The biggest thing in eSports kicked off this weekend with quite a bit of fanfare. The Twitch feed alone had well over 200,000 viewers through most of Thursday. That's particularly impressive given that the games started at 4 p.m. (EST), so the bulk of America was in the middle of the workday. Some really great games were played, and there is the continued evolution of the meta to talk about, so let's get to it.
GIANTS! beat Gambit Gaming. Yes, that's right. An all caps name with a "!" at the end is a bit presumptuous, but they earned it this weekend. With no teams undefeated and some apparently legitimate competition from the four newcomers, Europe promises to be an incredible race for the next nine weeks.
The ability to close out games is a critical skill these teams need to develop. Both SK and GIANTS! had losses in games that they were winning early. You can argue that these were games against Fnatic, and I'm sure that didn't help, but SK also took forever to close out a dominant position against the Copenhagen Wolves. Teams obsessed with methodically taking towers make themselves predictable, and that's easy to defend and to counter. At this level, being predictable is definitely a bad thing.
Speaking of Fnatic, it's getting to the point that they're playing like Dan Marino in the 80s. If you find yourself only up by two towers and five kills mid game against them, it probably means you're losing. Their late game fights are so strong and precise that they become very scary towards the end of games. As a Fnatic fan, I personally hope they roll their next opponent, so then I don't have to worry for 30 minutes.
Taric/Urgot is the real deal. We can thank Team MRN for this from their LCS.NA qualifier games. They clobbered people with this composition and, in the past month, it's lost exactly once in competitive tournament play (with at least seven wins that I could find). The combo works well, because Taric's stun allows Urgot to land his poison and then spam Q's at the target. Meanwhile, Taric is shredding their armor and allowing Urgot to do true damage essentially from a very early stage. I have to imagine that teams will be scrimming against this particular strategy and trying to find an ADC/support combo or a general strategy that counters it.
Champions continue to be used innovatively. This weekend we saw Trundle, Syndra, Renekton, Vi, Udyr, Kennen, Akali and Volibear. These are champions that have not seen much use or competitive play, but seem to have been lost in the wilderness. Syndra, specifically, is one of those champions with a huge skill cap but a big payoff if you develop the skill with her. The pros are clearly trying to develop those skills.
The difference between top-tier teams fighting for first place and the bottom teams battling to avoid relegation is large. But it's not nearly as big as one might have thought before this weekend. Both Vulcun (formally FeaR) and Good Game University went 0-2, but they showed respectably in the games. Had they put together all the pieces of their game play, they could have walked away with a win.
Gambit Gaming is going to bring something new every week. Their team comps this week were nothing like IEM Katowice. I'm really hoping that we can look forward to something "quirky" each week from them. It's actually a sound strategy to run something crazy each week. It forces your opponents that week out of their comfort zone, and it forces your next week's opponents to scrim against something that you have no intention of playing. The problem, if you're a fan of Gambit Gaming, is that they run hot and cold. Right after beating Fnatic on Sunday, they lost to GIANTS!
Curse is the real deal, but will it last? TSM, Dignitas and CLG have been on extended hiatuses. We assume they've been practicing, but they may not be at a razor-sharp level of play yet. Curse, on the other hand, has been playing in tournaments frequently for the past two months. That really showed this weekend against CLG, where they dismantled a defensive team with a defensive team comp in a fairly convincing manner.
Two games in Europe saw an ADC mid. Caitlyn was used by Fnatic as a hyper-harass against Anivia. Jayce was used to push mid down very quickly (with help from Lulu and the Xin Zhao). I suspect some variation of this to be an off and on thing during the season.
Frequent lane swaps: this was much more common in the NA region than in Europe, but it was present in both.
Diminishing value of Bruisers: players are already figuring out that there are champions and items that do a percentage of health and can punish bruiser-heavy teams. Few of the games this weekend were "bruiser-heavy" comps. Those teams that were found themselves frequently punished for it. Many Liandry's Torments came out and the occasional Blade of the Ruined King. Elise and Kog'Maw both do a percentage of max health damage and were played a number of times.
Flexible champions that can go top/mid/jungle give you a big advantage in champ select. In a number of games, the commentators were surprised by the champion assignment of flexible picks. Champions like Kayle, Nidalee, Malphite, etc. provide a lot of versatility to a team to tweak its strategy or at least to not tip its hand during the picks and bans. This last one seems particularly likely to trickle into the solo queue where Kayle is incredibly cheap and can fill all three of those roles (and theoretically support, too, although I don't like her in that role).
What To Look Forward To
Week 2 promises more of the same with the big name teams playing more games. We'll get to see the first games from fan favorites MRN and Dragonborns. The two big games next week are TSM vs Dignitas and Evil Geniuses vs SK Gaming. Due to some weird scheduling, both are rematches of games from this week. Starting off with some early season grudge matches is clever and has the potential to inject some real emotion into the proceedings.