For many voters, the European League Championship Series MVP Award came down as a choice between Fnatic's Martin "Rekkles" Larsson and Paul "sOAZ" Boyer.
With the debate starting mid-way through the split, and information about Rekkles taking time away from his leadership role for short periods coming to light, I expected it to be a lot closer. Ultimately, Rekkles came up with 78 points from casters, teams, coaches, and third party media while sOAZ placed second with 34 points. His placement was closer to jungler Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen, who ended up in third place with 26 points.
Though I personally voted for Rekkles, it seemed almost as if any argument made for the AD carry could flip on its head for sOAZ.
Fnatic's MVP voting is a case of carry or enabler. If voters value a player who sets up a carry to succeed more, then they will vote for sOAZ. If voters value the carry who executes the play more, they will cast a ballot for Rekkles. Yet Fnatic's case is even more extreme because of the team environment and specific playstyle it's sustained at the start of the split and only slowly modified over time. As such, each separate point is worth examining.
Even in sheer numbers, the case of Rekkles and sOAZ paints the picture of carry and enabler. In Fnatic's regular season, Rekkles had 26.9 percent of the team's gold on average, the highest in the league. sOAZ averaged 20.1 percent of team's gold, the lowest of any non-support or jungler in the league.
Mid game: sOAZ
That doesn't mean anything archaic like Fnatic choosing to give up every single wave, or every single kill to Rekkles, or even that the jungler always camped Fnatic's bottom lane (he didn't). Rather, Rekkles got so much gold because Fnatic would often set up 1-3-1 compositions where he would push in the side lane. The other side laner was often sOAZ because of the top lane Teleport, but rather than use his Teleport to flank a mid lane fight, sOAZ would sometimes Teleport to the bottom lane to flank on the opponent Rekkles dueled with. That way, the team got side lane picks.
If Fnatic gave up control in the mid lane for this, sOAZ often played long range engage champions and forced a fight in the mid. Fnatic could then rotate to objectives. As a result, its 1-3-1 compositions often felt like 1-4 or 2-3 compositions. Rekkles would instead rotate to either side lane on the map, and sOAZ or jungler Broxah would come to get a pick.
In looking at how Fnatic played mid game, the nod for sOAZ actually feels clearer than the one for Rekkles. In this side laning method, sOAZ had to be more on point. He had to decide how to flank mid after a side lane play, when he could TP to get a pick without losing Baron control, and coordinate with the rest of the team to keep them from getting dived in the mid lane.
"It's always harder to play for sides because the lanes are much longer," sOAZ said at Rift Rivals. "So if they can group mid and go with one wave with us clearing it, it's obviously a big issue because then we most likely need to collapse, and most of the time they have a better 1-4, so they have a better teamfight comp."
In the way sOAZ traded sides across the map and compensated for Fnatic's style tunneling on side lanes, his decision-making had to take most of the burden for this kind of set-up. Rekkles looked a bit like someone who merely reaped the benefits of his Teleport or the free farm. Yet setting up to ensure he could side lane properly relied a lot more on Rekkles in the early game.
Early game: Rekkles
A lot of Rekkles' champion picks (even Ashe, Varus and finally Xayah) have strong laning phases. When Rekkles played Kennen, he did so in part so that he could control the lane on his own, set up his own picks, and push out lane efficiently later.
Fnatic head coach Dylan Falco explained when Fnatic started picking meta AD carries like Ashe and Xayah, it did so to have a pushing lane and enable support Jesse "Jesiz" Le to roam. It wanted good early game AD picks.
Rekkles and Jesiz have a strong ability to control their lane. Even against Misfits and H2K Gaming in playoffs, Fnatic's 2v2 often generated early pressure. Rekkles' strong ability to stack the minion wave and prevent dives allowed the duo to 1v2 the lane while Jesiz controlled the vision on the bottom side of the map.
Broxah spent most of his time playing to top side around the pressure sOAZ generated. Like with Rekkles and Jesiz, Fnatic frequently prioritized strong top lane matchups that should win the lane like Gnar and Jarvan IV. sOAZ pushed his lane, letting Broxah invade and place wards, but also benefited from more ganks than the bottom side of the map.
