“The harder I prepare, the luckier I seem to get.”
– Michael Jordan
Huddling together after a victory over Albus NoX Luna in the quarterfinals of the Season 6 World Championship, H2K Gaming clinched a place in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York. Their path to the iconic indoor arena was pathed in gold by the view of many, dodging Korean threats like the top seeded Western teams of G2 and TSM, surely they didn’t deserve it, right?
H2K is now one of a myriad of Western teams that reached a the bracket stage while dodging a Korean team in groups, and then a Korean team in the quarterfinal, a a la FNATIC at the S5WC. Forever looming over H2K’s run and the many other deep Western runs in recent years is a shadow of luck because of their coincidental evasion of the titanic Eastern region until their finals moments. However, if you examine H2K’s shadow, it’s quickly revealed that in many ways, they engineered their own luck by thorough preparation, and capitalized on the opportunities given to them.
Before H2K could band together to capitalize on the circumstances that resulted in their fortunate bracket stage seeding, they each had to overcome tasking obstacles throughout their professional careers. In a previous piece, I documented the trails FORG1VEN’s was faced with in his career, and most of his teammates have similar stories. Perhaps the severity of their struggles differs, but each of them is haunted by narratives from their past that acted as cinder blocks, holding them down from success.
This universal-struggle to correct their past failures is what created the bond that allowed H2K to prevail as a team and be the only non-Korean team to reach the Top 4. All five players on the roster had never reached a World Championship and finally being on the world stage lit an individual fire underneath each player to not only prove the worth of their team, but of themselves.
A Ragtag Group
H2K is a ragtag team of players, those who didn’t fit the mold of previous teams they played on, outcasts with negative narratives surrounding them that made them undesirable. The one player who is arguably exempt from this description is Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu, but even the steadfast top laner doesn’t come without critique. Odo is the only franchise-H2K player on the current roster, and despite always serving as the consistent, reliable top laner for the team, it was unlikely to hear his name mentioned with gusto.
Never flashy, always tanky, Odoamne was always a quiet player, who played the low-profile role of a tank-engage specialist who though facilitating the team, was never the highlight of it. He would be denoted as a solid player, always getting his job done, but nothing more, and as a professional player hearing that can be infuriating. As a player, your thoughts after a match will always drift to asking “Could I do more for my team?” and this only becomes more frequent if you’re surrounded by the notion that you don’t do more than is required of you.
Accepting the reality that you can do more for your team can be difficult, and as a result Pascu had to work diligently to become a more versatile player ahead of the S6WC group stages. Diligence, however, is something that two of Odoamne’s teammates have worked together to acquire.
When you think of duos, the first that comes to mind is an AD Carry and Support, the second is Mid and Jungle, but Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski and Osksar “VandeR” Bogdan break the usual mold. The Jungle/Support duo have fought their battles together since early Season 3 when they first met on GF-Gaming and since then they’ve been brothers in arms. The pair share similar mannerisms, and as a result they also share similar play styles and flaws.
As a duo, they were spectacular from their rookie splits with ROCCAT in 2014, but their 3rd place finish in Spring 2014 as a rookie squad also drew back the curtain on the flaws of Jankos and VandeR. The first signs of their weak mental fortitude and tendency to crack under pressure showed in their semifinal series against SK Gaming. To corroborate that, the brotherly duo would fall 3-2 in the Summer playoffs to FNATIC in a series deciding which team would reach the World Championship.
Over the next year and a half, Marcin and Oskar would consistently reach the shoreline of success, but because of mental hang-ups and tilt, they never sailed out to sea. Reaching the 2016 World Championship meant the career-long duo had finally embarked on their journey, but to fully extinguish the demons of their past, they had to be diligent, calm and collected in their matches.
A player who like Jankos and Vander also had World Championship appearances slip from his grasp joined them on H2K when the organization acquired their roster for the 2016 Season. Yoo “Ryu” Sang-ook is a Korean mid laner with a legacy, one that ended in him being exiled to a foreign region if he wished to continue chasing his dreams for a chance at the Summoner’s Cup. In Season 3, Ryu signed to the KT Rolster B team in Korea, a roster that lives on with a legacy of potential that never came to fruition.
Coming into the Summer playoffs of HOT6iX Champions that split, KTB were considered among many to be the second best team in korea — and subsequently the world — at the time and advanced all the way to the finals. There they would face SK Telecom T1, and in the deciding game 5 of the series, KT Bullets would fall to the newcomers with the game being immortalized by Faker’s Zed vs Zed outplay. Placing second would send them to the Regional Playoff, where they would again run into their nemesis, SKT, in the finals and fall 3-1, losing their S3WC seed to the eventual winners of the entire tournament. After that, Ryu and KTB would never be the same, only finding mediocre success in the following season, leading up to an eventual disbanding because of the elimination of sister teams.
The backlash of passionate Korean fans towards Ryu during their failure at S3 Regionals and under-performance drove him to seek asylum from the doubt that surrounded him by signing to a foreign region. Europe would be his region of choice, and though it’s taken him roughly two years to achieve his goal, Ryu has finally dispelled the rumors that he’s a choker by becoming the first member of KT Bullets to reach a World Championship. Though Sang-ook may have hurdled past personal obstacles, he still feels he has to improve in order to pay homage to the region that let him do so, saying in an interview “If I can, I’d like to make Europe a bit more proud.”
The Pride of Europe
“The ability to conquer oneself is no doubt one of the most
precious of all things sports bestows.”
