The Failures of StarCraft 2, Pt 1

Written by: EsportsJohn

Table of Contents

  1. Defender’s Advantage
  2. Damage Numbers
  3. Macro Mechanics

Decided to do a bit of a short article about my thoughts on StarCraft 2…and then it grew into this thing. I want to be very clear that StarCraft is quite honestly one of the best things that has ever happened to me; it completely changed my view of the world, and I’ve never been the same since I first discovered it. Nonetheless, I think it failed to live up to its potential, and it’s important to look back on the history of the game, how it evolved, how it came to be, and really think critically about how it was handled. It’s important to do this sort of analysis, not just because I just want to disagree with David Kim, but because I truly believe the developers didn’t think through their design decisions properly, and thus the finished product was botched beyond belief.

I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs with StarCraft 2, and since I’ve taken the long way around to playing Brood War, I feel I’m qualified to explain the design failures of StarCraft 2 accurately with a sober and impartial approach free from “arguments of nostalgia”. StarCraft has been a huge part of my life, and I feel it’s necessary to put down on paper all of the things that have been bothering me about its design and development from day one—and hopefully in the process, I can explain why some of these things came to be in the first place.

Note: I have not played Legacy of the Void since the first few weeks of release. I know a lot of people believe that the final expansion has made a lot of progress and created a much better game, but through my own observations, watching tournaments, and seeing others play, there are still plenty of core issues that still persist and taint the potential of this beautiful game. I want to avoid making too many Brood War vs StarCraft 2 arguments, but I think it would be willfully ignorant to gloss over the things that BW did correctly just to avoid a comparison argument.

Defender’s Advantage is Dead

If you play Brood War for only a moment, you will immediately notice the insane power of defender’s advantage. With the right units, you can hold a base forever against your opponent. For instance, literally no number of marine/medic will ever break three lurkers on top of a ramp, and Protoss can camp out on one base with Templar, Dark Archons, and Arbiters safely for pretty much eternity.

This sort of defense doesn’t exist in StarCraft 2. It’s not necessarily bad that the sequel got rid of high ground advantages that relied on RNG, but the effects on the gameplay were numerous and adverse.

Perhaps the largest difference is the emergence of the “deathball syndrome”. I don’t necessarily mean the emergence of large armies, but rather the phenomenon where players will always expand outward from their main while using a rather mobile army bouncing between bases to defend. From this issue arises a whole slew of other problems, from hard counters to uninteresting economic models to unit design issues.

Here’s an example: in Brood War, one of the key concepts, particularly for Zerg and Protoss players, is to expand to other corners of the map and create two “main bases” to work outwards from. This means that you can defend one base from your opponent’s attacks while slowly building up a force at the other base. When the big doom push comes knocking at your natural expansion, you can stall out with defilers or templar while continuing to amass forces at the other corner of the map.

If you attempt this sort of strategy in StarCraft 2, one or both of your bases will likely be overrun very quickly unless your opponent doesn’t scout it. This was attempted many times in the game’s infancy, and there’s a reason why the tactic quickly died out.

A Thought Experiment

Think abstractly for a moment. Two kings are at war with one another. King Raynor has only one castle, but King Artanis has two castles placed a reasonable distance apart. If Raynor wants to take over Artanis’s empire, he will want to invade both castles. He can either split his forces and risk being unable to break either or he can overrun them one at a time; naturally, Raynor will decide to dedicate all of his forces toward one target to avoid splitting his damage too much.

Assuming unlimited resources, the king with two castles will always win. Artanis can stall out Raynor’s siege for a very long time while gathering his forces at his other castle, eventually gathering a critical mass that will allow him surround and crush the invasion or attack Raynor’s base directly; Raynor will have to either sacrifice his castle (which he can’t) or retreat with his forces intact. Either way, Artanis with his two castles comes out ahead in the war.

If you remove the defender’s advantage—say, the two kings own camps on large fields—there are few incentives to creating large camps far away from each other (though you do have the perk of being able to relocate easily). Instead, the kings will tend to clump up their resources and rely more on mobile troops who can switch very quickly between attack and defense to guard their land. History will show that this is often the case in less advanced regions, with examples such as the Huns during Atila’s reign or the Iroquois Indians in the plains region of North America; the group that was proficient on horseback and owned many horses was always on the winning side.

The second example is much closer to the accidental design of StarCraft 2. It’s not necessarily bad, but it does create a situation where bases must be tightly clustered and multi-purposed units with a lot of mobility reign supreme. If you need a more concrete example, look at the one exception in Brood War: ZvZ. In that matchup, Sunken and Spore Colonies simply don’t attack quickly enough to deal with swarms of mutalisks or zerglings, therefore negating a lot of the defender’s advantage. As such, players constantly had to match their opponent’s army in order to defend against potentially fatal attacks.