In this regard, with Jesiz frequently roaming and Broxah playing much more to top side, Rekkles took on the burden of getting himself ahead in a 2v2 matchup. As a result, a lot more of the burden for the early game fell to Rekkles over sOAZ. If this prong of Fnatic's plan failed, it would never get to the stage of the game where Rekkles became a real side lane threat and Fnatic could get picks.
Follow through: sOAZ
Throughout the split, Fnatic tried to shift from this one-dimensional style, which brought more of the behind-the-scenes struggle to the forefront of the public eye. With two rookies that started the year with limited playstyles -- Broxah, the Elise one trick, Rasmus "Caps" Winther, the dive-happy and volatile mid laner -- Fnatic had to find a way to put itself in a position to win games while it developed. After nearly getting relegated, Rekkles took the burden to carry upon himself. A lot of the motivation came from the failures of Fnatic's 2016 run.
"Last year," Rekkles said in his MVP speech, "I had a bit of a transition phase. I took over the captain role in Fnatic, and I tried my hardest to learn how to shotcall and learn how to be the main carry for the team because I think I was a bit of a backgrounder in 2014 and 2015, but I never really felt like I succeeded in the mission, and I think we missed Worlds because of that as well. So I really wanted to try even harder this year and really carry my team to Worlds."
Fnatic, on the cusp of the Promotion Tournament in the spring with Team ROCCAT's sudden surge, developed a side lane AD carry style that relied on Rekkles to snowball. He took the burden upon himself to become an entirely new player: aggressive in lane, looking to outplay and rely upon his mechanics, stepping out of the background.
In spring and well into the summer, it worked. But the added pressure took its toll, and he started withdrawing from the team. His leadership responsibilities no doubt went to the other veterans of the team in sOAZ and Jesiz. Rekkles seemingly decided how to play, and the team had to adapt around him. sOAZ and Jesiz no doubt took the charge, putting points in intangibles for sOAZ over Fnatic's team captain, Rekkles.
The team became reliant on certain picks from sOAZ to compensate for how Rekkles played. Though Misfits identified sOAZ as having "champion pool issues," a lot of that was born from the fact that there's only a small niche of heavy engagers that also win laning phase. It isn't that sOAZ can't play other champions, it's that Fnatic could not afford to allow him to do so because of the way in which they needed to play around their AD carry.
This remained true. But when Fnatic needed to change, when the burden of how the team was playing became too much, Rekkles needed to budge. He did -- slowly.
"We all kind of decided -- and Rekkles also decided -- that, yeah, he was going to play meta because what he had been doing clearly was not working anymore," Jesiz explained.
While Fnatic style remained very similar for much of the rest of the season, Rekkles found other champions that allowed him to have an impact and expand his pool. Xayah, the latest on the list from playoffs, had the ability to side lane and get picks like some of his old favorites, but also made a giant splash in late game teamfights. Rekkles shifted more toward AD carries like Ashe that can play with Infinity Edge, an item with more efficiency and more effectiveness against late game tanks.
Rekkles spent the entire last two years adapting and changing as a player. Both he and sOAZ picked and relied upon champions to win lane. Yet what Rekkles has to do with his champions outside the lane has changed the most. In Fnatic's most effective games, he learned to push the wave to river and group, showing the most variety of any of Fnatic's players and giving them a good sign for the coming Gauntlet to qualify for Worlds. Even if sOAZ, arguably, had the same versatility as a player, he didn't demonstrate that this split to the extent Rekkles did.
Both Rekkles sOAZ were mentioned as MVP candidates for good reason, yet the disparity in votes for first and second doesn't demonstrate how close the race should have been. This split, Fnatic relied heavily upon strong side lanes. sOAZ and Rekkles made the team run. Both took responsibility to lead in different phases of the game and adapt to the requirements of Fnatic's successful style. It's a case of carry and enabler on steroids, and both deserve the nod.