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Can Europe's 'League of Legends' dynasty win a three-peat?

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In our new column, "First Blood," Ferguson Mitchell dissects the week that was in League of Legends, the most popular esport in the world.

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The number three is special when it comes to sports. Peyton Manning Super Bowl appearances. Shaun White Olympic appearances (and potential gold medals in halfpipe, should he win again in Sochi). A third showing at the highest level is more than just a statement of mastery, it’s the creation of a legacy that will last decades.

So it’s exactly their legacy that one European League of Legends team is in danger of losing.

When the words “European League Championship Series” are spoken in the esports community, there’s one team that everybody knows—Fnatic. They’ve come out on top in League twice before, at the season one championship, and the season three playoffs (both splits). Now, they face their toughest challenge yet.  

The team is in their best shape ever. The original players joined Fnatic in March of 2011 and immediately made a name for themselves by winning Riot Games’ Season 1 World Championships three months later. Despite some major roster movement in 2012, the team still managed to bring home trophies at various Dreamhack and Intel Extreme Masters tournaments.

In 2013, Fnatic was hit with their biggest opportunity, and challenge. Riot Games, League’s developer, was putting together a massive, year-long tournament (LCS), but age restrictions meant that their marksman, Martin "Rekkles" Larsson, would be unable to play.

Having to use a sub in place of Larsson, Fnatic ended up doing fine. They finished both splits of the season near the top, and came out of the European playoffs with the first-place trophy both times. Now that Larsson has turned 17, he is back on the team. But even with their intended marksman back, Fnatic will have to play their hardest to make it a hat trick. They currently sit 7-3, a record they share with two other teams tied for first place.

One of those teams is Gambit Gaming--hardly most people's choice for a pre-season favorite. Gambit have been around almost as long as Fnatic, but if you take a look at the roster, you’ll notice that this team has been competing as a single unit since October 2011, barring an experiment last year where support player Edward Abgaryan went to North America to compete for a split. His departure saw Gambit fall from second place to third, and Gambit didn’t hesitate to call him back to the team to get back in form.

Now reunited, Gambit attacked 2014, and have proven their revival with a big win against Fnatic in week three. The win stands as a testament to the team’s drive to continue playing at the highest level. In 2012, they finished first, then slowly slid down the rankings—second after the 2013 Spring Split, and third after Summer. The team, now back in the hunt for first, won’t give up easily.

The final team tied for first might be the strongest yet, however. ROCCAT are, at the very least, the most surprising faces to see at the top. This time last month, they were unknowns. But in four short weeks, they’ve defeated some of the strongest teams in Europe.

Their path began quite a while ago. Many of the players have been around the lower tiers of competition for years. ROCCAT, who are Polish, have also always played second fiddle to their more famous compatriots Meet Your Makers, who competed in the LCS last year. At the Intel Extreme Masters VII Singapore, the team even Remigiusz “Overpow” Pusch—now the headline midlaner for ROCCAT—as a substitute.

But now, ROCCAT are the ones in the spotlight. Unlike Meet Your Makers, who only lasted a season in the LCS, ROCCAT have set an astounding 7-3 record with big upset victories over both Gambit and Fnatic. What’s more, they’re setting creating strategies that are quickly becoming standards throughout the league. Before their surprise champion pick in week one, nobody had heard of Pantheon. Last week in North America, Pantheon was picked or banned five times out of a possible eight.

The three teams sitting on top of the European League scene couldn’t be more different. Whether you are a fan of the dynastic Fnatic, the stable Gambit, or the underdogs ROCCAT, one thing is clear—Fnatic aren’t just going to be handed their third title. To earn their legacy, they’ll have to face their stiffest competition yet.

LCS starts up on Thursday over at the league’s homepage, but the next battle between these titans will take place on Feb. 20, when Gambit and ROCCAT face off for the second time.

The Scoreboard

The week in stats, courtesy of partners at LoLStats. For a full-size image, click on the image or here.

Dexter’s Purgatory

The curious case of one North American team’s endless search for a jungler has finally ended. And it showed. Counter Logic Gaming had a 4-5 record prior to this week, an understandable win rate for a team that has no reliable fifth member. The jungler’s job is to gather resources from the neutral territory on the map and to set up early game kills. Without a dedicated player for that role, a team becomes a lot more vulnerable.

