

Is aggressively pursuing “Double AP” the real reason for the team’s recent nosedive? One thing is clear: The other teams in the EU have really stepped it up this year. The skill level has never been higher. Fnatic will need to reign in their play if they want to remain among the best.

Boohoo Lulu

The mid lane is a hugely important position. A team’s mid-laner is a vulnerable damage dealer who can often deal the most damage to the opposition, if played correctly. It falls heavily on the rest of the team to defend their mid laner until they can protect themselves with items and experience. The middle lane is the shortest, meaning the mid laner is often the first one battle, and the most vulnerable to enemy invaders.

A mid laner functions much like a quarterback or midfielder—they set the tone, they can call the shots, and a great one can swing the game heavily, sometimes in a matter of seconds.

The middle lane is also often the most variable in terms of champions picked. When players pick and ban champions from the game, the middle lane champions are often targeted heavily.

Some champions, like Kassadin, have enough power that they almost always get tagged for a ban. Some are powerful enough to kill an enemy in a split second, a threat nobody wants to face without the proper counter.

The mid lane has a shaky balance, where some champions become popular, only to fall out of favor the following week. Some, like Gragas, are long-term favorites, but have well-documented weaknesses. Relying on this champion in the mid lane can mean being picked apart, as European team ROCCAT did earlier this year.

Lately, however, there’s been one surprise champion that nobody expected to be a mid lane star. Her name is Lulu, she’s a childish Yordle (think Ewok meets a Gnome). She has a pet fairy, and she’s possibly one of the deadliest champions to ever roam the mid lane.

But looking at her abilities, it’s hard to see how. Traditionally, Lulu is a utility support champion who provides defensive shields and spells that alter the movement speeds of other champions. It has been noted, in addition, that the damage she provides as a support is fairly high.

This damage has proved incredibly key as she is transitioned to her new role in the mid lane. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still a great support, but her presence in mid has definitely brought about some fear to opponents—last week in North America, she was banned in 50 percent of games, and was picked in the rest, and had a 50 percent win rate.

In one game, Austin “Link” Shin played her to get eight kills and zero deaths. Lulu is serious business.

So how on earth did a support champion aimed at providing utility turn into such a deadly powerhouse? The answer lies in the unique combination of her abilities to abuse the current styles that some teams rely on.

The first notable strength Lulu brings to the mid lane is her damaging ability, the Glitterlance. Yes, something called Glitterlance is one of the most deadly spells in the game.

Glitterlance fires twin bolts of magic in a straight line. The bolts damage everything in their path. Since minions funnel themselves down the lanes in straight lines, this spell can be used quickly to damage the minion waves, and to push your own minion wave against the enemy turret. There, the enemy mid laner has to work hard to get the last hits to secure gold for themselves—any last hits the turret gets means denied gold.

Constantly being pushed back to their own turret, the enemy mid laner doesn’t really have any options but to stay in the mid lane and gain gold as best they can. This gives Lulu some freedom to roam the map and help out with other objectives, such as invading into enemy territory and laying down vision-granting wards, clearing out neutral minion camps for additional gold and experience, or setting up for ganks (sudden attempts to kill opponents by emerging from vision limiting bushes)

You’ll notice that vision plays a large part into the above paragraph—it’s not just coincidence. Vision is very important in League of Legends, and being aware of your surroundings can often mean the difference between victory and defeat. Lulu’s ability to provide that additional visibility, along with an additional hand in gank attempts, is undeniably powerful.

Her second, and perhaps scariest, ability, is the power of her buffs. Buffs are spells that provide benefits to herself and allies. Debuffs, as the name implies, are spells that provide boons to enemies. Lulu has both.

Her three other abilities are all oriented around this buff and debuff interplay. Her second spell, Whimsy, provides a movement boost to allies, or a movement decrease to enemies. “Help, Pix!” her third spell, provides a shield for teammates, and damages enemies. Her ultimate ability, Wild Growth, enlarges an ally and gives them both health and an aura that slows enemies. Combined, her ability to alter team fights by controlling the mobility and health of those in battle is second-to-none.

