Gambit's Triumphant Return To The World Stage is a Continuation of ANX's Successes
Gambit is a name that many fans of early League of Legends hold dear. For a long time, they were the only team from Russia who were competitive in the League circuit, and as such the name and legacy of Gambit Esports is inextricably linked to the CIS region. Their first team was the famed Moscow 5 lineup that took the world by storm in Season 2, and until Season 5 was a competitive fixture in the LoL esports scene, winning several IEM titles but never quite making it all the way in the EULCS.
When the organisation stepped aside from the EULCS, having failed to establish a roster capable of calling itself a top-tier EU team, it was expected that it would not take long for them to reestablish themselves in the developing LCL, a new league formed in the CIS to replace the Starladder series.
There was no one better than Diamondprox, the famed jungler of the M5 and Gambit line-up, to join this new project in the LCL, but things would not be smooth-sailing. As the LCL was undeveloped compared to other wildcard regions at the time, the matches were played online and the player base, traditionally split between Dota 2 and CS:GO, was meager. Diamond endured a dismal split in the LCL before leaving for North America to join Apex in hopes of securing a visa and playing in the LCS. Even that North American adventure was short-lived, as eventually, Diamond was convinced to return to his home and build a new squad—perhaps a genius move in the long run.
The LCL underwent major quality-of-life changes and acquired a studio, meaning the road had been paved for larger investments. After ANX took the world by storm with their group stage performances at Worlds 2016, the team was bought over by M19, a wealthy org with large ambitions.
Despite the investments poured into the team, however, M19 would falter at the semi-final stage at LCL Spring to the eventual winners, Virtus.Pro, failing to make it to the Mid-Season Invitational as a result. Only one roster change had been made in the off-season, swapping aMiracle out for VincentVega, but the team seemed to implode after a bootcamp in Korea went awry, and the team that ruled over the LCL as we knew it had to come to an end. PvPStejos and Kira left, eventually for Gambit—the former swapping back to top lane where he first started. Likkrit took over captainship of M19 and set about finding new players to fill out the roster, eventually recruiting Reach and Lukezy. One was a Korean jungler who’d only had pro experience in Turkey and a KeSPA Cup with a doomed CJ Entus squad, while the other had been bouncing around the EUCS circuit, although he never qualified for it.
Meanwhile, Gambit was poised to become the best CIS team since Albus Nox Luna, helping themselves to two of ANX’s core players along the way. Kira and PvPStejos were integral to the successes of Hard Random and ANX, and Gambit’s acquisitions could only be described as a coup. With this new roster of all-stars, Gambit stormed through the LCL circuit during the summer split, taking no prisoners and even managing to pick 14 different champions for the mid laner Kira during the regular season while suffering only a single loss.
On the other hand, the LCL as a whole had taken a step backwards in terms of quality.
The odds were not looking good for M19, especially since Gambit had, along with Kira and PvPStejos, also recruited Blasting from VP, considered the best ADC in the CIS region, and support EDward who came back to the organization with much fanfare to fill out the roster. To compound matters, Likkrit was called out on Reddit for toxicity in solo queue, even though he had been known as a toxic player for his entire career. This resulted in a three-match suspension, although M19 managed to salvage a game during this period, coming out with a credible 1-2 score. The results would not improve massively after Likkrit’s return though.
The rest of the split would be very poor for the teams not named Gambit. Rift Rivals arrived, and because Gambit did not qualify as one of the top 4 teams in the spring split, they did not attend. As they were the #1 ranked team in the LCL at the time, it meant that Rift Rivals would not be a show of the LCL’s actual strength, and the abject performances of the teams which did attend led to a comprehensive victory for the TCL. M19 themselves were in a bad spot at the time as well and were in danger of losing ground on the rivals that Likkrit once idolized, as well as his former teammates. Indeed, much of the time spent at Worlds 2016 interviews was about M5, and the journey Likkrit and the rest of ANX had taken to get there might not have been possible if M5 did not exist.
Yet, there was no doubt in anyone’s minds that Gambit were looking like the CIS region’s best hope at Worlds. The other teams were simply too underwhelming as far as results went at Rift Rivals and the regular split, M19 included. That was not the end of the story, however, as M19 would make a late surge and reach the play-off finals despite a 6-8 record during the regular split. In an enthralling final which saw both teams throwing everything they had at each other, Gambit finally prevailed and booked their spot to Worlds—but not before M19 raced back from a 0-2 deficit to take the series to five games.
Despite the close scoreline, it was most assuredly a Gambit victory; most noteworthy during that series was Likkrit pulling out a Janna support pick with Heal chosen as his Summoner spell, while VincentVega selected Barrier as his. It was pure Ardent Censer abuse, and the cheese worked. Without the cheese, M19 would arguably have lost in fewer games.
After a spring split in which Diamond appeared trapped in Elo hell, as well as a tumultuous 2016 where he struggled with visa issues, the former star jungler had finally found his groove with teammates on a much higher level than before; after all, nobody would not wish to possess the best mid laner and ADC in the CIS on the same team. This time, he would not be the star outplaying the other jungler, but the captain leading his charges. Diamond’s story and resurgence are remarkable enough that it deserves its own story.
The dream of Gambit fans seeing their favorite team contest the group stage at Worlds is in real danger of not happening, as while Albus Nox Luna was one of the favored teams to make it to the Worlds group stage in 2016, Gambit will have a much tougher time at the Play-Ins. They will have to compete against Chinese juggernauts Team WE in the group stage, and barring any upsets, will almost definitely have to face one of Fnatic, Cloud 9 and Hong Kong Attitude in a Best of 5 to lock in their spot in the Worlds group stage proper. None of these teams are pushovers, and the best chance of Gambit making it is to hope for an upset, or force one themselves. Fans should not be under any illusions; this will be a tough road to maneuver.
Despite the stacked odds, there is a sneaky feeling that they can make any of the third seeds sweat, and nobody is willing to rule out the chance of the tables turning—both for sentimental reasons, and the fact that while this roster is untested outside of the LCL, four of their players are former Worlds attendees, and Blasting has international experience with VP at the MSI Play-In stage. There is no shortage of talent, and their play has been encouraging. One possible weakness is in PvPStejos' mechanics in the top lane; he seems to be a role player at best as compared to when he was taking over the jungle in the old days.
This is a story that’s not just about Gambit, but also of M19. Above all, it is a tale of how the best players in CIS first came together to make history at Worlds, then split off to pursue the same goal in different teams. Kira and PvPStejos might have prevailed this time, but Likkrit had surely made them work for it. In a way, Gambit has built on what ANX has achieved and combined it with the know-how and veterancy of Diamond and EDward. Through Gambit.CIS, both the legacies of M5/Gambit Gaming and Albus Nox Luna will live on at Worlds 2017, no matter their results.
(For clarification, Gambit was not in the LCL in Spring 2016. Also, the article initially noted 12 different champions for Kira; the actual number was 14)
Follow the author on Twitter at @uhhhmigraine.