You could argue that ZvZ was borderline chaos. StarCraft 2 took this a step further into to the extreme when things like instant reinforcement (Protoss Warp-ins, speedlings on creep) and hyper utility units (like the Queen or the Mothership Core) were added to the game and even further weakened the defender’s advantage. The road since then has never yielded us a comfortable design that felt manageable. Without the proper checks and a stable set of rules, this sort of mobile warfare devolves from a brilliant allocation of troops similar to Risk into absolute chaos.

The Deathball: An Unintended Side Effect

The thought experiment above is actually great for understanding different systems of warfare and even understanding some of the asymmetric balance that occurs between the races in StarCraft, but as you can see, it comes with some serious considerations. If bases aren’t spread out, what’s the point of spreading your army out?

Deathballs were something that emerged almost immediately in Starcraft 2‘s storied past, beginning with the horrific 1 food roach swarms during the beta. Many reasons were stated in the past as to why this particular phenomenon seemed to crop up: it was the fault of “unlimited” unit selection, damage density, hyper-mobile units, weak AoE, boring unit design, economic mining behavior, etc. There’s no doubt that these things may have exacerbated the problem, but at its core, it all began with a lack of defender’s advantage.

If you have a weak defender’s advantage and have to rely primarily on numbers, then positioning becomes much more important. In the late game, a large army can only be defended by an equally large army. It’s difficult to spare even a single unit to defend outlying bases, much less split your army in two. Thus, it makes more sense to move your army in a large ball between bases, using small groups and vision to deter possible counterattacks.

Blizzard’s Attempt to Fix the Problem

Legacy of the Void has attempted to artificially solve this problem by starving players out (“expand or die”) and forcing them to take blind chances with their positioning; they must split up their army and do harassment on several different fronts to protect their own economy while slowing down their opponent’s. You will always lose something, so it becomes a battle to see who can lose less—it’s skillful, but not necessarily fulfilling. For multiple reasons, I don’t believe this is fun (though I know others believe differently). More objectively, however, it creates a world in which a “perfect game” is impossible, a sentiment that many Korean players and coaches have shared with David Kim and the design team over and over—it’s not just very hard to play well, it’s literally impossible.

One of the beauties of Brood War is that it can actually nearly be mastered. Basic macro and positioning is difficult to do, but very much achievable with many intermediate steps along the way. Most of the difficulty is in the PvE aspect, so you feel great if you played a game with high APM, great macro, and a well-executed strategy. From there, it’s a battle with your opponent to see who can out-multitask the other. That’s where the endless challenge of Brood War lies, and it’s an endless pursuit as long as players play the game competitively.

On the other hand, Legacy of the Void has an extremely low barrier of entry but forces you to make blind decisions regarding your tech, scouting, and army positioning. While this can be entertaining from a spectator’s perspective (for those “big moments”), it’s nigh impossible to practice properly because of the game’s ever-changing nature depending on the opponent, their build, and their playstyle; you cannot become proficient without either having innate godlike twitch mechanics or an uncanny ability to read your opponent and guess their next move.

To reiterate, this is a band-aid fix for a problem that runs much deeper than the surface. It’s not necessarily accurate to give the game an inherent property that actually means something, but for a game that is based on economics, Starcraft 2 fails on the premise of making economics meaningful. Unit interaction and throwing a wrench in your opponent’s plans take up a far more meaningful role than building bases and managing resources.

There are some potential fixes that could have helped to fix deathballs (such as better defender’s advantage, stronger space control, or some sort of innate base defense that can defend against small numbers of units), but a starvation economy and an increased focus on harassment has done nothing but destabilize the game.

Damage Numbers Are Out of Control

One of the key features of StarCraft 2 has always been its quick pace and smooth graphics. Compared to Brood War (or really any other RTS that came out around the same time), it runs on a beautiful, efficient engine. Everyone who’s seen a dragoon take 20 minutes to find the entrance to a ramp knows exactly the frustration that older generation RTS’s posed in terms of unit movement and animation. StarCraft 2, on the other hand, was revolutionary.

For the first time, units would glide over the terrain with precision and accuracy. Micro tricks like marine splitting, blink stalker micro, and ling/baneling wars were the apex of the game’s achievements; nothing in the world takes your breath away like watching a pro player split marines like a god. Anyone who argues for the wonky glitches and awkward unit interaction from older generation RTS’s is living in a fantasy world. Either way, we still have to face the fact that the smoothness of the engine did cause some unintentional problems.

The first inherent problem is the tendency for units to clump up. If you select a large group of units and click at a designated location, the engine will give each and every unit a command to walk to that exact spot on the map, hindered only by unit collision. Not a big deal, but it does create some issues in that groups will always travel in clusters. Add in “unlimited” unit selection, and you’ve got yourself a good old-fashioned “deathball”. One of the beauties of older generation games was that units moved in waves or small, kind of square-like groups that was messy and required micro management to keep it in line.

A ball, however, is the perfect shape for damage. With ranged units, it applies equal DPS on all sides and naturally protects itself from surrounds by eliminating the gaps in between ranks and reducing surface area. Most importantly, it greatly increases the damage density.

