RadoN's key takeaways from APEX S3
The epic final between Lunatic-Hai and KongDoo Panthera, which marked the end of the third iteration of APEX, is a week behind us and the opening match-up of the fourth season of Korea's premier tournament is only a week away. But before turning our minds toward the future, this article looks to summarize what we learned from APEX S3.
First and foremost, the ongoing debate of whether Korean teams are actually ahead seems to have been settled for the moment. The previous season saw a lot of the top Korean squads best the foreign attenders, but it was hard to argue that the West had sent its finest men on the job. This time around, the two very best squads from the North American and European regions attended the tournament and both fell pray to the highest echelon of Asian teams. A case can be made that some of the other top Western teams are up there with Rogue and EnVyUs and might match up better stylistically against the likes of Panthera and Lunatic-Hai. Nevertheless, in a direct competition within the regions, the fully-French squad and the HarryHook-led boys in blue have proven to be the best we have to offer time and again. With that being the case, the excuses both fans and professionals can make are little to none.
The environment in Korea certainly isn't what the foreign attendees are used to, and some of the teams would most definitely perform better in an over the weekend, one-and-done type of event rather than having to prepare for a specific opponent over the course of a week, or even longer in some cases. However, the amount of times top Western squads can lose to top Korean squads before admitting the latter are inarguably doing something better is limited, and we've reached that point. If someone was doubting it before APEX S3, Rogue's and EnVyUs' losses to the cream of the crop in Korean Overwatch has proven them wrong.
In similar fashion to the region as a whole, its best team, Lunatic-Hai, also solidified its place as such by taking a win over KongDoo Panthera in the final. After last season's win over RunAway, Lunatic-Hai hadn't quite convinced everyone that they are indeed the best team in the world. It was a close one and even then, it was based on a huge overperformance from EscA, their worst individual performer historically, and to a lesser degree WhoRU having the best game of his short career. Even then, the series saw Runner's boys failing to sustain their level over the course of a long Bo7 and, even more importantly, the squad's star player, KAISER, played with food poisoning. Understandably so, the series left question marks in some minds, even though most celebrated Korea's golden boys as the best team in the world after it.
This season, ryujehong and co.'s path to the win was undeniably similar. Just like APEX S2, they got in first place out of the toughest group and lost a Ro8 match, only to face and defeat the same team in the grand final, both times in close fashion. However, this time around, they did so after losing WhoRU to the bench. While he has not proven to be the world-beater many fans claim him to be, he was one of Lunatic-Hai's better players, a key element in their past strategies, the best dealer the roster has had over its tenure and voted as the MVP for the APEX S2 final by OGN. Repeating as a champion in the grueling APEX schedule with everyone having you at their sights is tough enough in its own right, something EnVyUs learned when they returned to Korea after APEX S1. Doing so after replacing your focal point with a rookie and having to restructure your approach to the game? That's the mark of a great team and it cemented Lunatic-Hai's hold on the current era of professional Overwatch. RunAway and KongDoo Panthera are appreciated as a close, second place finishers now, but years down the line it is ryujehong and co.'s names whom fans will remember.
And speaking of the devil, regardless of the runner-up finish to the season, Panthera has once again failed to become more than the sum of their parts. In addition to the cast of highly skilled individuals in the support and tank positions, the team boasts a player many would consider as the season's MVP, even after the loss, in birdring and one of the most skilled dealers in the world, Rascal. Despite the significant tactical improvements, Panthera were once again lacking in terms of teamplay, especially compared to their opponent from the final. Furthermore, the anomaly of the team's two best players rolling at once was exactly that, a rare instance rather than the normality many expected when the roster was first announced. More often than not, Rascal performing up to his APEX S2 level meant birdring's signature efficiency dropped. On the rare occasion it didn't happen, we saw the duo devastate just about anyone they met.
Ultimately, the squad was still by far the second best team of the season and on the brink of being the champion. Yet, when one takes into account the excess of talent on the roster, everything bar first place seems like an underperformance. The fact that they were stopped by a WhoRu-less Lunatic-Hai, which they had already beaten earlier in the season, is as much of a credit to the golden boys' ability to perform in big games as it is a chip on Panthera's shoulder for failing to make the most of what they got. birdring and co. are still in prime position to win an APEX trophy of their own, but -- as LuxuryWatch Blue learned this season -- opportunities to become a champion are quick to fade, even for the most talented. However, there is a positive side to the organization's obvious failure. If they're this good now, they could be unstoppable when the puzzle is finally solved.
