Heading into semifinal match of one of the biggest League of Legends tournaments of the year, it was only natural for SK Telecom T1 to be confident. They had a habit, after all, of streamrolling Western opposition. In previous tournaments, they held a record of 10-0 against teams from the U.S. and Europe.
But even with the best player in the world—Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok—in the game, the Korean powerhouses dropped a match. And then another. They were trading games with the European side. Fnatic only bowed out after forcing a hard-fought fifth game in the series.
At the Mid-Season Invitational, Fnatic proved that they could take it to the best Korean teams in the game. And when it was finished, they made a move to get even better.
The team will not be satisfied until they prove themselves on an international stage.
“Before the summer split started, we requested a change of our ADC in order to perform better as a team as fast as possible,” Fnatic’s support, Bora “YellOwStAr” Kim told the Daily Dot. “We got criticized at first, but I was confident enough to say ‘wait and see.’”
Before the 2015 season, Fnatic lost it’s whole squad, minus star support Kim. The departure of marksman Martin “Rekkles” Larsson—as he moved on to Alliance—sparked a flurry of roster changes for the team. Veteran players Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martinez and Paul “sOAZ” Boyer moved on to another adventure (now known as Origen), while jungler Lauri “Cyanide” Happonen retired.
Kim was stuck with one task—rebuild the team from scratch. He and Fnatic reached out to two players they encountered while competing in South Korea last year: a jungler named Kim “Reignover” Ui-jin and a top laner, Seong “Huni” Hoon Heo, who was on Samsung Galaxy’s practice team (and ultimately denied an offer from SK Telecom themselves).
Two European Challenger prospects rounded the roster, Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi and star mid laner Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten, of Unlucky Bois and H2K-Gaming respectively.
But MSI would be Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi’s last appearance with the team. The young player joined on Jan. 8, filling the void left by star marksman Larsson, and performed well throughout the team’s championship run in the summer split. But he was still the weakest link in the chain. And on May 14, Larsson reclaimed his spot on the roster.
Larsson was the catalyst for an even greater transformation. The team was no longer just a great squad with upset potential on the international stage. Fnatic had the potential to be a serious international challenger.
“If we knew that his addition to the roster wouldn’t be beneficial, we wouldn’t have done the swap,” explains Kim. “He is way more confident, has more experience on stage and big events, and is better individually and on a team level which lead to more trust between all of us.”
Thanks to his veteran experience at the most competitive level of the game, Larsson plays a more efficient game than Medjaldi, although similar in style. Having a passive marksman is exactly what made Fnatic great—but having one of the best in the game with the ability to be dynamic made them even better.
Larsson’s potent playstyle was just what Fnatic needed. He pulled a KDA of 29 in the first week of the Summer Split. His fearless Kalista and Corki play established him as one of the most feared AD Carries in the West, a stark contrast from Medjaldi’s struggles to keep up with the enemy botlane. By the end of the split, his average KDA approached 11 and he was averaging 423 GPM, making him the second-highest ranking player in the European LCS for both categories.
Only one person beat out Larsson in the KDA category—his teammate, Kim, who led Europe with a 16.3 ratio. And, of course, those aren’t the only players with dominant performances. Fnatic’s star mid-laner Diepstraten had the highest gold stats in the region at 427 GPM, beloved top-laner Seong “Huni” Hoon Heo Outstanding Rookie for the 2015 Spring Split, and Kim “Reignover” Ui-jin gained international recognition for his Rengar play. Then there’s Luis “Deilor” Sevilla Petit. The former poker coach, who has more than 2,000 hours of experience coaching that game at the highest levels, has helped infuse the team with a level of professionalism that sets them apart from their peers.
If Fnatic was ever in a position to break new ground, this is it.
It’s the strongest Fnatic squad of all time, and that’s saying something. The team established itself as a force to be reckoned with when they won the Season One championship. Since then, Fnatic has accumulated the most LCS titles across both North America and Europe. They have a history of dominating playoffs, taking first or second place in every split since 2013. But this team accomplished something that no other LCS team had ever done: They went undefeated during the regular season.
Kim says they hardly expected to go undefeated. But they certainly believed a repeat championship was on the table. “Looking back at how fast we improved and the potential of the team, I was expecting a high win rate percentage,” he said.
But once a team starts winning in such dominant fashion, it’s only natural to get complacent and eventually slip up. Wary of this possibility, Fnatic have taken their success one game at a time. “There is no need to put pressure on ourselves,” Kim said. “What we mainly want is to learn as many things as we can. We don’t really stare at our score and be happy. We just ignore the fact that we haven’t lost yet and focus on the areas we are showing weaknesses.”
Despite their consistent results this split, not every game has been one-sided. Fnatic really struggled versus H2K in week seven, starting the game with a 5,000 gold deficit at 20 minutes. But their comeback in this game only further demonstrated why they’re so formidable: By the 35-minute mark, they had pulled ahead to an 11,000 gold lead over H2K.
Despite their regional dominance, Kim says the team will not be satisfied until they prove themselves on an international stage.
“Remaining undefeated in Europe doesn’t mean much to us, we know that the Asian teams have been dominating for years now,” he says.
With its previous lineups, Fnatic has historically performed well at international competitions—not counting last year’s unimpressive 12th-place finish at the World Championships—including a second place victory at IEM Season VIII, third place at All Star Paris 2014, and third place at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational.
Fnatic’s playoff results historically suggest that they will make it to Worlds this year (as if their dominating performance this season wasn’t enough).The only other team to have ever gone undefeated during the regular season are SK Telecom T1. And if Fnatic was ever in a position to break new ground, this is it.
Photos via Riot Games/Flickr | Remix by Jacob Wolf
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