Damage Density is Dangerous

Damage density is the damage per second per square inch (or foot or meter or what have you). In other words, clumped up units do more damage per second.

So what makes this different from any other game? Critical mass. If you continue adding to the ball, eventually you reach a point where the diameter of the ball exceeds the range of the unit. When all of the units cannot fire at once, the ball has reached critical mass and cannot generate a higher DPS except through a concave. What happens when you can select up to 100 units at a time in StarCraft 2‘s ultra smooth engine? The critical mass almost ceases to exist in a realistic game.

Some have speculated that increasing unit collision size or refining some of the movement behavior through unintuitive engine rules might fix this problem, but it’s unlikely that these changes would ever create a more stable or glossier interface that we have currently; we do not want to go back to a clunkier system.

Assuming that the engine mechanics are here to stay, we can only influence the behavior of deathballs (which is difficult for reasons stated above) or find a way to prevent the critical mass from sublimating everything in their path.

Quality of Life Improvements Are Too Good

The second major problem arising from StarCraft 2‘s engine is the ease of utility and the smoothness of the way the units move and behave. Again, these are great improvements in quality, but they can cause some serious issues if left unchecked.

Things like smart targeting, lack of overkill, and smart casting all play a part in making the user’s experience easy and consistent. In addition, the animations in the game are clean and functional without creating visual clutter. It’s honestly a marvel in game development how few bugs and glitches StarCraft 2 has. However, these quality of life improvements also make it really easy to focus damage and gun things down very efficiently.

Smooth unit movement also makes it incredibly easy to close distances with melee units or move armies up and down ramps like a flowing river. It makes everything more mobile, more slippery, and above all, more dangerous. Added to the quick speed of the game, there’s hardly time to react to unit movements and you will almost inevitably take some damage if you’re not paying close attention. It’s not uncommon to look away at your base and look back to find your army melting to colossi beams and Psionic Storms.

To put it simply: the fluid unit movement and attack animations in StarCraft 2 are simply too good for the current damage numbers. Damage numbers have grown out of control. Again, we definitely don’t want to relive the past, but we must adapt to the new technology better than we have so far.

Reducing the Overall Damage Output

The most elegant solution is a damage nerf across the board. Oracles should not be able to clear an unattended entire mineral line in seconds. A group of marine/marauder/medivac shouldn’t be able to level a base in the blink of an eye. A group of 12+ roaches shouldn’t be able to one-shot basically any unit in the game.

The game of StarCraft 2 is actually played a notch faster than originally intended, but as the standard game speed increased, the damage numbers stayed the same. As a result, the hectic race of trying to drop in two places while maneuvering your army in an intelligent way on top of macroing perfectly has always been a delicate balance. Many games have been won and lost by a single mistake, a single moment of inattention, and it’s largely because things just die too fast. For the most part, we got used to it, but the insane pace set by Legacy of the Void sped up the game even more and created a frantic atmosphere of drops, small skirmishes, non-committal expansions, and crazy strategies. It’s become a game of making less mistakes than your opponent rather than executing thoughtful strategies perfectly.

If you ask me, the base attack of most units in the game could be toned down by 20-50%. It would feel weird at first, but giving players more time to react, micro, and play around attacks might create an illusion that the game is not so chaotic as it seems sometimes. Large spell threats like Psionic Storm, Ravager bombs, or Widow Mines could remain the same to retain those big moments where attention is absolutely necessary, but preventing critical masses from mowing down everything in sight instantly could create much more interesting game dynamics than we see currently.

Macro Mechanics Were a Bad Idea

I don’t think there should be any argument here, to be honest. Macro mechanics were designed as a way to keep players doing things and paying attention to their bases, a problem the developers appropriately identified when they simplified/smoothed out a lot of the UI. Increasing the ease of play by allowing workers to be rallied automatically, shift-clicking buildings, and increased maximum unit selection were all good things (it would be ignorant to say otherwise), but they had one major drawback: they made the game a little too easy to play. Working with the smaller maps and confined spaces to build at the time, the developers calculated that something needed to be worked out so that players had to look at their bases occasionally. The result was macro mechanics.

At the outset, it didn’t seem as if they posed any large overarching problems. Hilariously small maps like Steppes of War and Slag Pits were dominated by proxy cheeses which Terran and Protoss benefited from most, but macro mechanics allowed non-stop action during these elongated one base vs one base fights. On large maps, there seemed to be no adverse side effects other than 4-gate rushes and speedling openings. It was apparent that one-base tech was coming out a little too quickly, but that could always be solved with research time adjustments (like the ones for the bunker, warp gate timing twice, banshees, reapers, etc.); large scale macro games, however, showed no real signs that the macro mechanics caused issues. It was difficult at this time for the creators to actually gauge whether macro mechanics or some of the more common things like unit design, timing, and maps were the issues with imbalance.

In hindsight, it’s strange that they overlooked a core aspect of the game for more variable objects. While numbers or functionality of a unit can be changed to affect one circumstance, macro mechanics affected all parts of play in every circumstance. If something so core to the game isn’t accurately vetted and tested, there’s no telling what the long-term effects of it will be, and in this case, all it did was artificially speed up the game.

