High school football players stay up hours studying play books. They memorize strange words like Slants Out or Wildcat—running plays, passing plays, running plays that you can pass on, passing plays that you can run on—and that’s just for the offense. Tactical, coordinated movements are a key part of winning complex games like football, where 300-pound men are moved around like gargantuan chess pieces.
That same layer of complexity that makes football a joy for fans translates to competitive video game playing, or esports. With one major, and hugely entertaining difference.
Football and basketball and other traditional sports have been played in one form or another for more than a hundred years. New tactics are rare. And when new plays do come around, they tend to burn brightly before fizzling into just another play—the aforementioned Wildcat is a good example.
Wildcat features a snap directly to the runner, typically an athletic quarterback who can take a hit. This twist frees up one additional blocker by eliminating the hand-off, and in a numbers game like the NFL, one extra body to block can mean the difference between a two-yard gain and a touchdown. The play became all the rage after seeing some success in college games in 2009. But as defenses became more aware, and quarterbacks started getting injured, it's since been relegated back to it’s former place as a risky investment.
Esports have predefined plays, too. The big difference is that instead of new strategies coming out of a few hundred games every year, esports are played on a much larger scale—try thousands of games per day. Strategies are fed through the blender, and turnover happens on a weekly basis, rather than yearly. The best professional teams are able to incorporate new strategies one week, only to drop them for something new the next.
And sometimes, as with the Wildcat (which originally came to power in the late ‘90s), teams can bring ancient plays back to life with a shocking twist. This is the story of how one young and untested League of Legends team, ROCCAT, came out of nowhere to topple one of the best teams in the world—using a new take on an old favorite.
In League of Legends, each player on a team of five chooses its own champion that they'll play during the match. There are a total of 117 to choose from, and choosing the right group of five champions is a major part of a game's strategy.
Among these 117 champions,
This greek-themed, spear-toting, armor-plated warrior is often considered more of a novelty champion than anything else. According to a well-known League stats database, Pantheon is only played in 6-8 percent of games.
Why? Pantheon is very easy to counter. His descent during these Mandrops is marked with a visible circle that opponents can easily avoid if they prepare and react quickly. Many in the League community consider him sub-par because of this glaring weakness. So Pantheon sees very little play in the top tournaments.
But it’s this exact kind of oversight that ROCCAT abused last week to dominate in their professional debut against rival team Supa Hot Crew XD. The setting? The first week of the biggest league tournament in all of esports, the League Championship Series, or LCS.
The Set Up
The end of the selction phase. ROCCAT has just chosen Pantheon (bottom right).
Before each League match, players on both teams take turns choosing which champions they will be playing. This turns into a mini-game of sorts, in which the first team to pick gets the broadest selection, while the other team gets the benefit of the last pick — the only pick that allows you to pick a champion without any rebuttal or counterpick.
Often, this pick will be used to select the mid-laner’s champion, often a very contentious pick that is heavily affected by counterpicks. The mid-laner plays in the center of the map and is one of the primary damage dealers for his team. His ability to stay alive during large fights can swing the fight heavily in his team’s favor—so champions that can isolate him and remove him from battle are highly sought.
As the team with the last pick, ROCCAT began planning for the best plan of attack. Their top-laner, Marcin "Xaxus" Mączka, lays out their thinking: “We predicted that [Supa Hot Crew] would pick a utility-based AP Mid, which is counterable with Pantheon.” AP Mid is League-speak for a spellcaster that can both deal a lot of damage and control the movement of enemies, either through stuns that prevent them from moving or spells that move them into places they don’t want to be.
As the picks rolled in, one thing was clear — ROCCAT didn’t want to tip their hand. Supa Hot Crew shortly proved Roccat's assumption was right, selecting barrel-tossing champion Gragas, a very popular utility-based AP Mid. ROCCAT waited until the very last minute to lock in Pantheon, and the crowd immediately responded with cheers. Pantheon hasn’t been seen in the LCS since August.
One other factor went into the team’s decision to use the long-forgotten strategy. Mączka ended up having the perfect champion to complement Pantheon, the monolithic Malphite. Malphite’s ability is a charge that knocks enemies into the air when it strikes, preventing them from moving. Combined with Pantheon's ability to teleport in and deal huge amounts of damage, ROCCAT had all the tools they needed to swing the game in one crucial play.
A stylized image of Pantheon. Via Riot/League of Legends
Early on in the game, ROCCAT was put on its heels. In his debut match, the young Supa Hot Crew marksman, Rasmus "MrRalleZ" Skinneholm dominated. A marksman’s main goal is to get as much money and experience as possible in the early game so they can be deadly wrecking balls in the late game. He got an early double kill, and along with it, a substantial gold and experience lead. If left unchecked, he would have no problems carrying his team to victory. As the game wore on, the two teams evened out, but even 20 minutes in—about halfway through your average League match—neither had a definite lead.
Mączka details the state of the game: “It all started with a Pantheon rotation to the bottom lane. We decided that he could split push and Lucian/Thresh will defend tower at mid.”
Translation: Pantheon would go assault a far-off enemy position while most of the rest of the team would play defense in the middle of the map.
Mączka: “SHC’s answer for that was sending all 5 men at mid to push the very low HP turret since they had good champions to siege.”
Translation: “Supa Hot Crew decided to do an all-out combined assault on the middle of the map, a weak point for ROCCAT.”
Mączka: “We reacted in time and didn’t give them opportunity to execute their plan. I moved after Renekton to mid and, at same time, Overpow took position to cast his ult."
Translation: “Our team defended well at the middle, which gave me and teammate Remigiusz "Overpow" Pusch (on Pantheon) time to set up the play. I moved in, ready to use my Malphite ultimate ability to set up for Pusch’s Grand Skyfall. Combined with my stun, the move has a much higher chance of striking the enemy team - and with the whole team grouped up, it was sure to do tons of damage.”
Mączka: “It ended up being slaughter.”
Take a look at the play for yourself. Mączka, on the red team’s rocky Malphite, wanders in from just above the blue team, and a combined assault with Pusch and the rest of ROCCAT send Supa Hot Crew’s health bars plummeting. Jump to 4:11:25 to watch, or check out the GIFs below.
At the end of the brutal skirmish, four members of Supa Hot Crew lay dead at the feet of ROCCAT. With a definite power play opportunity (it takes about half a minute for dead players to come back to life), ROCCAT went on to take out multiple objectives across the map, and played out the rest of the game in dominant fashion.
The win quickly shot ROCCAT into the spotlight - not only was it decisive, but the use of such a rare strategy instantly set a new standard for the 2014 season of LCS. The rest of the week went well for ROCCAT, as they ended up with two more victories and a single loss. The team currently sits in third place in Europe, a fantastic effort for a team little had heard about just a month ago.
As for the Mandrop, Mączka expresses a hesitance to use it again.
“It may be not that effective for a second time, since there won’t be that surprise effect - OMG THEY PICKED PANTHEON! But if we decide that will be best, then why not?”
Image via Riot/League of Legends