With a week left in the European League of Legends Championship Series Summer Split, H2K Gaming is on-pace to wreak havoc in the playoffs.
But its dominance was a long time coming.
Fresh off a crushing defeat in the LCS Spring Split playoffs, the squad's coach, Neil "PR0LLY" Hammad, had taken measures to prevent such a happening from occurring again. At the time, H2K suffered from tunnel vision, and struggled to adjust its approach to the game as a team. In addition, due to focusing on other aspects of its gameplay at the time, the squad had potentially let its opponent at the time capitalize on what was once its strength: early-gameplay.
"I was mostly really upset [that] the result of us trying to improve other aspects of the game took a really big toll, and we weren't able to elevate our gameplay," PR0LLY said during Week 1 of the Summer Split. "As a coach, you want to improve everything -- but not at the same time. The things that you aren't working on should at least stay at that level. That was a big flaw from my end last split: If I shifted focus from something, it would suffer really badly.
"It's really unfair to put that pressure on the players: To be able to play this game at a really high level, learn brand new things, learn brand new champions, evolve macro play, then remember all the stuff that they knew before."
H2K had, at the time, focused on playing as a team, without emphasizing the importance of capitalizing on potential game-changing individual opportunities that could break a game open.
In comparison, its early summer split showings featured several situations where players cashed in on advantages and spiraled a game out of control. Fast forward to Week 9, with Splyce falling in a 2-0 that illustrated H2K's evolution both in team play and playing to its traditional strengths.
The first game saw H2k's bottom lane duo, Shin "Nuclear" Jung-hyun and Choi "Chei" Sun-ho, snowball a botched Splyce gank into a landslide victory -- despite a composition that included a risky Jayce pick that was more of a throwback to Season 4 and Season 5.
"If you lose early game and Ocean Drake spawns, you get screwed as Jayce," PR0LLY said. Dragons have undergone massive updates since Season 4 and 5, when they were essential pickups. The Jayce pick, he said, requires faith in early execution and a bit of luck regarding which buff spawns.
But no luck was necessary because H2K took advantage of that a crucial Splyce misplay. Adaptation was the deciding factor in Game Two. Noticing that Splyce had gone with a heavy engage composition with three tanks and a Kog'Maw, PR0LLY reacted with a surprise Trundle pick and set the stage for a kiting playstyle. He made that choice despite H2K's recent practice with playing heavy engage compositions itself.
"With enough repetition, you won't have to think about it. The point of practicing is when you're pressured, you don't have to think about it. Pressure only affects your rationale; it doesn't affect your instincts." Neil "PR0LLY" Hammad, H2K Gaming coach
The first stage of the draft showcased H2K's understanding of the current meta trends, with a Caitlyn, Orianna and Gragas core, which can be played in anything outside of a pure 1-3-1 side lane pressure situation. The role of the surprising Trundle pick was to delay or prevent Kog'Maw's entry into teamfights, until his front line was whittled down -- and locked into place by another Trundle pillar blocking any retreat.
Despite H2K's lack of practice in kiting situations in its recent scrimmages, the plan worked, and it demonstrated the team's ability to fall back on previously-mastered compositions with little practice.
"We've been playing engage [compositions] all week, so I was really sad when we didn't get to play what we practiced," PR0LLY said, "but I was really happy that everyone was able to adapt and not play teamfights like we had been all week. All week, we had been playing these diving comps, so today I was really worried when I did tell the team, 'Hey guys, we're changing the way we're playing teamfights. We're no longer going in. We're going to play tank buster comp: Everyone just kite the s--- out of them.'"
In the future, H2K will try to focus more on those teamfighting comps. The team had recently lost to G2 Esports despite good drafts for teamfight situations.
"We really f---ed up the teamfights," PR0LLY said of that match. "That's the only thing to say. I think we got too excited, maybe? We made it to late game with Kassadin and Gnar, all these amazing late-game picks. In essence, it should be very easy to execute these teamfights, but when we were put under the pressure -- G2 were usually forcing a fight -- our target selection was really indecisive.
"I think that the best way for us to solve that is being a lot more disciplined and serious in scrims. With enough repetition, you won't have to think about it. The point of practicing is when you're pressured, you don't have to think about it. Pressure only affects your rationale; it doesn't affect your instincts. If you're under a whole bunch of pressure, you're just going to do what feels right."
In the spring, H2K had the skill but didn't have that discipline. Going into this rendition of the playoffs, it's making sure every moment on the Rift counts, be it on stage or off.
"If we're able to get scrims to the point where I want it, and the players would learn everything that we need to know by the time playoffs come, then we don't have to worry about whatever pressure is put on us in-game or from being on stage, because they'll be able to instinctively play the game correctly," PR0LLY said. "That's what the mood is right now in the house. Everyone knows that's what we're aiming for. If anyone feels pressured or stressed, it's fine because they'll know what to do."