The key to understanding Lulu’s dominance lies in understanding how ganking plays out. Ganks are often premeditated, designated plays to gain a slight edge in a lane by getting a kill, or by forcing an opponent to use up an important spell (meaning that a player would have to wait for that spell’s cooldown to end before being able to use it again).

All of Lulu’s spells, save her ultimate, have very short cooldowns, less than 20 seconds. They are reliably available every single time she is called to help out with a gank, or when enemies attempt to gank her. The benefits they provide are often enough for her to escape a gank, or to secure a kill for her team.

The end result? She is practically unkillable in the early and middle stages of the game without significant risk and investment from the enemy team. She also can provide very reliable ganks for her team by slowing enemies and preventing them from running away. And when her ultimate is available to use, watch out. It’s almost a confirmed kill against opponents if used correctly.

When all is said and done, Lulu is still the same old Yordle the players of the game know and love (she’s been in the game for almost two years now). But her new prominence in a new role has many pro players on edge, and she’s going to be a powerful champion until someone can find a reliable counter to her powerful utility spells. That may be next week, it may be next year.

Until then, Lulu will be putting down the pain from the mid lane with her charming yet deceptively-powerful spells.

Power rankings of things I like

1) Supa Hot Crew – Topping the rankings this week is the team that found out they were in the premier league three days before it started. An understandably rough first week has ceded itself to some solid play, and now the Crew are tied for third with a 7-7 record. For this team, the sky’s the limit.

2) Danny “Shiphtur” Le – His team, Coast, is 5-9 in North America, but his 11/1/10 (KDA 21.0) performance against Cloud 9 was impressive and showed flashes of the potential he promised during the offseason. If he can keep it up, Coast might very well coast into the playoffs amongst the top of the league.

3) Esports Express – Esports has an “Onion”-like parody site, and it’s ESEX. Thier articles (like this one about female gaming teams) are often on point and completely hilarious.

4) LMQ – This Chinese team, now competing to enter the North American pro scene, came out on top in the qualifiers last week, and look like the team to beat come the promotional round in the spring. They’re good, and should go far towards improving the skill level of the North American challenger teams.

5) Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider – Stückenschneider’s play this week was, well, amazing: 23.0 KDA in big wins against Fnatic and Millenium. Plus, he’s got just an outstanding name. Where can I buy a jersey?

6) Blue Caster Minions – This college team from the University of Washington took first place at Riot’s first ever collegiate championship this weekend, winning a close match against Sergio’s Dream of San Jose State. Great to see some good games from these dedicated students, but I’m sure they’re happier about the $100k of scholarships coming their way.

7) The subs on Gambit Gaming – Morten “Zorozero” Rosenquist, Johan “Hulberto” Johansson, Erlend “Nukeduck” Våtevik Holm, and somebody referred to only as “Fury III.” These guys stepped up for the four Gambit players who had the week away to deal with visa issues. They pulled out a 1-1 for the week, and deserved some massive praise for keeping Gambit afloat in what many had written off as a lost week.

Social of the week

@mualexander Why not respond “no comment” to the leak and take more time to work through it? Why did you feel forced to act?

— Chibrotle (@Chibrotle) February 21, 2014

Community member Chibrotle took to Twitter to pose some hard questions to North American team XDG’s owner, Marshall Alexander. XDG released Lyubomir “BloodWater” Spasov last week, to the confusion of their fans. Several public statements later (some of which contradicted each other), Chibrotle began asking the right questions, like the one above, and got some good answers he shared with fans on Reddit. Great work.

Picture of the week

This photoshopped image shows what appears to be the TwitchPlaysPokemon stream, but with “XDG Management” emblazoned across the top, and the game showing a pokemon named “Bloodwater” being released. This not-so-subtle nod to the apparent mismanagement of XDG is spot on.