Steeelback: ‘I really wanted to show everyone in the world that Europe is strong’

When the nexus fell amidst the roar of a sellout crowd at the Mid-Season Invitational in Tallahassee, Fla

When the nexus fell amidst the roar of a sellout crowd at the Mid-Season Invitational in Tallahassee, Fla. today, SK Telecom T1 jumped from their seats victorious. 

But the Fnatic team who just took a Korean squad further than any Western team has ever managed to in years held their heads high. Top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, who always has a smile on his face, stood from his chair and clapped, showing his respect to the team that barely survived their onslaught. But one player on the team had tears in his eyes.

For Fnatic AD carry Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi, that might not come as a surprise. His team just lost a long and emotional series, after all. Most players would be sad. But for him, the end might be even more heart wrenching. It’s the end of his first international event, the biggest tournament of his career and perhaps the biggest moment of his young life. And it could also be the last time he dons the iconic Fnatic black and orange and takes the stage with one of the most exciting new teams to hit the Western scene, if the reports of his ousting in favor of Martin “Rekkles” Larsson are true.

But despite the tears, it’s still a happy moment for the player. The 18-year-old Medjaldi, a rookie in the strictest sense of the word, had never even competed in the Challenger Series before Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim plucked him up for his new Fnatic experiment. Now, less than six months later, he’s a European League Championship Series (LCS) champion and today showed the world that Europe really can challenge Korea.

“It feels good,” he said. “I really wanted to show to everyone in the world that Europe is strong and that we can actually compete at a really high level. Especially this season I think we can. It was really close. I think we can beat Korean teams.”

Of course, critics will say Fnatic’s form isn’t due to Medjaldi’s play, but more the play of his teammates. During the first two days of this tournament, analysts harped on his failure to keep up with the rest of the AD carry talent in the tournament, often falling behind by 10, 20, or even 30 creep score in the early parts of the game.

“Yesterday I’d say I played bad,” he said. “The Chinese and Korean teams, they capitalize on mistakes really fast.” He used game two of the series as an example. He burned his flash early and was punished heavily for it, with the enemy camping his lane and denying him farm. But like anything else, it’s a learning experience for a rookie player on a rookie team: “When you’re against those ADCs, those bot lanes that are really good and smart, you learn a lot and you can adapt and play like them,” he said. Against SK Telecom T1 today, he certainly improved, even outplaying his lane opponent Bae “Bang” Jun-sik in some games.

“Today I played way better than yesterday,” he said. “But I still could have played better of course.”

The match against SK Telecom T1 looked like a David and Goliath situation, considering many wrote Europe off after the LCS playoffs looked like a mistake-filled mess. That gave Fnatic extra motivation to perform heading into the event, but when they watched SKT play during their preparation, they were awed. “We thought that they were way better and we didn’t have any chance,” Medjaldi said. But after actually scrimming SKT after arriving in America, Fnatic began to believe. The Koreans may look like gods while watching from afar, but they still bleed like anyone else when you attack them in the Summoner’s Rift.

That meant Mejaldi wasn’t nervous heading into the biggest series of his life. Instead, he was confident. “We scrimmed them a lot and we were way more prepared,” he said. “So I was more confident in myself.”

The team was also confident they’d perform in a best-of-five series, Medjaldi says, despite facing legendary mastermind Kim “kk0ma” Jeong-gyun, SKT’s coach. That’s in part due to their own coach, Luis “Deilor” Sevilla, a former poker coach who has emerged as one of the best of a new crop of Western League of Legends coaches.

“We are better in best of five because we adapt and we have a really good coach,” he says. “Everyone is giving information from the last game and what went wrong. We’re fixing problems really fast as a team.”

That showed in the series. Fnatic favors a specific play style built off early game skirmishing, but they have multiple composition to play it with which allowed Sevilla to pivot around SK Telecom T1’s own adjustments. But the veteran coach kk0ma had the last laugh. In game five he threw a deadly wrench in the Fnatic machine: Nunu.

“We saw this jungle pick and for some reason we didn’t expect the counter jungle to hit us that quickly,” Medjaldi said. “That just lost us the beginning and it just snowballed from there.”

Fnatic managed to secure just two buffs from their own jungle through the entire match, leaving the usually dangerous Reignover impotent. The hidden trump card played by kk0ma knocked out Fnatic. It also may have ended this chapter in Medjaldi’s career.

Even if he no longer plays for Fnatic next season, it’s been an incredibly valuable experience for the young player.

When he joined the team, he had no experience playing professionally. Or even full-time. In 2014, Medjaldi was still in high school while playing for amateur side Unlucky Bois, a ranked 5s team that was eventually picked up by SK Gaming Prime. Joining Fnatic was an eye-opening experience.

Medjaldi began learning about the draft phase. Timing objectives. Planning in-game strategies, and how to execute certain team compositions. On his previous squad, they simply got together and played. With Fnatic, he says, it was like playing a “whole new game.”

He also got to work with a coach for the first time. “[Deilor] is helping us mentally before games, and he’s helping us in game,” he said. “Like drafting, he’s doing a really good job. He’s helping us when you have trouble. He’s fixing it, talking with you, giving you confidence.”

As a rookie in not just the LCS, but real competitive play itself, Medjaldi really benefited from the one-on-one attention. “He went to me, helping me every day,” he said about Deilor, “watching my replays, lane phase, how to position in team fights, giving me replay of high class ADC like Deft.”

Now Medjaldi may have played his last game with that support surrounding him. This tournament may be the highest point of his career. But he can take his experience with him to his next endeavor, whether that’s with Gambit Gaming, as he’s reported to trial for, or another team, and use it to make sure he reaches even higher. He’s mum on his future, but it’s safe to say he’ll stay in League of Legends. He’s enjoying the ride, even if this part of his journey might be ending.

“Before I was just playing on a challenger team and now I’m on Fnatic,” he said. “We’re first in LCS. It’s a really weird experience. I love it!”

Photo by Jacob Wolf