Cognitive Red entered the Smite Pro League Kickoff a massive underdog, a team of young up-and-coming players with not a game of live tournament experience between them—or much experience at all, considering the average age of the team is 16.8 years old. No one considered them a contender for the title—the team had never won even one of the 11 qualifying tournaments leading up to the event.
But despite their youth, Cognitive Red shocked the scene by beating two titans of Smite on their way to securing the Kickoff championship and a $25,000 paycheck.
The Smite Pro League Kickoff for North America was a $50,000 celebration of the launch of next week’s Smite Pro League, a regularly broadcast competition pitting six teams against each other, similar to Riot Games’ League Championship Series. The American kickoff ended in similar fashion to the European version of the tournament: with a huge upset.
Cognitive Red, a team of teenagers, makes an unlikely champion.
Formerly known as The Game Changers, the team joined the Cognitive umbrella in June. Apparently it was a prescient pickup, considering Cognitive Red beat their organization’s headliner Cognitive Gaming, the top seed at the event, in the first round.
Cognitive Red followed it up with a 3-1 series victory against Dignitas, the only team seemingly immune to the “kickoff curse” as the only higher- seeded team to win a game at a Smite Kickoff. That is perhaps due to some magic of their own: Dignitas has never failed to reach the final of a live tournament they’ve attended. But they have failed to win in those finals, like at the Smite Launch Tournament earlier this year, where they placed second behind Team SoloMid. And tonight was no different.
The key to Cognitive Red’s sweep was outstanding individual play from their solo lanes and jungle.
Fourteen-year-old solo lane phenom Nicklaus “Divios” Neumeyer broke out as the star of the tournament, the clear MVP of the event for Cognitive Red. His Janus play was pivotal to the team’s victory in the finals, taking a rarely used god lambasted as inconsistent and unusable due to his hard-to-hit skill shots, and turning him into a lethal weapon.
In the finals, Neumeyer brought Janus out in game two and posted an 8/2/8 KDA line to lead his team to a comfortable win, tying the series at 1-1. In the final game, Neumeyer would again put together an outstanding Janus performance, posting a 9/4/12 KDA line and securing the all-important one-on-one kill that gave his team a chance to push for the win.
His jungling teammate Peter “DaGarz” Gary would steal the show in game three with his play on the god that earned him the nickname “ThorGarz.” For some reason, Dignitas let Thor through to Gary, who punished them with a 13/2/7 game.
For Dignitas’ part, they didn’t go down easily. They had a sentimental reason to make this tournament run a good one: it’s the last event for their longtime solo laner Anatoliy Alekseyenok, who is moving to a coaching role to make way for the more mechanically skilled Alex “Shing” Rosa. That roster move is perhaps a sign that Dignitas saw a team like Cognitive Red coming, knowing they need to upgrade to match the talent teams are bringing to the upcoming Smite Pro League. Alekseyenok was solid during the tournament, but couldn’t neutralize his counterpart Neumeyer.
In the fourth match, Dignitas put together one last hurrah, an incredibly close 36 minute battle with the teams trading kills and objectives left and right. But Dignitas’ sustain team composition lived on a razor’s edge against the heavy damage Cognitive Red put together.
One of the commentators called it “one of the best drafts I’ve ever seen.” Cognitive Red pulled out Nemesis as their final pick, despite a lack of tanky characters who she can steal statistics from with her powerful ultimate. But they had predicted Dignitas’ final selection, the tank Hercules for the solo lane. It was the finishing touch to Cognitive’s lineup of hyper carry gods.
Still, it wasn’t easy for Cognitive Red. Dignitas’ sustain team composition with Aphrodite and Ra extended the game late. It wasn’t until Neumeyer caught out star ADC Steven “Zapman” Zapas and ended him in a one-on-one that Cognitive Red found the force to attack Dignitas’ base and take the game.
The tournament victory was in some ways oddly similar to SK Gaming‘s win in the European Kickoff tournament. Both teams were heavy underdogs, the last seed at their respective events. SK Gaming used a rarely picked god, Thanatos, to great effect, even forcing a ban in the final match of the event. Cognitive Red had similar success with Janus, a god many pro players believed was not viable.
The two wins show that the Smite esports scene has plenty of growth ahead of it. New talent, new teams, and new strategies are flooding the game, promising to make the upcoming league an exciting one.
The Cognitive Red team took home $25,000 for their victory. That’s $5,000 for each player on the team. Not bad for a group of high school students.
But the real prize is at the Smite World Championships in January, where $600,000 will be awarded to the best teams in the world. If this young Cognitive Red team continues to improve, they just might take the lion’s share of it.