Fnatic's climb to the top of the LEC in the 2019 spring split is nearly complete.
The 2018 World Championship finalists have won 14 of their last 15 games, and they are set to face an impressive Origen squad in Rotterdam in the LEC semifinals. The winner of the best-of-five matchup goes on to face the impressive G2 Esports.
To onlookers without a constant pulse on the LEC, Fnatic's presence in Rotterdam seems like a foregone conclusion. After all, how could a team that looked so dominant at the world championship fail to return?
Well, in fact, they worked through several issues the hard way after botching their spring split start to the tune of an 0-4 record in the first two weeks. At the time, the collective's high expectations were shattered, and it reached a point where losing seemed inevitable -- to the point where early vacation planning was not all that far-fetched.
Consequently, resignation was not on the menu. Instead, the coaching staff, with Joey "Youngbuck" Steltenpool and Louis-Victor "Mephisto" Legendre, began diagnosing issues. The players, such as support Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov, took a hard look at themselves.
"We did everything we could," Youngbuck said. "I don't know how all the players felt, but I told Mephisto no matter what happens, let's put everything we got in this split, and we'll see where it takes us and what needs to happen if things go south and we don't make [it to the] playoffs. I think a lot of players had a similar feeling."
Ultimately, Fnatic set out to work, and they identified the issues that held them back. At the forefront was trust, following changes in the mid lane and within the coaching staff. As a result, Hylissang noted: "We didn't trust each other at the beginning. We didn't know how to trust each other."
"We had a few games early one where players had the feeling that they had to carry the game alone," YoungBuck later added. "I've had more than one player come up to me after the game and say: 'I felt I had to carry the game alone, or we weren't going to win today' and they were making mistakes because of that."
But they were willing to do anything to succeed and reach the heights they did in 2018. As such, all they needed was guidance. The team signed a sports psychologist to accelerate trust building. In addition, the coaching staff held more one-on-one sessions with the players to provide feedback and to receive it. Their mission: to build synergy.
"Our first step was to check our players' solo queue numbers, and I compared them to last summer['s numbers,]" YoungBuck said. "I don't compare them to one another; I feel some players go to the gym more, or have other obligations that they really care about; maybe they meditate for half an hour. It was quite shocking that three or four players were playing less than in their lowest point last summer."
The tangible measurement allowed players to fix the solo queue aspect of practice, but there was another aspect they improved under the sports psychologist's guidance: practice schedules. YoungBuck noted that the team would practice on one side of the map several games in a row, rather than switch sides after every game. That way, Fnatic could practice a draft and its alterations immediately, ultimately mastering a team composition's quirks faster. They could also focus on the early and mid-game stages more efficiently.
Beyond that, the players participated in team building activities that brought them closer, and they had to abandon habits that hurt their performance. "We stopped eating burgers before games," Hylissang noted. "It was a tradition before, and our sports psychologist told us that it was not too good, that we should eat more healthy and drink water. So we fixed a bit of our food schedule."
The team's changes, in mindset and in-game approach, ultimately paid dividends. After going 0-4, they went 3-3 in the three subsequent weeks, then went on a winning streak that lasted until the second round of the playoffs against Splyce.
"They started playing more as a team, and less as individuals," Youngbuck said. "We started drafting way more solid team compositions that didn't rely on us smurfing on our opponent. All in all, I think that was a very positive change for our team."
In fact, the streak's end in the second game of their series against Splyce did not matter as much as their performance in Game 4. There, they validated all the progress they had made until then. During the draft, Fnatic trusted in Tim "Nemesis" Lipovsek's ability to neutralize Marek "Humanoid" Brazda's Sylas with a wild Vayne pick in the mid lane. On top of that, Martin "Rekkles" Larsson doubled down with a Sivir pick specifically for the occasion.
"Nemesis walked up to me two weeks ago and was like: 'If we ever give the enemy Sylas, let me play Vayne into it. It will probably be good for the game,'" Youngbuck retold. "[In Game 4,] we [had the fourth and fifth pick], and we were already talking about [whether we could] put Vayne mid. On the last pick, Rekkles also said that it was a good moment: 'If you pick me Sivir here and Vayne goes mid, the game will be good.' I said: 'Do it.'"
"I'm really happy that Joey is willing to risk stuff in the draft to surprise the enemy, and it works out most of the time," Hylissang noted in response.
Rather than being swept by the ensuing chaos on Summoners' Rift, they composed themselves and adapted. By the end, the team cycled lane assignments in a wild yet optimal manner, ending Splyce's spring season after less than 30 minutes of action.
Just like that, a team that had struggled to play around Nemesis and had trust issues showed once and for all that they had conquered those issues. And they had completed a milestone in their climb, on the way to the Top 3 of Europe.
Although their climb to the top is not complete (yet?), their reconstruction certainly is.