Why EU Was Never Called a »Shit Show« because of the Style but Rather Because of the Execution
With unexpectedly high performance from FNC at the recent MSI event (excluding their poor performance vs. AHQ and EDG in the group stage and game five vs. SKT T1, where weaknesses of the style as well the team still got exposed), Reddit and other social platforms are flooded with threads »And Monte says EU is shit show…« and alike.
In this article, I will not defend the word choices of renowned analysts in the League of Legends eSports scene, but rather explore if they were right (and still are), and to what extent. Despite FNC bringing the top Korean team to game five (and possibly losing in the group stage because of infamous Sejuani bug) and SKT T1 ultimately falling to sometimes over-aggressive EDG, there are distinct differences between relentless, unnecessary aggression (shit show) and calculated , aggressive play style.
There are multiple ways to play the game
Every team as a whole, as well as each player on every team, have their own strengths and weaknesses. Even if there was a player literally perfect in every aspect of the game (game knowledge, game sense, lane mechanics, team fight mechanics, shot calling and strategy, to name a few that are talked about most often), he probably couldn't win all the matches solo-carrying 1v9. With individual teams playing to those strengths and/or their enemies' weaknesses, different styles emerge.
None of the professional analysts have ever claimed for one style to be THE ONLY way to play the game or te be superior over other styles, by far. The issues arise when a specific style (such as messy, fight-oriented style displayed during EU LCS Playoffs and some of the LPL games in 2015 Spring Season) is not executed to its potential. For aggression to be justified (and ultimately successful as a playstyle), there are quite a few factors that need to fall into place and support the style:
Mechanical Prowess and Superb Game Sense
Probably the most famous example (at least for the western audience) of a team that utilized those two was the old Moscow 5 in their prime. They controlled the map and often won games purely on the back of the pressure their aggression created. However, see a hero, kill a hero doesn't work if your jungler and mid are met with an equally good jungler and mid and are mechanically outplayed.
In LoL, it is often considered that there is no good outplay without the enemy misplay, and one of the reasons why EU and China often favor aggressive, fight-oriented style is exactly because of their ability to outplay their opponents on a mechanical level (or capitalize on enemy's misplay, if you wish). Historical, top China and EU teams are filled with mechanical monsters in their carry roles, be it ADC god Deft and one of the best top laners in the world Koro1, a LoL legend sOAZ partnering up with another mid lane monster xPeke, the king of counter-jungling Diamond partnering with Alexich or outstanding rookie HUNI enabled by his carry jungle friend Reignover on Rengar or Rek'Sai (not to take anything from the other players on the respective teams).
However, as the game developed and as Korea formulated their strong strategic approach to the game (with analysts, coaches and sister teams for high-quality practice), EU and China were trailing behind and had to rely on their aggression and brawling skill just to keep up the pace to some extent. The style itself, however, falls flat when your aggression is met with opposition of the same skill level that also has deeper understanding of the game and better strategic approach (we all know that Korea has produced some of the most talented LoL players the scene has seen that are more than able to match and exceed the enemy's individual mechanical skill).
Good Pick/Ban Phase
Likewise, see a hero, kill a hero can't work, if your lv2 Sejuani and Kassadin are trying to fight lv2 Lee Sin and Riven in the enemy jungle. Yes, some of these champions are not in the current meta, but with oddball picks turning the tides of a game quite often, understanding of your composition's ability to fight often and early, compared to your enemy's ability to react and fight back is paramount to the success of any aggressive team.
As it stands now, the downfall of many aggressive teams it the fact they want to fight all the time, even when the time is not right. A top tier team will, even if the style they prefer is aggressive, wait for the champions to hit the required item and level power spikes before they start to brawl. A trademark of »shit show« lol is quite the opposite – fight whenever you can, as often as you can (even if your lv2 Sejuani is caught in the enemy jungle by an enemy carry top that has 2 levels on her).
Vision Control and Denial
Apart from their actual composition, vision is the next most important factor for the success of aggressive, skirmish-oriented teams. While randomly walking into the enemy jungle in the hope of catching an unsuspected, squishy support can pay of on a rare occasion, you can't really kill hero if you don't see a hero because the enemy support lit up the jungle and tracks your every move. It's also hard to outplay your opponent if the enemy jungler is just waiting in a dark corner behind your back, waiting for your move. Without proper vision, risk vs. reward ratio drastically shifts towards risk, skirmishes are quickly punished by the enemy collapse, and spectacular plays turn into a shit show full of mistakes and ill-advised decisions.
Know What You Fight for (Understanding of Your Win Conditions and Macro Game)
It's not worth to wait for your enemy's misplay if the rest of his team has taken a dragon and two turrets in return for one kill. It is not smart to chase two kills across the map when enemy winions are taking down your inhibitor turret or even your base. It is not worth to give up three deaths to a full scaling team at minute 10 when they're fighting for their first dragon. For aggressive style to actually be executed as intended, the aggression needs to be controlled, timed and lead to objectives that can win you a game. If, for example, you're running a mid-game composition that will get out-scaled only fighting for the sake of it will not win you the game. You either need to create picks, which turn into gold and objectives, and accrue a sufficient lead to close out the game. Alternatively, you can plan a proper vision control around neutral objectives and secure picks that will allow you to pick up dragons to match the out-scaling opponent in the late game.