The Inject Larva Arms Race

When we finally reached open mapmaking that gave fair opportunity to all races and Zerg could freely take third bases, Inject Larva started an arms race. This is when we began to truly see the “three base cap” and big deathballs emerge, and it was all because Zerg could instantly remax their army off of four injected hatcheries. I personally believe the first time that macro mechanics became truly problematic was Stephano’s roach max build. This wasn’t some chimerical idea that had never been thought of before, but it did change the way that many players looked at production and defense. After that, Terran players began to build extra CCs earlier, Protoss players began taking bases earlier, Zergs got even more aggressive with their expansions—the greed got out of control because whatever drawbacks the player took from expanding early were more than made up for within a minute or two due to the macro mechanics. The economic boost gained through Chronoboost, MULEs, and Inject Larva sped up the early/mid game to an alarming speed and ushered in an artificial late game with monstrous armies.

Within a few months, the game had evolved from a mosh pit of one and two base aggressive plays and awkward macro play to a calculated game of risk that balanced greed and safety on a knife’s edge while abusing macro mechanics. Pretty soon, everyone was able to get to three bases rapidly without any danger, and we began an era of 2-base all-in or max. A few odd turtle strategies like mech or swarm host play emerged, but generally the game revolved around one thing: getting a third base and maxing out.

Legacy of the Void and Macro Mechanics

These problems persisted late into the second expansion and into Legacy of the Void. As the game grew into larger maps and freer bases, the developers began to realize they had made a huge error. The attempt was made to artificially slow down the rate of expansion and maxing out with their economic changes as well as the introduction of several more units who could break fortifications or harass mineral lines with ease. Following an outcry that the game was too difficult, the developers decided now was a good time to address macro mechanics and maybe even remove them altogether.

Removing MULEs, Chronoboost, and Inject Larva was probably the best thing they could have done with the game, but a surprising amount of backlash from the community pressured developers into bringing them back. Faux arguments that macro mechanics showed skill, allowed more choices, or were an integral part of StarCraft 2 were all fallacies backed by nostalgia; all of them failed to recognize that the insane arms race generated by macro mechanics are the reason why the game needed an economic adjustment to begin with. Removing them provides far more meaningful decisions in regards to your army positioning, how you harass, and your opening build.

Think for a moment of an early game where variations of 4-gate timings aren’t two minutes apart. Think about how much more predictable that particular pressure will be. All builds would take a little longer to get off the ground, harass units like oracles or cyclones would come out later (and at a much more reliable time), and scouting in the early game would actually be somewhat difficult. Mind games and proper control become paramount, but no longer does each player need to take risks to account for an impossibly early rush that might kill them instantly. Bases are taken somewhat more organically as players take a bit longer to mine out. There’s more early game interaction between units and less positional guesswork involved.

That’s the sort of StarCraft that feels strategic.

Post-Match Interview with Team expert’s BadBenny

Swedish Heroes of the Storm BadBenny on Team expert
Watch out EU, there’s a new kid on the block. The Heroes of the Storm scene in Europe last year was dominated by three giants: Dignitas, Misfits, and Fnatic. Several other teams rose and fell as the premier league dragged on in 2016, but these three behemoths remained a level above their competition. Not anymore.

The advent of HGC in 2017 has breathed new life into the competitive scene, and new challengers are emerging with the potential to cause an upset; among them is Team expert. The roster is led by the “mad scientist” adrd, who often drafts unusual compositions. Backed by solid execution and team synergy that dates back to July of last year, expert is quickly climbing the leaderboards and becoming a real threat to the status quo.

After their victory over French team beGenius this weekend, I sat down with tank player and shotcaller for the team, BadBenny, to find out more about them as well as his own personal goals as a player.


Team expert has been on fire for the last two weeks and is currently sitting at the top of the standings. When you first qualified for HGC, did you foresee such a strong start?
On fire indeed! For me personally, I have considered us top 4 (at least) ever since Nic joined the squad, so I knew we would be able to do well in HGC. Although, our 3-0 track record is partially because we have not played any of the “big three” yet, but hopefully we can keep our streak going!

A lot of your individual success so far has been on E.T.C. Do you think that’s because he’s a flashy playmaker or is he just really strong right now?
I merely play what is drafted. Personally, I am not doing better on E.T.C. than any other tank hero I am playing, but I can see why it looks like that, because his kit is more “flashy”. He is really strong in the current meta; that is why you often see him picked early.

Are there any particular heroes that you’d like to play more often?
I really liked playing Tyrael, who we drafted a lot before, around Gamescom. At the moment, I just want to play different heroes to be honest. Every hero gets a bit boring if you play them in most of your games.

We have to bring up the absolutely mad play from Week 1 where you went for a Mosh Pit under the death zone on Towers of Doom. Did you make that call? What on earth possessed you to do something so crazy?
Haha, that was a funny moment indeed. So it definitely was not planned to dive their Core (obviously), but when Thrall got caught, and we used the Ley Line to save him, I saw the opportunity to secure the game and took it. We are pretty used to doing crazy plays; we prefer pushing the limit and learning from it when we practice!