– Olga Korbut
Ryu’s sentiment in that interview after the quarterfinal victory embodies what H2K played for as a team at the event: to preserve Europe (and eventually, Western) pride by exceeding the expectations that were set for them as the lowly third seed from the region. With the collective goal of blowing their critics out of the water, united under the singular cause of making Western eSports proud, H2K was able to efficiently and effectively practice headed into the tournament.
Though each player has individual flaws and failures they wished to avenge, the common goal they all shared allowed them to improve both as individuals and as a team in harmony. A practice culture such as this is exceedingly rare and often is only the result of stars-aligning perfectly because of a multitude of circumstances. In this case, five outcasts with something to prove each reached their first World Championship of their careers, and as a result were presented a golden ticket to right their legacies.
In their first week on the world stage, H2K emerged from their korean bootcamp looking rough around the edges by ending their first week 1-2 in the group stage. VandeR and Jankos’ shaky play and their overall unstable shot-calling signaled that H2K was likely to once again fall victim to their cycle of failing just on the cusp of greatness. Had they continued their middling performance in the group stages, they’d have been disregarded as succumbing to their low expectations as Europe’s third seed.
That heavy feeling of knowing you’re expected to fall just short of your goals is one each individual on H2K knows all too well. With EDward Gaming and ahq e-Sports both picking up two wins in the first week, H2K was faced with their backs against the wall, not being able to afford a single loss against the two teams that beat them the previous week. By my estimation, this was kerosene to the inner flame of each of the veterans on H2K’s roster, and they came out guns blazing in week two.
The Unexpected Survivors
From the first game in their second week, H2K looked like an entirely different beast than they did in their first week of play, transferring their laning phase leads into macro-advantages and game wins. It wasn’t an overnight change, but it was rather miniscule tweaking that caused their gameplay to become increasingly crisp and methodical. The misjudgement of ganks from Odoamne were nowhere to be scene, Jankos and Vander both ceased getting caught out trying to get information for their team, and the two main carries continued to carry out their jobs. In addition to minimizing these mistakes, H2K also maximized their carry potential as a unit because each player on the team took the reigns at one point or another and steered the them towards victory. With those performances, the individuals of H2K were able to face the demons that followed their careers head on, and extinguish them on sight.
Beginning with a victory against ahq, H2K’s week two performance would end in a flawless 4-0, overcoming Chinese #1 seed heavy-weight EDG in two separate matches, one being a tiebreaker. A collection of statistics can display how H2K was able to achieve such a miraculous performance and exceed their expected result of at best finishing second place in their group. The first is the percent of team damage notorious tank-player Odoamne was able to achieve, having the largest share of his team’s damage at 27%.
Making a transfer to high-DPM champions like Jayce, Kennen and an old favorite of his, Rumble, allowed Odoamne to finally unveil the impactful player he can be. With a solid damage threat in the top lane, Ryu (7.9 CSPM) and FORG1VEN (10.1 CSPM) were freed up to pressure their lanes without feeling an obligation to manufacture a large lead VIA kills as the main damage dealers on the team. High pressure lanes meant that Jankos and VandeR’s jobs of managing macro-strategy became simplified and allowed them to focus on their own gameplay more.
As a result, H2K’s perfected methodical playstyle would boast a 2.6k GD@15, 80% first blood rate, 80% first tower and first three tower rate, while maintaining a 65% dragon control and 57% baron control rate. This impeccable macro play would be exemplified in their first place tie-breaker with EDward Gaming, where H2K won a 42-minute game with a score of only 16 to 11 in kills by shutting EDG out of dragons 5 to 0 and dwarfing their turrets killed 10 to 3. As the nexus exploded, against the doubts of many H2K became the unlikely flag bearer for Western League of Legends at the 2016 World Championship as the first seed from Group C.
The Sole Representatives
As the 1st seed from Group C they’d be drawn into the lower half of the bracket against Group A’s 2nd seed, Albus NoX Luna, a wild-card team. In a routing 3-0 victory, H2K would finish their 100-meter sprint into the semifinal of the S6WC with a 7-0 record in their last seven games. Despite this and an impressive statline, there are still questions about if H2K are a team worthy of Top 4 at the tournament because of their exceedingly weak group and fortunate quarterfinal opponent. Sure, Lady Luck was on the side of H2K both in groups and in the bracket stage, but without a doubt no one expected them to take the first seed away from EDG, that was all their own doing. It’s not as if the games weren’t close either — yes, EDG under-performed, but they made H2K work for their wins in drawn out macro-oriented games, they earned their victories. Most of all, H2K played more cohesively as a unit than any other Western team, and certainly there is an argument for them outplaying LPL teams in that respect, as well.
A team that has a carry threat at every position is a team that’s unpredictable to play against, facing an opponent like that means you can’t go into a game with a solid idea of how they want to beat you. For teams like Royal Never Give Up or EDward Gaming, it’s almost a very linear pattern with how they want to win: gank bot, the star AD Carry carries the game. Though H2K have a star AD Carry themselves, they almost never solely play around FORG1VEN any longer, and at the tournament, every player has carried a game.
Odoamne on Jayce against ANX, Ryu on Ryze against ahq, Jankos on Olaf against EDG, FORG1VEN on Sivir against INTZ or VandeR on Zyra against ANX, they all were the main carry at some point. Facing a quintuplet of threats makes a team tasking to play against, and H2K execute that strategy perfectly. Other teams that have been eliminated from the tournament don’t possess the same ability to execute this strategy, and so even though they have a low chance of making the finals, I wholeheartedly believe H2K deserves their place as the only non-Korean team in the semifinals.
“Different people carrying you at different times. That’s what makes you a very good team. It makes you tough to play against.” – Flip Saunders.
Photo credits: lolesports flickr