Meet the Koreans: the Battle of the Hard-Carries
With Group B of APEX S2's Ro8 on out doorstep, I’m going to take a look and summarize some of the key story lines that I will be following as the group unfolds throughout the next week.
The unlikely Royal Roaders of Meta Athena
The squad came seemingly out of nowhere and boasts the impressive record of winning their last nineteen Bo5s, but Meta's story is not exactly the one of a typical prodigy. After failing to qualify for APEX S1, they went on to finish third in Challengers S1, dropping a Bo5 series to the two teams that finished above them; in Challengers S2, they finished first with the record of 11-0. From there, despite continuing their undefeated (in Bo5) run into the APEX S2's offline qualifier and later on group stage, they were pushed to five-maps series by squads of little relevance to the top pro-scene: RGT and MVP Infinity.
Another factor going against the impressiveness of their record is that the strongest opponent they've faced so far has been EnVyUS - a team that was the best in the world only several months ago, but has failed to impress more recently and finished 7th-8th in APEX S2. Due to no fault of their own, as they've simply defeated everyone put in front of them, their 19 consecutive Bo5 wins simply aren't as impressive with the context added around them. To top it off, not only are they facing potentially two elite level opponents in the group, but also all three teams favor aggressive dive-focused play, which in theory is a solid counter to their own playstyle.
Judging by what they've shown so far, walking the Royal Road seems to be an unlikely possibility for Hoon and co., but in their defense, they've looked better and better every time we see them in APEX and have won matches that many have predicted them not to.
LuxuryWatch Blue as the first dominant Korean team
Often hailed worldwide as the Mecca of esports, South Korea has already started to distinguish itself as the strongest Overwatch region by producing the most top-tier squads. One thing we are yet to see though, is a single team from the region definitively claim the title of best in the world and get the results over a prolonged period of time to back it. The only other team that can be argued to have done that in Overwatch -- after big LAN events started occurring -- is the French-Swedish mix of Rogue, a roster whose time was cut short by a meta-shift, caused by a patch, and more importantly roster changes.
Right now, LW Blue has not only the opportunity to start an era they can claim as their own, by winning back-to-back premier tournaments, but also the skills, strategic and individual versatility required to do so. Ever since Fl0w3r joined the team, even with a limited amount of practice for IEM Gyeonggi, they've completely reinvented themselves. NoName himself wasn't a problem per se and could easily join other top teams in need of a more supportive DPS; however, adding Fl0w3r brought in a considerable amount of firepower and versatility, both in terms of playstyle and hero-pool.
As of now, LW Blue boast not only the best, but also one of the more versatile DPS duos in Korea. Fl0w3r is clearly one of the best DPS players right now and has played a wide variety of heroes, including Zarya and Winston. Saebyeolbe might be sticking to hitscan heroes and Roadhog, but you only need to go several months back to see him deliver monstrous Pharah play. Add to that the half-star performances by janus, excellent support play by Luna and Gambler, Mek0's aptitude for D.Va and you have a championship level team on your hands.
While the loss to Lunatic-Hai does raise some questions about their ability to adapt on the fly, it is a forgivable one as the circumstances surrounding it were rather unique. It is not often you have to face an elite level opponent that is so excellent at a certain type of strategy, while being denied the opportunity to look at previous footage and prepare accordingly. And LW most certainly won't have to deal with something else of the sort in the rest of APEX S2.
Does this mean that they'll win the event? Of course not, but they've most certainly got more than what is needed to do so and have shown in the past they don't falter in the high-pressure games. Thus, in the eyes of the author of this piece, they are the solid favorite for lifting the APEX trophy and the team to establish the Korean dominance in Overwatch.
Have KongDoo Panthera finally arrived?
There was a considerable amount of hype surrounding KongDoo Panthera's debut in APEX S1, as they had the three highest ranked players in the world (EVERMORE, Rascal and Butcherr). All that died quickly however, as despite individuals executing exciting plays and showcasing fantastic mechanics, the squad was just a group of talented players. Even though they found some success in various online competitions, the team failed to show proper teamplay in both APEX S1 and IEM Gyeonggi.
This season, after some more roster changes, Panthera finally seems to be performing at the level the skills of their players suggest they should have been at from the start. Furthermore, they are also playing well around their star DPS - Rascal. Similarly to the rest of the roster, previously he had displayed high level of play, but what truly unlocked his current super-star level performances is the team becoming better at playing around him. EVERMORE has curbed his recklessness and even though they still overcommit it isn't nearly as much as previously and more importantly, their opponents haven't been able to punish it.
The last part is really important. Fnatic are fantastic in terms of teamplay, but lack the punch to stand right next to the very best of the game at this moment. RunAway's loss to Panthera in particular is what caused them to change both roster and playstyle and become the surprising power-house that finished first in group A. As a result, despite KongDoo's stellar being 9-0 in terms of maps during APEX S2 they are yet to face an elite level team, so a question begs to be asked.
Is the progress they've made as significant as their record suggests?
Make no mistake, they've certainly improved by a considerable margin, but it is hard to know if LW Blue punishing their mistakes won't cause them to revert back into an uncoordinated PUG squad of talented individuals. Similarly, the author of this article is not yet ready to vouch that they'll be able to prepare properly and pick apart Meta Athena's, from what we can tell, only strategy - something they should have little difficulty doing.
Can Afreeca Freecs Blue do it again?