Next week is obviously a big week for you guys since you have matches against Fnatic and Dignitas. Are you nervous about those games?
Yea, we are all very nervous, but also excited. This is our chance to prove ourselves as a true top 3 team, which I already think we are. The series versus Dignitas is the important one though, since it will most likely decide who will go to the Western Clash.

Well, one thing’s for sure: they’ll probably give you Ragnaros for free every game.
Then I can say now that it will be an easy 3-0 in our favour ;). A lot will be decided by their drafting, in my opinion. They are all very skilled players, and if they can fight on their terms, it might be hard to beat them—but luckily we have adrd, who is extremely good at [preventing them from fighting on their own terms], giving us the favorable draft.
One thing for readers to note, though: the top teams are very consistent in saying that “they might pull out a cheese” or whatever. It is simply their way of keeping their pride while saying “we got outplayed and out-drafted”, which I find very funny. But I really don’t mind what they call it, as long as we win.

You just started streaming for the first time. How has that been going?
So, the streaming thing is purely for my own enjoyment at the moment. I really enjoy teaching people, and streaming lets me do that while practicing—while also making the game itself more enjoyable for me to play, because instead of tilting, I just explain what we did wrong, and it is really working out for me.
So in short: it has been going great! And hopefully the viewers find it entertaining/educating enough that I can grow a viewer base.

Any plans to sell out and become a full-time streamer at some point?
At this point, it’s a big “no”. I crave the competitive aspects of this game way too much. But who knows, anything can happen.

Do you have any last words or shoutouts?
Only a big thanks to everyone who has been supporting me and my team—we wouldn’t have been as driven to be unique (but also good at what we do) if it weren’t for all the comments and posts about it. And of course, a big shoutout to Team expert esports for taking us under its wings and giving us the chance to show ourselves under your name. And last—a big shoutout to my teammates for everything so far and what’s yet to come!


You can follow Benny on Twitter and watch him play on Twitch. Make sure to watch HGC every weekend starting at 9:00am PST and follow the action as it unfolds!

Warcraft 3 is actually amazing.

A few days ago, I was turned onto the Grand Finals of this tournament by RallyJaffa via Twitter, and I have been obsessive about it ever since. I was aware that WC3 was still alive in China, and I knew names like 120, TH000, and Lyn, but I didn’t really give it much attention until recently. I didn’t realize how godlike 120 was or the extreme skill it took to play this game until I looked at it from a fresh perspective.

Warcraft 3 was my first real Blizzard game, and I played it all the way through middle and high school. I never got much into competitive or paid attention to the pro scene (though I had arbitrarily decided that I admired SK.insomnia and hated SK.Madfrog); at the time, I was pretty vaguely aware of what “good” and “bad” play was. Plateauing at around level 20, I was pretty much a scrub with very poor mechanics. It wasn’t until I started to play StarCraft II that I got much much better at gaming and started to appreciate esports more.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched the occasional WC3 stream, especially Grubby. It’s so fascinating to watch how he seemingly knows everything that’s happening without seeing a single unit; that sort of mastery comes from years and years of experience. Even so, watching this Chinese tournament has lit a fire underneath me. I really want to play and watch some WC3 now.

I reinstalled WC3 and began to play a few games against the AI for practice. My mechanics from SC2/BW have carried over pretty nicely, but I’m still having trouble aligning my builds perfectly and I know basically nothing about the maps. I’m going to be playing a bit over the next few weeks and maybe even stream some of my cringe-worthy play. Really excited to load up this game again. It’s a breath of fresh air after all the frustration I’ve faced while playing Heroes of the Storm recently.

P.S. Watch Game 5 of the Grand Finals between 120 and Lyn on Ancient Isles. You will not be disappointed.

Road to BlizzCon: Fnatic

Fnatic celebrating after a win at Gamescom

Photo Credit: ESL

Written by: EsportsJohn


Table of Contents


Fnatic ride into BlizzCon with the momentum of a team on their first big break. 2016 has been a year full of hard work and dedication, but it’s not quite over yet. Fnatic will need to play better than ever if they hope to defeat their regional rival Dignitas or the Korean or Chinese powerhouses for a Top 4 finish. When it comes down to it, Fnatic’s inexperience on the world stage will be a huge factor in whether they can put up a good showing or go home early. In any case, Europe’s younger brother has finally grown up and now has a shot at the throne. Will they pull through?

Origins

Fnatic’s roots in the scene go all the way back to the Alpha in late 2014 with a roster headlined by former SC2 players NaNiwa and SaSe. The roster unfortunately disbanded almost immediately following their 2014 BlizzCon showmatches, but the organization decided to stay involved in the scene and a new roster was formed in January of 2015 with AceofSpades, Lowell, Fred, Shinobu, and Kesil.