APEX S3 saw both LW Blue and Meta Athena experience the same issue, failing to adapt to the latest twist in the metagame. Only several months ago being dubbed as a genius innovators, now, Meta Athena are struggling to keep up with what everyone else considers a standard practice. In part due to limitations in their personnel, the squad has been unable to challenge the top teams with the popular heroes, while their old strategies have been rendered largely ineffective against playoff-level teams.
LW Blue's fall-off and losses weren't as surprising of a result in the context of Janus, their third best player, going through medical issues and missing practice for a prolonged amount of time. Yet, the fashion in which they were eliminated was shocking nonetheless and showed exactly how brief one's window of opportunity can be. The team that many thought of as the favorite to win the last two seasons of APEX was exploited in a most glaring, almost flagrant, manner after a weakness was located by the right opponent. Even though the losses LW Blue suffered was to the two best teams in the world, the exposed flaws are almost as deadly as the ones Meta Athena has shown. Both teams will have to evolve past their current selves if they are to challenge for the trophy of a champion once again. Will the moves they've already made be what they need for that? That is hard to predict, but the fact that they're making changes suggest that both squads have recognized their problems and this is the first step toward finding the right solution.
With these two falling down the pecking order and Uncia getting butchered without any of the lower end teams stepping up, Korea's second tier of teams stands weakened. While the elite, championship-contending, teams are clearly above the level of the best Western squads, same can not be said about the rest of the top Korean squads. Afreeca Freecs Blue is the only other team on the peninsula who can stand toe-to-toe with the likes of EnVyUs and Rogue. If the gap between those three and the rest is to be closed sooner rather than later, the latter will need to bring up some promising stars and proven roleplayers. Recruiting rookies straight from the ladder might offer higher potential ceiling over someone like Fleta or DNCE, but they could just as easily fail to adapt at playing on the highest level and waste a season worth of time. The potential price is too steep for some teams, particularly ones who have already won a trophy or been close to it.
This was one of the major factors that lead to AF Blue and Panthera's successes this season. Rather than scouting for talented rookies, the teams recruited respectively Lucid and birdring, and it paid off big time for both of them. The former gave ArHaN more allowance for aggressive plays and propelled even further Mano's breakout performances, while the latter had an MVP-worthy season, rivaling what Miro did for Lunatic-Hai in terms of impact and efficiency.
And while neither Miro, nor birdring received an award from among the two OGN distributed at the award ceremony, in the eyes of the author, they were the prime candidates for such. Both were the clear most impressive performers on the two, by far, best teams over the course of the whole season. An argument can be made that other players paralleled, or eclipsed, them in terms of impact. Yet, no one else rivaled them in terms of the sheer consistency and the ability to assert their presence and create pressure, while giving up very little deaths in return. Their performances stand out even further when one considers that their teams had the toughest opponents throughout the tournament's full duration. What the likes of EFFECT and Mano did becomes less extraordinary, in comparison, when whom they faced is taken into account.
On the issue of the stale metagame
One of the most repeated problems many fans have with the current metagame is the lack of diversity in terms of hero picks. Sombra grew in popularity, but rather than an interesting, situational pick she became a mainstay by the time the Ro8 was added and many started complaining about her. Yet, what some complaints are ignoring is the diversity in terms of strategies and ways to use the heroes. Teams have shown a variety of approaches to the game, ranging from aggressive and proactive, through reactive, to straight up passive. Both Lunatic-Hai and KongDoo Panthera displayed an affinity for tactics, but even then, the end result is different for both squads. Same can be observed in the way heroes are used, with the final of APEX S3 being a fresh example of how Sombra can be used in two vastly different ways, based on the team's personnel and strategy.
The balance in the game is most certainly not in the ideal spot, which allows to see a decent amount of each hero, but the metagame at the professional level is far from stale. It continues evolving and Overwatch is far from solved, even within the bounds of certain patches.
Korea has further cemented its position as the best region
The gap between Korea's elite and the second tier is huge
We are witnessing the 'era' of Lunatic-Hai
Panthera has not made the most out of its talent
Lunatic-Hai and KD Panthera are in a tier of their own
LW Blue and Meta Athena were left behind by the meta
birdring and Miro deserved an MVP award each
The game might not be balanced, but the metagame is far from stale
Photo credits: OGN
About the author:
Hello readers, I go by the ID RadoN! I’ve been following different games within the esports industry ever since finding out about it in 2009. The titles that I follow closely for the time being are Overwatch, CS:GO and Quake, while occasionally dabbling in some other games as well. If you wish to reach out, follow future content, or simply know more about my thoughts on esports and gaming, you can find me on twitter at @RadoNonfire.