Times have changed in the European LCS, and it might be for the best - if Europe seeks to overthrow South Korea off its lofty seat at the top. Famously undefeated during the 2015 LCS Summer Season, Fnatic has since undergone changes and has faced tougher opposition from emerging squads such as Vitality and G2 Esports, and from established squads such as H2k-Gaming and Origen.
One of them may be on its way to write history as Vitality have the opportunity to knock Fnatic out of the playoffs before the latter reaches the semi-finals, let alone the finals.
On one side lies the fervor of a devout fan base dressed in orange and black, a fan base that has endured the passage of time and has lived through the changes of its favorite team, Fnatic. On the other lies its likely doom at the hands of Team Vitality, an organization that is barely getting started in MOBAs, yet has already shown savvy in team-building.
For Vitality, an organization that purchased Gambit Gaming's LCS spot, it's about continuity.
With top laner Lucas "Cabochard" Simon-Meslet at the center, Gambit Gaming was considered a frontrunner to take on Origen for the third European seed of the 2015 World Championship until Konstantinos "FORG1VENGRE" Tzortziou's suspension derailed the squad's plans.
During the 2016 preseason, Vitality acquired the game-savvy bottom lane duo of H2k-Gaming, Petter "Hjärnan" Freyschuss and Raymond "kaSing" Tsang, added Ilyas "Shook" Hartsema's mechanical proficiency and flair for playmaking in the jungle, and hired Erlend "Nukeduck" Hölm at the eleventh hour as Team ROCCAT splintered.
Just as importantly, the team retained the services of head coach Kévin "Shaunz" Ghanbarzadeh and promoted Gabor "The Minimalist" Fenyvesi to the team manager role, minimizing distractions outside of the game and providing a critical outside look at the squad's actions on the rift.
Fast forward to March 2016, and Vitality stands alone in third place of the 2016 LCS spring group stage with a 13W-5L record. A balanced team communication allowed the squad to play cleanly and count 151 team deaths (the fewest in EU LCS), take the first tower 72 percent of the time primarily through their understanding of lane swaps.
With Cabochard, kaSing, Nukeduck and Hjärnan passing information and orders to carry out, Shook experienced a renaissance as his timely ganks on solo lanes (sometimes with kaSing's assistance in lane swap situations) allowed Vitality to empower crucial lanes: Cabochard's split-pushing champions, Nukeduck's assassins or Zilean, and Hjärnan when needed. As a result, he has participated in 41% of the squad's First Bloods.
Meanwhile, Fnatic has struggled to go past the sixth place and ended its regular season on two losses, highlighting that it is still a work in progress. Despite flashes of brilliance at IEM Katowice, the squad has yet to find its groove in the EU LCS.
The team may need to hurry, lest there will be no Fnatic in the playoff finals for the first time in LCS history.
Fnatic lost less members in the 2016 preseason than it did on the one before; Martin "Rekkles" Larsson and Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten returned, compared to Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim's status as sole survivor the year before.
The replacements were promising on paper: Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon's jungling prowess kept Team WE relevant in the Chinese LPL throughout 2015, and Noh "Gamsu" Yeong-jin fit better within the infrastructure of head coach Luis "Deilor" Sevilla than his predecessor, on top of being touted as an upgrade over Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon before the season's start.
Fans expected Fnatic to resume where it left off. Instead, the squad's 9W-9L record left much to worry about - especially the 3W-7L record against playoff squads. What is the common denominator among playoff teams? Proactivity in the early game and beyond.
As it stands, despite Spirit's loud voice during team fights or when an opponent is overextended and ripe for the taking, Fnatic lacks such focus in the early stages of the game, conceding the first outer turret to an opponent 61% of the time, and scoring First Blood at a 28% rate (dead last in the LCS on that regard). Their reliance on an opponent's tendency to commit mistakes leaves them with few windows of opportunity against the H2ks and G2s the league offers.
In addition, the nature of Fnatic's picks is known before the start of the game; due to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each member, the team resorts to hard-engage team compositions with top lane bruisers and tanks almost systematically (17/18 games) - leaving them vulnerable to split-pushing strategies of the likes of Vitality's Cabochard.
But in light of the recent patch, such predictability may become their strength.
The current trends in the LCK indicate that top lane bruisers and hard-engage compositions are back in fashion. With the resurgence of Gamsu's bruisers back into the meta (most particularly Maokai, picked in 20 games out of 29 for a 55 percent win rate) and the renewed importance of one of Spirit's go-to picks early in the season, Kindred, in an engage-centric meta-game (61% win rate in the LCK during Patch 6.5).
Couple that with the squad's adaptability in 3s and best-of-5s, and we may have a recipe for an upset win against Vitality - provided the games do not spiral into oblivion from the get-go, as was the case in the first encounter these two teams had in the first week of the EU LCS spring split.
Who is the likeliest to win?
The ball is clearly on Vitality's camp, as long as it withstands the pressures of a best-of-five series.
As long as Vitality's players play to their strengths and deny the Kindred pick, it holds the upper hand. The squad's heavy focus on executing map-wide strategies may reflect on their low kill-per-minute ratio (0.55, the least in EU LCS playoff squads), but accumulate considerable leads off map movements (towers, dragons, Barons, inhibitors) and skirmishes - the latter translating into more map movements.
Against a team that usually plays on the defensive, Vitality may turn the series into an attrition war, as it did throughout the split. Vitality spend 10.3% more gold on average than their opponents and reach power spikes faster as a result, which may lead Fnatic to turtle more and to lose confidence.
Trundle's efficiency against bruisers may also spell doom for Gamsu's picks, which may force a ban (or a rushed pick when Fnatic goes on blue side) down the line during the series, if at least to provide him a lifeline against Cabochard (and Shook and Nukeduck's dives).
Slighting the recent patch changes would do Fnatic no justice. But Fnatic's lifeline hinges heavily on preventing lane swaps, or on tearing down Cabochard at the very least. Vitality's top laner has consistently struck gold leads and averaged a 230 gold lead at 10 minutes - the most among LCS players with more than 10 games under their belt.
Provided Fnatic limits the games to a slow crawl (as was the case on Vitality and Fnatic's latest encounter on Week Eight) and keep Cabochard on a tight leash, it would have to limit Shook's movements and isolate him away from the other lanes.
Fnatic needs to design the perfect drafting to that effect, one that takes into account the meta-game, and threatening champions from Shook and Cabochard - without allowing Nukeduck to pick favorable match-ups. Otherwise, it may be another lost best-of-5 (after the one lost to SK Telecom T1 at IEM Katowice) - and it may be another expedite 0-3.