Nothing of real note happened during this timespan for Fnatic, and they had a long series of transformations to undergo before they would become the championship-quality team we know today. Lukewarm results over the next few months led to changes; Fred, Shinobu, and AceofSpades left and new players Breez and Ménè were brought in. Wubby also originally joined the roster at this time, but his career would take several twists and turns before he ended up back on the team.

Fnatic’s results weren’t impressive during the 2015 Heroes World Championship (HWC) events. They placed rather poorly at the European Championship in Prague due to their relatively poor understanding of the double Warrior metagame that was in vogue and the time and missed their opportunity to go to BlizzCon 2015. Cracks began to form and an end-of-the-year roster change became necessary again.

The Fnatic we’re more familiar with was beginning to form. Kesil, Lowell, and Wubby left and the team was reformed around Breez and Ménè. Two outstanding players who managed to grab the 8th qualifying spot at Prague under the wildcard team Pirates in Pyjamas, Quackniix and Smexystyle, knew Breez from a small Swedish team they had formed together in early in their Heroes of the Storm careers. Based on the players’ surprisingly good performance in Prague, Fnatic knew these two would be good additions to the roster. To fill in the gaps, they also picked up Shad for their next major tournament, DreamHack Winter. To the surprise of everyone, the new Fnatic roster dominated DreamHack and took first place against Team Liquid, then-undisputed the king of Europe.

Fnatic wins their first trophy at DreamHack Winter 2015

Photo Credit: DreamHack

At the end of 2015, Fnatic finished strong and looked like a contender for 2016, but two other giants were also forming: Team Dignitas (formerly Bob?) and mYinsanity. Throughout 2016, these two teams would prove to be a thorn in Fnatic’s side by preventing them from reaching the Global Championship multiple times.

Fnatic’s 2016 Run

On paper, the scene in Europe this year has been characterized by a power struggle between the two regional giants mYinsanity (now Misfits) and Team Dignitas, with a score of underperforming teams in the lower echelons of play competing for a spot in the regional semifinals. There’s no doubt that Fnatic held the definitive third place spot in the region, but most of this year has been spent ping-ponging between the two giants, unable to clench a spot at the Global Championships until now.

It seems crazy to call Fnatic a “dark horse” team since they made it to the playoffs for every regional tournament. They’ve had an exceptional roster all year long and were feared by many but could never quite seize the spot for a Global Championship. In fact, ask almost any team in Europe and they will say it’s a three-way tie for the top spot.

“We consistently improve and have, for a while now. been considered Top 3 EU and at all offline events. We have had fairly good results; even though we haven’t won a regionals yet, we have always finished within Top 4.”

Quackniix

The beginning of 2015 wasn’t great for Fnatic, but Europe as a whole was in ruins. All of the top teams had just undergone Europe’s first rosterpocalypse and were testing the waters for the first time with unsteady legs. Players had been shuffled from every major team to another, and many teams were hardly recognizable after nearly restructuring the entire roster (Team Liquid, for example). It was a period of great experimentation, but it quickly became obvious at IEM Katowice that the rosterpocalypse had negatively affected the region as whole.

Fnatic’s lineup had also undergone a few changes. Ménè left and Shad was let go; flex player scHwimpi and unique tank player Atheroangel took their places. Ménè and Shad were undoubtedly some very talented players, but Fnatic’s new roster looked stronger than ever. They absolutely wrecked the regional qualifiers, in large part due to Quackniix’s new Greymane pick, and secured their spot in the European Championship.

Needless to say, the first regional at IEM Katowice was shaky for all the teams, but Fnatic appeared to have come out ahead with the roster changes. They won their group in convincing fashion but fell to the eventual champions, Dignitas, in their semifinal match. This was the first of many times that Dignitas would present themselves as a brick wall to Fnatic’s tournament progress.

Quackniix is interviewed after their group stage win at Gamescom

Photo Credit: ESL

While Dignitas and mYinsanity went off to the Spring Global Championship, Fnatic stayed behind and trained. The Summer season would prove to be a pivotal point in the shift of power, but it didn’t happen all at once. Their performance at the first European Championship in Leicester was adequate, but once again mYinsanity and Dignitas swatted them down with superior double support compositions that Fnatic was less familiar with.

Shockingly, Dignitas announced the departure of Wubby from their roster following their win at Leicester, and Fnatic was quick to scoop him up and form an all Swedish roster. The result was a huge improvement in communication since the team could shotcall in their native tongue and bond better as a team. All at once, Fnatic seemed to come into their own and pose a real threat to the top teams.

“We have had some roster swaps over the year, and every swap has lead to a better Fnatic, meaning our overall performance has just been going up as we have shown more consistency and proven to ourselves that we are a top tier team in EU.”

Quackniix

The second European Championship at DreamHack Tours resulted in Fnatic with their first finals placement in over six months. Though they fell 3-0 against mYinsanity’s flawless run through the tournament, they KO’d their group and annihilated their semifinals opponent teh89 without any real effort. It’s worth noting that Dignitas had a surprisingly poor showing at Tours by failing to even make it out of the group stage (quite possibly because AlexTheProG was still adjusting to the team), but Fnatic would prove again and again during the Fall Championship that they deserved their spot in the top two.