Last season of APEX, Recry and co. managed a runner-up finish by causing two upsets on the weaker side of the bracket. The first was a minor one in the Ro8 against the European (at the time) powerhouse Reunited who had recently replaced Kyb (currently of Bench Boys) with Norwegian talent ONIGOD (currently of Toronto Esports). The subsequent, and more surprising one, saw them defeat the well coordinated BK Stars, who were primed to reach the finals on the back of excellent performances by Bunny and BERNAR.
This time, they didn't get so lucky with the bracket; furthermore, despite replacing their two weakest individual performers, the team's quality has lessened. Recry has continued being one of the best players in the world, but co-star player ArHaN has experienced continuous decline of form. Whereas previously he was known as the best Genji in Korea, recognizing the perfect moments to go into the action without dying, now he's often overcommitting and costing the team precious seconds, waiting for his return.
Another -- arguably even more crucial -- aspect in which AF Blue have declined is their coordination and ability to manage the ultimate economy. Previously the squad was one of, if not the, best at committing only resources necessary to win the current fight; similarly rare were the occasions on which individuals chased opponents or engaged in action to Blue's own detriment. That, combined with their star players' skills, allowed them to put up nearly unbreakable defenses on all types of maps, once they had the advantage.
If the issues are possible to be fixed is a hard question to answer. It seems unlikely that the skill vampires have robbed ArHaN of his individual ability, if his solo queue rating is anything to go by - he's claimed the sixth spot on the Korean ladder, as well as the sixth highest win rate in the top 20, with only two players above him having higher. Along the same vein, it is hard to imagine that the ability to coordinate and manage the ultimate economy effectively is gone, when the core of the roster and the coach have remained the same.
One thing that is certain is that if AF Blue are to go through to the semifinal, they'll need back both the ability to up strong defenses and ArHaN's skill to manifest itself in APEX. It's possible to see Meta Athena dealt with should only one of the two come back to Blue, but going by recent performances, neither LW Blue, nor KD Panthera will fall unless both are present. And even then, it might simply not be enough given their form.
The battle of the hard-carries
All of the teams in group A featured a multitude of talented and well performing players. For the most part, group B is no different, but what distinguishes it is the presence of a single go-to carry player player on each of the teams. If in teams like EnVyUS and KongDoo Uncia a different player can receive the attention, depending on composition or performance, then the teams in Group B for the most part have a single player being the beneficiary of team's resources.
For KongDoo Panthera, it's Rascal. The squad transitioning from him being a good player among the bunch of talented solo queue heroes to him being the focal point has been a huge reason for their success, as well as the difference between third and first place in groups of similar level in S1 and S2, respectively. While he's played mostly Soldier 76 and Mei, as well as a decent amount of Tracer, Pharah and Genji, the one that excited the viewers most by far and everyone wants to see more of is the Sombra. Admittedly it was only displayed versus Flash Lux, but nevertheless, it is the first time we saw the hacker in pink being so effective at dismantling opponents.
Meta Athena's focal point, differing in role from the rest of the players that are listed here is Hoon - their off-tank player. Regardless, he is the one who fits the archetype of a hard-carry the most. Despite the squad having two good DPS players in Sayaplayer and Libero, it is Hoon's Zarya who is the centerpiece of the team's best (and for the most part only) strategy. Always positioning forward, often in front of his Reinhardt, to be able to charge-up his energy bar and deal even more damage, his play is a more extreme version of what Lunatic-Hai's Zunba did on CONBOX during APEX S1. Another aspect of his play that distinguishes him from the rest of his hard-carry peers in the group, other than the role, is his effective hero-pool being composed of only Zarya. We've seen him briefly on Roadhog and D.Va, but not for long and not nearly as impressive.
For Afreeca Freecs Blue, as mentioned above, the focal point of the team is Recry. He, more so any other player in Korea right now, is trapped in ELO hell. If last season of APEX was him and ArHaN trying to break out of the Dayfly&Yesman high-security prison, this one is very much Recry trying to escape a supermax while his cellmate ArHaN is ratting on him to the guards.
As running two projectile DPS heroes hasn't been nearly as effective this season and ArHaN has spent the majority of his time on Genj, Recry has been playing Soldier 76, McCree and Roadhog for the most part. His performance on those has been good, but not as monstrous as his Hanzo and Pharah play from the last season. Regardless of that, mechanically he remains one of the best players with his ability to aim and dodge being largely unmatched.
A player that fits the narrative the least when compared to the rest, but is worth mentioning due to how his team's last series went is LuxuryWatch Blue's latest addition Fl0w3r. While last season for them was very much the Saebyeolbe show, the latter has slowly been giving up the position of a centerpiece in favor of his new teammate. Given his fantastic play during S1 it would have been a real shame, if only Fl0w3r didn't have the skillset he has. Similarly to his teammate, he is a strong Pharah and hitscan player but also has mastery over Mei, Genji and Hanzo as well; however where the real difference between the two lies is that while Saebyeolbe's playstyle excels at staying alive, Fl0w3r seemingly focuses entirely on the damage-dealing part.
While all four of the players are fantastic, only two of them will make it to the semifinal. In a team game like Overwatch, it is not guaranteed that the ones passing through will be the best, but the bout between them is guaranteed to be fantastic nonetheless.
About the author:
Hello readers! I go by the ID RadoN and probably similarly to many of you, I’ve been playing video games for years. My introduction to esports happened in 2009 and ever since, I’ve been following different titles within the industry. Other games I currently follow are CS:GO, LoL, QL with the occasional SFV and DOTA2. If you wish to provide feedback, support and follow future content, or simply know more about my thoughts on gaming and esports, follow me at @RadoNonfire on twitter.