CLG finally competed this week with the roster they initially premiered at the Battle of the Atlantic on Dec. 20 last year (and whose move was rumored as early as November). The news was huge—a European player was going to be joining the troubled CLG in a move to right the sinking ship.

The team’s history begins in 2010, and while they started off strong, they've definitely had trouble keeping up with the pace. First place finishes became second-runner ups, until more and more losses began accruing. By 2013, the team was finishing towards the bottom of the LCS.

CLG needed a shot in the arm, and Marcel “Dexter” Feldkamp, who had helped the European team Lemondogs finish second at the LCS Summer Playoffs, was just the man to administer it. Feldkamp, who played with CLG at the Battle of the Atlantic, put on quite a show, finishing with a 2.38 KDA despite the team losing both games.

Then, on Jan. 4, Feldkamp was turned around at the airport and sent back to Germany. American immigration officials told Feldkamp this was because his paperwork hadn’t been completed, and he was entering the country illegally. CLG’s Manager Kelby May quickly released a statement via OnGamers, clarifying that his visa had not actually been approved yet, nor was Feldkamp contracted or affiliated with the team in any way.

This oversight cost CLG five full weeks with their newest weapon, three of which included LCS matches. Those matches did not go well, nor did CLG seem to have a plan in place to deal with them adequately.

Former CLG top laner, George "HotshotGG" Georgallidis, and former support, Steve "Chauster" Chau, each took turns at manning the middle lane, while the team’s actual mid laner, Austin "LiNk" Shin, was put into the jungle on a temporary basis. The decision to pull Shin from his actual position had many fans scratching their heads in confusion.

The measures weren’t pretty, but they held the team together. And now, CLG stand a chance. In week four, the team only played one watch. But Feldkamp’s arrival did spell a win, and more importantly, his 3.0 KDA for the game shows that he clearly brings something valuable.

Most importantly, however, is Shin’s 14.0 KDA. That’s from 8 kills, 6 assists, and only a single death. He is an incredibly talented mid laner, and I can’t help but feel that his talents were wasted with three weeks stuck in the jungle.

With Feldkamp, CLG seems back on track, in more ways than one. Now, they just need to prove it.

Power rankings of things I like

1) EU LCS—The European premiere league has not disappointed. Gambit, Fnatic, and ROCCAT are all laying down incredible games, but even the lower ranked guys are throwing together some impressive runs. Supa Hot Crew in particular have me really impressed, and their climb up out of last place leaves me really excited to see what Europe can bring to the scene in 2014.

2) Korean roster moves—If 2013’s All-Stars and World Championships are to be trusted (PS: they are), Korea has the top League talents in the world. Even that won’t save them from an unpredictable offseason of roster changes. There’s been far too many for me to keep track of, but here’s a brief glimpse, along with a closer look at Xenics I did last week. The offseason ends on the Feb. 13, when OGN Masters revs up.

3) The OGN Masters Trailer—Simple, clean, powerful. Everything sports media should be. OGN’s video production crew is second to none, as evidenced by their OGN Winter Finals Opening video, which you should seriously watch if you haven’t yet.

4) Team SoloMid—Still the best record in LCS this year, at 9-1 TSM have cemented themselves on the top of the league. More on them next week, got something special for you guys.

5) Pantheon—This champion has gone from literally zero pro use, to suddenly being picked or banned in over two-thirds of all games in the LCS this week. His versatility to be used in the top lane, in the jungle, or in mid has opened up new levels of strategies that many teams haven’t had to account for in the past.

6) XDG—This North American team might be sitting sadly near the bottom of the league, but at least they know how to treat their fans. A big win this week over the 6-4 Team Dignitas; it’s a start.

7) Shakarez—On YouTube, he's released a great video that breaks down ROCCAT’s midlaner, Remigiusz “Overpow” Pusch, in his Week 4 matchup against Millenium. A great strategy by Pusch, explained well by a devoted fan. Watch it here. Keep up the great work, Shakarez.

Social of the Week

Team SoloMid’s Video Blog

featuring this humorous moment between teammates:

Picture of the Week

“Dexter has landed”—Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng of CLG.

Photo via Riot/League of Legends