Valencia. Fnatic beat Dignitas to make it out of their group in first place. They 3-0’d mYinsanity in the semifinals. They then took on Dignitas again and pulled the series all the way to a game 5 in the finals. Unfortunately, they missed the championship trophy by the slimmest of margins, but the slightest of differences could have pushed the tides in their favor. At Gamescom, Fnatic brought Misfits (formerly mYinsanity) to the very brink of elimination and went on to play them again in a qualification tiebreaker (due to ESL rules). In the end, they barely eked out the win and guaranteed their spot on the world stage at BlizzCon—at long last.

Player Profiles

Breez

Breez at the European Fall Championship at Gamescom

Photo Credit: ESL

On the tank role, Pontus “Breez” Sjogren is a energetic fireball of a player. Known for his shouting onstage during games, he brings a ton of energy and enthusiasm during matches and keeps up the team momentum. If you can hear “KAEL’THAS!!” from the opposite end of the venue, you’re probably hearing Breez.

Breez is definitely one of the most aggressive tank players in Europe and never wavers when it comes to engaging in a teamfight. He has a fairly wide Hero pool, but most of the time we tend to see him on the “big three” tanks: E.T.C., Muradin, and Johanna. He’s proven that he can also play some of the nonstandard tanks like Arthas and Diablo like a champion, so nothing is out of the question. Whatever tank he’s on, expect to see him engage without hesitation when he sees an opening in the enemy’s defense and pull the trigger in teamfights.

scHwimpi

scHwimpi onstage at the European Summer Championship in Tours

Photo Credit: DreamHack

Previously on Natus Vincere during the height of their power in late 2015, Simon “scHwimpi” Svensson is Fnatic’s flex player. Generally quiet in demeanor, scHwimpi is still energetic onstage and often lets out a tremendous roar when his team wins a major teamfight. His general enthusiasm and strong morale help to raise up other players and keep them focused.

Like all flex players, scHwimpi’s Hero pool is quite wide, ranging from off-tanks to ranged Assassins to super niche picks. However, he rarely plays bruisers or melee Assassins, leaving the role to Wubby. He’s often on “toxic” Heroes like Medivh or Zagara which can be extremely obnoxious to deal with. He secretly laments playing only the most annoying Heroes and envies the melee role (says inside sources), but he’s content with his role on the team. He brings a huge amount of preparation and skill to whichever Hero he plays. At the present, he is arguably the best Abathur player in the world, rivaled only by Fan or KyoCha.

Wubby

Wubby onstage at the Summer European Championship in Tours

Photo Credit: DreamHack

As quite possibly the best mechanical player in Europe, Jonathan “Wubby” Gunnarsson is the perfect flex. He tends to specialize in melee Assassins and off-tanks, but history has shown that he can play any role including tank or support. Known as a relatively quiet person, Wubby tends to be more withdrawn than the rest of the team. Nonetheless, his entrance to the team strongly impacted the communication and camaraderie of the team positively.

Wubby is a beast on high impact melee Assassins like Zeratul or Thrall. He can quite easily carry teamfights with outstanding mechanical plays and often comes out of games as the MVP. On tanky bruisers like Leoric or Anub’arak, he matches Breez’s aggression and often puts a lot of pressure on the back line with his perfectly timed dives. Keep an eye out for this playmaker, as his gameplay will often be the most decisive factor in Fnatic’s teamfights.

Quackniix

Quackniix onstage at the European Summer Championship in Tours

Photo Credit: DreamHack

The unlikely hero of Fnatic is Dob “Quackniix” Engström. This oddball player joined Fnatic after leaving the Swedish underdog team Pirates in Pyjamas and quickly took charge as the team captain and shotcaller. On the role of ranged Assassin, he’s generally on the forefront of the metagame and has often popularized power picks.

Long thought of as a “one-trick pony” type of player (first on Falstad, then on Greymane), Quackniix has been under close scrutiny by the public eye. However, he has proven his aptitude to play any Hero he sees fit. A natural talent for gaming combined with his strong work ethic and practice regimen allow him to perfect his play on any Hero. Along with his brilliant shotcalling and focus on teamwork, Quackniix is undoubtedly one of the best overall players in Europe, maybe even the world.

Smexystyle

Smexystyle at the European Fall Championship at Gamescom

Photo Credit: ESL

The heart of the team is Filip “Smexystyle” Liljeström, often just called “Smexy” (or even just “SmX”). He is one of the most uplifting and supportive players (forgive the pun) in the Heroes scene and keeps Fnatic on track when they’re feeling down—he’s also pretty good at staring contests.