A fantastic example were HUNI's (and team's) decisions in the second game vs. SKT T1 in the MSI semi-finals – instead of blowing any of his cooldowns while being bullied by Marin's Gnar in the top lane, he kept his cool (and died), but turned the following TF near the dragon pit around. With Rumble being dead, SKT T1 decides to engage on the remaining four membres around the dragon area and even call Marin to teleport in. FNC, in contrast to their EU LCS selves, properly disengage while waiting for HUNI's death timer to run out. After HUNI revives, he immediately teleports into the fight, with his flash and ultimate still up, leading to a decisive TF win for FNC, and a neutral objective as a cherry on the top. In this scenario, both teams knew what they were fighting for (that is why Marin engaged onto HUNI in the first place) and the controlled aggression from FNC (HUNI not over-committing to the top lane fight, FNC disengaging until all their key abilities were available and on the field) paid off. The only thing you might argue about is that SKT T1 mistimed the engage as Marin's Mega Gnar was used by the previous engage on HUNI and has just worn off mere moments before the teleport came through.
In the EU LCS, however, there were multiple situations where a team with a disadvantage would not disengage, but rather try to brute-force their will onto the opponent 4 vs. 5, ultimately losing the TF and maybe even a game. Abusing your opponent's mistake over creating your own advantage through »smart« play was (and maybe still is) a trademark of EU as a region, at least when we're talking about some of the aggressive teams such as UOL and FNC, with a team that can match (or exceed) the opponents aggression and skill while punishing the mistakes harder coming up on top.
Ability to Adapt on the Fly
Bashing your head against a brick wall will hardly leave any cracks. Running around it or hopping over, however, can quickly get you to the other side. If an aggressive team only knows one speed, forward, they are bound to hit some walls on the way and to bash their heads against it over and over will just increase their deficit and snowball the game out of their reach. In this regard, knowing when to put your foot off the gas pedal and adjust your plan of attack within the game is essential. Especially when you play against a team that is just as aggressive and mechanically skilled as yourself.
Some of the recent examples that come to mind include FNC vs. AHQ and FNC vs. EDG in the group stage and all the games between AHQ and EDG. In the recent event, EDG not only matched and exceeded FNC in individual skill and overall aggression, but were able to turn a wasted lv1 support flash into an avalanche that buried FNC's hopes of finishing above fourth in the group. AHQ that themselves abused a single positional mistake from FNC's ADC to secure an unexpected victory got outmatched in their matches against EDG.
And we're back to aggression only working when you're facing teams that are equal or below you in terms of mechanical skills, game knowledge, and strategy. In order to stop the snowball, both FNC and AHQ should have slowed the pace down, adopt their in-game plan, and try to even the ground with superior »strategical« moves, be it cross-map pressure through minion control or calculated skirmishes through vision control. Instead, they kept bashing their heads against the wall and tried to force fights with a very low chance of success.
Strategic Diversity – When All Stars Align
An ultimate criticism aggressive, skirmish-oriented teams receive is that their style is one-dimensional. Despite some teams that were underdogs of the MSI tournament showing up big and showing more than just exciting fights, it ultimately came down to their style. With EDG known tendencies to sometimes overextend, SKT T1 has shown (in some games) that their aggression can be contained as well as punished with proper strategy and control.
The ultimate nail in the SKT T1's coffin was, however, a strategical outplay from an aggressive team. With absolutely fantastic pick and ban phase in the last game of the finals, EDG pulled out their last (and most valuable card). Not only did they have the raw skill to go toe to toe with SKT T1 players throughout the tournament (some would even say EDG had an edge in terms of individual skill), they also played to their style while perfectly countering their opponent's weaknesses – when times are hard SKT T1 relies on Faker to carry them through. With a composition that countered Faker's infamous Le Blanc. With all the squishy carries of the EDG's line up having a direct counter to burst mages in their kit (Morgana with her Black Shield and Sivir with Spel Shield), the utility tanks in the composition allowed them to engage fights whenever they saw anyone from SKT T1's side even slightly out of position, without any fear of Faker bursting them down in a second or two. To top it all off, they brought enough of the crowd control to keep caught opponents in place for long enough.
This game is the prime example of how aggressive playstyle should be utilized – from pick/ban phase to enemy Nexus explosion!
Fight for the sake of fighting - when aggression does equal shit show
The issue with the aggression in LOL is not whether the style is inferior to the strategic approach to the game. The true issue lies in the fact that the aggression is much easier to counter and punish if not executed to perfection.
Ultimately, every single style of play (aggressive, defensive, skirmish, team fight, split pushing, poke, etc.) relies on a deeper understanding of your own as well as opponent's strengths and weaknesses, your own and opponent's win conditions and understanding what objectives are worth fighting for at each stage of the game.
Until we witness the rise of a team that not only has the necessary raw mechanical skills utilized to the maximum but also boasts of the perfect shot calling and decision making, superb vision control and deep understanding of their micro and macro strategy, the aggression will often be outshined by strategy. Untill then, relentless aggression (even by the teams that try to back up their aggression with strategical components) has the potential to turn into a shit show, regardless of how spectacular and thrilling the games may appear from the spectator's point of view.