Team coach Careion cites him as very motivated and always hungry to improve. When Smexy first joined Fnatic, he was often looked upon as the weak link on the team but has since shown great improvement and become one of the best support players in Europe. Like most support players, he generally plays the most popular Heroes in the meta, but if you had to choose a signature Hero for him it would be Kharazim. During the past few months, Smexy has cultivated an impressive amount of skill on the Hero and—dare I say?—even rivals Bakery as the best Kharazim player in Europe now.

Playstyle

If there were one word to describe Fnatic’s playstyle, it would be aggressive. They are, by and large, the most aggressive team in the midst of Europe’s relatively safe, macro-heavy meta. Contrary to Misfits’ careful, calculated, long-term plays, Fnatic is never afraid to enter fights and force errors out of their opponents to gain short-term advantages. But they’ve evolved too.

During the Spring Season, this unbridled aggression was more of a weakness than a strength. They often faltered in the late game with overly aggressive plays or Core dives and found themselves in bad positions due to botched fights and poor map control.

“In the beginning, they had a very aggressive playstyle with intense rotations trying to snipe one out, always trying to force the 5v4, and sometimes being a little over-aggressive,” recalls Fnatic’s coach Careion, “like doing too much, especially when [they’re] up…and then throwing the game because [they] weren’t patient and controlled enough to wait out the game.”

Fnatic win a spot to BlizzCon at Gamescom

Photo Credit: ESL

Careion worked hard during the Summer Season to temper the team’s hasty decisions and convert their aggression into a valuable asset instead of a liability. Fnatic began to pull back their aggression and become more disciplined and more adept at controlling the pace of the game. They pulled all the pieces together and managed to develop their macro play alongside their insane mechanics in time, and now they rarely, if ever, make impulsive decisions during the late game.

When it comes to drafting, it’s more about the map than the playstyle for Quackniix. “I try to make sure that playing the map is always the center of attention,” he explained, “meaning I adapt the drafts for the map more than for a specific playstyle to make less room for failure or playstyles backfiring.” By using this top down method of drafting, Fnatic tends to play “predictably”, but they always draft the strongest overall composition.

“We have had some different playstyles over the year since you follow meta. As [the] meta changes, you just have to adapt and find your place—sometimes its aggressive dive, sometimes it’s pickoff, and sometimes it’s the slow comps that work the best.”

Quackniix

A large part of their success in the Fall Season has been the “unbeatable” composition on small maps: double Warrior, a global presence Hero (usually Falstad), solo support Tassadar, and a ranged DPS to round out the composition. With this particular setup, Fnatic took advantage of the minion changes to create an ultra-tanky composition which could brawl forever while large minion waves built up in the side lanes.

The power of this composition not only showed Fnatic’s unique ability to grab hold off the metagame and execute a strategy perfectly but also showcased their incredible improvement in terms of patience and macro play. They used the strategy much less during Gamescom, but it’s a wonderful example of how the team has evolved over the year. With double tank still very much in vogue, we can expect to see Fnatic’s trademark composition at least once during BlizzCon.

Heading Into BlizzCon

Fnatic’s road to BlizzCon began a year ago after their untimely departure in Prague. Since then, steady improvement within the roster, management, and strategy has transformed them into a force to be reckoned with. Heading into BlizzCon this year, they are expected to perform well. However, with a lack of experience on the global stage and basically no exposure to Asian teams, it will be an uphill battle.

“You can never underestimate them [the minor regions], even if it’s a region like Australia/New Zealand or South America. Even if they go out every time in the first group stage, you cannot expect it to happen the same at BlizzCon—that you will just beat them with ease. It’s not like that, you always have to prepare.”

Careion

Team coach Careion comments that the team is wary stepping onto the global stage for the first time, “You can never underestimate them [the minor regions]…that you will just beat them with ease. It’s not like that, you have to prepare.”

Quackniix celebrates after a big win at Gamescom

Photo Credit: ESL

Though Fnatic is looking at all the teams, a large part of their study is centered on their most dangerous foes: the Korean giants MVP Black and Ballistix (formerly L5). If they want to take it all the way, they’ll need to keep pace with the titans and be ready for any curve balls that get thrown at them—a tall task, no doubt.

“I hope and believe that we are working in the right direction, meaning everything we do is helping us improve and will only boost our performance continuing forward.”

Quackniix

“We have finished 2nd more than one time, showing we have what it takes. We have grown and become a lot stronger as a unit and as individuals,” Quackniix stated proudly, aware of the incredible growth that Fnatic has undergone this year. “I believe we have a chance [at BlizzCon] for sure. We just gotta make sure we spend the time well in terms of practice and preparation,” he added. Whatever the case may be, Fnatic has already proven in 2016 that their hard work and dedication pays off. Tackling BlizzCon may be a monumental task, but if any team is up to it, it’s Fnatic.


A huge thanks to Quackniix and Careion for carrying me through some of the team details! Thank you for bearing with me during the delay on this article! It was great meeting and talking to both of you, and I hope Fnatic does great at BlizzCon!


EsportsJohn has no idea what will be unveiled at BlizzCon after the 2017 HGC League was announced. Any ideas? You can follow him on Twitter or support him on Patreon.